Category Archives: Ill-Informed Opinion

Sex Crime in the 21st Century

We didn’t have enough national nightmares already this year, so some anonymous, pitiful men on the internet decided to create another one. This weekend, someone hacked into dozens of celebrities’ phones and stole their private photos. Some are nude selfies, but others are just normal pictures. Now they’re all on the internet. Alarmingly (even in the context of this entire theft being alarming), some of them are labeled “unknown,” because they hacked somebody’s phone and stole nude photos without even knowing who it was.

Now we have graphic, viral proof of America’s woman-hating underbelly. There’s a whole subculture of men out there applauding this and shaming the photo-takers:

“Johnny M. Pozzi” (real name John M. Pozzini) also wrote this on Twitter recently: “Muslims have no sense of humor. They’re too busy worshiping false gods and wearing stupid shit on their head.” [sic] [sick]

Ladies, "Do you have a Reddit account?" is probably something you should ask on the first date.

Ladies, “Do you have a Reddit account?” is probably something you should ask on the first date. Apparently this applies to lesbians too.

Johnny Pozzini’s comment, “It’s not fair that only the guys of your choosing get to see the photos,” made me wonder if this theft is a hate crime. (No: hate crime statutes require the threat or use of physical force.) But the sub-human Pozzini is saying that women do not have civil rights. He’s contending that it is perfectly legal and “fair” for women to have their property stolen, if their property is something that he wants. By this logic, it’s not fair that only Bill Gates’s family gets to enjoy his wealth, so I should take his money.

Of course, few people put that into practice with money. We don’t help ourselves to the rich. But men do this to women, every single day, every single minute, because so many men still consider their fellow human beings to be property. Have you noticed that men are calling this a “leak” while women call it “theft”? This creepy culture of pick-up artists, “Red Pills”, men’s rights activists, and anonymous hackers legitimately doesn’t believe that women have the right to control their property, their sexual choices, or their bodies.

"Wait," you ask. "What is this Red Pill thing you mentioned?" "Ugh," I reply, "did you really want to know?"

“Wait,” you ask. “What is this Red Pill thing you mentioned?” “Ugh,” I reply, “did you really want to know?”

There’s more evidence that these men deny women basic rights. The evidence is that thousands of women, professional sex and pornography workers, willingly offer up their sexualities to this audience. Why would these men rather see pictures of famous people? Because they’re famous, and because they’re unwilling. Stealing the private sex lives of famous people is pretty damn close to rape.

And it’s not like pornographers are falling short of demand. You can find that stuff for free in about a billion places, often professionally shot, well-lit, in focus, and in high definition. These celebrity nude selfies are definitely not professional. I’m about to describe some, and I apologize if this offends you, but you can’t understand just how stupid, offensive, and aggressive this theft is without seeing at least a description of the stolen articles.

To the pond slime of the internet, “you’re famous” is more important than “you have rights,” “you’re a human being,” or even “you take hot photos.” Why else would they be clamoring to see Kate Upton naked, but seated right in front of a lamp so she’s a grainy dark blur? Or a photo of Upton, fully clothed, eating yogurt? I’m pretty sure none of them thought they would be downloading a photo of her boyfriend, pitcher Justin Verlander, passed out on top of his bed, pants around his ankles, his shirt failing to cover his smooth, shaved testicles. (That photo raises another question about consent. Did Verlander know the picture even existed?)

In other words, the photos are boring. They’re worthless except as shaming devices and weapons. If they belonged to non-famous people, nobody would care. If they came from a porn company, nobody would buy them. The reason they have been leaked is that men in our society believe that if a woman becomes famous, she deserves sexual assault.

So to summarize, we have a lot of famous people taking uninteresting photos of themselves, some of them sexual and all of them private. Then we have anonymous hackers who believe they are entitled to see these photos, because the famous people won’t publish them, and that’s unfair. The hackers steal this property for men everywhere who feel no guilt enjoying it. They blame the victims (why did you leave it somewhere hackable?), shame the victims (why did you take these photos?), and loathe themselves (we needed to see them because we’re undateable).

It’s fashionable to say that sexual assault perpetrators “objectify” women. But “objectify” is not the word for what has happened with these women (and Justin Verlander’s shiny balls). They’re the victims of a theft and an assault. Ironically, the men who downloaded these photos out of lust also downloaded them out of hate. They hate that women are no longer subjugated. They hate that women are sexually active. They hate that women have rights. They hate that women are human beings at all. There is no graver threat to the citizens of this country.

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Heroes of 2013

My first 2013 summary post had my list of the year’s villains, so it got kind of negative. Let’s balance that out with my top seven heroes of the year!

They’re in reverse order this time, because #1 would be kind of a sad note to end a blog post on.

1. Edward Snowden. Already covered this issue in like three previous blog posts. But my thought here is: if I knew about all the things Snowden knew about, and knew that somebody needed to speak about it, could I? Leaving friends and family and home for a probably permanent exile, making an enemy of the world’s best spies, being falsely accused of treason, living out of a suitcase, for a political cause? And then if I did make all those sacrifices, could I live quietly and modestly rather than becoming an attention-hogging prima donna like Julian Assange?

Nope. That takes real heroism.

In a televised statement, Snowden said, “A child born today will grow up with no conception of privacy at all. They’ll never know what it means to have a private moment to themselves, an unrecorded unanalyzed thought.”

Today’s New York Times suggested that Snowden be given a pardon. That’s a good start. Next he should be given a medal.

