Quote of the Day, from Thich Nhat Hanh

Posted by Sappho on January 22nd, 2018 filed in Peace Testimony, Quotes


When you begin to see that your enemy is suffering, that is the beginning of insight.

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Project Discussion and Feedback, Technical Presentation Project 5: “I, Robot”

Posted by Sappho on January 21st, 2018 filed in Computers


At my first job after I graduated from college, a robot roamed the halls. That robot, named Flakey, was an SRI research project, an autonomous mobile robot that used fuzzy logic as it tried to reach a destination and avoid obstacles. Occasionally, to entertain SRI staff, Flakey would sing “Daisy.”

For my Toastmasters Technical Presentation Project 5 of the “Advanced Communication Series”, I will talk about robots, from the early autonomous mobile devices at SRI, Flakey and its predecessor Shakey, to the modern computing advances that have been driven by robotics research.

As the goal of Technical Presentations Project 5 is “Enhance a Technical Talk with the Internet of the “Technical Presentations,” I am publishing this blog post for discussion and feedback prior to my presentation. My fellow Toastmasters in the Irvine Project Masters club are invited to make comments and offer feedback.

The project objectives are:

  • Understand the nature and process of a technical presentation supported with professional -level visual aids.
  • Arrange pre-meeting communications via e-mail
  • Find or create a post-meeting website for further dissemination of information supporting or enhancing your verbal presentation. You may create a web page and add it to your club’s web site, making use of podcasting, webcasting, or a basic Internet template.
  • Use a desktop computer, Microsoft Word, a Web browser, a simple graphics programme for photos and other images. Microsoft PowerPoint, as well as a flip chart to support your presentation.
  • Time: 12 to 15 minutes.

Here are a few links related to robots:

The word “robot” was introduced to the English language by R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), a 1920 science fiction play by the Czech writer Karel ?apek which introduced the now familiar science fiction theme of rebellious killer robots.

Friendlier and more sympathetic were Isaac Asimov’s robotsm which followed Laws of Robotics designed to prevent them from injuring humans. As we move toward a future with self-driving cars, we need to consider what ethics to program into them, a question that MIT Technology Review considers in Why Self-Driving Cars Must Be Programmed to Kill. The dilemma: people prefer other people’s self-driving cars to sacrifice the occupants if necessary to avoid killing a larger number of people. But they themselves are not so sure they want to ride in a self-driving car that would ever sacrifice their own lives for the greater good.

But before we can have ethical self-driving cars, we need functional self-driving cars:

The Google Self-Driving Car Project

Wired articles on Self-Driving Cars

And what about drones?

PC Mag on The Best Drones of 2018

How the Predator Drone Changed the Character of War

Once the province of government funded research at think tanks, robotics is now a familiar part of public education. Here’s a 4-H page about robotics for students.

What questions do you have about robots? What would you like to hear, in a 12-15 talk about robots and robotics?

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From “Those Who Walk Away from Omelas”

Posted by Sappho on January 21st, 2018 filed in Quotes


They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.

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Bang the Drum Slowly, Speak of Things Holy

Posted by Sappho on January 15th, 2018 filed in Saints and Witnesses


Last month, I realized that my feelings over what I see happening politically to evangelical Christianity were affecting my spiritual practice. And then I reached a point where I simply let go. Told myself that if I was having trouble with some of the more evangelical online Bible studies I tried (no fault of theirs, really, more baggage from things like the Roy Moore election that rubbed off, for me, as an emotional reaction to particular language), I could pick the spiritual practice that would actually work for me. (Was it Billy Graham who said that the best Bible translation is the one you actually read?) Interlinear Hebrew Tanakh one day and interlinear Greek New Testament another, in very small portions, because it’s not as if I actually know more than a tiny bit of Hebrew (though more Greek). Listening to the Maccabeats, and singing “Aleinu” on the way to work. Taking a break from Christmas songs for a week of Hanukkah songs. Occasional use of my Buddha quote app, and I’m now trying out a Buddhist meditation app that Joel showed me. And hymns from the Unapologetically Episcopalian group on Facebook. And some secular songs that have spiritual meaning for me.

One of the latter is Emmylou Harris’s “Bang the Drum Slowly,” about her father. I love especially the lines, “I meant to ask you how, when everything seemed lost, And your fate was in a game of dice they tossed, There was still that line that you would never cross, At any cost.”

Today’s one of our secular holidays that are like the saint’s days of medieval times: the day for honoring Martin Luther King. His death is my earliest political memory (I was seven), so I don’t really remember the time when he was a controversial figure, rather than a revered martyr. But I take my time to remember him today, reading the Letter from Birmingham Jail, and listening to Marvin Gaye’s “Abraham, Martin & John.” It’s good to remember, in a time of backlash, the ways in which the arc of history has bent toward justice. It gives me hope.

Other things that give me hope:

Steven Barnes’ Facebook note on MLK, America, and the Hero’s Journey

Congressman John Lewis on “Good Trouble

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Spectre and Meltdown: A Round Up

Posted by Sappho on January 7th, 2018 filed in Computers


Bruce Schneier: Spectre and Meltdown Attacks Against Microprocessors

The security of pretty much every computer on the planet has just gotten a lot worse, and the only real solution — which of course is not a solution — is to throw them all away and buy new ones.

On Wednesday, researchers just announced a series of major security vulnerabilities in the microprocessors at the heart of the world’s computers for the past 15-20 years….

It shouldn’t be surprising that microprocessor designers have been building insecure hardware for 20 years. What’s surprising is that it took 20 years to discover it….

Brian Krebs, Scary Chip Flaws Raise Spectre of Meltdown:

Apple, Google, Microsoft and other tech giants have released updates for a pair of serious security flaws present in most modern computers, smartphones, tablets and mobile devices. Here’s a brief rundown on the threat and what you can do to protect your devices.

At issue are two different vulnerabilities, dubbed “Meltdown” and “Spectre,” that were independently discovered and reported by security researchers at Cyberus Technology, Google, and the Graz University of Technology. The details behind these bugs are extraordinarily technical, but a Web site established to help explain the vulnerabilities sums them up well enough:

“These hardware bugs allow programs to steal data which is currently processed on the computer. While programs are typically not permitted to read data from other programs, a malicious program can exploit Meltdown and Spectre to get hold of secrets stored in the memory of other running programs. This might include your passwords stored in a password manager or browser, your personal photos, emails, instant messages and even business-critical documents.”

“Meltdown and Spectre work on personal computers, mobile devices, and in the cloud. Depending on the cloud provider’s infrastructure, it might be possible to steal data from other customers.”

Daniel Faigin: It’s a Sign of the Times: The Spectre of a Security Meltdown

There is no such thing as a “mega-vulnerability”. “Mega” is a risk assessment, and requires not only the weakness from the vulnerability, but a high likelihood of exploitation by a likely threat, and a likely adverse impact of that exploitation. You can have a vulnerability in a system that is easy to exploit, but doesn’t get you much information. You can have one that is hard to exploit, but can get you a lot of information. Risk depends not only on the vulnerability and the likelihood of exploitation, but the context of use and the likely attackers (threats), in order to determine the overall risk.

With that, let’s look at some news…

(A link round up and explanation follows.)

Dan Geer at Lawfare Blog: Haste, Waste and Choice

And there is the crux of the matter, both for technologists and for policy makers: What do we prioritize? We know, and have long known, that optimality and efficiency are the enemies of robustness and resilience. The payback on optimality and efficiency is quantitative, calculable, and central to short-term survivability. The payback on robustness and resilience is qualitative, inestimable, and central to long-term survivability. The field of battle is this: All politics is local; all technology is global.

Because the trade off that got us Spectre and Meltdown involves better performance and missing a security flaw, it’s possible that the fix will affect performance. For much computer usage, the performance hit may not be big enough to notice, but gamers are particularly concerned with performance, and so PC Gamer has an article on What you need to know about the Meltdown and Spectre CPU exploits.

