Is Edward Snowden the World’s Dumbest Spy?, Ctd

by Freddie deBoer

Lots of reader objections on this one:

On Snowden’s motives and capabilities:

“I do know that he’s in Russia because he’s been trapped there by our government, and that if he’s a spy, he’s gotta be the world’s worst.”

Well, you’re half right. Snowden is in Russia because that’s where he chose to go, one day after his passport was revoked. I respect the whistle-blower argument, but Snowden did much more than leak evidence of crimes and overreach by the NSA. He took those documents and fled. Unlike Chelsea Manning, who seems to have far more personal integrity than Snowden, he did not remain here to face the consequences of his actions. If he truly believed he was doing a service for the country, or the world, and was not in flagrant violation of oaths he took, he should have stood his ground here in the US, or at the very least on neutral soil, NOT left to be succored by avowed international enemies of the US.

And his actions have shown that at the very least, he is extremely naive about international relations.

Any information that was on any digital device he took with him on his route to Sheremetyevo via Hong Kong was almost certainly compromised. If they were not (doubtful),  just how secure and careful have Greenwald and others who have access to those documents been in the intervening year? Surely you don’t think it is a coincidence that Aeroflot just happened to be willing to convey him to Moscow on a cancelled passport, do you? Putin loves having Snowden there to irritate the US, and has been playing him like a violin for over a year. Did you watch that pandering April  interview that Snowden claimed later was an attempt to catch Putin in a lie? If that was his aim, he has totally misunderstood both Putin and the nature of the personality cult he has been assiduously building in Russia. As events in Ukraine have shown, Putin *doesn’t care* if the West thinks (or knows) that he’s lying, and most Russians won’t believe the biased Western media even if presented with clear evidence. The West already suspected (and now knows) that Putin is an opportunist with no respect for international law or sanctions if they get in the way of what he wants. Snowden is just one more convenient tool in his arsenal of catspaws to use against what he considers to be a hostile coalition of Western powers.

I am not yet willing to brand Snowden an out-and-out traitor, but his actions are not nearly as blameless as you seem to think. He has repeatedly tried to trade off of information he stole from the NSA to secure asylum with several different governments. If he really wanted to expose US malfeasance while still protected US security interests, he should have left for neutral territory well before leaking any documents, established himself and submitted an asylum claim, THEN started leaking. Instead, his clumsy attempts at whistleblowing and evading responsibility for the same have resulted in him being in the power of an enemy state with no regard for world stability if it stands in the way of their interests.

Snowden’s own words: “I blew the whistle on the NSA’s surveillance practices not because I believed that the United States was uniquely at fault, but because I believe that mass surveillance of innocents – the construction of enormous, state-run surveillance time machines that can turn back the clock on the most intimate details of our lives – is a threat to all people, everywhere, no matter who runs them.” Snowden doesn’t just think the NSA overstepped its legal bounds in surveilling US citizens; he doesn’t think the NSA should be spying on *anyone at all*, and neither should anybody else. Well, that’s fucking great, but that’s just. not. reality. It is this kind of attitude that lead to Sec of State Henry Stimson shutting down the American Black Chamber and dismissing much of its staff without a pension or NDA after World War I. The key figure behind the chamber, Herbert Yardley, went on to write his own expose of their activities, mostly out of financial need, but likely also out of pique. I still have more respect for Yardley and his motivations than I do for Snowden.

The NSA’s own commentary on Yardley’s memoir: “Yardley, with no civil service status or retirement benefits, found himself unemployed just as the stock market was collapsing and the Great Depression beginning. He left Queens and returned to his hometown of Worthington, Indiana, where he began writing what was to become the most famous book in the history of cryptology. There had never been anything like it. In today’s terms, it was as if an NSA employee had publicly revealed the complete communications intelligence operations of the Agency for the past twelve years-all its techniques and major successes, its organizational structure and budget-and had, for good measure, included actual intercepts, decrypts, and translations of the communications not only of our adversaries but of our allies as well.”

I’ll just say, briefly: I wish Chelsea Manning had escaped the way Snowden has. I see nothing noble about her being stuck in a cage for the next several decades.

Digital Breaks, or “Breaks”

by Freddie deBoer

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Exactly a year ago, David Roberts of Grist announced that he was taking an internet break, and would return on Labor Day of 2014. Roberts wrote at the time

I am burnt the fuck out.

I spend each day responding to an incoming torrent of tweets and emails. I file, I bookmark, I link, I forward, I snark and snark and snark. All day long. Then, at night, after my family’s gone to bed and the torrent has finally slowed to a trickle and I can think for more than 30 seconds at a stretch, I try to write longer, more considered pieces.

I enjoy every part of this: I enjoy sharing zingers with Twitter all day; I enjoy writing long, wonky posts at night. But the lifestyle has its drawbacks. I don’t get enough sleep, ever. I don’t have any hobbies. I’m always at work. Other than hanging out with my family, it’s pretty much all I do — stand at a computer, immersing myself in the news cycle, taking the occasional hour out to read long PDFs. I’m never disconnected.

It’s doing things to my brain.

So he elected to take a break from internet life. He’s not the first. Disconnecting from the internet has become a little genre onto its own. The most well-known of these disconnections, and the most emblematic, is that of The Verge‘s Paul Miller. And it’s emblematic precisely because of what Miller says didn’t happen– he didn’t get wiser, he didn’t get healthier. He writes,

One year ago I left the internet. I thought it was making me unproductive. I thought it lacked meaning. I thought it was “corrupting my soul.”

It’s a been a year now since I “surfed the web” or “checked my email” or “liked” anything with a figurative rather than literal thumbs up. I’ve managed to stay disconnected, just like I planned. I’m internet free.

And now I’m supposed to tell you how it solved all my problems. I’m supposed to be enlightened. I’m supposed to be more “real,” now. More perfect.

But instead it’s 8PM and I just woke up. I slept all day, woke with eight voicemails on my phone from friends and coworkers. I went to my coffee shop to consume dinner, the Knicks game, my two newspapers, and a copy of The New Yorker. And now I’m watching Toy Story while I glance occasionally at the blinking cursor in this text document, willing it to write itself, willing it to generate the epiphanies my life has failed to produce.