2. Patricia Ladd. I was telling a friend about my plan for this list and she said, “It’s going to be weird jumbling up things from your personal life and things from the news.” Yup! None weirder than my friend Patricia beating out [SPOILER ALERT] the pope. But hey, she finished the first two novels in a four-part series this year, after a decade (a decade!) of work and multiple complete rough drafts. She’s been living with her characters for so long that her parents threw one of them a birthday party. And the results (I’m relieved to say) are awesome. I can’t wait for the rest of the series, and can’t wait to see people buying copies.

I’ve finished writing projects, too, but none as ambitious (arguably), or with as much time and effort put in (definitely), or with such a clear purpose and dedication (probably). I’ve also learned from her example in style; like the real Patricia, her writing is imaginative, adventurous, and uninhibited. If you want to see it at its least inhibited, actually, you could try playing one of her choose-your-own-adventure novels online.

3. Jorge Bergoglio, now Pope Francis. How many barriers has this pope busted? He rejects the fancy fineries of the title; he lives in a guesthouse rather than the official residence; he calls people directly; he sneaks out at night to help the poor in an ordinary priest’s clothes; he has no problem with gays; he tells people to follow their own moral compasses; annoys rich people by complaining about income inequality; he thinks priestly celibacy requirements “can change.” He’s not perfect, of course; in September he excommunicated a priest who spoke in favor of ordaining women. But how much more exciting, invigorating, and just plain good can a pope get? Francis sets a model of charity, humility, approachability, and kindness which all his successors ought to emulate (or exceed).

4. An anonymous Brazilian man. According to the funniest news story of 2013, a Brazilian woman decided to murder her husband and have fun doing it. So she covered her privates with poison and asked him to give her oral sex.

You may have already noticed a few flaws in this plan. So did the husband, who gamely set about pleasuring her before realizing that something smelled awry (literally). Recognizing that she was seeping poison, he took her to the hospital and saved her life. Now that, people, is chivalry. He’s pressing charges, but let’s face it: this guy is pure class.

5. Wendy Davis. Her pink shoes represent an Alamo for Texas women, both in the tragic defeat sense and in the symbolic motivation to spur an eventual victory sense. For one night, at least, Davis, Kirk Watson, Leticia van de Putte, and a gallery of protestors helped democracy speak in Texas. They remade Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in Austin, and the remake was better.

6. Paul F. Tompkins. It feels like I spent most of the year in the company of one of America’s most gifted improv comedians. Paul F. Tompkins won’t stop appearing on comedy podcasts and inventing bizarre, wonderful characters with a gentle human touch. When you listen to a lot of comedy, you notice how many “funny” people are just swearing or talking about sex to kill time. Tompkins (“Comedy’s One True Gentleman!” and a lover of very fine hats) offers English-major wordplay (a vampire conducts “Dracularic activities”), has a gigantic vocabulary, and holds himself to a consistent but (obviously) very silly logic.

Example: Tompkins often appears on Comedy Bang! Bang! impersonating TLC’s Buddy “Cake Boss” Velastro. Never seen it? Me either, but that’s okay, because in Tompkins’ hands, Cake Boss is a mystic with the ability to see the future, speak to dead fictional characters, and confer with an intergalactic Cake Council. I wish all entertainment was as consistently joy-giving.

Also, he wears stuff like this.

7. Roger Ebert. The film critic passed away on April 4. Here’s what I posted as a comment on the AV Club:

The words I string together in real life, for my two jobs and writing purely for pleasure, reflect a lot of Ebert’s philosophy of style:

1. say what you think and feel
2. say it clearly
3. don’t pass yourself off as an all-knowing arbiter of truth; let the reader decide how they feel

Ebert’s technique of reviewing movies based on whether they succeed in their goals, rather than whether they succeed in his eyes, might have resulted in “grade inflation,” but it also resulted in far greater wisdom, helpfulness, and clarity. He was at his best not when he said “this movie is great and here’s why,” but when he said “I love this movie and here’s why.” In Roger Ebert’s reviews we learned not just about whether the movie was good: we learned about Ebert, we learned about humanity, we learned about the nature of art, we learned about ourselves.

So yeah. My hero’s gone. Physically he was a wreck. As an author and as an artist, he was at the zenith of his powers.

One wonders if he knew. These are the final lines of his final blog post:

“So on this day of reflection I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me. I’ll see you at the movies.”

Ebert may or may not appear again on my next post–the best books I read in 2013. That’s not a hint; I genuinely haven’t decided.

Coming up next: books of the year! I read 85 books this year so I know what I’m talking about!

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Best and Worst of 2013!

It’s the beginning of a new year, a golden opportunity to revive a blog (maybe with a resolution to post once a month?) and talk about the year that’s over. So here are my most and least favorite things about 2013.

Part I: Odds and Ends, Netflix, Best Day, Villains, Bestworst Frenemies
Coming in future blog posts: Heroes of the Year, Books of the Year

Most Incriminating Out-of-Context Remark Written Down in My Notebook

Coworker: “We used to be responsible for shooting all new employees.”

Weirdest Out-of-Context Remark Written Down in My Notebook

Friend: “If there’s anything I don’t want in my uterus, it’s hyenas!”

Worst Menu Description

At Club Soda in Fort Wayne, Indiana, which for the record is not a club but a very enjoyable restaurant, New Holland Dragon’s Milk beer is described as a “black lager.” Oh, I thought, a nice lager will do nicely with the appetizers and whatever I order. “Are you sure?” the waitress asked. “That’s the darkest thing we have.” “Well yeah,” I said, “it says it’s a black lager, so I guess it’s black.”

