By John Kendall Hawkins
Australia’s the kind of place where, after twenty years here, you can wake up one morning to a sucker-punch epiphany — wow! This is what it would be like if the South had won the Civil War. No slavery, but a mindset, sometimes an arrogance that comes at you like Dylan’s twisty freight train. Not a place to feel like an outsider. It can seem a bit surreal, a place where, from coast to coast, they can force their children to read To Kill A Mockingbird in the day to educate them on the banality of injustice, but then bring them along to the lynching of an Uppity that night. These are dangerous, Sam Kinison-like thoughts, and as Bobby would say, “If my thought-dreams could be seen, they’d probably put my head in a guillotine.” So I cool it.
On the other hand, by comparison to America, Australia has a model social safety net in place. Bernie Sanders would be envious. Socialist Democratic values work. You can provide backbone support for public needs, and still leave plenty of elbowing room for capitalism and getting obscenely rich. They have Medicare-for-all here; while the system needs tweaks, nobody goes without necessary medical care; just make an appointment. Tertiary education can be paid for through generous government loans paid back through a sensible income-indexed scheme. (Once upon a time, tertiary education here was free.) And there is government assistance with income and housing for those in need.
It’s a self-described “clever” and “lucky” country, but also, like many other countries, full of strange and sometimes dark contradictions. Waltzing Matilda laid back, but Sam Kinison in your face, too.
Julian Assange is from this place. He spent part of his early childhood on Magnetic Island, off the coast of Queensland. One account describes his “wild…Tom Sawyer-like” childhood. And there is even a Jumping Frog of Calaveras County atmosphere to the place that Mark Twain would have smiled at. Later, he moved to the mainland and had a sturm-und-drang childhood, featuring the misfit blues and loneliness, but also self-education and computers — just as the Internet was mainstreaming. Then Dennis the Menace grew up to become an Enema of the State.
He’s a kind of Libertarian (and libertine) who wants limited corporate and governmental influence on individual lives; he loathes all the strutting, data-driven Machiavells, and champions the dying light of simple privacy, even if it must be decked out in the chainmail of be-knighted encryption. He seems to repel both Democrats and Republicans these days — leaks and hacks, hacks and leaks: the Democrats hate him for undermining Hillary; Trump seems to hate Assange for helping him get elected and seems in a hurry to get him imprisoned for espionage before Wikileaks can release the president’s tax records.
It can seem shocking at times — the mind double-takes — to think that this guy came from a nation that doesn’t especially value the freedoms he pushes on the rest of the world. Unlike most modern democratic countries, there is no Bill of Rights, or the like, to fall back on in Australia if the government decides to “crack down” on freedom. Aussies largely see themselves as “egalitarian,” and the aforementioned solid social safety net is a great quietener of political passions, but the American-driven War on Terror has begun to expose just how few protections people have here, should that ever matter to them.
Thus, a few years back, Australia passed an anti-terrorist measure in parliament, which, while providing for the necessary means to deal with incidents, used language that left open the possibility that the law could lead to serious abuses, such as torture and the undermining of the preumption of innocence. More recently, anti-encryption legislation was passed that has alarmed some citizens, who see it as an assault on privacy and journalism. And even more recently, a legislative amendment to the espionage act made trafficking in top secret information illegal — a virtual shutting down of whistleblowing in Australia.
As Senator David Leyonhjelm, expressed in a Melbourne Age article recently, “These provisions are shameful. As a nation we should be better than this. Australia is engaged in a fight against barbarism, but that does not justify becoming barbarians ourselves.” As in most places, many Australians would just see the sum of such legislation as a matter of having a contingency plan in place to prevent horrific terrorist events from happening and for dealing with them efficiently if they do. However, there are some troubling signs of suppression already at work.
Recently, the Sydney offices of the national ABC network were raided by Australian Federal Police and a huge trove of data was seized, including leaked documents, images and videos, knowns as The Afghan Files, purporting to contain evidence of the murders of civilians and their cover-up. The ABC had produced and aired a seven-part story in 2017. Two years later: No story in the future — or the past — is safe from prosecution, it seems. The ABC believes the public interest is established; the exposed events being a revelation of military war criminality gone uninvestigated. When asked for a response, the Prime Minister Scott Morrison was “dismissive.”
In a separate incident, an ABC journalist’s home in Canberra was raided in an effort to secure sensitive documents obtained by reporter Annika Smethurst which she used in a 2018 story to show Australian Signal Directorate plans to enhance its domestic spying capacity. News, because, like the CIA in America, they’re not empowered to spy domestically. So, again, it’s definitely news of public interest. The government just wants to know who leaked the story.
The besieged and shrinking media in Australia has been intimidated by legal constraints for years — even away from national security issues. For instance, back in 2014 the Israelis bombed Gaza in a much-publicized incident that brought international outrage. Israelis were captured by photographers at a Sderot hillside watching the carnage and “treating the bombing as a spectator sport.” A Sydney Morning Herald cartoonist, drawing information from various photos, depicted the scene in such a way that Jewish defamation groups attacked the cartoon as “anti-semitic” because the cartoonist used religious symbols (star of David, kippah), as well as showing an Israeli holding a TV remote control, as if viewing a Netflix streaming movie. Cowed editors pulled the cartoon, despite the political accuracy of its depiction. (Still at it. Just saying.)
Australian politicians are on record as regarding Julian Assange as a criminal; one former attorney-general even went so far as to suggest cancelling his passport and charging him with treason, and, if convicted, of imprisoning him for life. Under present laws, even possession of the brief that suggested he be charged with treason could be criminalized and a journalist reporting on it charged. In this political milieu it is amazing that Julian Assange ever grew up to be a defender of freedom — the press, individual public rights, human privacy. Amazing. Probably it helped enormously that he just didn’t fit in.
Julian Assange, like most journalists, just wants to keep the Bastards honest. It’s the job of the Fourth Estate. Like it says over the masthead of the Washington Post, (maybe ironically) “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” We need to know about atrocities committed overseas in our name (see flag). We need to know when elected representatives who promised the moon landing to put them in office are lying ot hiding facts that would interest the people who them there. And we need to know when they are “cracking down” on freedom in Australia every bit as much as when they are “cracking down” down on freedom of expression in Tiananmen Square.
In September, Scott Morrison will become the first Australian Prime Minister to visit the White House since John Howard. (Howard, no fan of a Bill of Rights at home, once demanded that the Iraqis include such a Bill in their own constitution. That’s kind of the way it is here.) Who knows what Scott and Donald will talk about. But one likely subject is immigration policy. Morrison, the architect of Australia’s current No Boat People Will Ever Become Citizens Here policy, can talk Trump through how to make Guatemala his own Manus Island, complete with compounds overflowing with toilet shit – you know, so they get the message.
“But all the same,” insisted the Savage, “it is natural to believe in God when you’re alone—quite alone, in the night, thinking about death…”
“But people never are alone now,” said Mustapha Mond. “We make them hate solitude; and we arrange their lives so that it’s almost impossible for them ever to have it.” Brave New World (17.31-3)
There’ll come a time when you’ve gone too far with your thinking. You’ve crossed the Imaginot line. Which is to say, à la Descartes, that you’ve gone too far with your being. Cogito ergo sum. A knock comes on your door. You open to find an agent of information (AI) say, “We have so much information on you. Please, follow me. We need to blow out your candles. Have your cake and eat it too. A long convalescence. Some adjustments and renewal.” They’re not asking and God help anyone who tries to stop them.
Amazon, Google, Facebook. Recorded Future, predictions of what you’ll do. MyActvity, the copious details of where you’ve been, what you’ve done, and implicitly what you’ve thought.. Algorithms up the yinyang. Fused databases, a life’s postings of “thoughts”. Cogitos you cannot defend. Offenses “Made” on the run, arbitrary, charges bespoken, tailored to your presumed needs. You’ve always been a criminal — like, say, Trevor Noah — but never knew until the fascists came to collect you. To blow your mind to kingdom come. And reset to factory default.
As in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, it’ll be the Savages who want to be left alone, off the grid, who appreciate the value of privacy, who will be targeted, breaking as they do from the conditioning required by late metastatic Techno-Capitalism breaking real bad. In an information age your cogito is the final frontier for economic growth, your thoughts mere commodities. Settled into Soma, you’ll soon be swimming with the endolphins and feeling new porpoise, but the reality is that the sharks are swimming all around you in algorithmic circles. Only a savage would want to be free.
In a 1958 interview with Mike Wallace, Huxley discusses his new book Enemies of Freedom and the myriad ways growing technology can be used to influence mass thinking, and suggests ways that a candidate could be pushed by subliminal forces to elect a person that reasoned consideration would otherwise have rejected. One thinks of Trump, the pushing of emotional buttons, the swarming action, the slogans, rallies, and Triumph of the Buffoon’s Will.
