Propaganda of the Deed

V for Vendetta, the film which first sold that hyper-stylized mask of Guy Fawkes, is a myth. Specifically, it is the anarchist fable of propaganda of the deed. A liberator of all humanity strikes against tyranny and inspires a revolution. So goes the grandiose fantasy. The actual history has been far more squalid. It, too, has been given a cinematic treatment.

The Baader Meinhof Complex is a story of the Red Army Faction, which was a West German gang of urban guerrillas. The complex referred to in the title is psychological. Christopher Hitchens wrote a sharp description of this mindset in his review of the film:

There was a prevalent mystique in those days about the Cuban and Vietnamese and Mozambican revolutions, as well as about various vague but supposedly glamorous groups such as the Tupamaros in Uruguay. In the United States, the brief resort to violence by the Black Panthers and then by the Weather Underground was always imagined as an extension of “Third World” struggles onto the territory of imperialist North America. Other spasmodic attempts to raise armed insurrection—the so-called Front for the Liberation of Quebec, the I.R.A., and the Basque ETA—were confined to national or ethnic minorities. But there were three officially democratic countries where for several years an actual weaponized and organized group was able to issue a challenge, however garbled and inarticulate, to the very legitimacy of the state. The first such group was the Japanese Red Army, the second (named partly in honor of the first) was West Germany’s Red Army Faction, led by Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof, and the third was the Red Brigades in Italy.

You may notice that the three countries I have just mentioned were the very ones that made up the Axis during the Second World War. I am personally convinced that this is the main reason the phenomenon took the form it did: the propaganda of the terrorists, on the few occasions when they could be bothered to cobble together a manifesto, showed an almost neurotic need to “resist authority” in a way that their parents’ generation had so terribly failed to do. And this was also a brilliant way of placing the authorities on the defensive and luring them into a moral trap. West Germany in the late 1960s and 1970s is not actually holding any political prisoners. Very well then, we will commit violent crimes for political reasons and go to prison for them, and then there will be a special wing of the prison for us, and then the campaign to free the political prisoners by violence can get under way. This will strip the mask from the pseudo-democratic state and reveal the Nazi skull beneath its skin.

It doesn’t take long for the sinister ramifications of the “complex” to become plain. Consumerism is equated with Fascism so that the firebombing of department stores can be justified. Ecstatic violence and “action” become ends in themselves. One can perhaps picture Ulrike Meinhof as a “Red” resister of Nazism in the 1930s, but if the analogy to that decade is allowed, then it is very much easier to envisage her brutally handsome pal Andreas Baader as an enthusiastic member of the Brownshirts. (The gang bought its first consignment of weapons from a member of Germany’s neo-Nazi underworld: no need to be choosy when you are so obviously in the right.) There is, as with all such movements, an uneasy relationship between sexuality and cruelty, and between casual or cynical attitudes to both.

The film, as Hitchens said, is indeed an acute portrayal of “the way in which mania feeds upon itself and becomes hysterical.” Any doubts or disagreements within the group “can always be attributed to betrayal or cowardice, resulting in mini-purges and micro-lynchings within the gang itself.” In this psychodrama, the revolutionary promise can never be falsified; it can only be betrayed.

Personal Data and Abuses of Trust

Like most Americans, I have concerns about how companies like Google, Amazon, and Facebook handle data about their users. While I expect companies to use this data their own benefit, their actions should not cause me undue harm. Companies should honor the commitments they make in their privacy policies. They should be fairly transparent about their data practices, and they should guard against user data being pilfered for malign purposes. But for these concerns, use and abuse is a better distinction than privacy and disclosure.

The notion of privacy, as Benjamin Wittes and Wells C. Bennett said, is “something of an intellectual rabbit hole.” It is “so contested and ill-defined that it often offers little guidance” on the uses and abuses of personal information. So, Wittes and Bennett suggest the alternative notion of “databuse.”

The Constitution, as they said, “made no mention of privacy.”

The Constitution did not have to, because in the founding era, it was exceedingly difficult to invade privacy interests without also trespassing against personal property or impinging upon an individual’s freedom of conscience or right to keep mum—areas well covered already by the First, Third, Fourth, and Fifth Amendments. This arrangement did not stand up over time, however, given technological advances. Because of those, notions of privacy started to decouple from property and other rights, first in our minds and ultimately in our law. We created privacy because technology left previous doctrines unable to describe the intrusions on our seclusion that we were feeling.

