It’s the (democracy-poisoning) golden age of free speech

February 20th, 2018

by ZEYNEP TUFEKCI

ARTWORK/Adam Maida

For most of modern history, the easiest way to block the spread of an idea was to keep it from being mechanically disseminated. Shutter the news­paper, pressure the broad­cast chief, install an official censor at the publishing house. Or, if push came to shove, hold a loaded gun to the announcer’s head.

This actually happened once in Turkey. It was the spring of 1960, and a group of military officers had just seized control of the government and the national media, imposing an information blackout to suppress the coordination of any threats to their coup. But inconveniently for the conspirators, a highly anticipated soccer game between Turkey and Scotland was scheduled to take place in the capital two weeks after their takeover. Matches like this were broadcast live on national radio, with an announcer calling the game, play by play. People all across Turkey would huddle around their sets, cheering on the national team.

Canceling the match was too risky for the junta; doing so might incite a protest. But what if the announcer said something political on live radio? A single remark could tip the country into chaos. So the officers came up with the obvious solution: They kept several guns trained on the announcer for the entire 2 hours and 45 minutes of the live broadcast.

It was still a risk, but a managed one. After all, there was only one announcer to threaten: a single bottleneck to control of the airwaves.

Variations on this general playbook for censorship—find the right choke point, then squeeze—were once the norm all around the world. That’s because, until recently, broadcasting and publishing were difficult and expensive affairs, their infrastructures riddled with bottlenecks and concentrated in a few hands.

But today that playbook is all but obsolete. Whose throat do you squeeze when anyone can set up a Twitter account in seconds, and when almost any event is recorded by smartphone-­wielding mem­­bers of the public? When protests broke out in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014, a single livestreamer named Mustafa Hussein reportedly garnered an audience comparable in size to CNN’s for a short while. If a Bosnian Croat war criminal drinks poison in a courtroom, all of Twitter knows about it in minutes.

In today’s networked environment, when anyone can broadcast live or post their thoughts to a social network, it would seem that censorship ought to be impossible. This should be the golden age of free speech.

And sure, it is a golden age of free speech—if you can believe your lying eyes. Is that footage you’re watching real? Was it really filmed where and when it says it was? Is it being shared by alt-right trolls or a swarm of Russian bots? Was it maybe even generated with the help of artificial intelligence? (Yes, there are systems that can create increasingly convincing fake videos.)

Wired for more

#MeToo allegations against 95-year-old Marvel comics legend Stan Lee backfire

February 20th, 2018

by LAURA TIERNAN

Stan Lee PHOTO/Gage Skidmore

Last week, comic book writer and publisher Stan Lee became the latest target of the #MeToo witch-hunt sweeping Hollywood after allegations that he “repeatedly groped” and “harassed” nurses caring for him at his Los Angeles home. Lee is 95 years old.

He is the former head of Marvel comics, where he currently serves as chairman emeritus. He is the co-creator of superheroes the Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, Doctor Strange, Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four. Inducted into the Comic Book Hall of Fame in 1994 and the Jack Kirby Hall of Fame in 1995, Lee received a National Medal of Arts in 2008.

Born in New York City in 1922, Lee was deeply influenced by his family’s experience during the Great Depression. Parents Celia and Jack Lieber, newly arrived Romanian Jewish immigrants, worked in the garment industry but were thrown out of work when the Depression hit, and life was a constant struggle. These difficulties, and his early voracious reading—Twain, Dickens, Verne, H.G. Wells, Poe and Shakespeare—informed the infectious warmth, inventiveness and sense of community that attracted generations of readers.

Marvel’s comics dealt with bigotry and drug use, the civil rights movement, prisoners’ rights, student protests and the Vietnam War, themes previously regarded as off-limits. Lee believed superheroes should be human, with the same foibles, flaws and problems as regular people. During the early 1970s, he challenged censorship by the United States Comics Code Authority, which was later forced to relax its heavy-handed control.

