Month: November, 2010

Julian Assange and the Computer Conspiracy; “To destroy this invisible government”

(en Español)

(auf Deutsch)

(in het nederlands)

“To radically shift regime behavior we must think clearly and boldly for if we have learned anything, it is that regimes do not want to be changed. We must think beyond those who have gone before us, and discover technological changes that embolden us with ways to act in which our forebears could not. Firstly we must understand what aspect of government or neocorporatist behavior we wish to change or remove. Secondly we must develop a way of thinking about this behavior that is strong enough carry us through the mire of politically distorted language, and into a position of clarity. Finally must use these insights to inspire within us and others a course of ennobling, and effective action.”

Julian Assange, “State and Terrorist Conspiracies”

The piece of writing (via) which that quote introduces is intellectually substantial, but not all that difficult to read, so you might as well take a look at it yourself. Most of the news media seems to be losing their minds over Wikileaks without actually reading these essays, even though he describes the function and aims of an organization like Wikileaks in pretty straightforward terms. But, to summarize, he begins by describing a state like the US as essentially an authoritarian conspiracy, and then reasons that the practical strategy for combating that conspiracy is to degrade its ability to conspire, to hinder its ability to “think” as a conspiratorial mind. The metaphor of a computing network is mostly implicit, but utterly crucial: he seeks to oppose the power of the state by treating it like a computer and tossing sand in its diodes.

He begins by positing that conspiracy and authoritarianism go hand in hand, arguing that since authoritarianism produces resistance to itself — to the extent that its authoritarianism becomes generally known — it can only continue to exist and function by preventing its intentions (the authorship of its authority?) from being generally known. It inevitably becomes, he argues, a conspiracy:

Authoritarian regimes give rise to forces which oppose them by pushing against the individual and collective will to freedom, truth and self realization. Plans which assist authoritarian rule, once discovered, induce resistance. Hence these plans are concealed by successful authoritarian powers. This is enough to define their behavior as conspiratorial.

The problem this creates for the government conspiracy then becomes the organizational problem it must solve: if the conspiracy must operate in secrecy, how is it to communicate, plan, make decisions, discipline itself, and transform itself to meet new challenges? The answer is: by controlling information flows. After all, if the organization has goals that can be articulated, articulating them openly exposes them to resistance. But at the same time, failing to articulate those goals to itself deprives the organization of its ability to process and advance them. Somewhere in the middle, for the authoritarian conspiracy, is the right balance of authority and conspiracy.

His model for imagining the conspiracy, then, is not at all the cliché that people mean when they sneer at someone for being a “conspiracy theorist.” After all, most the “conspiracies” we’re familiar with are pure fantasies, and because the “Elders of Zion” or James Bond’s SPECTRE have never existed, their nonexistence becomes a cudgel for beating on people that would ever use the term or the concept. For Assange, by contrast, a conspiracy is something fairly banal, simply any network of associates who act in concert by hiding their concerted association from outsiders, an authority that proceeds by preventing its activities from being visible enough to provoke counter-reaction. It might be something as dramatic as a loose coalition of conspirators working to start a war with Iraq/n, or it might simply be the banal, everyday deceptions and conspiracies of normal diplomatic procedure.

He illustrates this theoretical model by the analogy of a board with nails hammered into it and then tied together with twine:

First take some nails (“conspirators”) and hammer them into a board at random. Then take twine (“communication”) and loop it from nail to nail without breaking. Call the twine connecting two nails a link. Unbroken twine means it is possible to travel from any nail to any other nail via twine and intermediary nails…Information flows from conspirator to conspirator. Not every conspirator trusts or knows every other conspirator even though all are connected. Some are on the fringe of the conspiracy, others are central and communicate with many conspirators and others still may know only two conspirators but be a bridge between important sections or groupings of the conspiracy…

Conspirators are often discerning, for some trust and depend each other, while others say little. Important information flows frequently through some links, trivial information through others. So we expand our simple connected graph model to include not only links, but their “importance.”

Return to our board-and-nails analogy. Imagine a thick heavy cord between some nails and fine light thread between others. Call the importance, thickness or heaviness of a link its weight. Between conspirators that never communicate the weight is zero. The “importance” of communication passing through a link is difficult to evaluate apriori, since its true value depends on the outcome of the conspiracy. We simply say that the “importance” of communication contributes to the weight of a link in the most obvious way; the weight of a link is proportional to the amount of important communication flowing across it. Questions about conspiracies in general won’t require us to know the weight of any link, since that changes from conspiracy to conspiracy.

Such a network will not be organized by a flow chart, nor would it ever produce a single coherent map of itself (without thereby hastening its own collapse). It is probably fairly acephalous, as a matter of course: if it had a single head (or a singular organizing mind which could survey and map the entirety), then every conspirator would be one step from the boss and a short two steps away from every other member of the conspiracy. A certain amount of centralization is necessary, in other words (otherwise there is no conspiracy), but too much centralization makes the system vulnerable.

To use The Wire as a ready-to-hand example, imagine if Avon Barksdale was communicating directly with Bodie. All you would ever have to do is turn one person — any person — and you would be one step away from the boss, whose direct connection to everyone else in the conspiracy would allow you to sweep them all up at once.  Obviously, no effective conspiracy would ever function this way. Remember Stringer Bell’s “is you taking notes on a criminal fucking conspiracy?” To function effectively, the primary authority has to be disassociated from all other members of the conspiracy, layers of mediation which have to be as opaque as possible to everyone concerned (which a paper trail unhelpfully clarifies). But while the complexity of these linkages shield the directing authority from exposure, they also limit Avon Barksdale’s ability to control what’s going on around him. Businesses run on their paperwork! And the more walls you build around him, the less he might be able to trust his lieutenants, and the less they’ll require (or tolerate) him.

This, Assange reasons, is a way to turn a feature into a bug. And his underlying insight is simple and, I think, compelling: while an organization structured by direct and open lines of communication will be much more vulnerable to outside penetration, the more opaque it becomes to itself (as a defense against the outside gaze), the less able it will be to “think” as a system, to communicate with itself. The more conspiratorial it becomes, in a certain sense, the less effective it will be as a conspiracy. The more closed the network is to outside intrusion, the less able it is to engage with that which is outside itself (true hacker theorizing).

