9.29.2013

what i'm reading: man's search for meaning by viktor frankl

I've just finished reading Man's Search for Meaning, a classic written by Dr. Viktor E. Frankl in 1959, republished with various forewords and epilogues in 1984, 1992, and 2006. It's a book I had long wanted to read but had forgotten about, until I saw it on the Mississauga Library System's "Raves and Faves" display, adult nonfiction division.

Frankl, who died in 1997, was a neurologist, a psychiatrist, and a therapist. He was also a Holocaust survivor whose entire family perished in the Nazi death camps. The original German title of Man's Search for Meaning is translated into English as Nevertheless, Say "Yes" to Life: A Psychologist Experiences the Concentration Camp.

* * * *

Man's Search for Meaning is divided into two parts. In the first part, Frankl recounts some memories of his own experience in Nazi concentration camps. There, he became a keen observer of how people survived - in the differences between who survived and who didn't, who managed to retain some measure of dignity, who adhered to their own moral code despite being surrounded by immorality and degradation, and who became brutal themselves, who lost the will to live.

This section was, of course, difficult to read, but it was also fascinating. Although I have thought extensively about the Holocaust, I mainly have thought of concentration camps as death camps: places where people were exterminated in mass numbers. Clearly they were that, but they were also forced-labour camps. Frankl relates how he and the other men were forced into slave labour under unimaginably brutal conditions - starving, sick, exposed to the elements, in constant danger of being beaten or murdered, in constant danger of being still further humiliated. Frankl draws one of the clearest pictures of slavery you will read anywhere.

Woven into these descriptions are firsthand accounts of choices made by both inmates and overseers - because, although no one could choose their conditions, everyone, Frankl believes, could choose how they reacted to those conditions. These are stories of small moments of courage, dignity, and heroism, as well as of the descent into sadism and brutality.

* * * *

In the second part of the book, Frankl describes his theory of human experience and the therapy derived from that theory, both derived (in part) from his experiences in the concentration camps. (Frankl had begun working on the theory and the book before being captured by the Nazis.)

I can't write about Frankl's theory impartially, because it dovetails perfectly with my own worldview, and confirms so many of my core beliefs. According to Frankl, humans' greatest driving force - the primary, most powerful motivation in our lives - is the will to meaning. The school of therapy he founded, logotherapy, is based on the premise that humans must find purpose and meaning in their own lives, and that many psychological problems can be traced to a lack of meaning and purpose.

Frankl himself was a believer in his own religion, and apparently many people find spiritual meaning in his book, but Man's Search for Meaning is not spiritual or religious. Indeed, logotherapy is not prescriptive and does not proselytize. In logotherapy, the role of the therapist is to help people discover their own purpose, not to assign a purpose to them.

* * * *

The search for meaning in life is not an abstraction, not the same as the so-called "meaning of life". Frankl writes:
For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person's life at a given moment. To put the question in general terms would be comparable to the question posed to a chess champion: "Tell me, Master, what is the best move in the world?"
Each person's meaning, and the path through which they discover it, is unique to that individual. That meaning is dynamic and fluid, and will change many times over the course of a lifetime. There is no blueprint of a search for meaning. But, according to logotherapy, humans discover meaning in their life in one of three ways. Meaning is discovered through deeds and acts, through love, and through suffering.
Thus far we have shown that the meaning of life always changes, but that it never ceases to be. According to logotherapy, we can discover this meaning in life in three different ways: (1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take towards unavoidable suffering.
The first path is self-explanatory. By the second path, Frankl means the experience of truth, beauty, art, nature, culture, or any other enriching experience, and he means the experience of love. The third path - the attitude we take to suffering - might stop you for a moment, as it did me. How can suffering have meaning? Shouldn't suffering be prevented? Must we suffer to find meaning?

Frankl answers the latter questions unequivocally. If we can prevent suffering, or remove the cause of suffering, we should and we must. Suffering is not a necessary pre-condition to meaning. There is no crucible of fire through which we all must pass in order to find liberation.

However, life can be full of suffering. There is pain in ordinary existence. And through that suffering, there is potential for meaning and purpose. Whenever a person says, "I'm not glad it happened, but I learned and grew so much from the experience," she has found meaning through suffering.

Every one of us, myself included, who has discovered growth through personal loss or just plain hard times has lived this precept. War resisters who feel compelled to speak out against war, rape survivors who volunteer in a crisis centre, recovering substance abusers who become sponsors - these are all examples of finding meaning in suffering.

The meaning found through suffering needn't be activism, it need not be altruistic or charitable. It could be enjoying a rich and beautiful day with a loved one, despite having cancer. It could be deciding to adopt another animal after the loss of a beloved dog or cat. It could be deciding to take better care of oneself after an illness.

Finding meaning in suffering is more than making the best of a bad situation. It's understanding that conflict and pain are also opportunities for growth and personal development - opportunities we would never choose, but which ultimately become part of our strength and our purpose. Because, Frankl believes, humans never lose free will. We can seldom choose our conditions, but we can always choose how we react to those conditions. That is a central teaching of logotherapy.

Several important points made in Frankl's book have become contemporary cliches - overused to the point of having lost all meaning. But that overuse occurred in a different time and context, and shouldn't be held against Frankl. He quotes the German philosopher Nietzsche in two important points, which you will recognize from cubicle decorations and pop-psychology-speak. That which doesn't kill me makes me stronger. and If a man has a why, he can withstand any how. Cliches, yes. But for many people, simple truisms.

* * * *

In one of the recent updates of this book, Frankl writes of a drug crisis, of people "turning to drugs" because their lives lack meaning. Leaving that aside, I would add that consumer culture leads people to "turn to shopping" for the same reasons. To me it seems clear that consumer culture promotes a life devoid of meaning, what Frankl would call an existential vacuum. People seek to fill that vacuum through consumerism - buy, buy, buy, more, more, more - and through celebrity worship. This is a great boon to the ruling class, who profit by our consumption, our ignorance, and our apathy.

Many people, however, cannot nurture the meaning in their own lives because they are too busy trying to survive. This, then, brings us back to finding meaning in suffering. Every person who is organizing - against water privatization, seed theft, pension theft - against evictions and austerity - every person fighting for a living wage, for child care, for public healthcare and education - is finding meaning from suffering.