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A look back at Trump’s first year (UPDATED)

Posted by Sappho on December 30th, 2017 filed in News and Commentary, Race


Time for an evaluation of Trump’s first year as POTUS. I’m going to divide this into categories.
Read the rest of this entry »

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For the Feast of the Innocents

Posted by Sappho on December 28th, 2017 filed in Music, News and Commentary


Rohingya Refugees: How to Help the Children

Challenges to the Health of Children in the 21st Century

Coventry Carol

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And He said, “Who told you that you are naked?”

Posted by Sappho on December 23rd, 2017 filed in Bible study


My little dog is blissfully unaware that he is naked. But, on a cold day in December, he’s fine with being bundled up in his little jacket before he goes outside. When he goes to sleep, he’ll pull his little blanket over himself.

I imagine our earliest ancestors to use clothing came upon it in much the same way, as a tool not all that different from using a stick to reach for a fruit. Cover yourself, and you’re a bit safer from the elements.

But we’re now long removed from the simplicity of clothing as tool. Clothing is adornment, clothing is status, and, sometimes, clothing is modesty.

Who told us that we were naked?

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On standing with the FBI

Posted by Sappho on December 16th, 2017 filed in News and Commentary, Race


I’ve gotten through Herbert and J. Edgar Hoover
Gee, that was fun and a half
When you’ve been through Herbert and J. Edgar Hoover
Anything else is a laugh

Stephen Sondheim, in “I’m Still Here” (Follies)

I assess with “high confidence” the FBI is not a leftist group, nor a front for Democrats.

Clint Watts, Current: Fox Fellow at @FPRInews Senior Fellow, @gwcchs, Former: U.S. Army, FBI, Combating Terrorism Center

There are good reasons to keep a skeptical eye on law enforcement – if it’s an even-handed Radley Balko style skepticism, a needed reminder that respect for the Thin Blue Line needs a balancing respect for maintaining civil liberties, so that we can keep our democracy strong, as well as keeping our streets safe.

There is no good reason to defend cops to the hilt when they’re criticized by people you don’t like, and then suddenly turn on our preeminent law enforcement agency, the FBI, the minute you’re afraid it will produce dirt on Our Dear Leader.

For how long have we been hearing, from Trump, from Fox and Breitbart, and from talk radio, that Black Lives Matter is anti-cop? That now any time a crook kills a cop, it’s the fault of Black Lives Matter, because you can’t possibly both want cops alive and doing their job, and want that job not to include excessive haste in killing unarmed black people, or legally armed black people in open carry states who are doing their best to comply with cops’ orders?

And, look, any individual case that’s now being publicized under hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter or #SayHerName may be more defensible than the initial account suggests. It’s also entirely possible that much, or even most of the discrepancy between cop killings of white people and cop killings of black and indigenous people doesn’t have much to do with racism on the part of cops, either of the explicit or implicit variety. Because, if you think about it, there are lots of possible contributing factors:

  • Explicit racism on the part of cops leading them to be quicker to shoot black people than white people (this doesn’t have to be more than a sizeable minority of cops, because, after all, these shootings are being carried out by a minority of cops).
  • Implicit racism making for a bit of a disconnect across the board.
  • Implicit racism that can be countered on a good day, but not when you’re under enough fatigue or stress.
  • Cops who aren’t particularly racist at all, but who have more opportunities to shoot black people because racist bystanders keep phoning them about people Doing Things While Black.
  • Nobody’s individual racism, but rather systemic factors such as decisions at a higher level about stop and frisk, or about depending heavily on fines to run certain jurisdictions.

Etc.

But what’s definitely true is that, across the board, whether in terms of job opportunities, or wealth, or lifespan, or who is more likely to get shot, when not an actual threat, by everybody, by no means just cops, black people and Native American people fare worse than white people, that they don’t face a level playing field. So, there are basically three choices to explain this difference:

  • Black people deserve their worse results. They’re shot more because they’re more often criminal. They’re hired less often because they’re lazier, or less intelligent. And all of this has nothing whatsoever to do with any unfair prejudice against them, because all the obstacles created by centuries of slavery and another century of Jim Crow magically disappeared, about fifty years ago, with the passage of the Civil Rights Act.
  • Yes, racism persists (and then we can argue about the details of how it persists and how to work to get rid of it).
  • It’s not so much race as class, and, since centuries of slavery and another century of Jim Crow made black people disproportionately poor, and social mobility isn’t as great in our country as we’d like to think, black people disproportionately get the disadvantages of the poor.

I’d say I can safely rule out “black people deserve their worse results” as an option. And, even if you go for “class more than race,” surely you can at least understand why these disproportionate results would look like racial bias?

But no, I keep hearing that “Black Lives Matter” is racist and an attack on the police. OK, then, you admire law enforcement and very much appreciate that Thin Blue Line, right? I could understand that. Cops have treated me well, except for that one time, and I’ve had reasons to appreciate the Thin Blue Line myself.

But then I see people, and by people I don’t just mean random cranks on the Internet, but rather actual Republican legislators and, for heaven’s sake, the Wall Street Journal, turning around and attacking the FBI. Deep State! Investigate Mueller! As corrupt as Watergate!

And this attack is being made against a man who, until now, was considered by both parties as unimpeachable in his integrity, and for good reason. As Carrie Cordero writes in Lawfare Blog,

Rosenstein did two notable things in his testimony. First, he unequivocally stated that there has been no activity justifying firing the special counsel for cause. He also went to great lengths to explain why Bob Mueller is uniquely suited to lead this investigation, and outlined, for anyone who doesn’t already know it, Mueller’s extensive prosecutorial and leadership experience, as well as his lifelong dedication to public service. Many know that Mueller is a decorated Vietnam veteran and served with steely determination as FBI director for twelve years, assuming the post just days after the 9/11 attacks. Fewer may know that he served in senior executive leadership positions at the Justice Department in both Bush administrations. And, after serving as head of the Criminal Division during the first Bush presidency and then briefly spending time in private practice, he returned as a line prosecutor to the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington D.C., prosecuting homicides—a voluntary return to the boiler room of the Justice Department that former Senate-confirmed assistant attorney generals just don’t make. Fewer still may have a full appreciation for his stewardship of the FBI after the 9/11 attacks, when the organization came under heavy criticism and was threatened with the extraction of the agency’s national security wing. Holding off those efforts, Mueller launched and oversaw a major transformation and protected the FBI as an institution. He was, and is, deeply respected in and out of the community.

The reason for these partisan attacks is, what? That two of the few people to have held the job of FBI director, Comey and Mueller are, not friends (says Wittes, who is a friend of Comey), but friendly professional acquaintances? I guess you can never trust my professional judgment again, because I keep friendly professional relations with colleagues all the time, whatever their politics. Because, in a large investigation of Trump, some of the people involved turn out not to like Trump? If that’s your standard, every prosecution ever is suspect. And seriously, in a country where most people don’t like Trump, could you possibly staff the Mueller investigation only with people who don’t think Trump is an idiot? It’s not even legal for Mueller to apply such a political test. I’m sure that, in a country where many people don’t like Hillary, no one at all in the investigation of Hillary disliked her. Yes, that last sentence is sarcasm.

This is an attack on rule of law.

Whether or not Mueller ever produces a case against Trump, the very fact that he’s nailed people like Manafort, Papadopoulos, and Flynn makes his investigation worth while (consider that, if no one had pushed on this matter, Flynn would still be in a prominent national security post – and consider that his plea is what his lawyers bargained down to, in return for his cooperation).

And as for Trump himself? Mueller will find what he finds. No one should be calling, in advance, for Trump to shoot the messenger.