It wasn’t a black lager. It was a 10% ABV bourbon barrel aged imperial stout. So that was a surprise.

Best Illegal Photograph

Speaking of Fort Wayne, I took this picture at its art museum, after the guard said photography was forbidden, but also after he turned around to talk to somebody. It’s a blown-glass piece by Stephen Rolfe Powell.

Also, one of the last ten photos taken with my old camera (which was also my first camera).

Also, one of the last ten photos taken with my old camera (which was also my first camera).

Worst Imaginary Food

In August, I had a dream that a peanut butter chocolate brownie was going around sexually harassing women. It moved around by pivoting on its corners, and the divide between the chocolate and peanut butter layers of the brownie served to help it wink, make kissy-faces, and otherwise express itself in a creepy fashion. (Since people have asked: I was not drunk or otherwise in an altered state.)

Best Use of Netflix

TIE: Enjoying the awesome new show Orange is the New Black, and savoring an awesome old show which I somehow had never seen before (I blame you, Mom and Dad!): Cheers.

Worst Use of Netflix

In case you’re wondering, Strippers Versus Werewolves is a movie where strippers fight werewolves, but only after an hour of dithering and preparing to fight and talking about the pointless explanation for why the strippers have to fight werewolves.

Worst Thing About a Great Thing About Netflix

Netflix has Columbo! But it’s missing the first two episodes!

Best Overall Day

September 14, 2013, started out looking like it would be good and only got better. My friend Rory and I were visiting our friend Anna in Houston, and Anna got invited to a friend’s house in the suburbs for a barbecue cookout pool party. We went to Target–Rory and I needed to buy swimsuits–and then to the party, which turned out to be a couple people fixing strong drinks and a few middle-aged guys who apparently spend all their free time perfecting barbecue recipes. You’d be hard-pressed to find better meat and side dishes in any restaurant. I was so busy chowing down and enjoying conversation I didn’t even get in the pool. But we didn’t have much time, because once we’d stuffed our faces there, we had a wedding to go to.

Yeah, there was that too. Our friend Catherine Bratic married her love, Mike Benza, at a bash which can be described as extremely wonderful to attend. I’d never been to a wedding before. I’ll probably never go to such a lavish one again. String quartet, seared ahi steak canapes, bubbly, and the groom’s family dancing enthusiastically to “Call Me Maybe”.

Oh, hey, Catherine and Mike have a blog about their life in France, so go read that.

Top Five Villains of the Year

5. Whole Foods. The hippies at Whole Foods are great capitalists. That $15 bottle of wine you got at Whole Foods is $11 at Spec’s. I recently encountered chicken breasts for $15.99 per pound. They have some stuff most grocery stores don’t (like good feta cheese), but the fact that my nearest and most convenient grocery is a Whole Foods kind of stinks. Maybe they would have avoided this list if they didn’t always run out of fresh-baked wheat bread before I show up. Argh!

4. Jonathan Franzen. What if a writer who aspires to greatness builds his reputation on trenchant critique and dissent, but actually he’s just a grumpy sourpuss who hates everything? Then you have Jonathan Franzen. I need to give him a fair chance; my something like five attempts to read either The Corrections or Freedom have all failed by page 5 because of the suffocatingly smug prose, but hey, maybe he’s a self-important malcontent with something to valuable to say! There has to be at least one, right?

3. Macy’s. I walked in, picked a tie off the table, and put it on the counter. The saleslady forced me to spend another half hour looking at more and more ties in every conceivable color, until she had decided to charge me for something like five, before I finally said, “I just want one” and bought the one I had started with. She gave me one good bit of advice (“You’re skinny, so wear a skinny tie”) but wasted my time endlessly, and even worse, she asked for my customer account info, which I forgot, and in the ensuing badly-explained process she signed me up for a credit card, which she did not tell me about and arrived in the mail as a surprise, and charged my purchase to it, which was easy to forget about because I destroyed the card three minutes after receiving it.

Basically, Macy’s wants shopping there to be as unpleasant as possible. It’s the Blockbuster of stores.

2. Ted Cruz. This list would be nonsensical without Ted Cruz. In lieu of discussion, here is a picture of his “smell my fart” face:

“Ladies and gentlemen, what you’re smelling comes from my office’s fajita buffet.”

1. Barack Obama. This was a bad year for Obama, and for all of us. The “red line” remark about Syria almost brought us into yet another hopelessly doomed war, before one of the world’s wisest and most distinguished elder statesmen stepped in with a plan to avoid international conflict. No, wait. It was Vladimir Putin.

Take a moment to think back to 2008. Would you have ever guessed that Vladimir Putin would stop Barack Obama from getting involved in a disastrous war?

And then there was Obamacare doing a belly flop Corgi flop, as illustrated in this video so that you can laugh through your pain at the total disaster that is our healthcare system:

And hey, we’re not even to the worst part yet! The worst part is that Barack Obama presides over, and completely approves of, a surveillance system which would make any third-world tyrant jealous.