I didn’t want to meet this Paul at the tail end of my yearlong journey.

This, in my experience, is typical of people who have disconnected: they come back to report that in fact their online selves are more real and more fulfilling, and that really it was their doubts and dissatisfaction with the internet that had been misguided. Some go so far as to say that disconnecting is not actually possible. Miller cites Nathan Jurgensen, who has built a theory of pathology for those who advocate disconnecting. The message is clear: you can take your break, but there is no escape.

Miller is part of what I’ve called, in the past, the internet’s immune system. It’s a facet of online culture whereby even the mildest criticism of digital life attracts reflexive, defensive argument, even though the entire weight of capitalism pushes us to spend more and more time in that digital space. Alan Jacobs recently wrote about this weird fantasy world where Luddites are more  powerful than enthusiastic technologists, saying “Where you and I live, of course, technology companies are among the largest and most powerful in the world, our media are utterly saturated with the prophetic utterances of their high priests, and people continually seek high-tech solutions to every imaginable problem, from obesity to road rage to poor reading scores in our schools.” One of my favorite bloggers, Michael Sacasas, has written at length about the odd way in which one of the most powerful economic and cultural forces in the world has come to be defended as if  were a powerless underdog. Jurgensen acquits his arguments well, but I always am left wondering: where, exactly, is this perception of threat coming from? From a small handful of people who have disconnected from the internet, in comparison to the millions who spend most of their waking lives online?  It’s strange.

I will 100% cop to the fact that I am one of those IRL fetishists that Jurgensen derides. Because for me– for me– the internet is fun and useful but not nearly as moving or important as real life. And I think that, for most people, meeting someone face to face, enjoying their physical presence, is not replicable digitally. But that’s just my perception, and I have no interest in spreading that Gospel. Like Alan, I would like it if online triumphalism was not rendered compulsory by its avatars. What I want to say to others is that if you want to disconnect, you need to really disconnect– you can’t spend your offline time thinking about your old online self. When I read Miller’s piece, it’s unclear to me whether he ever went all the way in his disconnection. Of course the experience will disappoint you if you go offline but keep your online state of mind.

So that’s the real question for Roberts. Were I a betting man, I’d say he comes back and says something similar to Miller– it was cool, I lost some weight, played with my kids, but it wasn’t really a big deal and I better appreciate how the internet makes us “social” now. But the deeper issue is whether he’ll come back having spent that year thinking of all the funny stuff he’d be saying or cool stuff he’d be learning if he were online. If that’s the case, I’m afraid there’s no way disconnecting could ever have satisfied him.

(Photo by Michael Herfort)

Israel Has Been Singled Out By Israel’s Defenders, Ctd

by Freddie deBoer

Tensions Remain High At Israeli Gaza Border

Continuing the conversation about our culpability in Israel’s actions, this email sums up a lot of reader sentiment:

Your explanation is valid as far as Americans go, since they provide so much financial and more importantly, diplomatic, support to Israel.  That’s not true for people in other countries.  As just one example, let’s look at the civilian casualties and other atrocities in Syria, which are orders of magnitude greater than those caused by Israel.  Did the Latin American countries who recalled their ambassadors from Israel to protest civilian casualties in Gaza similarly recall their ambassadors from Syria?  Have there been any mass protest demonstrations at Syrian embassies in Europe? We can look at other recent atrocities and find similar absences of outrage around the world, yet consciences everywhere seem to miraculously awaken when Israel is involved.

I am a supporter of Israel as a country, but not of many of the policies of its government.  Many of Israel’s actions in the West Bank are not only immoral and illegal (and illegal under Israeli law, yet they go unpunished), they are also stupid and self-defeating. Far from asking to end to criticisms of Israel, I join in many of them, provided they are based on an informed understanding of the situation. Too often they are not – people see some footage of civilian casualties, read some blog posts, and are suddenly instant experts on the Middle East.  I expect people who offer an opinion to know what they are talking about.  When I hear mischaracterizations (or disregard) of Hamas’ ultimate aims, ignorance of the chronology and reasons for Israel’s blockade of Gaza, wholesale swallowing of Hamas’ propaganda re civilian vs. military casualty figures, and most infuriating of all, minimization of the threat of invasion/terror tunnels and the effect of thousands of rockets used exclusively against civilian targets in Israel, I don’t see much reason to value their opinions.

Here is the fundamental question we’re considering: is Israel the same as other countries? Or is it different from other countries? The answer from my critics seems to switch depending on which would be more useful for defending Israel at that moment.

Though many have complained that I use terms like “killing children,” no credible source doubts that Israel has killed hundreds of civilians in Gaza in this most recent campaign, or that many of them have been children. Instead, we are still to defend Israel despite that fact because Israel is different, because it is the only democracy in the region and a more moral nation than the ones we identify as bad actors. And yet here we have this emailer defending Israel because it is better than Syria. That hardly seems like living up to the standard of the region’s only democracy. “Better than the Assad regime” does not strike me as a particularly enthusiastic endorsement.

So which is it? Are we required to support Israel because it is a more advanced, democratic, moral nation? Or are we expected to hold it to an identical standard as Assad’s Syria? You can’t have it both ways. If you think Israel exists on a higher moral plane than its neighbors, then you have to insist that it act morally. For all of the many ways in which Israel’s democracy has been undermined by the rise of ultra-nationalists and ethnic supremacists in the past decades, it remains subject to democratic review in a way that Syria’s regime simply doesn’t. Israel could become a freer and more just nation through loud and committed democratic engagement, but that can’t happen if we excuse all of its bad deeds in the name of defending it.

(Photo by Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images)

Can Double-Blind Peer Review Be Reformed?, Ctd

by Freddie deBoer

Lots and lots of great reader responses to my post on peer review. Here’s a sample. Many readers ding me, correctly, for over-generalizing: much of academic peer review is not double-blind.

Interesting post, and thanks for the link to the Rossman piece. I don’t have a great story for you on peer review, but wanted to add that most natural science journals actually use single-blind. This may be changing, for example this article which also provides some support for my assertion.

