The Offensive Stupidity Of The No-Fly List

Last Friday (July 31st) my wife, my daughter, and I were to fly back from Vancouver to New York City after our vacation in Canada’s Jasper and Banff National Parks. On arrival at Vancouver Airport, we began the usual check-in, got groped in security, and filled out customs forms. The US conducts all customs and passport checks in Canada itself for US-bound passengers; we waited in the line for US citizens. We were directed to a self-help kiosk, which issued a boarding pass for my wife with a black cross across it. I paid no attention to it at the time, but a few minutes later, when a US Customs and Border Protection officer directed us to follow him, I began to. We were directed to a waiting room, where I noticed a Muslim family–most probably from Indonesia or Malaysia–seated on benches. (The women wore headscarves; the man sported a beard but no moustache and wore a skull cap.)

I knew what was happening: once again, my wife had been flagged for the ‘no-fly’ list. The first time this had happened had been during our honeymoon to Spain some eleven years ago; the last time my wife had been flagged was on our return from Amsterdam four years ago. (That’s right; my wife had been allowed to fly to the US from Europe, but her entry into the US was blocked.) On each occasion, she had been questioned–in interrogatory fashion–by a brusque official, and then ‘let go.’ There was no consistency to the checks; sometimes they happened, sometimes they did not. For instance, my wife was not blocked from traveling to–or returning from–India in 2013. At the least, the security system being employed by the Department of Homeland Security was maddeningly inconsistent.

But matters did not end there. It was not clear why my wife had been placed on the ‘no-fly’ list in the first place. Was there something in her background data that matched those of a known ‘terrorist’? This seemed unlikely: she had been born in Michigan, grown up in Ohio, attended Ohio State University, gone to graduate school at the City University of New York, and then law school at Brooklyn Law School before beginning work with the National Labor Relations Board as a staff attorney. (During her college days, she had worked with a student’s group dedicated to justice in Palestine, but that seemed like slim pickings. On that basis, you could indict most Jewish students who attend four-year liberal arts colleges in the US.) But she is Muslim–or, as my wife likes to say, ‘she was born into a Muslim family’–and still retains her Muslim last name after marriage. That could certainly be a problem.

After the first instance of our being detained at an airport, we had expected no more detentions; after all, the US’ security officers would have noticed that a particular passport number, belonging to a particular American citizen, had been incorrectly flagged at a border check; they had ascertained to their satisfaction that all was well; surely, they would now remove that name and number combination from their lists and concentrate on their remaining ‘targets.’ The first check would have acted as a data refinement procedure for the learning data used by their profiling software; it would now work with a cleaner set and generate fewer ‘false positives’–like my wife. That’s how learning data systems are supposed to work; the ‘cleaner’ the learning data, the better the system works.

But that had not had happened. Over the course of the past eleven years, my wife was detained again and again, leading up to this last instance on last Friday. On each occasion, the same procedure: ‘Follow me please; sir, you stay right here.” (Mercifully, in Vancouver, perhaps noticing we had a child with us, the border officers allowed me to accompany her to their chambers.) And then, the questioning, which sought to establish her  credentials: “What’s your father’s name?” What’s your mother’s name” “Where do you work?” and so on. Finally, “Thank you, ma’am. You can go now.” But none of the information gathered in these sessions had any value whatsoever as far as the no-fly profiling system was concerned. That remained magnificently impervious to the empirical particulars of the world outside; as far it was concerned, my wife was still guilty. Sometimes.

When the interrogation of my wife had ended, I asked the border officer: “How do I get my wife off the list?” His reply: “I don’t know.” I then asked: “Do you have any idea why she was flagged today?” His reply: “She has a pretty common last name.” I stared at him, dumbfounded. When Sinn Féin was rated a quasi-terrorist organization, did the US flag every Irishman at JFK who bore the last name Adams? Could it really be possible that this profiling system was as stupid as this officer was making it out to be? But that hypothesis was not so implausible; there was nothing in my wife’s background that would indicate any reason to place her in the same class as those folks who might be potential 9/11’ers. Moreover, this profiling system remained dumb; it did not ‘learn'; its conditional probabilities stayed the same no matter what its handlers learned about its learning data.