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Thich Nhat Hanh on reconciliation

Posted by Sappho on December 14th, 2017 filed in Peace Testimony, Quotes


During the last 2,500 years in Buddhist monasteries, a system of seven practices of reconciliation has evolved. Although these techniques were formulated to settle disputes within the circle of monks, I think they might also be of use in our households and in our society. The first practice is Face-to-Face Sitting.

Thich Nhat Hanh

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But for Wales?

Posted by Sappho on December 10th, 2017 filed in Quotes


Remembering a favorite quote:

It profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world … but for Wales, Richard?

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In the Bleak Midwinter

Posted by Sappho on December 6th, 2017 filed in Daily Life, Quaker Practice


Yesterday, the Santa Ana wind shook the trees. On our deck, I found the shattered remnants of a ceramic Day of the Dead skull that my husband bought a little over a month ago. It’s the season of sweaters, the season of wildfires, and the season to walk in the evening past displays of colored lights on palm trees.

In the Episcopalian church in which I was raised, it’s also the season of Advent.

Quakers, traditionally, don’t have a calendar of times and seasons. In the 17th century, Quakers, like Puritans, stubbornly resisted even celebrating Christmas. Now times have changed, and we have our meeting Christmas parties. But we still don’t have the full range of seasons that the liturgical churches do, no shifting from Advent to Christmas to Epiphany to Lent to Easter to Pentecost to Ordinary time.

It took decades for me to clearly name what I believe about the difference between the church of seasons and liturgy and sacraments in which I was raised and the “no time or place is more sacred than another” church of silence to which I now belong. I don’t, after all, fully share the iconoclasm of Mary Penington. I suppose what I believe is that “The Sabbath was meant for man, not man for the Sabbath.” And so, while no particular form is necessary to hear God, if the Sabbath serves you, by all means, keep the Sabbath.

And so, some years I do observe Advent. Take on a spiritual practice, take a little time for reflection, It makes a good counterpoint to the “diet and exercise” focus of New Year’s resolutions, a reminder that, good though a healthy diet and exercise may be, sometimes I need to think deeper and broader about what changes I need to make.

This year, I feel particularly in need of Advent.

Part of it is the lure of Twitter in a world where, each day, Twitter announces some new doom. I don’t want to leave Twitter, exactly – it’s one way of staying informed (though balancing it with longer form ways of staying informed may be in order). But I’m reminded that sometimes, I may want to listen to the message of this Maccabeats version of the Sound of Silence, and give myself a break, some space away from Twitter.

Another part of it is my dismay with the direction that political evangelical Christianity has taken this past year (what, is Roy Moore really now the choice for “people of faith”?). Sure, I’ve never agreed with the Religious Right, but I’ve never felt as alienated from it as I do now, post-Trump and post-Moore.

My co-blogger WiredSisters will recall what she calls the Original Other Blog, the blog where many Alexandria bloggers first met, Rod Dreher’s blog at the American Conservative. Part of why I’ve stuck to reading Rod Dreher, all these years, is that, however else I may have differed with him, he was firm for the victims, during the Catholic Church sex abuse crisis, and I can count on him always to be on the side of abused children and teenagers. This matters. I remind myself that you can always find some, both among those who see themselves as “left” and among those who see themselves as “right,” who will stand against any abuse. I’ll keep my eye out for those people.

But also, I need the voices that keep me going by reminding me of something beyond our current moment of crisis. Whether it’s the Maccabeats or Susan Boyle.

Links:

Johan Maurer on Confronting fascism together

Anthony Manousos on What is the cure for Trumpism? An Advent Reflection

Rod Dreher on How Power Works: The James Levine Case

mama sadb on If we want it

Rabbi Daniel L. Lehmann on To be a Stranger and Resident

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The Male Body in Sexual Politics

Posted by WiredSisters on December 4th, 2017 filed in Feminism, Guest Blogger, History, Law, Moral Philosophy, Sexuality


 

When I was 11 years old or thereabouts, Mama gave me “The Talk.”  There are probably lots of different versions of The Talk.  One, we know, has to do with African-American children.  Probably there are similar versions for Hispanics, Asians, children with disabilities, and unknown myriads of other Others. But the version that girls, at least in my early adolescence, used to get (do they still? Dunno) was all about how not to get raped or lose one’s reputation for sexual probity, and how to deal with what we now call sexual harassment, but was then just known as guys being jerks.

Many of the more intricate analyses of these issues, including even The Second Sex, had not been written at the time.  Mama’s analysis was simpler: a lot of males are jerks and will take really awful advantage of you if you aren’t perpetually on your guard.  All the rest was commentary.

As time went on, most of my generation of females had the time and opportunity to think through some of the deeper implications of this analysis.  We figured out that sexual harassment and assault were, aside from sources of male sexual pleasure, ways for males to reduce females from thinking, reasoning, choosing human beings made in the divine image, to receptacles for male bodily fluids.  You may think having an Ivy League education, an earned doctorate, and a learned profession makes you as good as I am or maybe even better, but when it gets down to it, “The colonel’s lady and Judy O’Grady are sisters under the skin.”  You’re just a c…. like the working girls hanging out at North and Damen at night.

Feminism has given most of us (I hope) the ammunition to combat these attitudes.   Now I find myself wondering if we are working on dosing males with the same medicine (or poison.)  God knows it’s tempting.  The boss I had back in the 1970s who kept groping my thigh while I was driving us to a photo shoot in a far distant factory, the maître d’ who grabbed my breasts while my husband and I were waiting in line at his restaurant, the family friend who deep-kissed me in the kitchen while I was making dinner for him and my husband…planning an appropriate comeuppance for them would be fun.  The fact that the only males I know who ever had to listen to The Talk in the same version I got were those who were about to go to prison and needed to know how not to get raped or get a reputation as a punk, tells me that being female is a sort of prison, and its only analog for males is to be found behind real actual bars.

If you have never read Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” look for it.  It speaks to the tendency among all of us to see the face of evil all around us once we have been awakened to its presence anywhere.  Which is maybe where we are now, seeing in almost every charismatic or powerful male the potential or the actuality for sexual domination, harassment, or assault.  A charismatic rabbi, who had been a friend of my husband, my friends, and myself; a revered writer and humanist; several politicians on both sides; respected scholars; even legal writers who dare to say that some sex offender laws are excessive—suddenly they have become untouchable, unworthy of respect.  We have to agonize over whether to watch So-and-so’s films, sing Whatsisname’s songs, read Whoever’s books, or vote for That Guy.  The evil that men do lives after them.  The good has been not merely interred with their bones, but cast into perpetual doubt.  We have, in fact, reduced them to mere sources of male bodily fluids, roving hands, mindless gropers.

It is a fitting revenge.  While we’re at it, let’s get rid of the grammatical generic masculine, and its theological and medical and literary counterparts, the presumption that the human being made to standard specifications is male.  Statistically, we all know that’s nonsense—more than half of all human beings who have ever lived were female.  Biologically, we know better—the human embryo always starts out female, and has to be especially tweaked to turn it into a male. So why not begin the Gynocene Age, the age of the generic feminine? Let the guys find out how it feels to be The Other, the Unfair Sex.

It is sooooooooo tempting.

Is this just another version of The Liberal’s Dilemma?  Are we required once again to restrain ourselves from treating Them the way They treated Us?  Must we once more restrain the baser passions of partisanship?  Or should we become thugs to conquer thuggishness?  And in the process weed out some of the best stuff in our library of books, films, music, and the best that has been thought and said? Can I excuse myself from this dilemma on the grounds that I’m too old to remake my entire intellectual vocabulary, let those Great Young People do it when they get around to it?  Dear friends and readers, I don’t have any answers this week.  Maybe next week will be better.