Here’s a quick recapitulation adapted and expanded from my previous blog post on the subject, including more recent news stories:

(a) Spoken words from domestic telephone calls are “routed into a system” and stored; (b) government officials can listen to domestic calls “simply based on an agent deciding that,” possibly with approval of a court that approves 99.91% of requests; (c) phone call and email metadata for American citizens is kept and stored permanently to track your contacts, location, and other valuable information; (d) the U.S. government collects emails, chats, video chats, search records, and other desired internet information data from all the major web companies; (e) evidence accidentally (and illegally) collected from American citizens is totally legit to use in court; (f) the NSA may spy on American citizens unchecked in extreme emergencies (as chosen by the NSA itself); (g) spies can violate attorney-client privilege in U.S. court cases; (g) all encrypted material must be kept, since the system “requires” it; (h) data by or about U.S. citizens can be forwarded to domestic authorities if it contains evidence of any crime, terrorism or not; (i) electronics shipped to U.S. addresses can be stolen, clogged with spyware and malware by secret agents, repackaged, and shipped to the customer who thinks (s)he is getting a clean new computer; (j) spies spying on their significant others is so common that it’s code-named LOVEINT; (k) the NSA shares Americans’ data with Israeli intelligence; (l) the NSA uses Americans’ phone call and email data to make diagrams showing people’s social networks and friend-groups; (m) the government makes sure that basically everything made is easy to hack, like Internet encryption and iPhones; (n) specific targets have included the leaders of Germany, Mexico, Indonesia, and Brazil, plus al-Jazeera, the World Bank, and everybody with a phone in Norway.

There’s so much illegal or unconstitutional activity here that I can’t imagine the courts getting through it all anytime soon. Here’s a full list of revelations with news sources. And the government can get away with it, because it’s too enormous a misdeed to stop, because there are billions of dollars in funding, because nobody can prove in court they were specifically targeted unless the government says so, and because “national security! Top secret info!” is the easiest, sleaziest defense.

Someone recently told me, “You sound like a conservative.” Nope. Kind of the opposite. But Barack Obama should be impeached.

Top and Also Bottom Three Frenemies of the Year

Ah, yes, frenemies! Those people you love to hate and/or hate to love.

3. 512 Brewing Company, Austin, Texas. This one’s simple, 512: Cascabel Cream Stout is my favorite Texas beer. But it’s not available in bottles and it’s only available in winter. How can you be so cruel?

2. Larry Klayman. The guy who sued the government over mass NSA phone data collection, and just won Round 1 after a ruling by Judge Richard Leon, is actually a fruitcake who sues everybody all the time because he sucks. Previous lawsuit victims for this sleazebag civil rights hero: Rachel Maddow, Facebook, and his own mother. He’s been banned from two courtrooms and he says Obama is “evil, plain and simple.” Obama’s not evil, Larry; he just sucks at being good. He also told Obama to “put the Qu’ran down and come out with your hands up.” So yeah, there’s that. Every so often, even a blind rabid insane hate-fueled asshole squirrel finds a nut.

1. Dark chocolate peanut butter. Why oh why does eating have to have consequences?

Coming in Part II: Heroes of the Year!

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America’s Best City Nicknames

Whew! Looking back over the last few posts on my blog, there’s a pattern: serious national issues. Race and the law in the Trayvon Martin shooting; Supreme Court rulings; poll results; a never-posted draft about Texas State Senator Wendy Davis.

Maybe we should all take a break and talk about something ridiculous. Like how today the AV Club linked to Wikipedia’s List of City Nicknames in the United States, and how I read all of them.

The Top Twenty Best Nicknames for American Cities
As decided by the author

DISHONORABLE MENTION: Most Dishonest Nickname

TIE. Muskegon, MI – “Beer Tent Capital of the World” / Cuba City, WI – “City of Presidents”

I’ve been to Muskegon, and I didn’t see any beer tents. Cuba City is home of, and birthplace to, exactly zero presidents. Apparently it’s called the “City of Presidents” because they have banners with presidents’ pictures on them. Feel the excitement.

Actual Google image search result for “Muskegon Beer Tent”

HONORABLE MENTION: Best Sexual Double-Meaning

Omaha, NE – “The Big O”

No comment.

20. Asbury Park, NJ: “Dark City.” The ideal place for a superhero movie. Evocative, classy, foreboding.

19. Boston, MA: “City of Notions.” Apparently this dates from the 1800s, which is a shame, because we could use more absurdist vague nicknames. What does this even mean?

18. Riverton, WY: “We’ve Got All the Civilization You Need.” So there!

17. Hermantown, MN: “The City of Quality Living.” Somehow they’re the only town to think of this slogan, and somehow it conjures up a really earnest, serious, hardworking mentality, the kind you’d expect from Garrison Keillor characters. Pure class.

16. Owensboro, KY: “Barbecued Mutton Capital of the World.” There are a lot of “Capitals of the World” in America, sometimes even multiples (two different ones for horseradish), but barbecued mutton is probably the most creative of all.

15. Detroit, MI: “Motown.” C’mon. This is a great, great nickname.

14. Russell Springs, KS: “Cow Chip Capital of Kansas.” No, seriously. They’re the cow chip capital. But only of Kansas.

Proof!

“But wait!” I hear you say. “Surely #14 is too low for such a leader in cow chip excellence!” Ah, but Russell Springs isn’t even the nation’s most distinctive purveyor of cow poop. Read on.

13. Villisca, IA: “Living with a Mystery.” This is a pretty intriguing name already, but then you find out that they have that name because of a series of unsolved axe murders in 1912 and it becomes pretty fascinating. And then you find out that the city’s official website is 100% devoted to convincing you to spend a night in the axe murder house, and you feel really sad.

12. Hereford, TX: “The Town Without a Toothache.” These folks have it all figured out.

11. Bozeman, MT: “The Bozone.” Also winner of the Special Jury Prize for Accidentally Insulting Themselves in a Way That Should Have Been Obvious.

10. Washington, DC: “Hollywood for Ugly People.” How can you resist a dig like that? Apparently its first print mention came from strategist Paul Begala, who says he thinks he overheard it in an Austin bar while studying at the University of Texas. Texas pride!

