Tag Archives: history

How can we break down the walls of American oppression?

Disclaimer: this is a reproduction of a train of thought I had Sunday morning while washing dishes in advance of preparing brunch. It’s not meant to be a formal argument. I may be right or wrong, justified or way off base, or simply paranoid. In any case, open and polite discourse of all persuasions are welcome in the comments section.

Bringing down the Berlin Wall

I have listened to some podcasts lately that either deal with, or touch upon, the subject of the Berlin Wall. The basic history goes like this: after World War II the allied power divide Germany into four regions among the U.S., Britain, France, and the Soviet Union. The whole idea was to reconstruct Germany into a self-sufficient, non-threatening nation through the use of reconstruction efforts, but the Soviets refused right off the bat to play nice, and instead turned the Eastern portion of Germany into a Soviet state with future plans of taking the rest of Germany too. About three and a half million people in East Germany decided to get out of Dodge before the Berlin Wall was erected. After that, anyone could come in, but East Germans could not go out — although they weren’t above rappelling down the sides of buildings adjacent to the wall to do so.

Fast forward to the 1989. After decades of tension, mounting political pressure, and the leadership of more liberal minds in the Soviet Union, they decided to let East Germans go wherever the heck they wanted to go.

The natural assumption was that the East Germans wanted through that wall, but unsurprising to anyone familiar with the helpless, frustrated rage of the long-oppressed, they started tearing it down by hand. Germany found itself whole again just a year later. Western Europe was whole again, and it seems as though everyone took some practical lessons away from this — including the American government, which may have found a chink in the Communist armor that gave them a cogent standpoint on this business of maintaining a totalitarian regime under the guise of a state in which all men are equal.

It’s obvious that they had been doing it wrong the whole time.

How did Communism come down?

It wasn’t long after the fall of the Berlin Wall that we saw an about-face in Russia’s government as well; the breakup of the Soviet Union and the transformation from Communism to Democracy was a big deal, but after the better part of a century, what had convinced them to pull the trigger? Was the same kind of political pressure that brought down the Berlin Wall also responsible for changing the Iron Curtain, or was the Wall’s destruction in fact a precursor known to some as a prelude to the end of Soviet-style Communism?

In either case, I can almost imagine that there may have been a conversation at some time between the Soviets and the West whose argument boiled down to this: Communism is going to get you nowhere. You run it the way you should be running a state, but Communism is the wrong way to go because you’re making the majority of your people miserable, and when it comes to a head they will revolt and take you down, and guess what? We will be there to help them when they inevitably ask us for assistance. This Cold War is coming to a close, and its death knell will resound from within. Now is the best time for Russia to consider democracy, because there is nothing to lose. You see the technology that we have and that on the horizon. That technology will enable Russia to become a state in which you can enjoy the same level of power while the majority of the people are able to prosper, and if you do this we will stand by you and make sure that it works. The people can have what they want, and you can maintain the status quo. The newly-liberated nations of the former U.S.S.R., in the meantime, will require assistance to develop into healthy nations of their own, and you can only benefit from those relationships.

A surveillance device in every pocket

The technology in question has become as ubiquitous as any clairvoyant politico could have hoped. A surveillance device in every pocket – or rather, in every hand, and one so compelling that most people can hardly put it down. Wouldn’t it be great if I never got lost on the way to my bankruptcy hearing in Detroit? Wouldn’t it be handy if I could check the price of my small-cap fund periodically, just to make sure I wasn’t making a mistake by splitting off ten percent of my target-date retirement fund (which only takes two days to change?) How is the weather going to hold up for that Labor Day picnic?

In the face of unstable and uncertain paradigms that often shift against prophetic prose, we turn to our devices to give us up-to-the-moment information as the best weapons we have against the uncertainties of the stock market and the weather. It’s as practical as getting street directions, and so these uses become the hooks that drag us deeper.

This is technology that has already overturned empires: the GPS navigation device. The handheld video game. The 35mm camera. The microcassette recorder. The pocket radio. The pocket television. The paperback novel. The spiral-bound notepad and the #2 pencil. The black book. The day planner. The pocket calculator. The humble compass. Even a deck of cards! And just like the empires of old, these items remain to this day, but they’re overshadowed by the new, younger technology. It’s convenient, it’s ultralight and portable, and it lends more utility to every facet of life than there ever was before.
Our mobile phones are the utopian dream of the past generation, but they are not inviolate. That is a fact that has been brought to our attention and has wholly affirmed our gnawing suspicions recently. We now know that our government’s security agencies keep detailed records of every transmission made on our devices. Every phone call, every text and tweet, every picture of your girlfriend’s boobs or the Chinese takeout you had last weekend (or both) is stored for future analysis. It creates a web of surveillance that not only covers the entire American nation, but it actually spreads beyond the borders and stretches out into the larger world. Unlimited power.

