Reflections on Patriotism

via Google Images

Today is the Fourth of July, and while we all recognize what it means for the United States of America, I question the sincerity with which we as American’s recognize not the Fourth of July as a national holiday celebrating our Declaration of Independence from Great Britain,  but as a day of serious reflection that we owe ourselves. What does the Fourth of July really mean?  Do many even conceive of this holiday beyond the traditional patriotic folklore spewed forth by the media and our politicians and bureaucrats in Washington?  As I sit every year and watch the fireworks that signify American patriotism and zeal for freedom, I ask myself what I believe patriotism to be.

My initial reflection begins upon the curious ambiguity with which the Oxford English Dictionary defines patriotism: “vigorous support for one’s country.”  Although not a scholarly source, Wikipedia goes one step further and includes in its definition a sense of natural pride by virtue of citizenship.  It states that patriotism, in a general sense,  “is a devotion to one’s country for no other reason than being a citizen of that country.”  Such vague notions have little meaning because they amount to nothing more than a blind faith and a tacit obedience to traditional notions of greatness.  Yet many of us are satisfied so long as the President makes his address, the First Lady sends out her mass email, and our Congressman or woman formally assert that America is still the land of the free and home of the brave.  None of these actions or assertions however, begin to touch the daily lives of the American middle class with as much force as the Great Recession, a lost job or missed mortgage payment, or perhaps the tragedy of a lost loved one in the ongoing Middle-East conflicts.

If you have read this blog before, you certainly know that I do not believe patriotism to be faith in one’s government, yet this is highly implicit in the conceptual recognition of patriotic fervor built into the traditional activities that mark the Fourth of July.  One can scarcely attend a parade absent at least one image of the paternal Uncle Sam (see image above).  For me however, patriotism is a celebration of the individual’s right to his or her own progress, not a celebration of one’s faith in government to provide for such progress.  Rights grounded in the fact that we are human beings are natural rights, and patriotism to me is that conceptual awareness of the principles that lead one to safeguard and defend those rights, whether from a foreign or domestic threat.  Is this not indeed, the very essence of Jeffersonian eloquence imbued in the Declaration of Independence?

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

via Google Images

But Jefferson takes a colossal step further – a step that many Americans give far too little reverence, for it imbues the People with the right to safeguard their interests in their own name, not that of the government.

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. 

Consequently, as events have unfolded over the past ten years – from the highly ironic U.S.A. Patriot Act to the bailouts  of banks and auto companies at the expense of taxpayers – patriotism for me has become a concept entirely divorced, and in many cases, contrary to the government of the United States of America.  I do not ascribe to notions of nationalism used by political forces to capitalize on the sentimentality of an unthinking or misdirected people.  I do not feel obligated to a sense of patriotism imbued with traditional notions of America as the “land of the free and home of the brave.”  Frankly, I feel obligated to recognize that such sentimentalizing is being utilized to justify the maelstrom of deficit spending, multi-theater wars in the Middle East, and an unsustainable welfare state, while shrouding in a cloak of ambiguity a crumbling education system and a faltering middle class.  I feel obligated to say to anyone willing to listen and willing to think for themselves and question the very fundamental precepts that govern our electoral system that that system is deeply broken and has been for quite sometime.

I feel obligated, for my own sake and for the sake of the freedom of future generations, to redefine for myself the notion of patriotism.  To do so, one must stay clear of the sentimentality born from parades and fireworks and must reflect upon the principles that founded America – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  Perhaps most importantly is the very palpable concept that security and freedom are often mutually exclusive.  Benjamin Franklin stated as much: “Those who desire to give up freedom in order to gain security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one.”  Such reflection must begin here and must include the question as to whether our current political system safeguards these principles for the people, or whether it dangles them above their heads just out of reach.

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TSA Discusses “Big Brother” Type Surveillance

Big Brother (via Google Images)

Last August Forbes blogger Andy Greenberg alerted his readers to a new and even more invasive practice from the TSA.  Scanning technology has now been adapted to fit inside “roving” vans, and talk says that stationary, walk-through units and vans will be used at large-scale events and venues as well as airports.  Officially called Z Backscatter Vans – after the x-ray technology employed – they “bounce a narrow stream of x-rays off and through nearby objects, and read which ones come back. Absorbed rays indicate dense material such as steel. Scattered rays indicate less-dense objects that can include explosives, drugs, or human bodies. That capability makes them powerful tools for security, law enforcement, and border control.”  I am sure it does, but I would not count on our government using these devices to secure our boarders.  Given recent developments with the ATF, one should not count on any degree of border security anytime soon.  According to the Center for Public Integrity, as federal prosecutors built a case against Mexican drug lords, the ATF purposely let hundreds of guns pass into the hands of “straw buyers with the expectation they might cross the border and even be used in crimes.”  Such actions by federal organizations – employing surveillance on civilians while handing over weapons to foreign drug lords – should lead to questions among the public as to our government’s priorities.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) also points to the fact that such surveillance tools have been in the works since 2006. (You can find the report they acquired from DHS here.)  Of particular concern with these surveillance methods is the illegal and invasive deployment – not to mention the potential health effects – of such technology. According to a more recent piece by Greenberg, additional plans for public surveillance have been discussed with various organizations.

