An even shorter history of Stupid — with some EM comments

January 7, 2015

A short history of Stupid: The decline of reason and why public debate makes us want to scream, (2014). Bernard Keane & Helen Razer, published by Allen & Unwin, RRP $29.99.

Bernard Keane

Bernard Keane

I am a big fan of both Crikey political editor Bernard Keane and the Saturday Paper‘s gardening writer Helen Razer. They are intellectually sharp, write with good humour and come across as eminently rational in their thinking.

Helen Razer

Helen Razer

Therefore, I was delighted to find A short history of Stupid in time to add the book to my Christmas wishlist for 2014. Yes, even über rationalist Marxist scholars have some use for Santa Claus!

Keane and Razer are friends and obviously share a dislike for stupidity in all its forms (and they are many); but they are not cut from the same cloth. Keane comes across as a socially-concerned and progressive individualist, verging on the libertarian, while Razer is more than willing to own up to her own proto-Marxist and critical feminist intellectual development. Razer is also a bit of a potty mouth, so if you are offended by the occasional use of c—t, f—k and s—t in your reading material, perhaps you should only read the chapters by the more (ahem) refined Mr Keane.

But I’m not fazed by Ms Razer’s crudities because I love her razor wit and sharp insights. Her chapter on reason and unreason is one of the best in the book and one paragraph in particular sums up her (and my) take on the psychological pressures of modern working life:

“When we fail at life as it is so broadly and meticulously prescribed, we call it mental illness. We have failed life. We are not permitted to think it is the conventions of life that have failed us.” (p. 164)

It has many good points and I recommend you read it, but A short history of Stupid is a very uneven book. This is partially because chapters are written individually and the writers have very different tones and registers in their prose; but the bigger issue is that the book doesn’t seem to really know whom its enemy is.

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Many places to hide information in the national security media

August 2, 2014

No place to hide: Snowden, Greenwald and Australia’s “national security media”

This piece was first published in New Matilda on 29 July 2014

Eyes On: The Five Eyes agreement means Australia is implicated in the global surveillance economy

Australia is about to get a new raft of national security legislation – the National Security Legislation Amendment Bill – that will radically increase the scope and powers of our spy agencies to snoop on private citizens. The justification for this ramping up of ASIO and ASIS espionage power is the supposed threat from Islamic radicals who, having fought overseas in Syria and Iraq, will be likely to import violent jihad back into Australia. It is a line run almost daily in the Australian news media over the past few weeks .

This is a tenuous justification at best. The historic evidence shows that the police – at both state and federal level – and the nation’s spooks already have ample power to deal with any real and present danger posed by jihadists. For example, Operation Pendennis, which led to the conviction of 13 alleged terrorists in 2007-2008, was conducted using existing phone-tap and other surveillance powers. Between July 2004 and November 2005, the Pendennis dragnet accumulated 16,400 hours of recordings from bugs and 98,000 telephone intercepts; but now ASIO, the Federal Police and state agencies want to sweep up even more calls and even more data.

Additional powers – to tap phones, infiltrate and hack computer networks, give spies the power to entrap suspects and to store electronic metadata for several years – are not necessary under current conditions. However, that has not stopped Attorney General George Brandis (aka “Raging Bedsore”) from touting the new laws as measures to save Australian lives and to keep safe the national interest.

Well, of course the Government – and her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition – would say that wouldn’t they? It’s no surprise that the nation’s politicians, who govern through the promotion of irrational fears and promises of a quick fix, would jump on the “more powers to the spooks” bandwagon. After all, there are votes and endorsements in “security” issues; as well as happy feelings of safety and warmth induced by the vague and unfounded notion of keeping the country out of “harm’s way” and by appearing to be “tough” on terrorists. It is the tried and true method of invoking the sexy beast Laura Norder; and in a world of uncertainty, devastation and death (think Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan Gaza, MH17 and other global hotspots) her warm, comforting embrace seems like a haven from the horror and bloodshed.