This wealth of information allows the security agencies to trace out the network of a threat to the Nth degree, creating a specter that innocent civilians will be caught and implicated in the wrongdoings of a seemingly innocuous person, the entanglement with whom could potentially ruin a person’s life and reputation. How this plays out in the future remains largely to be seen, but allowing that kind of access is opening a door to that kind of oppression.

What really ties this all together are the common social paradigms in which we function online: the communities, or as we call them in the popular vernacular, the social networks. Facebook, undoubtedly the top player in this domain, has recently changed the access rights of their applications to allow access to more features of the device than previously requested, and this caused a lot of furor on the Internet about what Facebook is doing behind our backs. Are they watching our every move? Can they hear everything we say, even while the phone is in our pockets?

Again, time will show how this plays out, but I suspect that what Facebook is really after is to provide the same functionality with messaging that we have on normal computers, which are slowly fading into the background of our lives. Because of the private nature of our mobile phones (whose hardware and software architectures have been designed from the beginning with security in mind, unlike those of standard computers) demands that we give permission to an application for the use of a specific feature – say, the camera, or the microphone, and even the address book – there’s no way we can send a picture in a message or pull up a contact and message them from there if the app is disallowed from using that feature of the device. Thus, permission is required to use those features.

This is not to say that all of our gripes with Facebook are mere conspiracy theory. The way the newsfeeds are managed and geared toward advertisers rather than our social connections is terrible. Some people don’t like the targeted advertising, while others don’t mind. Facebook is obviously in bed with the people who actually pay for it to run, and that should come as no surprise. These are things that have nothing to do with the real issue, which is that every bit of information that flows back and forth from your device is potentially being handed to the government for storage and future analysis, and social networks across the Internet only serve to lubricate the sharing of this information. Our lives are greased lightning that is easily bottled for future reference.

Watching the waves ripple out . . .

So in a sense, the social networks are only doing what they have to do to operate in a world where we demand access to them for free, but at the same time they play our personal information right into hands whose motivations are as clear and unpredictable as the weather. With the owners of those hands always ten steps ahead of the common man, we fear what we do not yet understand, and rightfully so. It’s ironic that in this way we find ourselves in the same group as some (recently late) foreign governments.

Social networks are a hotbed for public sentiment. We learned this well during the series of uprisings in the Middle East that are now collectively called the Arab Spring. Both Twitter and Facebook, among others, were instrumental in sustaining protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Syria. Some of these were more successful than others, as we know that the unrest in Syria continues unresolved for the opposition groups, who are now starting to turn on each other.

As dominoes fell across the epicenter of humanity, we saw the power of the mobile device in every pocket. News flooded out uncontrolled, and from all perspectives. The powers of the Middle East found themselves unprepared for a fight against a resistance that was unprecedented in history in that it was powered not by the flaming rhetoric of a single person, but by a technology that kept the herd united in purpose and confidence in their scope.

Is it a mere coincidence that this is what the American government would have liked to see?

In politics, there are no coincidences. In this realm where every move is strategic, where every player is trained to outthink, outmaneuver, outsmart, outwit, and outtalk their opponents, it’s hard to believe that this wasn’t part of the larger plan even if the timing of its occurrence was coincidental. Where before the mission of the American government seemed to be to spread democracy to every corner of the world in any way necessary to facilitate access to scarce resources, we now understand that the power of the mobile device in every pocket is that people can demand democracy for themselves, they can demand to bring about positive change in their own societies that will elevate the standard of living for the majority of their nation’s peoples. For a little bit, the government sat back and watched the Internet do part of their work for them. When the call for support came in, they debated and ultimately sent in help where they deemed it was necessary.

They weren’t forcing democracy on anyone at that point. How much easier is that? We watched the triumph of the young over the old as the technology of the mobile Internet toppled existing power structures that were based upon power so oppressive that the miserable populace rose up in a bid to break that power and create a better life for themselves, and guess what? We were there to help them when they inevitably asked for assistance. This is the disaster that the Soviet Union avoided by converting to the religion of democracy, and compared to them the Middle East is cupcakes – in part due to the power of the mobile Internet.