“One project allocated to Northeastern University and Siemens would mount backscatter x-ray scanners and video cameras on roving vans, along with other cameras on buildings and utility poles, to monitor groups of pedestrians, assess what they carried, and even track their eye movements. In another program, the researchers were asked to develop a system of long range x-ray scanning to determine what metal objects an individual might have on his or her body at distances up to thirty feet.”

As per their website, Siemens is a global company that deals in renewable/green technologies such as electric cars. Specifically, their site will lead you to believe they deal only with industrial infrastructure, energy technology, and health care.  Perhaps roving vans capable of scanning thirty feet to peer inside one’s bag or purse, inside one’s pockets, or even analyze a person’s eye movement is now considered by those in Homeland Security as a necessary part of infrastructure. Not to mention the fact that these vans will not be marked, but will undoubtedly remain as inconspicuous as an unmarked policy cruiser.  Such practices are not ‘extra’ security measures; they are invasive, offensive, and unacceptable.

Rapiscan Eagle M45

Another organization awarded contracts in the deal is Rapiscan Systems, a long-time favorite of the TSA.  Headquartered in Hawthorne, California, they also have additional facilities in Finland, India, Malaysia, Singapore, the United Kingdom and the United States.  Moreover, their surveillance technology is employed in numerous venues including airports, government and corporate buildings, correctional and prison facilities, postal facilities, military zones, sea ports and border crossings.  In concern over the TSA’s increasingly invasive scanning and pat-down practices, The Hill reported Rapiscan’s presence in the government surveillance industry last year.  In 2009, the company was rewarded a contract worth up to $173 million and has spent nearly $3.6 million in lobbying since 2007.  According to the article, “Their parent company, OSI Systems Inc., “has an active political action committee. During the 2010 campaign, it made more than $60,000 in campaign contributions to candidates and committees, according to FEC records.”  However, more startling figures are available from Reason Magazine. Brian Doherty published the following on March 3rd:

“Rapiscan and its parent OSI Systems, and their subcontractors have donated a combined $1.75 million to federal politicians in the past decade, according to data provided by the MapLight Foundation, of Berkeley, California. Rapiscan and OSI also spent $2.2 million in lobbying from 1998 to 2010, MapLight found.”

Such figures suggest at least the possibility of a moral hazard (and I believe I am being generous here).  Moral hazard or not, such procedures blatantly violate Fourth Amendment rights protecting citizens from unreasonable searches. Regarding the program itself, EPIC’s staff counsel Ginger McCall stated, “These technologies are a gross violation of the Fourth Amendment, which guards against unreasonable searches, as travelers undergo a search without any suspicion of wrongdoing.  Whether or not this program has been rolled out or could be rolled out in the future, it needs to be shut down for good.”  Moreover, EPIC’s lawsuit against the TSA, filed last year, is concerned also with the potential health effects of “backscatter and active millimeter wave technology,” the primary concern being the effects of a concentrated dose of radiation on the skin.  Some fear this could result in increased rates of cancer cell generation.  Hearings begin on March 9 in Washington D.C.

When privacy becomes a matter of political penetration (via orwellsdreams.wordpress.com)

We should all be following this development. If we allow such policies to be implemented, they will certainly follow us (pun intended). One more point to make, and perhaps the most important.  Surveillance of this type is yet another example of government expansion into forbidden areas.  The evidence is out in the open: a decade of eroding our rights and trampling the Constitution beginning with the US Patriot Act, perpetually catering to the elite neoconservative agenda typified by increased defense spending and U.S. interventionism under both parties, and a media organization so embedded within government itself that watching the nightly news is no more democratically effectual than voting for the lesser of two evils.  What we are left with is a country not our own. We pay taxes to an outdated institution based on the traditional feudal notion of aristocratic privilege, and for what?  So that they may safeguard their interests at the expense of ours – and with our tax dollars.  The war on terror begun under President Bush was simply the new panacea of fear that replaced worries perpetuated by the Cold War.  I am not saying such attacks are not a threat.  What I am saying is that such threats are vastly overstated, and to take the word of a Washington bureaucrat whose campaign contributions are dependent upon defense contractors is counterintuitive to liberty and sound judgment.  One must judge each and every situation according to what they know, not what they are told.  Until we learn to learn for ourselves, we are at the mercy of the Court.  Think of your children.  What will their futures be like?

