Archive for January, 2012

The Straw Man of Islam and the NYPD

The New York Times revealed that a video, called The Third Jihad, was shown by the NYPD within an anti-terrorism training facility to nearly 1,500 officers. The video cites Islam as the focal point for American born terrorist attacks. This claim extrapolates into a long running debate amongst politicians, theologians, and philosophers about whether or not Islam itself is an ignition source for violence, or whether terrorism is enacted for reasons outside of the religion. I’d like to sidestep this debate for the time being to expose the intentionality that fuels it to the point of eruption, spilling out into our communities and homes. It is one thing to discuss religious practices and the assimilation of cultures, but when we implement measures to discriminate within the halls of authority, we’ve overstepped the boundaries of a free and secular nation.

For the American public (hopefully not for you), it is easy to sell the idea that the bearded men in strange clothes are the harbingers of all our fears. I don’t think it needs to be spelled out why the targeting of an amorphous, villainous enemy to the blue collar workforce of New York’s Finest is a bad idea. This isn’t the first time we’ve envisioned our own Boogeymen. In the 1940’s it wasn’t bearded Middle Eastern men, it was the Japanese. We rounded them up and put them into camps much like Guantanamo Bay – a prison where any sense of rights and freedom are null and void. Internment camps were a security measure for our nation, of which we have offered little recompense to the victims. This is a danger I feel we may be stumbling back into. The straw man of Islam has become our picture of the entire 1.3 billion or so practicing Muslims. Those who have spoken out against the violence perpetrated by militant Muslims have called upon the moderates to speak out against the radicals. This is what our narrator claims to do.

The video itself has an interesting origin story. The Third Jihad was produced by the Clarion Fund, an organization that is directly linked with Israel. The dominos fall pretty in line beginning with the conservative directive of Israeli sovereignty over contested areas and military support. In 2008 the Clarion Fund directly supported the McCain campaign by distributing free copies of their other film Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West to voters in key swing states. This film draws visual correlations between Islam and Nazi fascism in order to sway sympathies in favor for the Jewish state and conservative voters during a volatile election season. Corruption abound, the Clarion Fund is labeled as a non-profit organization. They do not pay taxes and are forbidden to participate in the process of electoral politics. Their endorsement of McCain lead to a temporary shut down of their site during 2008. The Third Jihad was also financially backed by a major pro-Israel, casino and hotel mogul Sheldon Adelson. Mr. Adelson, is the 16th richest person in the world, and has poured millions of dollars into Newt Gingrich’s super PAC. It may not be just conjecture to suppose that promoting anti-Islamic sentiments are connected with the success of conservative ideals.

Some blurry lines are to be had in raising concern about The Third Jihad. There is a disputed 30 second clip featuring NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly in the documentary. He has since tried to distance himself from this level of endorsement claiming some level of vagary in its usage. However, any participation on his part with the Clarion Fund and their exploits shows where the money might flow within the police department. It also leads a large amount of credibility to the officers who witnessed his brief interview in the film, and then proceeded to conduct training for anti-terrorism. Also, the film’s makers have claimed to narrow their focus to solely the radical Muslims of which they speak, but then continue to paint the whole of the faith base as very radical. The original New York Times article quotes the video, ‘“Americans are being told that many of the mainstream Muslim groups are also moderate,” [the narrator] states. “When in fact if you look a little closer, you’ll see a very different reality. One of their primary tactics is deception.”’ Let’s also be very clear about something else. The threat of terrorism has been shown in a variety of surveys and statistics to be extremely low. The amount of money we pour into the cup of Homeland Security, even if used in the case of preventative measures has made it runeth over. An extremely small fraction of violence perpetrated in the United States is committed by “terrorists,” and an even smaller portion is committed by Muslims.