* * * *

Some of the language in Man's Search for Meaning is outdated, and some of the scenarios seem old-fashioned. For example, a disabled man is described as "crippled". Yet Frankl uses this "crippled" man as an example of a person leading a rich and meaningful life, which would have made him very progressive in his era. He uses the word "man" generically, where today we would use more inclusive, gender-neutral language. The need to make minor mental updates shouldn't detract from the value of this book. Man's Search for Meaning is a rich and rewarding read.

9.28.2013

september 28: global action for accessible, safe, and legal abortion

Today, September 28, women all over the world are taking action to demand the right to accessible, safe, and legal abortion.

Women and our allies in more than 50 countries have formed a global mobilization that seeks to decriminalize abortion, provide access to safe and affordable abortion services, and end the stigma and discrimination against women who choose to have an abortion.

This campaign, which started more than 20 years ago in Latin America and the Caribbean, has become a global day of action, as we recognize that women are the world continue to be denied access to safe and legal abortion.

Unsafe abortion is one of the leading causes of maternal mortality, accounting to 47,000 deaths every year, or 13% of maternal deaths worldwide.

Nearly half of all abortions worldwide are unsafe, 98% of which occur in developing countries where poor women have the least resources and access to family planning - which must include safe abortion.

All efforts to curb the high rates of maternal mortality - the World Health Organization's MDG5 - will remain fruitless unless unsafe abortion is addressed.

Restrictive abortion laws will never stop abortion. Restrictive abortion laws only force women to seek unsafe underground practices, putting their health and their lives at risk.

One easy way to join this global campaign is to contribute to the virtual mural, organized by Women's Global Network for Reproductive Rights. Finish the sentence, "Abortion should be safe and legal in my country because _______________", and see how women and men around the world have finished that same sentence.

The virtual mural is the perfect metaphor for this campaign and exactly what we must do every day: speak in one clear voice, each from our own culture and our own experiences, to demand reproductive justice for all.

WGNRR Virtual Mural

Twitter hashtags #sept28 and #safeabortion

To join the Tweetathon, DM/Tweet @WGNRR

9.22.2013

our tax dollars at work: a history of civilian casualties in afghanistan, 2001-2012

This is from the US, but it concerns every Canadian along with every USian. From The Nation, emphasis mine.
The Nation’s interactive database of civilian casualties in Afghanistan is an attempt to compile as complete a list as possible of all known civilian deaths that have occurred in the country as a result of war-related actions by the United States, its allies and Afghan government forces, from the invasion in October of 2001 through the end of 2012.
See a summary of the database here, and the interactive database itself here.

how canada supports it troops: by telling them to shut up

Thanks for your service, soldier. Now shut up, and that's an order.
Canada’s wounded soldiers are being required to sign a form agreeing not to criticize their superiors on social networking websites such as Facebook and Twitter, the Ottawa Citizen reported Friday.

The form reportedly also asks injured soldiers not to disclose “your views on any military subject” or post anything that could “discourage” others in the military.

The document, first obtained by the Citizen, was reportedly created in March and handed to military personnel who transfer to the Joint Personnel Support Unit, which was designed to help mentally and physically wounded soldiers.

The JPSU confirmed the form exists but said its purpose is “to educate our members and personnel on what constitutes the appropriate and inappropriate use of social media and the possible ramifications for a CAF member.”

A Canadian Forces email sent to the newspaper explained that each unit has a different way of communicating the social media policy.

“The difference being that the JPSU is asking members to indicate that they have read and understood the policy by signing the form,” the email said.

The controversial policy drew quick reaction from NDP MP and defence critic Jack Harris. 
“To single out ill and injured soldiers and require them to sign this form is tantamount to saying, ‘Don’t complain.’ ” Harris said in an email to the Star Friday.

“I call on the minister of defence to take measures to ensure that all our ill and injured soldiers are getting the help they need, rather than being muzzled.”

9.21.2013

hedges: "when harper passes right-to-work, you must go on a massive general strike, or you're finished"

Last night, I heard author, journalist, and activist Chris Hedges speak at the Bloor Street United Church in Toronto, sponsored by the excellent Canadian Dimension.

Hedges is a radical intellectual, in the Chomsky vein, also compassionate and fearless, in the mode of Howard Zinn. He touched on many subjects - and credited the work and thoughts of many others. I can only hope to impart a few snippets of the many threads Hedges wove.

"A seismic moment"

Hedges called the recent US debate on Syria a "seismic moment". The Obama administration pulled out all the familiar mechanisms used to sell wars to the public: the ruthless dictator, the weapons of mass destruction, the atrocities. It invoked the Normandy invasion, the liberation of Europe. It did the usual war dance... but none of it worked. The ploys, usually so effective, failed both internationally and domestically, blindsiding the Obama administration.

Hedges compared the distaste for war on Syria to the turning-point in the US's war on Vietnam. Remember, he said, that war enjoyed majority support for 10 years. Only after 10 years - the "quagmire", the middle-class draft - did the narrative shift from myths about war to the brutal facts. And once the myth falls away, the country wakes up from its drunken reverie and sees the war for what it is. Hedges says that shift has occurred in the United States today.

Hedges linked the total invisibility of the underclass in the US to the terror we should all feel about climate change: both are the products of uncontrolled corporate capitalism. At this moment, he said, we either transform our relationship to the natural world, or we die. And he pointed out that Harper has shifted Canada to that same relationship: a government dominated by the interests of the fossil fuel industry.

He spoke of how, after September 11, 2001, the United States "drunk deep of the intoxicating elixir of nationalism," along with heavy doses of nationalism's constant partner, racism. He spoke of the "plague of nationalism" - something I was very moved by in one of Hedges' books, which I wrote about here and here - and how the "virus that gripped the United States after 9/11" was finally broken by the debate on war on Syria. And with that debate, he feels the US may have woken up from its "long drunken revelry of war".

