Ten Years On

I’m going to write about something I’ve never really written about before.

I had just moved back to Las Vegas, to my parents’ house, after a disastrous stint in Seattle. I had ended up homeless up there as a result of a lot of bad craziness, most of it mine. I’d ended up sitting in a place called Café Minnie on Broadway in Capitol Hill, eating a bowl of soup the kind night manager had given me for free, and I’d decided that if I could just get out of this I’d never end up in this situation again.

(And I didn’t. Mostly.)

I’d only been back for a few days. I’d been sleeping on an old futon mattress on the floor of my parents’ storage room, and I’d been having fitful, frightened dreams. But if I dreamed the night of September 10th, 2001, I do not remember it. I only remember waking up early the next morning to my mother, banging loudly on my door.

I had a headache, I remember that; the banging pulled me out of sleep disoriented and confused in the dark; I hadn’t been back long enough to entirely realize where I was. My mom opened the door.

“Someone flew a plane into the World Trade Center. We’re under attack.”

“What?” I mumbled. It was hard to process what she said. “Come watch the news,” she said, and vanished from the door. I shook my head. Someone what? How was that an attack? I thought she meant somebody’d flown a small plane into the ground at the WTC, something like that.

I walked out of my room into the living room, where my parents had CNN on. My dad was home from work that morning for some reason, and I sat down and looked at the footage — a pillar of smoke rising from the side of the tower.

“What do you mean, under attack?” I asked her. “It’s just a plane crash.”

“They’re saying it was deliberate,” she said. My mom looked really frightened. But I still wasn’t fully awake, didn’t fully comprehend what I was seeing–

And then I watched as the second plane hit the second tower.

It was the first and only time in my life that shock took the strength from my legs. I fell against the wall and slid down it. In that moment, I knew — I knew — that things had changed.

I had the strongest and strangest sensation I’ve ever felt in my life: that I’d fallen asleep in one universe and woken up in a parallel reality, one where people flew planes into buildings. I kept thinking I was going to wake up — again, a cliche of fiction that I’d never actually experienced, and never have since. This wasn’t real. This wasn’t real. It wasn’t real when I saw people jumping from the buildings, something that will haunt me until the day I die. That choice: the fire or the drop? The Pentagon. The collapse of the buildings, all those people running down the street to escape that great cloud of dust and ash, their screams so loud it made the microphones on the TV cameras clip and distort. It wasn’t real.

Do you remember that day? Were you still in school, then? Were you already an adult? You remember where you were. Sure you do. Everybody remembers where they were on September 11th, 2001, the way people of my generation remember where they were on January 28th, 1985, the way my mother’s generation remembers where they were when John and Robert Kennedy were shot, Martin Luther King, John Lennon. You don’t forget because these are the days when the world changed, or at least our understanding of how it worked.

If you remember that day, you remember that most Americans had no idea what was going on. We didn’t know if this was the beginning of a larger coordinated attack. The people on the news — most of whom, I remember, were in tears at this point — said that nobody knew what the next target was. The Pentagon had been hit, but there was talk of Los Angeles, the Sears Tower…the Stratosphere in Las Vegas.

At the time, I was writing for the Las Vegas Mercury, an alt-weekly which has since gone extinct. I didn’t have a car and I didn’t have a cell phone, but I knew I had to find out what was going on. So I borrowed my mother’s cell and hopped on a bus to the Strip.

I got off at the corner of Sahara and Las Vegas Boulevard, in the shadow of the Stratosphere. I expected to see panic, cops, maybe military vehicles in the street. Instead, I saw a regular day in Vegas: tourists walking up and down with their Yards O’ Beer as if nothing had happened. It made no sense to me at all — didn’t these people know what had happened?

I crossed the street and headed for the Stratosphere, expecting it to be blocked off. It wasn’t. What the fuck? The news kept saying Vegas was a target, and the Stratosphere was easily the highest profile target in the city. But the doors were open, taxis were pulling up, people were milling in and out.

It didn’t occur to me until later that most of these people — out and about on vacation, playing slots in casinos where even the outside light was carefully filtered, much less news about the outside world — probably really didn’t know yet what had happened.

But I did, and so I did something which I like to think of as being reasonably brave and which was probably simple, base stupidity on my part: I walked into the Stratosphere.

It may have seemed business as usual from the outside, but on the inside there were FBI SWAT types in paramilitary uniforms cordoning off the entrance to the tower itself. (If you’re not familiar; the Stratosphere Hotel/Casino lies directly underneath the Stratosphere tower itself. It’s as if you built the Seattle Space Needle on top of a Hilton.) It was scary to see guys with M-16s in a casino. And yet, astoundingly, most of the people at the machines weren’t even looking at them. They were still playing their slots. There were a few gawkers, but not many. I think most people were afraid to lose their seat, or didn’t want to cash out their credit on the machines.

I wasn’t wearing a press badge. I was probably in jeans and a t-shirt; I looked like any other tourist. And so I didn’t stand out to the two men engaged in intense conversation near me — one in a suit, one in paramilitary gear. I don’t know for sure, but my guess is that the guy in the suit was a Stratosphere floor manager and the guy in the jumpsuit was some kind of supervising FBI officer.

It’s been ten years since I surreptitiously listened to that conversation, and I didn’t record it; but the gist was that Mr. FBI was telling Mr. Stratosphere that he needed to get all of these people out of here, like right now, and Mr. Stratosphere was explaining that he couldn’t do it. People wouldn’t get up and leave their credits on their slot machines and their chips on the table. After this exchange, the two of them drifted away, and I watched the other guys in jumpsuits going up the stairs to the tower elevators with their guns drawn. They were clearly on edge.

I honestly believed — and, in retrospect, had every right to believe — that at any moment a plane might go into that tower or a bomb might go off, bringing the entire 1150 foot thing down onto the Strip below. I don’t think I was ever quite so terrified in my life. But fuck it, right? I had to know.

But nothing happened. No bombs went off, no planes came crashing in. After a while I wandered off down the Strip to try and get a sense of what was going on.

As I walked, I went up to random tourists and told them what had happened — that the World Trade Center had been destroyed by hijacked planes, that there was a strong possibility the country was under attack by an unknown enemy.

Most of them didn’t give a shit. I remember one couple said “Well, that’s terrible, but we’re here to have fun.” People didn’t know and didn’t care even when they found out. It surprised me back then; it wouldn’t surprise me now.

The only tourists I saw who seemed to really get what was happening was an old Scottish couple who had actually been watching CNN in their room. They told me that they were stuck in Vegas, as all the flights had been grounded. Of course, as I learned later, they weren’t the only ones; thousands of people were stuck in Vegas for several days, most of them past the end of their hotel reservations, and the hotels had no choice but to give them free rooms.

I walked the whole length of the Strip that day, and watched the news coverage into the night. The next day, September 12th, I went to Cafe Roma and sat with my friends watching more news on a small portable TV. That night I went to my friend Heather’s apartment and stood on the balcony with my friends and saw something I’d never seen before and, in all likelihood, will never see again: an American sky without a single airplane in it. The world was silent that night.

Ten years, man. Ten years in this other world, this other timeline. I still feel like there’s a world where 9/11 never happened, just on the other side of reality’s thin canvas; a world where Bush never won a second term, where the vicious excesses of the Noughties never happened. Or maybe they would have happened in a different way. Maybe they were inevitable. But the hopeful part of me thinks not; hopes that the bad craziness, the greed and paranoia of the last decade, was a reaction to the horror that properly kicked it off.

I still remember how it felt to stand in that casino surrounded by the flashing lights and chirping of the slot machines and be aware, in every cell of my body, that I might be standing in an execution chamber. It sounds dramatic in retrospect, but it didn’t feel dramatic at the time. If nothing else seemed real that day, that feeling of death rushing at me like a freight train felt real enough.

And maybe I wasn’t so wrong, at that.

Five of the nineteen hijackers were in Vegas before the attacks; in point of fact, they used Cyberzone, the cybercafe above my hangout Cafe Roma, as their base of communications. I know I must’ve sat next to them in Roma or Cyberzone, maybe said hi to them in passing. My friends certainly did; in the week after the attacks, the FBI swarmed Roma and took accounts from several people.

Ironically, at the time, most of my friends used Cyberzone to play multi-player games of Counterstrike; when you walked in there, amidst the digitized sounds of machine gun fire, you’d hear a voice announce whenever a round had ended: The terrorists have won. The terrorists have won.

I am convinced and have been since that day that their presence in Vegas wasn’t random or coincidental. And based on what I saw in the Stratosphere that day, I’ve always thought there was a fair-to-middling chance that the Feds found something up in that tower, and kept it quiet. Vegas relies on tourism, after all…and if tourists thought that jihadis were putting bombs in the casinos, this town would die a quick and excruciating death.

I don’t know. I don’t have any proof. And it doesn’t matter, ten years down the road, I guess. Trying to sort out the truth and the lies of 9/11 is a Herculean process that will engage historians for a hundred years. I don’t care about any of it, anymore.

When I think of 9/11 now, I think of the people jumping. That’s what I remember. Because I can’t imagine making that choice. No, that’s not true, that’s not why I’m haunted; I’m haunted because I can imagine making it. And now, at 33, I can imagine it a lot better than I could at 23. I know more about death now. If 9/11 happened today, when I am a married man, when I have seen people die in front of me with my own eyes, I wouldn’t have gone into that casino. I would be too afraid.