Ironically, today it is privacy itself that no longer adequately describes the violations people experience with respect to large caches of personal data held by others—and it describes those violations less and less well as time goes on. Much of the material that makes up these datasets, after all, involves records of events that take place in public, not in private. Much of this data is sensitive only in aggregation; it is often trivial in and of itself—and we consequently think little of giving it, or the rights to use it, away. As a legal matter, this sort of data by its nature involves material we have disclosed to others in exchange for some benefit, and it thus generally lies outside of the protections of the Fourth Amendment—which does not cover the actions of non-governmental parties. What’s more, we often give this information away with the understanding, implicit or explicit, that it will be aggregated and mined for what it might say about us. It takes a feat of intellectual jujitsu to construct a cognizable and actionable set of privacy interests out of the amalgamation of public activities in which one has engaged knowingly, and which involved trades with strangers in exchange for benefits. The term privacy has become something of a crutch, a description of many different values of quite different weights that neither accurately nor usefully depicts the harms we fear.

Hence the need for a new conceptual frame:

Think of databuse as that core of the privacy spectrum that is most modest in nature. Databuse is different from broader visions of privacy in that it does not presume as a starting point the non-disclosure, non-use, even quarantining from human eyes of data we have willingly transacted in exchange for services. It does not pretend that the companies to which we entrust our data should take it from us with no ambitions to use it for their own gain—or that there is something disreputable or inappropriate about their doing so. It does not begin with the assumption that there is some platonic ideal of seclusion that a company is bound to honor on our behalf, even if we don’t want it or even if we prefer to have our data used to market us products we might want to buy. It does not assume we feel violated by the knowledge that others may have of our lives—particularly if others are machines and using that information to provide us services and conveniences we happen to want. It does not assume we want our fitness monitors to shield the number of steps we take from our friends or from people we have never met; it instead treats the dissemination of such data—in whole or in part—as an option we might or might not want to choose.

Rather, databuse asks only for protection against unwarranted harms associated with entrusting our data to large entities in exchange for services from them. It asks that the costs of our engagement with these companies not be a total loss of control of the bits and pieces of transactional, communications, and locational data that make up the fabric of our day-to-day lives. It asks, in short, that the companies be reasonable and honest custodians—trustees—of the material we have put in their hands. It acknowledges that they will use it for their own purposes. It asks only that those purposes do not conflict with our own purposes or come at our expense.

Wittes brought the same candor and clarity to debates about the National Security Agency. Most of his commentary can be found on the Lawfare blog, in posts like this one and this one. The best statement of his position was the essay “Legal Safeguards, Not Disarmament.”

Naomi Klein Versus Climate Action

Naomi Klein wants action on climate change. Klein also wants to end our estrangement from Nature. These are cross purposes. Pursuing an end to alienation, on her terms, would cripple our ability to reduce carbon emissions. At least, that was the warning I took from Will Boisvert’s review of This Changes Everything: Capitalism Vs. the Climate:

For all its vehemence, Klein’s everythingism—her conviction that everything is threatened, that everything must change, that everything is settled about how to change, and that everything will be reconciled in the coming state of nature—falls far short of a useful call to action. A book about changing everything needs to know how everything works and interacts so as to set priorities and strike balances, but Klein proceeds more by romantic enthusiasm and anathema than by detailed knowledge and analysis. Her views are all the more troubling because they faithfully reflect the received wisdom on the Left about environmental and climate policy. Given the vigor of the green movement and its impressive success at influencing policy makers and capturing the public imagination, these ideas will help shape the world’s response to global warming. Klein’s book therefore provokes a disturbing question: having done so much to put the crucial issue of climate change on the agenda, does the Left have anything coherent to say about it?

Boisvert’s refutation is very meticulous, which makes it all the more devastating. His essay should be read in its entirety.

Yes, Boisvert supports nuclear power. I used to have some reservations, but pro-nuclear environmentalists currently have the better side of the argument.

Engineering Choice

The structure of a choice matters. For example, many employees have the option to enroll in a 401(k) plan, but they do not contribute. Even those who agree it would be in their interest to make contributions often fail to do so. A likely reason is inertia. Progressives like Cass Sunstein would turn this inertia to the employee’s advantage. They would restructure the choice by changing the default. Instead of having to opt in to a 401(k) plan, employees would be enrolled automatically. They could still opt out, if they acted. Otherwise, they would be “nudged” to save.