Hedges also noted that the US's plans for Syria would have dropped incredibly huge numbers of bombs, inflicting untold numbers of deaths. As he was a war correspondent for many years and has seen the devastation of war firsthand, Hedges always includes not only the dead, but the permanently wounded, the traumatized, the brain-injured, and the famine, the destruction.

The collapse of the liberal establishment...

Hedges spoke on several points from his book Death of the Liberal Class. The liberal establishment - the media, the church, government regulation, the social safety net - has been destroyed or has been rendered completely ineffectual.

Hedges - whose father was a Presbyterian minister, and who studied at Harvard Divinity School - lambasted the church (as an institution) for not denouncing the radical Christian right as heretics. He noted that one needn't have studied at Harvard Divinity School to know that Jesus didn't preach about how to get wealthy, and never talked about abortion, and that the gospel wasn't about "how to make everything good for me".

The media has been destroyed by corporate ownership and conglomeration, a consequence of deregulation.

The effectiveness of the US labour movement was destroyed by the purposeful purging of radicals from its leadership. And the same is coming any minute now in Canada. Hedges said, "It's amazing. We do everything wrong in the United States, and 10 years later, Canada copies us."

The US, Hedges pointed out, had the most radical labour movement in the world. The birth of organized labour in the US is the bloodiest in modern history. (I love US labour history, so this was exciting for me.) It was through radical politics that the US labour movement pushed back against the robber barons, and through those same movements, always opposed war. Compare organized labour's fierce opposition to the US entering World War I with its stance on the Vietnam War: "these colours don't run" and get the hippies out of the streets.

Hedges touched briefly - quickly, and a bit confusingly, tossing out a long ribbon of names and influences - on the roots of "manufactured consent" (Walter Lippman, Dwight Macdonald, Macdonald's work radicalizing Chomsky), and the "psychosis of permanent war", the state keeping the populace always on edge, always in fear, and the constant need to ferret out enemies both external and internal. There was no popular support in the US for World War I; Woodrow Wilson passed the Espionage and Sedition Acts in order to squelch dissent and make room for the war propaganda.

The liberal class, Hedges notes, is a safety valve. When pressured by radical movements, the liberal class can adjust the system to prevent further suffering of the underclass... and so, they save capitalism. (Think Franklin D. Roosevelt. Think New Deal. That was the closest the US had ever come to revolution... and FDR himself said his greatest achievement was preserving capitalism.)

Hedges said that the greatest difference between Canada and the US - universal health care - exists because in the US, the labour movement is divorced from its radical politics. From the Palmer Raids of the 1920s, up through the McCarthy era of the 1950s, radicals and leftists were systematically purged from the United States. The Hollywood purges are perhaps the most famous, but leftist intellectuals were rooted out and destroyed from every field and facet of American life.

And that, says Hedges, is how you get "freaks like the Clintons," supposedly liberal politicians who laid the groundwork for everything from which we now suffer. NAFTA and other so-called free trade agreements. (Goodbye economy, labour laws, and environmental laws.) The explosion of the prison population. (2.2 million, or 7 million if you count everyone on probation or suspension.) Deregulation of the FCC. (Media conglomeration.) Deregulation of the banking industry. (Robber barons gambling with citizens' money, and everything that led to.) The end of the federal guarantee of welfare. (Seventy percent of those thrown off welfare rolls were children.)

You want freaks? Hedges detailed how Obama, supposedly a liberal, has mounted "a far more grievous assault on civil liberties than George W. Bush did": the NDAA, the kill lists, the indefinite detentions, the unprecedented resurrection of the Espionage Act, the persecution of whistleblowers, the insane sentence for Chelsea Manning. About Manning, Hedges said, "When the true account of the country is written, she will be remembered as one of the most heroic figures in United States history."

Hedges, who covered the revolution in Eastern Europe for many years, said the current surveillance state dwarfs anything dreamed of by the infamous Stasi.

...not be confused with radical movements for change

The collapse of the liberal establishment should not be confused with a dearth of radical people's movements. Hedges noted that Howard Zinn always taught that radical movements never achieve formal positions of power, nor should that be their aim.

He talked about the need to recapture and rebuild the strength of radical movements, rather than put our faith in the political system. (Obama voters, please take note.) Hedges quoted Karl Popper (paraphrased here): The question should not be how to get good people in power, but how to make those in power afraid of the people.

Hedges related an anecdote from Henry Kissinger's biography (with a warning that we shouldn't waste our time reading it!) that sees Nixon in the White House, utterly terrified of the protests going on outside. And that is what we want.

Power, Hedges noted, is the problem. It's not what we should be after. We who care about social justice must accept that our goal is not to put one of our own in power, but to push power from the outside.

During the Q&A portion of the evening, Hedges had an opportunity to expand on this. He said he always votes for a radical party, but "voting is a small part of what I do," quoting Emma Goldman: "If voting changed anything, they'd make it illegal."

To my delight, Hedges talked a bit about how the Democrat party furiously tried to shut down Ralph Nader and the Green Party, and dismissed the ridiculous myth that Nader gave the 2000 election to Bush, mentioning briefly what really happened in Florida. He noted surprise at how many people actually believe that nonsense. Like me, Hedges is unable to say that George W. Bush was elected. He is not afraid of facts.

Mount a resistance

While talking about the differences between Canada and the US, and the relative strength of organized labour in each country, Hedges asked, "Do you have 'right-to-work' laws here yet?" The audience answered that we do not. And Hedges replied: "The minute Harper passes those laws, if you guys don't have a massive general strike, you're finished." He said, "You still have enough organized labour in Canada to mount a resistance."

When asked about the general strike during the Q&A, Hedges said that any and all civil disobedience is important. He mentioned the organizing fast-food workers as an important piece of resistance. "Anything that messes them up is good," he said. "Anything that interrupts the mechanisms of how they make money."

Again invoking the image of a terrified Nixon, Hedges wondered, what would happen if the French government announced that university tuition was now $50,000 per year? We don't have to look all the way to France for the answer: look at Quebec.

"At least they tried"

Hedges spoke a little about the Hedges vs. Obama lawsuit (Chomsky and Daniel Ellsberg are also plaintiffs in the case), and spoke about despair. Climate change. Corporate capitalism. The largest surveillance state in history. Humankind on the cusp of the most catastrophic moment of its history. Hedges, who has four children, could only say that it is incumbent on all of us, especially elders, to stand up, so at least the next generation can say, "At least they tried."

