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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Tempus Omnia Vincit

"Time Conquers All", in Latin.  A pithy little meditation on the transience of this vale of tears, paradoxically immortalized by being phrased in a dead language.

El Hechizado
My pal Pete found it written on the bottom of a half empty beer can around closing time at the local beer garden, as we basked in Wisconsin's recent and unusually mild late March weather.  Or rather, I suggested he'd find it there. 

I told him it was the lucky password the bar's owner had written on the bottom of a randomly selected can as part of a free promotional giveaway contest.  Turns out in actuality there was only an expiration date written there.  And by the time he'd flipped the can over to read, it was completely emptied.  Mostly onto Pete himself.

I laughed, but the barkeep seemed a little annoyed, as some of the beer had spilled on other patrons who didn't quite get the joke.  We took that as our cue to skee-daddle and started off on our walk down the hill back to my shack to sleep off our hangovers.  It's a bit of a trek, and the pleasant mellow glow of the country moonlight put us in a contemplative mood, so we had a good chat on the way.  Some of it seemed pretty profound, worth sharing with a wider audience, so I decided to recount a bit of it here.

"What the fc*k was that "Tanta Alea Vexat"[1] sh*t about, then?" sez Pete.

"I don't know.  Sometimes I'm just a medium for these things.  A passive conduit for divine inspiration."

"What's the supposed to mean?  You just made an *ss of me in front of the only hot girl within 15 miles of this crappy little half-horse town.  I'm walking to a damn lice ridden shack, in beer sodden jeans, shack to sleep off a hangover--ALONE, I might add, if a bit gratuitously."

"Don't blame me.  It was the Goddess Errata[2] what done it.  You know how I channel her when I get foggy after a few drinks.  Besides, she only intended it as an encouragement for YOU, after you'd spent two hours bitching about the failure of your "Occupy Nya Upsala" project."  I was skating on thin ice here by bringing up such a sore point when Pete was already in a bad mood, but I felt I was onto something and decided to chance it.

Pete chuckled.  "Errata again?  Figures.  I dial Venus and Errata picks up, every time."

"You, my friend, don't know how lucky you are.  That I attribute to a combination of the psycho-motor slowing effects of the two gallons of beer you drank and your superhuman powers of concentration.  Some may call you a slow thinker, I call you a prodigy of Transcendental Meditation."

"Oh yeah?" he mused merrily.  "So the Goddess Errata's got a love jones for me on the basis of my James Brown-like "Soul Power"?  Fair enough.  I just want to know when she's going to incarnate as a Selma Hayek lookalike."

"Yuk it up all you like, laughing boy.  But you've only got yourself to blame.  You're the one constantly provoking her."

He stopped dead on the path, injecting an unwelcome note of earnestness into the conversation.  "How's that?"

"Well . . . well, like I said, you're always thinking so much.  Prizing apart every freakin' waking second with questions and doubts, trying to cobble together some jury-rigged philosophical edifice out of it.  That's more or less the equivalent of smearing your *ss with Braunschweiger in front of a starving rottweiler, when you consider Errata's ravenous appetite for chaos."

He stood there silently for a while.  I could here the gears slowly churning along in his beer sodden brain, but his eyes only betrayed a dull opacity that I found alarming. 

"Come ON, Pete!"  I grabbed him by the elbow and began frog-marching him on.  "You're doing it again--and if Errata catches up with you again, in this state, you're likely to have some kind of seizure or something again."

"Okay, okay!  Gotchya!  I can walk on my own.  I was just thinking."

"And THAT, my friend, is the entire problem.  It slows time down.  Leaving you susceptible to any number of corollary's of Littlewood's Law of Truly Large Numbers.[3]  You know that's Errata's favorite weapon."

"What!?  Littlewonk's what?"

"LittleWOOD, my friend.  LittleWOOD.  As in J.E. Littlewood--some egghead mathematics professor.  He's the guy who, ironically, formally codified Errata's sole theological doctrine; namely, that any ridiculous event, no matter how unlikely, is statistically certain to occur about once a month, bare minimum."

"Ha ha ha.  Sorry, Liam, but that plainly makes no sense.  A theologist carving the dogma of the Goddess of Anarchy onto stone tablets?  Clearly you're drunker than I am.  Nice try, though."

