Post-Newtonian politics, or, Psychopathology and national security

A short addendum to the comment about the seemingly counter-productive tactics of the US and European security apparatus in its attack on everyone involved in the Snowden NSA-document affair. Inspired by remarks of John Quiggin, I observed that we can’t understand what is happening when we view the state as a unitary goal-directed entity. Much of what is going on now can only be interpreted as eruptions of an internal power struggle, where the security services feel threatened, and are throwing their weight around.

Talking about throwing weight around puts one in mind of celestial mechanics. Under most circumstances we can consider planets as being simple objects, a mass located at a single point, the so-called centre of mass, whose motion is defined by a single momentum vector. It is only when we look at the fine structure, long-term behaviour, or extreme events that we need to consider the internal disposition of the mass. So it is with governments, that we may incline to see as unitary objects moved by the single will of the president or prime minister. Of course, political theorists and historians know that even the most extreme dictatorship has factions and power structures that shape the master’s will.

The analogy has been applied to the philosophy of mind. Two decades ago Philosopher Daniel Dennett introduced the definition of the self as a “center of narrative gravity”. We have intuitive models of human psychology that work, like Newton’s Laws, to predict people’s behaviour without reference to their complex inner life. Thus, if I arrange to meet you at a restaurant at 6, it suffices for me to have a few high-level beliefs about you — you want to see me, you know where the restaurant is, you have a watch — to predict that you will be there at about 6. I don’t need to concern myself with your inner life, and, in fact, for me to do so would be intrusive. It is only when behaviour becomes pathological that the unitary self loses traction.

Similarly, the pathological outbursts of the security apparatus (calling them “services” suggest that they are serving someone other than themselves, which is doubtful) force us to consider the complex power relations between government institutions.

We need to turn to some unemployed old kremlinologists to understand our own governments.

Observations on the Terrorism Act 2000 [Updated]

Despite the incredibly broad powers granted to the police by the infamous section 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000, British police seem to have managed to overstepped their authority in detaining David Miranda. They don’t need any reasonable suspicion of anything, but their actions may only be directed toward determining whether the person is a terrorist.

I’m no legal expert, but I looked at the official text of the law, and found that the paragraph of the infamous schedule 7 on “power to stop, question, and detain” begins by confining the power to a single purpose

An examining officer may question a person to whom this paragraph applies for the purpose of determining whether he appears to be a person falling within section 40(1)(b).

That paragraph, defining the people subject to detention under this act:

40 1) In this Part “terrorist” means a person who—

(b)is or has been concerned in the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism.

And yet, reports on the questioning of David Miranda say that they were not directed at linking him to any acts of terrorism, past or future:

The questions, [Miranda] said, were relentless – about Greenwald, Snowden, Poitras and a host of other apparently random subjects.

“They even asked me about the protests in Brazil, why people were unhappy and who I knew in the government,” said Miranda.

Note that the law seems (to the untrained eye) extremely specific about the permissible purpose of the detention and questioning. It is only for the purpose of determining if the person is a terrorist. Will the lawbreakers be brought to justice? Do we have to ask?

[Update 20 August, 4:30 pm] Joshua Foust has argued that, while the UK interrogation of David Miranda was regrettably extensive, they were probably legal under the Terrorism Act. I think he is confused here (though certainly I may be the one who is confused) about the distinction between the right of the police to detain someone. According to the Act,

An examining officer may exercise his powers under this paragraph whether or not he has grounds for suspecting that a person falls within section 40(1)(b).

So there is no question that they had the right to detain him, since they have the right to detain anyone at all. What is at issue is their goal, as expressed in their actions during the interrogation. So, while they don’t need any reason to think the person is a terrorist, in fact don’t even need to think that they are, and could interrogate people chosen at random, they can only do so, as stated in the section of the Act quoted above, “for the purpose of determining whether he appears to be” a terrorist. Foust suggests that threatening to expose GCHQ could count as terrorism, under the portion of the definition that includes activity that “is designed seriously to interfere with or seriously to disrupt an electronic system.” That sounds pretty far-fetched to me, but it is in keeping with the pattern that we have seen, where security officials demand sweeping powers, codified in vaguely formulated laws, and then proceed to push the boundaries of even those laws and reinterpret them (secretly) beyond all recognition.