His thinking is not quite as abstract as all that, of course; as he quite explicitly notes, he is also understanding the functioning of the US state by analogy with successful terrorist organizations. If you’ve seen The Battle of Algiers, for example, think of how the French counter-terrorist people work to produce an organizational flow chart of the Algerian resistance movement: since they had overwhelming military superiority, their inability to crush the FLN resided in their inability to find it, an inability which the FLN strategically works to impede by decentralizing itself. Cutting off one leg of the octopus, the FLN realized, wouldn’t degrade the system as a whole if the legs all operated independently. The links between the units were the vulnerable spots for the system as a whole, so those were most closely and carefully guarded and most hotly pursued by the French. And while the French won the battle of Algiers, they lost the war, because they adopted the tactics Assange briefly mentions only to put aside:

How can we reduce the ability of a conspiracy to act?…We can split the conspiracy, reduce or eliminating important communication between a few high weight links or many low weight links. Traditional attacks on conspiratorial power groupings, such as assassination, have cut high weight links by killing, kidnapping, blackmailing or otherwise marginalizing or isolating some of the conspirators they were connected to.

This is the US’s counterterrorism strategy — find the men in charge and get ’em — but it’s not what Assange wants to do: such a program would isolate a specific version of the conspiracy and attempt to destroy the form of it that already exists, which he argues will have two important limitations. For one thing, by the time such a conspiracy has a form which can be targeted, its ability to function will be quite advanced. As he notes:

“A man in chains knows he should have acted sooner for his ability to influence the actions of the state is near its end. To deal with powerful conspiratorial actions we must think ahead and attack the process that leads to them since the actions themselves can not be dealt with.”

By the time a cancer has metastasized, in other words, antioxidents are no longer effective, and even violent chemotherapy is difficult. It’s better, then, to think about how conspiracies come into existence so as to prevent them from forming in the first place (whereas if you isolate the carcinogen early enough, you don’t need to remove the tumor after the fact). Instead, he wants to address the aggregative process itself, by impeding the principle of its reproduction: rather than trying to expose and cut particular links between particular conspirators (which does little to prevent new links from forming and may not disturb the actual functioning of the system as a whole), he wants to attack the “total conspiratorial power” of the entire system by figuring out how to reduce its total ability to share and exchange information among itself, in effect, to slow down its processing power. As he puts it:

Conspiracies are cognitive devices. They are able to outthink the same group of individuals acting alone Conspiracies take information about the world in which they operate (the conspiratorial environment), pass through the conspirators and then act on the result. We can see conspiracies as a type of device that has inputs (information about the environment), a computational network (the conspirators and their links to each other) and outputs (actions intending to change or maintain the environment).

Because he thinks of the conspiracy as a computational network, he notes in an aside that one way to weaken its cognitive ability would be to degrade the quality of its information:

Since a conspiracy is a type of cognitive device that acts on information acquired from its environment, distorting or restricting these inputs means acts based on them are likely to be misplaced. Programmers call this effect garbage in, garbage out. Usually the effect runs the other way; it is conspiracy that is the agent of deception and information restriction. In the US, the programmer’s aphorism is sometimes called “the Fox News effect”.

I’m not sure this is what he means, but it’s worth reflecting that the conspiracy’s ability to deceive others through propaganda can also be the conspiracy’s tendency to deceive itself by its own propaganda. So many people genuinely drink the Kool-Aid, after all. Would our super-spies in Afghanistan ever have been so taken in by the imposter Taliban guy if they didn’t, basically, believe their own line of propaganda, if they didn’t convince themselves — even provisionally — that we actually are winning the war against Talibothra? The same is true of WMD; while no one in possession of the facts could rationally conclude that Saddam Hussein then (or Iran now) are actually, positively in pursuit of WMD’s, this doesn’t mean that the people talking about ticking time bombs don’t actually believe that they are. It just means they are operating with bad information about the environment. Sometimes this works in their favor, but sometimes it does not: if Obama thinks Afghanistan is winnable, it may sink his presidency, for example, while the belief of his advisors that the economy would recover if the government rescued only the banks almost certainly lost the midterm elections for the Democrats (and was the death-knell for so many of the Blue Dogs who were driving that particular policy choice). Whether this actually hurts the conspiracy is unclear; those Blue Dogs might have lost their seats, but most of them will retire from public service to cushy jobs supported by the sectors they supported while they were in public service. And lots of successful politicians do nothing but fail.

This is however, not where Assange’s reasoning leads him. He decides, instead, that the most effective way to attack this kind of organization would be to make “leaks” a fundamental part of the conspiracy’s  information environment. Which is why the point is not that particular leaks are specifically effective. Wikileaks does not leak something like the “Collateral Murder” video as a way of putting an end to that particular military tactic; that would be to target a specific leg of the hydra even as it grows two more. Instead, the idea is that increasing the porousness of the conspiracy’s information system will impede its functioning, that the conspiracy will turn against itself in self-defense, clamping down on its own information flows in ways that will then impede its own cognitive function. You destroy the conspiracy, in other words, by making it so paranoid of itself that it can no longer conspire:

The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie. This must result in minimization of efficient internal communications mechanisms (an increase in cognitive “secrecy tax”) and consequent system-wide cognitive decline resulting in decreased ability to hold onto power as the environment demands adaption. Hence in a world where leaking is easy, secretive or unjust systems are nonlinearly hit relative to open, just systems. Since unjust systems, by their nature induce opponents, and in many places barely have the upper hand, mass leaking leaves them exquisitely vulnerable to those who seek to replace them with more open forms of governance.

The leak, in other words, is only the catalyst for the desired counter-overreaction; Wikileaks wants to provoke the conspiracy into turning off its own brain in response to the threat. As it tries to plug its own holes and find the leakers, he reasons, its component elements will de-synchronize from and turn against each other, de-link from the central processing network, and come undone. Even if all the elements of the conspiracy still exist, in this sense, depriving themselves of a vigorous flow of information to connect them all together as a conspiracy prevents them from acting as a conspiracy. As he puts it:

If total conspiratorial power is zero, then clearly there is no information flow between the conspirators and hence no conspiracy. A substantial increase or decrease in total conspiratorial power almost always means what we expect it to mean; an increase or decrease in the ability of the conspiracy to think, act and adapt…An authoritarian conspiracy that cannot think is powerless to preserve itself against the opponents it induces.

