Is it possible to go untracked in this new digital dystopia? It’s gotten harder — but here’s how I’ve done it

John Twelve Hawks: “New surveillance states have placed us in an invisible prison”

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John Twelve Hawks: "New surveillance states have placed us in an invisible prison"
(Credit: Richard Susanto via Shutterstock/phbaer via iStock/Salon)

 

Surveillance

The continuing revelations by Edward Snowden have convinced many of us that we are living in a modern surveillance state. And the problem isn’t just the activities of the National Security Agency and Great Britain’s GCHQ. “Trickle Down Surveillance” has provided spy technology to small town police officers and developing world dictators. In addition, our activities are monitored for commercial reasons by a wide variety of international corporations (Amazon isn’t the “Everything Store,” it’s the “Find Out Everything About You” store).

Anyone who steps back for a minute and observes our modern digital world might conclude that we have destroyed our privacy in exchange for convenience and false security. That private world within our thoughts has been monitored, tabulated and quantified. Our tastes, our opinions, our needs and our desires have been packaged and sold as commodities. Those in power have pushed their need for control one step too far. They turned unique individuals into data files, and our most intimate actions have become algorithmic probabilities.

The destruction of personal privacy is not an ideological issue. Thoughtful women and men on every point of the political spectrum are beginning to realize that surveillance technology has shifted the balance of power between institutions and individuals. Without private thoughts and actions we can never truly be free.

Ten years ago, I believed that individuals could live off the grid, but because of “trickle-down surveillance,” it’s becoming impossible to escape surveillance in a rural area or in a developing country. Most of the people reading this essay have jobs that involve computers. We have cellphones, and we use the Internet. Like it or not, we’re living in a digital infrastructure.

Although I write dystopian fiction, I don’t believe in dystopian fantasies. Unless some future hacker genius creates a virus that wipes every database clean, it’s clear that destroying one small part of this Virtual Panopticon is not going to bring the walls down.

So what are we supposed to do? How can we avoid becoming just another bar-coded object tracked within a World of Things?

A place of refuge

A good first step is to find or create an occasional place of refuge where you can escape the electronic grid that surrounds us. It’s a place without phones or computers — without monitoring of any kind. Stepping back from the grid is especially important if you have small children. They need to discover the possibilities created by their own imaginations.



I realize that switching off one’s Twitter feed is highly difficult for some people. But walking alone down a forest path, smelling the wet earth, and watching branches sway in the wind is actually the first step in your act of resistance.

You can’t truly hear your own voice until the shouting around you disappears. New ideas and possibilities — our own ideas, our own possibilities — will occur only when we step away from the Virtual Panopticon.             

At various times of my life I have turned away from our high-tech society. When I was younger I simply camped or explored the wilderness on my own. During the last few years, I’ve experienced more extreme periods of isolation in Nepal and Tibet (in both of these countries, people are more accepting of these kinds of actions).

The last time I stepped off the grid, I took photographs of myself before and after the experience. On the first day, my face showed the conventional “mask” we all create to protect our private Self. Thirty-one days later, I had grown a beard, but that was an insignificant change. I was smiling. My eyes were wide open and ready to see the beauty of our world.

One consequence of living — even for a short time — in a place of refuge is that when you return to your daily routine, you’ll be more aware of the ways that the Panopticon is watching you and predicting your behavior. This awareness gives you the motivation to gradually create a parallel life.

Parallel Lives

My Public Self uses a credit card to buy an airline ticket, walks through an airport and boards a plane. This Self pays income taxes, uses a smartphone, and doesn’t hide his face from the CCTV cameras that have appeared throughout New York and London.

Then there is my Private Self that gives a fake phone number to an inquisitive clerk, doesn’t post a photograph on Facebook, and uses a search engine that won’t remember searches. I’ve used a gift card (paid for with cash) to purchase Apple apps and my identity is not on the Apple Corp.’s database.

Finally there is a Secret Self that owns a throwaway cellphone purchased with cash and uses Internet software like Tor that enables online anonymity.

In the beginning, these actions to defend your privacy feel like a game. But deliberately concealing yourself from the Panopticon makes you feel less passive and more aware. There’s nothing flashy going on here, just small daily actions that continually undercut the constant attempt by governments and corporations to know who you are and what you’re doing.

The Shark Cage

The Internet is not a cyber-utopia offering freedom to anyone with a blog. It’s part of the world economy (other than Wikipedia, the vast majority of the top 100 websites are owned by large corporations).

We exist in a marketplace where our personal information is collected and sold. But the marketplace can protect our privacy if we make conscious choices. Companies selling computers and phones design their product first, then add firewalls and security software later. The growing awareness of the attack on privacy has prompted a small group of cryptographers to design communications devices that assume that both the Internet and the cellular network have been compromised.

Recently, a company has introduced the Blackphone — an Android-based smartphone that provides easy-to-use encryption for phone calls and text messaging (the same company is developing “a private and secure” email system called Dark Mail). By the time you read this, there may be better-designed phones and more secure email systems. The real news is that the market is beginning to respond to the public’s growing realization of how the surveillance state destroys freedom. More pro-privacy computers and communications devices will be created, and they will gradually become less expensive and easier to use.

Wealthy people and celebrities routinely hire specialists to create an electronic “shark cage” that protects their phone and online privacy. But privacy is no longer a rich man’s luxury. In the last few years, small companies like the Boston-based Abine Corp. are selling software that can control the personal information that companies and other people can see about consumers online.

In democratic countries with a digital infrastructure, the market will eventually offer us cheap and easy-to-use ways to step away from certain aspects of the Panopticon. All you need is enough cash to buy a prepaid debit card — and the desire to live an unmonitored life.

Parallel Systems

I own two smartphones (one purchased with cash), an iPad, two regular computers, and a “clean” notebook computer that’s unattached to any identity. There’s nothing wrong with technology itself. A license plate scanner attached to a computer has no ideology. The real issue is control. Who gives instructions to these new machines, and what are they used for? Who makes the rules for our society and our lives?

One positive aspect of the new technology is that it gives us the means to create parallel systems that exist alongside the dominant social and economic system. Examples can be found everywhere: organic farming, home solar power, and the do-it-yourself movement (DIY), which encourages people to “life hack” common problems and use open-source designs to make machines.

Using a parallel system allows us to makes a distinction between the surveillance state and those transactions that are not instantly part of a database. When we buy a locally grown tomato at the farmer’s market, use a peer-to-peer payment system that involves cryptocurrency, or rent a room in someone’s apartment while traveling, we’re engaged in a transaction that will not be tracked or quantified.

Participating in these parallel systems and creating a parallel life are both choices. And most people living in democratic countries still have these choices. But what should we do if the new surveillance states extend their power into every aspect of our lives?

When do you decide that you have had enough?

Resistance

For several years I worked for an organization that sent its employees out to work in war zones all over the world. On a number of occasions, I walked through villages where everyone had been killed and the bodies were left to swell up and rot in the sun. Time disappeared during these moments, and I was conscious only of the stench and the buzzing sound that came from swarms of flies. Eventually, my Sikh driver would honk the horn of the truck filled with relief supplies. I would get back into the truck cab and continue up the road. But these experiences stayed in my memory. I wanted to know why humans acted with such deliberate cruelty. When should we turn away from evil? And when should we resist?

When I returned to America, I began to read books about the Holocaust that described how ordinary people were transformed into executioners while a smaller group risked their lives trying to save others. There’s a long shelf of books about individual rescuers like Oskar Schindler, but it was difficult to come up with a general theory as to why they stepped forward.

A friend recommended that I read about Stanley Milgram’s famous “obedience studies” in the early 1960s. The Yale University psychologist was trying to understand how authority could push individuals into performing cruel or unethical actions, so he conducted a series of experiments on the Yale campus.

Imagine that you were one of the people who answered a newspaper ad looking for paid participants in a “scientific experiment.” When you arrive at the basement laboratory, a man wearing a white lab coat tells you that you’re going to participate in a study of how memory is influenced by punishment. You fill out a questionnaire, then pick a piece of paper that gives you the role of  “teacher” while the other participant is “the learner” (actually an actor hired by Milgram). The learner is taken to another room and an electrode is strapped to his wrist. Then the experimenter asks you to give the learner a set of word pairings to memorize.

If the learner in the next room answers correctly over an intercom, you’re supposed to praise him. But if the learner gives the wrong answer, you’re told to press a switch that gives a shock to the other person. At first, the learner answers correctly, and then he begins to make mistakes. Each time that happens, you’re told to press a switch with a higher voltage indicated on the control panel. You’re ordered to keep going even when the learner begins to scream.

After 19 different experiments with more than a thousand participants, Milgram described the obedience study to a group of 40 psychiatrists and asked them to estimate what percentage of teachers would reach the 450-volt level marked with an ominous XXX on the control panel. The psychiatrists decided that only 1 percent of the test group would go all the way. They were astonished to learn that two out of three “ordinary” men and women gave the maximum shock even when the learner in the other room had stopped responding.

Humans can be manipulated to obey. As information and communications technology creates a surveillance state, I’m worried that fear of terrorism will create a system where police officers and soldiers will obey the computer-generated decisions that appear on their optical head-mounted displays.