And I’m lying, a bit here: the other memory I have of 9/11, the better memory, is of the days afterward, when we all seemed to pull together. I remember that feeling that, for once, we were all in this together, every American. It didn’t last — and as history has shown, it wasn’t really true even at the time — but it felt true. It felt real. It was hope in a dark moment, and it was important.

This week people are going to be waving the flag and the signs that say NEVER FORGET; as if we who lived through that day need those signs, as if we would or could forget it. We all live in the shadows of the Twin Towers now. Every time another American soldier falls in Iraq or Afghanistan, every time a bitter young man whose family died in our occupation slips into his first jihadi meeting, every time another one of our core freedoms is eroded in the name of some notional security, we are in that shadow, and I wonder how long it will be before we can ever get free.

And so, ten years on, the memory of 9/11 I choose to cling to is the memory of that togetherness. In the end, when foolish wars and dollar diplomacy fail, it is that and nothing else which may ultimately save us from the dark.


An Open Letter to Rep. Shelley Berkley

Dear Representative Berkley,

My name is Joshua Ellis. I’m a writer and web developer from Las Vegas. You may or may not know who I am — I was a opinion columnist for many years for the Las Vegas CityLife and I’m also somewhat well-known for co-authoring a series of articles about the homeless people living in the storm drains under Las Vegas.

I’m writing you because I understand that the current budget proposal submitted by the Republican factions in Congress which completely removes the $430 million budget for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which funds National Public Radio (NPR) and the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) network of television channels.

Representative Berkley, I sincerely hope you agree with me that this is a deeply disturbing and ludicrous proposal. The value of NPR and PBS in both childhood and adult education is immeasurable; I imagine that like me and my wife and my five-year-old sister, your children grew up learning about the world via the irreplaceable magic of TV series like Sesame Street and The Electric Company; and perhaps your family, like mine, enjoy and benefit from programs like Nova and the late Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, as well as radio programs like This American Life and All Things Considered.

NPR and PBS serve an important role in American media: by being funded by the people — unlike commercial media outlets — they are not subject to the whims of advertisers or subscribers. (While it is true that corporations and other commercial outlets often sponsor NPR and PBS programming, it is my understanding that they have no editorial say over that programming.) By removing public funding, CPB will become simply another television network like ABC or CBS, controlled by the people who hold the purse strings…or, even worse, it will simply be commercially unviable and cease programming altogether. That, I believe, would be a terribly tragedy for the American people.

Fiscal conservatives often quote President Coolidge’s statement that the business of government is business. I disagree. The government of the United States is not a widget factory or a retail outlet, despite every attempt by PACs and SIGs to the contrary. The business of the government is to serve the needs of the citizens — all of the citizens, not merely the ones who write the biggest checks.

I’m sure you’ll agree with me, Representative Berkley, that it is not your job to turn a profit. You are not some shabby little accountant. Your job is to do what’s best for the people of your district and, in a broader sense, the American people in general. Part of that, I believe, is recognizing that there are certain things that the federal government puts money into with no expectation of a monetary return on investment. When it comes to public media, the return on investment can be measured by looking at the face of every man, woman and child whose world is expanded by the programming therein.

When children watch commercial programming, they learn that the most important thing in the world is to buy whatever toy the network is hawking during this particular half-hour, that it’s important to pay lip-service to individuality, but that it’s more important to conform. They are taught to be nothing more than good consumers.

When children watch Sesame Street and other public media programming, they learn to count, to use their language, to think critically, to share with others, to value peace and comfort, that people who look and speak differently than they do are friends, not enemies. They learn that the world is a huge and amazing place, and they learn that they are capable of doing whatever they dream of in that world.

In that sense, our investment in public media is really an investment in our future; in building a future America that is not full of bright, capable, curious, pro-active citizens.

It is, in other words, priceless.

And so I hope, Representative Berkeley that you will vote against the cutting of public media funding from this new budget. (Not to mention the cutting of library and educational funding, of course, but I don’t feel that’s even worth discussing; any representative of the people who believes in reducing library funding is a dangerous scoundrel.)

By doing so, you will display that you possess much farther vision than many of your peers; you will be making an investment that will pay off millions of times over in the long term of America’s future. And you will be, as the theme to The Electric Company used to say when I was a kid, helping to bring the power to the people who desperately need it.

Thank you for your time.

All my best,Joshua Ellis


More Wikileaks thinking

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the whole Wikileaks thing these past few weeks, like a lot of people who belong to my particular sub-set of the human population. (First World, technology-oriented, somewhat politically minded. White as a goddamn ghost.)

I’m massively ambiguous about the whole affair, which has earned me my fair share of sneering and disbelieving virtual glares from my friends and fellow travelers. (I use that term in the most ironic way possible.) My own ambiguity surprises me, because in theory this is the sort of thing I’ve been wanting to see happen for most of my life. I’ve always been a card-carrying dyed-in-the-wool cyberpunk type; even though I’ve disagreed with the EFF on issues involving digital music, I support them with all my heart (and occasionally, when I can afford it, my wallet). Transparency in government is something I’m a fervent believer in.

So why does this whole thing make me uneasy?

I think it’s tied into a lot of the reservations I’ve been feeling, for a long time now, about the hacker culture in general. Not the “get excited and write code” part of hacker culture, which I find deeply meaningful and valuable to humanity as a whole, even if some of the participants can be deeply tedious party guests. But there’s also a flip side to the cleverness and ingenuity of hacker culture; a deep arrogance and near-sociopathology.

In America at least, there’s a big crossover between the hacker and libertarian communities. Though I was at one point in my late teens registered as a libertarian — mainly because they were the political party least likely to send me irritating snail mail — I’ve come to have a deep distaste for libertarianism. These days, I tend to believe that European Union-style socialist democracy is probably the most humane economic and political system we’ve got. I might be wrong on that…but I don’t believe that American capitalism works, and I’ve come to abhor the notion of a world ruled entirely by capitalism, oligarchy and the Grim Meathook Future of a totally free market.

A lot of hackers I know personally are basically heavy libertarian types. They hate the government, they hate taxes. They’re smart and very capable of taking care of themselves and don’t have a lot of time for people who don’t. They seem to apply the same sneering contempt to poor people that they do to clueless Windows users; it’s that same sense of superiority to those who haven’t figured out how to hack the system. Most of them are only political in as far as privacy and tax issues are concerned. I’m not saying all hackers are like this…but this archetype certainly covers a fair number of the ones I know, and I know quite a lot of them.

(Even though I write code professionally, I don’t consider myself a hacker, because I’m not interested in code or systems or exploits for their own sake. There’s not really a name for what I am — somebody who thinks about lots of different things and then talks about them or tries to make them happen in a variety of media. “Dilettante” is probably le mot juste.)

Another trait of a lot of hackers I know is an unwillingness to concern themselves with the long-term ramifications of what they do. Their primary motivation is boredom and a desire to be very clever. Which is a great motivator for smart people…but when you’ve got the keys (or lock picks) to a lot of kingdoms, a lack of foresight can cause some very serious problems in the real world. Being capable of hacking into credit card companies and getting millions of card numbers and personal identification information for people is a really cool skill…but putting it out into the world can cause some really serious harm to people who, unlike the credit card companies, don’t even deserve it in theory.

The Gawker thing is a perfect example. When Anonymous (or whatever subset of Anonymous) hacked into Gawker and put the user logins and passwords up for display, the first people who dived for that information were spammers, who used it to log into people’s Facebook accounts and email and send massive amounts of penis enlargement spam and other weird nonsense — for their own monetary gain, of course. (Happened to me, which is why I’m never, ever going to comment on a blog again.) It was an inconvenience at worst, but the point remains: the collateral damage wasn’t done to Gawker, it was done to people whose chief crime was wanting to respond to a post about the Doctor Who Christmas special or to tell other like-minded people what their favorite note-taking app for the iPhone was.

That complete lack of interest in the damage inflicted upon innocent bystanders is psychopathic. It’s putting one’s own political or personal ideology, or simple desire to feel like God, above the well-being of others. It is, in fact, precisely the sort of thing that people despise about corporations and governments in the first place.

But most of the hackers I know winked and tut-tutted at the whole thing, or the Anonymous attacks on Visa and MasterCard and Paypal. Because, really, anybody stupid enough to use the same password for all their accounts — or to use credit or debit or online payment systems — really deserved what they got, right?

The same way a woman who’s assaulted while walking down the street dressed provocatively deserves what she gets, for being so stupid, right?

Which brings us back to Wikileaks, in a roundabout way. The debate over the sexual assault case against Julian Assange has become incredibly tedious to me. I don’t know if he raped or assaulted those two women, and neither do you. I do find the reaction of the Swedish authorities and Interpol to be a bit unlikely, at the very least: I can’t think of any other occasion when Interpol put an APB out on someone accused — not convicted — of sexual assault. Whether the charges were politically motivated or not, the response very obviously is.

But as for the charges themselves, I care as much as I care about any other investigation into assault charges involving people I don’t know, which is not a whole hell of a lot. Sorry. If it happened the way the women say it did, Assange needs to answer for it. If not, he should walk. That’s the level of my concern and care now. The hysteria on every side of that debate (feminist, anti-feminist, conspiracist) has just become horrible noise.