In this sense, most of the media commentary on the latest round of leaks has totally missed the point. After all, why are diplomatic cables being leaked? These leaks are not specifically about the war(s) at all, and most seem to simply be a broad swath of the everyday normal secrets that a security state keeps from all but its most trusted hundreds of thousands of people who have the right clearance. Which is the point: Assange is completely right that our government has conspiratorial functions. What else would you call the fact that a small percentage of our governing class governs and acts in our name according to information which is freely shared amongst them but which cannot be shared amongst their constituency? And we all probably knew that this was more or less the case; anyone who was surprised that our embassies are doing dirty, secretive, and disingenuous political work as a matter of course is naïve. But Assange is not trying to produce a journalistic scandal which will then provoke red-faced government reforms or something, precisely because no one is all that scandalized by such things any more. Instead, he is trying to strangle the links that make the conspiracy possible, to expose the necessary porousness of the American state’s conspiratorial network in hopes that the security state will then try to shrink its computational network in response, thereby making itself dumber and slower and smaller.

Early responses seem to indicate that Wikileaks is well on its way to accomplishing some of its goals. As Simon Jenkins put it (in a great piece in its own right) “The leaks have blown a hole in the framework by which states guard their secrets.” And if the diplomats quoted by Le Monde are right that, “we will never again be able to practice diplomacy like before,” this is exactly what Wikileaks was trying to do. It’s sort of pathetic hearing diplomats and government shills lament that the normal work of “diplomacy” will now be impossible, like complaining that that the guy boxing you out is making it hard to get rebounds. Poor dears. If Assange is right to point out that his organization has accomplished more state scrutiny than the entire rest of the journalistic apparatus combined, he’s right but he’s also deflecting the issue: if Wikileaks does some of the things that journalists do, it also does some very different things. Assange, as his introductory remarks indicate quite clearly, is in the business of “radically shift[ing] regime behavior.”

If Wikileaks is a different kind of organization than anything we’ve ever seen before, it’s interesting to see him put himself in line with more conventional progressivism. Assange isn’t off base, after all, when he quotes Theodore Roosevelt’s words from his 1912 Progressive party presidential platform as the epigraph to the first essay; Roosevelt realized a hundred years ago that “Behind the ostensible government sits enthroned an invisible government owing no allegiance and acknowledging no responsibility to the people,” and it was true, then too, that “To destroy this invisible government, to befoul this unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics is the first task of statesmanship.” Assange is trying to shit all over this unholy alliance in ways that the later and more radical Roosevelt would likely have commended.

It’s worth closing, then, by recalling that Roosevelt also coined the term “muckraker,” and that he did so as a term of disparagement. Quoting from Pilgrim’s Progress, he cited the example of the “Muck-Raker” who could only look down, whose perspective was so totally limited to the “muck” that it was his job to rake, he had lost all ability to see anything higher. Roosevelt, as always, is worth quoting:

In Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress you may recall the description of the Man with the Muck-rake, the man who could look no way but downward, with the muckrake in his hand; who was offered a celestial crown for his muck-rake, but who would neither look up nor regard the crown he was offered, but continued to rake to himself the filth of the floor…the Man with the Muck-rake is set forth as the example of him whose vision is fixed on carnal instead of on spiritual things. Yet he also typifies the man who in this life consistently refuses to see aught that is lofty, and fixes his eyes with solemn intentness only on that which is vile and debasing. Now, it is very necessary that we should not flinch from seeing what is s vile and debasing. There is filth on the floor, and it must be scraped up with the muck-rake; and there are times and places where this service is the most needed of all the services that can be performed. But the man who never does anything else, who never thinks or speaks or writes save of his feats with the muck-rake, speedily becomes, not a help to society, not an incitement to good, but one of the most potent forces for evil. There are, in the body politic, economic, and social, many and grave evils, and there is urgent necessity for the sternest war upon them. There should be relentless exposure of and attack upon every evil man, whether politician or business man, every evil practice, whether in politics, in business, or in social life. I hail as a benefactor every writer or speaker, every man who, on the platform, or in book, magazine, or newspaper, with merciless severity makes such attack, provided always that he in his turn remembers that the attack is of use only if it is absolutely truthful…

Roosevelt was many things when he uttered those words, but he was not wrong. There is a certain vicious amorality about the Mark Zuckerberg-ian philosophy that all transparency is always and everywhere a good thing, particularly when it’s uttered by the guy who’s busily monetizing your radical transparency. And the way most journalists “expose” secrets as a professional practice — to the extent that they do — is just as narrowly selfish: because they publicize privacy only when there is profit to be made in doing so, they keep their eyes on the valuable muck they are raking, and learn to pledge their future professional existence on a continuing and steady flow of it. In muck they trust.

According to his essay, Julian Assange is trying to do something else. Because we all basically know that the US state — like all states — is basically doing a lot of basically shady things basically all the time, simply revealing the specific ways they are doing these shady things will not be, in and of itself, a necessarily good thing. In some cases, it may be a bad thing, and in many cases, the provisional good it may do will be limited in scope. The question for an ethical human being — and Assange always emphasizes his ethics — has to be the question of what exposing secrets will actually accomplish, what good it will do, what better state of affairs it will bring about. And whether you buy his argument or not, Assange has a clearly articulated vision for how Wikileaks’ activities will “carry us through the mire of politically distorted language, and into a position of clarity,” a strategy for how exposing secrets will ultimately impede the production of future secrets. The point of Wikileaks — as Assange argues — is simply to make Wikileaks unnecessary.

