How technology shrunk America forever

The end of the Old World:

The 19th century saw an explosion of changes in America. The way people saw the world would never be the same

The end of the Old World: How technology shrunk America forever
(Credit: AP/Library of Congress)

It has become customary to mark the beginning of the Industrial revolution in eighteenth-century England. Historians usually identify two or sometimes three phases of the Industrial revolution, which are associated with different sources of energy and related technologies. In preindustrial Europe, the primary energy sources were human, animal, and natural (wind, water, and fire).

By the middle of the eighteenth century, much of Europe had been deforested to supply wood for domestic and industrial consumption. J.R. McNeill points out that the combination of energy sources, machines, and ways of organizing production came together to form “clusters” that determined the course of industrialization and, by extension, shaped economic and social developments. a later cluster did not immediately replace its predecessor; rather, different regimes overlapped, though often they were not integrated. With each new cluster, however, the speed of production increased, leading to differential rates of production. The first phase of the Industrial revolution began around 1750 with the shift from human and animal labor to machine-based production. This change was brought about by the use of water power and later steam engines in the textile mills of Great Britain.

The second phase dates from the 1820s, when there was a shift to fossil fuels—primarily coal. By the middle of the nineteenth century, another cluster emerged from the integration of coal, iron, steel, and railroads. The fossil fuel regime was not, of course, limited to coal. Edwin L. Drake drilled the first commercially successful well in Titusville, Pennsylvania, in 1859 and the big gushers erupted first in the 1870s in Baku on the Caspian Sea and later in Spindeltop, Texas (1901). Oil, however, did not replace coal as the main source of fuel in transportation until the 1930s.3 Coal, of course, is still widely used in manufacturing today because it remains one of the cheapest sources of energy. Though global consumption of coal has leveled off since 2000, its use continues to increase in China. Indeed, China currently uses almost as much coal as the rest of the world and reliable sources predict that by 2017, India will be importing as much coal as China.



The third phase of the Industrial revolution began in the closing decades of the nineteenth century. The development of technologies for producing and distributing electricity cheaply and efficiently further transformed industrial processes and created the possibility for new systems of communication as well as the unprecedented capability for the production and dissemination of new forms of entertainment, media, and information. The impact of electrification can be seen in four primary areas.

First, the availability of electricity made the assembly line and mass production possible. When Henry Ford adapted technology used in Chicago’s meatpacking houses to produce cars (1913), he set in motion changes whose effects are still being felt. Second, the introduction of the incandescent light bulb (1881) transformed private and public space. As early as the late 1880s, electrical lighting was used in homes, factories, and on streets. Assembly lines and lights inevitably led to the acceleration of urbanization. Third, the invention of the telegraph (ca.1840) and telephone (1876) enabled the communication and transmission of information across greater distances at faster rates of speed than ever before. Finally, electronic tabulating machines, invented by Herman Hollerith in 1889, made it possible to collect and manage data in new ways. Though his contributions have not been widely acknowledged, Hollerith actually forms a bridge between the Industrial revolution and the so-called post-industrial information age. The son of German immigrants, Hollerith graduated from Columbia University’s School of Mines and went on to found Tabulating Machine Company (1896). He created the first automatic card-feed mechanism and key-punch system with which an operator using a keyboard could process as many as three hundred cards an hour. Under the direction of Thomas J. Watson, Hollerith’s company merged with three others in 1911 to form Computing Tabulating recording Company. In 1924, the company was renamed International Business Machines Corporation (IBM).

There is much to be learned from such periodizations, but they have serious limitations. The developments I have identified overlap and interact in ways that subvert any simple linear narrative. Instead of thinking merely in terms of resources, products, and periods, it is also important to think in terms of networks and flows. The foundation for today’s wired world was laid more than two centuries ago. Beginning in the early nineteenth century, local communities, then states and nations, and finally the entire globe became increasingly connected. Though varying from time to time and place to place, there were two primary forms of networks: those that directed material flows (fuels, commodities, products, people), and those that channeled immaterial flows (communications, information, data, images, and currencies). From the earliest stages of development, these networks were inextricably interconnected. There would have been no telegraph network without railroads and no railroad system without the telegraph network, and neither could have existed without coal and iron. Networks, in other words, are never separate but form networks of networks in which material and immaterial flows circulate. As these networks continued to expand, and became more and more complex, there was a steady increase in the importance of immaterial flows, even for material processes. The combination of expanding connectivity and the growing importance of information technologies led to the acceleration of both material and immaterial flows. This emerging network of networks created positive feedback loops in which the rate of acceleration increased.

While developments in transportation, communications, information, and management were all important, industrialization as we know it is inseparable from the transportation revolution that trains created. In his foreword to Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s informative study “The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the 19th Century,” Alan Trachtenberg writes, “Nothing else in the nineteenth century seemed as vivid and dramatic a sign of modernity as the railroad. Scientists and statesmen joined capitalists in promoting the locomotive as the engine of ‘progress,’ a promise of imminent Utopia.”

In England, railway technology developed as an extension of coal mining. The shift from human and natural sources of energy to fossil fuels created a growing demand for coal. While steam engines had been used since the second half of the eighteenth century in British mines to run fans and pumps like those my great-grandfather had operated in the Pennsylvania coalfields, it was not until 1901, when Oliver Evans invented a high-pressure, mobile steam engine, that locomotives were produced. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the coal mined in the area around Newcastle was being transported throughout England on rail lines. It did not take long for this new rapid transit system to develop—by the 1820s, railroads had expanded to carry passengers, and half a century later rail networks spanned all of Europe.

What most impressed people about this new transportation network was its speed. The average speed of early railways in England was twenty to thirty miles per hour, which was approximately three times faster than stagecoaches. The increase in speed transformed the experience of time and space. Countless writers from this era use the same words to describe train travel as Karl Marx had used to describe emerging global financial markets. Trains, like capital, “annihilate space with time.”

Traveling on the recently opened Paris-rouen-orléans railway line in 1843, the German poet, journalist, and literary critic Heinrich Heine wrote: “What changes must now occur, in our way of looking at things, in our notions! Even the elementary concepts of time and space have begun to vacillate. Space is killed by the railways, and we are left with time alone. . . . Now you can travel to orleans in four and a half hours, and it takes no longer to get to rouen. Just imagine what will happen when the lines to Belgium and Germany are completed and connected up with their railways! I feel as if the mountains and forests of all countries were advancing on Paris. Even now, I can smell the German linden trees; the North Sea’s breakers are rolling against my door.” This new experience of space and time that speed brought about had profound psychological effects that I will consider later.