So what can stop this from happening? In 2006, a professor at Santa Clara University named Jerry Burger duplicated Milgram’s experiment using an experimental procedure where the “teachers” were pushed only toward a maximum 150-volt level. When he interviewed the participants afterward, Burger discovered that those who had stopped participating felt that they were responsible for giving the shocks, while those participants who obeyed had decided that the experimenter was responsible.

Milgram’s research shows us that anyone who identifies with authority can be manipulated to defend institutional goals. This sort of mindless obedience can be defeated only by one’s sense of identity.

Identity is not taste or fashion; it has nothing to do with what we’ve purchased in the past or want to buy in the future. Identity comes from making real choices that force you to decide what is true, fair and just.

One Man Standing in the Middle of a Street

The key image of our era is not an astronaut on the moon or a smirking billionaire holding a new smartphone. I’m continually inspired by the 1989 video of a man standing in front of a column of tanks one day after the Chinese military massacred the pro-democracy protesters who had gathered in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

When the lead tank tries to drive around this protester, he repeatedly steps into its path. The driver of the lead tank shouts at him. The column starts to move, but the lone protester stops them once again. I don’t know this hero’s name and I don’t know what happened to him, but I’m still inspired by his bravery. The Tank Man was acting like a free human being — making a conscious choice to resist authority.

Even if you spent most of your day using some kind of electronic device, you’re not a light-emitting diode or a computer chip. We should never consider ourselves a functional component of any new technological system. We are physical beings that have been given the privilege and the power to say no.

When your own moment arrives, it probably won’t involve a column of tanks, but you’ll know that there is no other alternative. You must confront authority or your true Self would no longer exist.

The new surveillance states have placed us in an invisible prison. If we wish to break free, we need only to step forward and open the door.

What Happened When Some Libertarians Went Off to Build Ayn Rand’s Vision of Paradise

http://davidbiddle.net/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Atlas-Shrugged-Walking.jpg


Hint: nothing good.

The theme of Ayn Rand’sAtlas Shrugged, according to Ms. Rand herself, is “what happens to the world when the Prime Movers go on strike.” The prime movers are corporate executives – “the motor of the world” – and Rand imagines what would happen if they all just went away. To Rand this is nothing less than “a picture of the world with its motor cut off.”

Ouch. Paging Dr. Freud.

In Rand’s novel the great, throbbing “motor of the world” (it’s made of executives, remember?) retreats to an Atlantis-like idyll known as “Galt’s Gulch.” Without their ingenuity and drive the nation descends into chaos, leading many long pages later to their triumphant return and anointment as leaders of a new libertarian order.

Which gets us to the fraud charges now swirling around a venture called “Galt’s Gulch of Chile.” Its website is currently down, but it’s still being promoted as a real-world retreat for the world’s movers and shakers. “Yes, you read that right,” the organizer chirps cheerily. “Those who become one of GGC’s Founders will be paid back … within three years of the consummation of their Founders Club participation (please contact GGC for the fine print and T&Cs).”

In what should be an unsurprising outcome, it didn’t turn out very well.  That news comes (via Metafilter and Gawker) from a blogger named Wendy McElroy, who writes that she bought some property in Galt’s Gulch with her husband and then learned that it never had legal rights to the property in the first place. A visit to Chile revealed that many of the area’s local vendors had also been defrauded by the Galtians.

As Gawker’s headline puts it, “Ayn Rand’s Capitalist Paradise Is Now a Greedy Land-Grabbing Shitstorm.”

It’s possible to feel genuinely sympathetic to the McElroys’ plight – and I do – and yet wonder why this outcome was the least bit surprising to any reader of Rand’s work. Atlas Shrugged actually celebrates fraud – at least against those whom Rand despises. These charges aren’t an aberration. They’re the inevitable outcome of Rand’s own philosophy.

Atlas Shrugged opens with a question – “Who is John Galt?” – and then takes forever to answer it, clocking in at a weighty and tendentious 1168 pages. One glance at its author’s pinned eyes, immortalized in the photo on the back cover of the hardbound Dutton edition, and the book’s interminable length becomes easier to understand.  Ms. Rand is gazing slightly heavenward, as if locking eyes with some adored Übermensch. She sits poised as if preparing for flight, one hand nervously clenched in a half-fist, like Mighty Mouse on methedrine.

How misguided, how downright strange, is Atlas Shrugged? Rand insists that the most sexually desirable human beings on the planet are wealthy male CEOs, a conceit which conjures up images of Charles Koch as Austin Powers, performing a mating dance to the sounds of “Let’s Get It On” as a comely stranger reclines on a rotating sofa.

Do I make you Randian, baby? Do I?

But the auto-executive eroticism becomes considerably less amusing when one realizes that one of Rand’s heroes is a rapist:

He held her, pressing the length of his body against hers with a tense, purposeful insistence, his hand moving over her breasts as if he were learning a proprietor’s intimacy with her body, a shocking intimacy that needed no consent from her, no permission.

…She knew that fear was useless, that he would do what he wished, that the decision was his, that he left nothing possible to her except the thing she wanted most – to submit.

She wanted it, so it’s okay, right? Except she never said she wants it, and the rapist (“Francisco”) had already roughed her up in an earlier scene: “When she came home, she told her mother that she had cut her lip by falling against a rock.”

Then there’s Hank Rearden, the married man whose sex with the heroine leaves her bloodied and bruised the next morning. To wit: “She saw a bruise above her elbow, with dark beads that had been blood.” The morning-after sweet nothings rom Hank include “I wanted you as one wants a whore – for the same reason and purpose,” and “What I feel for you is contempt…”

Vile talk. But then, women are an inferior species in Rand’s world, a place where little girls need not dream of growing up to be President. “By the nature of her duties and daily activities,” writes Rand, “she would become the most unfeminine, sexless, metaphysically inappropriate, and rationally revolting figure of all: a matriarch.”

Rand’s creepy mise-en-scène is as ridden with criminality as it is with misogyny and sexual brutality.  One of its cartoonish heroes is a pirate named Ragnar Danneskjöld, who’s celebrated for stealing from humanitarian relief ships bound for poverty-stricken lands and giving the money – I’m not making this up – to the rich.

“I’m after a man whom I want to destroy,” says Ragnar. “… Robin Hood …”

Danneskjöld is described as follows:

… the face had no expression; it had not changed once while speaking; it looked as if the man had lost the capacity to feel long ago, and what remained of him were only features that seemed implacable and dead. With a shudder of astonishment, Rearden found himself thinking that it was not the face of a man, but of an avenging angel.

It sounds more like the face of a psychopath.

Rand’s heroes aren’t just rapists, woman-beaters, and thieves. They’re also terrorists who freely blow up or burn properties for ideological reasons, or simply because things didn’t turn out as they might have liked. (Fun exercise: Imagine how conservatives would react to Rand’s storylines if all the protagonists were black. Or Muslim.)

Then there’s the fraud. It’s praiseworthy in Rand’s eyes – if it’s practiced by the right sort of people. Francisco, the rapist/hero, even boasts about defrauding investors from the “looters’” parasitical economy. In an ironic foreshadowing of Galt’s Gulch in Chile, he brags about building defective housing for Mexican workers as part of a government contract:

Well, those steel-frame houses are mainly cardboard, with a coating of good imitation shellac. They won’t stand another year. The plumbing pipes – as well as most of our mining equipment – were purchased from dealers whose main source of supply are the city dumps of Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro. I’d give those pipes another five months, and the electric system about six. The wonderful roads we graded up four thousand feet of rock for the People’s State of Mexico, will not last beyond a couple of winters: they’re cheap cement without foundation, and the bracing at the bad turns is just painted clapboard. Wait for one good mountain slide …

“Wait for one good mountain slide” – with those workers’ families inside, of course. Comedy gold, amirite?

Is it any wonder that a venture inspired by this book eventually defrauded its customers? And yet, despite the allegations against them, Gawker’s Adam Weinstein tells us that, “GGC developers will still sell you a 1,200-acre “Master Estate” for a mere $500,000. As long as you’re also willing to extend GGC developers a $2 million ‘Founders Club’ loan along with that $500,000, which they’ll totally pay back, they swear.”

Weinstein snarks, “That silence you hear? That’s the sound of Atlas shrugging.”

But hold the schadenfreude for a second. Every victim of criminal fraud deserves compassion, even when they admire a writer who idealizes greed. McElroy appears to be the kind of libertarian who, however misguided one may consider her economic views, can be found on the frontlines of many a good fight – for civil liberties and individual freedom, and against militarism.

McElroy says she still has faith in the project’s founder – Mr. “Yes, you read that right!” – and believes that other partners were responsible for the malfeasance. But one of the reasons the “Galt’s Gulch” crowd chose Chile is because of that country’s lax regulatory environment. Regulations exist for a reason. The Randians’ blind hatred of them, and of the democratic governments which establish them, flies in the face of reason.  Would they object to the recent regulatory actions which resulted in Graco, the baby products corporation, recalling more than six million infant car seats? Would it change their minds if they knew that Graco’s improperly designed strollers resulted to the strangulation deaths of four babies in 2010?

But then, a hatred of regulation is part of Rand’s profound contempt for democracy itself, which can be seen in her description of  “the woman in Roomette 9, Car No. 12 … a housewife who believed that she had the right to elect politicians, of whom she knew nothing, to control giant industries, of which she had no knowledge.”

Rand and her followers don’t think that a “housewife” has the right to elect politicians who regulate giant industries. The parents of those four strangled infants would probably disagree.