Sunstein believes public policy can be improved by a greater use of such “nudges.” After all, designing choices is already a common practice in our society. From cellphone companies to Herbalife distributors, many businesses have long understood that a customer’s choice can be altered by the framing of their options. Sunstein would apply similar techniques, but he would do so for public interest rather than private gain. When confronted with obstinate habits or a genuine lack of awareness, there may be some case for Sunstein’s paternalism. However, there is more to “solving social problems” than overcoming bias and correcting for ignorance.

Some of Sunstein’s critics, like Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck, can be easily dismissed. But liberal philosopher Jeremy Waldron is more compelling. In his recent essay “It’s All for Your Own Good,” Waldron marked the appropriate limits of engineering choice.

Sunstein’s paternalism raises issues of trust and competence. To merit our trust, the engineer’s preferences for our choices must be something we can accept. And agreeable intentions alone are never enough. The restructured choice must be a reliable means to the desired end. But according to Waldron, these issues are compounded by two deeper problems. One is the vanguard conceit:

As befits someone who was “regulation czar” in the Obama White House, Sunstein’s point of view is a rather lofty one and at times it has an uncomfortable affinity with what Bernard Williams once called “Government House utilitarianism.” Government House utilitarianism was a moral philosophy that envisaged an elite who knew the moral truth and could put out simple rules for the natives (or ordinary people) to use, even though in the commissioner’s bungalow it was known that the use of these rules would not always be justified. We (the governors) know that lying, for example, is sometimes justified, but we don’t want to let on to the natives, who may not have the wit to figure out when this is so; we don’t trust them to make the calculations that we make about when the ordinary rules should not be followed. Williams saw the element of insult in this sort of approach to morality, and I think it is discernable in Sunstein’s nudging as well.

For Sunstein’s idea is that we who know better should manipulate the choice architecture so that those who are less likely to perceive what is good for them can be induced to choose the options that we have decided are in their best interest. Thaler and Sunstein talk sometimes of “asymmetric paternalism.” The guiding principle of this approach

“is that we should design policies that help the least sophisticated people in society while imposing the smallest possible costs on the most sophisticated.”

This is a benign impulse on their part, but it is not a million miles away from the condescension that worried Bernard Williams.

The second deep problem is dignity. By dignity, Waldron means “the sense of self-respect, an individual’s awareness of her own worth as a chooser.” He does not deny that our willed actions are often “flawed and misguided.” However, he is not impressed by Sunstein’s response to this concern. Waldron said:

He begins by coupling the objection about dignity with an objection about autonomy, the privileging of each individual’s independent control of her life. The two go together, says Sunstein, though he acknowledges that the complaint about dignity is the more fundamental of the two. Having said that, however, Sunstein seems happy to associate himself with those who maintain that dignity just equals autonomy or that if there is anything left out of that equation, it is not worth bothering with.

Sunstein’s second move is to equate autonomy and well-being (or, more crudely, “utility”—the economist’s word for the satisfaction of needs and wants). He toys first with the idea that autonomy is just a preference like any other. If people like choosing, he says, we can design environments in which they are forced to state a preference—no meal unless you order; no pension unless you opt in or opt out of a 401(k). I am afraid that’s a trivialization. Autonomy is not just one preference among others; it is a principle about how one’s preferences are pursued.

Eventually what we are told by Sunstein is that autonomy is just a surrogate for welfare—what people ultimately want is the promotion of their own well-being and it doesn’t really matter how that comes about. At best autonomy is a heuristic: “People speak in terms of autonomy, but what they are doing is making a rapid, intuitive judgment about welfare.” I must say that I find all of this remarkably tone-deaf to concerns about autonomy.

And allowing dignity to just drop out of the picture is offensive. For by this stage, dignity is not being mentioned at all. Sunstein does acknowledge that people might feel infantilized by being nudged. He says that “people should not be regarded as children; they should be treated with respect.” But saying that is not enough. We actually have to reconcile nudging with a steadfast commitment to self-respect.

Consider the earlier point about heuristics—the rules for behavior that we habitually follow. Nudging doesn’t teach me not to use inappropriate heuristics or to abandon irrational intuitions or outdated rules of thumb. It does not try to educate my choosing, for maybe I am unteachable. Instead it builds on my foibles. It manipulates my sense of the situation so that some heuristic—for example, a lazy feeling that I don’t need to think about saving for retirement—which is in principle inappropriate for the choice that I face, will still, thanks to a nudge, yield the answer that rational reflection would yield. Instead of teaching me to think actively about retirement, it takes advantage of my inertia. Instead of teaching me not to automatically choose the first item on the menu, it moves the objectively desirable items up to first place.