Another:

I am a senior academic, so I have been on both sides of the peer review process, and I have counseled younger colleagues who have voiced complaints similar to those outlined by deBoer. Although some of the problems mentioned are insoluble, others could be remedied or at least reduced by clearer policies on the part of professional associations within various disciplines and academic journals.  These include:

1. The professional associations should establish and publicize standards governing professional conduct in undertaking and completing reviews. There may be no way to enforce these standards directly, but publicizing them might be helpful, in part in helping editors call wayward and/or tardy reviewers to account. The associations could also collect and publicize data on the period from submission to publication for various journals. These data might inform authors of what journals to seek out and which to avoid.

2. Academic journals should set a deadline for the completion of reviews, communicated to the authors and to the reviewers ahead of time. Six weeks seems a reasonable period to me, but I am not wedded to that. If the reviewer cannot guarantee a review within the prescribed period, another reviewer should be selected. Reviewers who fail to meet their obligations should not be asked by the journal to review future articles, and journal editors should be proactive in pressuring tardy reviewers. Those submitting articles should be free, after three months without a response from a journal, to submit his/her work to another journal as well.

3. Using the same reviewers for the “revise and resubmit” review as for the original review, so that new objections/concerns are less likely to be raised.  The reviewers should be asked simply as to whether the problems they identified have been adequately addressed or not, and a final determination should be made.  Multiple “revise and resubmits” should not occur. If the author’s work doesn’t merit publication after he/she has had a chance to revise it, the author should be told so (and be free to submit to another journal).

Similar thoughts:

Necessary background: I’m a research meteorologist, almost 21 years past my Ph.D.  I don’t have as many peer-reviewed papers published as anyone would like me to have but the ones I do have appear in 5 different journals published by the American Meteorological Society (AMS), 2 published by the American Geophysical Union (AGU), and another published by the European Geosciences Union (EGU).  Over the years I have served as a reviewer for most of the journals in which I’ve published, and for at least 1 AGU journal in which I have not yet published.  The AMS or the AGU are usually the primary professional society with which U.S. based meteorologists who are not forecasters are affiliated.  (The National Weather Association (NWA) is often the primary for forecasters.). …

I would take serious issue with your statement that “Peer review, at the vast majority of credible journals, is built on a double blind system.”  I have never run into a double-blind review system, either as a writer or a reviewer.  I do not think I have ever heard a colleague talk about being part of one, either.  So this may be very seriously field-specific.  The AMS & AGU journals have, to the best of my knowledge, very high credibility in the meteorology, atmospheric sciences, oceanographic, and related fields. I’ll leave exploration of metrics to you, if you’re interested; all that matters to me is the opinion of my colleagues & “bosses”.  I believe that I have heard of trouble with some editors once one starts getting into topics related to climate change, but as it’s well outside my direct experience I’d prefer to leave it at that.  I’d refer you to the blogs of Prof. Roger Pielke, Jr. or Prof. Judith Curry if you want to explore that further.

You have my sympathies! I just got a paper published after 4 revisions.  Round 1 came back, and we (thought we) revised reasonably based on the comments & concerns; we certainly took them seriously.  Round 2 came back; Reviewer 1 felt we’d blown off his comments, so insisted more forcefully and with more detail, while Reviewer 2 was satisfied.  We did a lot more work and rewrote.  Round 3 came back; Reviewer 1 was satisfied, but Reviewer 2 no longer believed us!  We did a lot more work and rewrote.  Round 4 came back; Reviewers 1 & 2 were now satisfied, and Reviewer 3 (who had been a supportive but rigorous presence throughout) had a few more suggestions and questions.  So we rewrote a little bit more, and finally were done.

Throughout this process we had the same non-anonymous editor, who was patient and understanding and did an awful lot of work IMO.  I’ve definitely had other editors go the extra mile, too.  (And some who weren’t so diligent, but <shrug> not everybody can be excellent at everything.)  With the AMS journals, you always know who your editor is, and I think editors may even stay with “open” papers after their term as editor ends.  That openness makes a big difference, I’m sure.  My most recent experiences with an AGU journal also involved anonymous reviewers but a known editor.  Furthermore, you *always* know what Reviewer 1 told you to do, what Reviewer 2 told you to do, and what the Editor told you to do.

Another:

I guess the norms of peer review differ somewhat by discipline. I’ve been writing papers for biomedical journals for a little over a decade now, and reviewing regularly for nearly as long, and the norm for me has been single-blind review: the reviewers know the authors, but not the other way around. I can only think of one journal for whom I’ve reviewed that was double blind.

Anyway, this may seem hopelessly idealistic, but the standard to which I hold myself when reviewing is really quite simple: I pretend it isn’t blinded at all. I don’t write anything in a review that I wouldn’t sign my name to and be willing to have published, nor anything I wouldn’t say to the authors in person at a conference, in a lab meeting, or over a beer. More importantly than keeping things civil, professional, and non-petty (though that is all very important!) it forces me to make sure that I have my own facts straight and that I can back whatever I say up.

As to my experience of being reviewed while it has been generally fair and constructive for me, it is very clear that my own standards are not universally applied.

Personally, I think doing away with anonymity in peer review altogether would be preferable.

Still another:

I’m a Ph.D candidate and I read your post, nodding my head along the whole time. In my limited experience, the process of peer-review (the depth of review, critique, and the ultimate decision to approve or project) is highly variable. You’ll get two reviews and one will ask for minor changes and the other reviewer will want the entire paper re-written so as to incorporate a topic you don’t even mention (“how could you not mention NGOs?”) “Well because this paper 1) isn’t about NGOs and 2) NGOs don’t apply here and 3) we don’t have the expertise to study or comment on NGOs”.

But for me, the time factor and the accessibility factor are the much bigger issues. Six months to two years to get something published. An adaptive institution this is not. As I’m writing, Ghostbusters (1984) is on TV and Egon just said “print is dead.” I laugh every time. I’m aware there are alternative outlets to traditional publication, but until we have a movement of young academics willing to challenge the norm, or academic institutions with the foresight to change the rules of the game, what are we supposed to do. I know I’m trying to get my stuff into regular ole high-ranked traditional journals. And what about when you have to settle for a lower-tiered journal. It still counts, but is anybody reading it?

More to come.

