Posts Tagged ‘liberty’


The system is fucked. When it’s working well, it fucks people over with maximal efficiency. We need something wholly different, not just to patch some things over in a way that’ll hopefully suck a bit less.

A caution: While you’re burning the system to the ground, be careful of the people inside it, propping it up. They’re not the enemy. In a way, they’re a victim of it just as much as you are.

Classroom discussion questions

1. In no more than twenty words, what would an acceptable replacement to the current system look like and how can it be achieved?

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Some people appear to truly believe that if you’ve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to hide. It doesn’t bother them if their communications are being monitored, or if the government can access the details of every phone call, email, or electronically communicated conversation any of us have ever had. After all, anyone doing something illegal in those communications should be caught – and so long as you’re not doing anything illegal, what’s there to worry about?


Some people have things they’ve said taken out of context, and protest that their words have been twisted in order to unfairly paint them as some sort of scoundrel. They’ve been misrepresented. Something they said as a joke got repeated around as if they’d really meant it. Someone just quoted the first bit of what they were saying, where they were just setting up the devastatingly satirical point that came later, and made them look like an idiot.

The point being:

I suspect that there is a significant crossover between the two aforementioned groups of people.

And that many of those in this intersection don’t realise how much the context issue undermines their position on privacy.

If you’ve ever been in a casual conversation where someone’s unfairly made you out to be some kind of villain, by unfairly twisting something you said or did and refusing to give you the benefit of the doubt, imagine how much worse it could get when there’s a centralised national authority with a monopoly on physical coercion which can do exactly that.

Maybe you’re not even in that second group, though. Maybe you reckon you’re just over on the left of the Venn diagram.

Maybe you aren’t bothered what the NSA knows about you, because you’ve never said anything in private which could ever possibly be misrepresented to embarrass or incriminate you.

Maybe you’ve never said anything unrepresentative of your true views in a moment of passion or exasperation. Maybe you’ve never made an off-colour joke which might seem racist, sexist, or otherwise offensive when stripped of the nuance, subtlety, and irony you obviously intended. Maybe you’ve never said anything on record which can’t be perfectly understood in isolation or could ever be seen to reflect poorly on you.

Maybe you’ve lead a really dull life, is what I’m saying.

In which case, that’s absolutely fine. I don’t mean to judge. It’s not my place to tell you there’s anything inappropriate about living with a level of caution and reservedness that suits you. So long as it’s working for you, knock yourself out. Be totally blameless. Never give anyone a chance to turn anything against you, no matter how tyrannical their efforts to use your own words to indict you. Go for it. I hope it makes you happy.

But that’s not for me. And a world where that’s the only option isn’t one I want to live in.

I want everyone to be able to make tasteless private jokes, offensive comments behind each other’s backs, and clandestine rendez-vouseses to commit acts of which someone somewhere might disapprove, without worrying about the black glove of Dominion suddenly clapping them on the shoulder.

I want creativity and personal autonomy to roam as free as humanly possible, so that every idea, however contemptible or misguided, has a chance to be talked about.

I want Chris Rock to be able to try some new material out, misfire, make some bad calls that don’t land, cause some offense, figure out what he did wrong, hone the routine until it becomes something that connects with people, and not risk being lambasted into oblivion because of an uncharitable and context-free interpretation of the ideas he had to stumble through on the way to somewhere great.

I want us not to have to constantly restrict ourselves to a narrow set of opinions known to be acceptable and uncontroversial, until we forget how to think differently altogether.

I want to have “nothing to fear”, even if I have done something wrong, because fear shouldn’t be the thing that keeps us from doing wrong, dammit.

I want privacy to be a thing.

I want some cheesecake.

Crap, I knew I’d get derailed from my original point eventually. What was I saying?

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If you’re arrested in the USA, you’re entitled to certain rights.

Being arrested’s not the same as being formally found guilty, after all. Once you’ve been convicted, you become a convict; if they just suspect you’ve committed a crime, you’re a suspect.

I’m tempted to embark on an etymological tangent about how the noun forms of those two words both have the emphasis on the first syllable, but the verb forms place it on the second, but that’s beside my point.

Closer to my point: When the authorities are still trying to figure out whether there’s any evidence that you’ve done anything wrong, they can’t just start throwing you in jail for as long as they like, or treating you like inhuman terrorist scum. You’re still just a person who they suspect.