Even if you could argue that the claims the documentary makes are true, which are dubious to say the least, there is still a difference between arguing a point and providing what can only be labeled as propaganda to an order-taking police force. In the post 9/11 era, we’ve allowed a little space for Middle Eastern racism in our culture, particularly in New York, though to be fair it is much easier to imagine it being worse. Chris Rock had it right when he said this about “accepted racism” in patriotic America: I’m American Man. It’s rare to be able to trace a line of money and influence from one source to a population but I feel like the line goes directly from Israel, to millionaires, to filmmakers, to a NYPD Police Commissioner, to 1500 officers and then…

We have recently defended metaphysical ground. An attack was made on the internet; our internet! This was received by an international outcry that didn’t just come from political activists, but was voiced by the visceral fingertips of meta-citizens. The encroachment of margins on our only free range, and freely accessible space by the SOPA and PIPA bills, became akin to molestation. We claimed the World Wide Web as autonomous and I think this expressed more than what Bill Maher snarked as our desire for “free shit.” While this might be true, what does such a wide spread reaction say about our feelings towards an inherent right to information? What will this mean for artists, musicians, writers, et al.? Why are we compelled to defend this space, a frontier unique to our generation, and grant it esteem greater than that of the physical world?

It’s no secret that many other countries live under the giant black rectangle of censorship. This seems both distant and foreign, but never the less abhorrent and a shame. The notion that there are legislated punishments for expressing oneself is worthy of rebellion, at least from the perspective of most westerners. Aside from the mysticism we attribute to the word freedom in the states, it’s the fruit that is borne from the truly free market exchange of ideas that serve as one of our most valuable resources. Most importantly, we value this exchange so much we sought to facilitate it in the most efficient way possible. This is why the internet is our crowning achievement.

Typically, the exchanging of resources result in a mean zero-sum game; you give me something, I give you something and we stand to gain from our trade, but we’re still giving something up, which balances our the trade. The free trade of information however, is a positive-sum game. Ideas can be replicated and spread without the loss of resources (an evolutionary context that I’ll get to in a minute). Historically speaking, ideas were only brought from one culture to another by warring civilizations. Things like mathematics, astronomy, navigation, and the portent of gun powder are just some of the examples of technologies that spread through the vein of violence. This meant that in order to gain more knowledge about this world, it was common for an individual in a society to undergo a significant amount, if not a lifetime, of hardship. The price of intercultural knowledge was sometimes death. It wasn’t until more civilized (term loosely used) means of trade began to develop that we became more aware of the ideas of other cultures. The printing press, a 15th century invention, allowed for the Enlightenment of the 18th and 19th centuries to widely spread emotional knowledge. With the popularity of the novel, came the understanding of hardships by people other than oneself. From Robinson Crusoe to Gulliver’s Travels, fear and love and the stresses of life became a universality amongst all people that was hitherto unknown.

The word meme often pops up in internet lingo to refer to trends that spread quickly throughout the online community. In its original scientific usage, meme was meant to describe an idea that is subject to evolutionary processes in terms of self replication, competition, adaptation, and natural selection. Some are large ideas, like Democracy, Religion, and Humanism. Other smaller memes might be like fishing is better with a net than a single line, or that based on evidence it is more prudent to believe the Earth is not the center of the universe. Our attitudes toward human rights have undergone major changes over time. We now have this idea that access to information is an inherent liberty. Whether or not we’re conscious of this feeling is insignificant, but the fact that there was such uproar against the infringement on our intellectual freedom to information made it apparent that we maintain this right as inherent.

The proponents of bills like SOPA and PIPA were made to defend the intellectual property rights of the people who create new ideas. For example: If I put up a billboard to market a new product, but I use a symbol or a phrase copyrighted by someone else, it is a sue-worthy offense. However, if I were to use a movie clip to sell a product on a private website, it seems to fall somewhere in the gray area of free usage of available resources. Once intellectual property, let’s say song lyrics, hit the internet, they’re apart of global consciousness that many people feel is available for personal use. How much of your ideas are your own? How much of your ideas are your own if you have access to the internet? Should we defend online property the same way we would if it were physical? Does a picture of a famous painting amount to the same as a physical copy of one? Who should be allowed to manage these transactions of intellectual property? Can we enforce it?