One also thinks of the frenzied Joseph Kony campaign, the sudden swarming by millions of largely white, clueless suburban teenagers invited to join an intervention to capture an evil, but obscure African warlord in a staggering display of militarized political correctness. Lots of money raised. Congress, which can do nothing about gun control, immediately mobilized to pass a bill to allow American soldiers to foot-down in Uganda, where oil, by coincidence, is in great supply. Nobody’s looking for Kony today; nobody any longer cares. Kony is said to be alive and still kickin’ in Central Congo.
The Trump and Kony campaigns highlight how the Internet can be used and abused by nefarious forces to create flash floods of chaos online and in the ‘hood. It’s exactly the kind of desecration and trashing that has put the father of the Web, Tim Berners Lee, into teary despair. It’ll get worse: we know now the US military regards the Internet as a battlefield, needing constant reconnaissance, and a look-out for spies. We’ve come to see that ordinary citizens can be mobilized in an instant by government agents, some of whom may not have democracy’s best interest in mind.
We’ve gone way beyond just needing to Keep the Bastards Honest. As we’ve been reminded often enough, ex-general Dwight D. Eisenhower, in his final presidential address, warned explicitly about the threat to democracy by the secretive powers and influences of the Military Industrial Complex (MIC). Only a well-informed democratic populace is capable of keeping the bastards honest. That’s the job of the Fourth Estate. Today, through mergers and shutdowns, there are fewer and fewer newspapers, and only three global mainstream newspapers of record: The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Guardian. But they aren’t trustworthy.
The NYT once quashed a crucial story by its prize-winning staff journalist James Risen about the Bush administration’s illegal domestic spying on American citizens — a story that might have derailed Bush’s re-election a couple of weeks later. The NYT claimed that they didn’t want to influence the election; but not running the story did just that. The Washington Post has, primarily through owner Jeff Bezo’s work with the CIA, been undermined; and they have worked to defame legitimate alternative news sources, such as Counterpunch and Black Agenda Report. The Guardian, while famous for helping to report on Edward Snowden’s leaks and a one-time partner with Julian Assange, has curiously withdrawn a vigor of reportage on national security issues and seemingly gone to war with Assange.
It seems like Julian Assange has been at war with the MIC forever. At least, that’s how he’s been depicted. He’s always known the Bastards couldn’t be kept honest by simple, ordinary mainstream means — not when they’ve turned into paper tigers and no longer practice adversarial journalism (their approach to Trump being the exception — and instructive). He also seems to appreciate the Abbie Hoffman yippie credo: Revolution — for the Hell of It. And he understands that the Cogito is facing extinction, threatened like never before by the forces of conditioning that will only deepen as we approach the Singularity. He’s even written an extremely thoughtful book about cryptography, how it will be required to protect privacy in the future.
In his 2012 Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet, which he calls a “warning” rather than a “manifesto, Assange writes, “The internet, our greatest tool of emancipation, has been transformed into the most dangerous facilitator of totalitarianism we have ever seen…within a few years, global civilization will be a postmodern surveillance dystopia, from which escape for all but the most skilled individuals will be impossible. In fact, we may already be there.” Hacker, certified, ethical or otherwise, Assange has demonstrated he is a kind of hero for the new dark digital age. And he’s provided tools to fight back to a new generation of ethicists.
Rewatching “Collateral Damage,” the Wikileaks video from 2010 that shows an American Apache gunship firing on unsuspecting Iraqi civilians, one is awed not only by the brazen cold-blooded murder depicted but also what the incident encapsulated: The war on journalism; the disgusting impunity the War on Terror has engendered; the secrecy and lack of accountabilty; and the sheer pleasure in the double-tap murder exhibited that goes against all the boastful bullshit of democratic America’s exceptionalist imperialism.
Well, Assange may end up a martyr for the freedom we all threw away, cogs instead of cogitos, locked away in America after an Espionage Act conviction in a max security prison, in the hole, his privacy ‘privileges’ taken away, hosed down constantly by the surveillance camera hanging from the ceiling. It’ll be interesting to see if the MSM comes to his emotional rescue when he goes on trial, criminally charged with the adversarial journalism they’ve so often neglected in the name of protecting what used to be called the bourgeoisie.
For now, they treat him like he’s all wrapped up like a douche in the night, comparing the wicked leaks of his condom one night to his wikileaks, the idea being in each case that he’s careless with the information he disseminates, and leaves behind questions as to whether his hacking was ethical or not. While the ‘vast conspiracy’ of right wing sexual hypocrites continue to press for his annihilation, Assanges and his work endures. Keeping these secrets, our thoughts — this is the last frontier. “If we do not [redefine force relations], the universality of the internet will merge global humanity into one giant grid of mass surveillance and mass control.”
In January 1918, President Woodrow Wilson presented his 14-Points to Congress, a statement of principles that became the basis for a negotiated settlement that ended World War I, including the break-up of the defeated Ottoman Empire. The speech was also meant to provide a framework for preserving world peace — an idealistic sentiment later given false teeth by the establishment of the League of Nations in 1920. Point 12 says that “the other nationalities [including Kurds] which are now under Turkish rule should be assured an undoubted security of life and an absolutely unmolested opportunity of autonomous development….” But this didn’t happen: the Turks, under Kemal Ataturk, balked at Kurdish sovereignty, and war-victorious Britain laughed at the homeland promised to the Kurds.
Today, the Kurdish diaspora is mostly spread out over four regions in the Middle East — Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. They have been, at best, a tolerated presence, almost in a constant state of battle in their pursuit of a permanent homeland. They have been used and abused for decades by the Brits and Americans — British Petroleum discovered lots of oil in the Kirkuk region in the 1920s, making the Kurdish-held province subject to seizure by Iraqis ever since. The Americans have let them down repeatedly since President Wilson’s pronouncement, including Herr Doktor Kissinger’s realpolitik double-cross of the Kurds in 1975, after they’d gone up against the Ba’athist regime at America’s behest. “Covert action should not be confused with missionary work,” said the Nobel Peace laureate.
The Kurds have been around since the time of Saladin, Muslims and Jews pushing back against Crusaders in a holy war of the Abrahamics, one Semite beating the snot out of another, that stretches back in time to happy Ozymandias (see Hubris). The family jewels were purloined from the Holy Land long ago by Europeans (Turin, Glastonbury, Paris) and there’d be no reason for Euros to have trashed the cradle of civilization again, had it not been for a new hole-y war — the discovery of oil, with all its cachet. And here we are today. George W. Bush, an oil man, called the hellish activity in the modern Middle East a “crusade…against Terrorism,” but you get the feeling his terror is all about control of the region’s oil.
Meanwhile, the Kurds are still looking for a Kurdistan that they can call Home; still in-fighting — these days against ISIS, in a poignant and seemingly hopeless narrative of constant survival. Turmoil in the region has resulted in massive displacement and a global refugee crisis. As the late Kurdish leader Mustafa Barzani asks out loud near the end of his life, “Have the Kurdish people committed such crimes that every nation in the world should be against them?” But no one seems to be listening.
Probably the most controversial narrative about one Kurd’s plight and consequent flight to freedom and stability is Behrouz Boochani’s asylum-seeking odyssey No Friend But the Mountains. In it, the 36 year old from Ilam, a Kurdish city in the mountainous northwest of Iran, details his narrow escape from Iranian religious authorities looking to arrest him for the ‘subversive’ journalism of Werya, a Kurdish cultural magazine he edits. He flees toward Australia, seeking asylum, where he hopes to find a stable life in a culture that ostensibly protects freedom, especially the fundamental freedom of expression.
Early in his award-winning memoir, Boochani wonders whether instead of heading toward Australia for personal freedom he should instead have fled to the mountains to be with his brothers-in-arms defending his people. He decides that there are different ways of being a resistance-fighter and that his weapon of choice is the pen rather than a gun. “To this very day,” he writes, “I don’t know if I have a peace-loving spirit or if I was just frightened…maybe my cowardice … redirected my thoughts to privileging the power of the pen, compelled me to pursue cultural expression as resistance.”
The problem is that for years refugees and asylum-seekers would make their way to Indonesia and then seek out traffickers who would help sneak them into Australia by boat, where they hoped to find protection from the life-threatening abuses they left behind. Unfortunately, these ‘boat people’ were often delivered in shabby vessels that sometimes fell apart at the seams, resulting in horrific deaths at sea.
In addition, from a bureaucratic point of view, these asylum-seekers were thought of a “queue-jumpers,” forcing their situation on Australian authorities busy processing the migration requests of people ‘standing in line.’ Neither the queue-jumping nor the drownings were considered acceptable, and after much political hand-wringing, the conservative Australia government came up with a poorly-named “Final Solution”: No More Asylum Boats.
Behrouz Boochani arrived in Australian waters from Indonesia just a few days after a new law went into effect that permanently excluded anyone seeking asylum who had arrived by boat. One problem solved, a new one opened: what to do with asylum-seekers who had arrived after the law went into effect on October 31, 2013?
Now without the desire to return to their countries of origin and without hope of settling in Australia, the seekers were sent to detention centers in Nauru (families) and to Manus (single males), an island off the coast of Papua New Guinea. There is no plan beyond that. Boochani, and hundreds of others, have been languishing on these islands, waiting to be processed as refugees and for third countries to offer asylum. Boochani has been waiting six years.