Hopefully the criminal justice system will bring justice to the McElroy household and to other fraud victims. These government agencies can be very effective at such tasks, although perhaps less so now that tax cuts for the wealthy have eaten into their operating budgets.

The truth is that we need government, in the form of police, legislatures – and yes, regulators- to protect us from the psychopathic lack of empathy which, along with the sadomasochistic sexuality, is such an integral part of the Randian ideal.

What sort of society would voluntarily surrender itself people like the sociopath Ragnar, the rapist Francisco, or the rough-trade cruiser Rearden? That would be an act of collective masochism.

And let’s get one thing straight: Ayn Rand isn’t a deep thinker. She’s a gelatinous mass of chaotic and violent drives, loosely wrapped in pseudo-Nietzschian babble. Her writings are intellectually shallow econo-porn, part Kraft-Ebbing and part Horatio Alger, possessing neither coherence nor philosophical depth.  Rand writes that Galt’s Gulch represents “the mind on strike,” but it’s more like a work slowdown.

Atlas Shrugged’s long-awaited last line reads as follows:

“He raised his hand and over the desolate earth he traced in space the sign of the dollar.”

Some of those now-invisible air dollars belong to fraud victims like the McElroys, victims who went looking for “the motor of the world” and got the shaft instead.

Our libertarian friends seem to think that government produces an over-regimented, insect-like society comprised only of rulers and drones. But the only governments which have turned out that way are either corporation-run or practice a Communist model of “state capitalism.” Democracy has never produced the kind of regimentation which the average corporation now demands of its employees and customers.

It’s greed, not government, which subjugates us today. Nobody wants to be an insect, but Rand and her followers want to turn society into a hive filled with sociopathic bees. When that happens, as the investors in Chile learned, somebody’s bound to get stung.

XM24: survival and inspiration against all odds

by ROAR Collective on September 14, 2014

Post image for XM24: survival and inspiration against all oddsThe story of the XM24 squat in Bologna is one of struggle and resistance, of hope and inspiration; a story about the self-management of everyday life.

By Sean Patrick Casey and Giulia Zapata Foresti

XM24 is a self-managed social center and public space in Bologna, Italy. It was first occupied in 2002, but its origins go back to the 1990s, to the social centers and the anti-globalization movement of that decade. It is heterogeneous and non-hegemonic, but it holds anti-fascism, anti-sexism and anti-racism to be the three common points that hold the space, its collectives and its individuals together in a revolutionary and pluralistic identification with the broader anti-capitalist movement.

The object of this article, written by two militants of the space, is to give a sense of our story and daily practice that, we hope, will be useful to comrades outside of the Italian context.

Birth of a global space: 1999-2002

The story of the XM24 social space begins with the protest movement that exploded in 1999 after the Seattle riots. That movement took shape in Bologna the next year, with the creation of the Contropiani network. This network played a central role in the mobilization against the OECD summit. The summit, held in Bologna itself, represented yet another moment in which globalization and development were being discussed behind closed doors, with countless issues not even on the agenda, like worker’s rights, oppression of indigenous peoples and the devastation of the environment under neoliberalism.

The network needed a physical space to organize meetings and prepare the mobilization, so in July 2000 an abandoned warehouse on via Ranzani was occupied, filling an abandoned space with people and their desires. Starting from here many different paths began to intersect, creating a common space around concepts like the need for free circulation of people and of knowledge, a global minimum and living wage, the globalization of rights rather than that of capital.

All these points were at the center of building opposition to neoliberal globalization. The same words and slogans were yelled at the G8 summit in Genoa, in 2001. It was in everyone’s hearts that the cultural and generational multiplicity that made those massive demonstrations possible, the independent information media activism project represented by Indymedia, the Social Forums, legal aid volunteers, joy, determination and militant solidarity, be the only characteristics of that summit. Instead there was harsh repression from the state, culminating in the death of 23-year old Carlo Giuliani; the brutal beatings at the Diaz school; and the legalized torture of detained protesters at the Bolzaneto barracks.

In December 2001 the spaces of via Ranzani were evicted by the police. The city administration then assigned the spaces of the former city fruit and vegetable market, in via Fioravanti 24 to the various collectives which had been based in via Ranzani. The agreement was public, but informal, and as a consequence the initial entry into the 3.000 square meter space represented an occupation. The occupants were not a homogeneous collective with a common political line, but multiple intersecting subjectivities that since Ranzani had been carrying on various political projects.

The occupants were aware that they were giving a space back to the neighborhood – a working class area which was very important in the resistance to fascist occupation. The space had been abandoned for years and was falling apart, ugly, and had become a hotspot for drug dealers and addicts alike.

Now it was revived by people with different life stories and projects, but with a common objective: to short-circuit neoliberal mechanisms, producing social justice and horizontal social spaces. The weekly assembly took on a strong political weight in the self-management of the space in furtherance of these objectives, becoming the space in which to collectively discuss how to keep alive a project that was full of political and social potential.

Repression, reflection, innovation: the first decade of XM24

Brutal police violence, the assassination of Carlo Giuliani and the subsequent media cover up and legal repression did not succeed in neutralizing the social center movement in Italy that XM24 had emerged from, but the long-term effect was both weakening and traumatic. The end of the movement against the war in Iraq (2002-’04) can be taken as the beginning of the “fase di riflusso”, the ebb phase, when the accumulated strength of years of struggle subsided and the movement began to lose traction, street presence and social relevance.

The flip-side of this decrease in collective strength was a sharp increase in the legal repression of activists, and a country-wide attempt to make the occupation of social centers, and the occupation tactic in general, impossible. Historic social centers, including legalized ones, came under increasing pressure from city administrations which attempted to exploit the situation to wipe out decades of political work and struggle.

In Bologna this situation was particularly felt, due to the center-left mayor’s decision to launch a law and order campaign whose main target was the city’s social and housing occupations. Between 2004 and 2007 the police carried out numerous evictions, and activists received hundreds of citations, frequently finding themselves charged with subversion of the democratic order – a law of fascist origin – for actions as simple as the interruption of a city council meeting or the self-reduction of a meal at the university’s cafeteria (the most expensive in Italy).

This period also saw, on a national level, a sharp increase in neo-fascist violence against social centers, activists, migrants and members of the LGBTQ community. This period of relative isolation and repression, which coincided with the first years of XM24’s existence, contributed to the definition of the space’s political priorities, discourses and campaigns.

The political interventions practiced by the space and by the collectives and networks active in it in this period were largely, but not exclusively, along three broad lines: a collective attempt to re-imagine the theory and practice of anti-fascism; the collective and participatory theorizing of self-management; and the support of migrant activism against institutional and cultural racism and labor exploitation.

The desire to re-imagine anti-fascism was a direct result of the heterogeneous and non-hegemonic composition of the assembly of the space. A particular contribution to this debate came from the queer collectives active in the space, which encouraged an analysis of fascism and anti-fascism that took into consideration the patriarchal and hetero-sexist nature of fascist and neo-fascist discourse and culture.

The urban laboratory

The increasing pressure that social spaces were coming under provoked an intense debate regarding the nature of occupation, self-organization and self-management in the context of broader political struggle. Within XM24 itself the debate centered on the relationship of the space to the city administration and more importantly to the Bolognina neighborhood in which it was situated and on whether it was possible to interact with local institutions while at the same time practicing politics in an autonomous way, that is, without falling into a trap and being “recovered” by the mechanisms of capital and its governance.

This approach was tested when the space decided to collectively participate in the Laboratorio di Urbanistica Partecipata (‘Laboratory of Urban Participation’), initiated by the local administration to involve different social realities of the Bolognina neighborhood in the process of deciding the course of a large construction project to be realized in the area. While the end results revealed the bad faith of both the administration and construction companies, the experience proved valuable in terms of relating to local situations outside of the radical left scene, which in the future would prove very valuable.

In order to defend itself, but more importantly to counter-attack the institutional attempt at removing the social center experience from the map, XM24 began the process of developing a collective discourse of self-management. This process centered on common points that permitted the development of a broad and pluralistic political debate: the inseparability of self-management from a political culture and praxis that is anti-fascist, anti-sexist, anti-racist and anti-authoritarian; the political incompatibility of self-management with the legalistic framework of institutional urban policy; and the central role of self-management of spaces and life in the broader anti-capitalist and social justice movement.

In 2008 the On the Move Project was born from the Migrants Coordination, a youth-oriented community organizing project that has become an important voice for working class migrant and Italian youth, many from the Bolognina neighborhood, which has campaigned for citizenship rights for migrant youth born or raised in Italy. XM24 has had a central role in these mobilizations and projects, both as host and more generally as an openly multi-ethnic and anti-racist space, which during a period of increasing institutional and cultural racism never stopped openly opposing racism and supporting (politically, humanly and economically) migrant and anti-racist struggles.

These struggles made Bologna a center for the migrant struggle in the Italian context. Some important examples of this were the first of Migrant Strikes and support for migrant workers of the logistics sector who have carried out dozens of strikes and pickets over the past few years.

Over the years many major events have contributed to the construction of XM24′s political identity and presence. For ten years XM24 was the home of the Anti-MTVday. The event celebrated independence from major labels, accessibility and diversification of underground music, and the self-management of the creation and distribution process. United by the slogan “Stop music business and television lobotomy”, thousands of people from all over Italy and other European countries would come to XM24 for the autumn festival, which in ten years hosted hundreds of bands and independent record labels.