"No no no, man.  I'm being fer-real here, Pete.  I know it seems a little counter-intuitive, but it really makes sense when you really consider the thing in its totality."

I let that last bit soak in a bit, hoping the silence would impart a kind of solemnity to the pronouncement as I plotted the link.  Pete seemed receptive enough, silently cogitating at a clip agreeable to our pace through the gravelly path.  Then he bit.


"Well . . . Consider the following:

Given-For the purposes of this discussion, an exceptional event is defined as one occurring approximately once per every one million trials. . . ."

"Good enough."

"Also given-The average duffer spends about eight hours a day in actual conscious awareness.  Not just going through the motions, feeding the dog, letting the cat out, etc., etc. . . . "

"That seems a bit generous, don't you think, Liam?  Given a viable Republican contender who's advocating the revival of the office of Witchfinder General?"

"That may be, Pete, but it only goes to highlight how much worse off you are.  If that represents eight hours of thinking, you're probably doing at least fourteen."

"Okay.  And your point being . . . ?"

"My point being that you spend well over TWO MILLION (2,000,000) seconds per month in actual conscious awareness, as compared to just under one million for Joe Q. Normal.  Is it any wonder that over twice as much weird sh*t happens to you as a plasticine robot like Mitt Romney?  You're racking up miracles at the rate of about 2 per month."

"So . . . the mere fact of paying attention alters the objective physical reality of the universe?  In other words, regardless of the immediate short-terms success or failure of "Occupy Nya Upsala", my actions are actually and definitely succeeding in grinding the machine to a halt?"

This seemed to have struck a pleasing chord with my audience.  And I have to say, I myself was impressed by my own ability to recast Pete's inchoate idealism into a surprisingly plausible political theory, complete with an unassailable positivist underpinning.  The Goddess Errata does indeed have at least one dogma.

"Yeah, but don't get too full of yourself, Fauntleroy.  You're still basically a muck savage, Errata's boyfriend or not.  You could be doing a lot more to speed things along.  There have to be 60 something-or-others in a second you could drill down into. . . . And at least some of the credit has to go to conventional elites, who barely seem conscious at all.  They won't consider any idea unless it's been picked apart and over-invoked ad absurdam.  Kinda like the Hapsburgs, they're committing suicide by philosophical incest."

[1] "Such gambling disturbs"
[2]  A minor deity in the Discworld pantheon of Terry Pratchett, Errata is a being of no definite characteristics or particular agenda other than to insert chaos into the universe whenever it appears to be ticking along in an unsatisfyingly tidy manner.
[3]  Yah, for real.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

A Tree Falls In The Forest

To paraphrase the old Buddhist koan, "When Sabu shoots himself in the head, alone in the desert, will anyone care?"  What, for that matter, about the copper who turned him?

By now every one's read at an account of how an influential member of the hacktivest collective Lulzsec was co-opted by American "law enforcement" to incite his fellow members into incriminating behavior for which they may now spend the rest of their natural lives behind bars. 

Some of these stories have focused on local interest of individual participants in the drama.  Others have investigated the nature of hacker culture.  Still others on the legal problems presented by the apparently classic "entrapment" strategy used by the FBI.  But to date I have yet to see one discuss at any length the operation here of the deeper psycho/social dynamic that underlies the the self-concept of both Lulzsec and police forces.

This seems very odd to me, almost as if there were a deliberate conspiracy of stupidity to ignore the single most salient point of the whole affair.  Then again, my particular family history could be expected to make me preternaturally sensitive to issues of communal solidarity and order.

The Irish, like the Jews, as Brendan Behan says, have not so much an ethnicity as a neurosis.  And the seedbed of this neurosis lies in the centuries-old conflict for that island's self-determination.  While the vast majority of persons outside of the north and the Republic's border counties are quite glad to consider the apparently insoluble conundrum a relic of the past with no particular consequence to their daily lives, it still has a deep, deep resonance for their political culture, both formal and informal.  Whether they're willing to admit it or not, the long history of black operations, governmental and sectarian, has profoundly shaped their institutions and their unspoken rules.  There is an awareness that few controversial events are truly as they appear on the surface, and that the most troubling account of events may be the most factually accurate.