It’s a self-deprecating remark, but Paul Begala is a sexy beast.

9. New Orleans, LA: “The Big Easy.” Man, what a great nickname. “The Big Easy.” Actually, between that, Crescent City, and NOLA, New Orleans has the most great nicknames of any American city (sorry, New York). Really gets the spirit of the place.

8. Jefferson, WI: “The Gemütlichkeit City.” This is another one where I’m gonna have to post a picture as proof.

Gotta admire their gumption.

Quoth Wikipedia, “Gemütlichkeit means a situation that induces a cheerful mood, peace of mind, with connotation of belonging and social acceptance, coziness and unhurry.”

7. Las Vegas, NV: “Sin City.” There was no way Sin City wasn’t making this list. Although maybe I err in ranking it higher than the Big Easy.

6. Champaign-Urbana, IL: “Shampoo-Banana.” There are fewer “sounds like” nicknames than you’d expect, because apparently most cities don’t like mocking their own names by mispronouncing them in crude, preposterous ways. Not so Shampoo-Banana! (Nor Baltimore, Maryland, which in some quarters is known as “Bodymore, Murderland.”)

5. Algona, IA: “Home of the World’s Largest Cheeto.” The Cheeto is “on display inside Emeralds Restaurant,” and was “found in a bag, now enshrined on a velvet cushion under a glass dome.” These are actual quotes. What’s more, the Cheeto was actually purchased from the original owner with the specific intention of attracting tourists. And its status as the world’s largest has never been verified. Poor Algona, Iowa.

But, uh, you’re impressed, right?

4. Sauk Prairie, WI: “Cow Chip Throwing Capital of Wisconsin.” Take that, Cow Chip Capital of Kansas! In Wisconsin, they don’t just have cow chips: they throw them!

Real, actual photograph from the real, actual Wisconsin Department of Tourism.

I think we need another picture of this.

These people are sick.

3. Bellingham, WA: “City of Subdued Excitement.” Now, granted, Indianapolis is famously “Naptown.” And Concord, NH, was apparently once “City in a Coma.” But “City of Subdued Excitement” sounds a lot less disappointed and a lot more, well, proud, almost.

2. Cornucopia, WI: “Wisconsin’s Northernmost Post Office.” Which, when you think about it, is saying the pretty much the same thing Bellingham is.

1. Colma, CA. Okay, this one is going to take a little more explaining, because Colma has a backstory, and it also has both a nickname and a slogan, each of which would be sufficient to win independently.

San Francisco has an earthquake problem. It’s been leveled by them before (if you count the fires), and it runs a severe risk of being leveled again. In fact, in the 1970s a documentary film about San Francisco was called The City That Waits to Die.

Colma is right next door. It was founded and incorporated as, no joke, a giant cemetery. Today, 73% of the land is still cemeteries, and the two thousand residents live surrounded by the graves of folks like Joe DiMaggio, Wyatt Earp, William Randolph Hearst, Levi Strauss, and Vince Guaraldi.

Colma’s nickname is “The City That Waits for the City That Waits to Die to Die.”

Its slogan is “It’s great to be alive in Colma!”

My bags are packed.

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The Law’s the Law

Common misconception: legal decisions aren’t about law.

Here are a few examples: when the Supreme Court invalidated parts of the Voting Rights Act, liberals freaked out because it showed that America still has racist ways. When it invalidated parts of the Defense of Marriage Act, conservatives (and liberals) thought the nine justices were making a moral statement about human sexuality. And now, with George Zimmerman not guilty of murder in the Trayvon Martin case, well:

Zimmerman’s defense actually didn’t rely on the ‘stand your ground’ law, so you can’t really blame FL law. Just racism!” “im glad i live in a world where lynching an unarmed, unaggressive teenager is legal” “Trayvon Martin was found guilty of being a black man.” “its legal to kill blacks.” “There is no justice. A defenseless teenager was stalked and murdered in cold blood.”

These quotations arrived in my Twitter feed within 30 minutes of the jury reaching a verdict.

Whether you think George Zimmerman was acquitted only because of racism, or you think that gay people can enjoy marriage benefits only because of a trendy political cause, you’re guilty of one bad mental misstep: assuming that legal decisions are made for non-legal reasons.

Yes, interpreting the law is a bit like interpreting the Bible; it’s open to various interpretations and your readings can be influenced by outside factors. But if you read a Supreme Court ruling, you’ll find that no matter how hot the political issue, the rulings are made based on legal precedents and arguments, not moral ones (unless the justice is Antonin Scalia). Take the example of extending federal marriage benefits to gay couples who are married: for most of us, it’s the right thing to do because gay people are equal to straight people. For the law, it’s still the right thing to do, but for a different reason: because the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment affords all of us equal protection under the law.

And now the George Zimmerman trial has reached a verdict. Everyone, from the mass media to most of my circle of friends, has assumed that the trial would work like this:

guilty = racism is dead in America
not guilty = America hates black people

Actually, it worked like this:

guilty = sufficient evidence to prove his guilt
not guilty = reasonable doubt about his guilt

Personally, I think George Zimmerman is a horrible man. I think he was racist. I think he followed Trayvon Martin solely because Martin was black. I think he caused Martin to die for no reason. I think he provoked Martin into the fight which ended in Martin’s death. I think Donna Brazile is right: “I respect the verdict, but I still believe that Zimmerman had the upper hand and chose to profile, follow & later kill an unarmed teenager.”

