Archive for April, 2008

Creeping fascism has been a problem for some years now. Without much recourse short of armed revolt, considering how ineffectual the election process is for instigating real change, many citizens (including me) stood idly by and watched their rights and civil liberties ebb away on a daily basis as the state consolidates its control over all aspects of daily life. The precedent for today’s emerging fully operational security state (or surveillance society, as I’ve seen it called) lies in the early days of the Cold War. Having just emerged triumphant from WWII yet seeing ongoing threats on all sides, many in government began assembling a paranoid and invasive apparatus for gathering intelligence and protectiang American interests. It’s almost inevitable that spending one’s life addressing external threats (and increasingly, internal ones) would warp one’s perceptions and judgment, and accordingly, it’s fair to suspect that many operatives both then and now suffer from what the French call a déformation professionnelle.

If you think this is mere hyperbole, I submit you haven’t been paying attention. A quick visit to the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) website quickly gives readers the sense that the country is under siege. Its mission statement reads as follows:

CBP is one of the Department of Homeland Security’s largest and most complex components, with a priority mission of keeping terrorists and their weapons out of the U.S. It also has a responsibility for securing and facilitating trade and travel while enforcing hundreds of U.S. regulations, including immigration and drug laws.

My visit to the website was for a simple customs issue, but navigating the site and perusing its content was more than a bit spooky. The front-and-center pointer to terrorists and weapons, while a legitimate concern of the agency, may not be a primary concern of the citizenry except for the agency’s Orwellian interest in keeping everyone constantly on edge. Blissfully missing was a flashing banner with the current alert level status, which is discomfiting enough when it blares over PAs at airports and transportation hubs, as though travelers had any meaningful response. (Reminds me of the air raid sirens tested on the first Wednesday of each month during my youth — rather needless in retrospect, since no one was ever really coming for us.) Indeed, the website appears to be equally informational and public relations efforts, with public opinion toward its mandate being shaped heavily.

More significantly, consider that many functions of state security and surveillance are now being handled by InfraGard (isn’t the misspelling of guard rather cute?), a private organization with chapters throughout the U.S. that works in conjunction with the FBI. This is from its website:

InfraGard is an information sharing and analysis effort serving the interests and combining the knowledge base of a wide range of members. At its most basic level, InfraGard is a partnership between the FBI and the private sector. InfraGard is an association of businesses, academic institutions, state and local law enforcement agencies, and other participants dedicated to sharing information and intelligence to prevent hostile acts against the United States. InfraGard Chapters are geographically linked with FBI Field Office territories. Each InfraGard Chapter has an FBI Special Agent Coordinator assigned to it, and the FBI Coordinator works closely with Supervisory Special Agent Program Managers in the Cyber Division at FBI Headquarters in Washington, D.C.

This arrangement has been criticized by The Progressive as effectively deputizing private industry to spy on people and granting business leaders unwarranted access to “an FBI secure communication network complete with VPN encrypted website, webmail, listservs, message boards, and much more.” As with privatization of many former functions of the military, this is more than a little bothersome.

But it gets worse. A book by Nick Turse titled The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives describes how fully the Pentagon has infiltrated and coopted everything for its purposes, which bears comparison to the movie The Matrix as a comprehensive thought control experiment brought to life. A lengthy excerpt appears in an article in TomDispatch.com with preliminary commentary, from which I quote this portion:

At one point in his farewell speech, Eisenhower presaged this point, suggesting, “The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — [of the conjunction of the military establishment and the large arms industry] is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government.” But only Hollywood has yet managed to capture the essence of today’s omnipresent, all-encompassing, cleverly hidden system of systems that invades all our lives; this new military-industrial-technological-entertainment-academic-scientific- media-intelligence-homeland security-surveillance-national security-corporate complex that has truly taken hold of America.

And yet more bad news was delivered over the weekend, at least if you subscribe to the famous Benjamin Franklin quote: “Those who would sacrifice essential liberties for a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Articles in The Washington Post and The New York Times (and elsewhere) describe how the Justice Department, rather than acting as a check on the excesses of the Executive Branch, has given support to Bush’s authoritarian interpretation of the Geneva Conventions, stating that interrogation techniques used would be judged on a sliding scale depending on the identity of the detainee and the information he or she is believed to possess. I’ve blogged before on the use of torture by our government, and despite its repugnance to most of the public, different branches of government — in defiance of international treaties — still insist upon it as a necessary tactic.