But perhaps we might have expected a little more searching, or a little more critical and independent analysis from the nation’s leading media outlets. Maybe it would not have been too much to ask for at least one correspondent or pundit to write a “think piece” about how the call for more spying and less oversight could result in less freedom, not more. Surely there is one “national security” correspondent or “defence” editor out there in the media world who feels it necessary to add a note of caution about our unthinking stumble towards Nineteen Eighty-four?

If you’ve been looking for that op-ed or the news piece quoting critics of the Government’s new legislation, you’ve no doubt been thoroughly disappointed. It is missing in action; not there, invisible and unreported. Instead what we’ve seen in the last few weeks is article after op-ed after editorial praising and supporting the unseemly rush to becoming a nation of spies and spied upon.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised at the lack of critical reporting; and, if you’ve seen Glenn Greenwald’s excellent recent book, No Place to Hide , you might be slightly and wryly amused at the lack of opposing views, but you won’t be surprised.

Greenwald has written his insider’s account of meeting Edward Snowden for the first time in a Hong Kong hotel room and coming to terms with the enormity of Snowden’s selfless action and the implications held in the treasure trove of National Security Administration data held in the cache of secrets he handed over for public scrutiny.

That story should be familiar to New Matilda readers. Unless you’ve been on Mars for the past year you will know about the NSA documents that revealed, inter alia, Australia’s spying on the Indonesians, the Americans spying on the Germans and pretty much any nation and anybody with a copper wire communication network, an Internet connection or mobile phone.

The sheer scale of snooping – billions of intercepted messages every day – is mind-boggling enough. Greenwald is convinced (and convincing) on the point that the NSA has a goal to collect every bit of electronic information that blips its way across the global communication network. He writes that the NSA mantra is “collect everything” and it is the logistics of doing this, then storing and sorting the results, that he forensically dissects in No Place to Hide.

One of the realisations that any intelligent reader of this book will come to is that the NSA and its “Five Eyes” partners (UK, New Zealand, Canada and Australia) [https://www.privacyinternational.org/reports/eyes-wide-open/understanding-the-five-eyes] could not manage the collection and sifting of so much data without the explicit cooperation of the world’s major telecommunications companies. Yep, just about everyone you deal with for your electronic data life is implicated – Yahoo, Skype, Microsoft, Apple, Google, Verizon, Dell, Facebook and countless others – everyone is scooping and sharing your data with the NSA and God knows who else.

As Edward Snowden told Greenwald during one of their first Hong Kong interviews: “I saw firsthand that the State, especially the NSA, was working hand in hand with the private tech industry to get full access to people’s communications.”

A quick reminder that Snowden was employed by the private consulting firm Booz, Allen Hamilton while working at the NSA HQ is all you need to grasp the implications of this. The entire global economy is now systemically and irrevocably enmeshed in an alliance with Governments to suck, squeeze and pulp our data in order to make the juice of profits and to keep the world safe from people like us.

That’s why it is really good to have strong individuals like Glenn Greenwald and Edward Snowden in the world today. If we relied on the mainstream media to tell us this stuff, we would never know.

No Place to Hide also provides clues as to the “Why?” of the MSM’s silence on the downsides to the creeping, all-seeing surveillance state. There’s a fantastic chapter that details the media’s complicity in not reporting, or more often mis-reporting, the actions of the NSA. The details are different, of course, but the general outline is applicable in Australia. We are experiencing the world of the “national security news media”.

The roots of the media’s complicit silence in relation to surveillance go back to the immediate political reactions to the events of “9/11”. Since that time, Greenwald writes, “the US media in general has been jingoistic and intensely loyal to the government and this hostile, sometimes viciously so, to anyone who exposed its secrets.” The same thing applies here. Even today some columnists cling to the lie of Iraqi WMD, preferring to spout the line that they just “haven’t been found yet”; more than a decade on from the disaster of Iraq some commentators refuse to see that it was a terrible mistake, built on fabrication and probably a war crime. But, history is written by the victors and its first “rough draft” is compiled by the loyal stenographers in the political press corps.