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On Believing Women

Posted by Sappho on November 28th, 2017 filed in Feminism, News and Commentary


Often, in public discussion, people use shorthand that, if I take it literally, is plainly false. One such bit of shorthand is the common statement that false claims of rape and sexual abuse are incredibly rare. Actually, in my experience, false claims aren’t all that rare. A particular kind of false claim (which is generally the kind that we’re asked to take seriously) is rare.

What do I mean by saying that not every kind of false claim is rare? Not, obviously, that when a woman shows up to your support group and tells you that she’s raped, you should interrogate her as if she’s probably lying. No, I mean that false claims and false conspiracy theories about everything (rape and child molesting including) swirl around the Internet. Often they’re not even meant to be believed. But the fact that they’re false does not discredit accounts of an entirely different nature.

Decades ago, when Usenet was the place where network discussions took place, and few people were on the net at all, I took part in a Usenet discussion group on parenting, called misc.kids (I still hoped, then, that I might become a parent). And at a certain point, we started to get weird posts, saying “Joe Schmo is a child molester.” Only, instead of “Joe Schmo,” the posts would contain the names of actual, identifiable people. Few people in the newsgroup knew why we were suddenly getting these posts. I’m not sure I even fully know. But I do know that someone got angry with the people who had volunteered to run the system that determined which discussion groups got created where (in the interest of an orderly namespace, which was important given the technology of Usenet). And so the names of the alleged child molesters would generally be well known and reputable geeks like David Lawrence and Russ Allbery. Any one of whom, in principle, could have been a sexual predator (there’s no magic rule that says a well regarded geek can’t be one). But when a bunch of random pseudonymous posters make scattershot accusations about all of them? With no actual named person reporting actual incidents consistent with known facts? You can be pretty sure the answer is no.

Now that the Internet has grown much more populated, we still get this kind of thing, but instead of the low stakes politics of Usenet group creation, it involved higher stakes political lies. Think Pizzagate, the conspiracy theory that parsed the Podesta emails to come up with strained theories about how they were coded discussions by pedophiles who frequented a particular pizza parlor (which pizza parlor was actually attacked by someone who believed the conspiracy theory). Again, flat out false. But, like those Usenet posts back in the day, not a false accusation that involves even one person going on the record and reporting being abused.

What kind of false accusation is rare? Rick Wilson gets it right.

A society where nothing is forgivable is as untenable as one where every transgression is hand-waved away. The things we forgive in the name of compassion should be many. The things we forgive in the name of comity should be large. That said, the things we forgive in service to partisan tribalism should be tightly constrained.

The vast majority of Americans believe Moore’s victims came forward to expose the true nature of his behavior. The Bannon right may not, but it’s worth reviewing the old Ian Fleming rule: “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action.”

Let’s play political shenanigans, and grant that one case could be a set-up. Maybe. Two? Almost impossible. Now that we’ve heard from 10 women who have made credible on-the-record claims backed up by contemporaneous eyewitnesses, the chances of this being a conspiracy are absolutely zero.

But the cynically named Project Veritas wasn’t happy with this conclusion. So they set out trying to prove Roy Moore innocent. How? By lying. Unlike the “Joe Schmo” Usenet posts, this lie involved finding someone willing to go on the record – but not for long. The idea was that, if they could send a woman to the WaPo, making a false claim about Moore, and then, once the WaPo took the bait, pull the rug out by revealing the story to be a lie, then the WaPo would be stung and discredited. Here’s the story:

In a series of interviews over two weeks, the woman shared a dramatic story about an alleged sexual relationship with Moore in 1992 that led to an abortion when she was 15. During the interviews, she repeatedly pressed Post reporters to give their opinions on the effects that her claims could have on Moore’s candidacy if she went public.

The Post did not publish an article based on her unsubstantiated account. When Post reporters confronted her with inconsistencies in her story and an Internet posting that raised doubts about her motivations, she insisted that she was not working with any organization that targets journalists.

But on Monday morning, Post reporters saw her walking into the New York offices of Project Veritas, an organization that targets the mainstream news media and left-leaning groups. The organization sets up undercover “stings” that involve using false cover stories and covert video recordings meant to expose what the group says is media bias.

Because the Washington Post isn’t the careless organization that Project Veritas makes it out to be, but a paper that does its due diligence and vets its stories, they didn’t fall for the sting, but exposed it. And, by all rights, this story should improve the credibility of the Washington Post’s reporting on Roy Moore. But, in a hyper-partisan world, will it? Or will people who like Moore’s politics be all too eager to seize any excuse to be convinced that his victims are lying?

If the latter, it will be as if someone took an old pseudonymous “Joe Schmo is a child molester” post from Usenet as a reason to believe that Paul Shanley was falsely convicted of child rape.

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Masha Gessen on Russia, Cacophony, Poligarchs, etc.

Posted by Sappho on November 19th, 2017 filed in Blogwatch, News and Commentary


Having told you why I’ve lost all patience with Glenn Greenwald, let me now talk about someone at the more reasonable end of the Russia skeptic spectrum. That would be Masha Gessen. A couple of weeks ago, in the New Yorker, Gessen wrote an article titled Russian Interference in the 2016 Election: A Cacophony, Not a Conspiracy.

I don’t entirely agree with Gessen, but I also think she makes good points:

… The real revelation is this: Russian online interference was a god-awful mess, a cacophony.
The Times published some of the ads that Facebook has traced to Russian accounts. Among them: a superhero figure with a green leg and a fuchsia leg, red trunks, and a head vaguely reminiscent of Bernie Sanders, all of which is apparently meant to read as pro-L.G.B.T.Q.; a Jesus figure arm-wrestling Satan, with a caption indicating that Satan is Hillary; an ad reminding us that “Black Panthers, group formed to protect black people from the KKK, was dismantled by us govt but the KKK exists today”; and an anti-immigrant ad featuring a sign that says “No invaders allowed!,” among others….

Russians have long been convinced that their own politics are infiltrated by Americans. During the mass protests of 2011 and 2012, Putin famously accused Hillary Clinton personally of inciting the unrest. At the time, I was involved in organizing the protests. In advance of a large protest in February, 2012, I helped a particularly generous donor, who had shown up out of the blue volunteering to provide snacks, to connect with the hot-tea coördinator. A few weeks later, state-controlled television aired a propaganda film that used footage of protesters eating donated cookies and drinking tea, which was intended to expose the U.S. State Department’s sponsorship of the Moscow protests; the voice-over claimed that America had lured protesters out with cookies. A few months later, we learned that the generous donor had been an undercover agent who had used Kremlin rubles to purchase the cookies.

Lots more at the article. I’d say that Gessen understates the likelihood that Russian interference swayed this particular election; whatever the cacophony in Russian interference, it was consistent in being anti-Hillary, and, in such a very close election as this, where everything mattered, I’m unwilling to say that weaponizing Wikileaks plus all the social media propaganda couldn’t have been enough to sway the election at the margins. I also think that it’s important to try to protect our elections against such interference, including punishing Americans who deliberately cooperate with Russian hacking, etc.

That said, Gessen makes some valid points:

… Was the Moscow protest made any less real because a fake donor had brought cookies? Was the protest in New York in November of last year any less real, or any less opposed to Trump, because a Russia-linked account originally called for it? Is Trump any less President because Russians paid for some ads on Facebook? …

The fact that Trump’s campaign expressed themselves eager to get dirt on Hillary? Shady. But absent that, being the beneficiary of Facebook ads doesn’t make a campaign less legitimate. Whatever else you can say against Bernie, there’s no evidence that his campaign colluded with Russia, and it doesn’t become any less legitimate because the Russian Facebook ads included a “Buff Bernie” ad.

Even with Trump, what’s damning is not so much that he might have won because of Russian interference (it’s not Russia that made the election close enough that their interference could matter – that involved cracks in our own system) as that people in his campaign seem to have been unpatriotic enough to welcome the intervention, and to be willing to discuss a quid pro quo for such help.