The Bologna Festival Burn of 2013 supported, through concerts, art performances and street art, various other spaces in the city that produce culture from below and develop political, cultural and social alternatives to mainstream models. In 2005 the social center entered into the Critical Wine – Terra e Libertà network, a project that foments the creation of new global sensibilities relating to food and the environment, aiming at liberation from the consumerist model of production and alimentation.

This is the same objective behind CampiAperti, the self-managed cooperative network of farmers who belong to the social center and hold a farmers market of biological produce every Thursday, an event that draws dozens of people, young and old, to the space every week. The social center also has a collective garden, in the shadows of the massive construction works happening behind the space, a little bit of green in a sea of cement and speculation.

Under attack: “The Battle for XM24”

The city administration had promised during its participation in the Laboratory of Urban Participation the massive development project known as Trilogia Navile in the abandoned area behind XM24 would only remove a small part of the social center’s courtyard necessary to construct a roundabout. However, when the final project was made public it was revealed that the actual project called for the demolition of a significant portion of the structure itself; the kitchen, gym and one of two concert spaces.

It became clear that with the pretext of the roundabout the city administration was attempting to weaken, if not eventually evict XM24. The mobilization in defense of the space was a challenging moment in the history of the space, in that it required an enormous amount of discussion, research and organizing, attempting to maintain consensus, transparency and horizontalism in every moment of the campaign.

The parting shot of the campaign was the painting of an enormous mural on the wall intended for demolition, by world-famous street artist Blu, whose murals have adorned XM24′s walls since its birth. The mural depicts the city of Bologna as a Lord of the Rings-style clash between good and evil, center and periphery, social movements and city rulers. The mural drew massive attention to the campaign, on a political and artistic level, and became a symbol of the struggle to save the space.

The campaign organized several very successful events in which artists, writers and musicians performed in support of the campaign, drawing thousands of people to XM24 and reminding city administrators what would happen if the space were evicted.

The campaign culminated in the blocking of the first day of works to construct the roundabout, in which activists conducted a press conference and presented city administrators with an alternative set of plans, drawn up by comradely architects, for the construction of the roundabout.  This proved to be a winning strategy. Within hours a new round table was called by the city and within a few weeks the project for the demolition of part of XM24 was abandoned, and a roundabout similar to that initially projected by the Urban Laboratory was built.

Autogestione and the City: a committee for self-management

One of the main points in the discussions between XM24 and the city administration was the absence of any formal legal agreement between the space and the city. The city initially demanded that XM24 sign a traditional agreement, in which the space would constitute itself as a cultural association and sign a strict contract for the management of the space.

This proposal was rejected, on both political and practical grounds. In the face of this resolute rejection the City relented on its demands and an agreement was reached in which the space was “assigned” to a third party committee. This committee was established to permit the assignment process, without reducing the horizontal, non-hierarchical assembly of XM to a legally recognizable form.

The committee is a third party subject that vouches for the activities of XM24 without representing it. This agreement allowed the multifaceted experience of XM24 to go forward, reducing, but not eliminating, the gentrification-induced political pressure that the social center and its collectives face every day.

The creation of the committee in December 2013 coincided with the signing of an agreement with the city that for the moment legalizes the occupation of XM24. But it has a broader goal, which is the promotion and support of self-managed social experiences in Bologna with the objective of encouraging the spread of occupation tactics and self-management in the city.

These tactics are also seen as a fundamental part of the construction of radical direct democracy and social and political protagonism and participation from below to respond to the needs of communities. The political wager of the committee is that it will be a tool to defend self-managed spaces and practice social conflict. Various social centers and spaces from Bologna have decided to participate in it.

The situation today

On a day-to day basis, XM24 is a center for the self-management of everyday life in the Bolognina neighborhood. The Ampioraggio People’s Bike Shop, organizers of Bologna Critical Mass, the annual Human Motor mobilization against the Bologna Motor Show, and convergence space for many neighborhood residents, young and less young, migrant and Italian. The People’s Kitchen, a vegetarian, cruelty-free space has been a vital resource for political and social groups to organize benefit dinners for projects, legal aid and political prisoners for many years now. The People’s Free Gym is an open space for neighborhood residents to do yoga, aerial circus and many other arts without spending money.

The only central decision-making space is the assembly, every Tuesday night, frequently beginning late, always ending after midnight. It is a space of collective responsibility, where decisions affecting the whole space are made and where new people can come to propose projects or events. It is public and usually made up of thirty to forty people.

As in many spaces, finding a consensus is not always easy or automatic, but through horizontal decision-making and free participation the space is still functioning, twelve years on. The space is completely volunteer-run and self-financed, and is continuously hosting new projects in which those proposing are welcomed, but expected to take responsibility of the fact that they too are now participating in the management of the space, and not merely using it.

Giulia Zapata Foresti is a political activist who conducts research with a political and legal framework on minority rights and on the criminalization of social protest at an international level. She collaborates with different universities, has had experience in cooperation projects in Latin America and she is an independent publicist.

Sean Patrick Casey is an activist in the Migrants Coordination of Bologna, he writes for and belongs to the editorial collectives of Connessioni Precarie and Bolognina Basement.

http://roarmag.org/2014/09/xm24-social-center-bologna/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+roarmag+%28ROAR+Magazine%29

Atheist libertarians pose as skeptics — except when it comes to free markets and the nature of corporate power

The atheist libertarian lie: Ayn Rand, income inequality and the fantasy of the “free market”

The atheist libertarian lie: Ayn Rand, income inequality and the fantasy of the "free market"
Rand Paul, Ayn Rand, Richard Dawkins (Credit: AP/Timothy D. Easley/Reuters/Chris Keane)

Why atheists are disproportionately drawn to libertarianism is a question that many liberal atheists have trouble grasping.  To believe that markets operate and exist in a state of nature is, in itself, to believe in the supernatural. The very thing atheists have spent their lives fleeing from.

According to the American Values Survey, a mere 7 percent of Americans identify as “consistently libertarian.” Compared to the general population, libertarians are significantly more likely to be white (94 percent), young (62 percent under 50) and male (68 percent). You know, almost identical to the demographic makeup of atheists – white (95 percent), young (65 percent under 50) and male (67 percent). So there’s your first clue.

Your second clue is that atheist libertarians are skeptical of government authority in the same way they’re skeptical of religion. In their mind, the state and the pope are interchangeable, which partly explains the libertarian atheist’s guttural gag reflex to what they perceive as government interference with the natural order of things, especially “free markets.”

Robert Reich says that one of the most deceptive ideas embraced by the Ayn Rand-inspired libertarian movement is that the free market is natural, and exists outside and beyond government. In other words, the “free market” is a constructed supernatural myth.

There is much to cover here, but a jumping-off point is the fact that corporations are a government construct, and that fact alone refutes any case for economic libertarianism. Corporations, which are designed to protect shareholders insofar as mitigating risk beyond the amount of their investment, are created and maintained only via government action.  “Statutes, passed by the government, allow for the creation of corporations, and anyone wishing to form one must fill out the necessary government paperwork and utilize the apparatus of the state in numerous ways. Thus, the corporate entity is by definition a government-created obstruction to the free marketplace, so the entire concept should be appalling to libertarians,” says David Niose, an atheist and legal director of the American Humanist Association.

In the 18th century, Adam Smith, the granddaddy of American free-market capitalism, wrote his economic tome “The Wealth of Nations.” But his book has as much relevance to modern mega-corporation hyper-capitalism today as the Old Testament has to morality in the 21st century.



Reich says rules that define the playing field of today’s capitalism don’t exist in nature; they are human creations. Governments don’t “intrude” on free markets; governments organize and maintain them. Markets aren’t “free” of rules; the rules define them. “In reality, the ‘free market’ is a bunch of rules about 1) what can be owned and traded (the genome? slaves? nuclear materials? babies? votes?); 2) on what terms (equal access to the Internet? the right to organize unions? corporate monopolies? the length of patent protections?); 3) under what conditions (poisonous drugs? unsafe foods? deceptive Ponzi schemes? uninsured derivatives? dangerous workplaces?); 4) what’s private and what’s public (police? roads? clean air and clean water? healthcare? good schools? parks and playgrounds?); 5) how to pay for what (taxes, user fees, individual pricing?). And so on.”

Atheists are skeptics, but atheist libertarians evidently check their skepticism at the door when it comes to corporate power and the self-regulatory willingness of corporations to act in the interests of the common good. In the mind of an atheist libertarian, both religion and government is bad, but corporations are saintly. On what planet, where? Corporations exist for one purpose only: to derive maximum profit for their shareholders. “The corporation’s legally defined mandate is to pursue, relentlessly and without exception, its own self-interest, regardless of the often harmful consequences it might cause others,” writes Joel Bakan, author of “The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power.”

Corporations pollute, lie, steal, oppress, manipulate and deceive, all in the name of maximizing profit. Corporations have no interest for the common good. You really believe Big Tobacco wouldn’t sell cigarettes to 10-year-olds if government didn’t prohibit it? Do you really think Big Oil wouldn’t discharge more poisons and environmentally harmful waste into the atmosphere if government regulations didn’t restrict it? Do you really believe Wal-Mart wouldn’t pay its workers less than the current minimum wage if the federal government didn’t prohibit it? If you answered yes to any of the above, you may be an atheist libertarian in desperate need of Jesus.