No Friend But the Mountains details the harrowing experience of leaps of desperation and the tyranny of time, observes the processes of unwarranted confinement keenly, explores the catastrophe of dumping a first world migration policy into a third world colony’s lap. The risks asylum-seekers take are extraordinary. Boochani, a poet as well as a journalist, describes the terror of the boat ride from Indonesia to Australia:
The ruckus of our terrified group
The sound of weeping in the background
The beating of waves
The petrified, silent screaming
The tormented wailing
Waves rocking a cradle containing a corpse
Hour after hour of adrenaline waves and the fear of imminent drowning.
Boochani observes his environs with a certain poetical style; he’s tuned in to the sensual and the sensory. Stuck in the Manus Island detention center, pacing, without hope, under a sun so hot it feels like he’s being “cremated.” Multi-cultural refugees crossing paths in their pacings; united facilely by their common plight, but ultimately divided by language, religion, and tribe; assigned numbers to make it easier for the staff to avoid remembering their names. Boochani nicknames everyone he sees: The Blue Eyed Boy, The Toothless Fool, The Young Guy With A Ponytail, The Irascible Iranian, The Cadaver, Maysam The Whore, The Gentle Giant, etc. Afghan, Sri Lankan, Sudanese, Lebanese, Iranian, Somali, Pakistani, Rohingya, Iraqi, Kurdish.
Even the generator has a nickname — The Oldman Generator — and seems to be possessed by a malignant spirit, “a living being, with a soul, an organism that takes pleasure in throwing the prison into disarray whenever it feels like it.” The most meagre comfort depends on its operation — the water pump for flushing toilets. When it fails, and it does regularly, the consequences are immediate. “Within a few minutes,” he writes, “the toilets cease to function and the smell of shit and piss sweeps, the whole space from end-to-end.” The stench grows, the floor floods. The heat saps and drives them toward insanity.
Being on Manus Island means dealing with the locals, who provide much of the low-level maintenance and serve as guards. They don’t want the asylum-seekers in their community. They are resentful at having no say in details worked out by PNG and Australian citizens miles and miles away. “The imprisoned refugees feel that they are in a nightmare; their feelings about the locals are transformed into a nightmare,” Boochani thinks. Colonized, the locals have an odd presence, tribal instincts married to a rustic Australian humor gone feral, almost phantasmagorical.
According to Human Rights Watch,“[G]roups of local young men, often intoxicated and sometimes armed with sticks, rocks, knives, or screwdrivers, have frequently assaulted and robbed refugees and asylum seekers on Manus Island.
Details of riot and closing.” The tension mounted until a group of about 80 locals broke into the refugee compound and attacked the detainees on February 17, 2014 and Reza Barati, The Gentle Giant, was murdered by locals.
No Friend But the Mountains is in a sense a conjuring up of the evil of banality, the extraordinary dreariness of inescapable routine, of progress into some future not marked by time but by mythopoesis, a mental journey that, as you pace in the sun, or lay back looking up from your bunk in the night, dissolves your connectedness not to reality but the presumptions you once lived by, every moment of uncertainty a brand new paradigm. Doing laundry, flip-flopping through slip-slop, lining up for chow, observing the inward-looking others pacing, orbiting the yard.
As he watches his fellows drift toward depression, self-harm and suicidal ideation, Boochani muses, “These forced conditions of loneliness make everyone endure scenes of an internal odyssey that would ruin any man. The odyssey summons dark angels and secrets relegated to the unconscious; like a magical curse it positions before every prisoner’s eyes the most long-standing issues and bad blood tied up in the soul.” Hopelessness married to time begets torture.
Eventually, after being told by authorities over and over that they will never be allowed into Australia, the Papua New Guinea supreme court declares the detention center “illegal” and it is closed down on October 31, 2017. Detainees must now leave the compound. More tension erupts, as feeling unsafe in the community, some asylum-seekers refuse to leave, leading to violence during forced removals to ne, semi-open encampments elsewhere on Manus, run by Paladin, a controversial contractor, providing essential services and security to the asylum-seekers.
No Friend But the Mountains represents a new kind of intersection of social apps, poetry, academic analysis, philosophy, as well as memoir. It has been celebrated as a new form of crucial journalism — WhatsApp messages developed into a book of observations in detention. This novelty seems to have sparked enthusiasm for championing the book that followed. Boochani has won a series of Australia’s richest literary prizes for his memoirs and has been hailed as “one of Australia’s finest writers,” despite not being allowed to enter Australia. A separate documentary, using the same mobile phone, has been released. An animated glimpse into his adventure is available.
But perhaps the wildest development out of the memoir (and other accounts) is a play titled Manus written by Iranian writer Nazanin Sahamizadeh. It premiered in, of all places, Tehran. Iranian theatre-goers were treated to a play showing “the inhumane conditions and human rights violations in the Manus camp.”
John Donne once wrote that no man is an island, but what did he know? His bells were always tolling over something. Ask Boochani — he sees himself as “an island in an archipelago,” most days entire unto himself. It must seem strange, for a man coming from a stateless culture, to be left stateless by another culture trying to make a statement; taking up his pen not against the enemies of Kurdistan but of freedom.
Sometimes the ironies, contradictions and absurdities mount so high to fuel the pyre that honors our postmodern relativism — oh, the vanity of bonfires! — that one wonders what must go through the minds of aliens looking down as they watch the spontaneous combustion of a species. What blue ship in the starry night is this that is all “mutiny from stern to bow” from dawn to dusk every walking-plank day? Sometimes the humanistic Captain Kirk seems in charge, like an acid trip redux, but if you blink you see instead Queeg razing Caine over strawberries, or, most often, the militaristic Ahab, who doesn’t have a leg to stand on whenever he tries to explain his rabbit-hole obsession with the white Russian whale. What must they think?
I was watching the 1965 film Ship of Fools the other day. The cautionary film was based upon the novel by Katherine Anne Porter, who was inspired by the satirical medieval classic by Sebastian Brant, who, in turn, derived his notions of neurotic oceans from Plato’s reference in the Republic. The trope has found its way into song (The Doors), as well as painting (see Bosch) and even modern sculpture. In the film, the fascistic rise of Nazi Germany is pre-figured on a luxury liner cruising off Mexico in 1933. Sardined migrant workers languish in the hold, while, above them, First Class passengers (mostly Germans) luxuriate and squabble over the politics of class, gender, and pre-Krisstalnacht anti-semitism. The malignant leather cancer metastasizes before your eyes.
The signs are always there, it will always seem, in retrospect. Russian meddling in American elections. You double-take as you hear President Obama admonish the Russians, shortly after the 2016 presidential election, “We can do stuff to you.” I’m old enough to remember that such ‘stuff’ has been going on for awhile. In 1996, Americans crowed about having meddled in the Russian presidential election. Well, you could argue that they can do stuff too.
Let’s recount. Reagan told Gorbachev to “tear down that wall” in Berlin. He did, along with the Iron Curtain. The neoliberals rushed in like RawdyYates in Rawhide with their bling and sto ho ethos. The oligarchs took over in Russia. Clinton installed the dancing circus bear Boris Yeltsin and laughed so hard at the president’s buffoonery that it looked for awhile like America would be friends-for-life with the Russkies. Maybe they could do stuff together.
But not every Russian citizen liked being represented on the world stage by a drunken lout. So maybe the Russians did stuff back: Maybe they did meddle. They larfed their asses off when Edward Snowden became the most famous American defector since Lee Harvey Oswald. And now we have our own humiliating buffoon calling the shots, while the Russkies tumble over themselves laughing, as Trump cries, ‘Put up that wall! Or iron curtain, or whatever you wanna call it. Doesn’t matter.’ Thus Spake Saint Gropian, patron saint of coarse and vulgar people. Well, Putin came after Yeltsin. KGB. Who will come after Trump’s second term (wink)? Won’t be Biden, Bernie or Pocohantas. They’ll all be too old. Maybe even dead, if they’re lucky. Maybe a disciplinarian’s on-deck.
Americans don’t need the Russians; we’re not above rocking our own ship of state with meddled elections. You don’t hear about it much or in context. Nixon did McGovern in (1972). Reagan boinked Carter (1980). And Bush whacked Gore (2000). In all three instances, potential treason is in play. In Gore’s case, not only did his loss open up the still-suppurating ugliness of race politics in America, but we may have lost our best chance at climate change leadership, here and abroad. Instead, we got 9 Eleven™. Now it’s too late, as the prophet-driven Bob Marley put it, because “Nobody can stop them now.”
Well, as Bobby Dylan would say, people’ve been drawing conclusions on the wall for quite awhile now, the signs have been there for the seeing. I’ve counted at least seven signs. Odd shit happening. The Pentagon, after decades of denial, suddenly announcing they’ve been chasing UFOs and providing evidence. People developing the Truman Show syndrome, thinking “that their lives are staged reality shows, or that they are being watched on cameras.” Verbs trying to take down nouns. Dinosaurs having the last laugh, as they release the comet energy that they absorbed onto us. DARPA talking ‘bout robo-bees replacing the dying honey-bees. The Pentagon talking Gay Bombs to drop on enemies, but pulling back at the last moment no doubt for fear of the potential blow-back, literally.