I still use the same defective strategies but now things have been arranged to make that work out better. Nudging takes advantage of my deficiencies in the way one indulges a child. The people doing this (up in Government House) are not exactly using me as a mere means in violation of some Kantian imperative. They are supposed to be doing it for my own good. Still, my choosing is being made a mere means to my ends by somebody else—and I think this is what the concern about dignity is all about.

Choices, as Waldron said, “are always going to be structured in some manner, whether it’s deliberately designed or happens at random.” Waldron is not claiming it could be otherwise. Instead, he is offering a word of caution against technocratic hubris. His essay is a fine expression of what I mean by liberal, but not progressive.

UPDATE (October 2, 2014): Steven Poole wrote a smart variation on the same theme. Poole said, “if we want to understand others, we can always ask what is making their behaviour ‘rational’ from their point of view. If, on the other hand, we just assume they are irrational, no further conversation can take place.”

Another Word for Blasphemy

Many well-meaning Americans, including President Obama, say no religion condones the mass execution of innocents. They condemn the Islamic State for slaughtering infidels, but they deny the caliphate is truly religious. No true person of faith would engage in terrorism, the reasoning goes, just as no true Scotsman would put sugar on their porridge.

This mental contortion may have something to do with a peculiar and illiberal form of social pressure. Debates about a range of issues—from jihad to honor killings—are being distorted, as Ali A. Rizvi said, by “the phobia of being called Islamophobic.”

As a brown-skinned person with a Muslim name, I can get away with a lot more than you’d think. I can publicly parade my wife or daughters around in head-to-toe burqas and be excused out of “respect” for my culture and/or religion, thanks to the racism of lowered expectations. I can re-define “racism” as something non-whites can never harbor against whites, and cite colonialism and imperialism as justification for my prejudice.

And in an increasingly effective move that’s fast become something of an epidemic, I can shame you into silence for criticizing my ideas simply by calling you bigoted or Islamophobic.

For decades, Muslims around the world have rightly complained about the Israeli government labeling even legitimate criticism of its policies “anti-Semitic,” effectively shielding itself from accountability. Today, Muslim organizations like CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations) have borrowed a page from their playbook with the “Islamophobia” label—and taken it even further.

In addition to calling out prejudice against Muslims (a people), the term “Islamophobia” seeks to shield Islam itself (an ideology) from criticism. It’s as if every time you said smoking was a filthy habit, you were perceived to be calling all smokers filthy people.

This rhetorical feint is also used by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. The Organization has fifty seven member states and claims to speak as “the collective voice of the Muslim world.” They have campaigned for years against the defamation of Islam. In their 1990 declaration on human rights and Islam, they said every person has the right to freely express their opinions—but only “in such manner as would not be contrary to the principles of the Shari’a.” In their usage, “Islamophobia” is just another word for blasphemy.

As Rizvi warned, liberals should not, in the name of tolerance, take “an apologist stance in favor of the intolerant.” Individuals deserve respect for their dignity as persons. Their ideas about the world and how it should be governed are a different matter. Respect for such claims must be earned; it is not an entitlement. No idea deserves immunity from criticism, regardless of how it is classified.

Yes, the criticism of religious doctrine can be offensive to believers. The free exchange of ideas is not entirely painless. It never has been, and it never will be. Jonathan Rauch made this point with great force and clarity in Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought. When we curtail the freedom to speak in ways that religious authorities deem hurtful, we curtail the freedom to contradict their ideological pronouncements. We give their feelings precedence over their fatwas against those, like Theo van Gogh, who “insult Islam.”

Happiness by Decree

The mountain kingdom of Bhutan was widely praised for their measures of Gross National Happiness. But as Alan Beattie persuasively argued, Bhutan’s GNH is a bad idea whose time has gone. In practice, it has been “a deeply illiberal means of legitimising undemocratic rule.”