"I CAN'T"

Hedges related some amusing anecdotes about road trips with Cornel West. He noted how we must destroy the Harper Government before it destroys Canada. And he closed with the People's Trial of Goldman Sachs, and linked uncontrolled corporate capitalism to the famine and death he has witnessed around the globe. He ended with a painful memory - he was too choked up to speak - of dying children, corporate capitalism's most vulnerable victims.

But for me, and perhaps for my friends from the War Resisters Support Campaign with whom I was sitting, the most piercing moment came a bit earlier. Hedges said: "Courage is not about saying 'This is wrong,' or 'We shouldn't do this'. The most courageous words we can say are: I can't."

9.16.2013

snowden, greenwald, miranda, and the creeping police state: one month later, we should still be disturbed

One month ago, something happened that should trouble us gravely.

Something happened that people who believe in democracy and free speech and an independent media and civil liberties and human rights should find appalling and unacceptable.

It's old news by now; anything that occurs one month ago is ancient history. I wasn't able to blog about it at the time, and in a way that is good. Events of great significance occur - our rights continue to shrink, governmental powers continue to expand, fascism and police states continue to be normalized - and we rarely have a moment to process one slippery step before we slide into another.

On August 18, 2013, a man named David Miranda was taken into custody at London's Heathrow Airport. Miranda is the partner of journalist Glenn Greenwald. And Greenwald, you'll recall, is one of the two people with whom Edward Snowden entrusted his evidence of the massive domestic spy campaign being perpetrated by the US government, with the help of Microsoft, Google, Verizon, Yahoo, among other of the world's largest corporations.

Miranda was detained for nine hours under "schedule 7", some fine print in the UK's sweeping so-called anti-terrorism laws that gives police broad powers and ordinary citizens little recourse. Throughout, Miranda was denied the right to his own counsel. He was not charged with an offense. Media he was carrying was confiscated, but we know that doesn't take nine hours to accomplish.

As I said, I'm sure you read about Miranda's detention when the story broke in August, and I hope you are not so jaded that you merely shrugged, without finding it truly chilling. In any case, for the sake of this post, let's take a moment to think about it and let it sink in all over again.

The government has a massive, secret program through which it spies - constantly and without cause or provocation - on its own citizens. Someone inside the survellience program courageously comes forward to reveal it. In doing so, the whistleblower risks everything. He must leave his country, must fight for sanctuary and safety, must start an entirely new life.

This whistleblower, Edward Snowden, entrusts two people - one journalist and one filmmaker - with the evidence he has gathered. And the partner of the journalist is detained under anti-terrorism laws.

Large numbers of ink and pixels have been expended on this topic, but I saw none more responsible and less equivocal than those from Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger. He writes:
On Sunday morning David Miranda, the partner of Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald, was detained as he was passing through Heathrow airport on his way back to Rio de Janeiro, where the couple live. Greenwald is the reporter who has broken most of the stories about state surveillance based on the leaks from the former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Greenwald's work has undoubtedly been troublesome and embarrassing for western governments. But, as the debate in America and Europe has shown, there is considerable public interest in what his stories have revealed about the right balance between security, civil liberties, freedom of speech and privacy. He has raised acutely disturbing questions about the oversight of intelligence; about the use of closed courts; about the cosy and secret relationship between government and vast corporations; and about the extent to which millions of citizens now routinely have their communications intercepted, collected, analysed and stored.

In this work he is regularly helped by David Miranda. Miranda is not a journalist, but he still plays a valuable role in helping his partner do his journalistic work. Greenwald has his plate full reading and analysing the Snowden material, writing, and handling media and social media requests from around the world. He can certainly use this back-up. That work is immensely complicated by the certainty that it would be highly unadvisable for Greenwald (or any other journalist) to regard any electronic means of communication as safe. The Guardian's work on the Snowden story has involved many individuals taking a huge number of flights in order to have face-to-face meetings. Not good for the environment, but increasingly the only way to operate. Soon we will be back to pen and paper.

Miranda was held for nine hours under schedule 7 of the UK's terror laws, which give enormous discretion to stop, search and question people who have no connection with "terror", as ordinarily understood. Suspects have no right to legal representation and may have their property confiscated for up to seven days. Under this measure – uniquely crafted for ports and airport transit areas – there are none of the checks and balances that apply once someone is in Britain proper. There is no need to arrest or charge anyone and there is no protection for journalists or their material. A transit lounge in Heathrow is a dangerous place to be.

Miranda's professional status – much hand-wringing about whether or not he's a proper "journalist" – is largely irrelevant in these circumstances. Increasingly, the question about who deserves protection should be less "is this a journalist?" than "is the publication of this material in the public interest?"

The detention of Miranda has rightly caused international dismay because it feeds into a perception that the US and UK governments – while claiming to welcome the debate around state surveillance started by Snowden – are also intent on stemming the tide of leaks and on pursuing the whistleblower with a vengeance. That perception is right. Here follows a little background on the considerable obstacles being placed in the way of informing the public about what the intelligence agencies, governments and corporations are up to.

A little over two months ago I was contacted by a very senior government official claiming to represent the views of the prime minister. There followed two meetings in which he demanded the return or destruction of all the material we were working on. The tone was steely, if cordial, but there was an implicit threat that others within government and Whitehall favoured a far more draconian approach.

The mood toughened just over a month ago, when I received a phone call from the centre of government telling me: "You've had your fun. Now we want the stuff back." There followed further meetings with shadowy Whitehall figures. The demand was the same: hand the Snowden material back or destroy it. I explained that we could not research and report on this subject if we complied with this request. The man from Whitehall looked mystified. "You've had your debate. There's no need to write any more."