That awkward pause that inevitably follows asking a libertarian how it is that unrestricted corporate power, particularly for Big Oil, helps solve our existential crisis, climate change, is always enjoyable. “Corporations will harm you, or even kill you, if it is profitable to do so and they can get away with it … recall the infamous case of the Ford Pinto, where in the 1970s the automaker did a cost-benefit analysis and decided not to remedy a defective gas tank design because doing so would be more expensive than simply allowing the inevitable deaths and injuries to occur and then paying the anticipated settlements,” warns Niose.

In the 1970s, consumer protection advocate Ralph Nader became famous for helping protect car owners from the unsafe practices of the auto industry. Corporate America, in turn, went out of its way in a coordinated effort, led by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, to destroy Nader. The documentary “Unreasonable Man” demonstrates how corporate CEOs of America’s biggest corporations had Nader followed in an attempt to discredit and blackmail him. General Motors went so far as to send an attractive lady to his local supermarket in an effort to meet him, and seduce him. That’s how much corporate America was fearful of having to implement pesky and costly measures designed to protect the well-being of their customers.

Today America is facing its greatest moral crisis since the civil rights movement, and its greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression: income inequality. Now, income inequality doesn’t happen by accident. It happens by the political choices a country makes. Today America is the most income unequal among all developed nations, and we find ourselves here today not because of government regulation or interference, but a lack thereof. The past three decades have seen our political class become totally beholden to the armies of corporate lobbyists who fund the political campaigns of our elected officials. Today the bottom 99 percent of income earners has no influence on domestic policy whatsoever.

The unilateral control that Wall Street and mega-corporations have over economic policy is now extreme, and our corporate overlords have seen to the greatest transfer of wealth from the middle class to the rich in U.S. history, while corporations contribute their lowest share of total federal tax revenue ever. The destruction of labor; serf-level minimum wage; and the deregulation, monopolization and privatization of public assets have pushed us deeper into becoming a winner-takes-all society.

In effect, America virtually exists as a libertarian state, certainly when compared to liberal democracies found in Western Europe, Canada and Australia. In these countries, there’s a sense of “we are all in this together,” but here the romantic idealism of the rugged individual allows corporate influence of the political class to gut public safety nets, eradicate collective bargaining, strip regulatory control of our banks, water, skies and our food.

By every measure, Australians, Scandinavians, Canadians, Germans and the Dutch are happier and more economically secure. The U.N. World Development Fund, the U.N. World Happiness Index and the Social Progress Index contain the empirical evidence atheist libertarians  should seek, and the results are conclusive: People are happier, healthier and more socially mobile where the size of the state is bigger, and taxes and regulations on corporations are greater. You know, the opposite of the libertarian dream that would turn America into a deeper nightmare.

CJ Werleman is the author of “Crucifying America” and “God Hates You. Hate Him Back.” You can follow him on Twitter:  @cjwerleman

 

http://www.salon.com/2014/09/14/the_atheist_libertarian_lie_ayn_rand_income_inequality_and_the_fantasy_of_the_free_market/?source=newsletter

C.S. Lewis on True Friendship

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“Friendship … has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which gave value to survival.”

“What is so delicious as a just and firm encounter of two, in a thought, in a feeling?” Emerson marveled in his exquisite meditation on friendship. But what, exactly, is at the heart of this “just and firm encounter”?

In his insightful 1960 book The Four Loves (public library), C.S. Lewis picks up where Aristotle left off and examines the differences between the four main categories of intimate human bonds — affection, the most basic and expressive; Eros, the passionate and sometimes destructive desire of lovers; charity, the highest and most unselfish spiritual connection; and friendship, the rarest, least jealous, and most profound relation.

In one of the most beautiful passages, he considers how friendship differs from the other three types of love by focusing on its central question: “Do you see the same truth.”

Lewis writes:

Lovers seek for privacy. Friends find this solitude about them, this barrier between them and the herd, whether they want it or not.

[...]

In a circle of true Friends each man is simply what he is: stands for nothing but himself. No one cares twopence about anyone else’s family, profession, class, income, race, or previous history. Of course you will get to know about most of these in the end. But casually. They will come out bit by bit, to furnish an illustration or an analogy, to serve as pegs for an anecdote; never for their own sake. That is the kingliness of Friendship. We meet like sovereign princes of independent states, abroad, on neutral ground, freed from our contexts. This love (essentially) ignores not only our physical bodies but that whole embodiment which consists of our family, job, past and connections. At home, besides being Peter or Jane, we also bear a general character; husband or wife, brother or sister, chief, colleague, or subordinate. Not among our Friends. It is an affair of disentangled, or stripped, minds. Eros will have naked bodies; Friendship naked personalities.

Hence (if you will not misunderstand me) the exquisite arbitrariness and irresponsibility of this love. I have no duty to be anyone’s Friend and no man in the world has a duty to be mine. No claims, no shadow of necessity. Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself… It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which gave value to survival.

The Four Loves is a superb read in its entirety, provocative at times but invariably thoughtful throughout. Complement it with Andrew Sullivan on why friendship is a greater gift than romantic love and a curious history of the convergence of the two in “romantic friendship,” then revisit Lewis on suffering and what free will really means, the secret of happiness, the key to authenticity in writing, and his ideal daily routine.

 

 

http://www.brainpickings.org/2014/09/08/c-s-lewis-four-loves-friendship/

Inmate No Longer Here: the struggle for prison justice


by Manos Cizek on September 13, 2014

Post image for Inmate No Longer Here: the struggle for prison justiceCecily McMillan and Lucy Parks reflect on Occupy and the struggle for prison justice: ‘We’re going to see a big movement. It’s coming, that’s clear.’

Cecily McMillan is an American activist who actively participated in Occupy Wall Street and who now advocates for prisoner rights in the United States. In March 2012, she was arrested as protesters tried to re­occupy Zuccotti Park in Manhattan. She was convicted of assaulting a New York City police officer and sentenced to 90 days in prison and probation for a subsequent five years. Cecily was released in July 2014 after serving 58 days at Rikers Island.

Lucy Parks is an Occupy Wall Street activist who has also acted as field coordinator for the ‘Justice for Cecily’ support team.

Manos Cizek is a media activist and independent filmmaker from Greece. He recently sat down with Cecily and Lucy for an exclusive ROAR interview about Occupy, Cecily’s experiences at Rikers Island, and the struggle for prison justice in the United States. Photo by Jenna Pope.

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MANOS: How do you see the continuation of the Occupy movement in the context of prison justice and the combination of these two movements?


CECILY: I think that the Occupy movement still exists, not in the sense that it is on the ground, not in the sense that it is a tangible movement that is emerging, but it exists in the sense that we have started a class dialog, we have started a class commentary. Any time we’re talking about a corporatocracy, any time we’re talking about corporate control of our democracy, the lack of a middle class, the sinking of the working class into an underclass, that is the Occupy movement. And when you radar that into the prison justice movement, what you get is a move from human rights and racism into a class dialog.

So you can really contextualize the problem on the many layers that affect what prison justice is. Right now in New York it’s very difficult for us to get beyond the targeting of black and brown men. That is the strongest reality here. But there are many poor white people who are being targeted just the same in other prisons, in other jails, throughout the United States. In this sense it’s important to recognize that there is a human rights violation, that there is a corporate value to keeping people inside private prisons, that there is a racist marker on black and brown men in particular that sends them to these incarceration systems.

LUCY: I think it has been really good at uniting the dialogs of race and classism which is important because so much racism is tied up in class politics, and so much of the racist system we have is built to keep people of color poor—and then uniting them also with the poor white people and then bringing it back to Wall Street and the strong Occupy battle of the 99% against the banks. I think it draws a strong connection and is a way to make sure that the blame is put where it’s deserved, which is on the corporatocracy.

CECILY: The prison justice movement is also the first real shot at a true concept of “We are the 99%”, which is essentially what we need in order to build a true civil rights era-style social movement. What I mean is not that we’re going to necessarily work by the same model of the civil rights movement, but in order for such a movement to take hold in our country and make real changes, there need to be multiple arenas of accessibility from the bottom up.

So it really is the first point of merging the various people that are asking for change into a cross-race, cross-cultural, cross-class—and now we’re adding with our work at Rosie’s—cross-gender social movement. Which is what you have to have in order to have a social movement; it can’t be a minority of people because that’s a campaign. A movement allows for access to all.

MANOS: You’ve recently delivered a petition and sat down for a meeting with Commissioner Ponte, on August 25. Are you happy about the meeting, and what are you expecting to get out of it?

CECILY: That was huge. City council people, public advocates—everybody has been talking about how difficult it is to get a sit-down meeting with Commissioner Ponte. We were so surprised. We went there not expecting a full-on meeting. We went there expecting to wait him out until he showed up to take our petitions. To get a sit-down meeting is a win beyond anything we could imagine. But it just goes to show you that 25 people, who are recognized as people, who are recognized with the rights as citizens, that if they go across that bridge, if they make the move to stand by prisoners that are being held on Rikers, that is so terrifying; they were so ready to get us off that island that this is what they offered us!

