Tagged: Salon.com

How to apologize

At Salon, Mary Elizabeth Williams reviews the week’s celebrity apologies, and finds most wanting. Then she highlights this example of how to apologize with grace:

[L]est you think nobody knows how to own up to bad behavior, there have this week also been some fine examples of how to do it correctly. David Petraeus, the former head of the CIA/ladykiller appeared at a Los Angeles ROTC dinner and got the awkward part out of the way early. “I join you, keenly aware that I am regarded in a different light now than I was a year ago,” Petraeus said. ”I am also keenly aware that the reason for my recent journey was my own doing. So please allow me to begin my remarks this evening by reiterating how deeply I regret — and apologize for — the circumstances that led to my resignation from the CIA and caused such pain for my family, friends and supporters.” Gosh, he makes it look so simple.

Memo to disgraced MLA Russell MacKinnon… oh, forget it.

Jobs and LSD

Salon’s Glenn Greenwald points out that last week’s flood of Steve Jobs hagiographies mostly tiptoed around one inconvenient facet of the Great Man: he took LSD. He not only took it, he regarded having taken it as one of the two or three most important things he had done in his life. Greenwald:

Unlike many people who have enjoyed success, Jobs is not saying that he was able to succeed despite his illegal drug use; he’s saying his success is in part — in substantial part — because of those illegal drugs (he added that Bill Gates would “be a broader guy if he had dropped acid once”).

An excellent Time magazine piece by Maia Szalavitz delves into the connection between Jobs’s use of psychedelics and his creative genius:

As attested by the nearly spiritual devotion so many consumers have to Jobs’ creations, the former Apple chief (and indeed many other top technology pioneers) appeared to have found enduring inspiration in LSD. Research shows that the psychedelic experience is, in fact, long lasting: a new study published last week found that people who took magic mushrooms (psilocybin) had long-term personality changes, becoming more open, more curious, more intellectually engaged and more creative. These personality shifts persisted more than a year after taking the drugs….

Greenwald connects the ironic dots:

America’s harsh prohibitionist drug policies are grounded in the premise that the prohibited substances have little or no redeeming value and cannot be used without life-destroying consequences.  Yet the evidence of its falsity is undeniable. Here is one of the most admired men in America, its greatest contemporary industrialist, hailing one of the most scorned of these substances as integral to his success and intellectual and personal growth.

Under Stephen Harper, Canada is falling into step behind America’s punitive approach to drug use: mandatory prison sentences for smaller and smaller amounts of the least harmful substances, and relentless campaigns against harm-reduction strategies like safe injection sites. The Conservatives are quick to condemn the nanny state whenever environmental or consumer regulation is proposed, but eager to bring the full force of state power down on anyone whose personal choices happen to offend their arbitrary moral standards. Even personal choices one of their business heros regards as one of the most important and beneficial he ever made.

Anonymity in news stories

A mea culpa in yesterday’s Washington Post, criticizing the use of anonymous sources in a story widely regarded as a puff piece on Obama lieutenant Rahm Emanuel, sparked these comments from Salon.com’s excellent Glenn Greenwald:

In very limited circumstances, anonymity is valuable and justified (e.g., when someone is risking something substantial to expose concealed wrongdoing of serious public interest).  But promiscuous, unjustified anonymity — which pervades the establishment press — is the linchpin of most bad, credibility-destroying reporting.  It enables government officials and others to lie to the public with impunity or manipulate them with propaganda, using eager reporters as both their megaphone and shield.  It is the weapon of choice for reporters eager to serve as loyal message-carriers and royal court gossip columnists.  It preserves and bolsters the culture of secrecy that dominates Washington — exactly the opposite of what a real journalist, by definition, would seek to accomplish (though most modern journalists seem to prefer anonymity, as it makes them appear and feel special and part of the secret halls of power, and allows them to curry favor with powerful officials as their favored loyal message-carrier).  In sum, petty or otherwise unjustified uses of anonymity are the hallmark of the power-worshiping, dishonest, unreliable reporter (which is why its most indiscriminate practitioner is Politico).   As Izzy Stone put it about the Vietnam War:  “The process of brain-washing the public starts with off-the-record briefings for newspapermen. . . .”

Ceremony

Furtado 2I hesitate to start this, for fear of luring Olympic-worshiping bores out of their rec-rooms, but US bloggers had a field day with the perfectly hideous opening ceremony in Vancouver. My favorite was Heather Havrilesky in Salon.com, Moneyquotes:

Some dramatic photography paired with soaring music and a lot of melodramatic prose. “Here, where a swerving coastline submits to waves of glacial peaks, where the mapping of the Western world came to an end, the discovery yet begins anew!” Praise Jesus! Who writes this stuff?