Could I prove, beyond reasonable doubt, that Zimmerman is guilty of second-degree murder? No. Could I prove, beyond reasonable doubt, that Zimmerman was the aggressor? No. Could I prove, beyond reasonable doubt, that Zimmerman’s claim of self-defense is bullshit? No.

The case is maddening. There are no witnesses, everyone disagrees on everything, most of the important arguments are speculation. We know Zimmerman followed Martin because he was a vigilante wannabe cop who was scared of black people. But what happened next? The only living person who knows is George Zimmerman. It sucks.

Do you see what I mean? This is the law. You can’t say, “Guilty because he’s an asshole.” Or “guilty because he’s racist.” Or “guilty because Trayvon Martin should be alive today.” You can only, ONLY, say, “Guilty because the evidence leaves no reasonable doubt.”

My father sat on a jury once. Attempted murder. He said, “The defendant was probably guilty. But the prosecution didn’t have the evidence they needed to prove it.”

I know it makes for a sucky story. I know Martin’s death is a moral outrage. And I know George Zimmerman’s actions violently destroyed a valuable life. But in the United States a defendant is innocent until proven guilty. I hope you never learn how valuable that principle is first-hand.

Two more thoughts.

1. George Zimmerman’s life is ruined. He will never hold down a decent job again, and certainly will never achieve his dream of being a cop. He won’t even be a mall cop. We can all be thankful for that.

2. You know what this country needs? Gun control laws.

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Why the NSA is Dangerous

When I talk about the ongoing National Security Agency surveillance scandals with friends, there are two main reactions: shock and disgust, or total apathy. The second view is best put by two different friends who put it to me this way: “Why should I care? I have nothing to hide.” The U.S. government is running a program that keeps us safer, and if we’re not caught in the net, why be so angsty?

Hearing that blunt reply, I remembered a psychological study conducted a few years ago. Various people were told a story about an adult brother and sister who have sex. It’s consensual, it doesn’t hurt anybody, they have a good time, they use contraception, and nobody ever knows. But they are siblings. The listeners were asked by psychologists: did the brother and sister do something wrong? Almost everybody said “yes.” When asked why the sex was wrong, almost everybody fell silent or answered incoherently.

There is a type of action, then, which our instinct tells us is immoral, but we have a hard time explaining our disapproval. Is the NSA scandal something like that? This essay explains why the answer is no.

What We Know

– The U.S. government keeps limited phone records on American citizens. Customers of at least one phone company, Verizon Business (a separate division from Verizon Cellular), have their phone call “metadata” stored in government servers. That means numbers dialed, duration of call, location of the telephone, everything but the names of the participants and the actual recorded conversation. Some sources say that agreements like this exist with almost every phone company in the United States.

– But actual recorded conversations are stored, too. An NSA program called NUCLEON “intercepts telephone calls and routes the spoken words to a system.” The government has “resolutely refused to offer an estimate of the number of Americans whose calls or e-mails have thus made their way into content databases.”

– A conflicted report suggests that the government can listen to those calls without a search warrant. Apparently Representative Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) heard at a secret Congressional hearing that the process for deciding when to listen to an actual phone call was “simply based on an analyst deciding that.” But then Nadler contradicted himself a few days later, saying that the government had reassured him that the listening takes place after obtaining a warrant.

– Those two statements are compatible because the top-secret court that processes these warrant requests has approved 99.91% of them since 2007. The government says that’s because they submit really good requests. Others say it’s because the court is a powerless rubber-stamp, the judges on it aren’t qualified to pass judgment on national security briefs, and they’re all kind of scared that if a terrorist attack happens, somebody will blame them. Max Frankel writes, “most federal judges are predisposed to defer to executive claims of national security. They are generalists with little experience in evaluating intelligence.” Whatever the reasons, the top-secret court is practically a guaranteed warrant, making the warrants meaningless.

– The U.S. government collects emails, chats, video chats, search records, and other desired internet information from foreign citizens living outside the U.S., using alleged direct access to the servers of Yahoo!, Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Skype, and other web giants. (Dropbox is being targeted by the feds, too.)

– These companies deny consenting to the supply of this data. If the original disclosures are correct and the U.S. government does access their servers, somebody is lying, either the companies about consenting or the government about having the companies’ permission.

– The NSA’s guidelines for avoiding spying on American citizens or residents are fairly thorough, and for the most part reassuring that they make a conscious effort. However, there are loopholes:

(a) if they spy on a target and then later realize the target is American, they must stop collecting new data immediately, but data already obtained can be kept. See (f).
(b) “If, in order to protect against an immediate threat to the national security, NSA determines that it must take action, on a temporary basis, in apparent departure from these procedures…NSA may take such action.”
(c) “Communications of or concerning United States persons that may be related to the authorized purpose of the acquisition may be forwarded to analytic personnel…”
(d) “As a communication is reviewed, NSA analyst(s) will determine whether it is a domestic or foreign communication…reasonably believed to contain foreign intelligence information or evidence of a crime.”
(e) If a United States resident or citizen is on trial and communicates electronically with his/her attorney using the protected secrecy of attorney-client privilege, that communication can be reviewed by agents for “foreign intelligence information contained therein.”
(f) U.S. citizens’ communications will be destroyed immediately “unless the Director (or Acting Director) of NSA specifically determines” that the data contains foreign intelligence information or even if it “does not contain foreign intelligence information but is reasonably believed to contain evidence of a crime.”
(g) “Maintenance of technical data bases requires retention of all communications that are enciphered or reasonably believed to contain secret meaning…”

What We Don’t Know

It’s time to stop and pay tribute to one of our century’s most underappreciated remarks.