When it comes to “national security” and the surveillance state, loyal news editors and respected senior writers on policy and politics continue to toe the

When Greenwald appeared on the talk shows he was accused of helping a traitor [Snowden]

When Greenwald appeared on the talk shows he was accused of helping a traitor [Snowden]

line. When Greenwald was doing the rounds of American political talk shows, he was confronted with a wall of hostility from his journalistic colleagues: “Many US journalists resumed their accustomed role as servants to the government.” In June 2103 the story turned from the expose of “serious NSA abuses”, to one that Snowden had “betrayed” the US, “committed crimes and then ‘fled to China’”.

In Australia, the Snowden is a “traitor” line continues to be vehemently pursued in the Murdoch newspapers, which increasingly reflect a kind of Aussie-fied Tea Party ideological bent. And it is Murdoch’s The Australian that is leading the “national security”: cheer squad for Bedsore’s touted “improvements” to ASIO and ASIS spying powers. However, to be fair, the Fairfax outlets are well and truly in-line and waving the flag almost as vigorously as News Corps.

I call this proposition the “position of the complicit insider” and it’s not a new phenomenon. The political media – Press Gallery journalists in Australia – enjoy a privileged status alongside politicians, political advisors and senior bureaucrats. Reporters and commentators are often seduced by the close access they gain to the centres of power and political operators are therefore able to prevail upon them to non-disclosure of uncomfortable secrets. As well as this agreement not to rock the boat too hard in return for favours (in reality scraps of information that the insiders want revealed), political reporters feel a false sense of duty to act “responsibly” and not reveal information, or write stories that might damage some false notion of “national security”.

Anyone who regularly reads the “quality” press in Australia (including The Guardian), or who watches political chat shows on television will instantly recognize this problem.

In July 2014 we saw a good example of the supportive opinion piece genre in The Weekend Australian. Associate Editor Cameron Stewart wrote a lengthy commentary endorsing the Government’s proposed tougher surveillance powers and data retention laws . Stewart noted the “hand-wringing” of Left and liberal commentators when the then Howard Government updated and upgraded anti-terror and security laws in 2005 and added that in 2014 it was only “the Greens and a handful of human rights lawyers” who seemed to be complaining. Stewart repeats all the claims made by Bedsore and ASIO boss David Irvine that returning jihadists pose a significant danger and that the collection of electronic “metadata” is just a harmless means of identifying potential threats.

In Stewart’s worldview, any opposition to greater surveillance powers is dismissed as being an issue of concern only for “the Left” and its “prism of Cold War excesses”. Security officials are uncritically quoted about the effectiveness of metadata collection in previous terror-related prosecution. Stewart has only one area of concern: that journalists could be targeted by new provisions to prevent Snowden-style leaks. Stewart’s newspaper has never had much regard for Edward Snowden, whom it says – echoing the American view – is a traitor, not a whistleblower.

The Weekend Australian also carried an editorial supporting the boosting of security laws; ironically the paper seemed to blame communications technology for creating the need to change the law:

In the internet age, legislation governing Australia’s intelligence agencies must keep pace with terrorists’ capacity to use technology

When it comes to the Snowden materials, Greenwald makes the argument that the well-connected Washington media will never go all the way. He says it is an “unwritten rule” that only a few documents from such a vast treasure trove of secrets would be revealed, “so as to limit its impact…and then walk away, ensuring that nothing had really changed”.

This sensibility is evident in the recent Australian reporting of ASIO seeking more powers, or police breach of their own rules for eavesdropping.

A June 2014 story headlined ‘New surveillance powers aim to boost fight against terrorism’, by the Fairfax “National security correspondent” David Wroe, is framed in such a way that the move seems both natural and necessary. The lede clearly suggests that the move is necessary, “amid growing fears about the terrorism threat posed by Australians fighting in the Middle East.”