Nelly Furtado and Bryan Adams perform the lamest song since that thing they play at the end of the NCAA basketball tournament, “One Shining Moment”: “This is your moment, your time to run like the wind!” I’m flashing back to Up With People. First Nations dancers are jumping up and down like the fraudience at a Miley Cyrus concert.

OpeningNow here comes a tribute to “the frigid North.” It’s snowing. Donald Sutherland is murmuring into a microphone somewhere. People in white are walking through the snow….

“The beauty of the trees, the softness of the air, the fragrance of the grass speaks to me, and my heart soars,” says Donald Sutherland….

Now here’s a tap dancer on the platform, and more maple leaves. Now there are swarms of tap dancers. Tap dancing doesn’t exactly read in a stadium. Oh, we’ll fix it by adding sparklers to our heels. Lang-3sWow, this is quite seriously not good. Now more maple leaves are falling from the ceiling. There are quite a few identifiably uncoordinated people in the mix out there. Oh God. When will it end?

Naturally, Canadian readers fired back, including this beaut from someone who styled herself, Sweet Jane.

We put the proudest, butchiest lesbian ever on an international stage to sing the living shit out of a song widely considered to be among the best ever written. Ever. We’re understandably proud of that. You don’t think it was appropriate. Go read the words – conveniently googleable! (Also, that lesbian? Totally allowed to get married here in our hopelessly-decade-behind-the-times little backwater. When, oh, when will we ever catch up to rest of the world?)

Now the good news, for those who imagine such things to be important, Nate Silver’s wonderful poly-sci statistics blog, Fivethirtyeight.com, projects that Canada — Canada! — will win the most medals at these games.

538-olympic-medals

Don’t worry. We’ve sent Nate’s slide rule out to get it checked.

Hat tip: Fritz McEvoy (but don’t blame him for the snarky stuff).

Security theatre: an asylum for authoritarian nuttiness

Last Saturday, 57-year-old Jules Paul Bouloute, got off a flight from Haiti to New York. While attempting to find his way out of  Kennedy Airport’s American Airlines Terminal, he accidentally opened an emergency exit door and set off an alarm.

Jules Paul Bouloute

Jules Paul Bouloute

This has happened to most of  us. In confusion, inattention, or an ill-considered attempt to find a shortcut, we open a restricted door and set off an alarm. Sometimes it leads to an embarrassed chat with the on-duty Commissionaire; sometimes there are no consequences at all.

In Bouloute’s case, however, security officials evacuated Terminal 8 for more than two hours. Police scoured the building with dogs and SWAT teams, and required hapless passengers to go through security theatre screening a second time. Arrivals were stuck on the tarmac; departures delayed for hours.

As for Bouloute, he was charged with first-degree criminal tampering and third-degree criminal trespass, and he faces up to seven years in prison.

Salon columnist Patrick Smith, an airline pilot, analyzes the consequences:

[W]hat shocks me the most is that throughout all the coverage of the incident, including numerous interviews with ticked-off passengers and somber-voiced officials, not once has anybody raised the point that maybe — just maybe — we overreacted. Everyone, instead, is eager to blame Bouloute.

“As a result of the defendant’s actions, thousands of people were required to evacuate and to be rescreened by TSA, causing substantial delays in the airlines’ schedules,” District Attorney Richard Browne said in a statement.

No, I’m sorry, Mr. District Attorney, but that’s not it. What caused the delays and what hassled so many travelers was not the defendant’s actions, but our mindless and hysterical response to them.

Smith goes on to recite the interesting history of air terrorism, and details how a country that once took real terrorist attacks in stride became a “nation of scaredy-cats.” He cites other recent examples of ludicrous overreaction, and urges us all to calm down.

Calming down will not make us “less safe,” as security zealots are wont to argue. Quite the opposite, it would free up time and resources, allowing us to focus on more credible and potent problems.

The whole piece is well worth a read.

Thoughts on the thwarted Christmas Day airplane bombing

A week after the attempted Christmas Day bombing of a Northwest Airlines fight, two polar-opposite American columnists — one left, one right — have come to nearly identical conclusions about the essential danger posed by airline security restrictions.

From the right, a New Year’s Day column by the New York Times’s David Brooks decried a citizenry that “expect[s] perfection from government and then throw[s] temper tantrums when it is not achieved.”

[T]he Transportation Security Administration has to be seen doing something, so it added another layer to its stage play, “Security Theater” — more baggage regulations, more in-flight restrictions.

