Peace Dividend

Glenn Reynolds notices an emerging interpretation of PRISM as a phenomenon internally connected to geopolitical pacifism. Making unilateral peace requires infinite vigilance.

First Steyn:

The same bureaucracy that takes the terror threat so seriously that it needs the phone and Internet records of hundreds of millions of law-abiding persons would never dream of doing a little more pre-screening in its immigration system … Because the formal, visible state has been neutered by political correctness, the dark, furtive shadow state has to expand massively to make, in secret, the judgment calls that can no longer be made in public.

Then WRM:

PRISM and similar programs aren’t a ghastly misstep or an avoidable accident. They are the essence of Obama’s grand strategy: public peace and secret war. To cool down the public face of the war, he must intensify the secret struggle.

Richard Fernandez comments.

There’s some kind of conservation law at work there, and they always have the potential to trip people up. Bad outcomes are conserved might be too harsh, but it gets close to something.

June 8, 2013admin 11 Comments »
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11 Responses to this entry

  • Handle Says:

    A better interpretation is that we refuse to acknowledge the reality of “trade-offs”, and that no one either wants to be held responsible (or accountable for actually having to do the hard political and intellectual work) of coming to a balanced, reasonable judgment where they can be blamed for sacrificing one competing value to another. That’s what “reasonable” means.

    The problem with the system is that we can’t be openly reasonable, because there’s some kind of always publicly-exploitable asymmetry. That’s why senior leaders are fond of contradictory incoherence, and why they say incoherent things like, “It’s not national security vs. civil liberties. It is always and everywhere both.” Ah, thanks, that clears it up. It’s a good thing all choices are actually “false choices” because that means hard choices never need to be made. Or even discussed! Which, really, is awfully helpful.

    Remember “torture vs. intelligence”. Krauthammer spoke of conducting “moral calculus”. Ha! The rest of the commentariat, right on Bushitler cue, said “False choice! Torture never ‘works’. The Science is settled!”, or Andrew Sullivan, “It’s just Wrong!”. Thanks for that nuanced analysis and subtle illumination of the issue Sully.

    But what was the most insightful semi-public answer. Judge Posner, of course. “Maybe we should both make it illegal and expect our front-liners to do it anyway when it’s necessary and the right thing to do. Instead of explicitly formalizing the real process, spelling out the circumstances and procedures, we’ll allow them some ‘understood’ leeway to apply their judgment when they understand the exigencies, then blame them if they caught, then have some judge forgive them out of the media spotlight later – because that’s what we intended to do all along.” Posner’s best example of this, “Of course cops can’t harm their prisoners – that’s the plain language of the statute and there are no exceptions, not even in case law precedent. And yet, somehow, we all look the other way when some guy’s brought in on kidnapping a child that we think is still alive somewhere, and some Chicago cop punches him in the nose to get him to talk.” We don’t really go after the cop, and we always find some other way to convict without directly using the confessed evidence. This is how our entire system of “security” anywhere in government from local cop to intelligence collection works now.

    USG also acts in a cognitively dissonant fashion because it has built, sometimes purposefully and often inadvertently, unbreachable firewalls between departments that cannot be resolved through interagency dialogue. Everyone finds debatably “within the law” ways to route around the most obnoxious mission-frustrating parts of the law which impede another part of the law which tells them what they are tasked to achieve.

    There are plenty of “pincer effects” build into the system that annoy bureaucrats and this is one of them. “Protect Privacy” and “Know Everything”. Cognitive Dissonance must either be resolved (impossible) or contained through compartmentalization. The incentives to do exactly this exactly along the obscure, not-completely-consciously-aware, ways that Posner described, are irresistible.


    admin Reply:

    Your argument is quite resonant with the two cited, I think. They both think the rhetoric of escaped trade-offs is absurd (at best) and corresponds to an unavowable compensator, such as PRISM. As to the second aspect — should we positively but discreetly endorse the unavowable — well, perhaps. It heaps all the burdens resulting from the squalid hypocrisy of democracy on the security forces, who are forced to make a self-sacrificial moral judgement that society refuses even to think about in case it sullies pretty little minds and souls, but that’s the way of things.