For the record, here’s what I believe about Wikileaks:

1) I don’t think they’re journalists, in the traditional sense. There’s no journalism going on; just massive data dumping. Redacting things isn’t the same as verifying material, putting it into perspective; all the things traditional journalists would do. (Snarky prick alert: Nor do I think that traditional journalism is just “Old Media” and totally lame and the past, and that Wikileaks is the “new way” and totally awesome and the future, and if you do I don’t care, because I’ve walked every side of that particular fence and I know every inch of it by feel and smell and I doubt you do, so be quiet. That debate is deeply nuanced and it’s not played out yet.)

2) I absolutely, utterly, completely believe that the American government has no right to prosecute Julian Assange or to attack Wikileaks in any way. He’s not an American citizen and he does not fall under American jurisdiction. Even if he was, it’s fairly clear he would fall under First Amendment and whistleblower protection, the same way that Daniel Ellsberg was when he gave out the Pentagon Papers. It would also be a grievous moral act on my government’s part…not that anybody seems to care about that anymore.

3) I believe that what Wikileaks has done with the Afghanistan information and with these diplomatic cables is not going to make the American government more transparent in its dealings with its citizens or with other nations. It’s going to have the opposite effect: it’s going to make people who are already paranoid about information leakage a lot more paranoid. And I don’t like the idea of hyper-paranoid people with their finger on the metaphorical button or buttons.

4) I don’t believe that Assange gave one nimble rat’s fuck about the collateral damage he might cause by releasing this information, any more than the Anonymous hackers who’ve been hacking into things in his name did about the damage they might cause. Assange strikes me as a rather archetypal sociopathic black-hat hacker type. I’ve debated other people who are involved in Wikileaks, and it’s my impression that several of them are precisely the kind of libertarian hackers I’ve been talking about; from everything I’ve seen, so is Assange. I could be wrong about that, but based on the evidence I’ve seen, that’s my guess.

I’m also bemused by the sheer hypocrisy that is being shown by every player in this affair. Assange wants transparency but gets outraged when somebody leaks details of his sexual assault case to the Guardian; Anonymous wants to tear down the walls of the secret-keepers, but do so from behind their own obscuring wall of anonymity; the hacker community that is so vocally supporting Assange’s attack upon secrecy are the same people who routinely also bitch about the government spying on them and searching them at airports and trying to make them, as private citizens and as business operators, pay their full share of taxes. I’m a big believer in consistency of thought and action: you can’t have it both ways, kids. You want an end to secrecy, fine; but that means your secrets can be spilled too.

Do I ultimately think Wikileaks is a good thing? Yes. And no. Both. Either way, I think it’s a Pandora’s box that has been irrevocably opened. Things are going to change because of this; the whole notion of privacy and secrecy is going to be turned upside down, not just for governments but for all of us. I also think this is the beginning of a new era of net warfare, played out between governments and NGOs and groups that don’t even have memberships or know who they themselves are, like Anonymous. I think the main outcome is going to be that living online is going to get a whole lot more irritating.

And I’d like to believe that, just like with the mythical Pandora’s box, hope still lies somewhere at the bottom of all of this.

(For further reading, Big Bruce Sterling‘s thoughts on all this.)


Wikileaks thoughts

Something occurred to me today; or rather, it’s been bubbling up in my subconscious for a while and finally came to the surface. I wonder why I haven’t ever heard anyone else mention this in public. (Maybe they have; I haven’t seen it.)

It occurred to me that if I were working in either the governmental or private intelligence communities, Wikileaks would seem to me to be a remarkably useful tool for playing infowar games.

Wikileaks is a totally independent quasi-organization that will publish any significant leaked information packages they receive, without naming the source, so long as (presumably) the information can be verified to be accurate. Correct?

Now: everyone assumes Bradley Manning is the source for the Cablegate documents, but nobody’s confirmed or denied this, and it wouldn’t really matter if they had. I find it hard to believe Manning could have gotten access to those (non-military) documents and compiled them without nobody noticing, but then, maybe the people who run security for the government really are that stupid.

But let’s imagine another alternative: let’s say you run intel for a large government. Say China, because the Chinese government is very interested in information warfare. Let’s say you managed to get your hands on these diplomatic cables.

As intel, they’re nearly worthless, as Umberto Eco points out. Nothing of any real value. A mess o’ pottage.

But wait. What if I were to leak this hunk of useless shit to Julian Assange? Carefully edited to remove anything we don’t like, of course, and leaving in anything we want to use to send a message. (Like that we’re engaging in unofficial attacks on one of the US’s major info hubs. Google assuredly knew this was happening, but didn’t say anything. Terrorism, by definition, is the act of instilling fear in people for political gain. Think about it.)

I can submit it anonymously or create a false identity to reach out to Wikileaks. Either way, it won’t be traced back to me by the public because Wikileaks has a vested interest in maintaining trust with potential whistleblowers. Wikileaks is a non-governmental group, which is in fact condemned by a number of major governments, whose stated goal is transparency and accountability. So nobody’s going to suspect I’m using them as a cat’s-paw.

If Wikileaks attempts to verify the information with the US government (officially or surreptitiously) they’ll discover that it does indeed stand up, because most of it is quite legitimate, and it seems unlikely that Wikileaks has a way of checking the integrity of each document in the whole big mess.

I know that people will pore over it; eventually they’ll find whatever it was I wanted them to find, and trumpet it to the world. And it can’t ever be traced back to me or the government that employs me.

Meanwhile, I drop a few grand in the Wikileaks PayPal account just to keep things running smoothly.

I’m not saying this is what happened with the Cablegate documents. But does it really sound impossible or even unlikely? The very nature of what Wikileaks does means that there’s no transparency in their sourcing of information. If I did work in intelligence, I’d be working on ways to use that to my advantage. I mean, Assange says he’s going to drop info on a major US bank next. Fine, but which one? Who gave him the information? Who stands to benefit from Wikileaks exposure?

I don’t actually doubt Assange’s sincerity or his motives, really. But that doesn’t mean his sources are pure or altruistic. And if somebody smart enough wanted to use Wikileaks as a tool for governmental or corporate skullduggery, I don’t see what, in theory, would prevent them.

Just a thought.


Shine A Light

Yesterday, Thanksgiving morning, I went down into the storm drains beneath Las Vegas with Matt O’Brien, my wife and some other friends to deliver food and supplies to the homeless people who live beneath this city. Eight years ago, Matt and I wrote a series of articles in the Las Vegas CityLife about the storm drains and the people who live in them. We got a lot of coverage for it — the early 21st century version of retweets — and were nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. (Your publisher nominates you, so it’s not that big of a deal, but it was still pretty cool.) Matt went on to continue exploring the drains, ultimately writing a book about his experiences, Beneath The Neon. I went off to start a dot.com. Though I’ve been down in the drains a few times since, Matt was the one who really kept involved with the situation and the lives of the people down below. He even founded a community project, Shine A Light, to help people get out of the darkness and into recovery programs and housing. A lot has changed since I was last down there. For one thing, there are a lot more people than there were before (though nowhere near the 700+ that Britain’s The Sun suggests). And the people who are down there seem to have made the transition from crashers to squatters; several of them had incredibly organized and elaborate “houses”. The drains are beginning to look less like a place to doss down for a few nights or a week, and more like a Sterlingian interstitial favela. The very existence of these subterranean temporary autonomous zones is a quirk of Las Vegas’s uniquely Manichean climate and geography: it’s either bone-dry or flooding here at any given time. The fact that it’s mostly the former is why people can take up semi-permanent residence in the storm drains here. They’re almost always dry, except when they’re not…and if you’re in them when a wall of water comes rushing down out of the western mountains, you’re probably dead. This is both heartening and disturbing. Heartening in the sense that these people are establishing some sort of equilibrium for themselves, no matter how ephemeral or transitory; a couple of folks mentioned losing all their mostly dumpster-obtained possessions when floods came through. But it’s also disturbing in the sense that eight years after Matt and I alerted the world to the problem, storm drains are still serving as a substitute for homeless shelters in Las Vegas. The official treatment of the homeless by Las Vegas and Clark County is reprehensible, bordering in some cases on outright human rights violations. Mayor Oscar Goodman made the national news by attempting several years ago to make it illegal to give food to homeless people. This was after he made the statement publicly that Las Vegas “has no homeless problem”, a statement which any resident or off-Strip visitor to the city can tell you is ludicrous, bordering on the surreal. I can’t find the exact numbers at the moment, but a few years ago I saw a statistic which suggested that less than 1% of Clark County’s budget went to social services. This wouldn’t surprise any Las Vegas residents. The streets (and the tunnels beneath them) are full of walking wounded, human casualties of addiction and mental illness, not to mention people who simply fell through the cracks of an increasingly depressed local economy. Several months ago, I was having a conversation with an acquaintance who told me that “80% of the homeless are addicts” and that most of them don’t want help — that the services are there if they want them. In the case of social services, this is simply and demonstrably untrue: both public and private services for the homeless and for addicts here are criminally underfunded. More than one of the people I met in the drains yesterday told me they were on waiting lists for housing and treatment programs, sometimes for months. And when you live in a concrete cave under a city, you may not have months to wait on help. But more to the point, I think, this is an example of a deeper, underlying attitude I see again and again in Las Vegas: a profound and distressing lack of empathy for those in need. Put another way: this is a mean-ass town. If Las Vegas has a spiritus urbus, it’s psychopathic. Yes, a great percentage, maybe even the majority of homeless people are addicts. So what? Las Vegas is a city of addiction. I’d personally guess the rate of alcoholism in the city runs about 10%, maybe higher, most of it undiagnosed or treated. (That includes, ironically, the acquaintance who was railing about homeless addicts.) Even more are hooked on illicitly-obtained prescription pills. And God only knows how many gambling addicts manage to keep their addiction in just enough check to keep a roof over their heads. This is a city that subtly and not-so-subtly celebrates alcohol culture, cocaine culture, speed culture. Goodman himself is a notorious public drunk who once told an audience of schoolchildren that if he only had one thing to take to a desert island, he’d bring a bottle of Bombay Sapphire gin. Apparently it’s okay to be a drunk or a crackhead or a junkie in Las Vegas, so long as you can hold your shit. Lose your handle on your own vices and you aren’t worth saving. The people beneath Las Vegas’s neon can’t rely on the city or the county or the state to help them, and they don’t seem to be able to rely on the goodwill of their fellow citizens; most Las Vegans don’t know they’re down there and most of the ones who do wouldn’t piss on them if they were on fire. And their numbers seem to be slowly, steadily growing. These people live in the cold, in the dark, in shit-smelling tunnels where no light shines, like fucking rats. That’s not acceptable. Matt’s working a lot with Help of Southern Nevada to help people get out of the drains and back into the world. I’m working on ideas for how to raise money for HOSN to give them more opportunity to help the people in the drains, and I’ll post more on that as I come up with viable notions. In the meantime, throw your spare holiday change at HOSN, even if you don’t live in Las Vegas. Help them help the people who cannot help themselves. Help them shine a light in the darkness.