LUCY: One thing that struck me about the petition delivery was that the police presence was incredible. I mean it was a petition delivery through very peaceful action, we had around 25 people which is not huge, but they still outnumbered us with police officers wearing riot gear and they set up barricades. And what that really shows is exactly how scared of us they are. We know that something we are doing is working and they feel threatened by it.

CECILY: And that’s I think where we have to get to right now in social movement building in our country. We need to start recognizing the tactics of the government and the tactics of the police as a marker of our power, when they show up in force and in mass like this. We need to expect it. We need to plan for it. And we need to go about campaigns in an actionable way; what are we going to do if they do X, Y and Z. I think right now, to a large degree, we’re still really caught up in spectacle.

MANOS: Cecily, what experience did you get out of your trial, and in what ways does that experience relate to the Chelsea Manning’s court support effort that you were a part of?

CECILY: Lucy is actually the mastermind of our court support effort. I was in support of Chelsea Manning, of course, but court support is a nuanced level of direct action. I’m advocating ultimately that from the moment you step onto the street to the moment you go to jail, to the moment that you go to court, that you as an activist must follow through with your convictions and not plead out.

Less than 5% of felony cases right now go to trial and when I was in Rikers I was the only person that I met my entire time there who had been to trial. And so we have a privilege beyond anybody else to stand trial, to expose the justice system for what it is, and the big lesson here is: if you choose to give up your cultural privilege, if you choose to not take the pathway of striving to become a part of the 1%, then, if you choose to stand by people of color and poor folks and people who have been marginalized, then you will be treated like one.

Your cultural privilege, your white privilege, your class privilege, will be removed from you and will not save you from jail. But nonetheless, you as a by-product of that privilege, you have the best fighting shot to expose the justice system for what it is: another arm of the corporatocracy. You must, as a point of your values, as a point of your commitment, as an organizer, go to trial and possibly go to jail.

LUCY: Chelsea Manning was on trial for something that she was able to make a conscious choice in doing, but then Cecily was on trial for something that happened to her. And then Chelsea Manning was also in military court and we were in Manhattan State court. One of the people in the support team had gone down to Texas to do court support for the Chelsea Manning trial. We had a sketch artist, actually, who had sketched the Chelsea Manning trial extensively, who came to do some sketches of this trial. So we drew some parallels, but not a whole lot in terms of court support, other than packing the courts and trying to get press attention and all of that. I think we drew more on the court support model from CeCe McDonald.

CECILY: I think ultimately what we’d like to utilize court support for is to constantly build more avenues into supporting the Left, standing up for our rights. It’s a low level of accessibility into a movement that allows people to see what they thought were secured and safe-guarded rights for every citizen; the right to a speedy trial, the right to a jury, the principle of innocence until proven guilty. It’s a way for people to see the cracks in our system firsthand, as they’re sitting there and they relate to the individual who is being tried.

LUCY: It’s a civics lesson.

CECILY: We also hope that this model will be transferrable to any single person in our movement who falls, and in that sense it has a sort of unifying effect right now inside a very fractured Left.

MANOS: Lucy, what are the difficulties you encountered upon coordinating the actions of Justice for Cecily’s support team? Did you find stronger support from within the United States or from abroad?

LUCY: The trial lasted a month, so I was going in at least 3 to 4 days a week, every week for a month. The entire court support team and half of us are students, the other half of us have real jobs. We always had someone outside the courtroom to greet people, give them flyers, talk to them about etiquette and I literally would have to sit down every night before the next day of court and draw out a master schedule of when everyone had to leave to go to class or work, who could be there when.

Some days we faced challenges of not having enough people in court, by the end we faced the challenge of having way too many people there. But really everyone was incredibly supportive and everyone banded together to help us in ways that I’ve never seen before. I do think that the support came more from the United States. We had a petition that got 200.000 signatures on it and then we also had a decent amount of international support. I know we had a lot of articles published in Latin America about the trial, a lot of articles in Vietnam actually about the trial, The Guardian did also a lot of the best coverage.

I think the main challenge we faced honestly was tiredness, burnout and lack of time.

CECILY: We had no sense of what we were really up against. I think to a degree all of us did still have an idea, did still want to believe that there was some sort of justice in the justice system. It was really shocking.

LUCY: Also everyone in the court support team was very young. I mean I’m 19, most folks were between 21 and 25, with a few folks who were 31 and 32, and a few folks who were also 19. We had a lot of naïvité and that worked against us in a lot of ways. But it also worked for us in some ways, in that I think when you don’t have an experience that tells you that what you’re doing is not gonna work, then you’re more likely to believe that it will work and then you’re more likely to be able to make it work.

CECILY: And when it doesn’t work, it breaks your heart in a way that allows you to see the system for what it is and say “Well, fuck you! You’re not going to get us down, we’re going to figure out another fucking way.” And so with the upcoming trial on September 15, as a result of the targeted arrest while I was awaiting trial, we will go forward with the same court support model again, but of course this time we are considering jury nullification.

LUCY: There was one juror actually who came to the press and admitted that he still believed Cecily was innocent at the end of jury deliberation, he just didn’t realize that it was OK for there to just be one person that thinks the defendant is innocent and thought that jury is supposed to be a unanimous decision, not a majority decision. And to quote him, he went with the ‘guilty’ verdict because he “didn’t want to fight a losing battle and also didn’t know that she was facing serious prison time.”

CECILY: He wasn’t fighting a losing battle. He believed I was innocent and had he just maintained that position, then it would have been held a mistrial. In a hung jury there would have been a chance for the trial to have been redone; at which juncture we would have had an opportunity to get in all of the evidence that had been edited out by the court. Now as we’re fighting the appeal we’re gonna have to go forward with the case with the same evidence that was presented. If we win the appeal’s case the probation will be gone and we will have an opportunity for a retrial.

MANOS: So you’re currently on probation for 5 years and you’re a felon, so you can’t vote for the next 7 years.

CECILY: Oh there’s so much more than that. I have 3 teacher certifications, most of my life I work with children. Before this, I was an Upper East Side nanny. Even in jail I was a suicide prevention aid to the adolescents in Rose M. Singer Center. I’ve always worked with children. I had always wanted to possibly become a foster parent. So I can’t work with children at all as a felon, in any public institution. I don’t think I can even work at McDonald’s, actually. We were looking at houses in Atlanta the other day, the other team member Paul and I, and so many of the housing requirements say “no felons, don’t even ask.”

Through my probation, I actually cannot have any contact with the police. If I have any contact with the police I have to report it. So, we now have to consider what actions, what marches I can go to; there are certain events that I can’t go to on the Left anymore, because if there is another felon there, part of our probation is that we cannot interact with other felons. I can’t move without notice and I can’t leave the state unless I give 45 days notice to the judge.

LUCY: It’s a new type of jail time, and also 5 years probation is so long. Usually, when they give that type of probation, what they’re trying to say is that they really want to send her back to jail. Because they didn’t get away with giving her the long sentence they wanted to the first time, and they’re trying to do that in a quieter way and a way in which they can assassinate her character even further.

CECILY: It’s a setup. I mean, everybody in Rose M. Singer Center said “5 years probation? That’s a setup.” I have to go in every month to do a hand scan which monitors if I have been using any drugs—I don’t—that’s good. The probation officer can show up at any point at my home, at my workplace, they can ask me to come by any time. I mean, if they would like to use me for some sort of radical Left GPS system, they can. They can make me quit a job if they don’t see it as a reputable job. If I’m not working, or not in school, I go back to jail. If I don’t have a residency that’s stable, I go back to jail.

MANOS: Are there any statistics on the amount of people that are dying in Rikers Prison?



CECILY: This is the most fucked up part. Judith, the woman who ended up dying as a by-product of medical neglect, the woman I had met while she was in Rikers, she had been throwing up blood violently for hours. The inmates rallied together: “bring her down into the infirmary!” She’s admitted to the hospital, put in critical care— two weeks later she’s dead. Her autopsy shows: death unknown. Every single one of her organs had shut down. Had been totally destroyed. Her womb collapsed. There was no reason that all of that would have enacted given the way that she had presented when she came to the jail.

Now, how do we know that? Her sister got into contact with me. How did her sister get into contact with me? She’s in Florida; her sister is also a Correctional Officer. She found out that her sister had died, when she sent her sister a letter and the letter had been returned: “Inmate no longer here.” So she went online and looked it up, and when she was looking up “Rikers Island”, after she had tried desperately to get a civil rights lawyer to look into it and had been denied several times, she was looking online at Rikers for information, stumbled upon my story, said “Could that be my Judith?”, contacted the New York Times, Michael Schwartz and Michael Winerip gave her my phone number, she called me and I told her what happened.

So if you can imagine all of those really lucky coincidences that lead her knowing what her sister’s life was like in her final days, how many people have that sort of luck? I’m terrified to know how many people actually do die in Rose M. Singer Center, when there’s a lack of inmate organization, when there’s a lack of resources, when there’s a lack of attention, when our country seems to be covering up the fact that women are even in prisons, except in a funny show like Orange Is the New Black. We’re gonna figure what those numbers are as we continue to investigate Rose M. Singer Center.

LUCY: And whatever numbers we find the real numbers will probably be higher.

CECILY: We’re terrified of the consequences.

MANOS: You were visited while in prison by Nadya, Masha and Peter, formerly of Pussy Riot, now having their NGO Zona Prava. How was that for you, and how is your current communication with them in the context of prison reform both in the United States but also around the world?