The GNH is assessed by asking survey respondents about a variety of indicators, from more conventional issues like health and education to more nebulous concepts like emotional fulfilment and perceived national ecological sustainability. It is noticeable that the haziest ones seem to do better: the highest-scoring indicator is “Values”, denoting that Bhutanese tend to concur that murder, stealing, lying, creating disharmony in relationships and sexual misconduct are a bad thing. Good for them, but, on the other hand, less than half of respondents are happy with their literacy, employment opportunities, government services and schooling.

Such outcomes are hardly surprising: the autocratic monarchy that ruled Bhutan until the first free elections in 2008 substantially failed to deliver better lives for most of its duration. Literacy is still only around 50 per cent, and only around half of children attend secondary school. Most Bhutanese are still subsistence or other small-scale farmers, unemployment is rife and suicide rates are alarmingly high. Corruption in government is believed to be widespread.

Moreover, GNH has proved no guarantee of individual human rights. Taking it at face value, you would never know that Bhutan has for decades been carrying out a brutal ethnic cleansing policy against the country’s Nepali-speaking minority. Once around a sixth of the population, a “Bhutanisation’ campaign that began in the 1980s resulted in tens of thousands of Nepalis being expelled from the country. Their houses were seized or burned down and people deported for speaking Nepali, refusing to eat beef (Nepalis are generally Hindu while ethnic Bhutanese are Buddhist) or declining to wear traditional dress. The displaced are still living in refugee camps in Nepal, or have been resettled in the US or elsewhere: none has been allowed to return.

GNH defines and imposes a unitary set of values that does not protect diversity or individual rights, or at least addresses them only in ways that can be defined and controlled by the government. It is a communitarian view of the world distinctly reminiscent of Hu Jintao’s ideal of a “harmonious society”, a concept frequently cited by the Chinese government when clamping down on free speech and dissent. It should give GNH’s foreign supporters a long pause for thought that as soon as Bhutanese voters had a choice after decades of dictatorship, they threw out its backers and brought in its critics.

Beattie is justly irritated that Bhutan’s measure distracted attention away from “more transparent and participative attempts to measure wellbeing.” Citizens are better served, he rightly said, “by the novel procedure of asking them, not defining it on their behalf.”

Social wellbeing cannot be measured by per capita income alone. It has multiple dimensions. But these are not fully commensurable, which is why no single index is ever a neutral measure. Embedded within any such index is a political judgment about how different goods should be weighed against each other, about how the common good should be defined.

Social welfare should be defined by citizens for themselves—not by Platonic Guardians. Individual voters are not always wise, but as John Dewey said, “there is one thing they are wiser about than anybody else can be, and that is where the shoe pinches, the troubles they suffer from.”

Who Are These Jihadists?

Like many Americans, I have been trying to make sense of the jihadists formerly known as al-Qaeda in Iraq. Fortunately, a number of talented scholars have been studying these fanatics for years. Their commentary is assuredly worth your time.

  • Charles Lister traced their history here.
  • William McCants and Thomas Hegghammer discussed The Management of Savagery here.
  • John Horgan explained how they recruit for jihad here.
  • Brian Fishman clarified what the caliphate of the Islamic State is, and what it is not, here.

I should probably say something about my choice of words. I call the jihadist insurgency in Iraq and Syria a caliphate, because they call themselves a caliphate. A refusal to use their self-description would not deny them legitimacy. It would also be wildly at odds with how we speak of other violent fanatics, as J. M. Berger said:

Extremist groups always adopt a name that reflects their greater ambitions, and as a rule, we refer to them by the names they choose. Do we legitimize the concept of a white-only state when we refer to the Aryan Nations? Do we legitimize Marxist-Leninist philosophy as shiny when we use the name Shining Path? Are we implying that fascism will bring a Golden Dawn when we talk about the Greek political party?

No, no and no. Ultimately, I suspect this comes back to a fundamental problem I’ve discussed before in the U.S. government’s approach to Muslim extremists—condescending overkill. The theory is that “legitimizing” IS by referring to it by its chosen name will have repercussions in the Muslim world that would not somehow apply to Christians when we talk about Christian Identity.

The Islamic State is not a special case, and ironically, we elevate its claim to legitimacy when we treat it differently from every other two-bit megalomaniacal movement that seeks to establish itself as the claimant of a global mandate.

When a gunman murdered three people near a Jewish community center and shouted “Heil Hitler,” liberals had no problem with calling him a white supremacist. None of us worried about legitimizing killer’s belief that Aryans were the master race.

UPDATE (September 4, 2014): McCants and Hegghammer interview added to the bulleted list.