It’s a bit like firing an employee in the US: You don’t have to have any reason, but you can’t have an illegal reason. It can be because you have indigestion, or because an angel told you to fire her, or because she’s too beautiful, but it can’t be because her skin colour clashes with your wallpaper or she’s pregnant or is in a wheelchair. And evidence for your illegal reasons are not just your explanation of the firing (or lack thereof) but other comments and actions surrounding it.


The word “crypto-fascist” is one of those old-left words whose day has past. In its old meaning — a right-wing authoritarian (fascist) who conceals his true views (crypto, presumably on the uncomfortable model of crypto-Catholics) — has no currency. I propose, then, that this evocative collection of phonemes be repurposed for current circumstances, to mean

Cryptological fascism. The creeping co-optation of democratic states by the cryptographer class; the authoritarian impulse arising from the déformation professionelle of professional cryptographers.

I think that after the Cameron government decided to retaliate against the family of journalist Glenn Greenwald, either for his insolence in daring to embarrass GCHQ, or at the behest of the US for embarrassing their real masters in the NSA, there can be no question that the “someday” when government surveillance and secrecy might undermine democracy is now. Secrets inevitably corrupt human relations,. The vast industry devoted to secrets has created a society within our society that cannot but hold the rest of us in contempt, even as they claim — and probably even believe — that everything they do is for our good.  That is crypto-fascism. The impulse hasn’t changed, but the power balance has been shifted massively by new technologies.

A recent blog post by economist John Quiggin reminded me of an important perspective that is easily missed, when we talk of “the US government” or “the UK government” as though they were unitary entities. He writes

It’s hard to see what kind of power can protect the security apparatus now that it is operating, to some extent in the harsh light of day. In the Snowden matter alone, the security state has trashed relations with Russia, China, and most of Latin America, as well as gravely embarrassing its UK and EU client agencies, and yet they are further than ever from getting their man… At some point, surely this must become a political liability too costly to carry.

Much of the seemingly insane thrashing of the UK and US security apparatus is surely directed internally as much as externally. They are making their legal case and their utilitarian case to the parliamentarians, for sure, most of it behind closed doors, but they are also making their we’re-crazy-as-fuck-don’t-mess-with-us play, much of which by its nature must happen in public. (Because the foolishness wastefulness of the public display is what makes the crazy convincing. It’s the handicap principle, with clandestine agencies in the role of stotting gazelles.)

And that’s exactly the argument that I made before, the danger that Obama — convinced of his own rectitude — cannot even acknowledge: The main danger of this universal surveillance is not the way it will be used to target private citizens, though that is terrible enough (and it has already begun, in the case of David Miranda). It is the way it will be used to wage power struggles within democratic government, using private information against political opponents. The question is not if it will happen, but only when.

Papers, please!

I feel a need to sharpen the point I made here, about how the Tory need to pander in all directions at once has led them into an incoherent position we might call “the antifascism of fools“. On the one hand, we now have government agents patrolling the London underground, stopping “suspicious” people to demand they show their papers. On the other hand, the government will not actually provide people with the papers they need to show, because that would be tyranny. (They can get passports, but that costs about £80. On the other hand, deporting the poor might alleviate the shortage of affordable housing in London. I hear the Falklands are nice this time of year.)

It’s as though a government were to set up concentration camps and secret police, but run down the rail service because making the trains run on time is what fascists do. (Although, come to think of it, that’s not a bad description of recent developments in the US…)

Paradoxes of belief: Holocaust denial edition

(or, Vonnegut’s Mother Night reversed)

I’ve long thought it amazing how many odd, nearly unbelievable, individual stories are hidden in the corners of the grand ghastly narrative of the Holocaust; and no matter how many stories I read — Peter Wyden’s account of Stella Goldschlag, for instance, his Jewish schoolmate in 1930s Berlin who specialised in sniffing out undercover Jews for the Gestapo — there’s always another even stranger, such as the jewish graphic designer Cioma Schönhaus who survived the war, and saved many other lives, by learning to forge identity papers.