Throughout the nineteenth century, the United States lagged behind Great Britain in terms of industrial capacity: in 1869, England was the source of 20 percent of the world’s industrial production, while the United States contributed just 7 percent. By the start of World War I, however, america’s industrial capacity surpassed that of England: that is, by 1913, the scales had tipped—32 percent came from the United States and only 14 percent from England. While England had a long history before the Industrial revolution, the history of the United States effectively begins with the Industrial revolution. There are other important differences as well. Whereas in Great Britain the transportation revolution grew out of the industrialization of manufacturing primarily, but not exclusively, in textile factories, in the United States mechanization began in agriculture and spread to transportation before it transformed manufacturing. In other words, in Great Britain, the Industrial Revolution in manufacturing came first and the transportation revolution second, while in the United States, this order was reversed.

When the Industrial revolution began in the United States, most of the country beyond the Eastern Seaboard was largely undeveloped. Settling this uncharted territory required the development of an extensive transportation network. Throughout the early decades of the nineteenth century, the transportation system consisted of a network of rudimentary roads connecting towns and villages with the countryside. New England, Boston, New york, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington were joined by highways suitable for stagecoach travel. Inland travel was largely confined to rivers and waterways. The completion of the Erie Canal (1817–25) marked the first stage in the development of an extensive network linking rivers, lakes, canals, and waterways along which produce and people flowed. Like so much else in America, the railroad system began in Boston. By 1840, only 18,181 miles of track had been laid. During the following decade, however, there was an explosive expansion of the nation’s rail system financed by securities and bonds traded on stock markets in America and London. By the 1860s, the railroad network east of the Mississippi river was using routes roughly similar to those employed today.

Where some saw loss, others saw gain. In 1844, inveterate New Englander ralph Waldo Emerson associated the textile loom with the railroad when he reflected, “Not only is distance annihilated, but when, as now, the locomotive and the steamboat, like enormous shuttles, shoot every day across the thousand various threads of national descent and employment, and bind them fast in one web, an hourly assimilation goes forward, and there is no danger that local peculiarities and hostilities should be preserved.” Gazing at tracks vanishing in the distance, Emerson saw a new world opening that, he believed, would overcome the parochialisms of the past. For many people in the nineteenth century, this new world promising endless resources and endless opportunity was the american West. A transcontinental railroad had been proposed as early as 1820 but was not completed until 1869.

On May 10, 1869, Leland Stanford, who would become the governor of California and, in 1891, founder of Stanford University, drove the final spike in the railroad that joined east and west. Nothing would ever be the same again. This event was not merely local, but also, as Emerson had surmised, global. Like the California gold and Nevada silver spike that leland had driven to join the rails, the material transportation network and immaterial communication network intersected at that moment to create what Rebecca Solnit correctly identifies as “the first live national media event.” The spike “had been wired to connect to the telegraph lines that ran east and west along the railroad tracks. The instant Stanford struck the spike, a signal would go around the nation. . . . The signal set off cannons in San Francisco and New York. In the nation’s capital the telegraph signal caused a ball to drop, one of the balls that visibly signaled the exact time in observatories in many places then (of which the ball dropped in New york’s Times Square at the stroke of the New year is a last relic). The joining of the rails would be heard in every city equipped with fire-alarm telegrams, in Philadelphia, omaha, Buffalo, Chicago, and Sacramento. Celebrations would be held all over the nation.” This carefully orchestrated spectacle, which was made possible by the convergence of multiple national networks, was worthy of the future Hollywood and the technological wizards of Silicon Valley whose relentless innovation Stanford’s university would later nourish. What most impressed people at the time was the speed of global communication, which now is taken for granted.

Flickering Images—Changing Minds

Industrialization not only changes systems of production and distribution of commodities and products, but also imposes new disciplinary practices that transform bodies and change minds. During the early years of train travel, bodily acceleration had an enormous psychological effect that some people found disorienting and others found exhilarating. The mechanization of movement created what ann Friedberg describes as the “mobile gaze,” which transforms one’s surroundings and alters both the content and, more important, the structure, of perception. This mobile gaze takes two forms: the person can move and the surroundings remain immobile (train, bicycle, automobile, airplane, elevator), or the person can remain immobile and the surroundings move (panorama, kinetoscope, film).

When considering the impact of trains on the mobilization of the gaze, it is important to note that different designs for railway passenger cars had different perceptual and psychological effects. Early European passenger cars were modeled on stagecoaches in which individuals had seats in separate compartments; early american passenger cars, by contrast, were modeled on steamboats in which people shared a common space and were free to move around. The European design tended to reinforce social and economic hierarchies that the american design tried to break down. Eventually, american railroads adopted the European model of fixed individual seating but had separate rows facing in the same direction rather than different compartments. As we will see, the resulting compartmentalization of perception anticipates the cellularization of attention that accompanies today’s distributed high-speed digital networks.

During the early years, there were numerous accounts of the experience of railway travel by ordinary people, distinguished writers, and even physicians, in which certain themes recur. The most common complaint is the sense of disorientation brought about by the experience of unprecedented speed. There are frequent reports of the dispersion and fragmentation of attention that are remarkably similar to contemporary personal and clinical descriptions of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). With the landscape incessantly rushing by faster than it could be apprehended, people suffered overstimulation, which created a sense of psychological exhaustion and physical distress. Some physicians went so far as to maintain that the experience of speed caused “neurasthenia, neuralgia, nervous dyspepsia, early tooth decay, and even premature baldness.”

In 1892, Sir James Crichton-Browne attributed the significant increase in the mortality rate between 1859 and 1888 to “the tension, excitement, and incessant mobility of modern life.” Commenting on these statistics, Max Nordau might well be describing the harried pace of life today. “Every line we read or write, every human face we see, every conversation we carry on, every scene we perceive through the window of the flying express, sets in activity our sensory nerves and our brain centers. Even the little shocks of railway travelling, not perceived by consciousness, the perpetual noises and the various sights in the streets of a large town, our suspense pending the sequel of progressing events, the constant expectation of the newspaper, of the postman, of visitors, cost our brains wear and tear.” During the years around the turn of the last century, a sense of what Stephen kern aptly describes as “cultural hypochondria” pervaded society. Like today’s parents concerned about the psychological and physical effects of their kids playing video games, nineteenth-century physicians worried about the effect of people sitting in railway cars for hours watching the world rush by in a stream of images that seemed to be detached from real people and actual things.

In addition to the experience of disorientation, dispersion, fragmentation, and fatigue, rapid train travel created a sense of anxiety. People feared that with the increase in speed, machinery would spin out of control, resulting in serious accidents. An 1829 description of a train ride expresses the anxiety that speed created. “It is really flying, and it is impossible to divest yourself of the notion of instant death to all upon the least accident happening.” a decade and a half later, an anonymous German explained that the reason for such anxiety is the always “close possibility of an accident, and the inability to exercise any influence on the running of the cars.” When several serious accidents actually occurred, anxiety spread like a virus. Anxiety, however, is always a strange experience—it not only repels, it also attracts; danger and the anxiety it brings are always part of speed’s draw.