I’ve been saying for years that if the gargoyles are now in charge of the cathedrals — those colossi of pure beauty and holy terror worthy of any God’s love — then it’s time to tear the cathedrals down. Lo and behold, next thing I know, Notre Dame forest has gone poof! The firemen ate cake. The gilded crown of Christ was saved. No insurance. The 1% came to the rescue. Will it be known in the future as the MacDonalds Notre Dame Cathedral. Will we have to pray to the candy-colored clown christ of capitalism in the future? What was Quasimodo’s alibi that day anyway? Signs.
An enquiring mind wants to know how is it possible that a flat-earther like basketball star Kyrie Irving is allowed to dribble that round round ball so recklessly on that flat flat rectangular surface, repeatedly going off the edge of his world on lay-ups? Signs.
And then another sign. The controversy over a new app called DeepNude, described as an app that “Undresses a Photo of Any Woman With a Single Click.” Kind of like the Male Gaze fights back. Needless to say, in this #MeToo era, the app was pulled, pitchforks, torches, and calls to storm the Bastard were hailed. Actually, Ray Milland demoed the product in The Man with the Xray Eyes. But when they took away his glasses he went into a tailspin funk and ended up drinking himself half to death in The Lost Weekend.
Let’s face it: Ever since We fell from grace after eating an iApple from the Tree of Knowledge and were unceremoniously booted from Eden, God telling Adam, while pointing at the newly ribbed Eve, “take her with you and go fuck yourself. You’ll see.” After millennia of cultural and technological ‘evolution’ we arrive back, catastrophic methane bubbles popping out of the sea all around us, at the place we started from without knowing it, God taunting us, “So how did you like them apples?” Meaning everything from the be-bop bone in 2001: A Space Odyssey to the wormholes and the quantum and the mofo multiverses ahead. A self-made Adam carries a worn-out Eve across the threshold, from a living hell back to a Paradise frozen over. See ya.
Like some latter day Prufrock, I have measured out my life in Dylan tunes. Fifty years of one more cup of coffee. That’s a lot of coffee. That’s a lot of stirring. It started out with the folkies jumping on the bandwagon of his early ballads of change — lots of wind blowing, lots of hard rain — until Pete Seeger jumped him at the ‘65 Newport festival, reportedly taking an axe to his amp; Dylan was off the wagon. Fuck the bourgeois folkies, I went with Napoleon in rags, AKA Alias. I stirred through it all and dropped another cube.
Then I went electric with Dylan for forty years, moving down an endless highway, endless tour of coffee shops, stirring people everywhere, and every place he went with his retinue of wise fools and besotted sages, becoming the circus that was in town, wafting the whiff of chaos we desired like some pheromone that made you feel politically pretty for at least the length of a song. Starting out like Abbie Hoffman’s revolutionary-for-the-hell-of-it, bringing theatre to the crowded fire of the times, and ending up, some say, like the Wall Street brokers Hoffman once rained dollar bills down on, snorkeling for dollars in the stock yard.
Fifty years later, old age hitting me, like a freight train, gone the idealism that we all thought underwrote and justified the “benign” excesses of American democracy, I struggle with the relevancy of all things Dylan. I struggle with post-modernity and the relevance of relevance, the is of is-ness. Like Prufrock, I have arrived at that place again, where time is an ocean that ends at the shore, and have seen it for what it is for the first time — like some truculent escaped runaway through time, caught in a Truffault tracking shot lasting decades and ending with me facing the camera, fin de siecle stamped to my face like Jimmy Cagney’s twisted grapefruit in Public Enemy. What can Dylan do when you’re fresh out of mermaids and you’re going down in the flood of all that consciousness?
I pondered, sitting down with one last cup of coffee, as settled in, with my son, to Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese, newly released on Netflix. I remember the tour well. In Boston, a portion of the tour was broadcast live from Texas and I videotaped the concert with my Sony Portapak, commercials and all, and later had it illicitly transferred to cassette tape by two sound engineers at the University of Massachusetts, who groused the whole time about Dylan’s relevance and corruption (but made sure that they got their copy of the concert), and found, as I made the rounds, that nobody gave a squat about the tape, most of my friends and acquaintances having settled into Bob Marley’s more “global” appeal and less taken with the Dylan “mystique.” Political extraversion, bodies in motion, was winning the day over moody introversion, which seemed irrelevant to a world on the brink of nuclear war.
I mostly enjoyed watching much of Scorses’s film. It was especially gratifying to nostalgitate with Joan Baez and Allen Ginsberg, the latter’s opening lines of Howl sprinkled throughout the film like a grave motif, “I saw the best minds of my generation / destroyed by madness, starving / hysterical naked, / dragging themselves through the negro / streets at dawn looking for an angry / fix angelheaded hipsters burning for the / ancient heavenly connection to the / starry dynamo in the machinery of / the night.” Fuckin’ ay.
But I didn’t find any real relevance to the film. It was good to see Dylan re-animated by the ‘70s. His interview seemed as inchoate as ever, your desire for him to be profound, trumping common sense and the bald fact that he was blurting old fart cliches (but then, much of the attraction of his whole schtick over the years has largely been his phrasing of cliches and truisms, which I don’t hold against him, given its Nobel quality performance value). I kept waiting for relevancy to kick in, and sorely missed the exclusion of songs in the doco, such as I had recorded earlier with my Portapak — the ever-relevant cover of Woody Guthrie’s “Deportee,” for instance, would have reminded viewers how long the southern border “crisis” has been with us. I stopped watching the doco about 80 percent of the way through, when my son excused himself to go off to a more relevant party and I sat stewing in ennui.
In his Netflix interview, at one point Dylan laments how we, the people, no longer remember the lines from great poets any more — he cites Ginsberg, Whitman and Frost — but settle for lyrical snatches from popular songs. I find this true and untrue. I get asked at times over the years what my favorite Dylan tunes is — an impossible-to-answer request; no true Dylan aficionado should have to answer — and, always, I find myself saying, “Love Minus Zero.” I don’t really know why. It just seems a perfect and beautiful tune, and no rhymes.
Otherwise, it’s true, it’s no longer Dylan albums that reach out to me any more, but the lyrics that stand the test of time: “It’s easy to see without looking to far that not much is really sacred.” Have we as a species, seemingly at the height of our consciousness, ever been more profane? “The angels play on their horns all day / the whole earth in progression seems to pass by / but does anyone hear the music they play? / Does anyone even try?” No emojis for that emotion. And later, in “Trying to Get to Heaven” from Time Out of Mind, “I’ll close my eyes and I wonder / if everything is as hollow as it seems.” Stuff you don’t even want to think about, if you’re Prufrock measuring out another coffee spoon. And, from the same song, the ever-profound observation, for which no comment is required or adequate: “When you think you’ve lost everything / You find out you can always lose a little more.”
Heady stuff. But then you weigh it up, as I recently did, with the crass jingle-ism that you would think Dylan doesn’t need any more — the beer commercials during Super Bowl 2019, the one an “arty” Budweiser ad that features “Blowing in the Wind,” and the other featuring Jeff Bridges’ Dude making a cameo appearance to pitch “change is good” by way of switching to Stella Artois, “The Man in Me,” cooing in the background. If you’re not careful, you could almost think you’re seeing double. So, I dunno, which beer should I drink? I close my eyes and I wonder. Does Dylan need such bier hall push to stay relevant at this stage?
More bizarre is the whole silly saga of his new whiskey brand, Heaven’s Door. First is the question whether Dylan “stole” the name from an already-existing whiskey company, as they claim. That laughed aside, the most likely reason why Dylan decided to splash out, post-Nobel, on a whiskey factory is because his namesake, Dylan Thomas, has been exploited by a UK whiskey company, the mofos actually using the most famous line from his villanelle — “Do not go gentle into that good night.” Was Heaven’s Door, arch Dylan’s answer to such a molestation? A kind of inside joke? Can a whiskey company really sell a 10 year-old whiskey when it’s only been open six months. Again, I close my eyes and I wonder. Musing aside, the $50 100 proof double-barrel whiskey itself is pretty good, smooth, lyrical, honey to the tongue, or as the Heaven’s Door site says: “The richness of the vanillin and lipids imparted by the barrel are obvious and welcome, in that, the buttery texture underlines the gustatory power.” Jokerman at work? WTFK.
Similar wry devilry seems to have been at work with his selection as the Nobel laureate for literature in 2016. Not only was he coy about accepting the award in the first place, acting like the folkies were trying to kidnap him and force him to give a “spokesman for a generation” speech, he waited until the very last moment, when losing the ka-ching was on the line, before he accepted. (Did he finance Heaven’s Door with the Nobel money?) Great controversy ensued. His friend Ginsberg’s pushy nomination aside, just about everyone knows that Dylan should have received a Nobel prize for Performance, not Literature. You’d like to think that Nobels are awarded not just for lifetime achievement, but also for relevancy.