The accusations against Lee, based on a single anonymous source, were published by Britain’s Daily Mail on January 9. “He is said to have asked for oral sex in the shower, walked around naked and wanted to be ‘pleasured’ in the bedroom,” the Mail reported.

It is not clear that any of these alleged activities are legally actionable. No police complaint has been made and no lawsuit filed, but last year the female owner of the nursing company, who had cared for Lee on occasion, threatened to go public with allegations against the Marvel creator, who is worth an estimated $50 million. Lee’s lawyer Tom Lallas issued a cease-and-desist letter against the woman on December 20, in which he described claims that his client had sexually harassed nurses as “defamatory.”

In a subsequent statement sent to the Daily Mail, Lallas said the woman’s accusations against his client amounted to a crude shakedown operation: “Mr. Lee categorically denies these false and despicable allegations and he fully intends to fight to protect his stellar good name and impeccable character.

“We are not aware of anyone filing a civil action, or reporting these issues to the police, which for any genuine claim would be the more appropriate way for it to be handled. Instead, Mr. Lee has received demands to pay money and threats that if he does not do so, the accuser will go to the media. Mr Lee will not be extorted or blackmailed, and will pay no money to anyone because he has done absolutely nothing wrong.”

On January 11, the Daily Mail followed up with further allegations, this time from a Chicago masseuse who attended his hotel suite last April. She alleges that Lee “groped” her, demanding sex and then masturbating in her presence. Lee’s lawyers hit back, saying their client “categorically denies” the allegations, and pointing to further opportunistic efforts to extort cash.

World Socialist Web Site f or more

Are the supremes about to give Trump a second term?

February 20th, 2018

by BOB FITRAKIS & HARVEY WASSERMAN

CARTOON/Pinterest

The US Supreme Court may be about to make a second Trump term inevitable.

The nine “Justices” have just heard oral arguments in an Ohio voter registration case. If their decision goes with Secretary of State Jon Husted, it would mean Republicans like him throughout the United States will be able to scrub from the voter rolls millions of citizens merely because they are suspected of wishing to vote Democrat.

In Ohio alone, millions of Ohio voters have tried to vote on Election Day over the past four presidential elections, only to find their names were erased from the pollbooks.

What’s technically at stake is whether the federal government has the right to demand fairness in purging voter registration rolls. Or will the secretaries of the various states be free to purge whomever they want.

In other words, it’s supposedly a “state’s rights” case.

But this is a country where an Attorney-General who fought for state’s rights to avoid accepting racial integration is now overriding the explicit choice of some thirty states to enjoy legal marijuana.

In Ohio, secretary Husted has become infamous for his extremely aggressive partisan purges. The state has roughly 5.5 million voters. GOP secretaries of state have become experts at the selective purging game.

In 2004, then-Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell, stripped some 309,000 voters from the rolls and nearly all came from heavily Democratic cities – Cleveland, Cincinnati and Toledo. In Cleveland, nearly a quarter, 24.96% of all voters were removed from the voting rolls.

Blackwell simultaneously served as co-chair for the state campaign to re-elect Bush/Cheney. Despite the obvious conflict of interest, Blackwell was officially in charge of running that election. The election was decided by less than 119,000 votes, giving George W. Bush a victory over John Kerry, who never said a word.

As many as 300,000 of those votes were flipped on electronic “push and pray” machines by a Bush family consigliere operating on an unbid state contract with a bank of servers in Tennessee between 12:20am and 2am election night.

Between the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections, an extensive study conducted by the Free Press examining all of the voter registration rolls in the state’s 88 counties found that 1.25 million had been scrubbed from the rolls. Again, these purged voters were overwhelming from Democratic precincts.


