Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | June 19, 2013

Links About the NSA, World War I, Eugene Debs, and Related Topics

1. Chris Bowers: “The simple change in wording that shows why you should ignore polls on the NSA leak”: “If you say the NSA is collecting phone records of ordinary Americans, then public opinion is solidly against what the NSA is doing. But if you just change ‘ordinary Americans’ to ‘Americans the government suspects of terrorist activity,’ then the public is overwhelmingly in favor.”

2. Scott Shackford at Reason: “3 Reasons the ‘Nothing to Hide’ Crowd Should Be Worried About Government Surveillance.”

3. New York defense attorney Scott Greenfield has a post about how we got to where we are now and how the concept of a “reasonable expectation of privacy” has been gutted and turned topsy-turvy. Part of the problem has been judges and members of Congress with a poor grasp of new technology:

The laws enacted by Congress to cover what we, whether individually or as a government of the People, desire to remain of our private world reflect at best archaic tweaks years, even decades, behind what technology is capable of doing. And still we argue about how to apply these laws to concepts that didn’t exist, and weren’t even imagined, at the time our elected officials, few of whom knew how to turn a computer on by themselves, crafted laws that were to control us.

The courts might have saved us…but the rigid love of precedence made judges incapable of seeing the forest through the exceptions. As long as someone could develop an analogy that struck quasi-clueless judges as close enough to rule, the beloved doctrine of judicial modesty precluded the courts from taking bold action to safeguard the fundamental rights that no longer fit neatly into their paradigm.

For years now, some people (and I am among them) have argued that technology has so fundamentally altered the nature of communication and information privacy that it demands a new paradigm; it cannot be subject to protection by analogy from the bootlegger days, safes, file cabinets, old wine and new bottles, whatever cute rhetoric gets thrown about to make old men think they know how to decide an issue.

4. Jacob Bacharach looks at some of the academic and credentialist snobbery that has flown in Edward Snowden’s direction (from such sources as, for instance, David Brooks).

5. Also, Bacharach has a post on interlocking ideas of privacy, the “permanent record,” and the fear or warning that Social Media Lasts Forever. An excerpt:

Educators and employers are constantly yelling that you young people have an affirmative responsibility not to post anything where a teacher or principal or, worst of all, boss or potential boss might find it, which gets the ethics of the situation precisely backwards. It isn’t your sister’s obligation to hide her diary; it’s yours not to read it. Your boyfriend shouldn’t have to close all his browser windows and hide his cell phone; you ought to refrain from checking his history and reading his texts. But, says the Director of Human Resources and the Career Counselor, social media is public; you’re putting it out there. Yes, well, then I’m sure you won’t mind if I join you guys at happy hour with this flip-cam and a stenographer. Privacy isn’t the responsibility of individuals to squirrel away secrets; it’s the decency of individuals to leave other’s lives alone.

At some point, employers will have to face up to the unavoidability of hiring people whose first Google image is a shirtless selfie. Demographics will demand it. They’ll have to get used to it just as surely as they’ll have to get used to nose rings and, god help us, neck tattoos. It’s a shame, though, that it’ll be compulsory and reluctant. We should no more have to censor our electronic conversations than whisper in a restaurant. I suspect that as my own generation and the one after it finally manage to boot the Boomers from their tenacious hold on the steering wheel of this civilization that they’ve piloted ineluctably and inexorably toward the shoals, all the while whining about the lazy passengers, we will better understand this, and be better, and more understanding. And I hope that the kids today will refuse to heed the warnings and insist on making a world in which what is actually unacceptable is to make one’s public life little more than series of polite and carefully maintained lies.

I think Bacharach may be downplaying some risks too much, but his post is thoughtful and thought-provoking. And his point about leaving well enough alone is well taken.

6. Erick Loomis at Lawyers, Guns & Money has a post reminding us that June is the month when Eugene V. Debs was arrested for giving a speech urging Americans to resist the draft during the First World War. An excerpt:

Debs went to Canton to urge resistance to the draft. In his speech, he claimed that the Central Powers and Allies were both fighting over capital plunder and that the people deserved better than to die in the trenches for a capitalist war. He urged the United States to remain neutral…and for people to save their lives by resisting the draft. Essentially, Debs presented the widely held leftist view of World War I. He knew that if he simply gave the Socialist Party position on the war, he would likely be arrested. He replied, “I’ll take about two jumps and they’ll nail me, but that’s all right.” In Canton, Debs spoke to about 1000 supporters at Nimsilla Park. Only a bit of the speech was about the war. The rest was fairly standard Socialist fare. But it didn’t matter. Debs was arrested on June 30 in Cleveland.

7. On the subject of World War I, this old post by Freddie deBoer analyzes President Wilson’s address to Congress asking for a declaration of war against Germany. Prof. deBoer looks at Wilson’s speech as a piece of rhetoric and an example of how to make an argument:

Woodrow Wilson’s speech asking Congress to declare war against imperial Germany and bring the United States into World War One is, in many ways, a remarkable document. I’ve taken several classes of freshman composition students through a rhetorical analysis of the speech, and though at times it’s a slog, I find it a very generative enterprise.