Whether you wind up fully agreeing with her or not, Gessen has a knowledgeable and interesting perspective on Russia. From her take on the cacophony of Russian interference to her recent article on The Poligarchs, Oligarchs, and Stooges of the Paradise Papers, she’s worth reading.

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#Me Too, Sort Of

Posted by WiredSisters on November 17th, 2017 filed in Dreams, Feminism, History, Law, Moral Philosophy, Sexuality


Lately, I can’t seem to avoid reading about sexual harassment.  Which I guess is kind of fair because for the first half of my life (so far) I heard the phrase maybe twice (in English, and once in Japanese, where the ever-global locals call it “seku haru.”) Not that the subject was never mentioned.  On the contrary, it was a constant topic of conversation among women and girls, including but not limited to “The Talk” that most of the girls I knew got from their mothers (and sometimes their fathers) around age 11.  It wasn’t just about harassment, of course; it was about not getting raped, and not losing one’s “reputation.”  I don’t know whether my male age-mates ever got any comparable Talk from their parents, much less what it would have consisted of.

What I do know is that most of the discussions treated “The Problem” as something between a trivial annoyance and an occasional catastrophe, depending mostly on female ingenuity in handling it.  People took it for granted, and usually treated it humorously, that male bosses might ardently pursue female employees, but that the employees could usually outsmart them, and often prided themselves on being able to do so.  It was just part of the working world.  It was a game.  I don’t recall ever hearing about male teachers hitting on female students, though I did occasionally read about serious romantic relationships between adult male teachers and their more-or-less adult female students, like Abelard and Heloise, or Will and Ariel Durant.  Those sounded really cool, but not the sort of thing I could ever expect to encounter.

I didn’t date much in high school, and had no trouble setting boundaries for “making out” on those occasional dates.  College was something else altogether, but mostly involved a lot of the same female ingenuity that tv-show secretaries were always demonstrating.  I was pretty good at it.  Most of what I did was get very good at listening.  If there is one thing adolescent males want from women more than sex, it’s listening.  I found it educational.  After a while, I went out of my way to hang out with guys who were studying, or even actually doing, stuff I found interesting.  Since this was all pre-feminism, I figured that was the closest I was going to get to doing interesting stuff myself.  So I dated business students, divinity students, medical students, techies, and musicians.  Some of them liked to talk about sex.  I treated it the same way I treated engineering, theology, psychiatry, and music when the guys talked about those—gee, isn’t that interesting!  A lot of it was, and actually prepared me quite well for some of the more obscure corners of my law practice many years later.  I understand that nowadays that kind of thing is considered sexual harassment, and was probably even intended that way at the time by the men involved.  Maybe I was just too clueless to see, but that was sort of a protection.  When I finally lost my virginity, in my senior year, it was for clearly-thought-out reasons of my own—not the best reasons, but at any rate my reasons. The next year, I moved in with the man I ultimately married, and I naively figured that would spell the end of any “seku haru” scenarios.

It didn’t, of course.  Eventually I stopped being surprised when a man talked endlessly about his wife and kids and then propositioned me.  It was part of the package, even when I talked about my husband.  It guaranteed limits on whatever this guy had in mind.  Mostly it was just talk.  I got seriously groped a couple of times, and just acted as if nothing had happened.  On these guys, it worked.  I understand now that there are guys it doesn’t work on. I was, in short, lucky.

I know several women who were out-and-out raped, by strangers or almost-strangers—some of them are friends of mine, and a few were clients.  So far as I know, none of my friends and acquaintances were pursued by the powerful men in their professional lives in the vicious way that we are now hearing about.  But it doesn’t surprise me when I do hear about it.

I don’t know, and probably none of us will ever know, the extent and prevalence of this kind of “personnel relations” in the first half of the 20th century, much less before that. We do know that it was not limited to heterosexual behavior—Churchill’s scornful dismissal of the hallowed traditions of the British navy as “rum, sodomy, and the lash” tells us that much.  Female farm laborers and domestic servants, and sometimes their male counterparts, had to put up with much the same depravity.  Read the novels of Thomas Hardy.

Nor is it unique to the Western hemisphere or Christian culture.  In the Muslim tradition, it is taken for granted that when a man employs or enslaves a female, he has legitimate sexual access to her. This is probably no longer recognized by civil law in Islamic countries, and maybe not even practiced much, but it still lurks in the culture.  It is also, of course, present in the Bible, especially the “Old Testament.”  Read the Book of Ruth.  In much the same way that we enlightened liberals have enthusiastically accepted that “love is love,” power is power. And usually has nothing much to do with love.

And, being historically literate about FDR and JFK, I was not especially surprised or disappointed to find out that Democrats do it too.  “Power,” said Henry Kissinger’s wife, who ought to know, “Is the ultimate aphrodisiac.”  Not only in the sense of making women fall for powerful men, but of making powerful men fall in love with themselves to the point where they feel entitled to the attentions of any woman who appeals to them at the moment.

Was I being intellectually dishonest about Bill Clinton?  So far as I know, all of his victims were adult women, though Monica was cutting it close.  And most of them were his subordinates one way or another.  And I was more outraged about the investigations than about the behavior that supposedly instigated them.  Starr as good as said “I know this guy’s dirty, and I’m going to prove it any way I can,” which is hardly the behavior of an impartial investigator.  I believed then and I believe now that the Democrats could have conclusively won the 2000 election by running as the party of minding your own business, on the platform that no American will ever again be placed under oath to testify about sex between consenting adults.  Consenting. Adults.  So far as I could tell, that covered most of the subject matter of Ken Starr’s investigations.  Senator Gillibrand is, in hindsight, probably right in saying we would all be better off today if Clinton had resigned and let Gore take over.  Gore would almost certainly have won re-election in 2000, if he had.  But that’s a political judgment, not a moral one.

Most important, I really believed that a man’s conduct in his private life does not invalidate his talents and virtues in his public career.  That’s partly because, as I said earlier, there aren’t very many powerful men who can keep their private lives clean.  Power is a moral minefield.  It leads its bearers through temptations, to all of the seven deadlies and then some, which most of us can never dream of.  Pride—that’s the biggie, obviously.  As Dante explained at length, it is the root of the other six deadly sins.  Gluttony—maybe not as much now that the quality of official food preparation has declined so badly in many places.  Anger—when one’s pride is not being validated.  Greed—ditto.  You get the idea.  And finally, of course, lust.  So it’s a good thing for all of us when a powerful man can keep his private vices out of his public life.

Do I still believe this now?  Yes and no.  The problem is that sex has become a part of people’s public life in ways that it never used to be.  Now that women are being allowed and sometimes encouraged to aspire to equality with men in the public realm, what happens to them with those same men in the “private” realm isn’t so private any more, and can have serious repercussions in the public realm.  The equality we are entitled to is placed in serious jeopardy by these collisions with older male privileges.  Rape, and on-the-job sexual harassment, and date rape, were never right.  We are now in a state of transition between the misogyny of the past and the equality of the future.  To make that transition, we need to stop teaching girls and women to negotiate around male privilege, and start teaching boys and men to give up that privilege in favor of shared power.  Power is power, yes.  But love is love.

 

 

 

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Reason umpteen why I have lost patience with Glenn Greenwald (UPDATED)

Posted by Sappho on November 15th, 2017 filed in News and Commentary


Yesterday, Glenn Greenwald posted a tweet storm about the DM correspondence between WikiLeaks and Donald Trump, Jr. that is a perfect example of why I have trouble taking Greenwald’s positions seriously any more.