Perhaps this was a reason that not everyone found trains so distressing. For some people, the experience of speed was “dreamlike” and bordered on ecstasy. In 1843, Emerson wrote in his Journals, “Dreamlike travelling on the railroad. The towns which I pass between Philadelphia and New york make no distinct impression. They are like pictures on a wall.” The movement of the train creates a loss of focus that blurs the mobile gaze. A few years earlier, Victor Hugo’s description of train travel sounds like an acid trip as much as a train trip. In either case, the issue is speed. “The flowers by the side of the road are no longer flowers but flecks, or rather streaks, of red or white; there are no longer any points, everything becomes a streak; grain fields are great shocks of yellow hair; fields of alfalfa, long green tresses; the towns, the steeples, and the trees perform a crazy mingling dance on the horizon; from time to time, a shadow, a shape, a specter appears and disappears with lightning speed behind the window; it’s a railway guard.” The flickering images fleeting past train windows are like a film running too fast to comprehend.

Transportation was not the only thing accelerating in the nineteenth century—the pace of life itself was speeding up as never before. listening to the whistle of the train headed to Boston in his cabin beside Walden Pond, Thoreau mused, “The startings and arrivals of the cars are now the epochs in the village day. They go and come with such regularity and precision, and their whistle can be heard so far, that the farmers set their clocks by them, and thus one well conducted institution regulates a whole country. Have not men improved somewhat in punctuality since the railroad was invented? Do they not talk and think faster in the depot than they did in the stage office? There is something electrifying in the atmosphere of the former place. I have been astonished by some of the miracles it has wrought.” And yet Thoreau, more than others, knew that these changes also had a dark side.

The transition from agricultural to industrial capitalism brought with it a massive migration from the country, where life was slow and governed by natural rhythms, to the city, where life was fast and governed by mechanical, standardized time. The convergence of industrialization, transportation, and electrification made urbanization inevitable. The faster that cities expanded, the more some writers and poets idealized rustic life in the country. Nowhere is such idealization more evident than in the writings of British romantics. The rapid swirl of people, machines, and commodities created a sense of vertigo as disorienting as train travel. Wordsworth writes in The Prelude,

oh, blank confusion! True epitome
of what the mighty City is herself
To thousands upon thousands of her sons, living among the same perpetual whirl
of trivial objects, melted and reduced
To one identity, by differences
That have no law, no meaning, no end—

By 1850, fifteen cities in the United States had a population exceeding 50,000. New york was the largest (1,080,330), followed by Philadelphia (565,529), Baltimore (212,418), and Boston (177,840). Increasing domestic trade that resulted from the railroad and growing foreign trade that accompanied improved ocean travel contributed significantly to this growth. While commerce was prevalent in early cities, manufacturing expanded rapidly during the latter half of the eighteenth century. The most important factor contributing to nineteenth-century urbanization was the rapid development of the money economy. Once again, it is a matter of circulating flows, not merely of human bodies but of mobile commodities. Money and cities formed a positive feedback loop—as the money supply grew, cities expanded, and as cities expanded, the money supply grew.

The fast pace of urban life was as disorienting for many people as the speed of the train. In his seminal essay “The Metropolis and Mental life,” Georg Simmel observes, “The psychological foundation upon which the metropolitan individuality is erected, is the intensification of emotional life due to the swift and continuous shift of external and internal stimuli. Man is a creature whose existence is dependent on differences, i.e., his mind is stimulated by the difference between present impressions and those which have preceded. . . . To the extent that the metropolis creates these psychological conditions—with every crossing of the street, with the tempo and multiplicity of economic, occupational and social life—it creates the sensory foundations of mental life, and in the degree of awareness necessitated by our organization as creatures dependent on differences, a deep contrast with the slower, more habitual, more smooth flowing rhythm of the sensory-mental phase of small town and rural existence.” The expansion of the money economy created a fundamental contradiction at the heart of metropolitan life. On the one hand, cities brought together different people from all backgrounds and walks of life, and on the other hand, emerging industrial capitalism leveled these differences by disciplining bodies and programming minds. “Money,” Simmel continues, “is concerned only with what is common to all, i.e., with the exchange value which reduces all quality and individuality to a purely quantitative level.” The migration from country to city that came with the transition from agricultural to industrial capitalism involved a shift from homogeneous communities to heterogeneous assemblages of different people, qualitative to quantitative methods of assessment and evaluation, as well as concrete to abstract networks of exchange of goods and services, and a slow to fast pace of life. I will consider further aspects of these disciplinary practices in Chapter 3; for now, it is important to understand the implications of the mechanization or industrialization of perception.

I have already noted similarities between the experience of looking through a window on a speeding train to the experience of watching a film that is running too fast. During the latter half of the nineteenth century a remarkable series of inventions transformed not only what people experienced in the world but how they experienced it: photography (Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, ca. 1837), the telegraph (Samuel F. B. Morse, ca. 1840), the stock ticker (Thomas alva Edison, 1869), the telephone (alexander Graham Bell, 1876), the chronophotographic gun (Étienne-Jules Maney, 1882), the kinetoscope (Edison, 1894), the zoopraxiscope (Eadweard Muybridge, 1893), the phantoscope (Charles Jenkins, 1894), and cinematography (Auguste and Louis Lumière, 1895). The way in which human beings perceive and conceive the world is not hardwired in the brain but changes with new technologies of production and reproduction.

Just as the screens of today’s TVs, computers, video games, and mobile devices are restructuring how we process experience, so too did new technologies at the end of the nineteenth century change the world by transforming how people apprehended it. While each innovation had a distinctive effect, there is a discernible overall trajectory to these developments. Industrial technologies of production and reproduction extended processes of dematerialization that eventually led first to consumer capitalism and then to today’s financial capitalism. The crucial variable in these developments is the way in which material and immaterial networks intersect to produce a progressive detachment of images, representations, information, and data from concrete objects and actual events. Marveling at what he regarded as the novelty of photographs, Oliver Wendell Holmes commented, “Form is henceforth divorced from matter. In fact, matter as a visible object is of no great use any longer, except as the mould on which form is shaped. Give us a few negatives of a thing worth seeing, taken from different points of view, and that is all we want of it. Pull it down or burn it up, if you please. . . . Matter in large masses must always be fixed and dear, form is cheap and transportable. We have got the fruit of creation now, and need not trouble ourselves about the core.”

Technologies for the reproduction and transmission of images and information expand the process of abstraction initiated by the money economy to create a play of freely floating signs without anything to ground, certify, or secure them. With new networks made possible by the combination of electrification and the invention of the telegraph, telephone, and stock ticker, communication was liberated from the strictures imposed by physical means of conveyance. In previous energy regimes, messages could be sent no faster than people, horses, carriages, trains, ships, or automobiles could move. Dematerialized words, sounds, information, and eventually images, by contrast, could be transmitted across great distances at high speed. With this dematerialization and acceleration, Marx’s prediction—that “everything solid melts into air”—was realized. But this was just the beginning. It would take more than a century for electrical currents to become virtual currencies whose transmission would approach the speed limit.

