Encircling Empire: Report #4, 23-30 September 2010

EE: Report #4, 23—30 September 2010

Encircling Empire Reports is a selection of essays, blog posts, and news reports covering a given time period. They are intended to be useful for those interested in: ● contemporary and critical political anthropology ● public anthropology ● imperialism and imperial decline ● militarism/militarization ● the political economy of the world system ● hegemony and soft power ● counterinsurgency ● revolution ● rebellion ● resistance ● protest ● activism ● advocacy ● critique.

Previous issues are listed here.

[Special thanks to John Stanton, Khadija Patel, and Guanaguanare]

Encircling Empire with Critique

A collection of small masterpieces organized under various theme headings:

“allowing institutional purposes to pre-empt our own has been destructive of life, liberty, peace and, ultimately, of civilizations. We have long walked a line between our need for social organization – as a way of satisfying various mutual needs – and becoming so attracted to the systems that serve our interests that we want to make them permanent. We move imperceptibly from associations that we control in pursuit of our ends, to organizations that become ends in themselves, and that control us in order to foster their interests…” continue

“The West’s mission is to make the world’s wealth of cultures interchangeable, and to subordinate them within the global order. Our culture, which is bereft of values, revenges itself upon the values of other cultures…” continue

“The whites too shall pass; perhaps sooner than all other tribes. Contaminate your bed, and you will one night suffocate in your own waste…” continue

Breaking the Internet in the Name of Freedom? Internet Censorship and Domestic Spying in the U.S.

U.S. Tries to Make It Easier to Wiretap the Internet,” by Charlie Savage in The New York Times speaks of Federal law enforcement and national security officials who “are preparing to seek sweeping new regulations for the Internet” that would enable all Web communication services to be wiretapped. This surveillance bill is being marshaled by the Obama administration—seeking a transparent population ruled by a secretive government.

“The bill, which the Obama administration plans to submit to lawmakers next year, raises fresh questions about how to balance security needs with protecting privacy and fostering innovation. And because security services around the world face the same problem, it could set an example that is copied globally.”

The government is seeking the following:

  • Communications services that encrypt messages must have a way to unscramble them.
  • Foreign-based providers that do business inside the United States must install a domestic office capable of performing intercepts.
  • Developers of software that enables peer-to-peer communication must redesign their service to allow interception.

Censorship of the Internet Takes Center Stage in ‘Online Infringement’ Bill,” by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), critically analyzes the “Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act” (COICA) introduced in the U.S. Senate which,

“would allow the Attorney General and the Department of Justice to break the Internet one domain at a time — by requiring domain registrars/registries, ISPs, DNS providers, and others to block Internet users from reaching certain websites. The bill would also create two Internet blacklists. The first is a list of all the websites hit with a censorship court order from the Attorney General. The second, more worrying, blacklist is a list of domain names that the Department of Justice determines — without judicial review — are ‘dedicated to infringing activities’.”

The EFF describes it as a censorship bill, broad in its scope of “infringing activities” and broad in its “solution,” which is to block entire domain names. The U.S. already blocks over 60 foreign websites, as indicated in the previous EE report. The EFF argues that COICA,

“sends the world the message that the United States approves of unilateral Internet censorship. Which governments deny their citizens access to parts of the Internet? For now, it is mostly totalitarian, profoundly anti-democratic regimes that keep their citizens from seeing the whole Internet. With this bill, the United States risks telling countries throughout the world, ‘Unilateral censorship of websites that the government doesn’t like is okay — and this is how you do it’.”

COICA would allow the government “to suppress truthful speech and could block access to a wealth of non-infringing speech,” in the name of protecting copyright, on behalf of an industry that the EFF argues only tried to break the Internet.

Wikileaks News

The Congressional Research Service in the U.S. says that the publication by Wikileaks of the Afghan War Diaries is not “criminal.” It was not unlawful to publish the information, according to the report (which can be downloaded from here). The CRS report concludes: “although unlawful acquisition of information might be subject to criminal prosecution, the publication of that information remains protected.”

In Australia, Attorney General Robert McClelland (who is apparently unaware that Julian Assange is in the UK and not Sweden) said that Australia may pressure Sweden to prosecute Julian Assange or others linked to his whistleblower website WikiLeaks if planned releases of military documents outlining the Iraq and Afghanistan wars pose a risk to serving forces. Interestingly, the Attorney General would not comment on whether Australia had already assisted “other countries” in “pursuing” Wikileaks. It would also be interesting to see the authorities try to prove that troops were endangered, and if troop safety is the high water mark for public debate, why Australia chose to endanger its troops by sending them to Afghanistan, a country that never attacked nor threatened Australia, an act which is itself a violation of international law. The Attorney General, acting as war propagandist, claimed that Australian and other troops are “placing their personal safety at risk in the interests of defending their nations [and] promoting international security,” without explaining how the Afghan mission has anything at all to do with either goal.