Finding Common Ground.

I was much inspired by Jon Stewart’s speech at the Rally to Restore Sanity, which I only got around to seeing today. (I had planned to attend the local Vegas edition, but I was busy getting ready to be married the next day, which is a valid excuse.)

I was particularly struck by one thing that Stewart said: “We live now in hard times, not end times.” It’s often hard to remember that. One of the side effects of being fascinated by the history of religion is that you become aware that Westerners have believed that they were living at the end of the world pretty much since the time of Constantine. It has always been a part of Christian eschatology, and as such has pervaded Western culture for almost two thousand years, a strange sort of collective cognitive bias. (I have never gotten the impression that this is part of any other major religion’s established worldview, though it obviously forms the basis of lots of crazypants cults and such.)

The reason it always seems that things are getting worse is because humans tend to have a built-in idea that “change” = “bad”. We establish our foundation of how things are in our childhood; as we age, we see that foundation challenged day by day. Radio becomes movies becomes television becomes the Web becomes Twitter. Colored becomes Negro becomes Afro-American becomes African-American becomes person of color. Gay stops meaning “happy”. America stops being the happiest place on Earth to live. Greed becomes good, then bad, then good again.

But change, as the very most fundamental laws of physics tell us, is inevitable and indeed constant, from the atomic level all the way up to the structure of the universe itself. Change is the Terminator; you can’t argue with it, can’t reason with it…except unlike the Terminator, change doesn’t stop when you’re dead. The world keeps turning.

Fighting change is a Sisyphean task at best; at worst, it can be an act of atrocity. Part of my dislike of conservativism of any stripe is the underlying principle of trying to keep things the way they were. In the case of American conservatism, this is usually predicated by a desire to return to a notional “happier, simpler time”. The fact that such a time never really existed, of course, doesn’t stop people from imagining it to be a worthy goal. A lot of white middle-class Americans believe that the 1950s and early 1960s were a utopian era; and maybe they were, for white heteronormative middle-class Americans. It wasn’t a lot of fun to be black in 1952 in America, or an independent female, or queer, or mentally challenged, or mentally ill,or physically challenged, or atheist. In fact, for anybody who wasn’t getting their picture painted by Norman Rockwell, life in America pretty much sucked.

Not that it’s perfect now, but over the last forty years at least we’ve started to understand that the way we lived and the assumptions we made back then — what we defined as “normal” and “healthy” and “right” — were not absolutes, that in fact in a lot of ways we were kind of barbaric assholes. We’ve confronted racism and bigotry and hatred head-on, and seen them for what they are.

Not all of us, of course. There are still many Americans who believe that homosexuality is a sin, that atheists are incapable of morality, that Hispanics are trying to undermine America by sneaking over the border to take American jobs and abuse the privileges of American citizenship. There are people who believe that marijuana is more dangerous than alcohol, that Muslims hate freedom, that the President is secretly a resident alien who is bound and determined to take everything away from them — their guns, their money, their freedom, and their God.

But I believe that Stewart is essentially right: these people make up a small but vocal minority. Most Americans are just people, with a tapestry woven of convictions and indifferences. Sure, there are people who want to build concentration camps for the friends of Dorothy; there are people who would like to see the Bible banned not only from schools but from private houses. But not many, and the wonderful thing about a society whose first and foremost principle is free speech is that these people are allowed to speak loud and long…which means we know where they are.

There are many things that I disagree with conservatives about, vehemently. I believe that human rights are universal. I believe in gay marriage and transgender marriage and what they used to call miscegenation. I believe that all Americans have the right to be happy in whatever way makes them happy, so long as that happiness does not directly interfere with the rights of others to the same thing. I believe in the rights of sex workers. I believe in the legalization and taxation of drugs. I am an atheist, and I believe that it is wrong to teach religious mythology about the nature of the universe and biology in schools as equal and viable alternatives to scientifically based theories. But I am not in favor of censoring such beliefs, or attempting to prevent people from having those beliefs, or adhering to them as moral values.

The problem is that nothing is that simple. Fundamentalist Christianity and Islam teach that certain widespread human behaviors, such as homosexuality or independent thought in women or the use of certain chemicals, are contrary to the moral intent of the creator of the universe. How do we square that with the belief that everyone is equal, that it’s okay to love whomever you choose so long as they are of legal age to love you back or to be a woman without a man to guide her, or to kick back and smoke a joint and chill out in your back yard listening to the Doobie Brothers?

Well, actually, now that I write that, the answer does seem pretty simple after all: we err on the side of allowing other people to live and let live, and we agree to disagree. We don’t call each other Nazis unless we’re actually behaving like the Nazis did: namely, rounding up all the people we think are bad and doing our best to exterminate them. We don’t call each other fascists unless we’re actually engaging in fascist behavior. We don’t call each other Stalinists unless we’re doing what Big Joe did: attempting to control not only the behavior but the thoughts and beliefs of our fellow citizens.

Here’s where I differ from a lot of other people who, like me, call themselves leftists or liberals: I don’t believe we can entirely wipe out racism, or sexism, or homophobia, or sexual violence between men and women, or nationalism, or bigotry towards those of different religions beliefs or no religious beliefs, or economic and class-based prejudice. I think that these things are part of human nature. There have been societies without some of these things, to be sure, but no society has ever existed without any of them.

But I do believe that we can do our best to make them individual, not collective, beliefs. One man or woman’s racism is inevitable; institutional racism is unacceptable. I believe that a Christian who thinks that gay marriage is wrong is perfectly within his or her rights to believe that, but I do not believe that his or her belief should in any way impact a gay couple’s right to get married. Jews and Muslims have all the right in the world to believe that the other ones are going to Hell; but they should have absolutely no right to harm or persecute or inflict societal persecution upon those others.

I believe that the First and Ninth Amendments pretty much cover it:

  • Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
  • The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

There you have it. The only laws that prohibit gay marriage are religious ones; Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion; therefore, Congress shall make no law opposing gay marriage. It doesn’t matter if you oppose gay marriage or not, because you are a citizen of the United States, and in the United States (all the United States), we do not and cannot pass laws which establish one set of religious beliefs over another (or lack thereof). It’s also illegal to make laws banning people from praying or believing the world was made in seven days or that it is wrong for a woman to appear in public without covering herself from head to toe. I may not like that, but again, not my call to make…and thank goodness for that.

It is hard not to see the right wing as being the instigators in the current atmosphere of rabid public discourse. The greatest trick that Ronald Reagan pulled as President was to somehow inextricably tangle fiscal conservativism with social and religious conservativism. To my mind, there is no obvious connection; it is perfectly possible to believe in privatized health care and also be a gay atheist, for example. And though I myself am not particularly fiscally conservative as a political stance — I tend to believe in socializing a certain subset of services for citizens, such as health care, on the grounds that it makes economic sense in the long term if not the short term — I can agree to disagree, respectfully, with people who are, within reason; I have absolutely no time for rabid libertarians who believe in abolishing taxation entirely, because it’s frankly a stupid argument that ignores human nature as thoroughly as any hardline leftist Communist doctrine does.

I can agree to politely disagree with people who believe in the right of every American to carry a lethal firearm — not because I agree with them, but because I believe that issue is so complex and so hardwired into the basic laws of our country that it deserves more debate, and that there are no easy answers.

I can even agree to politely disagree with those who think homosexuality or transgenderism is a sin, or that certain ethnic groups or races are inferior to others, or that women deserve to be treated differently than men. I may find their views abhorrent, but I also find it abhorrent that many people believe Lady Gaga to be an important, transgressive artist, or that sports should take precedence over academics in our public school system. And I suspect that many of my views are abhorrent to these people as well.