Excerpted from “Speed Limits: Where Time Went and Why We Have So Little Left,” by Mark C. Taylor, published October 2014 by Yale University Press. Copyright ©2014 by Mark C. Taylor. Reprinted by permission of Yale University Press.

http://www.salon.com/2014/10/19/the_end_of_the_old_world_how_technology_shrunk_america_forever/?source=newsletter

“We’ve Created a Generation of People Who Hate America”


Filmmaker Laura Poitras on Our Surveillance State

Back to that Hong Kong hotel room with Snowden.

Photo Credit: Mopic / Shutterstock.com

Here’s a Ripley’s Believe It or Not! stat from our new age of national security. How many Americans have security clearances? The answer: 5.1 million, a figure that reflects the explosive growth of the national security state in the post-9/11 era. Imagine the kind of system needed just to vet that many people for access to our secret world (to the tune of billions of dollars). We’re talking here about the total population of Norway and significantly more people than you can find in Costa Rica, Ireland, or New Zealand. And yet it’s only about 1.6% of the American population, while on ever more matters, the unvetted 98.4% of us are meant to be left in the dark.

For our own safety, of course. That goes without saying.

All of this offers a new definition of democracy in which we, the people, are to know only what the national security state cares to tell us.  Under this system, ignorance is the necessary, legally enforced prerequisite for feeling protected.  In this sense, it is telling that the only crime for which those inside the national security state can be held accountable in post-9/11 Washington is not potential perjury before Congress, or the destruction of evidence of a crime, or torture, or kidnapping, or assassination, or the deaths of prisoners in an extralegal prison system, but whistleblowing; that is, telling the American people something about what their government is actually doing.  And that crime, and only that crime, has been prosecuted to the full extent of the law (and beyond) with a vigor unmatched in American history.  To offer a single example, the only American to go to jail for the CIA’s Bush-era torture program was John Kiriakou, a CIA whistleblower who revealed the name of an agent involved in the program to a reporter.

In these years, as power drained from Congress, an increasingly imperial White House has launched various wars (redefined by its lawyers as anything but), as well as a global assassination campaign in which the White House has its own “kill list” and the president himself decides on global hits.  Then, without regard for national sovereignty or the fact that someone is an American citizen (and upon the secret invocation of legal mumbo-jumbo), the drones are sent off to do the necessary killing.

And yet that doesn’t mean that we, the people, know nothing.  Against increasing odds, there has been some fine reporting in the mainstream media by the likes of James Risen and Barton Gellman on the security state’s post-legal activities and above all, despite the Obama administration’s regular use of the World War I era Espionage Act, whistleblowers have stepped forward from within the government to offer us sometimes staggering amounts of information about the system that has been set up in our name but without our knowledge.

Among them, one young man, whose name is now known worldwide, stands out.  In June of last year, thanks to journalist Glenn Greenwald and filmmaker Laura Poitras, Edward Snowden, a contractor for the NSA and previously the CIA, stepped into our lives from a hotel room in Hong Kong.  With a treasure trove of documents that are still being released, he changed the way just about all of us view our world.  He has been charged under the Espionage Act.  If indeed he was a “spy,” then the spying he did was for us, for the American people and for the world.  What he revealed to a stunned planet was a global surveillance state whose reach and ambitions were unique, a system based on a single premise: that privacy was no more and that no one was, in theory (and to a remarkable extent in practice), unsurveillable.

Its builders imagined only one exemption: themselves.  This was undoubtedly at least part of the reason why, when Snowden let us peek in on them, they reacted with such over-the-top venom.  Whatever they felt at a policy level, it’s clear that they also felt violated, something that, as far as we can tell, left them with no empathy whatsoever for the rest of us.  One thing that Snowden proved, however, was that the system they built was ready-made for blowback.

Sixteen months after his NSA documents began to be released by the Guardian and the Washington Post, I think it may be possible to speak of the Snowden Era.  And now, a remarkable new film, Citizenfour, which had its premiere at the New York Film Festival on October 10th and will open in select theaters nationwide on October 24th, offers us a window into just how it all happened.  It is already being mentioned as a possible Oscar winner.

Director Laura Poitras, like reporter Glenn Greenwald, is now known almost as widely as Snowden himself, for helping facilitate his entry into the world.  Her new film, the last in a trilogy she’s completed (the previous two being My Country, My Country on the Iraq War and The Oath on Guantanamo), takes you back to June 2013 and locks you in that Hong Kong hotel room with Snowden, Greenwald, Ewen MacAskill of the Guardian, and Poitras herself for eight days that changed the world.  It’s a riveting, surprisingly unclaustrophic, and unforgettable experience.

Before that moment, we were quite literally in the dark.  After it, we have a better sense, at least, of the nature of the darkness that envelops us. Having seen her film in a packed house at the New York Film Festival, I sat down with Poitras in a tiny conference room at the Loews Regency Hotel in New York City to discuss just how our world has changed and her part in it.

Tom Engelhardt: Could you start by laying out briefly what you think we’ve learned from Edward Snowden about how our world really works?

Laura Poitras: The most striking thing Snowden has revealed is the depth of what the NSA and the Five Eyes countries [Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Great Britain, and the U.S.] are doing, their hunger for all data, for total bulk dragnet surveillance where they try to collect all communications and do it all sorts of different ways. Their ethos is “collect it all.” I worked on a story with Jim Risen of the New York Times about a document — a four-year plan for signals intelligence — in which they describe the era as being “the golden age of signals intelligence.”  For them, that’s what the Internet is: the basis for a golden age to spy on everyone.

This focus on bulk, dragnet, suspicionless surveillance of the planet is certainly what’s most staggering.  There were many programs that did that.  In addition, you have both the NSA and the GCHQ [British intelligence] doing things like targeting engineers at telecoms.  There was an article published at The Intercept that cited an NSA document Snowden provided, part of which was titled “I Hunt Sysadmins” [systems administrators].  They try to find the custodians of information, the people who are the gateway to customer data, and target them.  So there’s this passive collection of everything, and then things that they can’t get that way, they go after in other ways.

 I think one of the most shocking things is how little our elected officials knew about what the NSA was doing.  Congress is learning from the reporting and that’s staggering.  Snowden and [former NSA employee] William Binney, who’s also in the film as a whistleblower from a different generation, are technical people who understand the dangers.  We laypeople may have some understanding of these technologies, but they really grasp the dangers of how they can be used.  One of the most frightening things, I think, is the capacity for retroactive searching, so you can go back in time and trace who someone is in contact with and where they’ve been.  Certainly, when it comes to my profession as a journalist, that allows the government to trace what you’re reporting, who you’re talking to, and where you’ve been.  So no matter whether or not I have a commitment to protect my sources, the government may still have information that might allow them to identify whom I’m talking to.

TE: To ask the same question another way, what would the world be like without Edward Snowden?  After all, it seems to me that, in some sense, we are now in the Snowden era.

