The Work of Revelations: Snowden, the Torture Report, and the Diminishing Returns of Info-Spectacles

“An invasion of armies can be resisted, but not an idea whose time has come,” wrote Victor Hugo. Isn’t that ultimately the message of Les Misérables? In contrast to the revolutionaries hopelessly slaughtered en masse at the barricades, it’s Jean Valjean’s unimpeachable righteousness alone that ultimately drives his longtime tormentor to suicide. I dreamed a dream…

Rather than just being the domain of French Romantics and office motivational posters, the notion that information alone has transformative power is the cornerstone of establishment left thinking. It stems from liberal enlightenment ideals that configure history as a linear progression—embodied in the apocryphal quote about the moral arc of the universe. It goes one way, and that’s forwards towards progress. This coincides happily with the preponderance of lawyers in the ranks of mainstream human rights and civil liberties groups, for whom information is the sine qua non of preparing briefs and mounting cases.

There’s a more controversial theory that information isn’t inherently good. Even revelatory information—stuff the powerful don’t want you to know—ostensibly in the service of a progressive goal, can be used for right-wing ends if it obscures or moderates a more radical prescription. If information is getting used to co-opt a more radical course of action, then that project is reactionary.

For its part, progressive e-magazine TruthDig doesn’t want people messing with this line of thinking in the case of the Senate Torture report: “When the truth is spoken by politicians…skeptics are right to suspect it’s not merely the truth. It is always tailored to redound to some benefit to the speaker. But there are moments in history when that doesn’t matter.”

We’re being told it’s one such moment now. The Senate Intelligence Committee has released a heavily redacted, heavily abridged “Executive Summary” of its 6,000 page report on CIA torture. Adding to the report’s mystique is the fact that the White House and CIA wanted to suppress the information contained within, with the CIA even hacking the computers of Senate staffers compiling the report. The torture report seems like the most illicit kind of revelatory information, so it’s created an enormous amount of commentary and condemnation.

However, with the exceptions of some specific ghoulish details, most of the information was already known. The most horrific facts—that the CIA raped prisoners, that torture was used to fabricate justifications for the War in Iraq, that human beings were tortured to death, that almost a quarter of torture cases were the result of mistaken identity—had all been reported on within the last decade.

There’s a disconnect between the content of the torture report and the narrative that now surrounds the event itself. When TruthDig called for putting skepticism aside, it was in a piece hailing Senators Dianne Feinstein and John McCain as their progressive heroes of the week. Feinstein’s fingerprints are on many of the US’s worst abuses of this century, and McCain is one of the most bloodthirsty figures in the US government, and by extension the planet. Given that these newly minted progressive heroes are some of the worst imperialists, and the torture report’s aura doesn’t reflect reality, this seems like exactly the right moment for those meddlesome skeptics to be asking questions.

The journalists and public figures who promote the torture report present it as transformative information, but it’s shaping up to be a spectacle that sets the left back yet again. The report has followed many parallels with the last time this happened, the spectacle surrounding Ed Snowden’s leaks to Glenn Greenwald et al. The Snowden drama provided a useful template for how dissent is going to be managed, channeled, and moderated going forward. The way the NSA leaks were handled has provided the elites a scalable model for taking the release of even revelatory information and using it to come out on top and consolidate their power.

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Fortunately, last October Pierre Omidyar’s First Look Media had an acrimonious public divorce with once-hire Matt Taibbi. If Taibbi had been someone with less social capital, then the failure of Racket might’ve just been a momentary hiccup for the internet’s hottest journalistic “insurgency.” As it stands, the fact that people want to be in Taibbi’s orbit has opened up a lot of space for analysis of Omidyar’s would-be media empire, where the establishment consensus was once airtight. It’s certainly vindicated what Taibbi said about journalists being akin to an easily spooked herd of deer, who only get around to asking the right questions “eventually. But far after the fact.”

When the leaks began, they painted a complete picture of a monster whose contours had only previously been hinted at. Stories about warrantless wiretapping and the size of “Top Secret America” had won their authors Pulitzers and hinted that the US government was spying on all of us. There were reports of a secret government data-storage facility of gargantuan proportions being built in Utah. Stories had periodically cropped up in unexpected places about the government’s ability to record and store all our communications. However, now the public knew the truth definitively. There was excitement, talk of change, reform, maybe even something more drastic. Soon, the whistleblower went public. More stories came out, about more countries. Continue reading

The Continuing Appeal of the “Artificial Borders” Theory

The Sykes-Picot Agreement map, 1916.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement map, 1916.

There’s a popular idea that global strife is caused by the “artificial borders” of “man-made” countries, moreso than the economic designs of oligarchs and the imperial wars that enforce them. The narrative holds that ethnic groups prone to internecine conflict were thrown into a temporary coexistence by the whims of (usually Victorian) cartographers. This trope is deployed most often in the Middle East, but it can be applied anywhere there’s an operation underway to bend that country to the Washington consensus.

Undoubtedly, this theory is only treated as plausible, serious, and self-evident only when used for Washington’s benefit. Compare the conventional wisdom on Syria and Iraq with the way Russian claims that Ukraine’s borders are artificial are dismissed as irredentist propaganda.