I can do that politely, if not with respect; I don’t respect people who deny the evidence of their senses and scientific method and continue to live their lives based upon the notion that the world was made in a week six thousand years ago, based on oral mythology created by Bronze Age nomads who thought the entire universe consisted of the desert they wandered and possibly the mountains on the other side. But you know what? They don’t respect me for thinking dudes should be able to get married and make out in public. And that’s totally fine.

We are a nation of nearly three hundred million people, and the only thing we all have in common is believing that our politicians are corrupt and that the world would be a better place if the entire cast of Jersey Shore got hit by a meteorite. What we desperately need to do is to just be okay with that, and to calm the fuck down and try to find our commonalities.

The only thing I can really say in favor of liberalism versus conservatism is that, by and large, liberals are not trying to take away your right to do anything (except not pay taxes). Conservatives right now are the ones who are telling you you can’t marry somebody of the same sex, or walk around simultaneously believing that the notion of a personal God is bullshit and that you should be able to be elected to public office, that you can be a Muslim and not be treated as if you’re trying to blow up every goddamn plane you see.

Why? Fear, I think. It’s that fear of change. Somebody said to me recently that they’d seen a statistic that the number of Muslims in America was estimated to double in the next twenty years. I responded with the four questions I learned to ask from Bill Hicks: Yeah? And? So? What? So what if 50% of Americans were Muslims? As long as they were Muslims who respected the rights of other people to not be Muslims, so what? So what if we elect a woman as President who likes to eat pussy? The world changes. The people on top of the heap go to the bottom, and the people below them move on up and finally get a piece of the pie, and then twenty years or a hundred years later it flip-flops again. This is how the world works.

I read a criticism of the Rally to Restore Sanity which, in essence, suggests that the whole affair was a way for hipster Generation X America to show that we’re so ironic we don’t need to actually get involved to affect change. I don’t think that’s true. For one thing, it is my experience that ideologues of either stripe are scary, humorless people. (It’s why I can’t live in the Bay Area; too many tedious self-righteous lefties, the kind of people who you wish weren’t on your side.) I am an unwavering supporter of GLBTQ rights across the board, but I can’t stand being around hardcore queer activist types any more than I can stand being around anti-abortion activists. Their hearts might be in the right place, but man, those motherfuckers can’t take a goddamn joke.

And that’s what it all comes down to. We all take ourselves far too seriously in this country, on either side. We get worked up and we start drawing battle lines and calling the people we disagree with monsters and we crank up the volume on public discourse to ear-shattering levels. As Stewart said in his speech: if we amplify everything, we hear nothing.

I’m not saying I’m exempt from this criticism. Hell, I’m a terrible loudmouth and I talk shit and behave like a dismissive asshole. I’m aware of it. What I’m saying here is that Jon Stewart and his massive act of comedic performance art have made me reconsider my own hysteria and hypocrisy.

Maybe it’s because I got married less than 48 hours ago and I’m in a sort of warm, fuzzy daze, but I think I’d like to make a promise to myself: I’m going to calm the fuck down and maybe try to cool it with the cheap shots. Not all religious people are retarded bigots. (Even though, let’s be honest: in the Big Three Western religions at least, the amount of retarded bigotry one displays is directly proportional to how literally one takes one’s chosen faith.) Not all fiscal conservatives are Scrooge-like bastards who kick ghetto children in the face; many of them are just people who have trouble paying the bills, the way I do. Our ideas for fixing our problems are different, that’s all.

I’m not saying there aren’t evil motherfuckers out there who deserve scorn and rage, but I’m going to try to be a bit more precise in my verbal carpet-bombing of them, and more constructive in my criticism of people who simply believe differently than I do. I can’t promise I won’t slip up and, say, mock Catholics for believing that God tells them to fill every goddamn square inch of the Earth’s landmass with dribbling unwanted idiot children. But I’ll do my best.

We needed a rally to restore sanity in America; to remind us that we’re all in this together, Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, queer, straight, atheist, rich, poor, Republican, Democrat, and that we’ll go a lot further if we stop trying to destroy each other like characters in a bad fantasy novel, and maybe just sit down and figure out the bits we’ve got in common first, and the things we can agree upon. Even if it’s nothing more than agreeing that deep down inside, we all really, really hate that Snooki chick.


The value of music

So apparently a group of musicians in England called the Featured Artists Coalition have voted to support a “three strikes” law against illegal file downloaders: get caught three times and have your bandwidth reduced to a point where you can no longer download big files. It has not met with enthusiasm from the British blogosphere. Signatories to this support document include Steve Jones (presumably the one from the Sex Pistols), Annie Lennox, David Gilmour and Nick Mason of Pink Floyd, Tjinder Singh from Cornershop, Ed O’Brien from Radiohead, Patrick Wolf, George Michael, and Billy Bragg, who is not exactly known for his rabid capitalism.

Interestingly, this comes on the heels of a blog post by Amanda Palmer, who’s become a sort of poster child for DIY Internet promotion for musicians. Entitled “Why I Am Not Afraid To Take Your Money, By Amanda Fucking Palmer”, the blog details Palmer’s happy willingness to be shameless in her requests for cash from fans. A quote (orthography is hers):

listen. artists need to make money to eat and to continue to make art. artists used to rely on middlemen to collect their money on their behalf, thereby rendering themselves innocent of cash-handling in the public eye. artists will now be coming straight to you (yes YOU, you who want their music, their films, their books) for their paychecks. please welcome them. please help them. please do not make them feel badly about asking you directly for money. dead serious: this is the way shit is going to work from now on and it will work best if we all embrace it and don’t fight it.

Though they are saying it in vastly different ways (and with vastly different responses from their audiences), the core of what the FAC and Palmer are saying is the same: musicians need to be paid for their efforts.

The traditional model, as Palmer points out, is this: artist signs to a record label, who fronts them the money to record and tour and in return collects the profits from sales of the artist’s recordings, keeping the vast majority. This is increasingly no longer true, for two reasons:

  • File-sharing is making it increasingly difficult to make money from selling music;
  • Technology is making it easier for artists to make their own recordings and bring them directly to their audience.

I can’t imagine that anybody in the world really thinks “Fuck this band I love. I’m gonna steal their music and not pay them. I hope they fucking go bankrupt and live in cardboard boxes somewhere.” Music sharing is not data piracy in the traditional sense — where some prick starts selling bootlegged copies of an album without giving any of it to the artist or the label. Music sharing is about loving music.

(It could be argued, though, that somebody makes a profit off of file-sharing: namely, the software companies who create file-sharing software and earn revenue from subscribers or advertisers. If that revenue isn’t shared somehow with the artists (or, as they refer to such people in the Internet industry, “content creators”) then I would say these companies are engaging in a form of piracy, and ought to have their asses handed to them, so long as they’re profiting off of the work of others without compensating those others. This is where my problem with a lot of the copyfighters comes in; they sound less like crusaders for the common good and more like shills for the software industry.)

But here’s the problem: musicians have, for the past century, made their living from selling records. There’s no other model in place yet that really replaces that one, no model that allows musicians to devote themselves full-time to recording, releasing, promoting and touring to play their music. Amanda Palmer is experimenting with one, and it seems to be working for her right now, but only time will tell.

The FAC “three strikes” idea is ludicrous, of course, and it’s creating an incredible tide of ill-will towards them; on their website, commentators are comparing Bragg and other artists to slaves supporting their corporate masters. If one takes a deep breath and steps back, this of course is not true. In point of fact, a lot of the “demands” of the FAC are the sort of thing that make record label executives reach for the Alka-Seltzer, including a “use it or lose it” provision in British copyright law that would require copyright holders to actively renew their claims or lose their copyrighted material to the public domain…not to mention demanding that artists who are signed to labels get paid when the label finds new technologies to sell the artists’ work.

I really don’t believe that the FAC are a bunch of slavering fatcats lounging around on fainting couches made from the tanned skin of file-sharers, eating grapes and demanding that every penny be accounted for. I think they’re a group of people who’ve spent their lives making music that lots of people claim to love, but don’t want to reward them for creating. While some of them may not be fully aware of the fundamental changes that have occurred due to Internet file-sharing or the possibilities that are open to them, I find their “three strikes” notion more pitiable than infuriating.

The people who really piss me off are the ones Amanda Palmer’s addressing, who claim to be irritated by her requests for money. These people are beneath contempt. They’re the ones who really want whatever they want, when they want it, and don’t want to pay for it, and fuck you for asking. These are the people I’d cheerfully smash across the skull with a bottle.

Being a musician is hard work. It takes time and effort to make music — time and effort that ought to be rewarded somehow by the people who enjoy the results. Does anybody really disagree with this, in theory at least? If so, I’d love to hear a logical, well-thought-out objection to the idea that musicians — like waitresses and law clerks and software developers and cab drivers — should be paid for the work they do that benefits others.

Lily Allen is not the problem here, though she seems to be the target of a great amount of vitriol. After reading her thoughts on the subject (before she took her blog down), I don’t think she’s some evil pop star diva; I think she and the group of people she’s been talking to have come up with an untenable solution to an incredibly complicated and quite real problem that lots of very smart people have been devoting a lot of mental processing cycles to over the past decade or so. That doesn’t make her the Devil, and treating her as such is simply childish.

Not that it matters. I sometimes feel like absolutely no one with a voice in this discussion is interested in finding a reasonable, non-combative way to solve this problem in a way that makes life better both for musicians and for fans. Everybody wants to get up and rant about freedom or build imaginary file-sharing straw men. Maybe if people had been a bit more constructive in their conversations and willing to reach out to the other side, we wouldn’t be faced with the FAC’s silly demands and the blitzkreig of hatred it has engendered.