LP: I agree that Snowden has presented us with choices on how we want to move forward into the future.  We’re at a crossroads and we still don’t quite know which path we’re going to take.  Without Snowden, just about everyone would still be in the dark about the amount of information the government is collecting. I think that Snowden has changed consciousness about the dangers of surveillance.  We see lawyers who take their phones out of meetings now.  People are starting to understand that the devices we carry with us reveal our location, who we’re talking to, and all kinds of other information.  So you have a genuine shift of consciousness post the Snowden revelations.

TE: There’s clearly been no evidence of a shift in governmental consciousness, though.

LP: Those who are experts in the fields of surveillance, privacy, and technology say that there need to be two tracks: a policy track and a technology track.  The technology track is encryption.  It works and if you want privacy, then you should use it.  We’ve already seen shifts happening in some of the big companies — Google, Apple — that now understand how vulnerable their customer data is, and that if it’s vulnerable, then their business is, too, and so you see a beefing up of encryption technologies.  At the same time, no programs have been dismantled at the governmental level, despite international pressure.

TE: In Citizenfour, we spend what must be an hour essentially locked in a room in a Hong Kong hotel with Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, Ewan MacAskill, and you, and it’s riveting.  Snowden is almost preternaturally prepossessing and self-possessed.  I think of a novelist whose dream character just walks into his or her head.  It must have been like that with you and Snowden.  But what if he’d been a graying guy with the same documents and far less intelligent things to say about them?  In other words, how exactly did who he was make your movie and remake our world?

LP: Those are two questions.  One is: What was my initial experience?  The other: How do I think it impacted the movie?  We’ve been editing it and showing it to small groups, and I had no doubt that he’s articulate and genuine on screen.  But to see him in a full room [at the New York Film Festival premiere on the night of October 10th], I’m like, wow!  He really commands the screen! And I experienced the film in a new way with a packed house.

TE: But how did you experience him the first time yourself?  I mean you didn’t know who you were going to meet, right?

LP: So I was in correspondence with an anonymous source for about five months and in the process of developing a dialogue you build ideas, of course, about who that person might be.  My idea was that he was in his late forties, early fifties.  I figured he must be Internet generation because he was super tech-savvy, but I thought that, given the level of access and information he was able to discuss, he had to be older.  And so my first experience was that I had to do a reboot of my expectations.  Like fantastic, great, he’s young and charismatic and I was like wow, this is so disorienting, I have to reboot.  In retrospect, I can see that it’s really powerful that somebody so smart, so young, and with so much to lose risked so much.

He was so at peace with the choice he had made and knowing that the consequences could mean the end of his life and that this was still the right decision.  He believed in it, and whatever the consequences, he was willing to accept them.  To meet somebody who has made those kinds of decisions is extraordinary.  And to be able to document that and also how Glenn [Greenwald] stepped in and pushed for this reporting to happen in an aggressive way changed the narrative. Because Glenn and I come at it from an outsider’s perspective, the narrative unfolded in a way that nobody quite knew how to respond to.  That’s why I think the government was initially on its heels.  You know, it’s not everyday that a whistleblower is actually willing to be identified.

TE: My guess is that Snowden has given us the feeling that we now grasp the nature of the global surveillance state that is watching us, but I always think to myself, well, he was just one guy coming out of one of 17 interlocked intelligence outfits. Given the remarkable way your film ends — the punch line, you might say — with another source or sources coming forward from somewhere inside that world to reveal, among other things, information about the enormous watchlist that you yourself are on, I’m curious: What do you think is still to be known?  I suspect that if whistleblowers were to emerge from the top five or six agencies, the CIA, the DIA, the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, and so on, with similar documentation to Snowden’s, we would simply be staggered by the system that’s been created in our name.

LP: I can’t speculate on what we don’t know, but I think you’re right in terms of the scale and scope of things and the need for that information to be made public. I mean, just consider the CIA and its effort to suppress the Senate’s review of its torture program. Take in the fact that we live in a country that a) legalized torture and b) where no one was ever held to account for it, and now the government’s internal look at what happened is being suppressed by the CIA.  That’s a frightening landscape to be in.

In terms of sources coming forward, I really reject this idea of talking about one, two, three sources.  There are many sources that have informed the reporting we’ve done and I think that Americans owe them a debt of gratitude for taking the risk they do.  From a personal perspective, because I’m on a watchlist and went through years of trying to find out why, of having the government refuse to confirm or deny the very existence of such a list, it’s so meaningful to have its existence brought into the open so that the public knows there is a watchlist, and so that the courts can now address the legality of it.  I mean, the person who revealed this has done a huge public service and I’m personally thankful.

TE: You’re referring to the unknown leaker who’s mentioned visually and elliptically at the end of your movie and who revealed that the major watchlist your on has more than 1.2 million names on it.  In that context, what’s it like to travel as Laura Poitras today?  How do you embody the new national security state?

LP: In 2012, I was ready to edit and I chose to leave the U.S. because I didn’t feel I could protect my source footage when I crossed the U.S. border.  The decision was based on six years of being stopped and questioned every time I returned to the United States.  And I just did the math and realized that the risks were too high to edit in the U.S., so I started working in Berlin in 2012.  And then, in January 2013, I got the first email from Snowden.

TE: So you were protecting…

LP: …other footage.  I had been filming with NSA whistleblower William Binney, with Julian Assange, with Jacob Appelbaum of the Tor Project, people who have also been targeted by the U.S., and I felt that this material I had was not safe.  I was put on a watchlist in 2006.  I was detained and questioned at the border returning to the U.S. probably around 40 times.  If I counted domestic stops and every time I was stopped at European transit points, you’re probably getting closer to 80 to 100 times. It became a regular thing, being asked where I’d been and who I’d met with. I found myself caught up in a system you can’t ever seem to get out of, this Kafkaesque watchlist that the U.S. doesn’t even acknowledge.

TE: Were you stopped this time coming in?

LP: I was not. The detentions stopped in 2012 after a pretty extraordinary incident.

I was coming back in through Newark Airport and I was stopped.  I took out my notebook because I always take notes on what time I’m stopped and who the agents are and stuff like that.  This time, they threatened to handcuff me for taking notes.  They said, “Put the pen down!” They claimed my pen could be a weapon and hurt someone.

“Put the pen down! The pen is dangerous!” And I’m like, you’re not… you’ve got to be crazy. Several people yelled at me every time I moved my pen down to take notes as if it were a knife. After that, I decided this has gotten crazy, I’d better do something and I called Glenn. He wrote a piece about my experiences. In response to his article, they actually backed off.

TE:  Snowden has told us a lot about the global surveillance structure that’s been built.  We know a lot less about what they are doing with all this information.  I’m struck at how poorly they’ve been able to use such information in, for example, their war on terror.  I mean, they always seem to be a step behind in the Middle East — not just behind events but behind what I think someone using purely open source information could tell them.  This I find startling.  What sense do you have of what they’re doing with the reams, the yottabytes, of data they’re pulling in?