CounterPunch
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Describing Trump and 6 euphemisms for conduct unbecoming a president – oped

February 19th, 2018

by ROBERT REICH

Robert Reich PHOTO/Mike Edrington/Wikipedia Commons

Now that Trump has been president for almost a year, it’s time the media called his behavior for what it is rather than try to normalize it. Here are the six most misleading media euphemisms for conduct unbecoming a president:

1. Calling Trump’s tweets “presidential “statements” or “press releases.” “The President is the President of the United States, so they’re considered official statements by the President of the United States,” Trump’s first press secretary, Sean Spicer, said last June when asked during his daily briefing how his tweets should be characterized

Wrong. Trump’s tweets are mostly rants off the top of his head – many of them wild, inconsistent, rude, crude, and bizarre.

Normal presidential statements are products of careful thought. Advisers weigh in. Consequences are considered. Alternatives are deliberated. Which is why such statements are considered important indicators of public policy, domestically and internationally.

Trump’s tweet storms are relevant only to judging his mood on a particular day at a particular time.

2. Referring to Mar-A-Lago as “the Winter White House.” The White House says the term is accurate because Trump does official business from there, and, besides, Mar-A-Lago’s former owner wanted the Palm Beach estate to become a presidential retreat.

Rubbish. Unlike the White House and Camp David, the traditional presidential retreat, both of which are owned by taxpayers, Mar-a-Lago is a profit-making business owned by Trump.

The White House is open for public tours; Mar-a-Lago is open only to members who can pay $200,000 to join.

Mar-a-Lago, along with the other Trump resort properties that he visits regularly, constitute a massive conflict of interest. Every visit promotes the Trump resort brand, adding directly to Trump’s wealth.

Normal presidents don’t make money off the presidency. Trump does. His resorts should be called what they are – Trump’s businesses.

3. Calling his lies “false claims” or “comments that have proved to be inaccurate.” Baloney. They’re lies, plain and simple.

Early last year the Wall Street Journal’s editor-in-chief insisted that the Journal wouldn’t label Trump’s false statements as “lies.” Lying, said the editor, requires a deliberate intention to mislead, which couldn’t be proven in Trump’s case.

Last fall, NPR’s then news director, Michael Oreskes defended NPR’s refusal to use the term “liar” when describing Trump, explaining that the word constitutes “an angry tone” of “editorializing” that “confirms opinions.”

In January, Maggie Haberman, a leading Times’ political reporter, claimed that her job was “showing when something untrue is said. Our job is not to say ‘lied.’”

Wrong. Normal presidents may exaggerate; some occasionally lie. But Trump has taken lying to an entirely new level. He lies like other people breath. Almost nothing that comes out of his mouth can assumed to be true.

For Trump, lying is part of his overall strategy, his MO, and his pathology. Not to call them lies, or to deem him a liar, is itself misleading.

4. Referring to Trump’s and his aide’s possible “cooperation” or “coordination” with Russia in the 2016 presidential campaign.

This won’t due. “Cooperation” and “coordination” sound as if Trump and his campaign assistants were merely being polite to the Russians, engaged in a kind of innocent parallel play.

Eurasia Review for more

Militants & military: Pakistan’s unholy alliance

February 19th, 2018

by AHMED RASHID

A man looking at a police bus that was destroyed during clashes between Islamist protesters and police around Islamabad’s main highway, Pakistan, November 26, 2017 PHOTO/Caren Firouz/Reuters

Pakistan has largely escaped the ghastly destruction of the civil wars in the Middle East—despite its continuing struggle with homegrown Islamist extremism and terrorism. Since September 11, 2001, Pakistani governments have tried to fly under the radar, attracting minimal international pressure even though its territory has been used as a sanctuary by the Afghan Taliban, al-Qaeda, Kashmiri militants, and other extremists from the region. But the US and NATO have now begun to express their concerns.

The international community is worried because there is a growing domestic political crisis in this nuclear-armed nation that is fueled by extremists at home and by a foreign policy that involves harboring insurgent groups, which has become unacceptable to the world as well as to Pakistan’s neighbors in South Asia. President Donald Trump and NATO have clearly signaled they will no longer tolerate the Pakistani army’s alleged duplicity—that while it fights those terrorists who threaten the state of Pakistan, it shelters outside groups like the Afghan Taliban, which does its fighting elsewhere. Pakistan’s response is to accuse the Americans of looking for scapegoats, having lost the war in Afghanistan.