The “problem” with American democracy

The thing about our brand of democracy is that there’s a low-level and a high-level of knowledge regarding how it works, where the majority of us are brought up to understand the high-level because it’s as simple as it gets. Every citizen gets a vote for those in office, and then those in office administrate our nation in the popular interest. Bam, that’s democracy. The low-level is what we have to learn for ourselves: we vote, but our vote doesn’t always count. There’s an unresolved tension between the popular vote and the electoral vote, because everyone’s votes for public office are funneled into a much smaller (and more manageable) voting body that can choose to vote against the popular vote. Our elected officials tend to legislate and dictate in favor of moneyed and corporate interests. Any pretense which can be found to employ the military is used to do so. Thus we find both our political and military establishments are enslaved to big money and corporations in what can at best be called a nominal democracy – a democracy in name, but at any given time it can be something else.

This is what the government is selling the world powers: a twenty-five cassette Tony Robbins’ Personal Power of nation-building. Some governments resist, thinking that upsetting their traditional ways is tantamount to destroying their civilizations and thus their own personal ways of life. In effect, they believe that American democracy threatens their totalitarian grip and their wealth, not to mention what the people would do if the military were not there to protect the most terrible of them. The smart ones give in, understanding that making their people happy on a superficial level will do much to keep the big boys in power. From that position, they can keep playing the nation-building game, which enables them to be part of the world’s feng shui flow of goods, services, and technologies and puts more money directly in their pockets.

In short, they call it democracy, and they give it enough lip service to keep us more or less happy. The poorest people in America have access to things that the poorest people in the world can only dream of, if they even bother to dream anymore. Still, the lowest level of poverty in America seems to run counter to the much higher level that it should be, and this points to the tensions within our brand of democracy. In a more ideal democracy, our nation would have the money to help those unable to help themselves lead something approximating a normal life while getting those who could help themselves on a steady enough ground to do so. It does this to some extent, but it falls short much of the time because the resources that aren’t there are being funneled into the interests of the privileged few.

This brand of democracy – the nominal sort – short-sells a future in which there should be more power on a personal level, but it can never be there while it serves a relative few with enough money to work it to their advantage. The growing web of a surveillance device in every pocket helps both the government and their big money sources in different ways, while serving little in the way of real political utility to the people at large, who rightfully should have it now and into the future.

If this is the Democracy we’re selling to the rest of the world, when will we get a chance to elevate ourselves above it? Will we be the first, or will someone with a new way to play the game come along?

We are a sophisticated and relatively well-educated nation of individuals who hold the ability in our hands on a frequent basis to effect social change for the better, and yet we are hamstrung by the bottlenecking of power to do so. In the run-up to the 2016 election, why is it that we have no way of voting from our phones? Why can’t we eliminate the Electoral College and vote directly over the Internet using mobile phones, personal computers, and public kiosks, and watch the vote tally up the evening of November 4th from our chosen media consumption device? It has the potential to be faster, more reliable, and more accurate than existing methods. Naysayers point toward potential weak points in such a system as though there are systems that do not have weak points, while ignoring the weak points that exist in our current voting system. I maintain that the weak points of a popular digital vote are not only surmountable, but they’re able to be effected quickly and with much less expense than the current system – the problem being that a true popular vote threatens the existing power structure of American democracy, and so they choose to suppress such technology as would facilitate that.

This is the nature of American oppression. We as a people do not oppress other nations, nor do we steal their resources for our own profit. This is done by and large by a government that is funded mostly by rich men and corporations with their own motivations, none of which are likely to be world peace, the elevation of the common man, or the public good. We find ourselves attached to it, like serfs in a medieval feudal society, and like cogs in a machine.

It’s hard to detach ourselves from what we view as “normal”, especially when everything is so well-integrated into our lives, but the onus falls on us to tear down this wall brick by brick and unite the two sides that have been held apart by mutually exclusive interests: the people, and the government that operates under the pretense that it is “of the people, by the people, for the people”. One hundred percent of our tax money should work for our benefit, otherwise we should not have to pay taxes to a government that is funded by wealthy corporations and individuals. In that case it should be free, like Facebook, because just as with Facebook we have little to do with, and even less control over, what the government does.

That is, unless we choose to come together and tear down the wall.

Haiku: Imposition


Embed from Getty Images

Rushed by wartime need,
our power begs discipline
we may never have.

Today’s haiku was inspired by a segment I heard on NPR yesterday afternoon as I was driving home from work, and it asked “what if WWI had never happened, if Franz Ferdinand had survived his assassination?” I noted toward the end they discussed one author’s view of how much more slowly technology would have advanced without the pressure of the following wars – WWII or the Cold War – that were consequential to WWI. I ended up realizing that it’s not the technology that is ahead of its time at this point, but the expectations we place upon the users.