I’d like to think that the outrage against SOPA and PIPA derive from how close we are to a truly infinite space like the internet. While the rest of the world seems to be caving in on us, access to information could mean life or death in some countries, and in ours in particular it means constant free information. Artists, in the broad sense, now have to combat this metaphysical free market. Legislation has done little, from Napster to the more recent takedown of Megaupload, to protect the intellectual property of artists. Will artists have to adapt to a new paradigm for their work?

My prediction is based on things I already see happening. Artists have taken to an aspect of sociability to their body of work. Not only must artists create art, but they must be constantly in touch with their fan base to give updates on their intentionality. In other words, gone are the days where a stranger is introduced to art (be it visual, or written, or whatever) and an interpretation is made. The interaction cannot end there, because it can be made anywhere and completely anonymously. Now people follow their favorite artists and writers and movie makers and actors on sites like Twitter. It’s common to look behind the curtain of creation and inspiration and instead the artist has become the thing to marvel at. The artwork itself is just a unique byproduct for which we appreciate, but is not the source of our intrigue. We are more concerned by how and why the art is expressed, not just the expression itself. It’s now expected to receive some kind of exposure by the artist. Look up interview transcripts, videos on Youtube, or blogs and Tweets from your favorite personality and that is where the obsession lies. We are worshiping the insight of a different mind and its usage, instead of just the products.

The Internet has nearly reached the point of omnipresence. Damn near omniscience too. Wherever and however we might need to call upon its power, it is often there to do our bidding – providing that we could just get a good enough connection. Our slouched posture of servitude has very nearly mimicked the clasped hands of some other folksy traditions, especially when we clutch our handheld devices with bowed heads and frenetic thumbs. It is only natural that we should want to defend this space that has offered so much by the way of information as well as inspiration and empathy. I do not know what corner the internet will be legislated into, but it’s important that we defend this space with the vehemence I’ve seen so far. The internet is the great equalizer, turning everyone into an expert and eliminating much of the ignorant prejudices humanity has faced for thousands of years.

It’s been said that sports are just simulations of war. It’s interesting to me that the latter should then abide by similar rules as the former. Beginning most notably in the 1800’s and through the Geneva Convention, War has had undergone a civilizing process much in the same way our sports have, but this doesn’t mean we should hold an unrealistically civil ideal of it. We decry coma-inducing hits in football, beaming in baseball, and low blows in combat sports, but shouldn’t we allow for a little more space in contests of life and death? If we do, then what about certain types of celebration? The sportsmanship of war has taken on an ethical approach that we attribute to spectatorship. We begin to worry more about the integrity of the team than the well being of the players.

Over the last week a video has made its rounds in the media of Marines urinating on what are presumably dead members of the Taliban. I don’t doubt that certain red-blooded Americans cheer at this kind of behavior, or that many others think it’s a horrendous act of desecration. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said, “I find the behavior depicted in it utterly deplorable. I condemn it in the strongest possible terms…This conduct is entirely inappropriate for members of the United States military and does not reflect the standards or values our armed forces are sworn to uphold. Those found to have engaged in such conduct will be held accountable to the fullest extent” as reported by This rebuke harkens back to the perpetrators of Abu Grahib, which is by far more abhorrent in that it was committed against live, suffering humans. However, the urination incident does call into question our perceptions of the neatness and business-like endeavors of war.

To say we have come a long way is dubious if not misleading. While war amongst the more affluent nations no longer involve androcide (the act of wiping out all the men) and then raping all the women, and decimating the village to rubble (to say nothing of children), we should not mistake war to remain on the benevolent line of the humane. The cold cleanliness and impersonal usages of drones, and tactical/strategic/smart artillery make for a much less unsavory application of brutality. Without going into the psychological afflictions that one endures while at war, or the banality of evil that all humans possess, we should consider what it is that reaches us from the periphery of our world view. To be cynical for a moment, the media plays on this instinct to condemn the far away misgivings of different worlds. The Taliban’s response to the video was much less severe, perhaps because they have a better understanding of what it means to be at war. Both sides have much to be guilty for in their treatment of the living, and should be concerned less with our sacrosanct fetishes of the dead.