The Pakistani “miltablishment”—a name coined by the weekly Friday Times that describes the alliance between the army, its all-powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI), the senior judiciary, the government bureaucracy, and some politicians—is now deeply at odds with itself. A power vacuum has developed into which has stepped a bewildering array of Islamist extremists. The future of Pakistan itself is at risk.

During a harrowing three weeks in November, a small, almost unknown fringe group of well-armed Sunni militants blocked the capital Islamabad’s main highway and demanded the resignation of the justice minister and other officials for trying to change the stringent blasphemy law and for being sympathetic to the Ahmadis, a Muslim sect controversially proscribed by the state. The group, which calls itself Tehreek-e-Labaik (TEL), or the Movement in Service to the Finality of the Prophet, then ordered its followers to block major roads all over the country. For several days, traffic across Pakistan ground to a halt. Six or seven people were killed and more than two hundred were injured.

As public speculation grew about which part of the “miltablishment” was allowing food, water, and blankets to reach the militants, the government seemed paralyzed—unwilling to act decisively or to send in the 8,000 police officers at its disposal to arrest those mounting the blockades, who never numbered more than 3,000 in Islamabad. At long last, the government called in the army to clear the barricades. But none of the militants was arrested, and when the army arrived, it was to broker a deal, which the militants quickly accepted—and to which the government, too, was obliged to accede.

The entire episode had the air of a well-rehearsed drama. The army and the government gave in to all the militants’ demands, including the resignation of the justice minister, the release of all the group’s prisoners, compensation to the protesters, and further entrenchment of the harsh blasphemy law. An ISI general signed the agreement as its “guarantor.”

The New York Review of Books for more

(Thanks to reader)

Facebook and Google outline unprecedented mass censorship at U.S. Senate hearing

February 19th, 2018

by ANDRE DAMON

Behind the backs of the U.S. and world populations, social media companies have built up a massive censorship apparatus staffed by an army of “content reviewers” capable of seamlessly monitoring, tracking, and blocking millions of pieces of content.

The character of this apparatus was detailed in testimony Wednesday from representatives of Facebook, Twitter, and Google’s YouTube before the United States Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, chaired by South Dakota Republican John Thune.

The hearing was called to review what technology companies are doing to shut down the communications of oppositional political organizations. It represented a significant escalation of the campaign, supported by both Democrats and Republicans, to establish unprecedented levels of censorship and control over the Internet.

Armed with increasingly powerful artificial intelligence systems, these technology companies are free to remove and block the communications of their users at the behest of the government, in a seamless alliance between Silicon Valley and the major U.S. spy agencies.

Monika Bickert, head of Global Policy Management at Facebook, told lawmakers that the social media giant now employs a security team of 10,000 people, 7,500 of whom “assess potentially violating content,” and that, “by the end of 2018 we will more than double” the security team.

This group includes “a dedicated counterterrorism team” of “former intelligence and law-enforcement officials and prosecutors who worked in the area of counterterrorism.” In other words, there is a revolving door between the technology giants and the state intelligence and police forces, with one increasingly indistinguishable from the other.

Bickert pointed to the growing use of artificial intelligence to flag content, saying Facebook does not “wait for these… bad actors to upload content to Facebook before placing it into our detection systems,” bragging that much of the “propaganda” removed from Facebook “is content that we identify ourselves before anybody” else has a chance to view it.

She added that Facebook has partnered with over a dozen other companies to maintain a blacklist of content, based on “unique digital fingerprints.” This means that if a piece of content, whether a video, image, or written statement, is flagged by any one of these companies, it will be banned from all social media. This database now includes some 50,000 pieces of content and is constantly growing, officials said.

In other words, the technology giants have created an all-pervasive system of censorship in which machines, trained to collaborate with the CIA, FBI, and other U.S. intelligence agencies, are able to flag and block content even before it is posted.