In the second par the clear distinction is made between “innocent third-party computers” and “a computer used by a suspect terrorist or criminal”, but already the scope of the powers is broadened from just a “suspect terrorist” to now include “criminal” behaviour.

The third par equates the reader’s interest with the point of view of the security services themselves by suggesting the new rules would benefit law enforcement “dramatically freeing up surveillance powers”. Of course, there’s really nothing to worry about because the new, expanded spying powers would only be used, reassuringly, “under ministerial authorisation”.

In the fifth par we are lulled to sleep with the anodyne phrase the “intelligence community” and with the further assurance that what this benign community group has “long called for” is to remove “hurdles” in the way of legitimate “investigations” and to fix a “failure of the law to keep pace with technology”.

The report goes on to tell us that the changes are based on recommendations made by a “parliamentary inquiry, last year, supported by Labor” – the appearance of bi-partisan support is meant to be reassuring too. We are reminded that the report to parliament “stressed there needed to be strict safeguards, including guarantees that the intrusion on the third party’s privacy would be minimised”.

The security community worldwide is fond of the word “minimised”. “Minimisation” is supposed to occur in the US context too, where it means that all non-relevant information is stripped from surveilled communications before it is passed on for analysis. However, as the Snowden documents reveal, in the race to “collect everything”, non-relevant data is always collected and nearly always stored, analysed and archived for later retrieval.

In other words, we cannot trust our political masters; they are probably lying to us and they are most certainly pulling the wool over the eyes of gullible “National security reporters” like David Wroe. Perhaps I’m being a bit harsh by suggesting Wroe is gullible and there is another explanation that stands up. If you are the “National security reporter” it really is not in your interests (or your employer’s) for you to run foul of the key sources who inhabit your beat. If you were to write critically about an official source, for example, the next time you call for a comment, s/he might hang up on you. More likely, their departmental boss will call your boss and you’ll be back on the shipping rounds.

Whatever the ultimate cause, the gulling of the public continues in Wroe’s June 2014 article when he pulls in a “third party” expert to assess the situation. In this case the expert is hardly an independent analyst:

Tobias Feakin, a cybersecurity expert at the Australian Strategic Police [sic] Institute, said the changes would update legislation that was ”well out of date”.

Oops, an interesting Freudian slip by David Wroe; Dr Feakin is actually attached to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and has solid ties into the defence and security establishment, including the Royal United Services Institute (a UK-based military think tank) where he was “Head of Homeland Security Capabilities” and “Director, National Security and Resilience Department” between 2006 and 2007.

Most of the time we don’t bother to check the CVs of these experts that are put in front of us, all too often without question. If “expert” and “official” sources say something then a journalist will usually just report it with stenographic accuracy and perhaps (if we’re lucky) offer up one or two tame questions to be kicked away by the expert.

Dr Feakin is particularly popular on ABC News24 where he pops up on an all too regular basis, confirming Greenwald’s central thesis about media complicity. In September 2013 Dr Feakin was used as a source in an Australian Financial Review story about the new and expensive ASIO headquarters building in Canberra. This story reveals that when ASIO and the Defence Signals Directorate (DSD) occupy their new building, private companies in the security industry will be offered the opportunity to “collocate” some of their employees alongside the nation’s senior spooks.

It is expected the centre will allow executives and security staff from select industries to share knowledge and learn from government cyber specialists…in a bid to liaise more frequently with private industry, a task DSD cannot easily do as a Department of Defence entity.

This is another classic play from the American security state experience that highlights with some certainty that the Security State needs to be enmeshed with the security industry in order to function at a high level. If you ever thought the interests of the State and of Capital were not contiguous, let this dispel you of that myth right now. The AFR article confirms it with this simple statement:

Senior intelligence officials said they remain deeply concerned about the ­vulnerabilities that exist outside a few “islands of excellence”. They said ­relatively “hardened” areas include the major banks and Telstra, which last year hired a former DSD deputy director, Mike Burgess, as its chief security officer. (emphasis added)

Dr Feakin makes an appearance in the final two paragraphs of the story and it is abundantly clear which side of the security fence this “independent” analyst sits:

[Feakin] welcomed the move to integrate private firms into the new cyber operations centre, but said companies would have to be “willing to share data with government, otherwise momentum will be lost and they won’t keep their focus on such efforts”.