All of this, of course, conveniently ignores the fact that file-sharing, like casual drug use, is still illegal in most jurisdictions; whether you agree with that illegality or not is essentially irrelevant until you figure out a way to change the laws where you live. If you live in a democracy, you have ways to change that, assuming you care enough to put your time and effort — and probably money — into actually changing the law, or at least supporting the people who are trying to do so.

If not, then you’re worse than the FAC could ever be. You’re sitting on your couch shouting at people who are being proactive in this debate, even if you don’t agree with their stance. You should probably shut up now.

If you’d actually like to discuss these issues, feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments. If you want to talk seriously, I’ll respond.


The Kitty Genovese model.

A couple of years ago, I delivered an incoherent, profanity-laden and probably awful lecture on the Grim Meathook Future at the Chaos Communications Congress in Berlin. (In my defense, I was completely unhinged due to jet lag and the meltdown of my MacBook the night before the talk, when I’d planned to finish my speech and the accompanying slides.) I barely remember delivering the lecture at all, but I do remember absolutely pissing off a good number of the collected attendees with my assertion that things like blogs and social networks aren’t very useful technology to people who are starving to death or being slaughtered by warlords.

One of the audience members, journalist Quinn Norton, stood up and pointed out that bloggers in Russia were exposing to the world the corruption and chaos underlying that nation’s political system. Which, of course, was true; I wouldn’t deny it. But as I remember, she didn’t have a satisfactory answer to the question I returned to her, and the question that I find myself asking tonight, as great numbers of good-hearted and well-meaning people are filling the Twitterverse with commentary and urgent info about the riots in Tehran following the suspect re-election of Mahmoud Ahmedinajed.

Yeah? So what?

As you can read in my previous post, I was called to task by a few people for my perceived cynicism in being unwilling to tune myself into the stream of info on the repression in Tehran. It’s not the first time. Though I am a technofetishist of the highest water and a futurist by both trade and inclination, I am deeply suspicious and cynical about the effects of technology on human culture. This does not endear me to a lot of my friends and colleagues in the Internet industry, but if I spent much of my time worrying about what would endear me to people, I’d either put a gun in my mouth or turn myself over to Jesus.

I think that one of the greatest fallacies of our time — and one of the greatest leaps in logic that is made again and again by people who involve themselves in the worthwhile struggle to bring equality to all people — is the notion that awareness equals involvement. By providing a way for the world to see the terrible things occurring in Iran right now, we believe that we are somehow “doing something” about the problem — that we are, in some way, affecting change.

I don’t argue that this is sometimes the case. Many times, in specific sorts of circumstances, the rallying cry of “the world is watching!” is enough to defuse a dangerous situation. But many other times, it’s not, and the only person who is empowered or even enervated by global awareness of tyranny and oppression is the person watching events unfold…not the person in the middle of them.

Twenty years ago, the world watched on television and in the pages of magazines and newspapers as a young man, anonymous to this very day, stood in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China, as part of a protest that served as a memorial for recently deceased official Hu Yaobang. His act served as a sort of visual icon for the resistence of the common man against the repression of totalitarianism, and is rightly regarded as deeply heroic. It also served to draw international attention to China’s brutal policies of self-censorship and intellectual repression.

Unfortunately, nobody knows what happened to that young man. Given what has been seen in other cases of protest in China, it’s likely that the poor guy is either long dead or serving out a prison sentence somewhere. And in the twenty years since that day, China has made only sporadic and small progress in the human rights arena, despite the efforts of millions of people in government, non-governmental organizations, human rights watchdog organizations, and the simple negative public opinion of probably billions of people around the world, who felt righteous indignation on behalf of that anonymous hero, unable to legitimately protest his government’s actions in his own land.

China still operates under totalitarian repression of outside media as well as the Golden Shield (aka the “Great Firewall Of China”), which blocks access to any outside data deemed threatening to the ruling Communist party in the country. Despite this, there is still a flow of information in and out of the country, and human rights violations — as well as violent censorship of free speech, free thought and dissent — are still apparently quite common in China.

In other words, global public opinion has not affected China much over the past two decades. In fact, China is growing as an economic superpower whilst retaining their oppressive practices, due largely to the West using the country as a manufacturing base. We don’t make our shoes and computers in spite of their totalitarianism: in point of fact, we rely upon it. In a democratic society where protest is legitimized, it would seem likely that Chinese workers would protest the sparse wages paid to them by American and European companies to manufacture our goods and gadgets. They might even unionize. But that will never happen so long as our dollars and pounds and Euros shore up their totalitarian regime.

And yet, this notion continues to this day: the idea that the act of being aware of a situation is the same thing as involving oneself in it.

The logic seems to go like this: by making people aware of this terrible situation (protesters being attacked, imprisoned or killed in Iran, for example), we are bringing the discourse into the court of public opinion. We will make our leaders and our people aware of what is happening elsewhere, and then…something will happen to change it.

To be fair, this does work…but only in places where public opinion has a marked effect upon the actions of the regime (whether it be urban, federal, or what-have-you). If, for example, police in an American city attack an innocent African-American simply on an assumption of guilt based upon race, public opinion can certainly create consequence for the wrongdoers. The public can threaten to oust the mayor of the city (or at the very least not vote for him/her in the next election), the mayor can put pressure on the chief of police, etc. etc. In such ways are change affected in a democratic society, and public opinion can be a massive engine of change.

But this all breaks down in the case of totalitarian societies, because by and large, there’s really not much that you, as a non-member of that society, can do to affect change.

Let’s look specifically at the case of Iran right now. People are up in arms because it seems likely that the ruling party rigged the elections. (Americans, of which I am one, don’t really have a lot of room to talk here, but let’s overlook that for a second.) A certain amount of people in Iran are protesting the results of the election. They are, by all accounts, getting pretty brutally censured and attacked for doing so, while the government denies that anything of consequence is happening.

First of all, let’s just be honest here: knowing that people are being attacked for protesting is probably most of what you need to know. The specifics are, in my experience, pretty self-similar in any situation of this type throughout history. I haven’t read the accounts of what’s going on in Iran, but I suspect it runs something like this: the election results are announced. People — probably mostly students at first — take to the street in anger. The storm troopers show up and start bashing skulls. People begin rioting. The riot squads get more brutal. The government begins locking everything down — the media, first and foremost. People are dying in the streets. Shit is on fire.

How am I doing?

I’m being cynical here, but being cynical doesn’t mean it’s not true. These people are in a terrible situation. They’re making an agonizing choice between being quiet and being free. My heart and my sympathies and my support go out to them.

But the sad fact is that they’re probably simply going to their deaths. Why? Because they have no weight behind their dissent. Their government is a totalitarian theocracy run by a pack of lunatics who are actively developing nuclear weapons on the grounds that they might have to scorch the earth for Allah. They’ve been brutally repressing their people for decades now; how is this any different? Meet the old boss, same as the old boss.

More importantly, for the purposes of this discussion: if the people of Iran have no weight behind their outrage, people outside of Iran have less than no weight. Why? Because public opinion is totally irrelevant to Ahmedinajed’s regime. He — and his master, the Ayatollah Khamenei — don’t care what you or your government think about them. They have Allah on their side, total righteousness. They’re also the fourth largest oil exporter on the planet. Oil counts for 80% of their export capital, followed by — I’m not making this up — fruits and nuts, and also carpets.

Putting a worldwide ban on oil imports from Iran would be an instant way to affect change there. The money would run out…and even in theocracies, money is what keeps things running. If the rest of the world were to ditch Iranian oil for twelve months, I guarantee you’d see massive political change there.

But that, of course, isn’t going to happen — not on a global scale, not even on a national scale, and not on a personal scale. The majority of the people Twittering about Iran today are going to get in their car and drive to work via oil that was, at least in part, sold to them indirectly by the same people they’re trying to undermine with information technology. Hell, I would suspect that the power which keeps Twitter’s servers running is probably, at least in part, coming from Iranian oil in one way or another.

What we’re getting out of Iran right now is, essentially, evidence of the crimes being committed. I doubt anyone would disagree with that. But gathering evidence is something you do when you think there’s going to be a reckoning, and the sad example that history shows us is that there rarely ever is. Augusto Pinochet, Pol Pot and Idi Amin all died of heart attacks at advanced ages, either under house arrest or in lush exile somewhere. Their subordinates, by and large, also escaped justice, usually by insisting, as all fascists do, that they were “simply following orders“.

All the Twittering in the world isn’t going to create a world court that has jurisdiction over Mahmoud Ahmedinajed or the Ayatollah Khamenei, or Joseph Kony in Uganda, or Kim Jong-Il in North Korea, or any of the other insane cruel sons-of-bitches who rule with an iron fist over vast swaths of humanity. Pictures of the dead and dying, biographies of the damned…gather what you like and it’s still not going to fix these problems.

There are solutions, real solutions, but they take real work and sacrifice, on the part of every person who wants to truly change things. Stop driving cars; spend more money on products not made by totalitarian regimes; do without. And we are not willing to make those real sacrifices.

So we bear witness, as if the act of merely bearing witness somehow absolved us of our complicity in these atrocities. We tell ourselves that feeling righteously indignant is somehow a useful act, when the only person who is truly affected by our righteous indignation is ourselves.