It’s tempting to call this a Kafkaesque situation and let it go at that. (And perhaps throw in a few complaints about the petty harassment this generates; the Muslim family I saw waiting with us missed their flight, and the solitary male was rudely told to move at one point.) But there is more here; this system, this ‘silver bullet’ that is supposed to keep us safe and for which we should be willing to give up our civil liberties is useless. And dangerously so. Its very strengths, to look for patterns and evidence and generate plausible hypotheses about the guilt of its subjects, are compromised by its design. I’ve speculated why my wife’s entry in the no-fly list has not been deleted and the only plausible explanation I can come up with is that whoever makes the deletion takes a very tiny risk of being wrong; there is an infinitesimal probability that the ‘innocent’ person will turn out to be guilty, and scapegoats will then be found. Perhaps that fear of being indicted as the ones who the let the Trojan Horse through stays their hand.

Whatever the rationale, the end-result is the same: a useless, dangerous, and offensive security system that on a daily basis–I’m quite sure–subjects both citizens and non-citizens of the US to expensive and humiliating delays and interrogations. And makes us safer not at all.

CS Lewis’ Mere Christianity: Masterfully Flawed Apologetics

CS Lewis‘ Mere Christianity is rightly acknowledged as a masterpiece of Christian apologetics; it is entertaining, witty, well-written, clearly composed by a man of immense learning and erudition (who, as befitting the author of the masterful Studies in Words, cannot restrain his delightful habit of providing impromptu lessons in etymology.) Lewis is said to have induced conversions in “Francis Collins, Jonathan Aitken, Josh Caterer and the philosopher C. E. M. Joad” as a result of their reading Mere Christianity, and it is not hard to see why. The encounter of a certain kind of of receptive mind with the explication of Christian doctrine that Lewis provides–laden with provocative analogies and metaphors–is quite likely to lead to the kind of experience conversion provides: an appeal to an emotional core harboring deeply experienced and felt needs and desires, which engenders a radical shift in perspective and self-conception. Christianity offers a means for conceptualizing one’s existential and pyschological crises–seeing them as manifestation of a kind of possession, by sin, by the Devil–and holds out the promise of radical self-improvement: the movement toward man–all men–becoming Christ, assuming a moral and spiritual perfection as they do so.  All the sludge will fall away; man will rise and be welcomed into the bosom of God; if only he takes on faith in Christ and his teachings. This is powerful, heady stuff and its intoxicating powers are underestimated only by those overly arrogant about the power and capacities of reason and ratiocination to address emotional longings and wants.

It is clear too, from reading Lewis, why Christianity provoked the ire of a philosopher like Nietzsche. For they are all here: the infantilization of man in the face of an all-powerful, all-seeing, all-knowing, all-good God; the terrible Godly wrath visible in notions such as damnation; the disdain for this life, this earth, this abode, its affairs and matters, in favor of another one; the notion of a ‘fallen man’ and a ‘fall from grace’ implying this world is corrupt, indeed, under ‘occupation’ by an ‘enemy force.’ There is considerable self-abnegation here; considerable opportunity for self-flagellation and diminishment. No wonder the Existential Stylist was driven to apoplectic fury.

Lewis takes Biblical doctrine seriously and literally; but like any good evangelical he is not above relying on metaphorical interpretation when it suits him. (This is evident throughout Mere Christianity but becomes especially prominent in the closing, more avowedly theological chapters.) Unsurprisingly for a man of his times (who supports the death penalty and thinks homosexuals are perverts), the seemingly retrograde demand that wives unquestioningly obey their husbands, which might have sparked alarms in a more suspicious mind about the sociological origins of such a hierarchy-preserving notion, is stubbornly, if ever so slightly apologetically, defended.

Lewis’ arguments are, despite the apparent effort he takes to refute views contrary to Christian doctrine, just a little too quick. His infamous trilemma arguing for the Divinity of Jesus and his dismissal of the notion that his supposed Natural or Universal Law of Morality cannot be traced to a social instinct are notoriously weak (the former’s weaknesses are amply referenced in the link above while the latter simply pays no attention to history, class, and culture.)

But Mere Christianity, even if deeply flawed, is still worth a read: you witness an agile mind at work; you encounter a masterful writer; you find yourself challenged to provide refutations and counter-arguments; you even feel an emotional tug or two, letting you empathize with those who do not think like you do. That’s a pretty good catch for one book.