The story of Dr Feakin is also a salutary lesson that we should never take for granted the so-called independence and bona fides of the experts served up to us by a complicit and compliant media.

We can expect to see more of this type of “national security news” over the coming months as the new expanded spying power legislation is passed and bedded in. If you want to really know what’s going on, look beyond the mainstream media, which has decided to enjoy the comforts of the insider and to lull the rest of us into a false sense of security.

Remember, there really is no place to hide any longer.

 


Dr Windschuttle and Mr Windbag: Part 1 -left brain/right no brainer

June 3, 2012

Keith Windschuttle has become one of The Australian‘s go-to-guys in the 2012 version of media wars. The weekend edition of the national broadsheet has yet another self-indulgent full page devoted to slamming the Leftist bias of media and journalism academics and defending climate sceptics from the alleged bias of journalists who are in the camp of ‘climate alarmists’ (2 June, 2012).

And there’s yet another piece by Chris Merritt in which the rampant narcissism of Chris Mitchell is on display. In Death threats are just par for the course, journalists are interviewed about threats they’ve received. The point of the piece is to belittle allegations that climate scientists might have been threatened:

Death threats and vile abuse are real. They infect the daily lives of key players in the debate over climate change. But it’s not what you think: the main recipients of this torrent of abuse are not climate scientists.

No, Merritt tells us, it is the brave News limited ‘journalists’ who are mainly in the firing line here; those who dare to challenge orthodoxy (ferfucksake!) The only non News Limited source is 2GB’s Ray Hadley.

In this piece we hear from those giants of journalism Tim Blair and Andrew Bolt, both on the News Limited payroll. It seems they too have received death threats, or as Blair put it “death wishes”. Hedley Thomas (on the staff of The Australian) is also quoted and the final example is Tom Dusevic (yep). We even hear from the editor-in-grief, Mr Mitchell.

In a story which runs for 997 words, 204 are devoted to Chris Mitchell.

Are The Australian‘s journalists under orders to interview Mitchell on a weekly basis? Or are they so immersed in the paper’s groupthink that they can put words in his mouth and ‘interview the keyboard’ so to speak?

[EM update: On Monday morning after this post was published, there’s nearly a full page devoted to lauding Mitchell’s leadership of The Australian and his 20 year anniversary at the paper. Sort of makes my point.

“This might sound arrogant,” the editor-in-chief of The Australian says in a moment of reflection, “But I have never felt a need to prove myself.”]

Really? Either way, Mitchell is the only editor in the country who makes a habit of passing on his wisdom in such a persistent fashion. And no Chris, it does not come as a surprise that you’ve received death threats. It’s too bad those wimpy climate scientists don’t have your intestinal fortitude.

…after 20 years of abuse and threats, Mitchell has some advice: “These climate scientists need to harden up.”

Editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell quoted again in his own newspaper

We are used to this parade of mediocrity and I am now in the habit of rising expectantly on a Saturday morning knowing that I will find something in The Weekend Australian to amuse me with a pot of coffee and my bacon sandwich.

So it was today with Dr Windschuttle and Mr Windbag.

Mr Windbag demonstrating his reading ability

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Wikileaks – an enemy of the State, just like Little Brother

April 7, 2010

The semi-underground Wikileaks site has become a news story in the last 48 hours thanks to the disturbing video of two Reuters staffers being gunned down in Baghdad in 2007.

Last year the site was named as the Amnesty International new media site of the year.

The April 2010 video released by Wikileaks [available at EM here] shows a group of Iraqis walking in a neighbourhood where the American military was staging a large “counter-insurgency” operation.