An independent journalist has dedicated himself to questioning, and then exposing the apparent fabrication by Jeanne Whalen of the Wall Street Journal of a supposed letter sent to Wikileaks by five human rights organizations—a letter which Wikileaks itself affirmed it never received. It appears that a few of the signatories are neither human rights organizations, nor represented by persons entitled to speak for such organizations. The WSJ refuses to provide a copy of the original letter. For more see these two articles: first, “Why is Jeanne Whalen Stonewalling Me on Her WikiLeaks Story?,” then the latest, “More Errors Found in WSJ WikiLeaks Article.”

Also interesting and informative is coverage of Julian Assange’s London press conference yesterday, which without a live feed was tweeted by the audience and tracked and then analyzed on GeorgieBC’s blog: “The City University Debate ‘Too Much Information?’

“Digital Activism” vs. “Traditional Activism”

Making a splash this past week, for reasons that are not too clear since the arguments are not all that novel, was an article by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker, “Twitter, Facebook, and social activism.”

“…Are people who log on to their Facebook page really the best hope for us all? As for Moldova’s so-called Twitter Revolution, Evgeny Morozov, a scholar at Stanford who has been the most persistent of digital evangelism’s critics, points out that Twitter had scant internal significance in Moldova, a country where very few Twitter accounts exist. Nor does it seem to have been a revolution, not least because the protests—as Anne Applebaum suggested in the Washington Post—may well have been a bit of stagecraft cooked up by the government. (In a country paranoid about Romanian revanchism, the protesters flew a Romanian flag over the Parliament building.) In the Iranian case, meanwhile, the people tweeting about the demonstrations were almost all in the West. “It is time to get Twitter’s role in the events in Iran right,” Golnaz Esfandiari wrote, this past summer, in Foreign Policy. “Simply put: There was no Twitter Revolution inside Iran.” The cadre of prominent bloggers, like Andrew Sullivan, who championed the role of social media in Iran, Esfandiari continued, misunderstood the situation.

“But there is something else at work here, in the outsized enthusiasm for social media. Fifty years after one of the most extraordinary episodes of social upheaval in American history, we seem to have forgotten what activism is.”

For some reason Wikileaks continues to be left out of articles deconstructing digital activism, which tend to instead focus on Twitter and Facebook, in other words, reducing digital activism to social media alone.

One may suspect that a lot of confusion might have been avoided if those involved in the debate chose to compare like with like: digital activism is really about spreading messages, consciousness raising, and other communication activities. Its counterpart in “traditional activism” would consist of activities such as posting flyers, making posters, producing newsletters, circulating petitions, giving radio interviews, community television, speeches and petitions…not street protests. Hacking and other forms of cyber warfare might be the digital counterpart of street protests, but this is not considered in the debates linked to below.

Also left out of the debates is any focused discussion on why “activism” is being separated out from other oppositional activities, such as armed revolution, only to lament that activism (usually represented as street protest) often fails to produce the changes sought (just like digital activism, which for some reason is more readily likened to slacktivism). Yes, it is very easy to merely click “like” in Facebook; likewise, it is just as easy to merely wear a button or patch on one’s jacket. It is difficult to understand why signing a paper petition is less slacktivist than signing an electronic petition.

At some point, when we get past the intellectual cul-de-sacs brought on by technological faddism, we might have a discussion that is just focused on activism, less obsessed with the medium or having to apologize for using electronic media.

Critical responses to Gladwell’s piece, which tends to diminish digital activism for the weak ties, decentralization, lack of hierarchy, and ease of use fostered by social media, can be found in several pieces (and in each case I recommend spending time reading the comments):

“The False Poles of Digital and Traditional Activism,” by Jillian C. York

“…by drawing a distinct line between “traditional” and “digital” (or online and offline, if you prefer) activism, pundits and journalists are doing a disservice to both the utility of digital tools and to the resilience of traditional advocacy.”

York also also asks if activists should not to turn down funding from the U.S. government aimed at pro-democracy activists in the Arab world. She gets is challenged on this by a noted Arab activist and writer.

The Economist also joined the side criticizing Gladwell, with “Information: Can you social network your way to revolution?

“…I think Mr Gladwell misses a number of crucial things. One mistake is to assume that social media merely increases weak ties. In my experience, it strengthens ties generally. Networks like Twitter and Facebook reduce the cost of minor interactions, which leads to more minor interactions. Mr Gladwell sees this and notes the rise in minor interactions between thousands of quasi-friends. What he misses is that repeated minor actions are also the means by which stronger relationships are kept strong. These platforms make it easier to maintain friendships through trying times and circumstances.

“Another of his errors comes from downplaying the significance of resilience and redundance. The problem with a hierarchical system is that it breaks easily and catastrophically. If its leader makes a mistake or is somehow neutralised, the movement suffers a crucial blow. Networks, on the other hand, are bottom-up enterprises. They’re very difficult to shut-down or break….”

Another critical piece, which consists entirely of a roundup of readers’ comments, is “Your (Brilliant) Responses to Gladwell on Social Media and Activism,” compiled by Alexis Madrigal at The Atlantic.

Marginal Revolution has a short piece, which is more notable for the great many interesting comments it provoked, in “Will social networks boost good political change?

