State of the Union

DARPA And Their Robot Army Are Coming For Your ‘Memes’

The struggle for control and ownership of information is the constant, unending war of our time, wrapped up in commerce, innovation and a human desire to connect. By leveraging that information for profit, the information barons of the 21st century have managed to build an unprecedentedly interconnected world of convenience and choice. But it has also opened the door to censorship, propaganda and the exploitation of a person’s private information.

For companies like Google and Facebook, especially Facebook, their value lies precisely in that information and their ability to monetize it. Witness Google’s new privacy policy that harmonizes data across all their applications to build a unified user profile. (An aside; the same thing is happening in politics too.) Put another way, these companies are extremely sensitive to the way Big Data is regulated. Facebook’s value recently topped $100 billion ahead of its IPO filing this year, a value that consists for the most part in the largest pool of consumer data ever compiled by mankind.

Investment gurus agree that Facebook is overvalued, since the user growth rate has begun to slow and revenue is very low for a company at their valuation. So when they go public Facebook will be under pressure to increase revenue, which means giving companies greater access to their network and user base and maintain that base’s integrity. Threats to the integrity of the data, such as users choosing to identify themselves pseudonymously or posting inaccurate information about themselves have already been disallowed so as not to compromise the network’s value. And, while it seems reasonable that Facebook would police its network for pornography or criminal activity, guidelines recently leaked to Gawker suggest that they go much further than that into the realm of political censorship.

Yet, while you’re not allowed to post fake information about yourself, recent hacking by Anonymous has revealed some details surrounding the Air Force’s project to create large numbers of fake online personalities. A 2010 ad for government contractors that has since been removed solicits an “Online Persona Management Service,” by which a contractor would create profiles “replete with background , history, supporting details, and cyber presences that are technically, culturally and geographically consistent,” right down to scrambling IP addresses (the same thing Silk Road users and some torrent pirates do) and gaming geolocation data.

What might the goals be of this astroturf army of military spokesavatars? Wired reported last week on DARPA’s new Social Media in Strategic Communications plan, whose stated goals are to:

1. Detect, classify, measure and track the (a) formation, development and spread of ideas and concepts (memes), and (b) purposeful or deceptive messaging and misinformation.
2. Recognize persuasion campaign structures and influence operations across social media sites and communities.
3. Identify participants and intent, and measure effects of persuasion campaigns.
4. Counter messaging of detected adversary influence operations.

And how, pray tell, will they accomplish these goals? With research in the following areas:

1. Linguistic cues, patterns of information flow, topic trend analysis, narrative structure analysis, sentiment detection and opinion mining;
2. Meme tracking across communities, graph analytics/probabilistic reasoning, pattern detection, cultural narratives;
3. Inducing identities, modeling emergent communities, trust analytics, network dynamics modeling;
4. Automated content generation, bots in social media, crowd sourcing.

This all ads up to a policy whereby the government has a right to anonymity on the net, but private citizens don’t. DARPA’s project and the Air Force contract are only two especially egregious missteps within an administration that has a consistently terrible record on government transparency and information freedom, even compared to the Bush administration. Check out Jay Carney’s attempt to answer a question from Jake Tapper about the administration’s war on whistleblowers.

Anyone interested in the Obama administration’s abysmal record on Freedom of Information Act compliance, check herehere, herehere, and here.

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Don’t Blame the Courts

I’m looking forward to reading William J. Watkins’s Judicial Monarchs: Court Power and the Case for Restoring Popular Sovereignty in the United States, but I’m skeptical of its premise. Among conservatives and libertarians, still smarting from the sting of busing and Roe and other outrages from 40 years ago, it’s conventional wisdom that the federal courts are out of control and dangerous both to popular rule and liberty. And in fact, the courts are dangerous — but only for the same reasons that the other branches of the federal government are.

Courts do not violate popular sovereignty when they overturn legislative acts any more than the United States Senate violates popular sovereignty when it refuses to cooperate with the House in passing legislation, or any more than the president violates popular sovereignty when he vetoes a bill. This is not because courts are necessarily correct but because even when they are wrong, they are still second-order popular bodies — chosen by the people at one remove through the appointment of the executive and approval of the legislature. (Strictly speaking, the Electoral College makes the presidency itself a popular office only by proxy, but taking that into account hardly vitiates the point.) It’s not as if judges take office on the hereditary principle.

The U.S. Constitution does not, and is not meant to, reflect a single, momentary popular will. The different terms of office for House and Senate and the different basis for representation in each chamber and for the presidency already produce a modulation of the popular will. It’s thus quite common for the Senate majority to embody a different popular will from that of the House, or for the president to embody one different from Congress. The whole of the people, understood across time, is theoretically the same, and the only basis for holding office ultimately lies in the choice of the people, but the decision-making process of government is structured and diffracted. It’s true that British courts have never had the power to overturn an act of Parliament, but we most certainly do not have a Parliamentary system, whose excellence lies precisely in the expression of a momentary and complete mandate from the people.