“Minor descriptive touches derive from the author’s own native background in Kenya”

I’ve been waiting for Edmund Morris’ Colonel Roosevelt as long as I’ve known it was in the works. The largest and most important section of my dissertation is about Teddy Roosevelt’s big game trip in Africa, which is the part of his life covered by this, the third volume of Morris’ Pulitzer prize winning biography. And since Edmund Morris himself was born in Kenya, grew up during the Mau Mau emergency, and went to university in Apartheid South Africa, I was interested — to say the least — in seeing how he would write about Roosevelt’s African year. I don’t mean to prejudge Morris, of course, or at least I’m trying not to do that. The right wing hated his biography of Ronald Reagan so much[1] that I don’t want to rush to judgment. But the questions that present themselves are obvious.

To show my own cards a bit, my approach to Roosevelt is to peer at him through his omissions, to lay out how he constructs a positive account of “frontier settlement” less by telling positive lies than by omitting everything that doesn’t fit the picture he wants to paint of it. The easiest way to dispossess a people of their land and civic life, after all, is to forget they ever had it, or existed, and Roosevelt participates in that project enthusiastically, translating to British East Africa the amnesia by which Americans forgot the existence of the Indian nations that once formed their Western frontier. It is easier to commit genocide on people that don’t exist, don’t you know, and Roosevelt was an important link between the actual genocide of the American frontier and the genocidal spirit that motivated settler Kenya, particularly in the emergency period.

With that in mind, Morris’ engagement with Roosevelt in Africa is profoundly, though predictably, disappointing. There are a few little nuggets I’m going to steal; he’s an incredible researcher, and these books will not only stand as authoritative for the foreseeable future, but the bibliography is virtually a road map for future scholars. But that’s why I’m disappointed that he bypasses the opportunity to really dig into the year Roosevelt was in Africa, that he doesn’t so much do it wrong as he hardly does it at all. The book covers the last ten years of TR’s life, but the year he spent in Africa absorbs slightly less than 5% of the book‘s page count. But it’s not just an issue of space, although those numbers do tell part of the story. It’s an issue of narrative focus: the entire section emphasizes the presidency he’s just left and the Europe and America to which he will soon return. “Africa” is no more than a moment of interlude, an absence in which he has the opportunity to cleanse his spirit and rejuvenate his body. Africa is not a place embedded in history; it’s the absence of place, the absence of history.

It’s telling, in fact, that “The Roosevelt Africa Expedition, 1909-1910” occupies the position of a prologue in the book, outside even the main narrative. In this, it’s just like the first two volumes of the biography, which began with present-tense prologues setting the stage for the more conventional biography format to follow (Theodore Rex, for example, began with a long meditative reverie of reflection and anticipation, structured by the long train ride Roosevelt took from up-state New York to Washington where he was to be inaugurated president). Morris is brilliant at little touches like this; by placing in Roosevelt’s life in the now, we are set up to feel the more normal non-fiction prose that follows it. Rhetorically, in other words, it’s wonderful, because he‘s a wonderful writer. But it makes the trip itself no important part of the life, no more than a period of enforced meditation, a frustrating not-yet-president-but-almost journey, in which he and we are trying to get our heads around the turn of destiny that thrust Roosevelt into the position it had.

Here, the point seems similar: as Roosevelt sits on the cow-catcher of the British East Africa Railway, his thoughts are elsewhere. He is thinking back and looking forward, because here — in the ahistoric no-time that constitutes Africa — there is no “now” to imagine. While he is in British East Africa, nothing happens. Time has stopped for him, which (Morris argues) is precisely why he went.

Placing the trip outside the mainstream of Roosevelt’s life allows Morris to sidestep some of the darker connotations and consequences of the trip. It also gives us a very partial picture of how Roosevelt saw the trip himself, which I think Morris quite seriously misinterprets. He’s obviously read Roosevelt’s 1910 African Game Trails, but I suspect I’ve read it much more carefully than him, or at least with careful attention to aspects of Roosevelt’s life world that Morris has no interest in telling, and doesn‘t. The idea that, for example, that “His own continent recedes to time out of mind” as Roosevelt gazed out over the birds and flora, seems completely wrong to me; Roosevelt made constant and insistent analogies between his own country and British East Africa, and the point of those analogies is clear as day if you think about it a little. Like the American frontier, Roosevelt thought that the East African highlands were to be a white man’s country and he makes the analogy with this shared destiny in mind. And while America‘s frontier was lost in its past, Roosevelt’s trip to East Africa was a way of re-visiting his own time on the American frontier, almost thirty years earlier. As he puts it in one place, for example:

“In many ways it reminds one rather curiously of the great plains of the West, where they slope upward to the foot-hills of the Rockies. It is a white man’s country. Although under the equator, the altitude is so high that the nights are cool, and the region as a whole is very healthy. I saw many children, of the Boer immigrants, of English settlers, even of American missionaries, and they looked sound and well. Of course, there was no real identity in any feature; but again and again the landscape struck me by its general likeness to the cattle country I knew so well…Moreover, a Westerner, far better than an Easterner, could see the possibilities of the country…the settler who makes a success in similar parts of our own West, can do well in East Africa.”

He is attentive to place, here, but Roosevelt was also a historian; a year later, he would be the president of the American Historical Association, and his sense of history is central to everything he did. Which is why it’s worth noting that he was, while he was in East Africa, actively working to place it within a grand historical narrative of frontier settlement, the singular story of the vast movement of white settlers from Europe into the world’s waste places that he first rhapsodized about in The Winning of the West and which he updates here. To frame Roosevelt’s journey as ahistorical, in other words, is strikingly wrong. Roosevelt might have seen Africa as having been prehistoric before the railroad came — in the same way that Roosevelt’s “America” had no history until white people showed up — but he believed that once the railroad arrived, the place’s historical telos was the same as it was in North America, where a Turnerian frontier story of settlement gets underway quickly. And while he was interested in the parts of Africa that weren’t yet incorporated (this is his conservationist side), he was no less interested in the parts of it which were. The East Africa he visits is decidedly post-railroad.