If you don’t want every suspect to have full access to all these basic rights until the point of conviction, then you’re granting the police and the criminal justice system a large amount of power over literally everyone. Being arrested isn’t just for the guilty. Even convictions are often overturned when it later becomes clear they got the wrong person; merely suspecting some totally innocent people is, even more regularly, a necessary step on the path to investigating a crime and finding a guilty party.

If you want to start taking away people’s rights as soon as they’re a suspect, before any due process has found them guilty, then you want to give police the power to arrest anyone they like, on suspicion of a crime, without having to prove that they’re guilty of anything, and start refusing them the rights specifically granted them under the law and the Constitution. You basically want a police state.

If you only want to save that kind of thing for the worst offenders, the terrorists who want to destroy your whole freedom-loving country (and maybe the child molesters too because they’re terrible and frightening and definitely not human), then you still want the police to be able to decide, before any kind of trial or impartial assessment, who those worst offenders are, and how guilty are the people they’ve taken into custody. You still want to give the unelected guys with guns and badges a police-state level of power to take other people’s rights away.

And that is not a good thing to do.

This really isn’t that hard. I get that finding deep compassion for people and understanding their humanity after you’ve confirmed with certainty that they’ve done terrible things is a bigger pill to swallow, but “don’t call down the lynch mob on the first guy you slap handcuffs on, before there’s been any kind of hearing or arraignment let alone a fucking trial” is Basic Humanity 101, people. This stuff almost comes in the same lesson as the thing about not throwing bricks through paediatrician’s windows.

Some of the reaction to the arrest of a suspect in the Boston bombings has made it hard not to start shouting “THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT DUE PROCESS IS FUCKING FOR, YOU GODDAMN NUMBSKULLS”. So hard, in fact, that I couldn’t hold back from shouting exactly that, in the sentence immediately preceding this one. The whole point is to put systems in place that rein in those baser instincts in us that call for immediate, eye-for-an-eye vengeance when we are wronged. It’s about recognising that we’re all made of meat, and we all fuck shit up. It’s not about making a token gesture to the ideas of accountability and transparency and individual liberty, and then chucking even that out the window once you’ve got someone who you just know is really bad.

And it’s not just from easily ignored extremists, either. Lindsey Graham’s been in the Senate for a decade, and has declared that letting this particular suspect have his rights is the last thing we may want to do. So, there you go. You can trust the cops to know who’s guilty and doesn’t deserve rights. Hardly even seems worth the hassle of a trial.

Hi again, new followers. You may also notice that, as well as a devout atheist, I’m kind of a crazy libertarian. (And even more of a crazy socialist. But we’ll get to that later.)

Anyway, I’ll be back on atheism tomorrow, in response to some questions from my last post and some other recent Twitter interaction. This is just something that bugged me today.

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The premise of this article is that intellectual property shouldn’t be considered a “right” in the way that it commonly is, and that the current legal arrangement of IP “rights” is not a good solution to the problems they purport to address.

I find myself drawn towards ambivalence on this. It seems both highly persuasive, and simultaneously strangely unsatisfying in a way that’s hard to pin down.

Once I dig a bit deeper, though, it seems like the part of me performing a rational assessment is the part which follows the logic of the article and agrees entirely. The part that’s reacting against it seems to be coming from a place of “this is new and unfamiliar and significantly different from the world I feel I understand, and is therefore unimaginable, impossible, and ridiculous”.

I haven’t excised the latter part from my day-to-day assessment of the world yet, not by a long shot. Which is fine. I’m aware it’s there and sometimes know to look out for it, which is a start.

It’s a difficult idea to take on, that intellectual property is simply not fit for purpose, and it’s very easy to come up with a number of instinctive, knee-jerk objections. Even while I see how much sense it makes, and how much it lines up with my ideas of what a more fair, egalitarian, just, productive, and universally beneficial society should look like, part of my mind just isn’t happy with it. And I think this has something to do with a tendency to consider things individually, rather than as part of a more general set of changes.

It might be our natural inclination, on reading about an idea like this, to imagine making just one stand-alone alteration, to the particular part of the world most familiar to us, and imagine that the result represents the full extent of any possible development in that direction. This means that numerous obvious problems spring up, and they seem all-encompassing.

“No intellectual property? How will writers and artists and musicians get paid for anything? What will motivate people to research new technologies, if everyone else will be able to profit from them? Why wouldn’t everyone just steal each other’s ideas and content and creative output willy-nilly, even more carelessly than they do now, in this modern age of torrents and pirate bays and get off my lawn you damn kids!”