Here’s the sequence. First, the Atlantic reported on The Secret Correspondence Between Donald Trump Jr. and WikiLeaks

Just before the stroke of midnight on September 20, 2016, at the height of last year’s presidential election, the WikiLeaks Twitter account sent a private direct message to Donald Trump Jr., the Republican nominee’s oldest son and campaign surrogate. “A PAC run anti-Trump site putintrump.org is about to launch,” WikiLeaks wrote. “The PAC is a recycled pro-Iraq war PAC. We have guessed the password. It is ‘putintrump.’ See ‘About’ for who is behind it. Any comments?” (The site, which has since become a joint project with Mother Jones, was founded by Rob Glaser, a tech entrepreneur, and was funded by Progress for USA Political Action Committee.)

The next morning, about 12 hours later, Trump Jr. responded to WikiLeaks. “Off the record I don’t know who that is, but I’ll ask around,” he wrote on September 21, 2016. “Thanks.”

WikiLeaks made a series of increasingly bold requests, including asking for Trump’s tax returns, urging the Trump campaign on Election Day to reject the results of the election as rigged, and requesting that the president-elect tell Australia to appoint Julian Assange ambassador to the United States.

Next, Donald Trump, Jr. released the entire chain of correspondence (assuming he didn’t delete any of his own DMs). Though it’s true that, as Jr. says, it shows a “whopping 3 responses” from him to WikiLeaks, one of those responses confirms that the Atlantic is right in saying that his response to WikiLeaks hacking an anti-Trump site and giving him the password was “Thanks.” As Meghan McCain points out, immediately reporting the contact to the proper authorities is the right response, and “Thanks” is the wrong one.

Still, emptywheel made a post saying he found the Donald Trump Jr./WikiLeaks exchange underwhelming. I don’t really agree with her – I think that the part where Jr gets offered a password and says “Thanks” in itself is damning. But I want to be clear on the narrowness of emptywheel’s point.

The other thing that doesn’t appear in these DMs is any hint that Don Jr knew of Peter Smith’s efforts to find and send to Wikileaks hacked copies of emails from Hillary’s server.

It is definitely the case that Assange was trying to gain some value from Trump, but Don Jr, at least, didn’t comply (indeed, as Ioffe notes, with just a few exceptions Don Jr didn’t respond). But (unless Don Jr withheld DMs that Twitter would have already turned over to Mueller) this in no way backs the narrative that Democrats suggested might have happened.

What emptywheel is saying is that, given what we already know, a series of DMs in which Donald Trump Jr. mostly doesn’t respond and doesn’t show any sign of knowing much about what’s coming down the pike, in the way of WikiLeaks dumps, isn’t all that incriminating to Jr. That Jr. either knew less at the time than we might have expected, or was being more circumspect than we might have expected, given what we already know about him.

What she’s not offering is any defense of WikiLeaks’ role in the exchange. And WikiLeaks, in the course of the exchange,

  1. Supplies Donald Trump Jr with a password to someone else’s site.
  2. Asks for a Trump tax return to leak because “most of the harm has already been done by the nyt” and if they get to leak the return “it will dramatically improve the perception of our impartiality.”
  3. Urges Trump to dispute the election results if he loses because that would be “much more interesting”
    than conceding.
  4. When Trump does win, asks that he press Australia to make Assange its ambassador to the US.

In other words, WikiLeaks, while insisting publicly that they’re an impartial source of leaks, like the Smoking Gun, was in fact just as consciously promoting the Trump candidacy as their leak timing and publicity suggested, including supplying him with someone else’s password, and trying to get a quid pro quo for Assange. I get why emptywheel finds this news underwhelming; as she points out

Folks: It does NOT take secret DMs to discover Assange is a conniving dick.

NOT BREAKING.

But Greenwald isn’t making the “we already knew Assange was a conniving dick” argument. He’s trying to convince us that we should still see Assange as something better than a conniving dick. And so, in defense of Assange, he goes back to a 2010 post by Aaron Bady arguing that WikiLeaks is not so much a general purpose proponent of transparency as an organization with a political agenda. And that agenda is: throw sand in the gears of the US at every opportunity!

Most of the news media seems to be losing their minds over Wikileaks without actually reading these essays, even though he describes the function and aims of an organization like Wikileaks in pretty straightforward terms. But, to summarize, he begins by describing a state like the US as essentially an authoritarian conspiracy, and then reasons that the practical strategy for combating that conspiracy is to degrade its ability to conspire, to hinder its ability to “think” as a conspiratorial mind. The metaphor of a computing network is mostly implicit, but utterly crucial: he seeks to oppose the power of the state by treating it like a computer and tossing sand in its diodes.

This is however, not where Assange’s reasoning leads him. He decides, instead, that the most effective way to attack this kind of organization would be to make “leaks” a fundamental part of the conspiracy’s information environment. Which is why the point is not that particular leaks are specifically effective. Wikileaks does not leak something like the “Collateral Murder” video as a way of putting an end to that particular military tactic; that would be to target a specific leg of the hydra even as it grows two more. Instead, the idea is that increasing the porousness of the conspiracy’s information system will impede its functioning, that the conspiracy will turn against itself in self-defense, clamping down on its own information flows in ways that will then impede its own cognitive function. You destroy the conspiracy, in other words, by making it so paranoid of itself that it can no longer conspire

In other words, Bady was arguing, in 2010, that WikiLeaks was not just about exposing particular wrongs by the US, like the “Collateral Murder” video. The fact that Cablegate also exposed lots of ordinary US diplomats, properly doing their job of preserving US relations with various countries while ensuring that the US government acts on accurate information about the world, was, if you go by Bady’s take, a feature, not a bug, for Assange. (Contrast Wikileaks’ Cablegate partners, the NY Times/Guardian/Der Spiegel/El Pais, combination, whose goal was, not to throw sand in the gears of the US State Department as such, but to deliver news while making sure some details were responsibly redacted.)

I’m not convinced that was a defensible position for Wikileaks to take in 2010. Diplomacy is the part of government that I want to function well. Jaw-jaw is better than war-war. If the dump of diplomatic cables in 2010 is defensible, it has to be defensible in spite of the fact that it degraded the US State Department’s ability to conduct business, not because of that fact. But if Greenwald is going to offer it as a defense of Assange now, he should consider how badly that position has aged. Because promoting Trump’s candidacy in order to degrade US ability to conspire, by throwing sand in US diodes? Is not in any way shape or form a defense of freedom or a stand against authoritarianism.

Greenwald appears to be saying, “Sure, you can be mad at Assange for aiding Trump. But you have to remember, he hates America!”

I don’t call that a defense.

Correction: Fixed misgendering of emptywheel.

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Context is everything

Posted by Sappho on November 2nd, 2017 filed in News and Commentary


I don’t remember how old I was when I first learned “Dixie.” I only know that I was a child then, and that the song sticks in my memory as one of those songs that I seem always to have known. It’s an easy singable tune, and I’ve sung the song many times. Not because I’m particularly Southern (one Kentucky-born great-grandmother is the nearest brush that I have to the South). Certainly not because I learned, as a child, any sympathy for the Southern cause. Confederate flags burst into my awareness, when I was a child in the 60s, as the standard waved by people who hated civil rights. It was decades before I could believe anyone else might honestly think that they were about “heritage, not hate” (and I still think that, if you want to celebrate your heritage and not hate, they’re the wrong symbol to choose). I remember knowing that the Civil War was about slavery (and preserving the Union) from the first I learned about it (I was, after all, a New York child). I sang “John Brown’s body lies a-mold’ring in the grave … His truth is marching on,” and felt no impulse to honor Robert E. Lee.

“Dixie” (seen here in a three song “American Trilogy” medley, sung by Elvis, along with the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “All My Trials”) was different. It wasn’t about slaves, was it? I didn’t hear a single slave in the song (and surely the person pining for the “land of cotton” wouldn’t be someone whipped for failing to be compliant enough in picking it?). To my young ears, it was just another song about a particular region, and I sang as a child about “Dixie” the way I would later, as a teenager, sing “Carolina in My Mind” with James Taylor (before ever setting foot in North Carolina).