Let’s Hear It For The Trailhead

The trailhead is a good friend to all hikers, but it may be especially helpful to the day-hiker. There it is, the turnoff as indicated by the map, the sign indicating hiking and adventure are proximal, the quick check to ascertain the fullness of the parking lot–dismay if too full, glee if many spots still available, the helpful map indicating distances and local conditions (topographic, climactic, and sometimes warnings pertaining to fauna such as bears), and then finally, a glimpse of the opening steps onto the trail. That sight reminds you the trailhead is a portal to the wild; step through it and be transported–if you walk far enough. The trailhead is tame, but it lets you through to spaces and regions considerably less under the sway of man’s powers. (And let’s not forget the provision of a porta-pottie, which has the magical ability to make you lighter in body and mind before you start dragging backpack and body up and down slopes and scree.) In wilder, less developed hiking regions, the trailhead marks the end of the motorable road; ‘civilization’ goes no further; you are on your own now. In North America’s national and state parks, it marks the connection of the wilderness with civilization in a slightly different way. The road ends here too but it does not run out; it carries on elsewhere.

Returning to the trailhead is a pleasure too;  the hike is over, feet are sore, clothes are sweaty and prone to producing unpleasant chills when the wind picks up, the light may be fading, rest and relaxation and refueling beckon. The car may carry a change of clothes, some food, and even warmth as bad weather–the same winds and rain which sped up the last part of your hike–closes in. Many a hiker will pose for a weary but triumphant photo next to the trail map after completing the hike; a job–of sorts–well done. On occasion, of course, the sights and sounds of civilization audible and visible on the approach to the trailhead can serve as disconcerting reminders that you have left the pleasures–solitude, vistas–of the wilderness behind and that immersion in the weekday world awaits.

Sometimes you can return to the trailhead–after completing your hike for the day–and find out you’ve been a badass without even knowing it.  This photo was taken last Tuesday shortly after we–my wife, my toddler daughter, and myself–completed the Helen Lake hike in Banff National Park (Alberta, Canada). Along the way, we heard about grizzly encounters from other hikers on the trail–apparently, a pair had been sighted next to a creek crossing, and one had even charged a woman hiker as an aggressive warning. We debated carrying on–we weren’t carrying bear spray, as another hiker helpfully pointed out–and did, but behind us, the parks authority closed off the trail. On our return–we had skipped the Dolomite Pass section of the hike because it was getting late in the day–we commented on the relative absence of hikers and only found out the reason once we had returned.

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Political Disputes Are Moral Disputes

Writing for The Stone, (‘Can Moral Disputes Be Resolved?‘, New York Times, 13 July 2015), Alex Rosenberg claims:

Moral disputes seem intractable….With some exceptions, political disputes are not like this. When people disagree about politics, they often agree about ends, but disagree about means to attain them. Republicans and Democrats may differ on, say, health care policy, but share goals — a healthy American population. They differ on fiscal policy but agree on the goal of economic growth for the nation….this is often a matter of degree. Political disputes can have moral aspects, too. The two sides in the debate over abortion rights…clearly don’t agree on the ends. There is an ethical disagreement at the heart of this debate. It is safe to say that the more ethical a political dispute is, the more heated and intractable it is likely to become.

These claims misunderstand political disputes and thus mischaracterize the nature and quality of the disagreements they give rise to.

Political disputes generate as much heat and light as they do because, very often, their participants do not share goals–opponents on either side of a political divide are well aware of this. I remain entirely unconvinced Republicans have a ‘healthy American population’ as a political goal, as opposed to ‘maximizing profits for the healthcare businesses – insurance, hospitals, doctors etc.’ Nothing in their actions and pronouncements suggests such an ascription would be remotely plausible. Only a commitment to shoehorn their views into some predetermined template of ‘acceptable political views’ could animate such an understanding of their political goals. Similarly, I do not think Republicans share the goal of ‘economic growth for the nation’ with me. Their concern appears far more limited, only extensible to a privileged–economically and morally–subset of the population. In these circumscribed political spaces, I find moral and metaphysical principles at work: that there exists a category of people termed ‘undeserving’, the members of which are not entitled to the benefits of the nation’s social and economic arrangements. These are not the principles that animate my political viewpoints.