We Made Police Misconduct Inevitable, Ctd

by Freddie deBoer

National Guard Called In As Unrest Continues In Ferguson

Readers sound off my post about our complicity in police misconduct:

You write, in part, “It’s human nature: people who are subject to little or no review will inevitably behave badly.” Hogwash.  What you have, apparently, bought into is the belief in some parts of Christianity that we are all born evil.  And that, therefore, we all require constant outside pressure in order to behave well.  I’m guessing that, consciously, you would reject that worldview.  But it’s what your statement comes down to.  (And personally, my experience of humanity has been very much otherwise.)

The problem is rather that some people do need outside constraints.  I would suggest that it is, most of the time, only a very small portion of the total.  But that small portion is highly visible when their constraints are off.  (It’s the same phenomena which causes people to believe that the streets are more risky than ever, even as crime rates have been falling for a couple of decades.  Bad things make headlines.)

Yes, police misconduct is a problem that needs to be addressed.  And may even be especially high in some minority urban areas.  But to address it effectively, we need to have a clear view of the police as a whole.  There are doubtless some places, possibly including Ferguson, where the police department as a whole is a problem.  Then again, it would only take a couple of people, even there, to lead to the problems we have seen.

Suppose you have three problem individuals, out of 50+, on the Furgeson PD.  One is the guy who ordered everybody into combat gear.  One is a guy who started the shooting (since once that starts, in a tense situation, many others will follow).  And, of course, one may be (depending on what really happened) the guy involved in the original incident. That’s all it would take – less than 10%.  I’m not saying that that’s all there were; just that no more are actually needed for things to deteriorate.

Saying, or acting, like we believe that everybody on the police department, there or elsewhere, is nasty unless tightly controlled is only going to make it harder to make things better.  People, even good people, get defensive when they are accused of being evil.  If you really want to get positive changes, you have to recognize that most of the police are dedicated good guys, who would join in your efforts with a will … if you refrain from tarring them all with the same brush.

Well: it happens that I don’t believe that human beings are basically good, despite how often that’s said, but I don’t think I’ll convince anyone of that in the space of a blog post. I’ll just say this: maybe it’s true that only some people need to be subject to close scrutiny to behave well. As you say, it only takes a small amount of people to ruin everything, and as I indicated, the cyclicality and regularity of these problems seems to suggest that the problem is systemic rather than individual. Indeed, some readers are complaining that I’m going after the cops in an unfair way, but I’m actually arguing that the system we’ve created has given the police little incentive to behave well. That’s not an exoneration of the individuals, but it is a way to look for deeper causes than personal immorality. I would add that it’s impossible to know who’s going to be good and who’s going to be bad, without scrutiny, before the fact. So we’re still left in a place where we need strictly defined and strictly enforced accountability measures for police, and we need them to operate in an atmosphere that does not default to deference. And finally, whatever is hypothetically the case, we are hearing every day from the poor and racial minorities, in this country, that they fear the police. That’s their reality, and we need to respond to it.

Another:

Thanks for this posting. However the problem very much pre-dates 9/11. The National Registry of Exonerations lists more than 2,000 wrongful convictions since 1983, and, I think it is safe to say, this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Unfortunately, there appears to be a corrupt system that includes prosecutors who are happy to convict and then unwilling to reverse their position once new evidence comes to light. We see the problem all too clearly in my state, Illinois, where Governor George Ryan put a moratorium on implementing the death penalty in 2000 after 13 people had been exonerated – most of those exonerations requiring many years and often bitterly fought. In Chicago, taxpayers have been required to pony up millions of dollars in settlements over and over again in cases where the police have over-reached (to put it mildly). The most notorious cases being John Burge who was found to have been involved in torturing 200 suspects between 1972 and 1991.

The problem is African American and low income communities of all races know/believe this stuff goes on all the time. But, in general, white and better off communities either don’t believe it or don’t want to believe it or don’t care or some combination of all of the above. Which goes to your point that we get the police department the public wants to have.  Most police officers are good. But the system defends the bad ones with such vigor, it tarnishes the entire system among the people who need it most, but are also most victimized by it – low income communities. The public needs to re-think what is costing everyone to continue like we have.

And another:

This is not merely a post-9/11 problem, although I agree that the outpourings of public support (for first responders) you cite certainly contribute. History repeats itself. I recall my own experience from the 1960s-70s.

After a stint in the military, I came home to my west Bronx neighborhood to find it in transition from a middle class, Irish-Jewish enclave to ghetto. It was 1968. Heroin ruled the streets, crime was rampant, students at nearby Columbia were rioting and, shortly after, the South Bronx would literally erupt in flames. I continued to work in the neighborhood for the next 13 years as a public utility employee. While I watched my old neighborhood burn down, I was able to observe much else that occurred on the streets.

Then as now, the police routinely despised and brutalized the people they were supposed to serve.  Granted, they were overwhelmed and often demoralized.  At the same time, they had no incentive to address the root cause of much street crime, heroin.  The reason was precinct-level corruption which, as revealed in testimony before the Knapp Commission, was endemic. There was little incentive for a cop to run drug dealers off his beat when they might well have been the source of income that may have equaled or exceeded his regular paycheck.

Hopefully, that cycle of despair doesn’t exist to impede efforts to resolve today’s already daunting societal problems.

(Photo: Police officers arrest a demonstrator on August 18, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. By Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

You Go To War With The Warmongers You Have

by Freddie deBoer

Kristol

Though the left is often seen as home to only pacifists and those who see the hand of imperialism in all proposed military action, there is also a healthy strain of messianic militarism on our side. I regularly engage with lefties who believe we should be “doing something” for the people of Syria, although what that something entails is not consistent or clear. In this telling, the Syrian uprising is a legitimate revolutionary force, the Islamists among them a small corruption that doesn’t jeopardize a post-Assad future, and the situation such that the United States could deploy military power in a way that increases stability and humanitarian outcomes rather than degrades them. These lefties believe in revolution, and they want the United States to be a revolutionary power.