And if, shortly after the car rammed into the crowd and killed Heather Heyer, I had heard of some other car ramming a crowd, and heard that the driver stepped out of his car and started whistling Dixie, I’d have thought, straightaway, that it was another white supremacist/white nationalist/KKK terror attack. Because in that context Dixie would have, for me, implied a particular motive.

And so, when I first heard that a truck ran a bloody swath through a bike lane in Manhattan, next saw that Trump was tweeting right away about the attack, and not waiting as he did for Charlottesville, and a few minutes later found the tweet saying that the attacker had used the words “Allahu Akbar,” of course, in that context, and with those clues, I had the same thoughts many must have. Terrorism. Daesh.

And I can also read Wajahat Ali’s “I Want ‘Allahu Akbar’ Back” with sympathy.

Allahu akbar. It’s Arabic for “God is greatest.” Muslims, an eccentric tribe with over a billion members, say it several times in our five daily prayers. The phrase is also a convenient way to express just the right kind of gratitude in any situation.

I say “Allahu akbar” out loud more than 100 times a day. Yesterday, I uttered it several times during my late-evening Isha prayer. Earlier, during dinner, I said it with my mouth full after biting into my succulent halal chicken kebab. In the afternoon, I dropped it in a conference room at the State Department, where I’d been invited to address a packed room of government employees about the power of storytelling. Specifically, I expressed my continuing gratitude for the election of Barack Obama, whom, in a joking nod to the Islamophobic paranoia that surrounded him, I called “our first Muslim American president,” adding “Allahu akbar!”

I’m 37 years old. In all those years, I, like an overwhelming majority of Muslims, have never uttered “Allahu akbar” before or after committing a violent act. Unfortunately, terrorists like ISIS and Al Qaeda and their sympathizers, who represent a tiny fraction of Muslims, have. In the public imagination, this has given the phrase meaning that’s impossible to square with what it represents in my daily life.

That’s why it hurts that on Tuesday, “Allahu” and “akbar,” those two simple words so close to our hearts, instantly shaped the entire news coverage and presidential response. A common, benign phrase used daily by Muslims, especially during prayer, is now understood as code for “It was terrorism.”

After all, in itself, uttered by an ordinary person in the course of ordinary daily life, “Allahu Akbar” is no different from “Our Father Who Art in Heaven,” or “Shma Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad.” It’s a phrase of worship, a phrase of honor to God. Whom most people, of whatever faith, don’t want to honor by killing innocent civilians.

The few who do kill innocent civilians spoil it for everyone else.

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A Niger news round up

Posted by Sappho on October 21st, 2017 filed in Africa news and blogwatch


First, for those of you not up on Niger, it’s worth noting who Niger’s neighbors are. Niger is bordered by Libya to the northeast, Chad to the east, Nigeria and Benin to the south, Burkina Faso and Mali to the west, and Algeria to the northwest.

Next, just to give you a general feel of recent news from Niger, here are a few recent stories that have nothing to do with the four American soldiers recently killed there:

From last month: Niger Floods Leave Tens of Thousands Homeless

From just this week: The president of Sudan and the president of Niger held talks (particularly about free trade zones and the African Union, as well as immigration and developments in neighboring Libya).

A story about Spain beating Niger at soccer.

If you look at top stories from Niger’s neighbors, you’ll find that Chadian news is still focused on their inexplicable inclusion in Trump’s travel ban, Nigeria hopes that its new DNA lab will embolden rape victims (yes, Boko Haram is also operating there, but the DNA lab story popped up first), conflict-ridden Mali is seeing rising malnutrition among children, and African Union leaders are concerned that the lack of a ceasefire in Libya is destabilizing the Sahel. And I’ll skip the other neighbors today.

Now for the recent clash.

From the International Crisis Group, a Q and A between Deputy West Africa Project Director Jean-Hervé Jezequel and Research Assistant Hamza Cherbib on the Niger clash that killed US and Nigerien troops:

While international attention focuses on jihadists and sees their ideology as the source of the problem, there are other important dimensions. Indeed, attacks against military personnel represent only a small part of the problem as armed violence exacts a heavy albeit underreported death toll among civilians in the regions of Tillabery and Tahoua, especially among isolated nomadic communities.

In July 2017, alone, local representatives of the Fulani community – one of the largest ethnic group in West Africa comprised mostly of herders – claimed that militias of rival ethnic groups, the Tuareg and Doosaak (a nomadic group close to and often confused with the Tuaregs but with a distinct language) killed some 46 civilians, purportedly as part of counter-terrorism operations. Conversely, Tuareg representatives repeatedly accuse local Fulanis of murdering members of their communities with jihadist support.

In reality, jihadist violence often intertwines with local intercommunal tensions related to competition over natural resources and trafficking, making it difficult to distinguish the real nature and motives of many incidents.

More, including questions about spillover from Mali, what jihadi groups may be operating among the Fulani, talk about tensions between herders and farmers in West African countries, and the question of whether the latest attack will change US policy on “the G-5 Sahel, a French-backed regional military operation comprising forces from Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad.”

CNN on What we know and don’t know about the deadly Niger attack.

In what is the deadliest combat mission of Trump’s short presidency to date, the Defense Department has identified all four service members killed in the ambush that occurred near the Niger-Mali border by up to 50 fighters from ISIS in the Greater Sahara, a US official said.

Now, point and counterpoint on Niger and the Chad travel ban.

Point, from CNN’s David A. Andelman:

The timeline begins on September 24, when the Trump administration suddenly and inexplicably added Chad to the list of countries whose citizens would be included in the latest iteration of the president’s travel ban. Chad and its leaders were utterly blindsided as there was no sense whatsoever that this nation has harbored or even encouraged terrorists — certainly no more culpable than such nations as Iraq, Pakistan, Sudan, or for that matter Chad’s neighbors Mali, Niger and Nigeria, none of which were included on this list.

Au contraire, Chad’s troops have for some time served as an effective ally in the region — the best fighting force deployed in nearby Niger and Mali, with the best intel and best-trained warriors. They were the best because they were trained by the French and its redoubtable Foreign Legion. I know, because I was there in Chad in 1983 when the French had to send in their forces to backstop them when they thought Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi might invade from the north.
Over the next 30 years, the French turned them into a first-rate fighting force, utterly allied to the Western anti-terrorist effort in the Sahel — itself a desperately critical part of the success of our war against ISIS and against the spread of Islamic terrorism that is threatening to overrun Africa….

Background, from Alex Thurston in Foreign Policy, America Should Beware a Chadian Military Scorned:

In the wake of the new travel ban announcement on Sept. 24, Chad has withdrawn hundreds of troops from neighboring Niger, where up to 2,000 of its soldiers were part of a coalition battling Boko Haram. The Chadian government has not yet offered an official explanation for the pullout, but Communications Minister Madeleine Alingué condemned Chad’s inclusion on the travel ban, saying that it “seriously undermines” the “good relations between the two countries, notably in the fight against terrorism.”

Despite its relative poverty, Chad plays an outsized role in African security and politics. Its troops are considered some of the most capable in the region, and its president, Idriss Déby, has won considerable influence with the African Union, France, and, until recently at least, the United States by deploying them to clean up others’ messes. In addition to leading the fight against Boko Haram, Chad’s military is busy countering al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and other jihadis in the Sahel, a volatile region that includes parts of Mali and Niger….

Regardless of the rationale for including Chad in the ban, the decision was a mistake. The partial withdrawal of Chadian soldiers from places like southeastern Niger, an area that has been heavily targeted by Boko Haram in recent years, could result in swift and serious consequences….