Wilson moves from specific reasons to go to war to “broad, universal reasons,” and he varies the rhetorical tone and flow of the speech, both to maintain his listener’s interest and to enhance the persuasive resonance of his arguments. Says deBoer: “I would suggest that anyone who’s interested in arguments and their power should consider how carefully he modulates the emotion and passion of the speech, careful not to sustain a fevered pitch for too long, or to let the speech remain listless and boring for long. He (and his speechwriters) do a masterful job of creating an emotional rhythm.”

At one point in the speech (about half-way through), Wilson lists a number of things that the nation will have to do to prosecute the war — unpopular things, like implementing a draft and incurring massive government debt. Again, deBoer looks at this passage from the standpoint of rhetorical tactics (emphasis added):

Think about this paragraph, for a moment. It’s necessary to consider the United States at a time when isolation was a far more politically popular stance than it is now. Here, Wilson unveils his demands of Congress: we’ve got to lend tons of money to foreign governments; we’ve got to start rationing essential goods that Americans rely on; we’ve got to spend a ton of money on a navy; we’ve got to take at least 500,000 men from their homes and families and send them to war, through the draft no less; oh, and by the way, we’ve got to rack up huge debts to do it. Imagine being a member of Congress and having to sell this to potentially unsympathetic constituents, all with future elections on your mind.

It might seem like a mistake to lay out all the bad news like this. I would instead argue that this is a major part of the speech’s strength.

I tell my students this all the time: rip off the Band-Aid. As I’m interested in helping students learn to write for their own practical benefit, I always encourage them to make arguments where there are stakes at hand. And any argument that involves real stakes involves trade-offs, compromises, and unfortunate necessities. Any position worth arguing will inevitably have its downsides. A mistake students often make is to avoid being direct or open about those downsides. Frequently, they’ll try to spread the bad news around, hiding it in bits and pieces, always including several bits of good news for every bit of bad news. This doesn’t fool anybody; bad news is bad news. It can’t be avoided, and the attempt makes the arguer look worse for his or her efforts. What’s more, by spreading the downsides around, in little drips and drops, students can actually make them appear more substantial than they really are. Worse of all is the tendency of students to downplay costs and consequences to the point of dishonesty. Nothing signals weakness to an audience more quickly than an arguer who won’t express the honest consequences of his or her proposal.

No, Wilson had it right: be straightforward, be honest, be clear, and be concise. When it comes time to ask for what you want, express the costs openly, in a way that indicates you know your audience can handle them. That doesn’t mean you accentuate the negative, and you’ve got to prepare your audience by making the strengths and necessity of your plan clear. In rhetoric, we talk often of kairos, the ancient Greek term for the opportune moment. Wilson embeds his frank discussion of the costs of going to war in a long argument that builds on his credibility, the passion and emotion of the moment, and facts of the situation at hand. As Yeats said about writing, “Do not wait to strike till the iron is hot; but make it hot by striking.”

Freddie deBoer is a pacifist, by the way; he didn’t write this post because he is a fan of Woodrow Wilson or of America’s decision to enter the First World War. Wilson’s address is simply a masterful piece of speechcraft, and anyone interested in how to present an argument may profit by studying it.

8. Tyler Cowen points to this Adam Liptak column examining the right of publicity and the First Amendment. Liptak writes about a lawsuit by a former college football player, Ryan Hart, against a video game maker that used his “number, height, weight, biography and playing statistics” for an unnamed avatar in the game NCAA Football (without Mr. Hart’s permission of course). The case is currently before the Third Circuit, where the video game company has asked for a rehearing en banc. Some heavyweights have lined up as amici on both sides:

The Screen Actors Guild and several players’ unions have filed briefs supporting Mr. Hart, saying that athletes, actors and other celebrities must have the right to control the use of their identities and to harvest the financial fruits of their fame. The movie industry, book publishers and news organizations, including The New York Times, have lined up on the other side, saying that allowing celebrities to control speech about them runs afoul of the First Amendment.

9. AFP via Chicago Tribune: “Turkish protesters hold mass yoga demo.”

On the general subject of events in Turkey, Tyler Cowen has a post (“Dani Rodrik has been right all along”):

For a few years now Dani Rodrik has been tweeting about how second-rate, illegitimate, and undemocratic the current Turkish regime is. He never convinced me, not because I held firmly to some opposing perspective, but simply because I don’t follow Turkish politics closely enough for claims of any kind to have had traction on my views.

It now seems he has been quite clearly correct all along. The Turkish state has behaved very badly in response to recent protests and shown how deeply it is infected by many of the characteristics of autocratic and authoritarian regimes. The treatment of children, doctors, foreign and domestic journalists, the use of chemicals in the water cannon, the indiscriminate use of the riot police, and the generalized paranoid suspicion of the Turkish population — among other factors — all point in this direction. Democracy is about more than just elections.

Also, behold the do-it-yourself gas mask, Istanbul style.


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