See my related post – TSA: Is Privacy an Ultimatum?

Internet Censorship on America’s Doorstep via COICA: Free Speech in Jeopardy

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The worldwide web is perhaps the most democratically friendly invention since the printing press was rolled out by Johannes Gutenberg in 1450.  Besides its more typical uses for entertainment, commerce, and social networking, the internet acts as a universal portal by which I can connect to a friend in Japan or a protester in Libya.  Indeed, the internet is credited with much of the mobilization across the middle east that has resulted in the manifestation of democratic principles. Many of us followed the protests in Cairo via twitter not only because this social medium is live, but more importantly, because it transmitted the protests directly from the protesters themselves – a rare phenomenon among mass media outlets around the world.  As I type this, I Facebook friends in Oregon, search for the latest read on Amazon, and follow the struggle of middle-class America in Wisconsin.  The web has revolutionized everything on the planet because it has revolutionized the one fundamental aspect of our lives – our mode of communication.  In effect, the basic premise of the internet is its inherent decentralization of information and communication – a patently paradoxical development to the centralization of our federal government.

Perhaps then, the recent bill put forward by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) to censor internet traffic is considered by those behind the proverbial iron curtain as the next logical step for effective government expansion.  The Combating Online Infringements and Counterfeits Act (COICA) has been on the congressional docket since it unanimously passed the Senate Judiciary Committee last November (a list of the 19 Senators who voted for COICA).  Backed by the recording industry and much of Hollywood, the feds claim the bill combats growing issues of copyright infringement across the net. Effectively, it would allow the Attorney General to issue an order of seizure for any domain name system (DNS) on grounds of it being “dedicated to infringing activities.” Such ambiguous language is increasingly more typical of federal statutory law and is responsible for much of the outrage, namely that the bill is a threat to free speech and privacy via censorship.  Mike Masnick of techdirt.com does a nice job explaining why COICA is not simply a bill to combat copyright infringement, but is a “bill for censorship.”

Not all of Washington is behind COICA however.  According to Media Freedom International, Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) successfully blocked the bill last November.  But in December, Homeland Security’s Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) seized eighty-two domain names and ten more last month to much controversy on the legality of such measures.  Electronic Frontier Foundation highlights the implications of ICE’s seizures on COICA.

We’ve gotten an early glimpse of how this provision might play out through recent enforcement efforts by U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) involving the seizure of domain names. The latest ICE action highlights an important point about COICA: the bill would take a seizure mechanism available under criminal copyright law and make it explicitly available in a civil context as well….

Criminal copyright infringement is infringement committed “willfully” and in the context of various specific circumstances. Significantly, the websites targeted in the most recent ICE action appear to have merely linked to infringing content. That is, they did not themselves violate any of the exclusive rights of copyright owners that would constitute direct infringement. The ICE agent who signed the affidavit explicitly states that the ten seized domains point to what he calls “linking” websites—i.e., websites that contain “links to files on third party websites that contain illegal copies of copyrighted content.” (He also points out that these linking sites “are popular because they allow users to quickly browse content and locate illegal streams that would otherwise be more difficult to find.” Sound like any search engines you know?)”

The dangers of COICA and any similar legislation are very real for all Americans.  Specifically, COICA mandates compliance from all communications services including encrypted e-mail providers such as Blackberry and social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Skype.  Daily Censored’s Irene North explains the disregarded dangers to which many Americans remain ignorant or simply ignore.

“The average voter is almost completely unaware of this situation. They are either uninformed or don’t care about wiretapping. The AT&T scandal passed them by and they believe that their lives are pretty much the same as ten years ago. If they do happen to be informed, they don’t understand that this technology is directed right at them…

Americans in particular should be concerned, given the fact that the government is trying to legalize spying on its own citizens. They can already declare American citizens as terrorists simply by what they say, as well as trying American citizens as terrorists outside of civilian courts. Given the privacy implications to remove secure and private communications, the government can determine on their own whether or not you are a threat. This means any type of political dissent could potentially be quashed by labeling you a terrorist and removing you from public life?”

Moreover, North highlights a repeatedly ignored aspect of broad legislation, namely that the targets of such legislation will be the only parties equipped with effective workarounds.  “Any terrorist who knows what he/she is doing will have written their own encryption that isn’t accessible to any government and they certainly aren’t giving out the master keys for decryption.”  This familiar complaint is also made clear over Second Amendment rights to bear arms. Simply outlawing guns is not going to deter an individual already engaging in illegal activities.  In addition to COICA’s infringement of liberties, it also has economic consequences as well.  The Cato Institute notes the extraordinary burdens this legislation would place on outside parties, particularly increased transaction costs.