Well, I would simply start by asking: is the United States military in the habit of supporting revolutionaries? What about the history of this country compels you to think that it has the capacity to support revolution, or any interest in doing so? If the United States goes to war, it doesn’t go with some hypothetical benevolent military machine. It goes to war with its actual existing military machine, under the auspices of the same-old warmongering politicians and officials, and with the same old military leadership. We don’t have some spare revolutionary force lying around. So: do you want to break bread with those people? Do you want to give your support to them? Do you want them to do what they do? Because that is a necessary precondition of getting involved. The neocons who want us to get into every war are not suddenly going to throw up their hands and say “we’re sitting this one out, the lefties have got it.” You are free to say that you don’t want to get involved with Bill Kristol and his cronies. But they will most certainly get involved in your war.

There are more arguments against intervening in Syria than I can count. The first and most salient is the only argument we need against calls for more righteous bloodletting: should implies can. The United States went to war under ostensibly humanitarian pretenses in Iraq. We had over 100,000 troops stationed there, and the result was a humanitarian calamity, limitless slaughter. We sent cruise missiles to liberate the people of Libya, and the country has descended into civil war and chaos. Saying that we should free the Syrian people implies that we can. But for now, I want left-wing advocates of military intervention in Syria to recognize: anything that the United States does, will be done in the way that the United States always does it. This will not suddenly become the country you want it to be. And no matter how much you wish it were different, you will be lying down with the Tony Blairs and the Dick Cheneys and the Weekly Standards and the Commentarys. They will be getting involved, and they will exercise more control than you ever can. That’s reality.

Back in a rare moment of clarity, before quickly rediscovering his cruise missile liberalism, Peter Beinart wrote an apology for his previous support for the war. He explained that he had come to learn “a painful realization about the United States: We can’t be the country those Iraqis wanted us to be. We lack the wisdom and the virtue to remake the world through preventive war.” That was true then, and it’s true now. Because the United States is not that country. Because everything about our history, recent and distant, teaches you that this country does not rescue. It doesn’t liberate. It supports dictatorships, destroys enemies, secures resources, destabilizes countries, drops ordnance, and generally imposes its will. But it does not liberate, and no amount of wishing will make it the kind of power you want it to be.

(Image from HuffPo’s “True Chyrons For Bush-Era Iraq War ‘Experts’“)

Is Edward Snowden the World’s Dumbest Spy?

by Freddie deBoer

Michael B. Kelley thinks he might be! Such a fine line between espionage mastermind and espionage incompetent. Kelley does a deep dive into Snowden’s interviews and, with the help of some very, very willful reading and powerful cognitive dissonance, concludes that Snowden has distributed essential intelligence to those commies in Russia and China.

Well, actually, that’s not quite true. Kelley admits that he doesn’t know whether Snowden has done any such thing. He just waits until the long piece’s third-to-last paragraph to make that admission. “Fifteen months after his epic heist, we still don’t know if Snowden was telling the truth when he said he destroyed the tier 3 documents between June 12 (the SCMP leak) and June 23 (the flight to Moscow).” I would call that a fairly important qualifier! I think you’ve buried your lede here, Michael. I mean, if you’re writing a piece about how you think somebody leaked something, but you have a paragraph where you admit that you have no evidence that he in fact leaked that something, you might want to put that up near the top. Just a thought.

Kelley is part of the professional Edward Snowden skepticism circuit, which has kept a lot of “National Security Experts” gainfully employed. (Stimulus!) But Kelley isn’t a part of the knuckle-dragging, “hang his lifeless carcass from the Pentagon flagpole” school of anti-Snowden rhetoric. Instead, he’s part of another class of Snowden critics, the Snowden concern trolls. It’s carrying water for the national security state, just for the sophisticates. In this genre, you cast your aspersions on Snowden, intimate he’s a Russian or Chinese spy, or that he’s been duped by Russian or Chinese spies, or that he’s so deluded he doesn’t know he’s fallen into the trap of the Russians or Chinese. But you do it all while hemming and hawing and giving a little sugar to the people who don’t think we should have a limitless domestic surveillance system. You undermine him and what he’s done, but you do it with a veneer of journalistic objectivity.

But I said that Kelley must think Snowden is the world’s dumbest spy. Here’s Kelley’s thesis: Snowden stole three types of documents, Tier 1, Tier 2, and Tier 3. The first two have a legitimate whistle blowing purpose, and Kelley concedes that someone could steal them out of legitimate civil liberties concerns. But Tier 3, in Kelley’s view, has no legitimate white blowing value, and so the only reason to steal them is to give them to the Russians or the Chinese. Or sell them to the Russians or the Chinese. And Snowden has wound up in… drum roll please… China and Russia.

Now, as Kelley is perfectly aware, it would have been incredibly easy for Snowden to have simply gotten the Tier 3 files and given them to a foreign government. For an encryption and communications expert like Snowden, it would have been no great difficulty to send those files securely online… or, you know, send a flash drive via UPS. That’s part of the great scandal here: that somebody like Snowden had such carte blanche to explore the domestic surveillance files of the NSA, and that he was able to walk out of there with so much information without anyone noticing. Indeed: were I interested in keeping the NSA’s secrets, I’d be a lot more worried about all of the other contractors I don’t know about than I am about the one I do know about. So since he knows Snowden could have easily taken the info and run without ever telling the world, he has to come up with a version where Snowden either legitimately wanted to blow the whistle on the NSA and then also wanted to give intelligence to the Russians and China so he fled there, or where Snowden acted like a whistle blower just to hurt the USA’s legitimacy and fled to Russia and China to share the Tier 3 documents with them.

Both of these are really dumb. If he was both legitimately interested in spreading the word about the NSA’s illegal activities but wanted to also help America’s antagonists, whether for money or any other motive, then he’d have hurt the value of the Tier 3 documents by going public. When you tell the world that you’ve gotten your hands on some explosive documents, and you tell the government agency you took them from what you took, then those files become much less valuable. The espionage value of intelligence that the other side knows you’ve shared is far lower. And if the whistle blowing is all a con as part of an elaborate scheme to hurt the United States, hiding out in China and Russia is the very worst thing he could have done. Does Michael Kelley really think that the Chinese and Russian intelligence services are that bad at their jobs? If this was all some elaborate plan to discredit the United States, would Russia’s spy agencies really say to Snowden, “make sure you hide out in China and Russia– that’ll  add to your credibility with the American people”? How dumb would they and he have to be, if that was the plan? Indeed, the fact that Snowden ended up in those countries makes it much less likely he’s a spy. If he were a spy, he’d have fled someplace way less suspicious.