LP: Snowden and many other people, including Bill Binney, have said that this mentality — of trying to suck up everything they can — has left them drowning in information and so they miss what would be considered more obvious leads.  In the end, the system they’ve created doesn’t lead to what they describe as their goal, which is security, because they have too much information to process.

I don’t quite know how to fully understand it.  I think about this a lot because I made a film about the Iraq War and one about Guantanamo.  From my perspective, in response to the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. took a small, very radical group of terrorists and engaged in activities that have created two generations of anti-American sentiment motivated by things like Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.  Instead of figuring out a way to respond to a small group of people, we’ve created generations of people who are really angry and hate us.  And then I think, if the goal is security, how do these two things align, because there are more people who hate the United States right now, more people intent on doing us harm?  So either the goal that they proclaim is not the goal or they’re just unable to come to terms with the fact that we’ve made huge mistakes in how we’ve responded.

TE: I’m struck by the fact that failure has, in its own way, been a launching pad for success.  I mean, the building of an unparallelled intelligence apparatus and the greatest explosion of intelligence gathering in history came out of the 9/11 failure.  Nobody was held accountable, nobody was punished, nobody was demoted or anything, and every similar failure, including the one on the White House lawn recently, simply leads to the bolstering of the system.

LP: So how do you understand that?

TE: I don’t think that these are people who are thinking: we need to fail to succeed. I’m not conspiratorial in that way, but I do think that, strangely, failure has built the system and I find that odd. More than that I don’t know.

LP: I don’t disagree. The fact that the CIA knew that two of the 9/11 hijackers were entering the United States and didn’t notify the FBI and that nobody lost their job is shocking.  Instead, we occupied Iraq, which had nothing to do with 9/11.  I mean, how did those choices get made?

John Pilger

“The major western democracies are moving towards corporatism. Democracy has become a business plan, with a bottom line for every human activity, every dream, every decency, every hope. The main parliamentary parties are now devoted to the same economic policies – socialism for the rich, capitalism for the poor – and the same foreign policy of servility to endless war. This is not democracy. It is to politics what McDonalds is to food.”

- John Pilger

 

Bill Gates: Piketty’s Attack on Income Inequality Is Right

Bill Gates has posted a review of Capital in the Twenty-First Century, an acclaimed book by economist Thomas Piketty about how income equality is a necessary result of unchecked capitalism. Gates, one of the most successful capitalists of our time, agrees with Piketty’s most important conclusions. That said, he also finds parts of the book to be flawed and incomplete, but says Piketty has started vital debate on these issues.

Gates writes, Yes, some level of inequality is built in to capitalism. As Piketty argues, it is inherent to the system. The question is, what level of inequality is acceptable? And when does inequality start doing more harm than good? That’s something we should have a public discussion about, and it’s great that Piketty helped advance that discussion in such a serious way. … I agree that taxation should shift away from taxing labor. It doesn’t make any sense that labor in the United States is taxed so heavily relative to capital. It will make even less sense in the coming years, as robots and other forms of automation come to perform more and more of the skills that human laborers do today. But rather than move to a progressive tax on capital, as Piketty would like, I think we’d be best off with a progressive tax on consumption.

 

~Slashdot~

25th Anniversary of the Loma Prieta earthquake

88-kerney

88 Kearny

 

Twenty-five years. Time goes so quickly. I have vivid memories of that day.

There were several notable foreshocks before the big quake. When one of them happened at night in the spring of 1988 I was living on Pine Street in an apartment with Victorian moldings, and a piece of the molding fell off and nearly hit my head. So many earthquakes that I thought they were part of the ambiance of Norcal.

The day of the Loma Prieta quake I was working at start-up First Deposit National Corporation (later called Providian Financial) in the financial district at 88 Kearny Street. The day had been a challenging one with tempestuous meetings that ended in an argument with my boss. Back then I smoked a couple of packs of cigarettes a day and I hadn’t had one all afternoon and was on edge. I shouted at my boss and slammed his office door and went outside to have a smoke. I generally smoked and took a brisk walk around the block.

After I took I couple of drags on the cigarette I felt what at first I thought was a reaction to the nicotine: I was losing my balance and the world was spinning. Then I noticed debris falling from the sky and people around me running and screaming. Earthquake!!!

I ran into 88 Kearny and tried to use the elevators to get back to my office on the 19th Floor but they were down. I quickly climbed up the stairs. 88 was constructed on rollers that moved in an earthquake and the whole building was slowly rolling back and forth creating a nauseating experience. On 19 the doors were still swinging and there was confusion and panic. I tried to call Joey at our home in the Upper Haight, at 107 Lyon Street, but the lines were busy. The President of FDNC was attempting to conduct a meeting (focused man) but everyone was rushing out. I grabbed my briefcase and ran back down the 19 floors with some friends.

Outside it was an incredible scene. The power was gone and so was all transportation requiring electricity. A few diesel buses were running but they were jam packed with folks hanging from the door openings. I began walking to the Haight as quickly as I could up Market Street. Water mains were broken and there were signs of damage everywhere. I stopped at every phone booth I could (no cell phones back then) and tried to call home but no luck. This lack of communication and information was the most frightening part of the whole experience. I did not have my Walkman that day so I couldn’t listen to the radio. Bars were open along Market and I heard bits of news as I went along: collapse of the Bay Bridge and sections of the freeway; parts of San Francisco on fire. I was so fearful that Joey might be injured or worse and the house on fire.

San Franciscans everywhere were very helpful and functioning as a community. People were directing traffic. There was no looting or any situation I encountered where I felt I was in danger from those around me.

As I climbed up over Buena Vista Park I could see smoke rising in the distance but, thankfully, it looked like home was OK. I ran down to Lyon, and Joey with the neighbors were sitting on the front porch. I felt such relief!!! We lived in the first floor flat and our landlord was one above us. He brought down a bottle of Scotch and turned on his car radio which was parked in front of the house. Then we met for the first time the woman who lived in the house next to us. Turns out she was a grower and distributor of some of the finest herb In Mendocino so we had quite a nice evening amidst all the chaos around us. She brought a little battery-powered TV so we could see the devastation.

There was surprisingly little damage at 107 Lyon. That building had been through the 1906 earthquake unscathed. She is built on sold rock.

I really felt totally alive that day…if you know what I mean.

Cornel West was right all along: Why America needs a moment of clarity now

It’s sad that it’s come to this. But social justice in America is officially stunted — and there’s only one answer

Cornel West was right all along: Why America needs a moment of clarity <em>now</em>
Cornel West is knocked over during a scuffle with police during a protest in Ferguson, Missouri, October 13, 2014. (Credit: Reuters/Jim Young)

This past weekend, protestors and activists, including students, clergy, and concerned citizens descended on Ferguson, Missouri, for a weekend of marches, protests, sit-ins, and civil disobedience billed Ferguson October. Yesterday as one activist, Patrisse Cullors-Brignac, an organizer with Black Lives Matter tweeted exultantly from the inside of a St. Louis County jail cell about having taken over a Wal-Mart, I waited to hear news of her safe release alongside rapper-activist Tef Poe, attorney and legal observer Justin Hansford, and Palestinian activist Bassem Masri, who handled live streaming for the Organization for Black Struggle.