Humans may never be ready for the future, but it’s coming whether we like it or not. Ever rushing at us from above, it falls to us and we must rise to meet it; may we never again find cause to unleash its power upon others.

Listen to the ten-minute audio show here, and then weigh in – if you can – on what else might have changed.

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Weekly Photo Challenge: Horizon

IMG_1056 This is the state capitol as seen from the top of a hill at Lions Park. The “Skyscraper on the Prairie” is the tallest building in North Dakota at 19 stories; it cost the state forty-six cents per cubic foot when it was completed in 1934 to replace the original Capitol building after it burned down. In true North Dakota style, they did it all above board during the Great Depression, selling off half the Capitol grounds to finance the two million-dollar budget and stripping the building of exterior ornamentation to come in under the mark.

Now that’s my kind of municipality.

This post was prompted by this week’s Daily Post Weekly Photo Challenge.

I heard it coming and yet it caught me unawares!

So for the last several days I have been hearing talk on the local NPR channel about that famous speech delivered by Martin Luther King Jr. – the one titled “I Have a Dream.” I’ve actually learned more about that speech by hearing about it on the radio than I ever did in school, even though I was raised in the Metro Detroit area and despite the fact that Dr. King was such a popular dude in our area that he had his own holiday that we got to take off of school every year.

English: Dr. Martin Luther King giving his &qu...
Dr. Martin Luther King giving his “I Have a Dream” speech (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Did you know, in fact, that today – August 28th 2013 – is the 50th anniversary of the delivery of that speech? If you haven’t heard yet and you do not hear it today, then you certainly heard it from me, didn’t you? And with the delivery of that speech, Dr. King joined the handful of the most famous notables who declared that all people should be free and enjoy the rights associated with American life; including Thomas Jefferson, who was the first to introduce that into an American legal document when he wrote in the Preamble to the Constitution, “[w]e hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. Despite the fact that he is rightfully disputed to this day to be an exploitative slave owner, he did write that and most certainly felt it at one time, even if it was suppressed in the interest of business. Jefferson was, after all, a slave to his own pleasurable life and did his best to hold onto it. Abraham Lincoln, hailed as the great emancipator, runs much in the same vein; he helped shape modern America by introducing an amendment to the Constitution which led ultimately to the abolition of slavery in America. It wasn’t the most popular choice to make, nor was it something he rushed to do – but it was something he ultimately decided would help save and preserve the fractured Union; in other words, abolishing slavery was a tool for saving the nation.

Dr. King was naturally different, because he was black and the fight for civil rights was one that he ended up leading to America’s front door, declaring that freedom had not yet been claimed by all Americans. His speech invoked the words of both Jefferson and Lincoln, bringing them forth from the hollow past of history to stand at his side as he grabbed national attention with his speech.

Photograph of a reproduction of the Emancipati...
the Emancipation Proclamation (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And it’s interesting to note that I could easily post the entire Declaration of Independence if I wanted to, or the Emancipation Proclamation – and sure, it’s because they’re old documents. But I am not ready to reproduce more than the title of Dr. King’s I Have a Dream speech because it turns out that it is protected under copyright law. Now that’s a trick. According to what I heard on NPR, Dr. King copyrighted his speech to help fund the civil rights movement, and when he was murdered five years later, the copyright passed to his estate, and in the time since they have actively defended their copyright, which does not go away until 2038. Because of this it might be difficult to find a transcript online of the speech, so we might not even know what it says. Apparently I can pay thirteen dollars to get a copy from Amazon, but I can’t just read it online.

Is that really fair? Shouldn’t such an important piece of history be considered in the public domain? I certainly think so, but what do you think? Let us know in the comments.

Oh, and the link below to the Miami Herald claims to be the full text of the speech. If you are interested, print it out while you can, or at least hit the print button at the bottom of the article and save that. I think we have a right to be able to read it.

Saturday Jams: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

(If the music widget doesn’t appear, refresh your browser!)