But I’ll note that Thurston is speaking in general about the consequences of the travel ban on Chad rather than specifically about the recent death of US soldiers in Niger. This brings me to …

Counterpoint, from Laura Seay in Slate, urging liberals not to turn this into Trump’s Benghazi:

First, there is simply no evidence that the withdrawal of Chadian forces from Niger had anything to do with the ambush. Examining the basic geography of the crisis makes this clear. Chad’s involvement in Niger was limited to the fight against Boko Haram, a Nigeria-based extremist movement that terrorizes civilians in northwest Nigeria, southeast Niger, southern Chad, and northern Cameroon. The Chadians were deployed to the Diffa region, where they fought effectively against Boko Haram and restored a semblance of stability to communities the extremists had terrorized. Their withdrawal has upset communities in the Diffa region, who (rightly) believe that their own government’s forces are incapable of protecting them from a renewed Boko Haram threat.

As you can see from this map, Diffa is on the opposite side of Niger from Tongo Tongo, where the ambush occurred. Nigerian forces and their American advisers in this region of Niger were not dealing with Boko Haram but instead were working to protect communities from other extremist groups that are active in the region where Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso meet. One of these groups, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, is suspected of perpetrating the Niger attack.

Seay also provides more information on what US troops were doing in Niger.

American forces have been in Niger since 2012. Currently, there are about 800. Their primary mission is to advise and assist Niger’s armed forces in their fight against terrorist groups that attack their citizens. This means that American soldiers are not technically at war with the terror groups; they are there to assist the Nigeriens with tasks like locating the enemy, developing strategies and tactics, and building relationships with local leaders, whose knowledge is essential for getting accurate information about terrorists’ activities in a very remote part of the world.

The Niger mission is part of the growth of the U.S. military presence in Africa that began under the Bush administration and greatly expanded under Obama….

Finally, since I mentioned G5 Sahel at the beginning of this post, I want to supply a little information about that force.

From Jazeera, West African and French leaders launch Sahel force.

The new regional anti-terror force is set to include as many as 5,000 soldiers, with one battalion from each of the so-called G5 Sahel countries: Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad….

France’s president said his country would contribute $9m to the new force this year. He also mentioned a contribution of 70 vehicles, without saying whether that was included in the sum.

The European Union has also pledged $57m towards the new force, and France is seeking additional financing from partners, including Germany and the United States.

From Sarah Jones at the Diplomatic Courier:

Mali says the G5 Sahel Joint Force to Combat Terrorism should be fully operational in the next few months, despite its current budget shortfalls. The task force is a regional effort to address terrorism and violent extremism which includes five member states: Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger. Members say they can’t do it alone.

The Chief of the Malian Armed Forces General M’Bemba Keita say international efforts have been “hampered by an inadequate mandate to fight terrorism and limited capabilities in an extensive area with little state control.” He hopes the new joint force will help fill in the shortfalls by focusing on transnational crime and terrorism.

From Stratfor: Mali: Africa’s Newest Fighting Force Battles for Funding:

Africa’s Sahel region is prone to political instability and has historically been a hotbed for terrorism. In recent years, Western nations — particularly France, a former Sahel colonizer — have intervened to help stabilize the region. But France has been trying to reduce its international defense burden and has poured resources into the Sahel Force in the hopes it can takeover security efforts. It has also worked to convince other Western countries to do the same. Some progress on that front was made when the U.N. Security Council unanimously passed a resolution financing the Sahel Force, but, because of U.S. objections to additional U.N. spending obligations, the resolution passed was a watered-down version of the one France originally proposed.

Yet, the incipient force is not without hope. Recently, U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres released a report that outlined three options for future international support for the force….

From the UN web site, I find that the resolution discussed above was adopted in June, 2017.

Unanimously adopting resolution 2359 (2017), the Council welcomed the joint force’s strategic concept of operations, saying it intended to review the deployment in four months’ time. It requested that the Secretary-General, in close coordination with the Group of Five (G5) Sahel States – Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger, as well as the African Union – provide an oral update within two months.

Also by that text, the Council urged the joint force of up to 5,000 military and police personnel, as well as the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) and French forces in that country to ensure adequate coordination and exchange of information regarding their operations, within their respective mandates. In that regard, it reiterated its request that the Secretary-General enhance cooperation between MINUSMA and the G5 Sahel States through the relevant intelligence and liaison officers.

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Thoughts on a thought experiment

Posted by Sappho on October 21st, 2017 filed in News and Commentary


Jake Tapper has a thread on Twitter that begins with the Tweet

Thought experiment: let’s try to assume for the sake of argument that everyone in this story had the best and noblest of intentions.

The thread is, of course, about a particular story, describing particular possible “best and noblest intentions,” and heading toward a particular conclusion. But I want to abstract from that story just to the first tweet.

I like the idea of adopting as a thought experiment the possibility that everyone in a story has the best and noblest intentions. Why?

  1. By making this kind of interpretation a thought experiment, and not a rule, you’re giving yourself permission to conclude that, no, in this case everyone doesn’t have the best and noblest intentions. This is important, because sometimes people don’t have the best and noblest intentions, and sometimes it may even be dangerous to assume that they do.
  2. At the same time, sometimes, when you do the thought experiment, you may realize that the “best and noblest intentions” version of the story is more likely than the one that’s making you angry. Worth at least imagining it, with the understanding that imagining it doesn’t mean making yourself guilty if, once you’ve imagined it, you realize that your gut doesn’t believe it (your gut could be right).
  3. Adopting as a thought experiment the assumption that everyone in a story has the best and noblest intentions can clarify when an argument about giving people the benefit of the doubt is one-sided, and is really an insistence that one person be given the benefit of the doubt by damning, unheard, another.
  4. It can be a clarifying thought experiment. Suppose that everyone did have the best intentions.
    Does it matter? Sometimes it does. Sometimes it really doesn’t. I’ve heard way too many “he had good intentions arguments” in cases where a man’s actions were clear rape, for instance. (He really thought she would welcome being penetrated while she was asleep! She had been flirting with him!) Here the answer to the “assume that everyone had the best and noblest intentions” thought experiment is, OK, so what if he thought what he was doing was OK? Anyone can learn the clear rules “no means no” and “unconscious doesn’t mean yes.” And no one’s safe if those rules aren’t followed. By making “OK, let’s assume the best intentions and follow this scenario through” a thought experiment, rather than a moral obligation to the people involved, you’re freed to see when, yes, intentions really do make a difference (I really do care whether you stepped on my toe just be accident), and when they shouldn’t, can’t be allowed to be a decisive argument.

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Two pieces of good news on Chad and the travel ban

Posted by Sappho on October 18th, 2017 filed in Africa news and blogwatch, Law


Two pieces of good news yesterday on the Chad front. The first was word from the State Department on Chad Visa Restrictions; apparently the State Department is trying to get Chad off the travel ban by finding some changes that could be presented as Chad improving vetting capabilities (not that Chad ever belonged on a travel ban list to begin with – but hey, I’m all in favor of the State Department trying to recover from a bad situation that wasn’t their doing). And McMaster spoke with Chad President Idriss Deby on October 13, trying to repair the damage (“repair the damage” is, of course, my phrase, not his or that of the State Department).

The second bit of good news was ever better: Federal judge in Hawaii blocks Trump’s new travel ban.

Watson also said the ban “contains internal incoherencies that markedly undermine its stated ‘national security’ rationale. Numerous countries fail to meet one or more of the global baseline criteria … yet are not included in the ban. For example, the president finds that Iraq fails the ‘baseline’ security assessment but then omits Iraq from the ban for policy reasons.” Iraqis are instead subject to additional vetting, a provision the judge did not block.

Notably, the judge largely avoided claims that the ban violated the Constitution by mostly targeting Muslim-majority nations. Watson said his court did not need to address the matter since it had already found the ban in violation of immigration law. Unlike prior court decisions blocking the travel ban, Watson’s ruling only sparingly quoted Trump’s statements that opponents have said were directed against Muslims, such as his campaign promise to suspend Muslim immigration.

He did, though, include some of Trump’s tweets in footnote 9.

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