Known Unknowns

“There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.”

Wikipedia says that this remark by Donald Rumsfeld won the “2003 Foot in Mouth Award,” which is odd because it’s so true and useful. I’m speaking non-ironically. Apply it to the NSA case: there are things we know we don’t know, and things we don’t know we don’t know.

Known Unknowns

– We don’t know anything about the secret warrant courts: how they work, their proceedings, their deliberations, why they approve 99.91% of NSA requests.

– We don’t know if any of these spying measures have worked. Government spokesmen have claimed that “dozens” of terrorist attacks were stopped because of NSA surveillance, but Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Mark Udall (D-CO), as well as various off-the-record anonymous sources, say that’s just not true.

– We don’t know how many U.S. citizens’ or residents’ phone and email and chat and Skype information is being stored in government warehouses.

– We don’t know the criteria for determining if U.S. citizens’ data “may be related” to an investigation.

– We don’t know how the NSA chooses to spy on our data; we’re assured that they begin accessing records only after identifying a target. We don’t know if this is true, and we don’t know the odds of an ordinary, innocent person’s information being accessed because they were flagged by computer software.

– We don’t know how often all those loopholes are exploited to retain data on U.S. citizens, or even to charge them for crimes accidentally discovered while spying.

Unknown Unknowns

By definition, we don’t know these. But I can think of at least one area that counts: abuse of power. We don’t know if any NSA agents have abused their privileges to snoop on data they shouldn’t be looking at. We don’t know if a contractor, or low-level employee, or consultant, or any of the thousands of people with clearance looked into our files just for fun, or to see if they could, or to try and exact vengeance, or because they were in a really stupid romantic comedy.

This Means War

“Reese Witherspoon is hot. But illegal-search-and-seduction hot?”

What All That Stuff Means, Constitutionally

It means that the federal government has almost certainly been violating our Fourth Amendment protections.

Let’s have a look at the Fourth Amendment:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Let’s now have a look at some problems with the NSA, FISA, NUCLEON, PRISM, and so on:

(a) spoken words from domestic telephone calls are “routed into a system”; (b) government officials can listen to domestic calls “simply based on an agent deciding that,” possibly with approval of a court that approves 99.91% of requests; (c) government officials allege they have direct access to the servers of major corporations, which say they did not give permission; (d) data accidentally (and illegally) collected from American citizens can be kept and scanned for potentially damaging material; (e) the NSA may spy on American citizens unchecked in extreme emergencies (as determined by the NSA itself); (f) spies can search materials protected by attorney-client privilege; (g) all encrypted material must be kept, since the system “requires” it; (h) data by or about U.S. citizens can be forwarded to domestic authorities if it contains evidence of any crime, terrorism or not.

Any one of those could be challenged on constitutional grounds, but let’s focus on that last one for a second, as an example.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Fourth Amendment Violations

Have you ever illegally downloaded a song, movie, TV show, or computer program? Have you ever told anybody about it in email, instant message, video chat, or a phone call? Congratulations. You just fell into loophole (h).

This is how it could work. The NSA might open up your data. I don’t know why. That’s a known unknown. But if they do, and they see you saying “I go on [piracy website] and watch Cougar Town for free. Who needs cable?”, they can forward that to the FBI. Blammo. You’re on record violating federal law. And guess what? Since the NSA found the evidence, it’s possible that they’ll say it’s top-secret. The FBI will use your internet service provider’s records to nail you for piracy, so that they don’t have to present the secret NSA file at court, and you’ll never know that you were actually arrested because of an illegal violation of your Fourth Amendment rights. Hell, people might already be in jail because the NSA searched their records. How would we know?

A Brief Aside about Google, Microsoft, Yahoo!, Skype, Dropbox, Apple, Facebook, Etc.

“But I already share all my info with all those companies. It’s not that different if it’s the government.”

Granted, Google knows way more about you than is healthy. But, as Max Frankel writes, “Google and Amazon do not indict, prosecute and jail the people they track and bug.” Also, you consented to share all your information with Google. (Maybe not on purpose, but you did.) You didn’t consent to the government. Heck, that’s the definition of spying.

“Hello there. I’m a spy. Mind if I come in?” “Sure!”

Another Brief Aside, This Time about Why the NSA Does This

Number of United States Citizens Killed in Terrorist Actions, 20022012: 321 in 11 years

Number of United States Citizens Killed by Firearms (Excluding Combat), 2002-2011: 309,536 in 10 years

Number of United States Residents Killed While in a Canoe or Kayak, 2011: 134 in 1 year

Forget guns. Drownings and collisions to canoers and kayakers are four and a half times as dangerous as terrorists. Even if NSA surveillance did save hundreds of lives, its elaborate spying would be more useful fishing people out of rivers and lakes.

This river is more dangerous than Saddam’s WMDs were in 2003.

Conclusion: “I Don’t Have Anything to Hide”

First: yes, you do. It’s a certainty that you have committed a federal crime, intentionally or not, at some point in life. Given today’s information age, it’s probable that you’ve confessed to it in an email or on the phone or some other way. And the NSA has the power to find that information and turn it over to authorities who can prosecute you.

Second: it’s not about you. It’s about whether or not we live in a free society.

When the United States was founded, we insisted on basic protections against tyranny and authoritarian rule. “No person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” Today we’ve invented legal arguments to exempt people suspected of terrorist behavior. “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.” Today we’ve invented legal arguments to secretly violate this protection in all manner of ways. “The attorney client privilege is one of the oldest recognized privileges for confidential communications.” Today it can be violated to check for “foreign intelligence.” And we’re sacrificing all these freedoms to a dubious protection against a negligibly tiny danger which threatens almost none of our lives.