Given that, by his own admission, Kelley has no evidence that Snowden shared damaging intelligence materials with any other foreign governments, and given that if he were a spy, he’d be doing a terrible job of it, I conclude that in fact Snowden is who he says he is: a whistle blower, one who fled to China and then Russia because he was on the run from an American government that would like very much to throw him in some closet somewhere, preferably in a friendly dictatorship where he could be tortured. Was it a good idea to go to China in the first place? I have no idea. I’ve never been on the run from the world’s most powerful country. And I have no idea what conditions Snowden was under when he grabbed those documents, if he had much choice, or what was on his mind. I do know that he’s in Russia because he’s been trapped there by our government, and that if he’s a spy, he’s gotta be the world’s worst.

Israel Has Been Singled Out by Israel’s Defenders, Ctd

by Freddie deBoer

A reader shares some very typical sentiments in a criticism of my piece yesterday on the “why do you single Israel out?” narrative:

I’m  a Jewish American who is not at all afraid to criticize Israel, particularly with respect to its settlements in the West Bank.  As I mention to friends whenever Israel is being discussed, there are plenty of Israelis who completely disagree with the Netanyahu administration and many current policies of the Israeli government, so no reason we in the U.S. can’t do the same.

That said, deBoer’s argument is wanting on several fronts, two of which I will address here because they are the most egregious, and interrelated in many ways.  First, deBoer makes no mention whatsoever of anything that Hamas may have done to provoke the recent violence, as if the entire situation is 100% the fault of Israel.  I sometimes disagree with Andrew about Israel, but I respect his opinion and am open to be persuaded by his arguments because he always makes clear that he condemns what Hamas (or others) have done, and explains that he understands the larger historical context that Israel (and Jews) operate under, even if he disagrees with their conclusions.  I see no similar effort by deBoer, and if the effort is to persuade someone with his writing, it causes me to completely tune him out, because he gives the impression that he only sees this conflict from one perspective, i.e., Israel=bad/evil, Hamas=oppressed/innocent.

This is a very common rhetorical ploy: why do you not mention Hamas’s problems when you mention Israel’s? Well, first, that’s the very argument of my post: that we bear responsibility for Israel’s actions because we enable them to a degree that is completely unprecedented in American history, and so we are responsible for them. That simply is not true of Hamas. Not remotely. Second, the idea that we should always take pains to achieve balance in our criticism of Israel– a kind of “one for you, and one for me,” reciprocal approach”– is fundamentally misguided, because it misrepresents the reality of official support for Israel and for Hamas. Support for Israel is as close to unanimous in national American politics as you can get, despite the fact that public polling shows a great deal of criticism from America’s people. Essentially all of our legislature and our executive will support Israel’s actions literally without exception. In this recent conflict, the vast majority of those killed have been civilians, by absolutely anyone’s reckoning, including within the Israel media. Hundreds of children have been killed. That has not changed the elite political consensus one iota. Meanwhile, the number of American politicians who support Hamas is exactly zero. Such a person does not exist in our Congress. So who exactly am I supposed to be scolding for supporting Hamas? Why would I bother to criticize the side that has no establishment political support whatsoever, when the other side has slaughtered hundreds of children and lost no face with America’s political class? This emailer is operating under a broken understanding of political responsibility:

Second, I understand deBoer’s point about people here in the U.S. being able to single out Israel for criticism because of how much moral and financial support the U.S. provides to Israel, but his complete dismissal of any possibility of anti-Semitism is simply naive and, again, makes me question his entire perspective.  Does he not see the news about supposed anti-Israel rallies in Europe turning into pogroms against synagogues and Jews there?  Modern Orthodox friends of mine traveling to Europe this summer, even the UK, wear hats in public so they don’t invoke the ire of residents there.  Is there no anti-Semitism in this lashing out at Jews who have no direct connection to Israel?  deBoer completely dismisses the notion that there could possibly be anti-Semitism behind at least some of the criticism lobbed at Israel.  Again, this is in contrast with Andrew, because he always acknowledges the reality of anti-Semitism, particularly in Europe where it should be particularly concerning for anyone with a modicum of knowledge of history, both recent and ancient, to see graffiti and violence condemning Jews.

The reasoning is again the same: the political establishment of my country, which is my responsibility, is entirely opposed to anti-Semitism. I don’t doubt that there is hatred of Jews lurking around out there, but there is no one– literally no public figure of any importance whatsoever, whether politician or celebrity– who would ever publicly express anti-Semitic remarks, unless they’re interested in committing reputation suicide. If they did, they would be rightfully cast out and reviled. Meanwhile, hatred of Muslims and Arabs generally, and Palestinians specifically, is an absolutely mainstream phenomenon. Republicans in Congress spew hatred and venom for Muslims and Palestinians daily. Can you imagine if a celebrity said “Jews deserve to die,” the way Joan Rivers said Palestinians deserve to die? Can you imagine a celebrity saying that Israelis are like a crazy woman who needs to be slapped, as Bill Maher said about Hamas? No. No, you can’t imagine it, because it would never happen. Because it’s OK in public life to hate Palestinians. It’s not OK in public life to hate Jews. I don’t “balance” condemnation of Palestinian oppression with condemnation of anti-Semitism because the whole world defends the former and only a lunatic fringe defends the latter.

Nobody of importance defends Hamas’s rockets. Almost everyone of national prominence defends Israel’s right to murder children. That is the condition under which I argue, and for that reason, I will not take part in the facile exercise of mentioning Hamas’s bad deeds every time I mention Israel’s. They are not comparable phenomena:

deBoer actually makes me much more sympathetic to Israel, because unmitigated condemnations like these, without any scintilla of sympathy or perspective on what it must be like to be an Israeli, whose homeland (and fellow Jews around the world) has been the consistent target of mass genocide by your neighbors, give Israelis the distinct feeling that they are on their own and must do whatever is necessary to protect their citizens and preserve their state.

If your take on collective punishment and illegal occupation can change because I didn’t do enough to assure you that I don’t condone anti-Semitism, I would suggest you think it over a bit more.