I think it’s a safe assumption that urination is probably one of the least lewd acts marines have committed upon dead (or living) bodies of the opposition. I’m not, by any means, condoning this type of behavior, but perhaps what social media and the spread of information should be used for is to show the seedy underbelly of humanity at its least refined. When we saw videos of Gaddafi’s last moments in Libya, containing a knife penetrating his anus, our first instinct might have been to consider them barbaric. Indeed it was! But by what standard do we hold ourselves to be much different when war is thousands of miles away from our sofas and dinner tables.

As Iran goads several nations into vindicating its views on the imperialism of America, we should cautiously seek out means to squash the animosity. This tit-for-tat tactic of military action is not a good look for the United States any longer. We learned that from impulsive retaliation on an ambiguous “War on Terror.” It’s time we recognize what war entails, and not just on economic terms, or death tolls, but within the scope of ethical behavior and leadership. Marines urinating on corpses shouldn’t elicit a response of shame, but a spurning of prolonged violence, sympathies for the men who endure it, and at the very least acceptance of the allowance for it to go on this long. While I do find war and military action to be, at times, necessary, it should not come from the irrationality from our monkey-traits – desires for vengeance and dominance. There are no more spoils for the victors of war because there are no more victors.

For all the information you could handle on war and violence and their inner workings I HIGHLY recommend this book: The Better Angels of our Nature – Steven Pinker


Let’s Hear it for Ron Paul

Posted: January 8, 2012 in Politics

Iowa (and soon New Hampshire) is behind us and we’ve lost two of our pals, whom we’ve grown to adore over the many months of egregious gaffes and fantastic fouls. Perry and Bachmann (only Bachmann officially) recede into the horizon in the rearview reflection on the trek we take to an adult conversation. No one will reference their campaigns, except perhaps as a hyperbole of failure and shame. No one will cite their platitudes as if to declare that Bachmann or Perry had it right all along. Their many prayers will not be answered. They have fallen prey to political myopia and now the rational of us can breathe again. Phew!

However, Iowa did show us that nothing has changed. Santorum, who I will largely ignore for now, is the Republican Party’s new flash in the pan. Gingrich, the old blunderbuss, retains some level of unappealing swagger to which the Democrats shiver with disgust and the GOP turns their back to in hopes that maybe he’ll go away. Romney, the most likely to get the golden ticket to the championship bout against Obama, is robotically charming his way to a strong lead. Though, I can’t help but recall something I had seen early on in the campaign season: In the list of candidates, polls were showing that a blank (unannounced) GOP candidate was surging much higher than anyone currently running at the time. Romney, I think is exactly that blank automaton. He’s a receiver transmitting back all the sweet sounds of the GOP’s own voices. Who doesn’t like to hear themselves speak, especially when it comes from the mouth of someone else?

The penultimate candidate we can now speak of is Ron Paul. From the noise of barroom banter to the written (and shamelessly recorded) histories of social media, I’ve been inundated with praise for Ron Paul. The Independent that isn’t; he’s become what many voters hope to be the third option in a stalemate between parties that has offered little and produced less. Of course the would-be voters at large, in search for a source for reason, would turn to the guy that wants to burn down the house. Ron Paul certainly seems to fulfill that need. I am not diametrically opposed to Ron Paul (well maybe a little), but I’m more interested in offering some more to consider before us mainstreamers start buying Paul’s gimmicky bumper stickers. There is a stigma about Ron Paul that is eerily reminiscent of last election. I imagine this observation is accosting to most critics of President Obama. Good. This is the perfect place to start.