    Handle Reply:

    1. Putting my cards on the table – I have nothing against PRISM (or anything like it) except that it’s arguably too weak. I don’t consider it to be a “bad outcome” at all, it’s a necessity no matter how unfortunate and difficult a reality that is to accept. Dark Truths people. Practically every non-Anglosphere country, including many members of the EU who consider themselves genuine and diligent adherents to the Human Rights Theology, go much, much farther that this kind of thing and are limited by nothing except budget constraints.

    2. Also, I think people are radically misunderstanding the nature of our problem, or phrased in different ways, focusing on the wrong things or buying into someone else’s frame in the way they structure “the debate”. The secondary problem is the inability to hide your communications from the government. The primary problem is the inability to openly express your honest sentiments, heretical to the Blue Orthodoxy, without totalitarian consequences, formal, informal, or otherwise.

    Consider the recent case of Marine Le Pen. This is the problem. People want privacy and secrecy because of the primary problem. What good does it do to solve the secondary problem is all it means is that we have to go dark, remain in the closet, and lurk in the shadows. If we shout “Protect my closet! How dare you threaten my shadows!”, we are acquiescing and surrendering to a state of affairs which requires shadows – which implicitly concedes the position that the standing witch-trial court in which we live is perfectly justified and appropriate. Ask yourselves which problem you would prefer to solve if you could have only one. No privacy, but true freedom of speech, or true privacy, but no ability to openly, and with real-life attribution, say what you believe? I’ll take option one in a heartbeat. Et tu?

    3. My impression is that the unavowability of the”unavowable compensator” is not so much a substantive issue (though it is for some), but a rhetorical phenomenon. Most of the managerial leftists who hysterically decry some controversial security tactic when out of power are completely nonchalant and sanguine (or even sadistically enthusiastic) about them when in power. The debate is always unwinnable when the commentariat – neither responsible nor accountable for any actual results – can always claim that X is a sinister betrayal of our values that only evil people could support.


    admin Reply:

    “No privacy, but true freedom of speech, or true privacy, but no ability to openly, and with real-life attribution, say what you believe? I’ll take option one in a heartbeat. Et tu?”
    — I’m far less sure. Option one requires a degree of trust in the dominant authorities that is hard for me even to imagine. In addition, there is something to be said for a social order that respects private liberties, whilst suppressing public ones. Who do you sympathize with more, a quiet gay couple living together discreetly, or a gay activist devoted to noisy public demonstrations that denounce the homophobia of society through orchestrated exhibitions of public obscenity? If the response to HBD research was to say: “Look, your findings are clearly rigorous and intellectually persuasive, but the public is not able to handle this kind of information, so we have to find a way to restrict its circulation”, I might not entirely approve, but I would certainly find it vastly more acceptable than the present regime, based on lies, hysterical public denunciations, and other witch-hunt methods. Protecting the right to honesty is far more important than protecting the right to publicity.

    (To wander even further off your point — Of all possible state suppressions of liberty, a blanket ban on public demonstrations is in my book the least problematic, and quite possibly a ‘good’ thing.)

    Posted on June 8th, 2013 at 4:34 pm Reply | Quote
  • Handle Says:

    @admin You make very good points. I would only make the Moldbug point hat one can’t escape the authorities forever when they can longer ignore or allow the way you are trying to do so – and note that you’d have to “trust the dominant authorities” to protect privacy or freedom of speech. Look at Liberty Reserve (NB: I accurately warned that they weren’t long for this earth a while ago on this very site on a Bitcoin thread.)