The idea that the U.S. is a free country is increasingly a myth. This morning news stories reported that NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden was bound for Russia, then Venezuela, then Ecuador. Ecuador is not a bad place, but earlier, when the word was that he was ticketed for Venezuela, I had an odd thought.

What a poor choice. That’s a country where the government lacks any kind of transparency, and by secretive means can decide to arrest you for a violation of the law you may not even have known about, using courts of dubious merit and an uncontrolled surveillance regime. That’s a country with a systematic disregard for rule of law, cavalier about reinterpreting its constitution to do what it wants. That’s a country which trumps up minimal threats to its well-being in order to frighten its citizens into consenting to dangerous sacrifices of their freedoms.

Oh wait.

Snowden already fled that country.

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David Brooks is the Worst

If I hadn’t graduated from Rice a year early, my commencement speaker would have been New York Times columnist David Brooks. I dodged a bullet. Brooks’s op-ed today is the worst newspaper column I have ever read.

The past week’s NSA surveillance revelations have been shocking, on one level, and not at all surprising, on another; I’ve been sorting through a lot of opinions and talking to friends with different viewpoints. But maybe we can all take a moment to agree that David Brooks is the worst.

In his column today, Brooks vents out all his intensely personal loathing for Edward Snowden, the former NSA employee and contractor who leaked out details of the U.S. government’s spying on Verizon phone network data and emails, chatlogs, video-chats, and other information from Facebook, Google, Skype, Yahoo!, and Apple users worldwide.

As a quick recap: the Verizon phone records, handed over by government demand and officially sanctioned by a kangaroo court appointed specially to approve such demands, disclose to the NSA all Verizon business (not cell or home) phone users’ call data, except for the actual recorded conversations. (Callers’ names are not disclosed, but given the other information provided, and the existence of Google, they’re easy to find.) Meanwhile, the NSA has direct access to the servers of all the internet companies listed above and more, allegedly without their permission, but insists it only spies on non-citizens of the United States.

Assuming you believe the government when it says it’s not spying on U.S. citizens (and do you? really?), the alleged warrantless entry into American servers might be criminal, and both programs are incredibly broad and terrifying, given that the public was never given a chance to approve or even debate them. Nobody asked us.

But set aside my opinions and listen to David Brooks’s opinion of the whistleblower, Edward Snowden.

David Brooks

While contemplating Brooks’s highly punchable face.

“[Snowden] betrayed honesty and integrity.” This said about a man who revealed dishonesty and deceit in others, and who has so far not been dishonest himself.

“[Snowden] made explicit and implicit oaths to respect the secrecy of the information with which he was entrusted. He betrayed his oaths.” Of course, the same is true of whistleblowers everywhere, from Enron to doctors who believe their patients may commit acts of violence to the soldiers who point out how much sexual assault there is in the U.S. military.

“He betrayed his employers. Booz Allen and the C.I.A. took a high-school dropout and offered him positions with lavish salaries.” Translation: “Why would you ever turn against somebody who gave you a lot of money? You should be thankful and do whatever they say.”

“He betrayed the cause of open government.” He did this by opening up the government to inspection. Brooks does have a point here, though, because Brooks is saying that the Obama administration will only become more secretive after these leaks. That’s true. But it’s not Snowden’s fault if our government responds by behaving even worse. It’s our government’s.

“He betrayed the privacy of us all.” Here Brooks is arguing that now the government’s going to have to secretly spy on the world’s emails without oversight some other way. (Obviously that’s the only option.)

“He betrayed the Constitution.” The ultimate irony: David Brooks really thinks that Snowden “betrayed the Constitution” by exposing a secret government practice exempt by collusion from constitutionally-mandated checks and balances, unaccountable to the people at large, and almost certainly entailing violations, intended or not, of the Fourth and Fifth Amendments. In other words, Snowden betrayed the Constitution by pointing out that somebody else was betraying it.

And then there’s Brooks’s description of Snowden, his analysis of why Snowden leaked the information he did:

“…he appears to be a product of one of the more unfortunate trends of the age: the atomization of society, the loosening of social bonds, the apparently growing share of young men in their 20s who are living technological existences in the fuzzy land between their childhood institutions and adult family commitments. If you live a life unshaped by the mediating institutions of civil society, perhaps it makes sense to see the world a certain way: Life is not embedded in a series of gently gradated authoritative structures: family, neighborhood, religious group, state, nation and world.”

Snowden himself said that he acted out because he was worried about constitutional transgressions and angry that nobody was accountable, and because he saw that it’s only our government’s goodwill that keeps its machinery from being used to build an authoritarian police state. David Brooks says Snowden acted because he’s 29 but hasn’t married or had children, and because he doesn’t feel loyal to his family, country, or church.

Reading David Brooks, you get no idea of what Snowden said or found. You get the idea that an entitled bum who doesn’t know what loyalty is because he doesn’t have kids or a house of worship unilaterally decided to leak some government secrets for kicks. The government, in Brooks’s telling, had nothing to do with it.

Indeed, reading Brooks, you get a portrait of a guy who undermined privacy, honesty, integrity, open governance, and the Constitution. How? The guy revealed that our government is undermining privacy, honesty, integrity, open governance, and the Constitution. The column is all upside-down and opposites, which is understandable, since David Brooks has an ass where his head should be.

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