At some point, it’s worth pointing out that it wasn’t the centralized system that stopped terrorism in this instance. As with the shoe bomber, as with the plane that went down in Shanksville, Pa., it was decentralized citizen action. The plot was foiled by nonexpert civilians who had the advantage of the concrete information right in front of them — and the spirit to take the initiative.

For better or worse, over the past 50 years we have concentrated authority in centralized agencies and reduced the role of decentralized citizen action. We’ve done this in many spheres of life. Maybe that’s wise, maybe it’s not. But we shouldn’t imagine that these centralized institutions are going to work perfectly or even well most of the time. It would be nice if we reacted to their inevitable failures not with rabid denunciation and cynicism, but with a little resiliency, an awareness that human systems fail and bad things will happen and we don’t have to lose our heads every time they do.

From the left, Salon‘s Glenn Greenwald applauds Brooks and carries the point further:

Fear is the foundation of most governments; but it is so sordid and brutal a passion, and renders men in whose breasts it predominates so stupid and miserable, that Americans will not be likely to approve of any political institution which is founded on it. The 5-year-old laying awake in bed, frightened by monsters in the closet, who then crawls into his parents’ bed to feel Protected and Safe, is the same as a citizenry planted in front of the television, petrified by endless imagery of scary Muslim monsters, who then collectively crawl to Government and demand that they take more power and control in order to keep them Protected and Safe

[D]emands that political leaders ensure that we can live in womb-like Absolute Safety are delusional and destructive.  Yet this is what the citizenry screams out every time something threatening happens:  please, take more of our privacy away; monitor more of our communications; ban more of us from flying; engage in rituals to create the illusion of Strength; imprison more people without charges; take more and more control and power so you can Keep Us Safe…

A citizenry drowning in fear and fixated on Safety to the exclusion of other competing values can only be degraded and depraved.

Ironically, as Greenwald points out, the American Revolution was founded on precisely the opposite mindset. He quotes John Adams’s 1776 essay, Thoughts on Government:

Fear is the foundation of most governments; but it is so sordid and brutal a passion, and renders men in whose breasts it predominates so stupid and miserable, that Americans will not be likely to approve of any political institution which is founded on it.

Greenwald goes on to describe in detail the news media’s fear-mongering role in all this. Well worth a read.

Predictably, America’s bloated security apparatus responded to the latest bombing attempt (which was thwarted not by security precautions but by quick-witted passengers) by adding yet more bloat in the form of bans carry-on bags and a requirement that passengers stay in their seats with nothing in their laps for the last hour of every inbound US flight. Thus travelers fall victim to a false syllogism Conservative Bryan Caplan once described this way:

  1. Something must be done.
  2. This is something.
  3. Therefore, this must be done.

All this comes as vindication to the sharpest critics of security precautions imposed after 9/11. Bruce Schneier has long argued that “only two things have made flying safer: the reinforcement of cockpit doors, and the fact that passengers know now to resist hijackers.”

I’ve started to call the bizarre new TSA rules “magical thinking”: if we somehow protect against the specific tactic of the previous terrorist, we make ourselves safe from the next terrorist….

And what sort of magical thinking is behind the rumored TSA rule about keeping passengers seated during the last hour of flight? Do we really think the terrorist won’t think of blowing up their improvised explosive devices during the first hour of flight?….

Only one carry on? No electronics for the first hour of flight? I wish that, just once, some terrorist would try something that you can only foil by upgrading the passengers to first class and giving them free drinks.

To those who think the solution lies in the Israelification of American airport security, Schneier responds:

I don’t think it’s possible.  The Israelis rely on a system of individual attention — interviews, background checks, and so on — that simply can’t be replicated on the scale required for America.  If anything, we’re moving in the opposite direction: layers of annoying, time consuming, ineffectual, static — but automatic and scalable — security systems.  Although it seems that we’re finally hitting the limit as to what the American business travel will put up with, and no security measure will survive wholesale rejection by the airlines’ most profitable customers.

In the best of many post-failed-bombing interviews with Schneier, the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg asked whether another airplane will inevitably be blown up.

The fact that we even ask this question illustrates something fundamentally wrong with how our society deals with risk.  Of course 100% security is impossible; it has always been impossible and always will be.  We’ll never get the murder, burglary, or terrorism rate down to zero; 42,000 people will die each year in car crashes in the U.S. for the foreseeable future; life itself will always include risk.  But that’s okay.  Despite fearful rhetoric to the contrary, terrorism is not a transcendent threat. A terrorist attack cannot possibly destroy our country’s way of life; it’s only our reaction to that attack that can do that kind of damage.