“Under COICA, when the attorney general accused a domain name of being “dedicated” to copyright infringement, the courts would issue orders not against the owners of the domain name (who may be overseas) but against domain-name registrars and the operators of DNS servers here in the United States. This means that thousands of systems administrators would be required to maintain a large and constantly-changing list of blacklisted domains. This is a significant and unfair administrative burden on private parties who have absolutely no connection to infringing activities.”

Degrees of ambiguity in legislation leave more room for statutes to be used for equally ambiguous purposes, which often entail additional bureaucratic burdens on outside parties.  Perhaps then such burdens beg the question as to why the legislation is deemed necessary in the first place.  Senator Leahy’s original rational played on the financial fears of the public.  He stated:

“Copyright piracy and the sale of counterfeit goods are reported to cost the American economy billions of dollars annually and hundreds of thousands of lost jobs. That is why inaction is not an option, and we must pass online infringement legislation in this Congress before rogue websites harm more businesses, and result in more lost jobs.”

This seems to be the ace-in-the-whole for Washington politicians and bureaucrats alike.  Just scare the public into submission via scenarios of terrorist plots and financial Armageddon, and they will back any legislation proposed, no matter how invasive.

Check back for more to come on this fascinating betrayal of liberty.

Update:

Considering that the COICA bill resurface in the middle of last month, here is a decent list of some more recent sources. Courtesy of the theneointellectual.

McGovern Assaulted as Clinton Addresses Foreign Tyranny over Free Speech

When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton berated foreign governments for attacking free speech, Ray McGovern turned his back on her in peaceful protest.  He was assaulted and arrested.

At Clinton Speech: Veteran Bloodied, Bruised
and Arrested for Standing Silently

As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave her speech at George Washington University yesterday condemning governments that arrest protestors and do not allow free expression, 71-year-old Ray McGovern was grabbed from the audience….

Click to continue→

Here is the video, which I hope is all over the web by now.  It shows the incident that is in stark contrast to constitutional rights, namely the 1st Amendment.  The hypocrisy is simply beyond words.  I think the lesson here is that our government is loyal only to their agenda, and most disturbing is that our natural and constitutional rights no longer fit within its framework.  The time for believing our politicians while espousing their rhetoric is over.  We must now judge for ourselves whether their actions speak louder than their words. Please share this to all you know, for it paints a deadly serious picture for the future of civil liberties in America.  The question to ask yourself is if you want your children to live in a country that violently assaults the very rights it claims to be built upon.

Judgment, Democracy, and Liberty

The Magna Carta from 1215 is an early English ...

The Magna Carta, 1215 (Wikipedia)

Judgment is the glue that binds democracy to individual rights.  Judgment in this context is important because it presupposes the only fundamental behavior common to all human beings, and demanded of all free citizens—thought. Judgment is the use of reason and intellect, to call out cause and effect, and to derive from it a solution to any perceived problem. A lack of judgment implies many things, all of which are contrary to the basic character of democratic politics. The five statements below demonstrate a slippery slope that develops when a citizenry lacks judgment of its own actions, people, and government. These also show how a lack of judgment render a sustainable democratic society impossible.

1) To give up our right to judge is to turn out the lights of our minds and our consciences.
2) Therefore, to give up our right to judge is to alienate cause and effect, thereby rendering the perception of any problems mute.
3) To give up the right to judge opens the door for someone else with interests far contrary to ours to do it for us, namely the government.
4) To give up our right to judge is also, therefore, to give up our ability to evaluate the performance of our government and the manner in which it is provided.

And the coup de grâce is that to forfeit our right to judge the actions of others is to forfeit our democracy in the name of blind obedience.

In this sense, judgment is not simply an act, it is the consciousness of liberty itself. Consequently, this is the only sense one may rationally perceive judgment, for it is the only perception of judgment that renders a democracy practical and credible. Liberty is a conceptual construct yes, but with the power of judgment, of evaluation, of thought, liberty becomes a physical manifestation of the people who employ it. Without our ability and willingness to judge and hold accountable those charged with our livelihoods, liberty is nothing more than a concept devoid not of meaning, but of application and concrete reality.

These are the attributes I see in America today, both in its politics and its people. The American model of democracy was founded on the principle of judgment—the people’s ability to judge their government and their fellow citizens. Judgment, then, is simply holding people, corporations, even entire institutions, accountable for their decisions and the actions taken from such decisions. Judgment is the only failsafe to a democratic nation. It is simply a systematic way of reflecting on one’s self-preservation, nothing more.

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