CECILY: I love them. It’s been one of the most alienating experiences to get out of jail and go back to a world where most of my friends do not have a lot of experience with the cultures that surround imprisonment. It’s been really hard to navigate what it is supposed to be to be a white woman speaking on these topics. Hanging out with Nadya and Masha and Peter for an entire day, we just went down to Battery Park and Peter made us chase a boat for a really long time. I mean, we’re just 24, 25 and 26 year old girls trying to do something right for this world, trying to make something more out of an experience that I think we all realize is really super commonplace for a lot of people in this world.

It’s been amazing to have them as comrades and in terms of the international piece, we are really looking forward to working on something sort of like “From Rikers to Russia” narrative that will start the international interconnectivity of discussing prisons as a human rights violation, particularly from a woman’s perspective, which we think hasn’t been done and will be more fruitful because women are socialized generally to be more community-building communal beings. Both of our teams are really committed to discourse and collaboration rather than competition and setting up an “us and them.” We’d like to make it a human “we” narrative. And I think that moving forward we are just all around delighted to work together.

LUCY: The other thing about Nadya, Masha and Peter is, they actually became a large part of the leniency campaign which is why Cecily is out of jail now, when they went and visited her at Rikers during the first weekend that she’d been in. They came and had breakfast with the support team in the morning and then I went over to Rikers with them, we talked about politics. Then they went in and visited Cecily and came out and were so amazed, that they then utilized all the resources that they had as a part of the petition campaign to get her out, and also as a part of the campaign we had of writing letters to the judge asking for that leniency. So, really, if they hadn’t been so wonderful in putting forward all their resources and energy on that, Cecily might still be at Rikers.

CECILY: We also have a running dialog with them about this concept that they referred to: “anti-fear”. In the sense that when there is terror, when there is police repression, when there is backlash, that’s not a marker of weakness on your behalf, that’s a marker of strength. When they fear you, if you can respond with anti-fear, you win. Because at the end of the day, all they have is their guns and all they have is their money. But if you present and you went out as a human being who’s willing to stand up against the money and against the guns and maintain your personhood, maintain your dignity, maintain your respect, maintain your personal narrative as somebody who’s just trying to be good for others, you win.

And yeah, the consequences grow greater and greater as you become more successful. But at the end of the day, what is living if this is the world that we’re living in?

MANOS: Talk to me about October’s Month of Resistance to Mass Incarceration.

LUCY: We’re working with an organization called the Stop Mass Incarceration Network, started by Cornel West and Carl Dix, who are both great folks and have been working on this for a few years, and who are now putting together this October Month. It’s becoming clearer and clearer that something big needs to happen around mass incarceration and police violence now, and in New York there are literally probably at least 100 different groups doing work around this. What we’re aiming to do in working with Stop Mass Incarceration Network in October, is to pull together those groups under a news heading of this Month of Resistance, to show how many people are doing work and to start coordinating so that it becomes a real movement.

I think Americans are becoming more and more aware—especially with books like The New Jim Crow—of the reality of the prison system. And then in October we also need to show how many people are doing work around the issue and get even more people involved, because there is the potential for an actual movement around this. We just need to pull together and we need to energize people. What we’re aiming to do is to create coalitions and do outreach and then build into something way bigger in the future.

CECILY: To mobilize people from all the various angles as well. Not only all the groups, but all the various angles. The Anti-Mass Incarceration Movement is a structural movement, because you can’t just target the prisons, you have to target the prosecutorial overreach, you have to target the appointment of judges by elected officials that are elected by money, you have to target the lack of resources that lead people into prisons out of classism and racism and oppression to begin with. You have to go at the back end; the lack of resources, the probation, the sort of statelessness that I was talking about. You have to address the statelessness of an entire class of people in our country in a way that requires, again, cross-class, cross-race, cross-culture and cross-gender coalitions.

Additionally, I think that it requires an inside-outside strategy; it requires radicalism outside of institutional projects but it also requires inside organization and actions in the prisons and outside support. I think it will be the first major step into uniting the 99%, in a way that we haven’t seen actualized yet—just verbalized. And one way we’re trying to get out this beforehand is by calling it what it is: this isn’t just racism, this isn’t just classism, this is political repression. When there is a government that specifically denies participation to an entire group of people and thus renders them stateless, thus renders them unable to participate as citizens to begin with, and then you put them in jail for that; that’s political repression. These are political prisoners.

And so I think that there lies within that narrative a possibility at mass political activation. We’re in it to win; to win massive structural changes that we want to see in our national government. We have a sense of revolution—our revolution is not violent, our revolution is to live the rest of our lives affecting movement after movement after movement until we unite more and more people that are not represented by this government, which is most of the people, to affect the government that will not only be more respectful towards the citizens here, but respectful of the world order that so many other countries are working avidly to create and that we continually undermine.

MANOS: What would be your ideal view of a correctional system? How would it function and feel? And if you could paint the picture with words, what would that be?

CECILY: No correctional system!

LUCY: Yeah, at least what I would like to see is eventually no jails, no prisons. It’s not effective at creating a better society. I think it would be a slow process to get there and I think that to build that society we have to address especially the huge class issues. And what I would like to see is more of a process of resort of justice, where if someone does something like steal something then it’s viewed as a community harm, and what you’d have to do is work to pay the person back. We need to address this in a way that actually builds a better, more productive society that is built on growth rather than punishment.

CECILY: To be honest the entire time that I was in the sentencee dorm—so that’s the women who have been sentenced at Rikers—I had by far the highest, most violent offense. The classes of women that I met there were generally one of four—I would say there’s only a handful of women who were there for something else: one being selling their bodies in order to feed themselves or their families, two was theft in some form or another in order to take care of themselves or their families, the third is addiction and the fourth is primarily mental health. And those four, to me it seems like those are not crimes, those are byproducts of our society that reflect a really violent form of poverty and a really violent form of alienation, which actually left these women no choice to do otherwise.

LUCY: Those aren’t crimes, those are modes of survival.

CECILY: Ultimately what I would like to see the prison justice systems replaced with, are rehabilitation systems. I think when somebody in our society commits a crime, it is because for whatever reason the society, as it is, is not functioning for them. It’s not working for them or they cannot see their place within it— they had not been given the avenues or the resources in order to participate in society—I mean, that was certainly true of my case; there was no avenue for us to address the government, so we started a social movement. We need to say why is this person not participating to the standards that we’ve set? Do we need to change the standards? Do we need to allow for more access to resources? Do they need therapy? Do they need food? Do they need more adequate housing? Like, there’s no sense of talking to people about why it is that they committed the crime that they committed. It’s just all of a sudden, you were a person and now you’re a number and numbers don’t have opinions or value.

LUCY: So basically, to sum it up, we want no jails, no prison. We want everyone to be fed, clothed, housed and taken care of, to the extent that we deserve to be as human beings.

CECILY: And that our country can afford! We spend more money on housing a prisoner—I think it’s something like five times as much in housing a prisoner per year—than we do on the average child at public schools. We are paying to put people in an inefficient system that just sends them back into crime. This system doesn’t benefit anybody. Except for maybe the private prison systems that are making a profit off of the people being there. It’s crazy. This is the 21st century!

MANOS: So equal access to resources seems to be part of the solution, but at the same time we have the private prison system that is part of the larger corporatocracy—and we should find a way around that as well.

CECILY: We’ll start with improving the conditions in jail right now, building those cross-class, cross-cultural, cross-race, cross-gender connections, building ever towards a common dialogue on human rights—for every person, regardless of where they are, deserves to be treated like a person—and what we perceive will erupt with the Prison Justice movement, as it begins to interconnect with the Student Debt movement, as it begins to interconnect with the Immigrant Rights movement. I think ultimately what we’re going to see is a social movement of some kind.

LUCY: Something pretty big.

CECILY: It’s coming, it’s bubbling. That’s clear. Ferguson has been valuable, in that it is seen as a marker of mobilized dissent coming and people are no longer content to be treated like Others and are responding in a way that says “No more!”, that says “We will not stand by anymore, we will not stand by, avert our eyes, keep our heads down and not look up and not stand up for our brothers and our sisters.” It’s coming. The duty that we have as American citizens, as our country terrorizes, rapes, harms, threatens and exploits so many other countries worldwide, ultimately we have to start a strong social movement here based on human rights, based on a cross-class dialogue.

We’re hoping that what has historically followed will continue to do so and we’d love to see obviously a series of mass uprisings throughout the world, to establish a new world order that is focused on organizing the people, for the people and by the people.

Transcribed by Manos Cizek, Maria Gioni, Ilios Poros, Anghelos Palioudakis and Lindsey Aliksanyan.

http://roarmag.org/2014/09/cecily-mcmillan-occupy-prison-justice/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+roarmag+%28ROAR+Magazine%29

data about how people behave on online dating sites paints a bleak picture about our true attitudes

OkCupid founder: “I wish people exercised more humanity” on OkCupid

OkCupid founder: "I wish people exercised more humanity" on OkCupid
(Credit: Ollyy via Shutterstock/Salon)

In late July, Christian Rudder, a co-founder of the online dating site OkCupid, plunged himself into the middle of an Internet maelstrom when he published a post with a classic poke-the-anthill headline: “We Experiment on Human Beings!”