During one of these meetings I asked directly whether the government would move to close down the Guardian's reporting through a legal route – by going to court to force the surrender of the material on which we were working. The official confirmed that, in the absence of handover or destruction, this was indeed the government's intention. Prior restraint, near impossible in the US, was now explicitly and imminently on the table in the UK. But my experience over WikiLeaks – the thumb drive and the first amendment – had already prepared me for this moment. I explained to the man from Whitehall about the nature of international collaborations and the way in which, these days, media organisations could take advantage of the most permissive legal environments. Bluntly, we did not have to do our reporting from London. Already most of the NSA stories were being reported and edited out of New York. And had it occurred to him that Greenwald lived in Brazil?

The man was unmoved. And so one of the more bizarre moments in the Guardian's long history occurred – with two GCHQ security experts overseeing the destruction of hard drives in the Guardian's basement just to make sure there was nothing in the mangled bits of metal which could possibly be of any interest to passing Chinese agents. "We can call off the black helicopters," joked one as we swept up the remains of a MacBook Pro.

Whitehall was satisfied, but it felt like a peculiarly pointless piece of symbolism that understood nothing about the digital age. We will continue to do patient, painstaking reporting on the Snowden documents, we just won't do it in London. The seizure of Miranda's laptop, phones, hard drives and camera will similarly have no effect on Greenwald's work.

The state that is building such a formidable apparatus of surveillance will do its best to prevent journalists from reporting on it. Most journalists can see that. But I wonder how many have truly understood the absolute threat to journalism implicit in the idea of total surveillance, when or if it comes – and, increasingly, it looks like "when".

We are not there yet, but it may not be long before it will be impossible for journalists to have confidential sources. Most reporting – indeed, most human life in 2013 – leaves too much of a digital fingerprint. Those colleagues who denigrate Snowden or say reporters should trust the state to know best (many of them in the UK, oddly, on the right) may one day have a cruel awakening. One day it will be their reporting, their cause, under attack. But at least reporters now know to stay away from Heathrow transit lounges.
The UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression issued a stern caution about this, noting:
The protection of national security secrets must never be used as an excuse to intimidate the press into silence and backing off from its crucial work in the clarification of human rights violations. . . . The press plays a central role in the clarification of human rights abuses.
This is good, but useless. The forces that shape our world are increasingly decided outside any democratic body, whether in a G20 Summit or an arcane provision of a law that no one has read or debated. The UN's warning is a sneeze in a storm.

UK journalist Philip Bump also explains why this should cause us concern, and points out a few people who care, and a few who don't.
David Miranda, who was detained for eight hours and 55 minutes by British authorities over the weekend because they thought he was carrying NSA documents for The Guardian, is taking legal action against the government — a move that could crystallize the conflict between state security and journalism.

The British government's conflation of journalism with terrorism in the case of David Miranda is problematic largely because journalism, like terrorism, is no longer performed by discrete, centralized entities. Instead, journalists and those performing journalism around the world operate in small cells or individually. You post a video of police detaining a suspect to your Facebook wall, and you're committing an act of journalism — one that authority figures may not see as subject to First — or Fourth — Amendment protections.

In the battle with the security state, those who might commit acts of journalism have three choices: acquiesce, push back, or step away.

Miranda, who is Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald's partner, is choosing option two. The BBC reports that Miranda is taking legal action of an unspecified nature, challenging his detention and seeking to prevent the government from reading the information on the devices it collected. What that information is may only be known by filmmaker Laura Poitras, the person with whom it originated in Berlin, but there's little doubt it includes encrypted files related to the Snowden leaks.

The British Home Office released a statement about the Miranda incident. It reads, in part:
If the police believe that an individual is in possession of highly sensitive stolen information that would help terrorism, then they should act and the law provides them with a framework to do that. Those who oppose this sort of action need to think about what they are condoning.
The most important word in that statement is "would." Not "could" help terrorism — a standard so loose that it might apply to millions of pieces of information and real-world objects. But "would." The British appear to be echoing the NSA's line that detailing how the government does its work is itself an aid to terrorists. (A claim perhaps undermined by the recent embassy closures.) It also appears to echo the argument made by the government in the Bradley Manning case: publishing information is aiding the enemy.

There are some to whom this argument is compelling. The British paper The Telegraph defends the authorities' action in detaining Miranda, as does the editor of Kernal magazine. (His article begins "PRISM blogger Glenn Greenwald’s Brazilian boyfriend, David Miranda…," providing a clear indicator of where his argument was headed.)

Rising to the defense of the American government is Jeffrey Toobin of the New Yorker. Toobin was criticized for his critique of the Snowden leaks earlier this month; Tuesday's essay is a continuation of that critique. "To be sure, Snowden has prompted an international discussion about surveillance," Toobin argues, "but it’s worthwhile to note that this debate is no academic exercise. It has real costs." Those costs are literal — the NSA having to build new surveillance systems — and figurative: "What if there is no pervasive illegality in the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs?" Toobin states that there is "no proof of any systemic, deliberate violations of law" revealed by Snowden, then noting of the Post revelations about privacy violations that "it’s far from clear, at this point, that the N.S.A.’s errors amounted to a major violation of law or an invasion of privacy." Incidental violations of privacy law, averaging seven a day, are acceptable to Toobin, as a cost-saving measure.

Those specific defenses aside, the intentions of the British authorities cannot be considered outside of the context of their behavior. Late Monday afternoon, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger revealed the paper's encounters with British authorities over this information. In a weirdly archaic move, representatives of the government's intelligence arm forced the destruction of hard drives containing Snowden information, as though that limited their ability to travel. The authorities threatened Rusbridger, prompting the paper to decide to move its reporting on the topic out of the country.

And then there's the treatment of Miranda himself. For eight hours, he was denied the right to his own counsel. The end result was confiscation of his electronic media, something that could have been accomplished in less than an hour. But, Reuters reported on Monday, that wasn't all that the authorities hoped to accomplish.
One U.S. security official told Reuters that one of the main purposes of the British government's detention and questioning of Miranda was to send a message to recipients of Snowden's materials, including the Guardian, that the British government was serious about trying to shut down the leaks.
In other words, intimidation.