The campaign of Hope was only a few years ago and has produced more idiomatic expressions than progressive hope-worthy policies. So there might be a lot to say about cars in ditches and what not – for those who have been paying attention, but it’s more accurate to point to Obama’s inability to achieve cooperation from his former colleagues of the senate. One might be able to blame his short tenure there. There was little time for him to establish a presence on floor, and ingratiate himself with some of the other senators (to put it nicely as possible). For such a short time though, he was pretty successful in the senate as far as the authoring of bills and sponsoring fairly left wing policies pertaining to transparency, but granted this was during the post-traumatic seizure of Bush’s second term. I make this point to draw the correlation to a one former Senator Paul.

Paul has 30 years on an off in the Senate and has played little more than the role of the polemist. His stances on Federal power, while at times can seem justified in the cases of the Patriot Act and, more recently the NDAA, are pretty radically isolationist and libertarian. While it might be speculative to say there is a small libertarian movement clandestinely dispersed throughout Congress, to assume Ron Paul would be able to push through anything on his agenda is absurd. There simply aren’t enough serious libertarian sympathizers. If Obama couldn’t successfully pass a fuller stimulus, healthcare reform in its entirety, or come to an agreement on a means to balance the budget, who’s going to shift to the  other extreme end of the spectrum? Ron Paul is so far to the right, he’s left, and to his fellow politicos, has the same unappealing threat to their magisterium.

The Paul agenda I speak of includes the stripping down of the Federal Government to its barest essentials. Sounds nice in theory, but to cut 1 TRILLION dollars from the budget by hacking away at the U.S. Departments of Education, Energy, Commerce, Health and Human Services, FEMA, and the IRS, not to mention the thousands upon thousands of federal workers losing their jobs, leaves the practice of libertarianism in the days of colonialism.

There’s a lot to say about Ron Paul’s foreign policy; the existential problem of dealing with our American selves in the world. It’s nice to see a republican scaling it back on American exceptionalism, but to become completely isolationist is again, too drastic. Ron Paul has voted against our participation in the United Nations. What? He also voted against our giving foreign aid to countries that have endured horrendous natural disasters. Paul is popularly quoted as saying, “Foreign aid is taking money from poor people in rich countries and giving it to rich people in poor countries.” An article in the Economist reduces this talking point to little more than verbal diarrhea. The second part of this statement identifies a real issue in which to review our design for foreign aid, but the first claim is completely unfounded.

In a discussion with a friend, the topic of American occupied countries unearthed a new realization in the risks of Paul’s isolationism. If the United States were to suddenly pull its military out of every country we’d have a lot of deserving families reunited at home. It’s unfortunate that the opportune time for this move is decades in the past. To remove our presence in South Korea would leave them, a valuable ally to us, in a very dangerous position between the North and China. Our friendship with Japan hinges on their being prohibited to militarize, keeping them an economic giant and not a country hell-bent on reclaiming pieces of China. We saw Iraq regress into chaos as we left there. What happens when we stop holding back Israel and/or Palestine? When Syria and Iran erupt? We are currently engaging in peace negotiations with the Al Queda and the Taliban, without which we may not find out the extent of their influence in Pakistan and Afghanistan and perhaps Egypt. Paul seems to say that it’s not our business to know. I can’t imagine anyone seeing this as a plausible means to a safe and prolific future.

In the end, I think Ron Paul just simply satisfies some psychological need to start again. Many of us are tired of the battles between the right and the left. With this particular season, where the right are so right and the left are so barely visible, we allow room for drastic and overly risky options. The Tea Party, or what is left of them, has morphed into the Libertarian movement and offer some valuable points in the discussion of progress. However, to adopt their views wholesale by endorsing Ron Paul, an extremist in any other political climate, is to deliberately put our country in the riskiest (and my opinion, immoral) enclave it has ever been. No one wants an Orwellian dystopia, but Ron Paul is selling the dangerously equal and exact opposite – a Hobbesian one.