Holocaust denial seems to have its own bizarre corners. To wit, this new revelation:

[David Stein] a cerebral, fun-loving gadfly who hosted boozy gatherings for Hollywood’s political conservatives […] brought right-wing congressmen, celebrities, writers and entertainment industry figures together for shindigs, closed to outsiders, where they could scorn liberals and proclaim their true beliefs. That he made respected documentaries on the Holocaust added intellectual cachet and Jewish support to Stein’s cocktail of politics, irreverence and rock and roll.

[Under his original name David Cole he] was once a reviled Holocaust revisionist who questioned the existence of Nazi gas chambers. He changed identities in January 1998.

This reads like an April Fool’s prank, or a high-concept film plot from the fevered leftist imagination. The right-wing Jewish Holocaust documentary maker and fanatical Israel supporter is actually a secret neo-Nazi. Ha ha. Who would believe that? It’s not so easy to change your identity, particularly if you’ve just made yourself notorious on TV chat shows. And how would a man with no past be able to start a new career and become a political insider?

But what intrigues me most of all is when the Guardian article touches on the question of Stein/Cole’s true beliefs. One of the important lessons of modern cognitive psychology and philosophy of mind is that it is very difficult — perhaps impossible — to develop a coherent theory of beliefs, under which statements like “X believes Y” are statements of fact. (See, for example, the seminal book by Stephen Stich, that relegates beliefs — and other many other concepts — to the realm of “folk psychology”.)

Continue reading “Paradoxes of belief: Holocaust denial edition”

The educational value of Nazi propaganda

Being in Berkeley right now, I think often about Mario Savio’s famous speech, now approaching its 50th anniversary. This passage, in particular, came to my mind in regard to recent events:

Well I ask you to consider — if this is a firm, and if the Board of Regents are the Board of Directors, and if President Kerr in fact is the manager, then I tell you something — the faculty are a bunch of employees and we’re the raw material! But we’re a bunch of raw materials that don’t mean to be —  have any process upon us. Don’t mean to be made into any product! Don’t mean — Don’t mean to end up being bought by some clients of the University, be they the government, be they industry, be they organized labor, be they anyone! We’re human beings!

The news report that brought this to mind was the administrative punishment of an Albany NY teacher who assigned students to write an essay based on their reading of Nazi propaganda, in the voice of an aspirant to Nazi party membership trying to convince a superior that he understands why the “Jews are evil and the source of our problems”. I turns out that some pupils found this assignment unsettling, and unsettling the raw material impairs the quality of the marketable product. Continue reading “The educational value of Nazi propaganda”

Fascism in America

Today we have conquered the health-care insurance exclusion for pre-existing conditions. Tomorrow, Poland!
Today we have conquered the health-care insurance exclusion for pre-existing conditions. Tomorrow, Poland!
Nuremberg rally
Die NRA sind unser Unglück!

I remember many years ago when I first saw a car bumper sticker saying “First round up the guns, then round up the Jews!”, which I assumed to be suggesting that the owner disapproved of both confiscations. Just now, the “Nazi gun control” trope is all over the place: for instance, here and here and even here.
It’s weird, because this story seems to have literally zero basis in fact. I’ve read quite a few books about the Weimar Republic, the rise of Nazism, and the Third Reich, and I’ve never come across any reference to a Nazi interest on the question of private gun ownership. Sure, Jews were forbidden to have guns, but they were also forbidden from owning cats. It’s not that the Nazis feared the wrath of the Hebrew feline defenders.

The only reference I’ve come across to a nexus between Nazi ideology and private guns (as opposed to military armaments, in which they obviously had an abiding interest) is a passage in Ian Kershaw’s masterful biography of Hitler. Discussing the extraordinary thoroughness of the campaign of “Gleichschaltung” — the “coordination” of all institutions, whether large or petty, with Nazi goals and ideology — in 1933, he quotes an “activity report” from the small town of Theisenort (population about 750) in Upper Franconia:

The Veterans’ association was coordinated on 6.8.33, on 7.8.33 the Singing Association in Theisenort. With the Shooting Club in Theisenort this was not necessary, since the board and committee are up to 80 per cent party members.

So there would have been no need to round up the weapons of regime opponents, because the shooting enthusiasts were all Nazis to begin with. That doesn’t really support the whole bulwark against fascism idea. Continue reading “Fascism in America”