Thursday
Apr092015

A Throwaway Line

Treason doth never prosper:  what ’s the reason?

Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason.

Sir John Harrington

 

Prosperum ac felix scelus

Virtus vocatur

(Successful and fortunate crime is called virtue)

Seneca

 

I just read an interview with Abol Hassan Bani-Sadr, the first president of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Those of you over a certain age might remember him from the time of the Iranian hostage crisis in 1980; a thin man with large glasses and a trim moustache, the non-clerical face of revolutionary Iran.

Bani-Sadr is living in exile in France, as he has since 1982. He was a strong advocate of democracy and human rights, which put him at odds with the mullahs running Iran at that time. He and his family had to flee for their lives.

The interview is about the nuclear deal between Iran and the western powers, led by the U.S. In Bani -Sadr’s opinion, the deal is essentially a capitulation by Iran on all major points, which the mullahs have covered up by mistranslating the main points of the agreement into Persian for their government controlled news media. Apparently the Iranians are celebrating a better deal than they actually got.

That’s fine, but for me it is only one of the significant parts of the interview.  While making a point about the poor judgement of the mullahs he speaks of two previous failures. One is their insistence in prolonging the Iran-Iraq war after they had gained the upper hand. The other is the 1980 hostage crisis, when Iranian students, encouraged by elements of the government, stormed the U.S. embassy and took the staff hostage. The significant section:

“In a longer-term sense, the Lausanne agreement no doubt adds to the sense among ordinary Iranians that, yet again, the regime has put the country in such a dangerous position. For the third time since the 1979 revolution, the regime has prolonged a political crisis to the point of defeat. The first, of which I had first hand knowledge, was the dangerous game played during the occupation of the American embassy in Tehran, the release of the hostages and the “October surprise” that bolstered Ronald Reagan’s election as U.S. president. The second was during the Iran–Iraq war, when the regime failed to end the war at a point of strength in 1981 and 1982 and instead ended it in defeat in 1988.” (Emphasis mine)

Here Bani-Sadr repeats what he wrote in his autobiography, My Turn to Speak, which focused on his political career. A portion of the book covers the covert deal struck between Iran and high level representatives of the Republican Party. The Republican negotiators were none other than George H. W. Bush, later Vice President under Reagan and then President himself, and William Casey, later head of the CIA. Bush and Casey offered a covertly friendly relationship with a Republican administration in the White House, including military support, if the Iranians kept the hostages in Iran till after the 1980 election. As it turned out, this offer became the Iran-Contra scandal, with the Reagan Administration covertly selling anti-aircraft missiles to Iran and using the proceeds to illegally support the Contras in Nicaragua.

Bani-Sadr is not alone in pointing the finger at the Republicans. Yassir Arafat and Bassam Abu Sharif of the Palestine Liberation Organization also acknowledged being approached on this subject by a Reagan associate, John Shaheen. Shaheen told Sharif and Arafat that he wanted the PLO to act as a go-between with the Iranians to keep the hostages from being released.  The quid pro quo was recognition by the Reagan administration. Arafat declined to participate, but found out that Shaheen, Casey, and Bush had found back channels directly to the Iranians. Many years later Arafat told ex-president Carter about the treasonous dealings that had gone on behind his back.

In a federal court hearing in 1988 (U.S. vs. Rupp, Docket 88-CR-112) the issue at hand was bank fraud by a pilot and former CIA agent named Heinrich Rupp. Rupp testified that he had flown Bush and Casey to France in October 1980 for secret negotiations with the Iranians over the hostage crisis. Another witness in the case, an arms merchant named Richard Brenneke, testified that he was present at a meeting between Casey and Cyrus Hashemi, a representative of Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, a mullah in the Iranian governing council. Hashemi was later involved in the dealings known as Irangate. The initial offer was that the U.S. would deliver $40 million to French intermediaries, who would then purchase arms and transfer them to Iran.

Of course, the negotiations between the Carter Administration and the Iranians stalled in late October, and Carter couldn’t overcome the hostage handicap.

For Bani-Sadr it was just an aside, an example to make a point about a pressing contemporary issue. For me it is reopening an old wound. The election of Ronald Reagan was based on an act of gross treason by Bush and Casey (among others), who ended up at the highest levels of the U.S. government. That act begat more treason in the secret government-within-a-government that ran the Iran-Contra operation. Our government continued down a road of foreign intervention that brought us to Iraq, Afghanistan, and the present maelstrom in the Middle East.