A ‘political goal’ is not a simple scheme for power sharing; it speaks to a possible arrangement of social, economic, and moral goods, and the animating premises for the arguments made on its behalf rest invariably on some larger vision of how the world should be. In short, political goals are infected with normativity; they seek to conform to the ordering of some table of values their proponents have in mind. It might be that in a particular sphere of politics, some goals have to be artfully disguised in order to make their realization more plausible; this can generate the illusion of ‘agreement on goals-disagreement on means’ which Rosenberg so charitably ascribes to contemporary political conflict.

Rosenberg makes a concession to the intractability of political disputes by admitting the moral nature of some subset of them, but he has mischaracterized them sufficiently to not notice the glaringly obvious conclusion we can draw instead: political disputes are just as intractable as moral ones; the reason for this is that at heart, that’s what they are.

Scott Walker: Destroying Tenure, Keeping You ‘Free’

Scott Walker is well on his way to destroying one of the finest systems of public education in this country.  Those who cheered his attack on public sector unions will cheer this move on too: it has everything they want. A repeal of tenure, destruction of faculty governance, budget slashing, more power to university administrators. Nation-hating leftists, lazy, corrupt, subversive teachers, insolent workers forming themselves into unions; these have all been disciplined and put out to pasture. The cheering from those who would have benefited the most from high-quality, affordable public education, from organized workers fighting for fair wages and better working conditions, will be the loudest. The masochistic tendencies  of those who elected Scott Walker will thus be prominently on display.  So will their sadistic ones, for they will enjoy the spectacle of uppity faculty and unionists brought to their knees, they will enjoy the idea of ‘someone else’ being told to work longer hours, just like they do.

Pay us less, make us work more, make universities more expensive for our children, let corporate managers, the one who rules our lives, run our universities too, let them hire and fire teachers and professors like they would hire and fire us–without reason, let them decide what our children will learn; our father, which art in heaven, thou hast made us powerless; make others powerless too, especially those that dare speak up for themselves. These are the rallying cries of those who elect Scott Walker, artfully packaged and funded by those who would actually benefit the most: monopolist capitalists like the Koch brothers. Wisconsin is tragedy and farce simultaneously.

I seem to remember another instance of this kind of phenomenon:

The emotional satisfaction afforded by these sadistic spectacles and by an ideology which gave them a feeling of superiority…[and] was able to compensate them–for a time at least–for the fact that their lives had been impoverished, economically and culturally….[it] resurrected the lower middle class psychologically while participating in the destruction of its old socioeconomic position. [Eric Fromm, Escape From Freedom, Henry Holt and Co., New York, pp. 219]

Why do the folks who voted for Scott Walker feel this way? Perhaps they are “seized with the feeling of individual insignificance and powerlessness…typical for monopolistic capitalism…[their] anxiety and thereby…hatred were aroused; it moved into a state of panic and was filled a craving for submission to as well as domination over those who were powerless.” [Ibid., pp. 218]

Perhaps I exaggerate; so let me turn to The Onion for a dose of much-needed realism, where, in the ‘candidate profile’ for Walker, we find:

Personal Hero: Sixth-grade teacher who inspired him to strip educators of collective bargaining rights and dismantle publicly funded higher education

Greatest Accomplishment: Stood up to people who make living pulling others from burning buildings

Gubernatorial Record: First governor in history to raise enough out-of-state funding to overcome recall challenge from own constituents

Chief Political Rival: Those who want to make a living wage

This same man will now run for president on a platform that will look very similar to the one he brought to Wisconsin.  We live in interesting times.

War Criminal Charges Money To Speak At Fundraiser For Veterans

If you declare an illegal war, send thousands of men to their death, and cause the death of hundreds of thousands others, the ones who are bombed, shelled, and then later, become the victims of fratricidal conflict; if you refuse to adequately protect those you send to war, and care little for their eventual rehabilitation–physically, mentally, and socially; if you have been lucky enough to escape prosecution as a mass murdering war criminal because the political class you are a member of protects its own and would rather get on with the business of lining its pockets; then, hopefully, for the sake of this world’s moral orderings, you possess a modicum of self-aware shame that causes you to slink away–post-retirement–into the shadows, keeping a low profile and hoping a prosecutorial boom is never lowered on you.