It’s difficult for me to imagine the motives behind authoritarian types for whom the modern security state would have been the wet dream of budding Cold Warriors. Are they benevolent tyrants, protecting the population for its own good, or mere profiteers, gathering riches, power, and influence to themselves? And is there some point at which the moment will crystallize into a realization by the general public that the U.S., with its gargantuan military budget and astonishing level of incarceration, has devolved into a fascist state run by a despotic oligarchy?

Mad Skillz

Posted: April 20, 2008 in Narrative

For a short while, it appeared that screenwriters had moved beyond cheap stereotypes when concocting characters. Lots of actors were cast against type, and we had a chance to see some good stories and real acting. However, it didn’t last long and was probably a mistaken impression anyway. Movies often reinforce tired old categories with such ham-fisted inelegance that one wonders why so many lame efforts even get made. The answer is that it’s frequently profitable to make bad movies, which is one reason why cinema doesn’t qualify as art — it’s too bound up with the bottom line.

Two recent movies trot out nearly identical stereotypes in the course of their narratives: Live Free or Die Hard and Transformers. Admittedly, both movies aim low: they’re noisy, cheesy, popcorn movies intended as cheap entertainment (despite being quite expensive to make) and are utterly without pretension to greatness except perhaps in the area of special effects. They’re both loaded with stock characters that are easily recognized and therefore expendable: cops, military guys, villains, kids in peril, and the inevitable hottie or two. What struck me, though, is how similarly the two movies employed a deus ex machina in the form of a computer hacker. Reliance on characters with supernatural power who extricate others from implausible plot tangles is usually considered a narrative crutch. These movies elevate that function to a central theme.

Both movies are about loss of control of technology (or perhaps the threat of superior technology), and there are many computer operators fumbling to maintain or regain control. The supreme hacker characters are startlingly similar. They’re introduced with a knock on the door of a home, where it’s immediately revealed the hacker lives with his mother (or grandmother), is relatively young (usually a teenager), is overweight (presumably from a junk food habit and sitting on his butt all the time), and sorely lacks social skills, being more concerned with his games and gear. (Yelling at or being yelled at by the mother/grandmother is an obvious touch.) But he’s got mad skillz on the computer, and within moments, using only a few keystrokes, he can disable all security precautions and access top-level government or corporate computer networks. (As with handcuffs, if network security were really so easy to bypass, couldn’t one of the computer genius designers work out the equivalent of a padlock? At least then it would only be vulnerable to brute trauma, which hackers never use.)

Omniscient characters who seize control of the computer/ship is a basic element of the Star Trek canon, from Khan to Sybok. We’re not usually bothered with the details of how control was gained. In fact, it was established pretty quickly that showing someone in film actually computing was the kiss of death, so hackers are almost always given an impossible task and 15 seconds to accomplish it. Because that’s more, um, exciting, um, yeah. Maybe if you’re brain dead. Using hackers of relatively good or even flexible character to combat villainous hackers is a self-referential rhetorical device that apparently places both character and plot beyond impeachment by plebian audiences who couldn’t possibly understand the complexity (really, stupidity) of what’s happening onscreen. It’s basically a clash of titans, only using brain power instead of fighting skill. In the real world, I suspect such conflicts would take place over time and in relative silence, like a chess game, each side plotting strike and counterstrike until the king is toppled. For instance, in War Games, the hacker autodials phone lines until he stumbles upon a back door to the Whopper, a supercomputer that runs nuclear scenarios. He then does research at a library to guess the password. It all takes time for the puzzle to develop and be solved. In movies today, I guess one has to check all intelligence at the door, suspend disbelief, and settle in to watch shit blow up, including the computers, until one last mighty typist remains.

Bill of Goods

Posted: April 13, 2008 in Consumerism

I’m hearing more and more stories lately about some young person in middle school, high school, or even college who makes the strange decision that he or she would rather not work so hard and then abjures skills, experiences, or a degree program being offered on a silver platter. (Attracting people to actually work at something has never been harder.) It puzzles me that even ingenues could lack the foresight to recognize that building a foundation or developing oneself pays dividends over time, unlike frittering away one’s time and having nothing later to show for it. The declined opportunity could be joining a sports team, learning to play a musical instrument, studying nursing, etc. Doesn’t matter. What they have in common is that they all take a commitment of time that provides substantial benefit. Even modest time commitments like a nature hike are declined as too much effort.

As a youngster, I had the usual spans of free time: after school, weekends, and glorious summer. I spent a great deal of time in Boy Scouts, reading, studying, playing trombone, playing tennis, swimming, riding my bike, and various other endeavors that kept me occupied. But I also worked — a lot. It started with the time-honored paper route and transitioned to winters spent shoveling neighbors’ driveways and summers tending lawns. There was rarely a time when I didn’t pitch in and do the work. It would never have occurred to me that it was too much effort to be worth my time. At least two things provided motivation: self-discipline and a Protestant work ethic. Whereas self-discipline is an acquired skill, the Protestant work ethic is a value system. In hindsight, I was lucky to grow up in a family where both were operative, and I instinctively responded in kind. I may also have been lucky not to have grown up at a time with too many easy distractions (other than TV, of course).