As the writer and former military officer Andrew Bacevich pointed out in his book The Limits of Power, we faced a decision point in 1980. We could follow the path of intervention in the Middle East and imperial dominance in general; business as usual, headed down a dead end street. Conversely, we could have gone down the path of energy efficiency, renewable energy, and a foreign policy that acknowledged the interests of ordinary people in other countries. There are reports that people in military and intelligence circles were horrified by President Carter’s ideas for a foreign policy based on human rights and ethics. His famous speech, dubbed the “Malaise Speech” by hostile politicos, didn’t use the word “malaise,” but offered a vision of a more democratic, cooperative, and energy independent nation. It must have been a terrifying prospect for the oil companies and military contractors, along with big business interests in general.

Here’s a key sentence: “Point one: I am tonight setting a clear goal for the energy policy of the United States. Beginning this moment, this Nation will never use more foreign oil than we did in 1977—never. From now on, every new addition to our demand for energy will be met from our own production and our own conservation.”

You should read it and, perhaps, weep for what might have been.

Wednesday
Apr012015

Richard, the Third Cubicle on the Left

It's April 1st. The temperature dropped to 15F last night and it is supposed to drop to 17F tonight. Snow and ice pellets are in the forecast for the next week. This is some kind of cosmic joke. In that spirit, and with all due apologies to William Shakespeare ("Spinning Billy" as he will now be known) I present the following vignette.

 

Richard, the Third Cubicle on the Left

(A Winter's Tale)

Act 1

Scene 1: A cluttered cubicle. RICHARD hunches over a computer keyboard

RICHARD:

Now is the winter of our discontent

Stretched into summer by this sunless murk;

And all the clouds that lour'd upon our house

Have dumped their snow and left us buried.

Now are our brows bound with luxurious fleece,

Our itching arms gummed up with emollients,

Our December snows changed to April sleeting,

Our dreadful March with sub-zero weather.

Grim-visaged winter has stalled his polar front,

And now, while mounting fuel bills

Blight the souls of fearful homeowners,

He labors grimly 'gainst your windshield scraper

To the distant rumbling of a plow.

 

But I, that am not shaped for winter sports

Nor made to ski like a glamorous looking ass;

I, that am rudely stamped, and lack dexterity

To shred before wandering back to the lift;

I, that am curtailed of fair vacation,

Cheated of beach time by dissembling HR,

Breakfast unfinished, sent before my time

Into this freezing world, scarce half wrapped up,

And that so lame and unfashionable,

That teens snark at me as I halt by them—

Why I, with weak pipes about to freeze,

Have no delight to pass away the time,

Unless to see my shadow in the sunlamp

And descant upon the cold enormity.

And therefore, since I cannot prove a loafer

To entertain myself upon southern fairways,

I am determined to prove a slacker

And use up all my sick days.

Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous,

By drunken office parties, emails, and tweets,

To set my supervisor and HR

In deadly hate the one against the other;

And if HR be as skewed and unjust,

As I am subtle, false, and treacherous,

This day should the schedule be totally screwed up

About a BCC which says that we

from HR's errors have an extra FTE.

Dive, thoughts, down to my soul—here Lumbergh comes.

 

If you are curious, here is the original text.

 

Oh, and if you are unfamiliar with Lumburgh, here he is.

 

Monday
Mar022015

ISIS and Adultery 

We’ve all been watching the conflict in Syria and Iraq involving a group called ISIS, or ISIL, or IS, the Islamic State. They are a group of literalist fundamentalist Muslims. According to a recent article in The Atlantic, literally literalist, as in every exact word in the Koran interpreted as if we were living in the 8th century. They emerged out of the centuries old Sunni-Shia conflict combined with Saudi financing and the anarchic power vacuum created by Western intervention. Iraq went from being governed by an oppressive Sunni minority to a vengeful Shia majority, while the Alawite Shia government in Syria got weakened by a Sunni rebellion. Chaos plus revenge plus opportunity plus absolutist religious schism equals bad craziness.

My guess is that eventually even the backers of ISIS will realize that the movement has outlived its usefulness. A slowly growing consensus among Arab states is emerging, that they need to engage in some collective action. And ISIS will find, as we did, that conquering Iraq and governing it are two different things.

In the meantime, a lot of pixels have been dedicated to the debate over the religious justifications of ISIS, the inherent violence in Islam (or not), and who determines the proper interpretation of a religion.