Holding a Dylan CD cover now feels like Hamlet must have felt, graveside, holding up the skull, exclaiming, “Alas, poor Yorick,” followed by the fond remembrance of things past, how Dylan helped inspire through my early years. Now, there’s serious shit ahead, and the end feels nigh; Dylan’s not so relevant. Dylan himself seems to know this at times. He says that when he wrote the song “Titanic,” off his album Tempest (released on 9/11), he was literally watching the James Cameron film. A chance to put the upstairs/downstairs of American culture in perspective at a time of 1percent / 99 percent and he chose to do session work with the band. No reference to climate change and the growing lack of icebergs. Or maybe “Titanic” was a winky nod to lefty conspiracy-theorists re: 9/11. Fans will, as always, fill in the gaps of any real concern on his part.
One of Dylan’s great lyrics haunts me ever in these days of constant and growing surveillance, both inside the mind (Facebook, Google, and Amazon algorithms) and outside the mind (NSA, the slow strangulation of freedom of speech and thought Snowden and Assange have warned us about), is from “It’s Alright, Ma” off his Bringing It All Back Home album. “If my thought-dreams could be seen / they’d probably put my head in a guillotine.” Words were never more prophetic. It’s just that, as the world breaks bad, seemingly under the stress of democracy’s end and the imminent Singularity threatening humanity’s demise, I’d like a response more akin to Heisenberg in the face of the powers that be than what Dylan seems to raise a glass to. “Life is about creating yourself,” he says in the Scorsese film. As the locusts arrived. It kinda give me a chill
My bedridden grandfather used to say, a Will Rogers twinkle in his eyes, “If you’re not a little wacky today, there’s something wrong with you.” That was back in the ‘60s, in the days of ‘Nam and Love, when everyone seemed to have a little jungle floating around in their heads, and you were either grooving on the stench of Napalm in the Morning or the sweet aroma of Reefer Madness mournings.
I kept grandpa’s wisdom in mind throughout my undergraduate years as a philosophy student. Through the study of Hamlet and his problematical disposition(s). Through my Sanity and Madness class, featuring Foucault, the Ship of Fools, and the world seen as an upstairs-downstairs Titanic without icebergs and going down in the Flood. And through Jung and Freud, the Human Condition as an archetypal rainbow leading the seeker to a pot of gold of selfhood versus the grumpy old self-destructiveness of the Id-bound human mess never to be sufficiently “sublimated” as depicted in Civilization and Its Discontents.
Nietzsche really did me in though, when it came to a vision of madness. Who was. Who wasn’t. In Beyond Good and Evil, he wrote, “Madness is rare in individuals – but in groups, parties, nations, and ages it is the rule.” If that was true in 1886, before the War to End All Wars and the One That Followed, etc., then it’s even truer today, now that we’ve taken to declaring a global war on an abstract noun: Terrorism. When you have such an open word (one man’s ceiling, another man’s floor), can it be very long before the leathered-up verbs wake from their dogmatics slumbers and reified concepts start disappearing at freefall speed into their own footprints?
Well, I was thinking about all the evidence of wackiness I’ve seen since that boyhood visit to my accidental oracle (who really only wanted a shot of whiskey (I gave him two) before collapsing back onto his bed, only to wake up later alone staring up a constellation of night-glow stars someone pasted to his ceiling), as I began reading the newly released Let Me Not Be Mad by A. K. Benjamin. It’s a book, a memoir about intersections, existential concentricity, a Venn diagram that illustrates the fragility of boundaries between people and their concepts of themselves and others.
Let Me Not Be Mad is written by a psychiatrist who fears he may be going insane, as he listens — as he deeply empathizes — with the narratives his clients bring to him, tales of survival and “resilience” in the Carnivalesque world we accept as normal, the mid-point of the acceptability bell-curve most of us strive up like gig economy Sisyphuses, only to inevitably backslide for reasons that Dr. Benjamin is there to help us come to terms with through reasoning and listening without judgement.
What makes Benjamin’s modus o. unusual (these days) is his near-absence from relying on Big Pharma prescriptions for DSM-guided diagnoses he himself doesn’t fully believe in. The other thing is he’s a people doctor, he believes in talking, listening, Being There in the clients’ narratives, not so much for analysis but to honor the narrative by participating as a reader would a story. But what happens for Benjamin is that he discovers that being the serene pond upon which these anxious raindrops fall, and interpenetrate, has its price: his own sense of sanity.
Benjamin begins to have virtual out-of-body experiences, seeing himself in the bodies of others facing himself as doctor, over-empathizing as it were; in the end, he sees himself as his own client sitting beore himself. He mixes and matches the Venn narratives until they and he become part of the same story, without the usual “professional” separation between story and reader. Freud first warned of this hazard between patient and doctor in his discussion of transference and counter-transference. Freud saw it as inevitable, to evolve such feelings, but such inevitability has been largely quashed today by the current practice of diagnosing symptoms (think: astrology charts) and putting everyone on psychotropics (it is a jungle in there).
However, a better reference point would be Anton Chekhov’s “Ward No. 6.” Ivan, a long-term patient on the ward, confronts Andrey Yefimitch, his psychiatrist, one day: “,,,You have seen nothing of life, you know absolutely nothing of it, and are only theoretically acquainted with reality; you despise suffering and are surprised at nothing for a very simple reason: vanity of vanities, the external and the internal, contempt for life, for suffering and for death, comprehension, true happiness–that’s the philosophy that suits the … sluggard best.” Most contemporary psychiatrists would up the dosage, if they heard such “drivel,” but Benjamin, like Yelfimitch, is stricken by the truth enunciated. It hurts him to realize we suffer in our separation from each other through some almost-arbitrary imposition of yet another dominant abstract noun: Normal.
And this of course leads one to think back on the revolution that almost was in psychiatry in the early ‘70s, when prominent Scottish psychiatrist R. D. Laing totally rejected the artificial boundary between normal and abnormal experience. As he famously put it: “insanity — a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world.” He elaborated on this in The Politics of Experience. “Social phenomenology,” he writes, “is the science of my own and of others’ experience. It is concerned with the relation between my experience of you and your experience of me. That is, with inter-experience. It is concerned with your behaviour and my behaviour as I experience it, and your and my behaviour as you experience it.” Benjamin’s memoir is demonstration of this entanglement of selves co-producing “reality.”
One narrator after another comes to tell their tale of intersecting with reality: Tracy, Bron, Craig, JB, et. al., until finally, as at the beginning, there is You, facing yourself, your own client, your own doctor. They come in, at him, “Daughter, mother, father, marriage, family, broken in an instant, by [some freakish moment that changes everything]. No need to tell them their family will never be the same again.” It is a struggle to maintain one’s intensity, one’s empathy level, story after story. It may be the memoir’s finest feature: it’s depiction of the complexity of humanity, and its embracement.
Benjamin’s intersection is not just with clients coming to him in the privacy of an office; they’re everywhere: “I walked over London bridge in rush hour, faces thronging around me, and diagnosed each one in an instant:’Psychosis…Depression…LewyBodies…Panic…Depression…Sociopath…OCD…Cynophobia…Panic…Guam’s…’ Everybody has something, and now there’s a name for it, even if it’s fear of having something, of going insane, aka dementophobia.” What if the pandemic we were waiting for were not physical but mental, a disease that devastates consciousness, the one major advantage that humans have over the animal world? If the animal world around us going extinct, one species at a time, why not us?
Entropy all around us; we see permanence at our own risk. Benjamin sees people falling apart all around him, and in this mass of half-formed people he sees himself, he passes himself, like T.S. Eliot’s “compound ghost,” and asks himself a rhetorical question: “Can you have a breakdown in a breakdown? What if everything is breaking down, always breaking down? A self-portrait in a convex mirror that has been smashed to smithereens.”
Benjamin is not merely concerned with the present, with the lack of therapeutic talking/listening, and the total capitulation to maintenance drugs in America — opiates, marijuana, and other prescribed mind-altering drugs, but he keenly understands where we stand in relation to the future, the continuous convergence of man and machine. Like Freud, he doesn’t have an optimistic sense of our current evolutionary direction.
He writes, “It’s been the decade of the brain for the last twenty-five years. Fashions come and go; the cortex, the subcortex, white-matter tracts, relay speed, gamma oscillations, secret pathways which openly in the dead of night….It’s not too cynical to suggest that we too might run the risk of getting lost constructing fantastically elaborate and expensive simulacra of our own ideas.” Not just a warning about AI; it’s a warning about our own humanity, together and alone.
The Harry Truman Show double-tapped the “Japs” in ‘45, not to end World War 2 ASAP, but to flourish the Yankee saber before the Ruskies at Potsdam and ensure they knew who the sheriff was in the new world order that followed, according to some accounts. Like two ancient warrior tribes, the Anglos and the Vikings, say, the Americans have been rattling words and swords ever since, from Sputnik to Stuxnet, from Lee Harvey Oswald to Edward Snowden. They are inextricably linked in modern history and, like the synthetic product of a Hegelian dialectical struggle, have revolutionized the world together.