“Shirky considers this [web-based] model of activism an upgrade. But it is simply a form of organizing which favors the weak-tie connections that give us access to information over the strong-tie connections that help us persevere in the face of danger. It shifts our energies from organizations that promote strategic and disciplined activity and toward those which promote resilience and adaptability. It makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact. The instruments of social media are well suited to making the existing social order more efficient. They are not a natural enemy of the status quo. If you are of the opinion that all the world needs is a little buffing around the edges, this should not trouble you. But if you think that there are still lunch counters out there that need integrating it ought to give you pause.”

News from the State of Secrecy: Targeting Citizens for Assassination; Book Burning at the Pentagon

One of several articles on the subject written by Glenn Greenwald at Salon.com, this is another astonishing expose that makes one wonder why everyone is not talking about subjects like these all the time: “Obama argues his assassination program is a ‘state secret’.”

“…the Obama administration has just reached an all-new low in its abysmal civil liberties record. In response to the lawsuit filed by Anwar Awlaki’s father asking a court to enjoin the President from assassinating his son, a U.S. citizen, without any due process, the administration late last night, according to The Washington Post, filed a brief asking the court to dismiss the lawsuit without hearing the merits of the claims….what’s most notable here is that one of the arguments the Obama DOJ raises to demand dismissal of this lawsuit is ;state secrets;:  in other words, not only does the President have the right to sentence Americans to death with no due process or charges of any kind, but his decisions as to who will be killed and why he wants them dead are ‘state secrets,’ and thus no court may adjudicate their legality.”

“If the President has the power to order American citizens killed with no due process, and to do so in such complete secrecy that no courts can even review his decisions, then what doesn’t he have the power to do?”

There is no question that Awlaki is to be denied a trial. While a DOJ spokesman said that Awlaki “should surrender to American authorities and return to the United States, where he will be held accountable for his actions,” the fact is that he has not been charged with any crimes. He is to be killed, period. Obama feels that is his right—not granted by the Constitution, indeed, a direct violation of his oath of office—and that no court should review his decisions, nor should anyone know which citizens have been placed on the death list.

Pentagon destroys thousands of copies of Army officer’s memoir,” shows us the Pentagon burning books in the name of—you guessed it—“national security.” Ten thousand copies, the entire first run of Operation Dark Heart by Army Reserve Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer, were purchased and then burned by the Pentagon. A “new and improved” edition will be out soon, with whole sentences and paragraphs blacked out from start to finish. Wikileaks to the rescue? In response to this story, Wikileaks’ official communication point with the public, via Twitter, stated: “Burn all the books you want, Nazi punks. We already have a copy.”

The False Dilemmas of Obama: Prisoner of His Own Militarism

Bob Woodward published a series of articles in The Washington Post this week, as a kind of preview of his new book, Obama’s Wars. They paint a picture of a President who is boxed into a corner by generals and admirals, rather mendacious and aggressive ones at that, which seems to be a bit of a whitewash on Woodward’s part (note the degree of official helpfulness he received from the White House in securing access to notes and interviews). Obama makes distant reference to the American people, and those opposed to a troop increase for Afghanistan, but does not bring them in to discuss options with him. Instead, he complains to the military that they do what? That they provide only one option: more troops. Unless Obama is taking orders from the Pentagon, the narrowing of options was entirely his own doing, something that Woodward definitely suffocates in his presentation of events.

Perhaps the most interesting revelation in the articles is that Obama’s Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel (who, interestingly, resigned this week–after years of campaigning for Obama and working behind the scenes in Chicago politics to place Obama where he is now) was quite opposed to any deeper engagement in Afghanistan. He called the war “political flypaper,” and saw it as potentially dooming Obama. Moreover, Emanuel complained that while the war would get tens of billions of dollars, he had to scrounge for a few million for domestic social projects. No longer a worry for Emanuel, he has jumped ship.

For more, see in particular:

Military thwarted president seeking choice in Afghanistan.”

Biden warned Obama during Afghan war review not to get ‘locked into Vietnam’.”

Human Terrain System News from the Embedded and Military Media

The following items will be discussed more in a separate posting to this site, but for now here are some links:

Human Terrain Teams: Mapping a course for a peaceful, prosperous Iraq

From HamptonRoads.com and PilotOnline.com, “Afghanistan: New Weapon in an Old War,” a four part series featuring Human Terrain Teams in Afghanistan:

Part 1: New weapon in an old war. As the cost of the war keeps climbing – in lives and money – a little-known program from Hampton Roads says more bullets are not the answer. Could the Human Terrain System help us find our way home?

Part 2: American muscle proves futile in land of extremes. Grim headlines persist even as leaders try to wage smarter war ahead of next year’s planned withdrawal.

Part 3: Building trust amid fear, one mission at a time. Social scientists navigate a human terrain with a deep moral tradition scarred by decades of bloodshed.

Part 4: In the enemy’s lair, fighting for Afghanistan’s future. Cultural scientists make inroads, but a retooling of the program puts its fate into question.