I want President Obama to get on national television and project indomitability. I want him to dial back the hyperbole, and remind us that our society can’t be terrorized. I want him to roll back all the fear-based post-9/11 security measures.  We’d do much better by leveraging the inherent strengths of our modern democracies and the natural advantages we have over the terrorists: our adaptability and survivability, our international network of laws and law enforcement, and the freedoms and liberties that make our society so enviable. The way we live is open enough to make terrorists rare; we are observant enough to prevent most of the terrorist plots that exist, and indomitable enough to survive the even fewer terrorist plots that actually succeed. We don’t need to pretend otherwise.

Insurance stocks soar as “reform” bill nears passage

Speaking of Glenn Greenwald, the Salon.com columnist has a fact-filled column eviscerating Barack Obama’s claim that Senate Democrats are “standing up to the special interests” opposed to American health care reform.

Greenwald catalogs the explosion in health insurance company stock prices as the severely watered-down reform bill edges toward passage. By way of illustration, he notes that Susan Bayh, wife of Indiana Democratic Senator Evan Bayh and board member of the Indianapolis-based insurance giant WellPoint, has seen the value of her stock in the company rise between $125,000 and $250,000 since her husband helped defeat the bill’s already lame public option.

Although Greenwald considers the bill, which will force Americans to pay private insurance premiums under penalty of income tax penalties, a massive public subsidy of the insurance industry, he supports its passage as a lesser evil than the current health care void. But he is troubled by the vilification of liberals who oppose the bill by the Obama administration and its friends in the media and the blogosphere.  Well worth a read.

“Not my department,” says Harper

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s insistence that the torture of prisoners Canada hands over to Afghan authorities is a problem for Afghanistan, not Canada, calls to mind Tom Leher’s lyric about rocket scientist Wernher von Braun’s apparent indifference to the consequences of his work on Germany’s World War II V2 rocket:

Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down?
‘That’s not my department’, says Wernher von Braun.

In fact, as Bob Rae points out in the same Globe and Mail article, transferring prisoners with the expectation they may be tortured is a violation of the Geneva Conventions – a war crime, in other words.

The blithe indifference to torture shown by both the Harper and Martin governments is a marked departure from the international standards Canadians are accustomed to upholding. But it pales by comparison with the US approach. Salon’s Glenn Greenwald (here) and the New York Times (here) have chilling recapitulations of the US torture and subsequent seven-year imprisonment at Guantanamo, without charge, of Al Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Hajj, during which he was interrogated not about terrorism but about Al Jazeera’s operations.

Says Greenwald:

The due-process-free imprisonment of this journalist by the U.S. government was ignored almost completely by the American media (other than Nicholas Kristof), even as it righteously obsessed on the far shorter imprisonment of journalists by countries such as Iran and North Korea (hey, look over there at those tyrannical countries – they imprison our journalists!!!!!).  Aside from al-Hajj, we’ve imprisoned numerous other journalists without charges in Iraq — and continue to this day to do so — including ones who work for Reuters and the Associated Press.

Annals of US torture – updated

According to the website Raw Story, the Obama administration has reacted the the UK High Court decision (stayed pending appeal) to publish details of the torture inflicted on former Guantanamo detainee Binyam Mohamed, and Obamaphiles will thre response hard to stomach:

Meanwhile, US State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said: “We are not pleased”, adding that Washington kept such information confidential “to protect our own citizens.”

How exactly does it protect US citizens to be shielded from the information that CIA agents used scalpels on an illegally rendered prisoner’s testicles? Salon.com’s Glenn Greenwald continues to follow this story.

A Contrarian reader points to this account of the freshly minted Nobel laureate’s unwillingness abandon Bush administration practices at Guantanamo.

Annals of US torture

The British High Court has ruled that, pending appeal, it will finally publish seven paragraphs detailing the torture CIA agents inflicted on Binyam Mohamed. The court had earlier redacted the passage from a decision about Mohamed at the request of  British officials, who said it would jeopardize US-UK cooperation on security matters.

The Telegraph, a British newspaper, quotes an anonymous official describing the explosive contents of the passage:

The 25 lines edited out of the court papers contained details of how Mr Mohamed’s genitals were sliced with a scalpel and other torture methods so extreme that waterboarding, the controversial technique of simulated drowning, “is very far down the list of things they did,” the official said.

If true, these allegations will be hard for major US media outlets to dismiss, as they have waterboarding.

Lord Justice Thomas and Mr Justice Lloyd Jones ruled there could be no conceivable security basis for withholding the information:

The suppression of reports of wrongdoing by officials in circumstances which cannot in any way affect national security is inimical to the rule of law. Championing the rule of law, not subordinating it, is the cornerstone of democracy.

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