Morris mostly ignores Roosevelt’s fast friendship with white settlement community (especially with the Afrikaaners, who he calls “the ideal type of settler for taking the lead in the spread of empire”), which is a big omission, and a simplification of an issue that was deeply complex. He does acknowledge — though, tellingly, only in a footnote — that Roosevelt’s trip, celebrity, and writings were being enlisted by the British colonial office to solidify their hold on East Africa, noting that it was hoped he could advertise what a great place to settle East Africa would be. Since the British had just opened the railroad connecting Mombasa to the Uganda lake region (and were thus extending British claims on the interior lake region, what Churchill called “the pearl of Africa”), it was important for the British to build up some kind of actual trade to transport on that railroad, to make it economically viable rather than simply a strategic link between imperial territories. Morris suggests, in that footnote, that the “eagerness of British imperialists to assist TR’s safari” derived from the “hope he would encourage settlement of the protectorate.”

But this is not so much wrong as it is profoundly inadequate. Imperial thinkers were deeply divided on the question of settlement in Africa. Winston Churchill, for example, had written a book only two years earlier in which he painted a fairly scathing picture of the settler community in Nairobi, a city he characterized as thoroughly “South African” as a way of not-so-subtly implying the settlers to be a traitorsome bunch of Boers who were likely to revolt against the good English rule of law. And they more or less were exactly that, which London knew, even then. The settlers did have lots of partisans within the colonial office, but the firing of Charles Eliot in 1905 signaled the end of the honeymoon, and from that point on, relations between Roosevelt’s hosts in Nairobi and London were frosty at best, a consistent cold war that ended when the British decided the settlers were more trouble than they were worth and got the heck out. But the point is that, even in 1907, undersecretary of state Winston Churchill was already speaking for a solidifying consensus in the colonial office that letting British East Africa take the South African path would be a huge disaster, that white settlers were not the right direction for the colony to take. And while Roosevelt surely read Churchill’s book — Roosevelt read everything — he paints a very different picture of the colony’s future than had the undersecretary of state for the colonies. For Roosevelt, the future of the colony is the American path, and it was a history that was well underway. To him, parts of the colony were still the Pleistocene, and Morris acknowledges that. But he was just as interested in the parts of the colony which were Dakota in 1883, and Morris ignores this entirely.

This omission is hardly surprising, really, but it‘s worth noting what it accomplishes. One cannot look too closely at Roosevelt’s trip in 1909 without coming to unpleasant conclusions about him as an imperial thinker, so Morris does not look too closely. One can better glorify Roosevelt if you forget how he praised the architects of one of the more brutal colonial states in Africa by using an American language of white supremacy. After all, if “white man’s country” had a meaning in colonial Africa, it had the same meaning in Jim Crow Georgia; as Ulrich B. Phillips put it in 1928, “[t]he Central Theme of Southern History” was “a common resolve, indomitably maintained that it shall be and remain a white man’s country.” Or, as we read in the Joint Committee’s 1872 report on the “Condition of Affairs in the Late Insurrectionary States,” Cornelius McBride recalled being whipped by a group of Mississippi vigilantes for running a school for former slaves in this way:

“I asked them while they were whipping me what I had done to merit that treatment. They said I wanted to make these niggers equal to the white men: that this was a white man’s country. They said, ‘God damn you! Don’t you know this is a white man’s country?”

Roosevelt knew this phrase in both contexts. And, of course, “white man’s country” didn’t just mean Jim Crow south. It also meant a California that would be free of Chinese and Japanese immigrants. It meant a Georgia cleansed of the Cherokee and a Western frontier in which “domestic dependent nations” functioned as internal colonial Bantustans for a United States that looks a lot like South Africa if you squint in just the right way. It meant racism, and it meant “America.” And to acknowledge that that’s what Teddy Roosevelt saw when he looked at East Africa, well, that isn’t just an ugly story if you happened to have been born and raised in Kenya, as Morris was. It’s also an ugly story to tell if you were raised in Teddy Roosevelt’s “white man’s country,” the United States of America.

[1] “He was truly one of the strangest men who’s ever lived…Nobody around him understood him. I, every person I interviewed, almost without exception, eventually would say, ‘You know, I could never really figure him out.'”

Higher Education Links

Angus Johnston is looking forward to a week of protests and campus occupations in the UK (Johnston is the guy to be reading for a broad-viewed perspective on student activism).

In the UK, academic pledge solidarity with students. Among them Slavoj Žižek comments:

People saying you could have delivered the same message without violence. Fuck them! Of course you can deliver the message. But nobody would hear the message. This is what they like, that 100 people gather and write a message and then you don’t even get the bottom note in the day’s paper … You have to break some windows to get the message through.

And this article from Daniel Trilling recalls Raymond Williams’ argument that

…the intellectual sleight of hand practised by critics of direct action is to overlook or obscure the root causes of public anger. In the current context, it is notable that David Cameron, fresh from a trip to China where he had been piously preaching human rights (although not to the extent that it might sour trade relations), made no significant comment on the Millbank occupation until a group of lecturers from Goldsmiths College in south London praised the “magnificent” demonstration. Their transgression, which brought swift condemnation from Downing Street, was to point out that “the real violence in this situation relates not to a smashed window but to the destructive impact of the cuts.” As Williams wrote: “The attachment to reason, to informed argument, to considered public decisions . . . requires something more than an easy rhetorical contrast with the practices of demonstration and direct action.” The point, for Williams, was not to celebrate disorder for its own sake, but to show how protest has become necessary at “those points where truth and reason and argument were systematically blocked.”

The good folks at OccupyCA, ReclaimUC, MobilizeBerkeley, and Those Who Use it will keep you up to date on what’s happening in UC-level activism.

At UC Irvine, the police officer who pulled a gun on student protesters last week was part of the posse sent to round up students chalking slogans on the ground.

Potlach on Michael Walzer and the humanities.

Yves Smith suggests that student debt could be the next big debt bubble, just as, in a laconic offhand last week, Mike Konczal noted

“That right now is the moment our country is turning toward the idea of massive indebtedness as a prerequisite toward participating in the 21st-century economy is incredibly cynical, given how much worthless debt is hanging like an albatross around the neck of this fragile recovery.”

This seems to me to be incredibly important, but the gutting of public education means that while taking on debt used to be a choice (you could always go to a much cheaper public school), students today do not have that option. Debt is impossible to avoid. Since the 80’s, the price of higher education has gone up by roughly 400% in the public universities and 500% in the privates, on average (DoE figures), but putting it in those terms misses the important point that a cheaper “public option” is now absent: public education used to be close enough to free that the rise from paying an average of a grand in the 80’s to over $4k now is the difference between getting by, then, on a minimum wage job and a handful student loans and, now, having no choice but to go massively and deeply into debt. The cost of a public education now, on average, is what the average private university charged in the early nineties.