I’d like to point out that it is a damned good thing that we don’t have any literal Christian literalists in the U.S. Sure, we have people who claim to be biblical literalists, but they ignore great swathes of Deuteronomy and Leviticus that would get them punted into a secure psychiatric facility. Give those two books a read sometime and imagine some suburban megachurch-goers burning entrails on the front steps of their drive-in cathedral or sprinkling blood (seven times with the right forefinger, facing east) on the altar. It would add an edge to those “gospel of prosperity” sermons, but would probably get them a psychiatric evaluation as well. Read “The Year of Living Biblically” for a funny take on trying to be a literal literalist.

The table manners of the Old Testament are one thing, but then there’s the smiting. From just a cursory reading a literal-literalist would find it necessary to kill:

Blasphemers

Sabbath Breakers

Disobedient Children

Teachers of a foreign religion

Apostates

Adulterers

I mean, Moses had his people stone a guy to death for picking up sticks on the Sabbath. Picking up sticks? It doesn’t bode well for millions of convenience store clerks, restaurant employees, and factory shift workers.

For the moment I’d like to focus on the last one, adultery. The lowest numbers I can find in national polls are a 14% infidelity rate for married women and 22% for married men. Given about 120 million married people in the U.S. that works out to 10.8 million adulterers. Talk about an epic slaughter. It got me thinking about the logistics.

Let’s say it takes about 100 fist sized rocks to properly stone one of these sinners to death. I might be understating the case, but it’s a round number. That’s about 1.5 cubic feet of stone, so to do the whole job properly would take about 600,000 cubic yards of stone. That’s 60,000 10-yard dump trucks. Owners of heavy equipment and gravel pits would be way into Christian literalism. You might say, “People could just pick up stones off the ground,” but try to find 100 fist sized stones in one place in Manhattan or L.A. Or the sandy regions of Georgia, for that matter. I suppose people could wash the stones off and reuse them, but 1) ew, and 2) it would really slow down the process.

It would be labor intensive as well. 10.8 million stonings would overwork even the most ardent Christians. If you are a literal-literalist Christian, be prepared to spend your evenings with your pitching elbow in a bucket of ice. Stock up on Ibuprofen. You’ll end up with bone spurs, eroded cartilage and probably a torn rotator cuff.  I could see “Stoner’s Elbow” becoming a thing. But hey, Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam, right?

Of course, if a group of Christians went literally literalist on us I can imagine a coalition of blasphemers, adulterers, Sabbath-workers and other-religionists (including non-literalists) organizing to oppose them. “Everybody Must Get Stoned” is kind of funny when Dylan sings it, but not when actual rocks start to fly.

It would be like present day Syria and Iraq. Except Christian. This is one of the few instances when I am perfectly happy about hypocrisy.

Thursday
Feb192015

The End Run 

I want to bring a piece of information to you. In an article published today by The Intercept, Jeremy Scahill and Josh Begley reveal that British and US intelligence agencies hacked into the computer systems of the world’s largest manufacturer of SIM cards, allowing them to steal millions of encryption keys at will. Here’s the link to the article.

 A brief explanation: Your mobile phone or wireless enabled tablet is essentially part radio. It communicates with the nearest cell tower using a radio signal. Therein lies a problem of privacy. Your phone and the cell tower are both broadcasting a radio signal in all directions. What if someone is listening in?

In your phone there is a small chip, about the size of a thumbnail, containing information. This subscriber identification module, or SIM, contains a code that encrypts all your phone calls and texts so that if someone intercepts the signal all they will get is a string of gibberish. Modern 3G and 4G encryption is actually rather good. So good, in fact, that GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters, the British version of our NSA) and the NSA have trouble breaking it. Rather than breaking it, back in 2009 they decided to do an end run around it.

They hacked into the computer systems of Gemalto, the aforementioned SIM card manufacturer, and cyber-stalked its employees. (Gemalto supplies AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint, along with 450 others) They figured out how to automate the theft of the codes burned into millions of SIM cards distributed worldwide. They also figured out how to associate these codes with individuals who own mobile phones.

What this means is that any time they want, the NSA and GCHQ can easily decrypt phone calls and text messages from any Gemalto-SIM phone. It is a massive, ongoing, and deliberate breach of privacy. I’ll be interested to see the reaction to this when it becomes generally known.