The Columbia Journalism Review offers a broader sense of the effect on journalism — behavior performed by far more than just journalists.
In light of Rusbridger’s disclosures, it’s even clearer that the detention of Miranda is part of an attack on American journalists authorized at the highest levels of the British government, and it’s an attack that is at the very least implicitly backed by the Obama administration. …

This is police-state stuff. We need to know the American government’s role in these events—and its stance on them—sooner rather than later.
The founder of law site Groklaw offered her response to the government's surveillance systems in a post this morning. In short: she's closing the site. That's stepping away from the fight, and a natural reaction to intimidation. But only one of the three responses — acquiescing, pushing back, or avoidance — offers the hope of reform.
And finally, for reference, The Guardian has an excellent page full of stories and links about what's at stake: The NSA files.

9.14.2013

brief open letter to richard dawkins: you have no right to speak for anyone but yourself

Dear Richard Dawkins,

If the sexual abuse you experienced as a child did not leave you with lasting scars, that's very fortunate for you. However, you have no right to speak for anyone but yourself. Your insensitive remarks may cause survivors of sexual abuse great pain and they may confirm perpetrators' rationalizations of their own abuse.

So do us all a favour and shut the fuck up.

Signed,

A survivor in solidarity with all survivors everywhere

war resister rodney watson: four years in sanctuary

Today marks four years since Iraq War resister Rodney Watson requested sanctuary from the First United Church in Vancouver. Watson has been in sanctuary ever since.

We can honour Watson's sacrifice and his commitment to peace by renewing our demand that the Canadian government allow Watson and all war resisters to live freely in Canada.




wmtc trolls are alive and as insane as ever

I haven't been writing much lately, so it's good to know loyal wmtc readers are still reading every post. Well, one is, anyway.


Yes folks, a full seven years after first appearing in comments on this blog in the guise of a female fan, the freak we call Mags is still spewing his bile on a regular basis. We delete most of the comments without reading, but once in a while, it's good to share.

For the record, I regard every one of those (nearly) 3,000 victims of September 11, 2001, and their loved ones, among the extremely long list of victims of US imperialism. I have mourned them all. Not a one deserved their fate.

I merely recognize that their numbers are dwarfed by the millions of unacknowledged victims of US imperialism and other wars the world over. And I've had my fill (and then some) of the US exceptionalism and UScentrism that fetishizes the event.

I know you all know that. But some things just need to be said, even if it brings attention to the class clown that we normally ignore.

September 12, 2001: a view from new york.

September 11, 2010: it is so time to be over 9.11

September 11, 2011: 9.11.11: an anti-remembrance

It appears that in 2012 I ignored the day completely!

And on the endlessly fascinating, maddeningly inscrutable topic of trolls, I am still wondering, why, why, why???

Scrolling through the "wingnuts" wmtc category, I notice that I also mentioned Mags when we returned from Spain in late May. I must be running out of material!*






* Not really.

9.11.2013

the other september 11, why "they" might hate "us", and the right to live in peace

For many people in the world, especially people in South America, the date September 11 was significant long before 2001. On that date in 1973, Augusto Pinochet, with the help of the United States government, overthrew the democratically elected, socialist government of Salvador Allende. Allende was either murdered or forced into suicide. Pinochet then installed a military dictatorship that ruled Chile until 1990, and was responsible for tens of thousands of deaths, tortures, and disappearances, along with right-wing economic policies that were equally brutal.

I often think of the Chilean overthrow, as I do about another CIA overthrow 12 years earlier, of the equally democratically-elected and similarly leftist government of Patrice Lumumba, of the Republic of Congo. Lumumba was also assassinated. I think about the blinding frustration, the anger - no, the rage - I would feel if this had happened in my own country. If a people's candidate, a champion of the working class, had risen up through popular means and had been popularly elected... only to see a foreign power with great amounts of money and military power swoop in, kill that leader, and install a government more friendly to their own interests - a murderous dictatorship.

I think of this often when I hear that USians wonder, Why do they hate us? Of course, most Americans know very little about their country's foreign policy, and have even less control over it. Still, I think of Chile, and of the former Republic of Congo, when I read liberal journalists contemplating that "America may no longer be a force for good in the world".

I think of this when USians take offense that September 11 is not a day of mourning all over the world.

* * * *

The US's role in the 1973 Chilean coup d'etat is undisputed. Canada's response, however, is typically less obvious and a bit more ambiguous. David Heap writes at Rabble.ca.
Aerial bombings, tanks in the streets, widespread terrorizing of civilians by soldiers and secret police: this was the horror unleashed on September 11, 1973 by the military coup d’√©tat in Chile. Led by Augusto Pinochet and other generals with U.S. backing, the coup overthrew President Salvador Allende's democratically elected Popular Unity government, and brought in a brutal military dictatorship that lasted for 17 years.

Canada's official attitude towards the coup might be politely called 'ambivalent.' Some Canadian banks and mining interests openly supported the military take-over as a good investment opportunity. Our ambassador to Chile's rather sympathetic attitude toward the generals led to a rapid recognition of the military junta.

When embassy officials Mark Dolgin and David Adam allowed a handful of asylum-seekers to take refuge at our Santiago embassy, Foreign Affairs tried to shut the door on any more. The ambassador's classified cables, which called asylum-seekers 'riff-raff' and the military killings 'abhorrent but understandable,' were leaked by Bob Thomson, a federal CIDA employee in Ottawa.

Those leaks cost Thomson his job but helped build a public clamour in favour of offering refuge to those who needed it. At the time, Canada's lack of a formal refugee policy left these life-and-death decisions to ministerial discretion. Questions were raised in Parliament, church groups and unions called for more asylum, the media picked up the story, and solidarity activists occupied federal offices in four cities across the country: this growing groundswell in the fall of 1973 eventually led to 'Special Movement Chile' opening the doors for thousands of Chilean refugees fleeing Pinochet's terror to find safety in Canada.

That historic example of citizen action underscores the importance conscientious dissent. Whether high-profile whistleblowers like Manning and Snowden or rank-and-file war resisters who refuse to participate in war crimes, conscientious dissenters deserve honour and protection, rather than vilification and prosecution. Though their individual circumstances may be less dramatic, the same lesson applies to many conscientious scientists and researchers whose work is threatened or suppressed by the Harper government's ideological preference for evidence-free policy-making.