On how grad programs become less diverse without affirmative action.

On how austerity mysteriously spares white people studies:

The college may cut 100 percent of their contribution to the Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies and the Center for East Asian Studies’ budgets, 40 percent from the Center for Mexican American Studies and 30 percent from the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, among cuts to several other academic centers…Only the Center for European Studies gained college funding — about $10,000. The largest monetary decreases hit the Center for Mexican American Studies, the John L. Warfield Center for African and African American Studies and the Center for Middle Eastern Studies.

A vastly smarter version of Stanley Fish’s “Useless gotta eat, so pay me” argument, though still one I vehemently disagree with. More on that soon.

Speaking of which, Felix Salmon kicks the hell out of Fish’s latest here; Salmon pwns Fish ftw, iow.

Berube pointed out last week that people who defend the humanities by presuming that the humanities are in decline are DOING IT WRONG:

once more with feeling, the entire premise of the segment is wrong.  Here’s Tamron Hall’s intro:  students are “now making the jump to more specialized fields like business and economics,and it’s getting worse. Just look at this:  in 2007, just 8 percent of bachelors degrees were given to disciplines in the humanities.”  So things are getting worse?  Really?  No, not really, not even according to the graphicMSNBC put up at the :13 mark (data source: the American Academy of Arts and Sciences).  Go ahead, look at it again.  I’ll wait right here.  Compared to 17.4 percent in1967, yow!  We are totally in trouble!  … except that the decline was entirely a phenomenon of the 1970s and 1980s, when the percentage dropped to about 7 percent.  And it’s been 8-9 percent for the past 20 years now.

This is similar to a point that Marth Nell Smith made in this fantastic lecture, that I can’t remember if I’ve linked to already. It’s worth watching, though the really good stuff is mostly in the second half.

Haters Gonna Hate

I’m not exactly sure who Leslie Chase was, but he disliked Theodore Roosevelt so much that after ten years of writing letters to the editors of various newspaper hating on him, he was able to publish them as a book, Rooseveltiana. Some choice selections:

President Roosevelt Goes Louis XTV One Better.

Louis XIV.: “I am the State.”

President Roosevelt: “That’s nothing. I’m the entire United States.”

Read the rest of this entry »

President of the Southern States

Out of the depths of the 80’s, Ta-Nehisi Coates unveils Hank Williams, Jr’s “If the South Woulda Won,” an absolutely astonishing hymn to how great it woulda been:

Coates laconically suggests we “Notice the whiteness of the “we,” and generally how black people do not figure in.”

Which is true, but doesn’t even scratch the surface of the crazy. Let’s start with the almost total evacuation of politics into culture: in the world of this song, the idea of Hank Williams, Jr, singing “I’d probably run  for president of the Southern States” comes to seem almost natural since the singer’s father, Hank Williams senior, has his picture on the hundred dollar bill and “the day Elvis passed way would be our national holiday” (reprised with Lynrd Skynrd and Patsy Cline). If the South woulda won, in other words, the nation woulda been defined by a sainted aristocracy of cultural heroes. Which makes some sense; such a polity has to be imagined specifically not in terms of political figures — the Lee’s, the Jackson’s, the Jefferson Davis’ etc — because those people are tainted by actual politics, the actual real world in which black people exist and were enslaved. Instead, you have to invest authenticity (and civic authority) in entertainers, who can give you the fantasy. This might be why, instead of restoring Richmond, the historical capital of the confederacy, he imagines how “we’d put that capitol back in Alabama,” whatever that means.

Some other highlights are the line “We’d put Florida on the right track, cause we’d take Miami back” — not that we’re racist or anything — and the amusing conceit that  “Southern Justice” had anything to do with proof, as in the line “If they were proven guilty, then they would swing quickly, instead of writing books and smiling’ on TV.” It’s also kind of cute that he wants to ban all the “cars made in China.” Oh, the 80’s!

But what really caught my attention was the great blast of NOLA brass from about 1:20-1:38, by far the funkiest part of the entire song. Up until that point, the closest thing we’ve gotten to syncopation is the little riff off “Dixieland” that punctuates the line “…president of the Southern States”; the rest of the song is the ploddingly dead country beat so beloved of boring musicians like him. But for about eighteen seconds in the middle of the song (and then reprised at the very end), we get a whole bunch of what is a distinctly, if not exclusively, black form of music. That’s not to say its  Rebirth or anything, just to echo what Jorgen Harris pointed out in the comments to that post, that in moments like that you see — slipping through — “how huge the influence of black southerners has been on the southern culture that CSA nostalgics are so proud of.” Which is why it’s also worth noting that when he gets to Louisiana (in his state-by-state shout out), he emphasizes “cajun cooking” which is followed by a lick of cajun fiddle music right afterward. When it comes to celebrating Louisiana, you see, it’s important that the blackness of that musical lineage be displaced onto a safely white set of references, the white Acadians/Cajuns.

Which got me thinking. Who are the musicians actually playing that music? Are they white or are they black?

Not that it really matters, of course; but it would be interesting at least, if some of the session people on that track — as a commenter suggested — were not white. And the thing about the internet is that you can find out a lot of information while sitting at your kitchen table drinking coffee on a Saturday morning. So, after clicking around, I determined that — surprise! — all the horn players playing NOLA style brass music are white.

I started with Wikipedia, which tells us that the horn section consisted of Herbert Bruce, Ray Carroll, Quitman Dennis, Jack Hale, Michael Haynes, Jim Horn, Jerry McKinney. Herbert Bruce (trombone) is white. Ray Carroll (trumpet) was a longtime member of the Nashville Brass (whose recordings he now sells on the internet), and if this album cover is any indication, he is white. Quitman Dennis was harder, but via this account of Bobby Darin’s last concert, I determined that Dennis was one of the four backing musicians at that show, and in this clip of that show, you can see his glorious caucasionicity shining forth as he plays bass (he was a bassist as well as a sax player and arranger for Darin). Jack Hale is white. Jerry McKinney (saxophone) is a white guy, as I determined from this video of “Larry Raspberry and the High Steppers.” Jim Horn (baritone saxophone), is a white sax player who played sax on Pet Sounds, it appears. And finally, Michael Haynes… Well, when I found out he played trumpet with Confederate Railroad, I lost interest in searching any further.