But sometimes, even if making a single change in isolation wouldn’t have a great outcome, that change can be a part of something beneficial.

Kicking out the crutches from under someone with broken legs might in no way make things better – but working toward a situation where those crutches aren’t there can still be a good thing.

Or, if you tried eating flour straight out of the bag, you might conclude that you’d prefer to go hungry, but that’s not a good reason to decide that flour always makes things worse. (You clearly haven’t been eating all the breads and cakes and scones that Kirsty’s been constantly baking for me for weeks.)

So, sure. Throwing out IP but leaving the rest of our international infrastructure completely intact might not be an immediate recipe for a productivity revolution or an upsurge in everyone’s liberty and quality of life. But, just because the immediate consequences would be problematic if we did that, we shouldn’t ignore the problems that the current system creates, exacerbates, and allows to persist.

The problems with the present system should be more than enough to make us take seriously the question of whether doing things vastly differently from the status quo might not be a huge improvement. At best, the tangle of intellectual property laws we have at the moment can claim to weakly staunch some of the systemic problems arising from a monopolistic government providing constant and ubiquitous support to an equally monopolistic corpocracy.

The standard objections for why we need patents, intellectual property laws, and so forth, are always framed as if change could only ever be applied in one narrow, restricted way. They warn of legitimate problems, but act as if the best defence against them is already in place, and ignore the flaws in the system that already exists.

Oddly enough, I don’t want to see artists unable to achieve recognition for their work and starving in the streets either. I want everyone to have the time and opportunity to explore their creative interests and put their art out into the world, as much or as little as they want, in whatever medium most interests them, and gain recognition among consumers with similar interests by letting their work be experienced as widely as possible. And if that work is Harry Potter fanfic, or Star Trek slash, or a cruel parody of the novel I might eventually get around to finishing, the currently popular methods of cracking down serve to stifle far more art than they protect.

This all goes for patents on inventions, too. Patents are ostensibly offered to encourage companies to put time and resources into exploring new technologies and ideas, which wouldn’t be profitable if they couldn’t maintain some kind of proprietary rights over those ideas afterwards. But that very fact – that shared breakthroughs are considered less desirable than those which are legally prohibited to all but a single group – is already an artefact of the badly flawed way we fund research.

And perhaps if the one thing you were to change about the world was to scrap patent law, the doomsayers might have a reason to be worried. But this doesn’t mean we should be content with the present system and assume any change will be for the worse. It means that there’s much, much more that needs to change as well. Otherwise we’ll still be acting as if corporate profit margins were indicative of the benefits available to humanity.

I want to see everyone have the chance to do creative, inventive, imaginative, potentially ground-breaking work. The present system of IP law says that we’d have no motivation to do so, if we don’t drastically hobble everyone else’s ability to join in, compete, or enjoy the fruits of each other’s labour. I disagree.

Intellectual property supports a state of affairs largely antithetical to that vision. Moving past it won’t be a single sweeping change which will make everything better; it’s one of many necessary ingredients to building a world worthy of everybody in it.

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I’d really like to think that this is just one of those cases where the freedom-hugging liberati (like me) have leapt onto an urban legend and become prematurely outraged. You know, like those shitstorms over whatever sexy thing kids were supposed to be doing with coloured wristbands.

But it’s getting reported on the AP, and so I think the ACLU is right to object when companies are demanding that potential employees hand over their log-in details to social media sites such as Facebook as part of the recruitment process.

I need a job. I’m still waiting for an interview from any of these basic admin roles I’m firing off copies of my CV for. But I don’t need one badly enough that, if someone asks for my Facebook password to check out my background, I can’t afford to tell them to fuck right off.

If you’re going to consider hiring me, there are certain things you have a right to know about me. The information provided on my CV, and the way I carry myself and answer personal questions during the interview, should cover most of it. But things like my private Facebook updates, my direct Twitter messages, my personal emails? None of your fucking business.

There are things I do and say when I’m unguarded and among friends, which are different from my actions in public or in the presence of people I don’t know. Maybe there are things in there I wouldn’t want a potential employer to see, but it is absolutely not their place to generalise from my private, unguarded musings to conclusions about how I’m going to behave as an employee.