You could draw a straight line from Sputnik to Stuxnet, from the early battle to control outer-space to the World War Cyber we are currently in. Sputnik, the world’s first man-made satellite, was seen as a Russian warning shot across the bow of the growing American talk-soft-Exceptionalism-and-carry-a-big-nuclear-stick empire. Out of the ensuing reactionary panic, the Pentagon developed the first internet (ARPANET), which was designed, in part, to be a Doomsdaycommunication system to ensure that American ICBM missiles could retaliate, should the Cold War get hot in a hurry.
It was a long time in coming, but Stuxnet, like Sputnik, is a firing-across-the-bow, an American warning to the world, but especially to the Russkies, that it’s game on in cyber-space. Stuxnet was the first virus designed to take out not code but hardware: Iranian nuclear centrifuges overheated with a resulting system catastrophe. Imagine a virus that targeted the fan of your laptop, resulting an overheating that destroyed the motherboard. Now imagine the world of industry — electric grids, oil wells, and yes, military hardware, etc. — targeted by tailored viruses. That’s the world we live in now.
Tim Berners-Lee is not happy with what’s become of his beloved World Wide Web since its introduction transformed the Internet twenty-and-some-change years ago. His vision of a free, open and universal access point for everybody to quickly obtain and share information — from the sciences through the humanities, and everything in-between — has been lost, as the result of the over-commercialization and “centralization” of the world wide web. “Oh, the humanity,” Berners-Lee seems to cry as his once-buoyant vision goes up in flames and falls.
And who hasn’t noticed how the Web has become like so many chambers in a Russian roulette game, as more and more of our attention is absorbed by the likes of Facebook, Google and Amazon, and we pull the trigger on our consciousness? Marketized and re-militarized, the Internet has become a place for the Masters of Algorithm War to move our data points around like poker chips in a game of Bullshit. Fake News (Voice of America or RT?), Black Friday mega-deals, the latest Trump tweets, what chum will we go for today? Oh, the humanity.
Ever since 9/11, when the War on Terror began in earnest, it was inevitable that the Internet would be re-militarized by the Pentagon and that they would re-assert the right to control the protocols and communications crossing these wires. In between downloading a book from Amazon, or buying a gift from eBay, or spraying our endless opinions on Facebook, checking out Google’s latest apps, a world war is going on between the precious interstices of our consciousness. In 2012, before he fled (almost ironically) to Russia, Edward Snowden let the world know, with evidence so hard it was virtually whistleblower porn, that we live in a dystopic panopticon. Take Keyscore XL, the NSA’s secret browser which, according to Glenn Greenwald, can “listen to whatever emails they want, whatever telephone calls, browsing histories, Microsoft Word documents. And it’s all done with no need to go to a court, with no need to even get supervisor approval on the part of the analyst.”
Interestingly enough, the Mainstream Media was aware of the NSA’s illegal eavesdropping on American citizens back in October 2004. New York Times prize-winning journalist James Risen had a bombshell story quashed in order, said the Times 14 months later, when they finally published the piece, to avoid swaying the election with an “October surprise.” George H. Bush won re-election without the public having any awareness of the Bush-ordered spy program. Somehow, it never occurred to the editors that such spying might have vital public interest information that maybe should have swayed the election. In essence, they opted to protect his administration’s illegal violation of the Constitution.
Abusive surveillance by intelligence agencies has been going on in America for quite some time, as the Church Committee uncovered in the ‘70s, when it reported on the CIA’s secret and illegal domestic spying. That spying continued and, it’s safe to say, continues still. Why not, when there’s no repercussions and “Terror” is on the loose? It wasn’t long ago that the CIA was spying on members of Congress, without redress — no extended hearings,no long-lasting outrage. Just as after a group of baseball-playing Senators got shot up by a gunman in 2017, even when they were themselves the targets of criminal outrage, Congress demonstrated their fecklessness in the face of CIA abuses and did nothing. On the other hand, Julian Assange may have demonstrated recklessness when he published the entire hacking arsenal of the Agency last year, essentially declaring war on them. For his trouble, he’s been “linked” with Russia and declared “a non-state hostile intelligence service,” with all that that implies.
It’s a panopticon out there and Americans are rightly rattled. The security tentacles of Homeland Security seem to reach into every daily living activity — scans and pat-downs at the airport and train stations; facial scans at public events, especially at protest rallies; ICE at the borders; marijuana raids on legalized outlets; overzealous, militarized police. But the real threat to privacy and what used to be called a ‘normal’ life has disappeared since 9/11, when a “Pearl Harbor-like” event brought America a national security ratcheting. The fear is that, with a militarized Internet, we may be preparing for another Pearl Harbor-like event online that will result in a total lockdown of our activities. Whether you’re a conspiracy theorist or a conspiracy fearist, people in-the-know, such as Richard Clarke and Leon Panetta, have warned that we need to prepare.
But the panopticon is not just the national security apparatus that ostensibly has as its core value the protection of democracy and the American way of life, which one wants to believe only targets “terrorists” (an open-ended noun/verb, in our postmodern world), but includes the honeypot doings of the Good Panopticon — Google, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook. With the promise of making our online experience more, well, bespoken, tailored to our desires, they absorb our data points into algorithmic dances choreographed around our spending habits. We voluntarily fill in field after field, from forms to emails and texts, and we tell them everything about us at a far deeper level than the government is allowed to do.
Google works with the NSA and others, and has, in the past, built a search engine for the Pentagon. They are the most pervasive and invasive of the lot: street and satellite views of our property (with coordinates); they save and scan every email we’ve ever written (even post-delete); they keep track of images, documents, and other files. Currently, they are specializing in voice recognition software. They build a multi-faceted dossier on each and every user. You would be surprised at the scope of their savings on you — who you called; what you texted and to whom; voice-print samples; where you went — yesterday, last year; what you searched for: https://myactivity.google.com/myactivity . Sobering. And while many people have expressed outrage at Google’s agreeing to build a search engine for the Chinese that blacks out references to human rights issues and sites, they are blind to the work Google does to undermine freedom and democracy at home, because all the activity above is made available to intelligence services.
Amazon works with the CIA, building a database. Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post, often a first conduit of ‘highly-placed anonymous sources’ within the CIA and other national security agencies. And they specialize in facial recognition technology, which they enthusiastically share with law enforcement agencies. Apple and Microsoft have made system backdoors available to intelligence agencies. As we know the hard way, Facebook sells personal data for huge sums of money to analytical companies for future exploitative processes; the data Facebook keeps is downloadable to you, but also to anyone who cracks your password. Add in The Internet of Everything that would connect all devices to the Internet and there will soon be virtually no place to find relief from the relentless data collection of our doings.
Which brings up the battle for the last frontier — the space between our ears, the future of human consciousness. The more we become dependent upon Internet feeds to our brain, and the more we build on our own data dossier, the closer we come to being our own panopticons. It’s an experience that has already translated into psychological damage (see my review of two relevant books): according to some psychologists, up to 25% of the people around us are ensconced in paranoia; and, strange new diagnoses are arising, such as the Truman Show delusion, a condition whereby individuals feel they are living in a reality TV show, everyone around them actors, cameras everywhere. And that was a rising delusion even before the conspiracy-driven (“but not collusional”) Reality TV president was elected.
As after the Sputnik launch, no one knows where we are heading next, but as we hurdle toward the singularity of biology and the digital, it promises to be transformational, and even an evolutionary paradigm shift. Darwin, Lamarck, choose your poison. And blame the Russians.
Some fifty years ago Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and an army of Yippies held their “Festival of Life” outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Replete with folk songs, protest marches, and the nomination of the oinker Pigasus as an alternative candidate for the presidency, the radical – and democratic — festival was designed to be a provocative demonstration against the carnage of Vietnam and the politics that supported it. Millions of television viewers, still reeling from the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy just months earlier, watched with renewed revulsion as cops moved into action, gassing and beating gesticulating protesters and benumbed bystanders alike.
In a park not far from the mayhem, Hoffman and Rubin spirited a large rally, complete with fiery speeches and Dylan tunes. In an era rife with colourful characters, Hoffman was the Dennis Rodman of political activists. He revealed the myriad ways of ‘how to live out on the street’ in his book, Steal This Book, which his tie-dyed acolytes proceeded to do – stealing thousands of editions of the street-survivalist playbook and turning them into petty thieves at the same time (maybe the cleverest marketing stunt of all-time). His credo was summed up with “Revolution for the hell of it.” He had a genius for infuriating the elites from Left to Right of the political spectrum, and yet he remained a popular hero.
He seemed most effective going up against the Military-Industrial Complex. In 1967, he helped lead 50,000 protesters in an attempted telekinetic exorcism of the Pentagon. According to an account in Larry Sloman’s often-hilarious oral biography of Abbie Hoffman, Steal This Dream, the Yippee actually negotiated the height of the proposed levitation with military representatives. As Sal Gianetta, a pal of Abbie’s remembers: “That meeting was two and a half hours or so and probably 20 percent of that meeting was devoted to this fucking serious talk about levitating the Pentagon. This is our military, right? I swear to you, Ab came down from twenty-two feet to three feet, the military agreed to three feet and they sealed it with a handshake. That’s how Ab was, he could capture you in that fucking bizarreness. Oh, it was joyful!”