So there’s that.

“The fear in his eyes was the scariest thing”

A student who was in the crowd — but wishes to remain anonymous — wrote this account of what happened with Officer Kemper:

What I saw is an officer who got confused, separated from his unit, and something told him that the only way out was violence. His way back to his unit was blocked by protesters, but they were being hit and pepper sprayed so they were not surging toward him but away from the rest of the police at the bottom of the stairs. He charged someone with his baton out and when he lost control of it, someone immediately tossed it to his feet. By that point, though, he was drawing his gun. At no point did anyone advance on him. Even when he had his baton back in his belt he did not holster his gun. What surprised me is that he immediately was allowed to go back out on the line face-to-face with protesters. He clearly was not fit to do his job at that point, but when people tried to speak to the officer in charge Acuna, he shrugged his shoulders and said, “So?”

The fear in his eyes was the scariest thing; that and his inability to properly use his weapon. He was waving the gun around the crowd, without perceiving an actual threat. It is my understanding that police only should draw their guns when there is a weapon present. Obviously this was not the case, and after several minutes of scanning the crowd with his gun drawn he should have known that. He holstered his weapon, but then pulled it out again when the chants around him became more heated. Still no weapon, still no advancing protesters. No threat except numbers of angry unarmed people who had just had their lives threatened for trying to get inside a building using only their bodies.

I think that this marks a definite escalation in the police response to the movement for public education. That, coupled with the system-wide militarization of campuses this week, means that we are getting closer to being as effective as we want to be. The amount of surveillance that has been done over the last year will not help the administration in pacifying the movement. It will only give people more reason to be angry and act on that anger. But we cannot expect them to stop. This week, people have been accused of inciting violence against police by putting up a flier about Officer Kemper, followed to and from their classes, given meaningless and false citations on campus, and even had UCPD visit their houses to tell them they are being watched. It is difficult not to be afraid or paranoid, especially when lives are threatened, but letting the armed forces of the administration, Regents and the state control our advances toward public education can only hurt us.

“You can pretend not to hear me but I’m right here”


From 0:54 – 1:32:

First speaker: Kemper, seriously, like, you are going way too violent. You need to calm down.

Second Speaker: You should go home. You should tell the officer in charge that you want to go home because you should go home. Because what you just did was ridiculous and you know it. Tell them you want to go home. There’s plenty of police. You don’t need to be a hero right now. You just pulled a gun on unarmed people. You should probably go home. I’m serious. I’m talking to you person to person right now and you should go home. You can pretend not to hear me but I’m right here. Yeah, of course, of course you’re supposed to not respond or whatever, but you need to go home. You are not emotionally fit right now. You’re unstable right now. Go home.

“They are not here to hurt you”


“It’s very sad to see how the UC students are being treated outside,” Claudia Magana, president of the statewide UC Student Assn., told the regents. “They are not here to hurt you.”

But it was self-defense! KTVU debunks the claim:

Director Peter King, director of media relations at the UC Office of the President, claims Kemper was beaten with his own baton and drew his weapon in self-defense. However, KTVU’s video of the incident appears to conflict with this account. In the video, Kemper seems to lose his baton while trying to push through a crowd of sign-wielding demonstrators and draws his pistol shortly thereafter.

You can see that video here. As Angus Johnston notes,

In the video, posted on the Chronicle‘s website, the officer lunges into a crowd which is surging toward him. With his baton held in both hands in front of him, he tussles briefly with one protester. For most of the scuffle, which lasts for less than five seconds, the baton is visible in his possession. As he breaks away from the protester he is clutching the baton in his left hand, and he only draws his gun after the baton has fallen from his grasp to the floor behind him. The officer’s helmeted head is visible throughout the altercation with the protester, and there is no indication that he is ever struck with the baton or any other object.

As KTVU reports, “a UC Merced student is being charged with assault on a peace officer with a deadly weapon as a result of the incident.” To recap: when a fantasy student attacks a “peace” officer with an imaginary baton, it is assault with a deadly weapon. When this servant and defender of the public attacks a student with a baton, it is, as UCSF police Chief Pamela Roskowski put it, an example of how the police “showed great restraint” and “conducted themselves very well”:

I’m not trying to say this is or isn’t police brutality. But what it isn’t is a clear cut case of virtuous police being attacked by protesters, which is what the police and the regents want it to be. They want to demonize the protesters, making the effort to enter what is still ostensibly a “public meeting” into a crime worthy of violent retaliation.

An open letter demanding that the Office of the Presidency explain its fiction writing.

And more video from the protest outside:

Proportionate Use of Force

The UC regents are meeting today and tomorrow to vote on further fee hikes. This is a police officer drawing his firearm on protesters this morning. Nothing can go wrong with that!

For details, see here, here, here.

Also pepper spray:

Update: These pictures are powerful. But they enclose only part of what’s happening, framing only a tiny and heavily edited version of the larger event. Are the protesters a mob of pitchfork wielding barbarians? Or are they just standing there holding signs? All we know is that a policeman pulled out a firearm, and that the protesters had pepper spray doused at them. But anyone who draws a firearm without intending to use and except as a last resort it is a fool, and a dangerous one. And firing pepper spray into a crowd is quite a thing.

Some video of officer Kemper here, though only from a certain point. Ask yourself when you watch it: was he ever in danger for his life? Guns go off. This is not a cowboy movie. People can die. If he had fired into the crowd, would it have been anything but a scared cop who preferred to kill rather than lose control? Framing is important.

Here’s another edited version of the larger story, a tweet from a Contra Costa reporter:

New numbers from UC: 13 arrests, incl. 11 students. 1 felony charge (assault on officer), 12 misdemeanors. 3 officers injured.

Categories are powerful. There are no injured students here. And police do not get charged with crimes.