The Reuters men were there to cover the story on the ground. Unfortunately two trigger-happy Apache pilots mistook a telephoto lens for an AK47 and opened fire. Twelve people were killed, two children were wounded.

Wikileaks used a crowd source of hackers to decode the encryption on the Apache “gun camera” footage that was leaked to them by whistleblowers.

Now the US military and its Washington think-tank apologists are trying to hose down the story and imply that the Apache pilots were only doing their jobs.

No surprises there; but I didn’t know that in 2008 the American military machine has also listed Wikileaks as an enemy of the State.

This document is a classified (SECRET/NOFORN) 32 page U.S. counterintelligence investigation into WikiLeaks. “The possibility that current employees or moles within DoD or elsewhere in the U.S. government are providing sensitive or classified information to WikiLeaks.org cannot be ruled out”. It concocts a plan to fatally marginalize the organization. Since WikiLeaks uses “trust as a center of gravity by protecting the anonymity and identity of the insiders, leakers or whistleblowers”, the report recommends “The identification, exposure, termination of employment, criminal prosecution, legal action against current or former insiders, leakers, or whistleblowers could potentially damage or destroy this center of gravity and deter others considering similar actions from using the WikiLeaks.org Web site”. [the document is no longer available at Wikileaks]

This is bizarre and shows just how twisted the whole concept of “homeland security” is. It reminds me of the plot in a great Cory Doctorow novel I’m reading at the moment: Little Brother.

In this book, the hero Marcus Yarrow faces down the Department of Homeland Security after a terrorist bomb destroys the Oakland Bay bridge in San Francisco. The DHS locks down the city and ups the surveillance in school classrooms, on the street and via electronic devices so that everyone is under their gaze 24/7 (almost).

Yarrow is a 17 year-old school kid who’s into online gaming and computer coding. After his illegal detention by DHS agents, Marcus and his friends organise a jamming campaign using darknet software that plays on the Xbox.

In an interesting twist, Marcus and his family seek the help of a dead trees “investigative journalist” to expose the DHS clampdown on civil liberties.

I find this interesting because it possibly shows the limits of social media in terms of making a really big story public and driving public opinion.

It’s probably also a comment on the age gap. Yarrow’s father is old school so doesn’t understand the jamming culture of his kid.

I haven’t quite finished Little Brother yet; but I can’t wait to get home and read the last 80 pages.

You should get hold of a copy; it’s an interesting book and an important statement about how Homeland Security has become a war against the American people. You can also check out a fan page for the book on Facebook.

Writer, blogger and cool geek Cory Doctorow

Doctorow is behind the technology and culture blog Boing Boing and I like him even more now that he’s just published an anti iPad manifesto.

In particular there’s this biting swipe at the dead tree media:

I think that the press has been all over the iPad because Apple puts on a good show, and because everyone in journalism-land is looking for a daddy figure who’ll promise them that their audience will go back to paying for their stuff.

The parallels between the military’s attitude to Wikileaks and the DHS crackdown on civil liberties is eirie.


The Arrival – magical mystery tour with bite

March 14, 2009
Red Leap's adaptation of The Arrival 2009
Red Leap’s production of The Arrival, Auckland March 2009

I’ve just been to see The Arrival a new production that’s had its world premiere at this year’s Auckland Festival.

The Arrival is a piece of physical theatre and interpretive dance created by Kate Parker and Julie Nolan with assistance from leading New Zealand dance muse Michael Parmenter (described as Movement Consultant in the programme) and set to haunting music by Andrew McMillan.

The production is based on a comic novel by Australian writer and illustrator Shaun Tan, but if you’re thinking Watchmen you’re way off.

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Listener reviews – from the archive, for the archive

February 14, 2009

I can now link to the full text of my Listener book review “The man who owns the news”. I thought I’d take the opportunity to also draw loyal readers’ attention to my previous work in the magazine. If I’m lucky, there may be more “going forward”.

For your reading pleasure, may I present:

The man who owns the news

Inside Spin

The cult of the amateur