Of course, many on Twitter, could not understand why disturbing the peace in a private business should be acceptable. The point is – we are no longer standing for business as usual. Lest we forget, racial segregation of old happened in “private” businesses, too, in stores like Woolworth’s and Hecht’s. That John Crawford could not step into a Beaver Creek, Ohio Wal-Mart, wander aimlessly, as so many of us have done on a casual shopping trip, and reasonably expect to come out alive, suggests that time is out for business as usual.

This nation proclaims Black America backwards, sees us as stuck in the past, declares that our obsession with race –not racism itself – is holding back progress. But really, Black people are the hands on our national clock, controlling the timing of America’s social progress. This time both hands are up, pointing straight to the sky. It is high noon in America. It is the deepest midnight in our hearts.  But, “from the darkness cometh the light,” Lucy A. Delaney proclaimed in the title of her 1891 autobiography. Until those hands move, no longer held hostage by a state-issued weapon, nobody is going anywhere.

Biblical platitudes don’t go far with this crowd, but I’m reminded of a verse: “it is high time to awake out of sleep. (Romans 13:11)”

In college, some youth government leaders used this verse with the slogan, “The Awakening. Don’t sleep.” These days, young folks have remixed it, proclaiming “stay woke.” I am sitting with what it means that we have moved from “Don’t Sleep to Stay Woke.”

For we have awakened from a long, fitful slumber. Lulled there by our parents and grandparents, who marched in Selma, sat down in Greensboro, matriculated at Black colleges, and argued before the Supreme Court, they convinced us to adopt their freedom dreams, impressed them into our bodies, in every hug, in every $25 check pressed into a hand from a grandmother to a grandchild on his or her way to bigger and better, in every whispered prayer, in every indignity suffered silently but resolutely in the workplace.



We slept so long our dreams have become nightmares.

Langston Hughes famously asked, “what happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up

like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore—

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over—

like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags

like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

This Ferguson October, young people are on the ground dreaming new dreams, and in so doing, they are inspiring elders. They are creative, taking over public spaces, not only with signs, and chants, but with impromptu games of twister and double-dutch. From them we learn that play can be political, that there is joy in struggle, that there is no justice without pleasure.

They are lining up, linking arms, and being locked up for justice. They are listening to those who have something to say, and shutting down shit when forced to listen to anyone who doesn’t. They are choosing their leaders, their griots, their truth-tellers, their strategists, their elders.  Showing up matters most. Putting one’s body on the line is the order of the day. They are undignified, improper, unabashed, impolitic, unapologetic, indefatigable.

This weekend they took over four Wal-Marts, in solidarity with John Crawford who was murdered in an Ohio Wal-Mart. There, prosecutors have cleared officers of wrongdoing. Protestors took signs to the St. Louis Rams game, and confronted angry fans who yelled, “I am Darren Wilson.” Two weeks ago, they disrupted the symphony. Exploding dreams cause disruptions. They should be expected to continue.

More than 3000 new registered voters move among them (Update: This number has since been revised downward to 128). They have collected these new registrations like so many arrows in a quiver. Still they remain skeptical of the vote. And since the presence of Black faces at the voting booth scares white people they should be.  Take Tef Poe’s surly response to Senator Claire McCaskill at a PBS townhall in late September. She argued that we needed new pipelines of local African American leadership. He replied, “I voted for Barack Obama twice, and still got tear-gassed.”

We could mince words about the vast differences and expansive power of local governments in these matters, over against the apparently limited power of federal jurisdiction. But that’s kind of beside the point. Movements are as much about symbols as about substance. And Barack Obama is a broken symbol, a clanging cymbal, unable to say and do anything of use. His silence is the sound of imploding dreams, his words mere distractions and detours from the future we want.

He has become a prime example that being the leader of the free world in a Black body is still no match for entrenched, local, systemic, committed racism.  It’s sad that it has come to this.  But this is bigger than Barack Obama. Just like it was bigger than King and his dream. We have awakened from sleep. We have been startled out of it by nearly 30 gunshots ringing out insistently from the heart of America. Jay-Z might call it “a moment of clarity.” In Obama’s place, Cornel West has re-emerged, the wise and fearless elder, the one who we tried not to listen to, as he screamed into the wind for six years, the one whose approach chafed my hide on more than a few occasions, the one who is — despite all of our collective quibbles and begrudgements – right.

This moment is about all of us. About what kind of America we want to be. About what kind of America we are willing to be, willing to fight for. About whether we will settle for being mediocre and therefore murderous to a whole group of citizens. About whether there are other versions of ourselves worth fighting for.

Don’t sleep. Millennials, it seems, are the ones we have been waiting for.  Fearless and focused, the future they are fighting for is one I want. It is high time to awake out of sleep. Stay woke.

Brittney Cooper is a contributing writer at Salon, and teaches Women’s and Gender Studies and Africana Studies at Rutgers. Follow her on Twitter at @professorcrunk.

http://www.salon.com/2014/10/15/cornel_west_was_right_all_along_why_america_needs_a_moment_of_clarity_now/?source=newsletter

ISIS fighter in Kobanê: “Erdoğan has helped us a lot”

by Iskender Doğu on October 14, 2014

Post image for ISIS fighter in Kobanê: “Erdoğan has helped us a lot”ISIS defiant as Syria’s civil war threatens to spill over into Turkey: “Erdoğan has helped us a lot, but we don’t need him anymore. Turkey is next.”

The last glimpse I catch of Kobanê, before we are forced off the hill overlooking the town by Turkish soldiers in their armored personnel carriers, are two pillars of smoke rising from the city center. Just minutes before, two loud explosions could be heard, after which clouds of dust and debris emerged from between the buildings in the town, just across the border from Turkey.

Despite the fact that coalition jets and drones are circling overhead, invisible to the naked eyed but clearly recognizable by their humming sounds, it is clear that these were not airstrikes: the explosions appeared in an area that is still under control of the People’s and Women’s Defense Forces (YPG/YPJ), and the smoke looks different from the kind that normally follows air strikes. That leaves only one possibility: these were the explosions of two more ISIS suicide car bombs unsuccessfully attempting to break Kurdish defense lines.

Immediately after the second car explodes — either detonated by ISIS or neutralized by the YPG/YPJ — half a dozen Turkish APCs come rushing from the border towards the hill where foreign journalists and local observers have gathered to keep track of the situation in the city. The soldiers command everyone, including the media, to leave the viewpoint immediately. No explanation is given, and we quickly return to our car to make our way back to Suruç, the Turkish border town just eight kilometers away.