Northern people of all political stripes are intimately aware of this situation.  The engagement of most citizens of the Republic is probably as an embarrassed denial mixed with recognition.  Mainland British opinion may be all over the map, ranging from cultivated ignorance, violent jingoistic denial to a dramatic sort of "white guilt" that embarrasses both themselves and their Irish friends who'd really rather forget the whole thing and get on with their own lives.

But Americans of Irish descent, like myself, who came of age before the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, usually see the thing with a type of cartoonish simplicity.  Assuming we have any interest in history at all, we typically get it wrong.  With the luxury of thousands of miles and hundreds of years between (most of) us and the conflict, we have adapted the complicated story of those tiny and densely interrelated islands into something resembling a racial opera of an endangered ethnic minority united in a timeless moral struggle against a decadent elite motivated by nothing more than a sadistic lust for raw power.  Pick your own side, but there's just enough reality there to make it an incredibly durable and useful lie.

Yes, around 2 million persons, or 25% of Ireland's population (overwhelmingly Catholics of native stock) died or emigrated as a result of the Great Famine.  And yes, the impact of the crop failures was exacerbated by the inaction of libertarian administrators like Sir Charles Trevelyan, who callously declared the event, " . . . a direct stroke of an all-wise and all-merciful Providence." 

But no reasonably complete reading of history can ignore the fact that over half of that empire's armed forces, and indeed the the staff of the Royal Irish Constabulary, were Roman Catholic.  Maybe that was a statistical necessity in the context of a desperately impoverished island overwhelmingly of the Catholic persuasion, but that does raise the question of just how many of the officers overseeing those heartless 19th century evictions were coreligionists of the dispossessed tenantry.

To my knowledge, my own family's history in law enforcement stretches back only into the 1950's, in America.  Yet I think there is a deep commonality of context in the police experience that needs to be considered if we're to learn anything from our history.  

True, the surface contours of the social and policing issues of 19th and early 20th century Ireland and 21st century America couldn't seem more different to the casual observer.  Even to this day, only the most far-out and marginal groups of never-credited theoreticians would have considered a viable "Black Nationalist" conflict to be a major contributing factor to policing policies that remain highly prejudicial, by any objective standard.  But alternate formulations making race a proxy for more destabilizing class conflicts do make a lot of sense.

An examination of the backgrounds and behaviors of both policing forces does tend to bear out striking similarities.  Overwhelmingly drawn from the lower-middling sort of the masses they're intended to check, the outlooks of these men must necessarily be conditioned by their marginal position in society, just barely above those they are conditioned by training and experience to view as "problems".  Better educated than many of the population they policed, 19th century Irish constables derived an enviably stable but small cash income in an incredibly precarious agricultural economy susceptible to recurring famine.  In today's America you will find very few millionaires in the ranks, far more NASCAR fans than owners. 

This tenuous position tends to weld officers into a tight-knit little society of their own, with tremendous pressure towards internal conformity and in-group solidarity.  In a very real sense these men form a "Thin Blue Line", but also a sort of "Bright Line"--intended to force consistent, predictable results from a world that is often anything but consistent or predictable.

The factions separated by this Bright Line are the civil elites and underlings.  The civil elites, curiously, are bodily removed from front line contact yet mentally preoccupied with the management of the holdings and institutions actually operated by their underlings.  While the social investment of the underlings is paradoxically smaller than that of the elites in an absolute sense (when measured in financial assets, at any rate), it is nonetheless total in a way the elite man's can never be.  The $10,000 loss that will become a salvageable tax write-off on the IRS return of the elite man will mark the total destitution of the underling.

The methods adopted by the Bright Liners to keep the unstable and unpredictable underlings on their side of the fence must necessarily be correspondingly elemental.  Whether the particular problem in question was a delinquent tenant farmer crowding out valuable pasture land for His Lordship's new flock of prize merinos, or is a hacker publishing Goldman Sachs memos outlining its strategy to bilk its own customers through deceptive investment advice, the very slender resource base of the police force's adversary tends to make debilitating them surprisingly easy--and brutal.