Go back ten years. What if employers then had demanded to read your diary? Browse your internet history? Get a log of all the text messages you’ve received and sent? Check what magazines you keep under the mattress? Examine the doodlings in the margins of all your school exercise books? (Mostly cocks, right? And balls. Mostly cocks and balls. Right?)

None of that would have flown, so what’s supposedly different now? If it’s not information I’ve made publicly available to everyone, if it’s not something I’ve freely discussed with you, and if it’s not a criminal conviction in a field relevant to my prospective job description, then it’s not something you have the right to learn about me.

I might personally be tempted – if I were in that situation, and before I told them just how very off they could fuck – to ask some prying questions of my own, to help me decide whether I really want to enter into a contract with this company. Maybe a close look at its financial records, an analysis of any tax loopholes employed, details of executives’ pay as compared to both company performance and median salaries… that kind of thing.

But of course, these are large corporate entities we’re talking about, and I’m an unemployed worker. It’s clear where the power lies in such relationships these days.

Postscript: Did you know that, before the internet, people often had quite wide nets of occasional acquaintances, and would socialise casually with numerous people, rather than remaining largely isolated or sticking to a small bunch of like-minded allies? I know, right? Crazy times.

Well, maybe not so crazy. If you’re a regular reader or commenter here, let’s be PALS (Personal Associates of Low-level Sincerity). Drop me a line on Facebook letting me know who you are, and let’s broaden those social horizons a little.


(Note: This is an experiment in alpha testing phase. I may get bored of you at any moment, without warning, and go back to just using social media to talk to my actual friends. Nothing personal.)

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You know when Irish rock band U2 released an album titled How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb?

You remember how they were then arrested and spent several years in Guantanamo Bay under suspicion of possessing illegal fissile material and intent to tamper with restricted government nuclear facilities?

No, you probably don’t. One reason why you don’t remember this is that nobody ever really suspected them of any kind of dangerous or unlawful activities relating to weapons of mass destruction.

It may have been possible that this album title was a surprisingly overt expression of a malicious intent to commit a terrorist act, made by individuals whom nobody has ever had any other reason to suspect.

But it’s more likely that they had their own, more benign reasons for using that particular combination of words, in a way that wasn’t quite literal.

In fact it’s a lot more likely. It probably never even occurred to anyone to weigh up the respective probabilities. They didn’t even waste time investigating the potential nuclear threat, because it was so vanishingly remote.

Unfortunately, that wisdom is something we seem to have lost in recent years.

Otherwise, when a British guy called Leigh joked on Twitter about “diggin’ Marilyn Monroe up” and his plans to “destroy America”, he and the friend he was travelling with wouldn’t have been handcuffed and detained overnight on arrival in the US before being denied entry and sent back home.

Even after five hours of questioning (and a night sharing a cell with Mexican drug dealers), they had still failed to explain the notion of “humour” to airport officials. Their interrogators didn’t find any grave-digging shovels in the tourists’ possession (and yes, apparently they checked), or anything else to suggest that they might have been doing anything other than hyperbolically discussing their party plans. But it was still deemed safest not to let them in.

The phrase I’ve heard that most pithily sums up the problem here, to my mind, is “Suspicion Fail“. The criteria for valid suspicion outlined in that post make sense: you should only view a person’s behaviour as suspicious if it is consistent with “bad” behaviour (such as intent to commit a crime), and inconsistent with innocent behaviour.

In the case of the “destroy America” tweets, these guidelines were not followed with any competence. Anyone who understands anything at all about the way people talk in casual conversation, and the flippancy and inconsequentiality that characterises a significant proportion of Twitter usage, could tell you that this guy’s tweets were entirely consistent with someone innocent of any terrorist intent.

If you are determined to take things that literally, all the time, regardless of the context, in the hope of catching the very occasional terrorist, then if you cast your net widely enough you are inevitably going to achieve a false positive rate which does more damage to society than any atrocity you manage to prevent.

And by the way, if you think what happened is made slightly less unconscionable because the joke tweet in question “wasn’t funny”, then congratulations, you don’t understand anything about anything.

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– No, it’s not Blue Monday. And if you’re using that nonsense as anything other than an excuse to break out some New Order LPs and go on a nostalgia binge, you’re doing it wrong.

– The TSA has compiled a list of its best “catches” – that is, people detained by their security staff at airports – in 2011. The ratio of thwarted terrorists to harassed innocent citizens… may surprise you.

– Just the words “arrested on secret evidence” should make this seem like a seriously bad idea, even before you get to the torture of a humanitarian aid worker.