We feel like heroes, when in fact we are as irrelevant to the situation as the thirty-eight New Yorkers who, in 1964, watched their neighbor Kitty Genovese get raped and robbed and stabbed to death in the courtyard of their apartment building. Each of the witnesses has been variously quoted as saying that they didn’t want to “get involved”. They were rightly vilified for this attitude.

Now, we want to get involved. So we use our global networks as stadium seating for the atrocity exhibition, and we cluck our tongues and shout our derision at those who commit torture and murder. And we feel better about ourselves. But we don’t make the hard choice to step into that ring ourselves, to make even the most basic sacrifices or put ourselves on the line, to prevent the atrocity. We’re concerned, but not involved.

And today, as I write this, God only knows how many Tehranians are going to be beaten and killed by the bastards who rule their country. We’re going to stand around and Twitter our anger to one another. And those poor people will be just as dead as Kitty Genovese when all is said and done.

*     *     *

If I’ve made you angry here, might I suggest that you call or write to your Congressperson or MP or whatever your nation’s equivalent is? Or that you find out if your corner gas station carries Iranian oil?

Do something constructive, in other words. Calling me an asshole isn’t constructive. I know I’m an asshole.


The Iran thing.

John Perry Barlow called me a smug dick on Twitter tonight because I pointed out that the collective outraged Twittering about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s rigging of the elections in Iran probably wasn’t going to change a goddamn thing. He’s half-right. I am a dick, but I’m not feeling particularly smug about it. (I also think JPB misunderstood me, though the error is mine; Twitter is not the place for nuanced thought.)

Look: Iran is a (very) thinly-veiled theocracy. It’s run by a group of clerics led by Ayatollah Khamenei, who is just as far out to lunch as his predecessors. Ahmadinejad is just their front man, a polite face to turn to the international community. But underneath it’s the same bad craziness that’s been there at least since they overthrew the Shah.

Theocracies of any stripe are totalitarian, almost by definition: their control relies upon their forcing of faith upon their people. That’s why they control the media and access to information: if people can see alternative viewpoints, they might begin to question the validity of the theocracy’s underlying faith, and by doing so, undermine the theocracy’s power. This is all obvious, right?

Until Iran overthrows the Revolutionary Guard (and what an ironic name) and the clerics and establishes a secular government, they will never have any sort of real freedom.

The real problem with totalitarian regimes, whether it be in Iraq or North Korea, is that they are essentially immune to public opinion. They don’t give a fuck what you or I think about their policies, because a) they can’t be toppled by bad public opinion, and b) they control the ability of their people to engage in political discourse with you or I in the first place.

So: yes, I am absolutely outraged that people are dying in the streets of Tehran right now. I am furious. But I can’t do anything about it. My opinion won’t save those people. My righteous fury serves no purpose at all. And neither does yours.

The riots and the deaths in Iran today are a symptom of a larger problem. The Iranian people have to get rid of their government. Until they do, this will just keep happening again and again, and more people will die who don’t deserve to, and the rest of the world will keep tut-tutting away, and nothing will change. Unless America decides we want Iran’s oil, in which case we’ll go in and bomb them back to the fucking Stone Age and make martyrs of all those God-deluded fuckers who are turning that place into a nightmare. Which will, of course, simply turn it into another kind of nightmare.

Anybody who knows me knows that I have watched this happen for a long time, in Iraq, in Uganda and Liberia and the Sudan and Rwanda and all of these other places. I have spoken out, asked people to get involved, done as much as I could from where I sit. (Hell, I’ve even offered various groups my services as a tech geek in these places, though no one has taken me up on the offer yet.) I believe as strongly as anyone in the right of every human to be in charge of their own destiny, and to be free of fear and violence for their beliefs. Don’t ever bring up the subject of Uganda with me, or the Lord’s Resistance Army; I’ll start frothing at the mouth and ranting. I’m a Human Rights Bore, and I know it. Sorry.

But I’m just tired. Tired of watching passionate students take to the streets to defend their human rights and to proclaim truths which much of the world holds to be self-evident, only to be mowed down by dispassionate thugs hired by a government that will commit murder to hold on to power. Tired of seeing the horror. Tired of watching politicians in my country pretending to be concerned, because they have no economic basis for helping to change things. Tired of watching celebrities (far more smug than I could ever be, John, thanks) doing PSAs trying to get bovine fucking America to be concerned about a bunch of jabbering foreigners half a world away.

The idea of throwing my brain into this current Iranian horror just makes me want to curl up in a ball and vomit. I can’t watch the videos. I can’t read the news. Because I will just become enraged, with no outlet for it and no way to change things, and I will have to watch yet another group of poor bastards get crushed by history.

Does that sound cynical? Surely it does. Surely I am cynical. But man, I’ve seen this movie too many fucking times, and I know how it’s going to end. And whether I watch it or not, it’s going to play out in the same way. I wish I was wrong, I hope I’m wrong, I pray that somehow this will all be resolved with as little more bloodshed as possible, but I just don’t see it happening that way. I know people. I know history.

I know I’m a coward. Man, don’t you know that I know that? I am. And I am truly sorry if I sound like a smug dick. But I just can’t get in on this one, folks. I need to be able to sleep at night.


Follow the money. (And the smack.)

I was watching author Gretchen Peters tonight on yesterday’s Daily Show, promoting her new book Seeds Of Terror, about the links between the poppy trade in Afghanistan and Pakistan and the Taliban and al-Qaeda. It looks like a fascinating book, and I’d like to pick it up and read it before I offer any comment specifically on her take on things. But I’ve been thinking about this a good deal over the past few years, and I thought I’d throw my two cents in.

I suspect that, when historians look back upon the early 21st century “war on terror”, their primary response will be surprise: surprise that the global society allowed ourselves to be fooled for so long into believing that terrorism is really, at the base of it, about such lofty ideals as “religion” and “freedom”…when, in fact, it was actually about what everything in the world is about and has been since the end of the hunter/gatherer period in human evolution: namely, money and resources.

I’ve been thinking about what I know about Islam (which is, I’ll grant you, not a massive amount…although having lived in a Muslim country and read at least a little bit about the history and tenets of the faith, I’m way ahead of most Americans), and what I know about economics (about the same amount) and what I know about people (quite a bit, actually), and it seems obvious to me — and has for a long time — that the people running things on the “terror” side of the equation are probably not actually religious zealots, but rabid market capitalists.

Bear with me here.

First off: let’s just drop this “terrorist” shit. That’s an extremely non-useful term that obscures more than it describes. I say “terrorist” and you think of a douchebag in black fatigues with a checkered head scarf and an AK slung over his back. But that doesn’t actually tell you who these people are, what they do, or why they do it.

Let’s start with what they do, and that’s simple: they destabilize. Regions, governmental system, economies — destabilization is the one thing that people like al-Qaeda are good at. They’re utterly, completely useless at stabilizing anything at all…which necessarily gives lie to their claim that what they’re trying to do is establish some sort of theocratic control over the Middle East / Africa / Asia / wherever. They’re not establishing shit. They’re not even trying. They’re like drunk frat boys — the only thing they can do is fuck shit up and then walk away. (The Taliban in pre-9/11 Afghanistan being an exception, but not much of one — those little elves ran their Keebler tree at the barrel of a gun, funding it with narco trafficking, and doing so mainly at the pleasure of the good old U.S. of A, who ludicrously saw them as a viable alternative to the PDPA and/or Soviet involvement. Which is an entire other discussion. Don’t get me started.) Destabilization has in fact traditionally been the number one goal of most terrorist groups around the world — Muslim or otherwise. Which brings us to our next question: why?

The answer, I think, is simple: misdirection.

Imagine you have a country — let’s call it, for the sake of this discussion, Ellistan. Ellistan is a country which is relatively rich in oil, but doesn’t have the technological prowess to really go in and extract it and sell it. So Ellistan’s doing deals with big American firms like Exxon Mobil, who take a large chunk of the oil profits in return for up-fronting the massive costs of building an oil-delivery infrastructure.

There’s also a lot of poppy fields, as there are everywhere in the Middle East. Fucking tons of them. There are a few narcotraficantes who grow poppies and ship them out to Southeast Asia to be refined and sold to scruffy American trust-fund assholes. But by and large, it’s a cottage industry, because opium is fairly difficult to refine and turn into smack, and unlike oil, the Agency for International Development isn’t brokering meetings between the Ellistan government and Big American Business to build roads for trucks full of black tar heroin.

Speaking of governments…Ellistan has a democratic government, sort of. There’s lots of corruption and tension. To make matters worse, there’s a nasty brewing conflict between the Muslim and Christian factions of the population, who are also divided along some fantastically obscure ethnic lines going back to which of two thirteen year old sisters got knocked up by the horny old king a gazillion years ago. There are occasional outbreaks of violence, but it’s nothing that doesn’t happen every day in most of the countries in the world where you can’t buy a Slurpee on every street corner.

And then comes Jihadi Pride. Jihadi Pride is a radical Islamist group founded by a prick who used to be a mujahideen in Afghanistan back in the 80s. He was trained in insurgent warfare, intelligence and counter-intelligence by his kindly Uncle Sam, who also bankrolled his holy war against the evil Soviet Empire…right up to the moment when the Wall came down in Berlin, at which point America informed him that they would see him, but they wouldn’t wanna be him.