Southland Tales: An Unappreciated Masterpiece

by Freddie deBoer

Since Andrew and the Dish team gave me carte blanche to write about what I want, I’m going to go ahead and abuse the privilege by writing a defense of a largely-forgotten, eight-year-old movie, Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales. Because when it isn’t being ignored, it’s usually being reviled, which is a crime. Southland Tales is a masterpiece.

Explaining the plot of the movie could take up thousands of words—and in fact, already has. I’ll leave it to others to explore the complex web of plot lines, references, digressions, and symbols. Suffice is to say for now that Southland Tales is the story of America in the age of terror, an America where a nuclear terrorist attack on Texas leads to a massive surveillance infrastructure, a nascent resistance movement, and the desperate search for an alternative energy source in a world where the Middle East is on fire. While American wars rage in Syria and North Korea, the sprawling USIDENT surveillance system keeps tabs on us through both sophisticated electronic means and more old fashioned, soldiers-with-telescopes techniques. Meanwhile, a genius scientist has discovered Fluid Karma, seemingly a source of unlimited free energy, drawn from the endless churn of the oceans. When we enter the scene, Dwayne Johnson’s character Boxer Santeros, a Schwarzenegger-style movie star and fiancee of a powerful Senator’s daughter, has gone missing, having lost his memory in a mysterious event in the desert. During his disappearance, he’s shacked up with Krista Now, a porn star who wants to start a new life, and sees Santeros as her ticket out. The story really gets rolling when Santeros goes on an ill-fated ride along, ostensibly to research a movie role, with a cop named Roland Taverner—or is it Ronald? Then there’s the question of Santeros and Now’s screenplay, The Power, which keeps mimicking real life….

But, well, there I go, getting into the plot without really meaning to. The movie’s like that.

You won’t understand everything happening in the movie the first time you watch it, and you aren’t really meant to. Among its many references and influences are the great film noirs of the past, and like those films Southland Tales is usually experienced in a state of mild confusion, comprehension always lagging just behind the progression of the Byzantine plot. But you don’t need to understand all of what’s going on for the themes to resonate, or to enjoy the many fantastic set pieces, which are sometimes hilarious and sometimes gorgeous. The characters are pulled into these moments in surprising ways. All of them are portrayed as at least partially comic, and yet all are allowed to entertain grandiose schemes and levels of self-importance. Wallace Shawn’s mad scientist wears the haircut of a synth player from some 80s Euro band; Cheri Oteri’s witless revolutionary/con woman makes up for her bad plans with a talent for violence; Zelda Rubinstein, the diminutive actress from the Poltergeist movies, quotes T.S. Eliot. Kelly arranges them in carefully choreographed moments that play out almost as skits within the larger narrative, and it’s here that they are allowed to achieve some sort of dignity, or at least self-determination. A staged domestic disturbance between Amy Poehler and Wood Harris from the Wire turned real shooting bleeds out into a paranoid escape across the foggy, overgrown lawns of suburban LA, set to The Pixies. The Rock, Mandy Moore, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer dance to Moby in a scene right out of your senior prom. A hallucinating Justin Timberlake, shirt covered in blood, lip syncs to the Killers in a psychedelic arcade. Gorgeous, every frame.

Like Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Southland Tales is one of the handful of greatest LA movies without being recognized as such. It’s cliched to say that a city is a character in a film, so perhaps I’ll just say that Los Angeles is a ubiquitous presence in Southland Tales. The city is at once a central concern of the film and a subtle one. There’s little about the plot, as plot, that necessitates it being shot in LA, and yet there’s no way it could have been made anywhere else. The city is alluded to in the (excellent) soundtrack and in the voiceover narration, but it reveals itself especially in the movie’s geographic expansiveness, the way it lazily stretches out across its setting. Donnie Darko, the film that made Kelly’s reputation, is a claustrophobic movie, its suburban cul-de-sacs a metaphor for a time line looped back on itself. Southland Tales, in sharp contrast, spreads out across its setting like it’s in no particular rush to get anywhere, mimicking the expansive interconnectedness it dramatizes, as vast and inescapable as the surveillance network that is at the center of both its plot and its themes. In its centerless sprawl and wide boulevards, LA works for this movie in a way that a more cramped city like New York never would.

Though it’s a 9/11 movie and a War on Terror movie and a political movie, show business is at the heart of its themes. The movie is about Hollywood the culture and Hollywood the industry, if not so much Hollywood the place (In its aesthetics, Southland Tales is much more Venice Beach than Hollywood and Vine.) In The Power, Santeros’s name is “Jericho Kane,” a reference to the Arnold Schwarzenegger schlockfest End of Days. That movie, while one of the worst Arnold ever made, is peak meta-Schwarzenegger, the dopiest and most self-important of his blockbuster career, a symbol of overstuffed action movies with overmuscled action stars. And it was the beginning of the end for Schwarzenegger as unironic action star, a relative box office dud from an actor who was once the most reliable draw in Hollywood. Kelly is interested in Hollywood people on the down swing; he’s interested in value in Hollywood, how it’s perceived and what it means. The cast is filled with actors who were seen as Grade C-types even at the time—Oteri, Jon Lovitz, John Laroquette, the guy from Highlander. I’ve heard people suggest that this means that Kelly couldn’t get bigger names in his movie, but that’s wrong; coming off of Darko, his career would have been at peak buzz. Instead, I think Kelly intentionally sought out actors who were perceived as washed up or in some sense ridiculous, like pre-Renaissance Johnson. In his movie, Kelly is working through the idea of who is allowed to be taken seriously. Sarah Michelle Gellar’s porn star character, for example, is underestimated and dismissed, despite taking part in a complex conspiracy that drags in some of the most powerful people in the world. Two feminist neo-Marxist radicals fight for revolution and respect from government officials who underestimate them. A character who fulfills one of the most reviled stereotypes we have—the rich white kid who dresses and talks like a character from a rap video, complete with ridiculous doo-rag—is given respect and compassion, playing a key role in the bravura climax, one of the most indelible visuals I’ve ever seen on screen.