    Political winds may shift (we can only hope), but short of a new dark age technologies don’t disappear. We have crossed the Information Surveillance Rubicon and will not go back (and ought not to – we need it) so it’s back to fighting on the front of open expression.


    admin Reply:

    I’m not strenuously resisting your PRISM point — it’s compelling. In any case, I already assume the world’s competent intelligent services have access to everything (which is why the Bitcoin anonymity issue has never been a deal-breaker for me).

    “Open expression” — OK, but I’m not sure we should waste out energies defending obnoxious vociferous mobs. Maybe total freedom of expression, as long as it’s communicated in Latin? Or for a more contemporary set of global realities, classical Chinese?


    Posted on June 9th, 2013 at 3:57 pm Reply | Quote
  • Vladimir Says:


    (To wander even further off your point — Of all possible state suppressions of liberty, a blanket ban on public demonstrations is in my book the least problematic, and quite possibly a ‘good’ thing.)

    I’d go even further and completely deny that public demonstrations are an exercise of liberty in any meaningful sense. Even the most peaceful and civilized public demonstration is an attempt at the big-megaphone tactic of public discourse, where truth doesn’t matter, and the winner is the side that gets to shout down the opposition.


    admin Reply:

    You’re right — a far more coherent framework. Voice + Public space = anti-liberty.


    Posted on June 9th, 2013 at 5:42 pm Reply | Quote
  • Vladimir Says:

    Practically every non-Anglosphere country, including many members of the EU who consider themselves genuine and diligent adherents to the Human Rights Theology, go much, much farther that this kind of thing and are limited by nothing except budget constraints.

    One common misconception nowadays is that internet surveillance works the same way telephone wiretaps used to work in the past, i.e. that someone has to go out of his way to set it up, and if nobody does, the information is by default not recorded anywhere.

    In the digital era, however, quite the opposite is the case. Usually you have to go out of your way to delete information, not to collect it. If you just do things the easiest and cheapest way, logs and backups will accumulate indefinitely, and storage is so dirt-cheap that it’s usually not worth the hassle to reclaim it. So rather than having to set up surveillance actively, the government only needs to tell the internet and phone companies not to bother to destroy information, and to provide access to their logs and backups as required.

    This is not true of all information, of course. Recording the entire content of all traffic is difficult and expensive. However, the “pen register” kinds of logs, i.e. who communicated with whom, who published or accessed which online material, who engaged in which transactions, etc., certainly have this property of being easier to keep than delete. Moreover, servers are fully backed up, so by cross-referencing their backups with the aforementioned logs, the system offers enormous surveillance capabilities by default. It is simply not realistic that governments wouldn’t obtain this wealth of information about their subjects, one way or another.

    So, Handle is certainly right that Orwellian-scale surveillance by the government and large internet and telecom companies is inevitable in the digital era, and the best we can hope for are governments that just don’t care about what their subject say and write, except when engaged in genuine criminal activity. On the other hand, this is actually not that far from what we have now, especially in the U.S., and even in the rest of the Anglosphere. The real problem, for the most part, is the volunteer thought police. And while I can readily imagine a saner society where the latter would be much less frightful and stifling, I still find it hard to imagine a society that wouldn’t have at least some issues where anonymous (before the general public) speech would be the only outlet for truth and sanity. (For this reason, as well as many others, the prospect of a “transparent society” where you’d have no privacy even against ordinary persons fills me with a far worse dread than any plausible threat of government surveillance.)


    Posted on June 9th, 2013 at 6:26 pm Reply | Quote
  • neophyte-reactionary Says:

    public demonstrations are another manifestation of democracy. democracy is the problem not the solution. therefore public demonstrations have to go.


    Posted on June 9th, 2013 at 8:08 pm Reply | Quote
  • Thales Says:

    I do not believe it coincidence that PRISM rhymes with PRISON.

    The Cathedral does so love its clever little acronyms (e.g.: SWAT).


    Posted on June 9th, 2013 at 8:46 pm Reply | Quote

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