Earlier in the year, he, Rubin and others had climbed the Stock Exchange balcony and literally brought brokers literally to their hands and knees by raining dollar bills on them. “One should always be able to yell `theatre’ in a crowded fire,” he’d once said, and treated the era as a large-scale production of the Theatre of the Absurd.
Halfway around the world, another revolutionary production was taking place — the “Prague Spring”. The Czechoslovakians were by 1968 ready to return to the democratic republicanism they had briefly enjoyed post-World War I. Though they lacked a Hoffman, they owned a deep legacy of subversion; and, in 1968, had a formidable cast of reformers including Milos Forman, Jiri Menzel, Milan Kundera and Vaclav Havel. Together they fomented change and the Communist Party head Alexander Dubcek, seemed happy enough to oversee it. The proposed press freedom and limited political participation seemed innocuous, but the Soviets thought otherwise, and sent occupation troops into Prague that August. The Iron Curtain would remain down until the Velvet Revolution of 1989.
The events of August 1968 in Chicago and Prague have always presented some strange ironies and parallels. While Left-leaning protesters raged against the military-industrial complex and its oligarchic web of money-greed in the US, in Prague, Right-leaning protesters (in relative terms), such as Havel, fought for a more open humanistic society. America, capitalist to the core, had kept the Red threat at bay by laying down socialist safety nets such as the Social Security Act and the Welfare State, funded by a redirection of wealth from the pockets of the middle class. Meanwhile, the Soviets had slaked the thirst for democratic reforms by offering thimblefuls that tasted like freedom, but which were never “the real thing.” Not that it would matter.
Not long after the summer of violence, Hoffman, Rubin, and other protesters were arrested for conspiracy to commit rioting and tried as the Chicago 8 in a farcical courtroom drama that saw Black Panther Bobby Seale bound and gagged (later tried separately), with Abbie taunting presiding Judge Hoffman by dressing up in various costumes, and generally turning the proceedings into a Marx Brothers romp. After their eventual acquittal, Hoffman went underground to avoid imprisonment on criminal drug charges. When he re-emerged in 1980 to serve a brief negotiated jail sentence by way of a sympathetic Carter Administration, the US was entering a Reagan era presided over by the so-called “Me” generation.
Abbie showed he still had a working protest finger in 1986 when he and Amy Carter (and others) defended their arrests following disruptions of CIA recruitment efforts on a college campus in Massachusetts, successfully arguing in court with a ‘Necessity Defense’ that their minor criminality had the far greater public benefit of shedding light on the criminal activities CIA in Central America.
In 1985, he had a radio debate with his estranged friend Rubin, by then a stock broker. They mostly traded tired barbs and banalities, but also discussed the future of political activism in America. Rubin reasoned that change could only come by working from within the system, while Hoffman scoffed at Rubin’s “cop-out” and maintained justice and equality would always have to be wrested forcibly from power elites.
When Hoffman committed suicide in 1989, he missed out on the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the hopeful celebrations, but he was also spared the years that followed, which have brought “casino capitalism” to the world. And when Rubin, in a minor act of yuppie defiance, was killed jaywalking in 1994, he missed out on Bill Clinton’s trip to China. With Rubinesque logic, the Babyboomer president explained to the world that working “with China” to establish a stable middle class of consumers would be the most efficient way of bringing about humanistic changes. Around the world the mainstream media applauded the beginnings of ‘globalization’, while tired activists shook their heads.
In central Europe, the dilemma of how to best effect social change remains. Despite – and arguably because of their sophistication and intellectual antagonism – nations such as the Czech Republic remain in a muddle of political ambivalence seeming unsure of what to do. But the Czech Republic is not alone with the dilemma. As governments everywhere cut health, education and welfare costs and make their nations safe for foreign investors, popular dissatisfaction with the human quality of our lives continues to grow, along with the gap between haves and have-nots.
What’s missing is visionary leadership and the spirit of levity. “Democracy is not something you believe in, but something you do,” Hoffman once said. “If you stop doing it, democracy crumbles.” Enter populism and the growth of authoritarianism, the Surveillance State and the end of privacy, climate change exacerbated by population growth, Trump, fake news, fake Resistance, fake everything.
One wonders if Hoffman saw it all as worth it in the end, as he made his way underground for the last time.
When the Australian parliament passed the Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Assistance and Access) Bill 2018 last week, it became the first country in the world to pass a law that allows government agencies to force companies to give secret access to encrypted information. Ostensibly, the bill will allow law enforcement and intelligence agencies to access data useful in investigating terrorism and criminal activity. But critics of the legislation point out that, like many terrorism-related laws these days, the language of the bill is broad and unclear and may lead to interpretive abuses in the future. The law passed without debate and overwhelmingly.
Specifically, agents from the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) and the Australian Federal Police (AFP), agency equivalents to the CIA and FBI, can now go to the provider of encryption products, such as WhatsApp and Signal, and require them to provide access to encrypted data of a target, and to do so secretly. One problem, a technical one, is how to gain such access to the data, since the provider would not have the key.
ASIO and the AFP want providers to hand over “technical details’ of their encryption process that would allow the agents to exploit “systemic vulnerabilities”. The agencies claim that they would not be requiring providers to build in a “backdoor” for remote government access, but critics, such as Apple, Facebook and Google, who have apps that would be affected, argue that exploiting vulnerabilities may do just that — open up a system to other, more nefarious hackers, and make the encryption unsafe to use. Providers who don’t cooperate with the government will face fines and possible jail time, making them unintentional agents of potential government overreach.
Furthermore, ASIO and the AFP already have the power to infiltrate end-user computers to surveil before data is even encrypted, so it is hard to see the justification for further powers. At Policy Forum, Monique Mann, a law lecturer at the Queensland University of Technology, writes, “There is no evidence that any new powers are necessary, or proportionate, when viewed against existing police powers and investigative capabilities. Yet the stakes could not be higher for cybersecurity and digital rights.”
There is also some scepticism of how the requirements of the law would hold up in Australian business dealings with companies from other countries where data rights and online privacy are more legally protected. Of course, with a backdoor-that’s-not-a-backdoor, created by the government’s exploitation of systemic vulnerabilities, no one would really know, including the provider, if their data had been decrypted. And though a warrant issued by court is required to go ahead with a decryption, if America’s FISA court, which essentially rubberstamps government requests for secret access, is any example, such court-ordered warrants from Australian judges is no re-assurance — Australia has no Bill of Rights underwriting the integrity of such requests.
Along the lines of human rights and governmental accountability (a cornerstone of a functioning democracy), the new law allows not just the targeting of the usual criminals, such as child pornographers and scam artists, as well as so-called terrorists, but also “whistleblowers.” In short, the law would help prevent someone in Australia from dumping files at, say, Wikileaks, or even submitting documentation supporting government abuses to a whistleblowing sight in Australia, if said potential exposure could be seen to “weaken” national security.
Perhaps the world’s greatest champion of encryption, and its power to protect privacy, is that over-exposed guy holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. He rejects the common notion that such laws have no bearing on the doings of everyday people and scoffs at “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear” arguments often expressed with a naive smugness. “No worries, I use a VPN,” they might smile. But VPNs can be just as vulnerable.
It’s almost ironical that Assange, who grew up in Australia and cut his hacker’s teeth here (breaking-and-entering secret Pentagon servers as a teen), is now a virtual exile (his work would be criminalized here and has been called “illegal” in the past by a prime minister) who has almost single-handedly fought a war against the dark, corrupt secrets of government, while also attempting to protect individual privacy, the core of our humanity.
In his 2012 Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet, that he calls a “warning” rather than a “manifesto, Assange makes clear what’s at stake for us all and how encryption is a “key” to protecting ourselves from losing the last vestiges of privacy (and the consequent humanity that goes with it). Of the stakes he writes, “The internet, our greatest tool of emancipation, has been transformed into the most dangerous facilitator of totalitarianism we have ever seen….within a few years, global civilization will be a postmodern surveillance dystopia, from which escape for all but the most skilled individuals will be impossible. In fact, we may already be there.” In the post-Snowden cyberscape, it’s hard to argue.
Assange’s answer is encrypt, encrypt, encrypt. “Encryption is an embodiment of the laws of physics, and it does not listen to the bluster of states, even transnational surveillance dystopias,” he writes. “Cryptography is the ultimate form of non-violent direct action. While nuclear weapons states can exert unlimited violence over even millions of individuals, strong cryptography means that a state, even by exercising unlimited violence, cannot violate the intent of individuals to keep secrets from them.” Keeping these secrets, our thoughts — this is the last frontier. “If we do not [redefine force relations], the universality of the internet will merge global humanity into one giant grid of mass surveillance and mass control.”