Details of the precise methods used to turn Sabu have not yet come to light.  I tend to doubt the government is anxious to discuss these details at any length during the defendants' prosecution, as most of the scenarios I can imagine leave them open to "entrapment" challenges. 

Many in the activist community may also be anxious to avoid this discussion in the fear that any apparent sympathy shown to Sabu may undermine the (presumed) deterrence effect of ostracizing him.  But I do think it is worth our consideration here, in order to draw out the broader implications of the betrayal and its historical context.
Street crimes like vandalism, burglary and theft provide ample scope for physical coercion--the "elevator ride" being a classic example.  But information offense charges, like those facing the Lulzsec members are accused require a different but no less primal approach.

All strategies begin by isolating the "perp", leaving him to stew in his juices for some uncomfortably protracted period of time and let his imagination run wild regarding the possible punishments he may face, and to wonder whether anyone will ever take notice or care.

That is the chief goal of the police interrogator--to convince the subject that not only does he have no control over the investigation's outcome, but that no one will care.  Ever.  In a paradoxical manner, the ostracization Sabu is likely currently undergoing furthers the police programme.

The subsequent course of interrogation may vary considerably, but always alternates between demonstrating the subject's total alienation from society and allowing him to catch a slender thread of hope that he may yet have One Option Left.  The specific tactics involved are many, and usually it is not difficult at all to come upon a suitable alternative.  Often the subject or his family or close associates willingly offer a gem up to the police, completely unbidden.

A relatively sophisticated subject may have anticipated police efforts to belittle him personally and may even have developed considerable resistance.  But very few of those so intensely identifying themselves with a pro-social agenda like that of Lulzsec will have the heart to apply the same brutal discipline to their family members.  And this is the inevitable Achilles Heel.  The police will manipulate the very sort of deeply empathic relationship that stoked their activism into convincing the subject that flipping is their One Viable Option to save at least one close personal relationship.

So maybe the police scared Sabu's wife, girlfriend or kids into begging him to cooperate.  Maybe all they had to do was dangle a hopeless natural-life prison term scenario in front of him.  Or maybe they had to dig deeper and convincingly edit some intercepted communications from his colleagues to demonstrate that it was a race against the clock to turn state's evidence.  One thing's for sure, though, by frightening him with the specter of eternal isolation as a social pariah and outcast, they effectively got him to do the job himself.

Just like the MI5 supergrass and black ops of the 1970's, however, the outcome of the FBI's Sabu/Lulzsec case will more than likely result neither in long-term cessation of hostilities nor the disbandment of the groups in question.  More likely it will involve the eventual mental breakdown and/or suicide of Sabu.

That is a fairly typical denouement for men who trade in treachery.  Just like Judas in the Bible or Richard Pigott after the revelation of the Jubilee Plot.  For men who once ostensibly dedicated themselves to the pro-social cause of liberty, the absolutely worst and most intolerable fate is to have your name associated with the betrayal of your comrades.  Beyond the serious but temporal consequences of prosecution and the interruption of the collective's operation, betrayal eternally forecloses from you the love, trust and confidence of your fellows.
That final chapter will probably be decades in the writing, punctuated no doubt with all manner of theatrically buffoonish distractions like tell-all book tours and radio programmes on corporate propaganda outlets like Fox News.  Such antics may temporarily blunt the pain, but can never totally block the realization of the absolutely existential scale of the treachery.

In that sense, I think the cops may be even worse off.  True, they enjoy the formal sanction of society's elites to perform the systematic betrayal of their fellow underlings.  They have an entire culture devoted to looking the other way in order to shield themselves from their crimes.  But that only delays paying the psychic bill, not extinguishing the debt.  Callous as any individual may be in and of himself, he still needs to interact with others on a regular basis. 

Just as Sabu was likely not able to effectively inoculate his family or friends from breaking under the pressure, the lone officer will eventually have to face the horrified disapproval of his own loved ones who become aware of the horrible, horrible things he's done.  So the half-life the policeman is forced to endure is under the continual action of a slow-acting poison of his own making.  It's no accident that police have rates of domestic violence, marital infidelity and substance abuse far in excess of the society at large.

If he is not able to retire first to an inadequate pension and alienated family, he will be subject to hypocritical prosecution by the very civilian elites for whom he committed his crimes.