– Has your memory ever turned out to be unreliable, even though you swear something happened the way you replay it in your mind? Let the False Memory Archive know.

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A columnist for the HuffPo has some opinions on the Ron Paul presidential campaign. He’s not a big fan.

He makes some good points about the right-libertarian idea of “liberty” in the US these days, and his description of the Ron Paul meme as a “shibboleth for nihilistic hipsters” is possibly a stroke of genius. And yet there seems to be a point being missed here.

The repeated refrain of “But, you know, ‘liberty!'” is used to point out the ludicrously oppressive inequalities which would in fact result from some of Paul’s proposed “libertarian” policies – widespread discrimination based on ethnicity and gender, deregulation of business allowing the richest to screw the rest of the country even more than they already have been, and so on.

But, you know, liberty is meant to be a good thing.

The right-libertarian ideal might not provide as much of it as it claims in theory, but don’t let’s start acting as though the cry for greater liberty and less authoritarian oppression were itself a sign of foolishness.

The writer of this article explains why Ron Paul’s supporters are deluded to think he has any hope of getting anywhere with this election:

The reality is that our political system has remained relatively intact for 224 years because most people, despite their gretzing, are actually comfortable with the continuity it provides. If voters were as militantly anti-system as they claim to be in anecdotal conversations, they would elect more incumbents and fringy third-party challengers.

I guess I agree with that, about people being generally more complacent and less enraged by the current system than it sometimes seems. Maybe the difference is that I don’t find that comforting.

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So, here’s a thing.

Imagine there’s this privileged subset of society who are allowed to break into your home with impunity. Let’s call them the “overlords”.

There’d probably be certain rules about exactly when the overlords get to enter your premises against your will. But imagine too that, if some particular overlords broke these rules and tried to barge in anyway, there was nothing you could do to stop them.

You could try and get them punished later on, by reporting them to other overlords who you hope will be on your side, but it would still be illegal for you to make any attempt to prevent them from illegally breaking in.

You’re picturing it? There is a violently enforceable rule in place, which you didn’t agree to, saying that if an overlord invades your home, you may not do anything to resist them, even if the rules in place to restrict the overlords’ behaviour (and ostensibly to protect you) specifically say that they’re not allowed in.

Scary prospect, right?

Now replace “overlords” with “police officers“. Welcome to Indiana.

A decision earlier this year by the state’s Supreme Court said, in part:

We also find that allowing resistance unnecessarily escalates the level of violence and therefore the risk of injuries to all parties involved without preventing the arrest.

Right. Because the responsibility for not unnecessarily escalating the level of violence and risk of injuries should absolutely fall on the person resisting the illegal home invasion, not the people illegally breaking into someone’s home.

You know that thing about how you’re meant to get more right-wing as you get older? Fuck that.

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I’m still not an anarchist, but I’m still finding the literature interesting. Even outside of the extreme anti-statist stuff, it’s giving me things to think about with regard to democracy, capitalism, and the class structure of society.

Most people aren’t anarchists. Most people reckon there are worthwhile benefits to having a system of elected government representatives taking care of some things.

There’s plenty of disagreement about the role government should play, and the extent to which it should intrude on ordinary citizen’s lives. But at times some people’s ideas of what government is for get completely out of control, beyond anything that can be justified even by non-anarchists.

For example, from a news story about a town in Arkansas:

The City Council adopted an ordinance last week making it illegal to form any kind of group without its permission.

Yep. This is the kind of thing politicians start thinking they can do once you let them take charge. Just start telling everyone else that they’re not allowed to form groups for any reason.

In particular, they passed an ordinance (and overruled the mayor’s veto) which got rid of the existing Citizens Advisory Council in the town. The most damning thing to be said against the advisory council quoted in the article is that it had been “causing confusion and discourse among the citizens”.

So the few in charge decided that the people couldn’t be trusted with discourse, and outlawed the founding of any new organisations “without approval from a majority of the City Council”.

It’s really important that, if we’re going to have elected officials in roles where they get to make executive decisions that affect people’s lives, we don’t forget why they’re there, and why we put up with them making any decisions on our behalf. To think that laying down this kind of fascist and dictatorial rule, seemingly crushing people’s freedoms for the sake of maintaining their own authority, is even close to what the elected officials we deign to tolerate are for, is to have a colossally misguided mindset about the nature of government.

(h/t Reason)

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