I cried when Gus Grissom died, along with two crewmates, in a smoky blaze aboard Apollo 1 on January 27, 1967. The three astronauts were testing equipment in the capsule prior to the next day’s scheduled launch, when fire broke out and they were unable open the hatch to escape. I was ten at the time, a Catholic boy living in a Jewish neighborhood in Boston, and just weeks before had received in the mail an autographed photo of Grissom from NASA (a teacher had made our class request one, after his speech on the space program). The accident appeared to be a fatal blow to the Kennedy quest (borrowed from a Nazi’s dream) to land an American on the moon (before the Russians did) by the end of the decade.
But the Show went on, and, thanks to Wernher von Braun, America launched Apollo 8 and safely landed a spacecraft on the moon on July 16, 1969. I was “away” at summer camp, and sat around in a semicircle with other campers, in the middle of the night, watching the landing take place on the rec hall black-and-white TV. Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong planted a stiff flag and bounced around on the sandy surface together; cups of strawberry “bug juice” were passed around, while La Salette Brother Chick strummed us along to a sleepy version of Kumbaya. It was a glorious moment, topped up over the next few years by the human journey and scientific romanticism depicted in Star Trek episodes. William Shatner’s sappy smirk and Spock’s logical positivism helped keep me starry-eyed through a sometimes dark and gravity-filled childhood.
Later, in one of the great episodes of the dreamy, Vangelis-driven TV series, Cosmos, Carl Sagan explained the symbiotic relationship between outer space and inner Man: We are “star stuff,” he said, literally composed of the same chemistry of the stars; when we look out at the firmament, we look in on ourselves, cosmos to cosmos, as it were. From microscope to telescope, from eyeball to eyeball, adjusting the focus, we are constantly searching for the meaning of our existence. Such “magical realism” buoyed me for years, right up to the day John Lennon died, when the world seemed an even colder place, now lit by the dim light of mourners mourning dead dreams.
The late Stephen Hawking’s new book, Brief Answers to Big Questions, re-energizes the value of knowing, after a long hiatus in the void of postmodernism; his book brings the affirmative gift of fresh light; the swashbuckling smirk is mostly gone, the romance of discovery replaced with the growing desperation of a planet in peril needing new answers. The topics Hawking explores include: God and the origin of the universe, space colonization, time travel, black holes, artificial intelligence, and extraterrestrials. The book, largely a compilation of notes Hawking had for a book he was working on, is presented in a question-answer format for each subject. Most compelling to me, because most relevant to our current paradigm shift, were Hawking’s answers to the God question, the nature of black holes, and the implications of Artificial Intelligence to the future of biological humans.
“God,” John Lennon once sang, “is a concept by which we measure our pain.” It turns out, Hawking’s view is not dissimilar to Lennon’s, conceptually. Hawking rejects a world and universe explained by an omni- God. “Religion was an early attempt to answer the questions we all ask: why are we here, where did we come from? Long ago, the answer was almost always the same: gods made everything. The world was a scary place, so even people as tough as the Vikings believed in supernatural beings to make sense of natural phenomena like lightning, storms or eclipses. Nowadays, science provides better and more consistent answers, but people will always cling to religion, because it gives comfort, and they do not trust or understand science.”
Hawking’s explanation mostly addresses the human intellectual engagement with the world, but he stays away from the moral grounding of religion altogether. As the enlightened Voltaire tells us, “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” The triadic dialectical God Abraham has handed down to the world in the form of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, theoretically supply such moral “comfort,” although you wouldn’t know it from the state of the Middle East today.
Hawking’s rejection is closer to Nietzsche’s God Is Dead, beyond-good-and-evil embrace of the Overman, a future Man that will look back on current humans the way we now look back on our ape-like pasts. The paraplegic ubermensch writes, “…[K]nowing the mind of God is knowing the laws of nature. My prediction is that we will know the mind of God by the end of this century.” And, he recalls: “For centuries, it was believed that disabled people like me were living under a curse that was inflicted by God.” Who’s in the wheelchair now, Big Guy? Hawking seems to ask.
And it’s just as well that Hawking disposes of God before he leads the reader into the mind-blowing cosmological territory of black holes, quantum theory, and the potential multi-histories of the universe. Nietzsche (again) admonished, “When you look into the Abyss, the Abyss also looks into you.” If you look too deeply into the black hole for enlightenment, you may find yourself drained of light. Right now, black holes seem to us kind of like giant highway potholes future space explorers should avoid.
But imagine, as Hawking does, the Big Bang coming as the result of a Black Hole implosion. He writes, “As we travel back in time towards the moment of the Big Bang, the universe gets smaller and smaller and smaller, until it finally comes to a point where the whole universe is a space so small that it is in effect a single infinitesimally small, infinitesimally dense black hole.” Now imagine black holes banging, overflowing, like popping corns, into universes, each possessing multiple possible histories, each filled with endless popping corn stars. Some cinema we’re in. That’s the Out There, the firmament away from our troubles, placid and serene, a guide to Wise Men, it seemed, until the “cripple” Hawking came along with his trapeze tricks, and showed us a teeming cosmos, alive as Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.”
He doesn’t paint a picture of the In Here that is any easier to grasp. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is just as much a problem of In Here as it is Out There. The problem with AI isn’t, as many people believe, about how to bring machines up to snuff so that they can be as intelligent as humans; it’s a given that they will be and almost are. The question is: what happens when gain “consciousness” and begin to outsmart us to the degree that we can no longer understand their language, such as when quantum computing come along (soon) and processors can calculate thousands of times faster than today, not just in digital sequences of either on or off (1 or zero), but on and off — at the same time.
Hawking writes, “There is no physical law precluding particles from being organised in ways that perform even more advanced computations than the arrangements of particles in human brains.” He continues, “…we cannot predict what we might achieve when our own minds are amplified by AI,” such as is the case with NZT, the mind-enhancing drug of the fictional TV series, Limitless, where the main protagonist, an ordinary person, achieves extraordinary feats while “high.” Could humans become so dependent on this “high” that they virtually merge with their PCs or, more likely, smartphones? (Conceptually, we may be be already there.)
Further, along the lines of such worry, what happens when we not only begin to over-rely on such machinery, but, with the dreamy urge to shed our “mortal coil,” we converge with them, leaving behind our biology? There’s the rub. He writes, “Quantum computers will change everything, even human biology.” Imagine a quantum scanner that review human genes and suggest ways of making them more efficient, say, for space travel and intergalactic colonization. Would this be the rise of Lamarckianism, a final imposition of the human will over Nature, or, ironically, a kind of planned obsolescence of the species, the final step in human evolution before our extinction?
Will we need bodies? Stephen Hawking himself may be almost the prototype of such a situation. Take away the biological package that houses his vital organs, he was essentially a disembodied brain merged with a voice synthesizer. One can imagine all manner of ways to move forward from this: a replacement body built from a 3D printer; a cloned body; a removal of the need for a body, per se, by synthetic methods of delivering “blood”; or, even the creation of full-body avatar, a kind of hologram that takes your place in public full of such avatars. Hawking writes, “Creating realistic digital surrogates of ourselves is an ambitious dream, but the latest technology suggests that it may not be as far-fetched an idea as it sounds.” It may be here already.
Hawking is ever-aware of the paradigm shift we face in our choices up ahead. He knows there are very real risks that we will misuse AI and other emerging technologies to further ensure our collective demise. Our track record leans that way. “[T]he Earth is becoming too small for us. Our physical resources are being drained at an alarming rate. We have presented our planet with the disastrous gift of climate change. Rising temperatures, reduction of the polar ice caps, deforestation, overpopulation, disease, war, famine, lack of water and decimation of animal species; these are all solvable but so far have not been solved.” He adds, ominously, “It is time to explore other solar systems. Spreading out may be the only thing that saves us from ourselves. I am convinced that humans need to leave Earth. If we stay, we risk being annihilated.” Nevertheless, the book is imbued with Hawking’s survivalist optimism married to the natural curiosity of scientific endeavor. Mostly.
Even the Pentagon seems to be aware that we need to start looking for answers beyond the confines of the Earth. Recently, for the first time, and after years of denial, the military admitted that they are actively looking for UFOs — even going so far as to include photographic evidence in their release to the New York Times. Hawking would have been impressed by this new interest in aliens, although very cautious about what we’d be getting in to. One recalls the Twilight Zone episode involving a “cook book”. With climate change heating us up, we could be going from the fires into the frying pan.
Brief Answers to Big Questions is a great read — serving to reiterate our current understanding of the concept of cosmos and the inner world that houses it. The trip Out is the trip In. The short, easy-to-read book has some astonishing revelations — especially about Hawking’s specialty: black holes. While short on viable answers to some of the many problems facing humans during our current paradigm shift, Hawking chooses the optimism of Can-Do technology over the pessimism of falling skies and melting ice. I procured both the ebook and the audiobook, and found the latter more entertaining, containing the voice of both a surrogate reading Hawking’s notes, as well as snippets of Hawking himself providing tiny intro answers at the beginning of each question. It’s like man and machine together.