In the meantime, the Electronic Frontier Foundation recommends the use of apps such as Signal/Redphone (iOS/Android versions), Silent Phone, and Silent Text to encrypt your communications, if you feel the need.

Am I the only one who thinks that the NSA needs a top-to-bottom ream and steam to clean the place out?

Thursday
Feb122015

Against the Sacred 

Sanctity doesn’t work anymore.

By sanctity, and the sacred, I mean the belief that some acts are right or wrong aside from their consequences, and that some people (living or dead), objects and places have a value derived from their place in a supernatural or ideological belief system. I mean both religious sanctity and nationalistic or cultural sanctity, where history and cultural identity substitute for holy writ.

Sanctity and taboo worked as a substitute for science in the pre-scientific history of humanity. Culturally evolved food restrictions, behavioral rules, and far reaching taboos against the marriage of close relatives did the job before we knew about bacteria, psychology or genetics. But now we do know about bacteria, psychology and genetics.

The concept of the sacred poses a number of problems for us. First, it is non-negotiable. The value of an action based on scientific understanding can be weighed against other actions and their consequences. If it’s sacred, well, that’s it. End of discussion. Of course, one group’s definition of sacred inevitably conflicts with another group, and mayhem results. There’s a sliver of sacred land at the eastern end of the Mediterranean that has been giving humanity trouble for the past 1300 years on just this basis.

Second, being non-consequentialist and non-scientific, the pursuit of sanctity leads people off in directions that are at best pointless and at worst destructive. Billions of people waste valuable energy and resources, risk disease, and cripple their societies while trying to follow rules that haven’t made practical sense for generations. That is, if they ever did.

Third, sanctity being absolute, it is an excuse for whatever barbarity the human mind can invent. If God said so and eternal damnation or paradise is on the line, then what’s a massacre here or there? The recent shootings in Paris and the Boko Haram killings in Nigeria inspired this essay, but these are actually small events compared to the holy wars of history. As an example, the 30 Years War (~1618-1648) killed off a quarter of the population of Germany, with some unfortunate areas losing two-thirds of their populations. Although there were a number of economic and cultural factors in that war, the dividing lines were based on religious authority.

Religious leaders have used the term “moral relativism” as an insult. I would counter that moral absolutism has killed hundreds of millions of people. I also notice that the most conservative and absolute religionists seem least concerned with human death and suffering and most concerned with relativism in the field of consensual sexual behavior.

Is nothing sacred? No, nothing is sacred. However, there are many things with value, for real, pragmatic reasons.

People have value. I mean living people, the ones right in front of you and far away from you. People, with all our needs and desires, full of imagination, rejoicing in companionship, sensing our environment, held together by a delicate layer of skin. We need to value each other for the very practical reason that we need to live together. To consider a person sacred is to base human value on a shadow.

Our planet has value. Again, this has nothing to do with a gift from a god or the responsibilities of a supernatural belief system. We need this place to be functional in order to survive. Theologians cannot debate us into or out of this understanding.

Books, artifacts, and places have value only in their utility. Utility sounds like a gray, joyless word, but the happiness we feel in the presence of beauty is as necessary to our species as air and water.

Campaigning against the sacred is a hard battle. The cultures and religions that promote the idea of the sacred evolved into resilient institutions. Sanctity is emotionally rewarding to the believer and interwoven with a coherent (if not logical) set of beliefs that is difficult to pick apart. Like any house of cards, removing one piece brings down the whole structure. Believers react violently to that.

Difficult though it is, people of good will must engage in this conflict. The Koran, the American flag, Jerusalem, the Field of the Blackbirds; these are just things and places. Jesus and Mohammed are dead and beyond our profane reach, whatever your belief about their divinity or place in an afterlife. The Pope, the Dalai Lama, and all such priests, monks, ministers, shamans and other religious types are just people. They have as much value as the rest of us but no more.

We can’t attack the sacred directly. That would engender resistance rather than wisdom. We can, however, encourage critical thinking, including the teaching of critical thinking skills in our schools. Conservative religionists have attacked just such courses in public schools, which makes me think that they are working. We can also encourage those who advocate for the sacred (secular or religious) to follow the path of their own ideas to their conclusion. Most people don’t go past an initial emotional reaction. When people actually try to reason their way through such a belief it dissolves into nonsense in front of them. This doesn’t always make a difference. The ability of humans to hold two contradictory beliefs at the same time is universal. Nevertheless, we should try. Sanctity just isn’t working out for us.