Since then. the prick has been building up this army of former holy warriors like himself, along with a random assortment of creepy mercenaries who pass the bare minimum of behavior to pass for “soldiers of God”, plus a huge infantry of complete retards whom he has convinced to become martyrs for Allah.

(He’s also on a dialysis machine. And he’s really fucking tall. You get it? You get it now? Okay.)

So this prick — let’s call him Rosama — sets up tents in Ellistan. He immediately begins pimping his contacts amongst the Muslim community. He starts going around identifying the most dissatisfied or volatile community leaders. He tells them that a glorious day is coming, a day when the People of God — who rightfully deserve Ellistan as their Holy Paradise — will rise up against the infidels and drive them out, even if it means wading in their blood. He makes some under-the-table contributions to local religious leaders, who may or may not be the same people. And he tells both groups that, when the time comes, he will do everything in his power to back their play to take power.

Now, if Rosama is really smart, he’s doing the exact same thing with the Christians. He’s playing both sides down the middle, without the other side knowing it.

And sooner or later, somebody’s going to mouth off at the wrong time in the wrong tea house, or kill the wrong person in a brawl, and shit is going to jump off: Christians and Muslims in a free-for-all.

When this happens, Rosama shows up with crates full of AK-47s. Here you are! he cries to the Muslims (and, again, if he’s smart, the Christians). Use these to drive the evildoers out of your land!

Blood starts spraying all over everything. The government sends in troops to try to quell the ethnic violence, but their efforts are (as such efforts always are) as useful as tits on a bull. Soon the troops get involved on both sides of the conflict and now you’ve got trained dudes firing.

Jihadi Pride is sending all its best kamikaze assholes, strapped with C4, to suicide bomb Christian pre-schools, on the promise that they’ll get 37 virgins and a free Amana refrigerator upon entrance to paradise. These guys are fucking morons and totally useless for anything else, but they’re also sort of like Doritos: crunch all you want and you can make more. To paraphrase Mencken, nobody ever went broke overestimating the intelligence of the religion-crazed masses.

Finally, one — or both — factions accuse the government of siding with and favoring the other side, and there’s a big to-do, and maybe somebody runs in and sprays the Ellistan Parliament with 7.62mm rounds. And boom! No working government. There’s general strikes, everybody’s either fighting or afraid to come out because they’re afraid of being killed. Things fall apart. The center does not hold. Jihadi Pride has loosed mere anarchy on Ellistan.

And what is Rosama doing while all this is happening? He’s sneaking around killing the low-level narcotraficantes, or buying them off, or convincing them to work for him. He’s seizing control of the poppy manufacturing. Think of it like a big corporation with massive distribution channels but a need for product, seizing a small corporation with product but no distribution. Rosama, unlike the local boys, can ship poppies en masse. More to the point, he now is in a great position to set up poppy refining centers right there in Ellistan…because nobody’s paying any fucking attention anymore.

Then Jihadi Pride seizes the oil pipelines…and all hell breaks loose. Up to this point, it’s just been a bunch of camel-fuckers killing each other, as far as the rest of the world is concerned. But holy God and sonny Jesus, now these ragheads are fucking with our profit margins!

Exxon Mobil formally protests to the US government, who talks to the UN, who sends in “peacekeeping” troops, who basically do jack shit other than make sure all the Yankee engineers and contractors and their families can get out safely. Which they do — not because Jihadi Pride is afraid of the UN, but because it doesn’t really matter to them.

Exxon’s frothing over their pipelines, but hell, they’ve got insurance against this sort of thing. Jihadi Pride is also doing them a favor, kind of, sort of, because now that they’ve seized this particular oil supply, the global price of oil can go up a bit. And it’s not like it’s going to go back to the same price when all of this is settled.

So now Rosama is de Kingfish in Ellistan. He’s got control of the oil and the poppies, and he’s surrounded himself with enough chaos that nobody can come in and touch him. Maybe, possibly, by this point, the local ethnic factions are beginning to realize that they’ve been played off each other. But it’s too late. There’s nobody to appeal to. Nobody has any sympathy. And at this point, the hatred and vengeance has all gotten so deep that nobody’s going to shake hands and make friends and go against their common enemy, this mercenary pigfucker who’s come in and turned their Holy Paradise into a shit and smoke filled nightmare.

That is, assuming they even get that far in their thinking, and most of the time they don’t. They just keeping slaughtering each other, murder for murder, atrocity for atrocity, because somebody ten thousand years ago decided to wear a different hat than his brother wore, or something equally pathetic.

And Rosama? He’s got a few options. He can leave some of his crew here to run things and float on to the next target. (My, Iran’s looking interesting!) Or he can just keeping letting the money roll in here. Even when order is established, all he has to do is cut the new government in on the deal. Not that they have a choice, of course — any new government in Ellistan will form almost solely at his whim.

And Lord, how the money rolls in. By the time America gets involved — because only America will get involved, because the Europeans are too smart and too poor and don’t have enough vested financial interest — Rosama will be nowhere to be found, and all that will be left will be a nation in utter shambles and a bunch of abandoned gold-plated Humvees, rusting in the sand and the dirt.

This is, of course, just a fairy tale I’m spinning you, but I’d be grateful if you could figure out what part of it doesn’t sound like it’s probably pretty accurate across the board. The real kicker is that, as Bruce Sterling pointed out in his excellent book Tomorrow Now: Envisioning The Next Fifty Years, they did this already: in Serbia, in Chechnya, in Mogadishu. In Kabul. In Iraq. Over and over again, after Reagan and Bush Uno let them loose on the planet like rabid dogs off a leash. It’s not even the same sort of people; it’s the same five dudes going from place to place. (There’s more than five. But you get my point.)

And they’re not the only ones. Because I can think of at least one other evil motherfucker who went in and destablized an entire region, turning it into a morass of ethnic/religious violence, whilst simultaneously making money off of guns and war machinery on both sides, whilst simultaneously lining the pockets of everybody he’d ever known since grade school…and right now, that sonofabitch is sitting with his feet up on his ottoman at the new place in North Dallas, watching Hee-Haw reruns on Blu-Ray and sporting a weak little boner every time Barbi Benton pops up in the cornfield to trade cornpone witticisms with Buck and Ray. And I’d bet the ottoman’s still got that new leather smell, too.

Hey, why not? His daddy and his daddy’s friends were the ones who taught the trick to the “evildoers” in the first fucking place. And if we learned anything from the IRA and the Contras and Al-Qaeda, it’s that you can pretty much get away with anything you like, if you claim you’re doing it in the name of God or country. Patriotism has become the very first refuge of scoundrels; the second is the nearest church or mosque.

And all of this begs the question: are we really trying to shut down the drug trade in Afghanistan and Pakistan now? The way we tried to stop the drug trade in Laos and Cambodia during the Vietnam War? The way we tried to stop it in Central America in the 80s? Because as far as I can tell, the way we tried to do that in those places was to come in and bum rush the whole show, New Jack City-style. I mean, does anybody really believe the CIA wasn’t using heroin from the Golden Triangle to fund black ops in the 1960s and 1970s (and maybe even as far back as the 1950s)? Really?

I’m not much of a fan or believer in conspiracies, and even I’m convinced that behind all the mad rhetoric, Huey Newton was right about one thing: they were shipping scag back from Laos and Cambodia into the Naval receiving shipyards in Oakland. I’ve also talked to too many old timers who’ve told me I’m right, at least in the broad strokes, to assume that they were all separately utterly full of shit.

And it’s not like they didn’t try to do it again, 20 years later with the Contras…only that time, they got caught.

So you have motive (money), opportunity (the war on terror), and a pattern and known history of similar behavior going back almost fifty years. Is it hard to believe that we’re not stopping the drug trade because we have some vested interest in it? I’m not talking about the whole government, mind you; but I think there are people in the intelligence community who are capable of maintaining covert drug trade in Afghanistan. Our forces on the ground are having enough trouble keeping themselves alive and some vague semblance of daily peace and calm to be paying much attention to some weird shit going on out in the eastern mountain regions. To quote Bob Dylan: yes, I think it could be easily done.

Even if you leave the US government out of it — and even the most neo-conservative of you will acknowledge that it’s nearly impossible to leave the US government out of any international situation these days — doesn’t this whole thing suggest that the primary, if not the solitary motivation of these “terrorists” is not religion but profit?

To put it another way, which seems more likely to you: that a bunch of genuinely angry religious fanatics would stoop to selling and making smack (which would be considered a horrible transgression by any legitimate Muslim) to fund their campaigns…or that a bunch of scumbag mercs and drug dealers would wrap themselves in a cloak of pious zealotry as a way to distract the world from what they’re actually up to, the way that any cheap con-man in America knows he can put out a donation box in the name of blue-eyed Jesus and rake in a hundred times as much profit.

My experience of human nature suggests the latter. The notion of Muslim holy men selling smack to decadent Westerners as a way of corrupting them seems unlikely to me. It’s like suggesting that Focus On The Family invests heavily in bondage gear, in the hopes that all the leather queens in San Francisco will kill themselves off of auto-erotic asphyxiation and rid the world of homosexuality. It sounds like bullshit to me.

Of course, any policy wonk you talk to will probably acknowledge most of what I’ve pointed out here. It’s not a secret. So why are we still cloaking all of this as a thinly-veiled holy war, rather than an operation to rid the world of scumbag heroin profiteers?

I wish I didn’t know the answer to that question.