Solidarity from a local activist

A few days ago, in the bus back to Urfa from Suruç, a man started talking to me. Introducing himself as Müslüm, a 31-year old Kurdish activist from around Suruç, he told me about his brother, who is currently fighting with the YPG in Kobanê. Müslüm hasn’t spoken to him for over five months, as any contact with Turkish volunteers fighting with the YPG in Rojava would put him and other family members back home at risk of arrest by Turkish authorities.

“He is fighting for the canton system, for the freedom of the Kurdish people and for the freedom of all people,” Müslüm says. “The independence of Rojava is a big problem for Turkey, because its canton system is an example of what the future of Kurdistan could look like.”

Müslüm fully supports and is proud of his brother. He himself is no stranger to political activism either, having spent three years in prison for his political involvement in the Kurdish struggle. He was deported to Greek Cyprus after his release and was only allowed to return to Turkey on the condition that he would not engage in politics anymore. This doesn’t seem to bother him too much.

“The government calls me a terrorist because I speak at protests that demand democracy for the Kurdish people. They don’t like anything that has to do with freedom for the Kurdish people. But I don’t listen! Every day I am active in the Kurdish struggle. All the people here are like me.”

The Turkish government keeps track of all Kurdish activists, and Müslüm’s name appears on a special blacklist, which means that every time he gets checked by the police there is a chance they will take him down to the station. This, however, doesn’t stop him from offering me all the help I might need, and over the next few days Müslüm would go out of his way to bring me to the villages dotting the Syrian border, which are presently occupied by solidarity activists — the so-called ‘human shields’ — and off-limits to foreigners.

Discussing democratic autonomy

After the funeral of seven YPG/YPJ fighters whose bodies were brought from Kobanê to Turkey in order to be properly buried here, a large crowd gathers in the local headquarters of the pro-Kurdish Democratic Regions Party (DBP). While everyone is drinking tea and watching the latest news from Kobanê on a Kurdish channel, Ayşe Muslim — the wife of Saleh Muslim, the co-chairwoman of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and de-facto leader of Rojava — walks in and starts shouting angrily at the men: “What are you doing here, watching television and drinking tea while our comrades in Kobanê are fighting for your freedom?! Go to the border to show your solidarity!”

Later, in the village of Measêr, where hundreds have flocked to watch the siege of Kobanê unfold, I sit down with some men at the local mosque to discuss their views on Rojava’s canton system and Öcalan’s theory of democratic autonomy. Among them is the brother of one of PKK’s highest commanders, who is happy to share some of his ideas.

“The canton system and the project of democratic autonomy is not just a Kurdish project,” he says. “The idea is that it facilitates the communal life of people of different religious, ethnic and linguistic backgrounds. Yes, the PKK fought for national independence before, but this was in the period of the Cold War. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the communist-socialist block, we have come to realize that one country with one government is not the right solution.”

With the explosions in Kobanê clearly audible in the background, more and more men join the discussion. “Last year Barzani [the conservative leader of Iraqi Kurdistan] called for the unification of all Kurdish people in one single country,” one man adds. “But the PKK disagrees with this plan, because such a state will eventually be no different from the Turkish Republic. The Kurds have many different religions and we speak many different languages. How could we unite ourselves under one single government?”

The men agree that, given the strength of the Turkish state and military, the widespread adoption of a canton system like Rojava’s is still far off. Still they see democratic autonomy as the only real alternative. “We don’t need professional politicians, but rather want the people to make decisions about their own lives, based on consensus and by means of local councils.”

Just outside the village, in the shadow of the military base that covers the small hill overlooking Measêr on the one side, and the Syrian border on the other, I meet with Sabri Altinel. This veteran of the DBP is having a chat with his teacher-friend who came from the city of Kars to show his solidarity with the people of Kobanê. Altinel smilingly conveys to me that “now everybody here is an anarchist. We’re against ISIS as well as against the Turkish state.”

Red line Kobanê

Several days ago, Abdullah Öcalan, the jailed leader of the PKK, presented the Turkish state with a deadline to act on peace with the country’s Kurdish population. “We can await a resolution till October 15, after which there is nothing we can do,” his statement read. “They (the Turkish authorities) are talking about resolution and negotiation but there exists no such thing. This is an artificial situation; we will not be able to continue anymore.”

The men of Measêr fully support Öcalan’s statement, because they are fed up with being stalled by the Turkish government, which keeps bringing up the issue of the Kurdish peace process every time an election peeks around the corner, but which, when pushes comes to shove, consistently fails to act upon its promises. They believe Öcalan set the deadline so that the implementation of promises made in the negotiations so far can no longer be postponed — and in light of the events in Kobanê, the government will be forced to reveal its true face.

“Kobanê is everything,” the PKK commander’s brother states. “Kobanê is the red line: for the PKK, for Öcalan, for the Kurdish people, for everyone. Without Kobanê we can’t talk about anything.”

The general opinion of the Kurds and their supporters here at the border is that the Turkish government has had a hand in ISIS’ assault on Kobanê. This rumor was confirmed by a member of ISIS with whom we spoke on the phone, a mere two hundred meters from the border with Syria.

My friend Murat and I were walking through the fields when we met a man who explained to us that he had just escaped from Kobanê. He told us how, two days before, he had tried to call a friend who was fighting with the Women’s Defense Forces. But instead of his friend answering, an unknown man picked up the phone and told him that his friend was dead — killed by ISIS — and that this phone now belonged to him.

Murat encouraged the man to try and call the number again, and after it rang a number of times, the same man picked up. Our friend spoke to the ISIS fighter for a while, in Arabic, and then asked him: “how is your friend Erdoğan doing?” The reply confirmed what many here have been suspecting all along: “Erdoğan has helped us a lot in the past. He has given us Kobanê. But now we don’t need him anymore. After Kobanê, Turkey is next!”

The PKK’s October 15 deadline is approaching fast, and with the border still closed for any material or logistical support for the Kurdish defenders of the city, the likelihood of a new civil war in Turkey becomes greater every day. The men of Measêr would have preferred a political solution over violence, but realize that if the Turkish government continues to stand by idly, blocking the border as their comrades in Kobanê are being slaughtered at the hands of ISIS, they will not be left with much choice.

It therefore appears that the Syrian civil war is rapidly spilling over into Turkey, not in the last place because the majority of YPG fighters in Kobanê are reportedly from the PKK, aiding their Syrian comrades in the fight against ISIS. As news emerges of fresh Turkish airstrikes on PKK positions in the southeast of the country, it is clear that the ceasefire is rapidly breaking down. As such, the coming days will be decisive for the future of the Turkish-Kurdish peace process.

Unless the Turkish government suddenly makes a dramatic turn, opening the border crossing to Kobanê and supporting the Kurdish resistance against ISIS, it will be difficult to prevent a further escalation of violence in the region.

Iskender Doğu is an Istanbul-based freelance writer, activist and an editor for ROAR Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter via @Le_Frique.

 

http://roarmag.org/2014/10/turkey-kurdistan-democratic-autonomy/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+roarmag+%28ROAR+Magazine%29