Now, during a long-term American campaign to militarize Africa, the Nigerian insurgent group Boko Haram has fueled calls for the US to “do something.” When there’s a country in the global south and the US military is involved, odds are you’ll hear about the country’s “artificiality.” Sure enough, a long piece on PolicyMic breaks finds Nigeria’s woes more rooted in 19th century politics than contemporary ones. With another “man-made” country in the headlines, it’s worth examining why the “artificial borders” theory is so popular.

1. It blames a harmless, bygone empire and absolves the world’s existing one.
This, more than Western economic interests, is responsible for corruption.

This, more than Western economic interests, is responsible for corruption.

“To understand Boko Haram,” PolicyMic explains, “the West must look more closely at itself than Nigeria.” So far so good; if anyone’s an advocate of looking more closely at the West, it’s me. However, as in the Middle East, the West’s culpability is limited to the late British Empire. “The history of colonialism” is behind “a century of destabilization, poor infrastructure, and corrupt leaders.” Continue reading

The Middle East’s “artificial borders” and America’s history of unleashing chaos

On a recent road trip from the Bay Area to northern Washington, I noticed a strange phenomenon: the borders between US states, and even the border between America and Canada, were only indicated via man-made cues like signs and checkpoints. It was strange because I keep hearing about violence in the Middle East, chiefly in Syria and Iraq, and how the region’s problem is its “artificial” borders. Conventional wisdom has coalesced around the idea that the original sin that’s lead to the Syrian Civil War and the resurgence of violence in Iraq is that those countries are “invented,” with illegitimate borders decided upon by the whims of mere humans. What I saw on my road trip made me think that all borders are invented, and maybe every country is man-made, not just Middle East regimes outside the Washington consensus. But who am I to argue with this kind of establishment consensus! Talking about the resurgence of Al Qaeda, journalist Dexter Filkins explained:

“What’s developing in front of our eyes is this very terrifying kind of regional, sectarian war that is basically stretching from the Iranian border all the way to the Mediterranean. The longer this war goes on in Syria, the greater the impact in the region, whether it’s Lebanon, or Iraq, or Jordan. These countries are artificial countries, most of them were drawn on a map in 1919 after World War One.”

The current Middle East conflicts, as Filkins explains, are due to the “artificial” nature of the countries in question. As opposed, one presumes, to the countries of North America and Europe, whose shapes were ordained by Providence. Filkins isn’t alone in ascribing the current violence in the Middle East to the arrogant whims of Sykes and Picot. The idea that century-old cartographic laziness is at the root of today’s Mideast violence is a popular one, repeated in the pages of the New York Times, Time Magazine, The Washington Post, and by Fareed Zakaria, one of the theory’s early adopters. In a segment on The Daily Show, a personification of the British Empire named Sir Archibald Mapsalot explains the “bad borders” theory as the unfortunate result of British imperialism and the ignorance of its administrators. America’s wisest pundits have found the culprit behind the current bloodshed in the Middle East, and it is the 19th Century British Empire. How convenient, and by sheer coincidence, exculpatory for the Middle East’s current imperial master, the United States. Continue reading

The Good and Evil of Left-Libertarian Transpartisanship

On October 26, in Washington, DC, thousands gathered as part of the “Stop Watching Us” rally to demonstrate against the American surveillance state. Describing itself as a coalition of “over 100 public advocacy organizations and companies from across the US,” the protest featured attendees, speakers, and sponsors from both the anti-authoritarian Left and the Libertarian right.

The nature of an entrenched, bipartisan national security state means that the most powerful members of both parties have an interest in perpetuating government power. The Obama administration carried on the previous administration’s spying programs, and today a Democratic president finds vociferous defenders amongst the most authoritarian members of the “opposing” party.

Consequently, opposition to excessive government intrusion takes on a transpartisan nature. At the Stop Watching Us rally, Dennis Kucinich and Naomi Wolf shared the stage with Tea Party Congressman Justin Amash (R-MI) and Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson. The roster of backers included Code Pink, the ACLU, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), as well as the Libertarian Party, FreedomWorks, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute (whom I’d not heard of, but come on, “Competitive Enterprise?” Going to go ahead and put that on the Libertarian side).

The Left-Libertarian crowd that showed up on Saturday mirrors the one in Congress that came 12 votes short of defunding the NSA’s mass telephone surveillance last July. The July 24th House bill was co-sponsored by fellow Michiganders Justin Amash, a Tea Party Republican, and John Conyers, a Democrat who co-founded the Congressional Black Caucus. The Amendment would’ve “limit[ed] the government’s collection of records…to those records that pertain to a person who is subject to an investigation.” No more blanket collection.

More importantly, the bill managed to accumulate such significant, bipartisan support despite the fact that the nation’s most powerful lawmakers vehemently opposed its passage. The leadership of both parties was arrayed against Amash-Conyers, and as often happens in matters of national security, the Obama administration found a staunch supporter in Michelle Bachmann. Given bills like the Amash-Conyers Amendment, it looks like a Left-Libertarian alliance is the sort of transpartisan project that can finally rein in the surveillance state. Continue reading