Juniper Downs, global head of Public Policy and Government Relations at YouTube, likewise boasted that Google uses “a mix of technology and humans to remove content,” adding that YouTube relies on a “trusted flagger program” to provide “actionable flags” based on the flaggers’ experience with “issues like hate speech and terrorism,” words that imply that these “trusted flaggers” are connected to U.S. intelligence agencies.

Monthly Review Online for more

Weekend Edition

February 16th, 2018

Surreal realities (7)

February 16th, 2018

by B. R. GOWANI

Kalicharan Saraf of the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) relieving himself on the street. Saraf is health minister of Rajhastan, a state in India PHOTO/Dhaka Tribune

Clean India Campaign means India clean and neat
started by Modi in 2014 with an admiring fleet
by 2019, India should be Open-Defecation Free
because the next election is that year, you see

some of his ministers zealously perform the task
but being in a hurry they forget to put on a mask
social media ridicules them, being a target easy
comments can be humorous, obnoxious, or cheesy

recently Kalicharan Saraf was seen in such an act
he was urinating on a pink wall in the Pink City, a fact
he’s a health minister and was probably cleaning the wall
“not a big issue” was his response to media wrawl

last November Ram Shinde was found relieving himself outside
by giving a long ministerial excuse to save his face, he tried
this Modi’s man handles Water Conservation in Maharashtra state
but seems like he can’t conserve his water for a while, i.e., wait

or perhaps these ministers were washing off the blood stains
of the minorities’ blood which can be seen on walls and lanes
many of their violent Hindus believe India belongs only to Hindus
rest are to be converted, expelled, or killed are their views

B. R. Gowani can be reached at brgowani@hotmail.com

Leave her clit alone

February 16th, 2018

by HUMAIRA ANSARI

ILLUSTRATION/Namaah

The fight against female genital mutilation is led by mainly women, but for change to take place, men need to join the movement.

Eleven minutes into the documentary, a 40-something Bohra woman brought up the subject of men and khatna. “They are clueless that something like this happens in the community,” she says articulately, sitting on the sofa in her living room. The room is dark enough to conceal her identity. Natural light parading in through a distant window casts out her silhouette. “I am willing to bet,” she continues “…ten on ten men are like ‘What? Does it really happen?’”

We were watching A Pinch of Skin, a 30-minute film on Female Genital Mutilation (also Female Genital Cutting) practised by Dawoodi Bohras, the only community in India to do so; a practice they call khatna or khafz. Did men really not know, I began to wonder. Did my boyfriend not know? I wanted to dive straight into his mind, as he sat beside me at Mumbai’s Prithvi Theatre. My boyfriend was a Bohra, and though we had discussed everything from elections and inflation to politics and pop culture, khatna, somehow, never really came up. That day, for the first time in our five-year relationship, I wondered if he really knew. If yes, what and how much? Had he never asked his mother or sisters or cousins if they had been cut? Did his brother, father, and male friends ever question khatna, its implications, or why it’s perpetuated in the first place? My mind was exploding with questions. But I had no idea what was going through his head, as he watched women from his community recount their experiences of being cut as little girls.

His body language didn’t give anything away, but I knew he was consumed, not in a good way. Finally, when the film ended and the lights came on, he turned to me and said, “We can never do this to our daughter.”

The year was 2013. We got married two years later and now, two years into our marriage, I still don’t have answers to all my questions. My husband has never explicitly articulated his views on khatna except that he won’t let our daughter go through it.

In his community, khatna is a hushed affair and speaking against it puts you in a spotlight that community members don’t appreciate. Most Bohra men, even in 2017, refrain from resisting khatna. From small shop owners and big businessmen, to doctors and lawyers, to those born and raised in liberal homes, will have their daughters, granddaughters or, say, nieces, subjected to khatna because they’d rather submit than question. My husband couldn’t help but wonder if his mother and sister went through the same ordeal. He has never asked them, for several reasons. Khatna, even in the most modern Bohra homes, is still a topic that’s neither discussed over dinner nor is it brought up in private conversations. Khatna is still practised discreetly and any discussion round it still remains a taboo.