Many victims of military repression never reach asylum of course, but those who remember the tortured, murdered and 'disappeared' can take some comfort in the knowledge that there is no statute of limitations for war crimes and crimes against humanity. The renowned Chilean folk-singer Victor Jara was among those tortured and killed in the early days of the coup, and this year several military officers deemed responsible for his death are finally coming to trial. Some of the accused trained at the infamous School of the Americas (aka School of Assassins: they put Pinochet’s ceremonial sword on display) at Fort Benning Georgia, where human rights vigils continue to call for closure every year.

. . . .The poignant title of one of Jara's most famous songs and albums (El derecho de vivir en paz, 1971) is still relevant today as it sums up the deepest wishes of so many people. A film about his life and an exhibit of rare historic materials from the Chilean resistance against the coup both bear the name of the same song, inviting us to remember and reflect on those ideals for today and tomorrow: 'The right to live in peace.'
Read this eye-opening story here.

9.08.2013

never forget, onion style


I think The Onion has outdone itself this time.
From the Structural Steel Melt on Tower 7–Grain bread to the Twin Chowers cold cut combo with Ground Zero–Carb vinaigrette on a Let’s Whole Wheat Roll, we’ve got something for everybody this Subtember 11.
Click here.

9.07.2013

personal update, our new (rental) house, and why we'll never own a home

We've moved! We're renting a much larger, newer, and more comfortable house in central Mississauga. We've lost the huge backyard of our old rental home, but the backyard here is still a decent size, the largest of any house we saw that we'd want to live in. (The choices were huge backyards with old, un-maintained, falling-apart houses, beautiful new townhouses with either no backyard or a tiny square of cement, or this place!)

We have more space - way more space - in this house on two floors than we had in the old place on three floors. And after two major floods, we're pretty happy not to have a basement! The basement of the current house is a separate apartment, and those tenants do not share the yard.

One of the big differences in this house is that our landlord and his family used to live here, so everything is new and well-maintained. It is by far the nicest place either of us have ever lived in.

It will be a while until we're all set up, but I've decided - for once - to take it slow. Normally I run out and buy everything we need, do all the decorating right away, locked and loaded in two weeks, max. This time I'm in no hurry. Happily, our insurance settlement from the flood covered our moving expenses and car repairs, and we can replace a few of the most important items we lost.

"If you don't mind me asking, why are you renting?"

As we looked for this home, realtors and some owners expressed surprise that we were not renting only to bridge a gap between homebuying, but renting for the long haul. One owner was shocked that we had lived in our previous rental since 2007, and would be there still, if not for the flood. I guess renting is considered all right for young people who are just starting out, and maybe for older folks in transition, but a middle-aged couple isn't supposed to rent.

Yet one of the bright spots in our miserable summer was being able to simply walk away from that sewage-flooded house, with no responsibility to clean or renovate. Moving is never fun or easy, but within two weeks of the flood, we had signed a new lease, and within two months, we were gone. After the sewage flood, I could only think, "Thank [something] we rent!"

I mean no disrespect to any readers - most of you, probably - who own your own home, and never would have done otherwise. Each to their own, and I hope the market is kind to you.

For me, there are many reasons to rent, and I can find no compelling reasons to buy.

We can't afford it, and we don't care

When we were younger, it was much more important to us to "choose to be poor," so to speak - to keep our expenses low, have less earning pressure, and thus time to pursue our own goals. Renting gave us time to write, and when we could scrape some money together, to travel. Buying would have meant choosing a life path strictly for maximum earning potential. And beyond the downpayment that we didn't have, buying anything in the New York area would have tripled or quadrupled our monthly expenses.

Since then, the housing market has only gotten worse, from my point of view. Home ownership is ever more expensive, and the dream of easy money from buying and selling is ever more of a gamble.

The equation isn't only financial. Owning itself means nothing to us. We love a nice living space, and always try to have one, but we don't need or want the responsibility that comes with home ownership. In our previous home, in one year the furnace and oven both needed replacing. All I did was pick up the phone. It was someone else's bill, and someone else's headache.

The experts agree. Or do they?

The only thing we don't have is a house to sell. We have no means of generating a large amount of income from the sale of a house, which would presumably buy us a more comfortable retirement. We don't have that, it's true.

On the other hand, we don't have a house that we can't sell. We don't have the potential reward, but we also don't have the risk. We're most comfortable with that.

Conventional wisdom says that renting is "throwing your money away," and smart investors always buy. I never understood the first part, because I'm pretty sure than my rent buys me a place to live that someone else is responsible for maintaining.

The second part is based on several assumptions that don't apply to every situation. Once upon a time, it probably made perfect sense. My parents bought a home and paid off the mortgage in less than 10 years, with only one income-earner. These days, in any place we've lived, we couldn't pay off a mortgage in 30 years. And why would I want $500,000 in debt?

I notice, too, that most calculations of renting versus buying don't account for the cost of maintaining a home. Take this article, for example. Top 10 cities where renting is better than buying says:
Real estate research firm Zillow did the math and factored in all kinds of possible costs, including monthly rent and mortgage payments, insurance, property taxes, maintenance and closing costs, and expected price appreciation to come up with the exact point at which buying becomes less expensive than renting.
But the article itself seems to use a simple rent-multiplied-by-months equation.

This video looks at the economics of buying vs. renting, challenging the idea that buying is always a better deal. In comments, people give the usual arguments - "But at the end you own the house" - even when it's clear that the house has actually cost you way more than you would have spent renting.

In Time magazine's business section, a former homeowner considers renting. He writes:
At first I thought that buying a home would also be a smart financial decision. The more research I do, however, the more I realize that the notion of homeownership as a magical path to wealth is a marketing ploy of the real estate industry. In fact, home prices (like gold prices) generally barely keep pace with inflation.

There’s no question that buying a house makes sense for some folks, but mainly for non-financial reasons. Owning a home gives you stability (you’re not at the mercy of a landlord) and freedom (you can do what you want with the place). But financially, it’s not always the best bet.
I agree that homeownership is more stable than renting. But freedom? Not really. If you are hamstrung by mortgage costs or stuck with a house you can't sell at a profit, you're not free. The house itself takes up a certain amount of your time. You may enjoy that time and see it as well-spent. But it's not free.