But if you are George W. Bush, you do no such thing. Instead, you double and triple down, and ask for exorbitant speaking fees at fundraisers for the very community you have done the most to betray: military veterans. And you ask to be flown there in a private jet.

There was a time, when in the midst of some fulmination against the Unholy Troika of Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld, I would stop and say, “You know, Dubya feels a little less malevolent to me; his mental capacities seem diminished; perhaps one can forgive him just a tad; this much benevolence can be shown to those who are not as blessed as we are.” But that time passed quickly, because Dubya was always as bad as he came across as being. We shouldn’t expect any less from a man whose very rise to the Presidency was ensured by a compliant Supreme Court, who never had a mandate of any kind, but acted as if he had been elected by a landslide, who roped in old, encrusted remnants of another criminal administration as his Vice President and Secretary of Defense.

Dubya’s speaking engagement highlights yet another coach on the gravy train that our elected representatives can look forward to occupying during their long, lucrative careers: the speaking circuit. Fools and their money are parted every day, and there is no end to the national–or perhaps international–obsession with getting ‘big names’ to ‘speak to us.’ Whether it’s commencement or ground-breaking, we, as a species, as a culture, are convinced that among the most profitable–no pun intended–way to spend our time is to pay pontificators large amounts of money. Think silence is golden? Think again. (This disease is noticeably manifest in academia where departments fall over each other to deplete their budgets as quickly as possible so that they may invite a ‘superstar’ to come shower his intellectual benedictions on them.)

The Deadly Trio–Dubya, Dick and Donald–are the most vivid elements of a long, never-ending national nightmare. Having escaped jail time, they now mock us, not from the sidelines, but from the cultural center. Their time on this planet, like ours, is finite. But not finite enough.

The Fragility Of The Digital

A week or so ago, during my in-laws’ visit to New York City for the July 4th weekend, we all made a trip to the Metropolitan Museum. Wall to wall art all day; as much as you could handle. Several hours later, tired and spent, still thanking our lucky stars that our lovely toddler daughter had blessed us with a lengthy nap in her stroller in the middle of the afternoon, we headed home. As we did so, I cast my mind back to some of the wonderful pieces of art I had seen in the section devoted to Greek art from the fifth and sixth centuries BC. It seemed miraculous that over two thousand years later, those artifacts were still around, still being admired by the residents of one of the world’s greatest cities.  A wondrous confluence of actors had come together to make that possible. Included in them would have to be the materials of which the artworks were made: clay, stone, metal; the methods for storing them, and their interactions with the environment.

I must admit I feel little confidence when I consider the digital artifacts that so prop up our lives today. I cannot but be bemused by the fact that I am still in possession of many letters from days long gone by even as a great deal of my digital correspondence has vanished. And the less said about photographs the better; hundreds, if not thousands, of digital photographs have vanished from my collection: mistakenly deleted, destroyed in a hard drive crash, and sometimes, mysteriously, I just can’t find them. If you thought sticking photographs in old-fashioned paper albums was tedious, think again; little compares to the mind-numbing boredom of trying to organize a digital photo collection; losses and confusion are inevitable. (In part, of course, this is because we now take hundreds of photos in the course of a typical life event–as compared to the dozens of yesteryear.)

I say this as someone who considers himself a reasonably competent technology user: the fragility of the digital is frightening. Data is all too easily wiped out, too vulnerable to technical and human disasters. Yes, we have the opportunity to backup, but we also have occasion to forget (or not, in some cases, know how.) Those who imagine apocalyptic scenarios that bring about the end of civilization often dream of rampant disease and pestilence, nuclear war, climate change, and zombie outbreaks. To this list of imagined catastrophes I add my own: a freak cosmic event, perhaps The Solar Flare From Hell, which wipes out in an instant, all digital storage on this planet. Or perhaps some suitably disgruntled hacker will write a Trojan Horse that will combine patience and a hatred for data into a malevolent mix: it would insert itself into every single storage devices worldwide, and then, after confirming full occupancy had been attained, wipe the digital slate clean.

I would write more, but I’m afraid this already flaky network connection will start acting up again, so let me sign off for now.