The provocation came in the middle of a storm of commentary sparked by the revelations that Facebook had been purposefully manipulating its users’ emotions by tinkering with its news feed. Rudder contended that such tweaking was commonplace and normal. In OkCupid’s case, the company had temporarily adjusted its matching algorithm so that some people ended up with recommendations that the algorithm would normally have considered bad matches — and vice versa, some people whom the algorithm should have concluded were good matches were told they were a bad fit. There was no ill will involved; from Rudder’s perspective, it was just an experiment designed to serve the larger goal of improving the overall OkCupid user experience.

The Internet reacted harshly. But in an unplanned twist, the post turned out to be good publicity for Rudder’s new book, “Dataclysm: Who We Are When We Think No One’s Looking.” Case in point: I had an advance review copy of the book sitting on my desk, but it was only after the hoopla over Rudder’s blog post that I took a closer look and decided it was a must-read.

And indeed it is. “Dataclysm” is a well-written and funny look at what the numbers reveal about human behavior in the age of social media. It’s both profound and a bit disturbing, because, sad to say, we’re generally not the kind of people we like to think — or say — we are.

Rudder begins his book with a distressing opening salvo: two charts that reveal what age groups men and women generally find attractive. From age 20 to 50, women are consistent — they’re drawn to men who are in roughly the same age cohort. Men are equally consistent: From age 20-50, they are attracted to 20-year-olds. The discussion is over: Men are dogs.



Rudder’s data on race leads to similar implications — prejudice is alive and well on online dating states, and what we say — and don’t say — in our profiles offers impressive support for cultural stereotyping. Rudder does the math on what different groups are most or least likely to say in their profiles: Black men, for example, hardly ever mention Belle and Sebastian, snorkeling or “Dr Horrible’s Sing Along Blog.” White women don’t talk about slow jams, j-pop or Malcolm X. White guys, however, are really into mentioning their “blue eyes,” brewing beer, and Robert Heinlein. Asian men frequently say “tall for an Asian,” “gangnam style” and “noodle soup.”)

Rudder treats these insights into the human condition with bemused — and very useful — intelligence. We’re only just beginning to understand how much we can learn about ourselves and others from the data that is constantly being harvested from us. The more we know, the better armed we are to navigate the future.

Rudder spoke by phone to Salon from OkCupid’s offices in New York.

So men are sexists, and we’re all racist?

The more you look at the data, the more it does confirm the cynics’ intuition about humanity. People online are free to act out their worst impulses with very little incentive to act out their best. I guess it just goes to show how politeness or propriety keeps us decent human beings. Offline, society actually has a very good effect on behavior in a very large sense.

That raises an uncomfortable question: Does our wholesale move online undermine how society traditionally keeps us in line?

I’m not qualified to give a real opinion on where society as a whole is headed, but I think when you look at stuff like rage storms on Twitter, or even the thing that happened yesterday — the celebrity nude photos being leaked — you see that there are definitely some disgusting impulses that the Internet can gratify instantaneously. In the same way Cool Ranch Doritos gratify certain taste receptors that are probably not very good for my digestive tract, things like Twitter or Reddit or even OkCupid gratify our tastes in ways that should probably best be left unsated.

How does that make you feel as a researcher? Have you become more cynical as a result of what you’ve learned by watching how people behave on OkCupid?

I definitely have a certain amount of ambivalence about the Internet generally and what we do at OkCupid. OkCupid does a lot of great things. We do find people love, we do create marriage and children and happiness in a pure sense, in a way that, say, Amazon does not. But there is a downside: In the process of finding that love or sex or whatever they’re looking for, people are able to be more judgmental. It’s a fraught thing. I can see the good and the bad in all this, but where it all comes out in the end, I’m not sure. I think the existence of the Internet is a good thing, but I do wish people exercised more humanity in using these tools.

I’d like to break the format of the typical Q&A a bit, and just read some lines from your book that jumped out at me, and see if I can prompt you to elaborate on them. For example, you wrote that “the Internet will democratize our fundamental narrative.” What does that mean?

What I meant was that the Internet will enable, on a mass scale, something like what Howard Zinn was doing in his “People’s History of the United States.” Zinn’s trying to reach for what the common person thought about World War I or the Civil War, or go back and find out what a housewife in 1970 was thinking about her life. But by and large he had to put it all together from a few diaries and a ton of leg work and obviously there’s a lot of selection bias involved.

But in the future, as people continue to live out their lives through these technologies, all of our lives are almost by definition going to be captured. The computer that is crunching all that stuff pulls us all together. In a very real sense, we are all given the same weight in any of these calculations.

I guess that connects directly to another sentence that caught my eye: “With data, history can become deeper, it can become more.”

That’s exactly what I’m talking about.

How about, “It’s when people don’t understand their own hearts I get interested”?

I like it when you are able to look at a behavior in two ways. One: what people think they are doing or wish they were doing, and two: what they actually do. At OkCupid we have a great mechanism for looking at that: We have all these match questions where we ask people what they believe or what they think, and then we can go in and measure exactly what they are actually doing. I just think that the space between self-image and action is very interesting.

What data points jumped out at you the most?

Well, the most obvious thing is racial messaging patterns. We asked people about race and everybody is like, yeah, interracial marriage is totally great. Something like 96 percent are totally fine with it, or support it. We also asked people questions like “would you ever date someone who told a racist joke” and the answers are very strongly liberal in the way you would expect. Everybody is fine with it, blah blah blah. But then you go out and look at what people do or who they choose for themselves, and you see that this is just not the case. Race is a huge factor and certain types of interracial relationships — I wouldn’t say are taboo, but certainly in the aggregate they are less desirable.

Again this gets back to what we were talking about at the very beginning. If that’s what I want why don’t I just put that into the form? It would work better, if I was just honest with OkCupid and myself about what I wanted.

You mention Naomi Wolf’s “The Beauty Myth” and you wrote, “for the beauty myth, social media signifies judgment day.” Is this just a reflection of the fact that women who are considered highly attractive get by far the most messages from men?

I was having a little bit of fun. There’s just so much judgment that goes on in social media. If most myths are built around some kind of cataclysm or apocalypse, then for the beauty myth, Ragnarok is social media. Men who are free to judge photos without conforming to social norms go crazy clicking girls in bikinis.

Maybe the most discomfiting point you make in your book is your acknowledgment that the kind of people who work for the NSA crunching our data are much smarter than you are and have access to far more information. Eventually, the sophistication of the algorithms will become so great that pretty much everything important about us will be inferred from just a few data points. That’s scarily determinist. Do we even have free will when our data trail tells employers or the government or prospective mates exactly who we are?

That is a great question, and I don’t think I can give an answer that is both hopeful and honest. The tech industry side of me wants to say that this isn’t just a problem of social media — the same thing happens with your credit score, for example. But you are right. It is scary. There will always be highly motivated, powerful entities using this data for their own good, which often implies an adversarial relationship against you. I will say one thing: If we consider Facebook as stand-in for all this stuff, I think people have generally approached these social media networks with a level of naiveté that is changing. We’re beginning to understand the pitfalls of volunteering all this data about ourselves.

That’s why a book like “Dataclysm” is important. The more we know about what you guys are finding out, the easier it will be to set societal guidelines for how this information can be used, and to become masters of our information.

Exactly right. It’s a strange time for me and I’m sure for you too and anybody else working in this milieu. The technologies are pervasive but comprehension of them is not.

Which leads me to my final question. Let’s revisit that experiment in which you tweaked the matching algorithm. I think for a lot of people that smacked of manipulation that crossed over the line. It seemed different than just changing the layout of a page to see what works better. It seemed like you were messing with people’s minds. Why did you do it?

Let me just step back and add a little more context. So, we tweaked an algorithm. Now, some algorithms can be considered as a sort of fact. If you are trying to pull a record out of a database there is a canonical or fastest way or best way to do it and to deviate from that would be silly or would be wrong in a real sense. But when we describe people as good or bad matches — the truth is for any two people on OkCupid, we just don’t know. We’re making a guess; our algorithm is a version of a guess. It’s not a fact.

There are tons of different ways to bring people together. We often use common interests, like how well you and I satisfy each other. But there are other potentially workable heuristics, like, for example, “opposites attract.” The test I wrote about in that blog post was on a continuum of those kinds of tests: We were really genuinely trying to figure out what works best, how to improve the user experience.

What we were doing was different, to me, than “lying.” Lying would be distorting matters of fact, rather than opinion. I have no idea what your sexual orientation is, but just imagine if you were gay, and I go and tell people that you are straight. That’s very clearly false, and possibly harmful. We would never do that because that is altering a fact about people … But with any algorithm that is about how to recommend something — there is no canonical perfect way to do it. So we treat it sort of like an opinion.

But doesn’t that enter a fuzzy area? A selling point of OkCupid is supposed to be that it actually works, which implies that your “opinions” as to who is a good match are actually facts …

For sure. For sure. But part of what makes us sure that we can give people the best match, and that we can make good guesses about what two people are going to get along, is that we are constantly working on refining our methods.

Look, I definitely understand the feelings about what we did. Especially given the way that I first laid it out, and then later, in the way I reacted to the media. Both my presentation and reaction were flawed. But we did not do it to mess with people. Everything we do at OkCupid is done with discretion, and, I hope, some level of emotional intelligence.