Swans Commentary » swans.com August 12, 2013  



Blips #137
 From The Martian Desk


by Gilles d'Aymery





"People believe what they want to believe, and they would rather die and destroy the planet than think and act differently."
—Manuel García, Jr., The Damned Human Race (still), August 1, 2013.

"The man who is a pessimist before forty-eight knows too much; if he is an optimist after it, he knows too little."
—Mark Twain (in 1902, cited by Manuel García. Jr.)


(Swans - August 12, 2013)   MULTITASKING IS NOT ONE OF MY FORTES. Dealing with health problems, buying a house in San Francisco, selling a house in Boonville -- or, at least trying to sell... -- cleaning, painting, making the place look palatable so that a couple will fall in love with it (a beautiful place indeed, which sadly has not worked out for us), downsizing -- that is, literally giving away thousands of books, tools, furniture, memorabilia, and so much more... I'm not sure I want to elaborate just as yet. It's painful. Peter Byrne, who knows quite a bit about moving from place to place, one country after another, once told me that moving was like a "slow death," each time parting with one's past -- though it remains indelibly engraved in the memory. This will be my 36th move in 63 years (I can be wrong by a factor of two or three).

THESE ARE NOT EASY TIMES. As I am writing, Jan, my dear companion, is painting the front deck and cleaning the windows. I'm writing... Who's the most useful? In the past couple of weeks, leaving aside the usual killing and destruction around the world, two events drew my attention. First the purchase of The Washington Post by a tech mogul, and second, the ongoing saga that Edward Snowden and a courageous journalist have opened like a hornet's nest gushing out of the ground and attacking the neighborhood.

IN NOVEMBER 2012, Jeff Bezos, the chairman and CEO of Amazon, the giant Internet marketer, gave an interview to a German magazine (Berliner Zeitung) -- in German and in a Google English translation in which he asserted (at the very end of the interview) that print newspapers would no longer exist in twenty years. The way newspapers are folding he may be right. Though the extinction of newspapers has been prophesized for a long time, the digital age and its plethora of tablets are keen to do the killing. Then why did Jeff Bezos buy The Washington Post, a paper that epitomizes the Establishment like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, for $250 million in cash last week? What does he want to do -- have his libertarian voice projected into national politics? Move the paper to the Web and rename it the Washington Kindle? No one knows. But print papers are disappearing slowly but surely.

SOME TWENTY YEARS AGO the New York Times company bought the Boston Globe for 1.1 billion dollars. They wanted to blanket the East Coast corridor with news and advertising. Last week, they unloaded the paper for a mere $70 million to some kind of local billionaire. They even kept $110 million on the books to take care of pension funds. The venerable International Herald Tribune is going to be renamed The International New York Times -- a paper based in Paris, France, for heaven's sake. The Koch brothers, reactionary conservatives and billionaire oilmen, are eying the Chicago Tribune Group, which owns the practically-bankrupt Los Angeles Times. So is the San Francisco Chronicle and multiple other regional newspapers. Trees will be saved, I suppose. We'll all carry a smart phone and a tablet, and whatever other gadget. We'll gently be told what to do and what to buy (we already are), and, above all, what to believe. There used to be small papers or magazines edited by independent iconoclasts. They kept reality on hand. They made us think and learn. They no longer exist. Small, independent, intellectually-honest publications cannot make it on line. There is no money. There is no support; only kind, empty words such as "keep up the good work." Work for what, work for whom? At least Jeff Bezos is worth 25 billion dollars. His purchase of the WP was a mere 1% of his current estate. Surely, he will be in a great position to tell us what the consuming future will be. Buy, choose, and shut up. You are a consumer, a commodity: get on with it.

GETTING ON WITH IT makes me think of the former chairman and CEO of Sun Microsystems, Scott McNealy, who declared a decade ago that privacy did not exist anymore and that we should get used to it. Jeff Bezos thinks alike. From the day you are born to the day gentle ladies take care of your body (and mind) till you die -- for a price that you or your family can hopefully afford -- you are an open book, even if books become an extravaganza. You'll be an open computer. If you do not possess a computer, you'll have a smart phone or whatever. You'll be followed from morning to night. Perhaps when you are born you will have a tiny chip inserted in your body that will record your thoughts when you sleep. Big Brother will know everything about you from the day you are born until your funeral. Maybe a technological system will be invented to record your thoughts once you are dead. We want to know everything, before, during, and after.