All of this, I’m sure, makes the film sound deeply pretentious. If so, that’s appropriate; it’s a pretentious movie, in the best sense. The rampant fear of pretension has been one of the great mistakes of our current aesthetic era. It’s led to lots of perfectly crafted, perfectly unambitious, perfectly safe movies, the type Manohla Dargis aptly summarized, in her positive review of Southland Tales, as “elegantly art-direct murder.” We’re in an artistic age where the omnipresence of critical judgment has led so many creators to create from a defensive crouch. It’s an age of recappers and social media chatterers and Rotten Tomatoes, and so the response has been the rise of artwork designed to appease them rather than to take the kinds of risks that, sometimes, lead to transcendence. It’s the Era of the Critic Proof, the age of celebrating the perfectly fine. True Detective, Drive, Haim—I enjoy each of these, sometimes a great deal, and I’m happy they exist. But none moves me like the big shaggy mess that is Southland Tales, and in their workshopped perfection, they sand away the natural impurities that are the source of character. It’s kind of a dismal feeling, to perceive so much competence and so little risk, but in a world of towering fan entitlement and an entire industry of nitpickers, it’s probably inevitable. Here’s to the messes, and to Southland Tales.

Can Double-Blind Peer Review Be Reformed?

by Freddie deBoer

Peer review, the vetting of academic writing by subject-matter experts, is an essential element of academic progress. But the peer review process is also dysfunctional, sometimes out-and-out broken– and that brokenness stems from the well-meaning ideals peer review is meant to protect.

Gabriel Rossman wrote a fantastic piece illustrating the difficulties with peer review, and I highly urge you to read it if you are at all interested. I think Rossman is perfectly right in arguing that it’s the self-same people who complain about peer review as authors who often turn around and exemplify its worst tendencies when reviewing. As a peer reviewer myself, I try to always place myself in the position of the author, and in particular, I try never to review an article by thinking about what I would have done differently, but rather to ask if there are glaring theoretical holes, methodological errors, or problems with presentation. Far, far too much peer review becomes a matter of reviewers telling you what you should have done rather than making the work you did write better. As Rossman writes,

Rather, fixing peer review has to begin with you, the reviewer, telling yourself “maybe I would have done it another way myself, but it’s not my paper.” You need to adopt a mentality of “is it good how the author did it” rather than “how could this paper be made better” (read: how would I have done it). That is the whole of being a good reviewer, the rest is commentary.

But the particular problems with how peer review happens are less important than the basic structural problem. The fundamental issue is this. Peer review, at the vast majority of credible journals, is built on a double blind system. In order to ensure that a big name academic’s big name doesn’t get inferior work published, and so that reviewers can respond honestly without fear of retribution from people with disciplinary and institutional power, neither author nor reviewer knows the other’s name. That’s a sound idea, but it has a perverse effect, particularly given how important publishing is to an academic career. Reviewers and editors have enormous power to make or break careers; one major journal article could mean the difference between launching a professional career and having that career die on the vine. And with no knowledge of who exactly is responsible, we’re left with unaccountable power, which is never a good idea even when people are trying their best and mean well.

Though I’m talking about peer review, it’s also worth saying that this can apply to the whole academic publishing process. You might know the names of the editors you’re working with, but going public with complaints, in the event those complaints are fair and warranted, could be disastrous if you aren’t established or tenured.

For the better part of a year, I’ve been wrestling with an onerous, deeply unpleasant review process at an established journal. All editing, of course, is to some degree an unhappy business. But I’ve gotten peer reviews, even for rejections, that have been smart, fair, sympathetic, and constructive. This is not one of those times. The initial reviews were actually quite positive, though they came months after submission. I made those changes without complaint. Since then, there have been additional requests for changes again and again, each time separated by a period of months. I’ve made those changes to the best of my ability, but the requests have sometimes been unclear, rude, or worse.  These changes have been, at times, plainly contradictory of previous requests, in the most direct and unambiguous sense. It’s frequently unclear what requests for changes are coming from the peer reviewers and which are coming from the editors, or if the peer reviewers are even still involved in the process at all. At some point it became clear that I was being edited by several different editors and that these editors were not communicating with each other. I would receive questions, answer them, and get the same questions again, months later. And so on.

Is it possible that I’m just wrong, about everything, and they’re just right? Sure. But the fact is that if I was right even hypothetically, there would be no way for me to fix the problem. I don’t know who the reviewers are, so there’s no way to expect individual accountability. And as someone who lacks the benefit of employment, tenure, or prestige, speaking out publicly about the journal by name would be professional suicide. Even this missive, in and of itself, is likely to be seen as violating proper academic decorum, even though there’s no way to tell what journal I’m talking about. Under those conditions, how could we expect fairness or accountability? I think a lot of peer reviewers do a great job, and for no money. So do most journal editors, who if they are paid, are paid a pittance in most fields. It’s a lot of work. But I don’t know how to deal with problems with peer review and editing when the professional stakes are so high, the personal accountability so low, and when notions of collegiality and respect prevent people from making complaints like this one.

What makes all of this worse is that the double blind system was designed as a bulwark against the corrosive effects of power imbalances. The whole idea is that an unknown graduate student should have the same chance to publish in the biggest journals as the most respected academic celebrity. But that tenured prof can write books, publish research on his or her own web site, and be sure to receive respect and fair process from editors. Younger academics need to have their work vetted if they want to build a career, and they have to do so without complaining. The right to register grievance when grievance is warranted should be available to everyone, but the current structure of academic publishing makes that right unavailable to the most vulnerable.

I’m still plugging away on the article, but the communication has become so acrimonious that I’ve never represented the article on any of my professional documents and have essentially written off ever seeing the piece get published. Which is a shame, because I think it’s a good piece, as the reviewers did, to say nothing of the dozens of hours I’ve spent over the past year writing, researching, and revising the piece. That time represents a major opportunity cost at a critical juncture in my work and my life. And with the review process at many journals being so slow, it’s not reasonable to expect that I could withdraw the piece, get it published elsewhere, and get appropriate credit for it in time for it to help me on the job market.

Are you an academic who’s been caught in review hell? Are you a peer reviewer or editor who thinks your role is misunderstood? Or am I just full of it? Write in to dish@andrewsullivan.com and let the Dish know.

(Thumbnail Photo by Nic McPhee)