The New York Times offers a sophisticated buy-versus-rent calculator that takes a large number of variables into account. I couldn't account for many factors, such as interest rates and property tax (one of the joys of renting, I don't know about those things), but from what I could tell, it would be 30 years before buying a home was actually better financially than renting in my area.

This article in the Financial Post (the business supplement of Canada's rabidly right-wing National Post newspaper) spells it out more flatly than most.
Does it make more sense to buy or rent a home from an investment perspective? It’s a question I get asked more than any other. The answer, in an era of historically low interest rates and perpetually rising real estate values, appears to be obvious: buy.

Just ask any real estate agent and they’ll tell you, “Don’t pay your landlord’s mortgage for him,” or “Build equity for yourself instead of flushing your money down the toilet,” and our favourite, “There has never been a better time to buy.”

It all sounds pretty convincing, but it’s wrong. Unless you need the security blanket of owning your home, it is nearly always a better financial move from an investing standpoint to rent rather than buy. The reason: People rarely consider three major costs of owning a home.
The three factors are: the costs associated with buying and selling, the operating costs of ownership, and the impact of a mortgage. The second factor - the cost of maintaining a home - is the one I find most people overlook. Friends have told me they pay nearly the equivalent in rent every month to maintain their home. About the impact of a mortgage, the Financial Post writer says:
This isn’t preparing for retirement. This is preparing for job interviews in your seventies when you should be enjoying cocktails after a round of golf.
I notice that even the very smart and sensible Suze Orman, who used to categorically tell everyone to rent only until they had saved enough for a down payment, has changed her mind. Orman now says, "Just because you can buy a home or condo doesn't mean you should. Here are some instances in which renting makes more sense."

She offers four reasons why you might want to rent. One is the down payment. Personally, I cannot imagine forking over that kind of cash in return for the right to pay off a huge mortgage. But more tellingly, reason number four is: "You don't really want the responsibilities and risks associated with being a homeowner." I appreciate the recognition that some of us just don't care.

A touch of insecurity

The only potential negative that has now arisen is that renting a house is not as secure as an apartment rental. Renting a house in Ontario, there is the possibility that the owner could choose not to renew our lease, if he wanted to sell the house, or move back in, or have a family member move in. That's what happened with our first house, in Port Credit, a risk we knew from the start. That move turned out to be very beneficial, but this could happen with any house we rent in Mississauga. We try to screen for that possibility, but we're depending on people to be honest about their intentions - a big if.

I think if it turns out we are moving too frequently, we would probably go back to apartment life. For now, we are carefully breaking down each box we empty and storing them all in the garage. One year from now, when our landlord renews our lease, I'll Freecycle them. If the landlord doesn't renew, we may save even more money by renting an apartment again.

It seems that for many North Americans, owning a home is a sign of adulthood, one of the three things you're supposed to do: get married, have kids, and buy a house. Lucky me, I've skipped all three!

9.02.2013

labour day 2013: low-wage workers rising

This week, port truckers went on strike in California, and fast-food workers in more than 60 cities walked off their jobs.

Today in the US, Labor Day is Walmart's last day to respond before Walmart workers intensify their nationwide actions on September 5.

In Toronto, hotel workers won a huge victory through their union, the United Steelworkers, ending their 13-week strike by winning a contract without the huge concessions their employer was demanding.

Labour rights are human rights. And this is how change happens: enjoy this pics from the fast-food workers' national campaign.

9.01.2013

happy labour day: thank a union, and thank the men and women who made unions possible

If you're enjoying a long weekend, take a moment to acknowledge the blood, sweat, and tears of the women and men who made that possible. This page from a regional AFL-CIO affiliate has a partial list of what we enjoy thanks to organizing labour.
36 Reasons Why You Should Thank a Union
Weekends
All Breaks at Work, including your Lunch Breaks
Paid Vacation
FMLA
Sick Leave
Social Security
Minimum Wage
Civil Rights Act/Title VII (Prohibits Employer Discrimination)
8-Hour Work Day
Overtime Pay
Child Labor Laws
Occupational Safety & Health Act (OSHA)
40 Hour Work Week
Worker's Compensation (Worker's Comp)
Unemployment Insurance
Pensions
Workplace Safety Standards and Regulations
Employer Health Care Insurance
Collective Bargaining Rights for Employees
Wrongful Termination Laws
Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967
Whistleblower Protection Laws
Employee Polygraph Protect Act (Prohibits Employer from using a lie detector test on an employee)
Veteran's Employment and Training Services (VETS)
Compensation increases and Evaluations (Raises)
Sexual Harassment Laws
Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA)
Holiday Pay
Employer Dental, Life, and Vision Insurance
Privacy Rights
Pregnancy and Parental Leave
Military Leave
The Right to Strike
Public Education for Children
Equal Pay Acts of 1963 & 2011 (Requires employers pay men and women equally for the same amount of work)
Laws Ending Sweatshops in the United States
It's also worth remembering that the real labour day, the one organized by and for working people, is celebrated on May 1. The end-of-summer, official Labor Day was the US's Congress' set-aside, and it came with a heavy price. This is from an excellent essay by George Packer, from 2002.
Even the lionized firefighters have been reduced to the grubby embarrassment of contract disputes. "I'm tired of politicians coming to our funerals and telling the widows how sorry they are," Stephen J. Cassidy, president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association, said at a rally two weeks ago. "Pay us a living wage." Meanwhile, the Bush administration continues to pursue relentlessly anti-labor policies. America wants its workers to do everything except ask for a raise in return.

It shouldn't be surprising, then, to learn that Labor Day was born in hypocrisy and blood. President Grover Cleveland signed legislation creating the holiday in August 1894, less than a week after 12,000 federal troops crushed a rail strike in Pullman, Ill. With one eye on midterm elections, he salved labor's raw feelings by giving the country a day off in honor of its workers. The degeneration of Labor Day has continued fairly steadily over more than a century of barbecues, and by now it's probably our least sincere holiday. In the year of working-class heroes, we should do something real for labor, or else we should spare everyone tomorrow's clichés and rededicate the first Monday in September to a cause that stirs genuine passion. Happy Investor's Day.