The Casual Blog

Tag: Ryan Lizza

Skiing in Virginia, and considering, has the NSA ended privacy as we know it?

My nephews Josh and Adam, humoring me with a short pause on Sunday

My nephews Josh and Adam, humoring me with a short pause on Sunday

Last weekend I went skiing at Massanutten Resort, near Harrisonburg,l Virginia. I thought it would be good to see my brother and nephews, and have a little ski tune up before our Colorado trip in February. The drive up on Friday night was five and a half hours through fog and rain, and the ski conditions were far from optimal, but it was still well worth it.

On Saturday the weather report was for rain, and it did rain a bit, but the snow was pretty good. It was fun skiing with my nephews, both in their twenties and fast. They decided at lunch time to go to the movies, but my brother had ski patrol duty, and I decided to keep skiing with him on the advanced slope (number 6).

He had to leave for a period, and it got very foggy, with perhaps 50 feet of visibility. It rained a little. On the first run on my own, I noted that I didn’t see a single skier on the mountain. The same was true on the second, third – and fifth. It was the better part of an hour before a few other hardy souls ventured out.

Despite the fog, I enjoyed the skiing. I focused on sensing more of the ski edges, and making smooth, graceful turns. And I enjoyed the solitude of the trips up the mountain in the chair lift.

It occurred to later, though, that my smartphone was still sending out signals of my movements. My perception of privacy has been changing with the Snowden revelations, and I suspect I’m not alone. (LOL) Is it real so bad? I think it is, and have a concrete example.

A few weeks back, I wrote an email letter to the President. The gist of it was to commend him for commuting the sentences of some non-violent drug offenders, and to recommend that he expand that effort to help more of the thousands serving lengthy prison terms for minor drug crimes. As I prepared to send the email, I paused, thinking that this communication could easily mean a new NSA or other agency file would be opened on me, with unpredictable consequences.

Paranoid? Maybe. I sent the email anyway. But I expect that many citizens, now knowing how easily they can be monitored and how committed the spy bureaucracy is to expansive monitoring, might decide that expressing a political view just isn’t worth the risk of becoming a target.

There was a good piece in the New Yorker of a few weeks back by Ryan Lizza on the history of the NSA’s domestic metadata collection program, including efforts to establish a legal basis for it. It wasn’t surprising that a spy agency would tend to conceal its work, but it was surprising that agency representatives repeatedly lied to Congress and the FISA (special secret programs) court.

It raises the question, is this agency unconstrained by law? I expect most people involved in massive electronic surveillance are patriotic and well-intentioned, and not personally seeking world domination. But what if an agency with effectively unlimited resources and powers came within the control of a megalomaniac sociopath?Impossible? Remember J. Edgar Hoover?

If we’re lucky, we won’t become a police state in the Big Brother sense. But just knowing we’re subject to constant surveillance will probably change us. The interesting question is how much.

If the government forbade curtains on windows, we’d quit doing certain things within sight lines of the street. Maybe, without much discussion, we’ll get more guarded or stop discussing controversial topics using our electronic devices. Once that habit develops, it could extend to our face-to-face exchanges, or even our interior monologues. It wouldn’t happen all at once, but little by little. We might not even notice the change.

The justification for the government’s massive technology surveillance programs, of course, is prevention of terrorism. It’s hard to argue with that, since anything that grows the database of human activity could also increase information about terrorism. But is it possible that we’ve gone a little overboard with this fear-of-terrorism thing? Does it remind you a little of people preparing to end the world as we know with a nuclear conflagration it to prevent a takeover by communism?

There was a very interesting piece in Slate last week on the national hysteria over alleged sexual abuse and Satanic rituals in preschools back in the 80s. There were several of these cases in which little children testified that their preschool teachers molested them and also engaged in ritual murders and other bizarre and horrifying conduct.

Based almost exclusively on the testimony of the children, juries sent a number of these teachers to jail for lengthy terms. It slowly emerged that the abuse stories were fabrications produced by so-called therapists who essentially planted false memories in the children’s heads. Most of the teacher-victims eventually were freed.

In retrospect, the children’s stories seem way too bizarre to be believed – yet most of us believed. It’s a reminder of how our powers of reason and critical thinking are limited, and how they can be overwhelmed and defeated by sensational media and groupthink.

P.S. Needless to say, I paused again before publishing this post. But I think the danger of silence and retreat from dialog is even greater than the danger of surveillance run amok.

Post-Enlightenment thinking and Michelle Bachmann

Is there any question that science, logic, and reason are excellent tools for problem solving? OK, these systems aren’t perfect, and they don’t apply to every problem. But can any thoughtful person fail to recognize their power to transform civilization and improve lives?

The answer is yes. Some people rely primarily on myth and magic as thought systems. But I normally think of these people as a not-very-significant minority. It may be, though, that that minority is getting more significant.

A column in the NY Times today by Neal Gabler posits that we live in a post-Enlightenment society that has gone backward intellectually to a method that does not employ rational thought. Gabler takes this as settled, and argues that it’s even worse: that we are moving into a post-idea world, where thinking is simply no longer done. Instead, we exchange undigested facts. As evidence, he cites social media such as Twitter and Facebook.

I’m not persuaded that social media is killing ideas, or even that the post-Enlightenment has arrived. But anti-rationalism is alive and well. Exhibit A: Michelle Bachmann. Yesterday Bachmann won the Iowa straw poll. In this week’s New Yorker, Ryan Lizza discusses the ideas that shaped her thinking.

Bachmann comes out of a tradition that believes the Bible is the literal, infallible, and unerring word of God. She claims to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and believes that he controls her life. She’s also been influenced by various fundamentalist thinkers who have some disturbing notions, including a revisionist view of slavery that holds that it was not all that bad.

It strikes me as implausible that Bachmann could be a serious contender for the presidency, but her style of thinking is having an impact on public policy. It’s hard to understand how the Tea Partiers could refuse to discuss the issue of tax rates, and be prepared to insist on this point at the cost of economic catastrophe. But if you believe that your ideas are coming directly from God, how could you question them? Why would you care to listen to opposing views? Why would you consider compromise? Thus usually harmless nonsensical beliefs become dangerous.