OKAY, I AM PUSHING TOO FAR, but look at the NSA mess -- and it is an alarming mess -- if your brain is still functioning (which means you are not watching TV). It just happens that ALL our communications are being snooped on in the name of security, whatever the repeated denials from our dearly (or not) trusted authorities. We are naked, entirely naked. President Obama can ask for a profile of you or me and at a moment's notice he'll get it. I'm glad to acknowledge that my body is fine (just a bit old) and that all I have to hide is securely hidden on Swans. My computer is totally open to your hacking. You do not need to give me a phone call and ask my permission to pilfer my files. Still the sentiment that privacy no longer exists is quite unnerving. Personally, I've seen it coming for many years. Police, cameras, are everywhere. When you cross the Golden Gate Bridge on your way to San Francisco, a camera takes a picture of the license plate of your vehicle and a bill is mailed to you twice month. Drive along the highways and you'll see more cameras. Even in the boonies where I live, up steep hills, helicopters and planes fly over the house on a regular basis. You can pinpoint the place through Google Maps. Last year, curious as to where my younger brother and his family live in France I entered the street address and within minutes I could see their comfortable house, the huge yard, their cars. Somehow, I felt I was cheating or "spying" on my brother. I did not have to. I could have asked him to send a few pictures, but from 10,000 km away I was able to find him with a few clicks of a mouse. So just imagine what the NSA, the FBI, and countless agencies can do. I've been writing about this prudently. I am not a US citizen, just a "legal alien." Whether the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution applies to a legal alien is a matter of circumspection. In other words, I am fearful of what the "authorities" can do to me, even if my skin is white and so is my wife's, and I do have experience about what they can do.

IT LEADS ME to take a rather caustic approach to this NSA mess. It makes little difference to me -- I can send you a picture of my warts, if that would please you. Once again, I've taken for granted that the state is a leviathan. I find it ironic that it took the trio Assange-Manning-Snowden to bring the topic of privacy to the attention of lawmakers and other decision makers. I wish Snowden had remained in the background (like Deep Throat) and used Glenn Greenwald like a modern-day Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein to disseminate his knowledge (though Greenwald definitely does not belong to the Establishment like the sneaky Woodward and "seems" to act out of principles). Somehow, I've felt that the views proffered by Frank Rich in the New York Magazine on June 30, 2013, "When Privacy Jumped The Shark," were close to mine. In short, as a society we have pretty much given up on our rights to privacy. We can whine, we can complain, we can rant, but at the end of the day we, again as a society, are responsible for the outcome. So, in my book, I remain conflicted and ambivalent by the actions Edward Snowden has taken.

NOT EVERYBODY AGREES with this opinion, and this is where it's becoming interesting. People do have different point of views, indeed. On Swans, I've been a skeptic. Raju Peddada has expressed his standpoint privately and it certainly was not in favor of Snowden, whom he found contemptible. Peter Byrne felt that there was nothing wrong in trying to save the world but maybe Snowden was shooting far above his ass. Manuel García, Jr., however, had a very different perspective, both publicly and privately. He first wrote a piece in the defense of Snowden's action and what he considered was an obvious threat to the US Constitution, specifically the Fourth Amendment. I disagreed with him as politely as may be. And so did he in return. But Manuel has a strong, measured, thoughtful, intelligent voice that is hard to ignore in an age when ignorance dominates. Appreciate Manuel or not, he does bring issues to the fore that few of us can.

So, I sent Manuel the Frank Rich article to give him a different POV and, hopefully, bring him to my own POV. Oh, how much I miscalculated. Two days later I received this e-mail (reproduced by permission):

A very sad article, from my point of view. If Snowden's revelations are trivial, which is essentially Rich's point, then why prosecute and persecute him at all? And, why the treatment of Bradley Manning? If we "all know" that there is no privacy, that government has always sought to keep track of all our communications (which by the power of modern computing it is now able to do), and that "we" don't care as "we" all prefer Facebook and vanity-exposure on the Internet, then why pretend that secrecy about this surveillance is needed? If "we" already know it exists, and don't care, why the pitiless effort to squelch whistleblowers -- as spies and traitors no less -- when they are effectively not even whistleblowers since "we" have all decided there is nothing to blow the whistle about?

I see Rich's article as propaganda for those who want to rationalize their impotence in the face of this issue, as something inevitable and a part of the "normal" progress of a technological society. I like Rich's idea of the NSA tracking gun ownership (and NRA membership), and would like such a program to be publicized.

Rich's article is like a recommendation we all just go along and eat industrially produced "fast" and processed food, instead of doing all the "work" of buying and preparing fresh vegetables and organic food, because it instantly satisfies our wants (mistaken for needs), is so convenient as it allows us to move quickly on to other preferred activities (like shopping and TV watching), and we can deal with the eventual coronary disease, diabetes and cancers induced by the Western Diet later in life with the many pills and procedures of our industrial and technological Western medicine. Why fight it, just go along: it's easier.

I am not part of the society Rich imagines he speaks to and for. If Rich is to be taken as an American public intellectual, then it only highlights the mental and moral decadence of American society, so far as I am concerned.

MG, Jr.

LIKE IT OR NOT I feel honored by the contributors who bless Swans with their words. Whether you agree with Manuel's position, you should carefully, thoughtfully (not emotionally or ideologically) ponder its significance. That we may disagree and yet respect each other, and work together, is a good sign that the future has much more than gloom to offer.

 . . . . .

C'est la vie...

And so it goes...


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Gilles d'Aymery on Swans -- with bio. He is Swans publisher and co-editor.   (back)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published August 12, 2013