Not so with many youngsters these days. Despite some unevenness in their diffusion, almost everyone who wants them has access to cellphones, video game systems, computers, DVDs, and an impressive array of cable channels. Although enjoyable enough, these distractions’ greatest benefit may be a thumb workout. Otherwise, the way they’re typically used, they’re monstrous time sucks. One doesn’t have to go far to find a kid (or sadly, an adult) who would rather sit at the computer and watch an endless string of YouTube videos rather than, say, go on a 10-mile bike ride. The ride is just too much work.

My suspicion is that in our current consumer culture, many kids have absorbed the imperatives of the day (as I did in my day), which are built on the premise of enjoy now, pay later. By my lights, it’s easier to get a job or do the necessary work first, bank the earnings and acquired skills, and go without things I can’t afford until later. Indeed, part of my motivation was that unless I lay a substantial foundation, I’d never be in a position to reap rewards. The current model is reversed: build up debt (or cognitive and educational deficits) first and work it off (or repair one’s failings) later. Put another way, one can spend a period of youth working hard to avoid a lifetime of hard work or enjoy leisure in youth and pay for it with a lifetime of work.

What’s at work here? I think that marketing machinery that has matured over the last 30 or so years has successfully sold people (not all youngsters by any means) a bill of goods, namely, that the good life is characterized by having lots of stuff but without necessarily haven’t worked (yet) to acquire that stuff. As children, provision of that plenitude is on one’s parents’ backs, but especially as young adults, many learn quickly that while working as baristas at Starbucks they can’t afford the luxuriant lifestyles their parents afforded them. Yet they rely irrationally on the promise of rescue by inheritance, lottery winnings, fame, or some other quick, painless event involving no effort. It’s a recipe for disillusionment and suffering.

Behind the Scenes

Posted: April 3, 2008 in Culture, Taste

I’m not sure when it began exactly, but manufacturers, producers, and creators of all manner of goods, services, and entertainments now typically include some sort of behind-the-scenes or under-the-hood content for the general public. It can be observed in many manifestations. For example, the intricacy of analog wristwatch mechanisms is too tantalizing to hide behind a clock face, so many watches are now designed to expose their inner workings.

watch

In another example, some high-end restaurants now offer seating not in a private dining room but at the kitchen table, which is literally a table in the kitchen of the restaurant. The noise, bustle, and harsh lighting of that location couldn’t possibly offer an very intimate or enjoyable venue, but the opportunity to observe the inner workings of a restaurant kitchen is apparently worthwhile to some diners.

kitchen table

Bonus features on a typical DVD, which weren’t available on VHS, are a better example of true added value in behind-the-scenes content. Typically, consumers have access to deleted scenes, “making of” featurettes, and commentary tracks. The best examples of these do not discuss merely technical aspects of filmmaking, which are primarily of interest to other filmmakers (and boring to the general public), but reveal decisions made to strengthen the narrative structure or coax better performances out of the players. One major failing of commentary tracks is typically the heaping of praise on celebrities, as though they were curing cancer or negotiating peace treaties. A few slice-of-life anecdotes are preferable.

I had the opportunity a week ago to travel the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, which is a modest two-lane road linking a variety of whiskey distilleries, large and small, that offer tours and tastings. I never knew such a thing exists and wasn’t especially interested even when I found out about it. However, due to his enthusiasm, I agreed to accompany a friend to the Maker’s Mark distillery in Loretto, Kentucky. The tour was free, and I was surprised to discover how interesting the history and process of making bourbon whiskey turned out to be. Pictures of the distillery from the 1950s revealed an small, modest industrial site of little distinction or appeal. Since then, the campus has been turned into an almost Epcot-like attraction, with the greater part of the actual distillery operation presumably taking place out of view. One striking detail on the trail was the four-story barns scattered around the county, clearly visible from the road, filled to capacity with “bourbon-eligible spirits” that age in five to seven years into the real stuff.

Already having an insider’s view of a number of different industries, processes, and endeavors, I’m not always very interested in pulling the curtain back to reveal other men and women doing their respective things. But I was charmed by the low-key approach at Maker’s Mark and will be less hesitant to detour off the beaten path in the future. Of course, if things go well, the Kentucky Bourbon Trail could become a victim of its own success, with swarms of people descending on the various sites like locusts.