The first time my husband learnt about khatna was when he was 14. He thought it was a ritual that involves “a nick down there”. Nothing too big. It didn’t seem anything like the violating act presented to us by the documentary. He didn’t know that what is cut is actually a part of the clitoris; and that it’s cut by a midwife with a hot blade in a non-sterile environment. Most of all, he had no idea that khatna is essentially done to curb a woman’s sexual urge, so that she remains faithful in a marriage or doesn’t pleasure herself by clitoral stimulation. That evening, he said, as he heard stories of little girls being tricked into a dark room under the pretext of a birthday party or an outing to buy chocolates or toys, his stomach turned. For the first time, he realised how extremely regressive and disgustingly sexist that “small little nick” truly was. Even though the women’s identities in the documentary remained masked in silhouettes, behind curtains and in close-up shots revealing only their hands and feet, my husband could feel the pain, anguish, and detestation in their voices

Arre for more

Poets Nuar Alsadir and Ahren Warner reveal intriguing habits of perception

February 16th, 2018

by PAUL BATCHELOR

New books from the two writers reject the conventional collection-of-poems format.

Two new books of poetry, by Nuar Alsadir and Ahren Warner, reject the conventional collection-of-poems format in favour of something more expansive. Many of their pieces are set as prose and it is not always clear where one ends and another begins, so the reader must learn to read across genres including lyric, aphorism, notebook jotting and prose poem, without allowing any one conceptual frame to close. What makes this approach to form so intriguing is its promise to show not so much the writer’s finished thoughts as their habits of perception and processes of composition.

In Hello. Your Promise Has Been Extracted, his third book, Ahren Warner travels around Europe taking photographs (these make up half of the book), quoting philosophers (including “dear Hegel”), and writing poems. The poems are mostly about unpleasant things (stray cats sniffing at bags of shit) and first-world irritations (BuzzFeed, click-bait). For all the distance covered, not a lot happens: in one country a girl borrows his lighter and he looks at her arse as she walks away, sneering at her for buying expensive jeans; elsewhere he is solicited.

If those examples sound a bit rum, I should say that the book’s most striking characteristic is the blatancy of its misogyny: men think and do; women are and suffer. Rape, murder and pimping prostitutes are typical activities for a man; whereas, when we finally see a woman doing something, she is likely to be serving the poet food, or giving him a blowjob. (The blowjob incident is quoted from a CK Williams poem also about visiting a prostitute.) In one short poem Warner compares his beloved to a kitten, a porpoise, a dormouse, and a camelid. Some sort of irony is probably intended here, since the poem ends with the image of a man murdering a child because he had “watched his mother/being raped”; but elsewhere women are likened to blossom, buds, petals, and jewels, so it’s hard to be sure.

There is an imaginative flabbiness at every level in the book, from the metaphors (“the black bullseye of the pupil”) to the sources of the lengthy collage-poem, which are too easily identified to gel into a new context: The Waste Land from TS Eliot, “Briggflatts” from Basil Bunting, “Daddy” from Sylvia Plath. To enliven proceedings, Warner thinks about tortures and atrocities perpetrated on and by Johnny Foreigner, drawing banal conclusions: “old powers settle back into their old ways”. The odour of gap-year chauvinism is overpowering. To excuse it, Warner strikes a self-aware, self-loathing attitude: “How do you feel that the distant pity you felt as a child for the severed limbs of children in Gikondo was a form of historical luxury?” he asks himself. He doesn’t answer this question, but presumably he feels fine about it, since he repeatedly exploits it in his poems to manufacture an air of seriousness. In an elegy for CK Williams (“So yes, he’s dead./It sucks, doesn’t it?”) Warner credits Williams with teaching him “how to think”. This is self-flattery.

New Statesman for more