The Plagiarism Fetish

Lots of people are responding to this essay, by a professional writer-of-student-papers-for-them:

I’ve written toward a master’s degree in cognitive psychology, a Ph.D. in sociology, and a handful of postgraduate credits in international diplomacy. I’ve worked on bachelor’s degrees in hospitality, business administration, and accounting. I’ve written for courses in history, cinema, labor relations, pharmacology, theology, sports management, maritime security, airline services, sustainability, municipal budgeting, marketing, philosophy, ethics, Eastern religion, postmodern architecture, anthropology, literature, and public administration. I’ve attended three dozen online universities. I’ve completed 12 graduate theses of 50 pages or more. All for someone else. You’ve never heard of me, but there’s a good chance that you’ve read some of my work. I’m a hired gun, a doctor of everything, an academic mercenary. My customers are your students. I promise you that. Somebody in your classroom uses a service that you can’t detect, that you can’t defend against, that you may not even know exists.

If this guy didn’t exist, our bad conscience would have to invent him. And maybe it did. Which is why I think blaming someone misses the larger point, which is that when a system is set up to make cheating easy and profitable, someone will come along and profit from it. Treating a systemic problem moralistically accomplishes very little. So while the NY Times might want to blame the phenomenon on digital technology or “the youth” — the Times being very good at moral panic — I want to suggest that this person’s existence is simply a symptom of a basically misguided approach to what paper writing is. If you treat a paper in objective terms, as simply a thing the student conjures up magically from the bowels of their laptop, you make this sort of counterfeit easy. The easiest way for a professor to assign papers is to remove him or herself from the process, to simply say “here’s the assignment, turn it in on this date.” Which is the logic of capitalist production: you specify what you want and when you want it, but by removing yourself from the process of production, you get to transform the labor of paper writing into a monetary transaction, de-socializing and de-contextualizing the object of production. Students produce the commodity (the paper) and you pay them for it (in a grade), and whatever happens in the middle goes blissfully unexamined.

As Marx put it, a commodity is a “mysterious thing” because the labor of its production has been rendered “as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labor.” This is the commodity fetish: by severing the object from the relations of its production, you get to regard it simply as purely a function of its objective characteristics. The same is true with papers: when we treat a paper simply as an object — something we teach our students to produce and then critique objectively — we make it impossible to think in any kind of critical terms about how it was produced. In capitalist production that’s precisely the point: you want tantalum for your cell phone, but you don’t want to know about how it was produced. You want it for what it can do to make cell phones possible; precisely what you don’t want it for is its broader social meaning (or the labor that went into creating it), so you need a structure of thinking to prevent yourself from understanding how blood-soaked it is.

But what is a boon for the capitalist (who doesn’t want to worry about the labor of producing a commodity), is a dangerous exemption for the teacher: those instructions are easy for the student to pass on to the plagiarizer. When we treat papers this way, we lose the ability to know anything about how they were produced: because you’ve removed yourself so completely from the process of the paper’s production, its appearance as a finished product can only be judged in terms of its objective qualities. You can grade it, but you cannot confirm that the student wrote it because you know nothing about how it was produced. This is therefore an easy hurdle for a dedicated plagiarizer to clear.

This is not a systemic necessity; for those of us who make our own syllabi, it’s a choice, and a bad one. As Angus Johnson writes,

What’s really dismaying to me about the kerfuffle is how quick many professors have been to disclaim responsibility for addressing this problem. Four of the first six commenters on the Chronicle essay are teachers who say it’s beyond their powers to put a stop to this kind of cheating in their classrooms, that because of their class sizes or their administrations’ policies, they’re just not able to do anything about the problem.

I just don’t believe it. I just don’t believe that there’s no way for them to address the issue, that they’ve tried everything there is to try and been stymied at every turn. That just doesn’t ring true to me — not on the basis of my own experience nor in light of the comments left by other aggressively anti-cheating professors in the thread. Combating cheating and plagiarism takes inventiveness. It takes dedication. It takes flexibility. But it absolutely can be done.

I agree, and treating papers as a process rather than a product is the first step. Because focusing in on all the stages between assignment and submission — making that the focus of your intervention — transforms the problem. By requiring a series of intermediate steps which build to a final portfolio of work (and include a variety of different interventions and conferences both with me and with other students), you accomplish two things. On the one hand, it makes the paper writing process much more transparent. Plagiarism becomes both a much more labor intensive proposition and therefore much easier to detect: when a substantial paper trail is required, most students will just to write the paper themselves (and the ones who don’t will be much more easily caught). At the same time, it allows you to do exactly what it is your job to do: intervene in the process, guiding, critiquing, and being involved long before the student makes the irrevocable errors that pointing out after the fact does little or nothing to correct anyway (so many papers that students turn in were flawed from the start because the first step the student took was the wrong one; intervening earlier allows you to prevent that from happening in ways that postmortem evaluations cannot).

This takes work on the part of the professor, of course. And part of the problem is that in those enormous classes so beloved of education-as-commodity minded administrators, it becomes very difficult to be involved in students’ writing processes. Online education is the easiest place for plagiarism because the whole point of it is to break down every element of the education “production” process to its most basic units; rationalizing the system means transforming a process into a transaction. But it only becomes easier and cheaper (to the extent that it does) by skimping on something very, very important, whether or not it shows up in the bottom line.

I don’t mean to insult people who face this problem or imply that I’ve personally solved it; it’s a huge and difficult issue, and the conditions under which we work (not always created by us) are a big part of why it’s such a problem. But we should understand that treating education as an economic transaction is almost the entire problem, and we have significant means available to us to push back. Which is why I thoroughly endorse Angus’ vocationally minded rejection of the idea that a systemic problem is not our responsibility:

…if you, as a college professor, create a classroom environment in which students are able to cheat without consequences, you’re rewarding cheating and punishing honest work. You can wring your hands all you like about declining ethical standards, but the situation you deplore is one that you’ve helped to create.

To put it another way, if you’re a teacher or a professor then finding and punishing cheaters is your job. It’s your job in the same way that grading is your job. It’s your job in the same way that facilitating class discussion is your job. It’s your job in the same way that crafting appropriate tests and assignments is your job.

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