So! Just two days ago I’m willing to bet that most of us got together with friends and relatives, drank generous amounts of beer, ate prodigious amounts of charred animal flesh and mayonnaise-bathed boiled potatoes, and enjoyed a fantastic light show when the sun went down; perhaps you made your own contribution to said light show. The idea is that we got together in order to celebrate the hard-fought appropriation of the centre of this beautiful and bountiful landmass which many of us now inhabit – a move that, according to one very tall and wise man, was “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

As high-minded as the ideal was, it’s been an interesting 237 years since then; the fledgeling United States of America expanded to fill the territory it now inhabits, displacing and disenfranchising entire populations of indigenous people; then we almost tore ourselves apart over the issue of states’ rights, although American history ostensibly tells that we fought about slavery, which may have at the time served as the red herring it does today; we added first Alaska, then Hawaii the the roll call of states under Federal rule, and we’ve fought countless wars – all in the name of liberty and equality, huzzah! Four Presidents have been assassinated in our history, and the last successful one (with all due respect, of course) actually delayed a watershed event in American musical history by two and a half weeks while the nation mourned. When CBS finally aired its shelved story (shelved after it played in the morning, but not in the evening on November 22) about Beatlemania on December 10, 1963, one girl in Maryland wrote her local radio station asking why they didn’t have music like that in America. The radio station – conveniently located in our nation’s capital – responded enthusiastically, and for the second time the British managed to set fire to America.

The first time was a literal burning of the nation’s capital in 1814 by British forces. This tends to be glossed over in American History class, because it’s the only time our nation has ever been successfully invaded by a military force, led interestingly enough by one Major General Robert Ross. As of today, I am to the best of my knowledge not a time-traveling military commander; I will let you know if that changes.

This event (the musical one) was to be known as the “British Invasion”, and you can blame its popularity with American youth in part on the fact that they were sick of teen idols, and that the invasion came in the wake of a scandal where radio stations and DJs were being paid by record labels to play their music, thereby suppressing competition by outside musicians. The rest of the blame goes to the fact that awesome music was coming by the boatload from England. Here’s a short list of some of the better known ones:

  • The Kinks
  • The Animals
  • The Searchers
  • Mungo Jerry
  • The Status Quo
  • The Foundations
  • David Bowie
  • The Tremoloes
  • The Tornados (A surf band, hello!!!)
  • Donovan
  • The Troggs
  • The Yardbirds
  • The Mindbenders
  • The Move
  • The Marmalade
  • The Zombies

Oh, um, and the Beatles, of course. This total turnaround of historical precedent where it wasn’t everything American but everything British changed the flavor of rock music forever, and unfortunately contributed to the popular demise of instrumental surf music, but we know you can’t keep a good genre down. 🙂

For today’s Saturday Jams, I’ve laid down just a few of my favorites from the British Invasion. Enjoy!

–Sunny Afternoon by The Kinks – other hits include All Day and All of the Night, You Really Got Me, and A Well Respected Man.

–She’s Not There by The Zombies (live performance) – they’re also known for Time of the Season

–The Beatles’ appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964. This was a big deal; the audience’s behavior was considered astounding at the time. It’s a longer video, but you get both sections of their performance from this first appearance on America’s most popular show at the time, and you get to see how the British Invasion gained so much traction.

Now, please enjoy what’s left of your weekend. On Monday, most of us go back to work!

Featured image credit: popstache.com

Saturday Jams: how to re-make it in the biz

This week, we’re looking at recycled music: song covers. Most – if not all – bands do this at one time or another; they cover songs, essentially re-making them. And the longer we’ve gone without a new iteration of the song, the better – at least in my opinion. After all, who wants to hear a new version of Milli Vanilli’s Baby Don’t Forget My Number every few years? Not I, said the fly! There are benefits to covering songs though, including having an easy go-to for bands that are still starting out, and possibly being even better than the original; of course, that judgement tends to be a matter of opinion. The only way to know for sure is to do it and hope it hits!

Our first song hearkens back to that last known temporal bastion of brotherly love, the soulful 70’s. Earth Wind and Fire recorded their song September at the same time they recorded their 1979 album I Am, but released it as a single in ’78 and not on the album, for some reason – probably because it’s an awesome song. Did I mention that my birthday is in September? September 7. The song mentions the twenty-first night of September, which is divisible by seven, so numerologically, I’m totally there. Week three of Robstravaganza! September hit the top of the R&B chart and number eight on the Billboard Hot 100, so they must have known it was solid gold, baby. Pomplamoose, the true indie duo known individually as Nataly Dawn and Jack Conte, recognized that as well and covered it in their VideoSongs series, which are as much fun to watch as they are to listen and sing along to:

Our next pick comes from a band that saw it’s heyday in the 90’s ska revival. One-hit-wonder Spiral Starecase’s 1969 Top 100 hit More Today than Yesterday has only been covered commercially a few times, and in 1998 Goldfinger brought back to the fore this wonderful song as a single for the soundtrack of the Adam Sandler movie The Waterboy. The video is nothing special, so feel free to read another post while listening to this gem:

“Love is stronger than thunder” -Milli Vanilli