It’s perhaps not surprising that demands to rein in the judiciary often take the form of demands for structural changes in government, including such progressive panaceas as direct elections and term limits. (Ironically, some of the same people who want to elect judges directly also want to repeal the direct election of senators.) Such structural fixes are an escape from confronting the raw fact that the people themselves are responsible for the character of every branch of our government. The American people as a whole and over time — as reflected over time and in aggregate in Congress and the White House, as well as in the federal courts — simply do not care about liberty as much as libertarians do and do not care as much about virtue as values conservatives do. If they did, reform would be unnecessary: elections would already produce legislators and executives, who together would produce judges, in harmony with the wishes of the right.

The impetus behind such radical reform movements on the right is the feeling that liberty or morality is slipping away; there is no time for gradual improvement, we must have a revolution, and that requires changing the constitutional machinery to allow more direct and fuller representation of the popular will. But once the machinery of revolution has been built, what guarantee does anyone have that wise hands will hold its levers? What kind of popularly elected judges might we have wound up with right after 9/11? What kind of legal system will we have if every change in popular mood translates into revision of the fundamental law? The question isn’t whether the people should have a say in all branches of government, but how immediate and monophonic their voice must be. Read More…

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The Reality of American Power: Why Robert Kagan Is Wrong

As a life-long hypochondriac, I was laughing out loud when reading the tragic-comic inscription on the tombstone located in the cemetery in Key West, Florida: “I Told You I Was Sick!”

I could imagine the poor guy confronting family and friends and insisting to no avail that what he had was more than just the common cold or the seasonal flu.

“You are not sick” is the kind of reassuring message that Robert Kagan is sending to the nation’s foreign policy hypochondriacs aka “declinists” in his new nonfiction book The World America Made, contending that America is in tip-top military and economic health and ready to take care of the rest of the world. He recalls that the same kind of hypochondriacs had complained that America was really, really in decline in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.

But, as the sad case of our late Key Westerner demonstrates, even hypochondriacs do get sick. In the same way, great powers do decline, both in relative and absolute terms. Hence American global economic power started to decline relative to rising economic players like Japan and Germany in the post-1945 era, and relative to China and India more recently. Read More…

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Does Virginia’s Ultrasound Bill Really Mandate ‘State-Sponsored Rape’?

In short, no it doesn’t.

On February first, the Virginia Senate passed the resolved version of a new bill requiring women considering an abortion to get an ultrasound before going forward with it. They were the eighth such chamber to do so.

Last week, objections to what seemed like an eminently sensible policy to a majority to both houses of the General Assembly began appearing in earnest from liberal bloggers generally in favor of regulations of all sorts except when it comes to curtailing the gestation of people. In a failure of nerve, the House of Delegates has postponed voting on the final bill yesterday and today.

Echoing the line of Delegate Charniele Herring (D), that the bill amounted to “state-sponsored rape,” the headline of a piece by Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick called the new bill an “abomination,” asking “Where’s the outrage?” from women that, under the new law, would apparently be subject to coerced penetration by ultrasound wand should they choose to have an abortion. That assumption became conventional wisdom so quickly that the bill was ridiculed by Saturday Night Live last weekend.

Read More…

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Leaner, Meaner Marines

Even with a Taftian foreign policy and a defensive grand strategy, America will still need forces that can act overseas. Our New Model Defense Department will rely on the Marine Corps to provide them.

Situations where we send in the Marines will resemble President Jefferson’s war with the Barbary pirates. Unless we are directly attacked, we will avoid wars with other states, because their most likely outcome will be the spread of statelessness—watch Libya. Instead we will find ourselves up against Fourth Generation, non-state opponents in situations where government has lost its grip.

Some of these enemies, including pirates, will attack Americans, and we will be forced to respond. Our response will not be to conquer other countries and attempt to turn them into Switzerland. Most often, the Marines will carry out raids, which will last hours or days, occasionally weeks. They will have two purposes: punish those who harbor our attackers and shift the local balance of power against our enemies. To non-state entities, the local balance counts for more than their relationship with the United States. If they know the price of attacking us will be to see their local enemies triumph over them, they may leave us alone. Read More…

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Is Obama’s America God’s Country?

The political beliefs of Barack Obama, said Rick Santorum last week, come out of “some phony theology. … Not a theology based on the Bible, a different theology, but no less a theology.”

Given the opportunity on “Face the Nation” to amend his remarks, Santorum declined the offer and plunged on:

“I don’t question the president’s faith. I’ve repeatedly said that I believe the president is a Christian. He says he is a Christian. I am talking about his worldview and the way he approaches problems in this country. … They’re different than how most people do in America.”

Obama’s surrogates on the Sunday shows charged Santorum with questioning the president’s faith.

Not exactly. What Santorum is saying is that in the struggle for the soul of America, though Obama may profess to be, and may be, a Christian, he is leading the anti-Christian forces of what Pope Benedict XVI has called “radical secularism.”

In Plano, Texas, last week, Santorum was even more explicit:

“They (the Obamaites) are taking faith and crushing it. Why? Why? When you marginalize faith in America, when you remove the pillar of God-given rights, then what’s left is the French Revolution. … What’s left in France became the guillotine.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we’re a long way from that, but if we … follow the path of President Obama and his overt hostility to faith in America, then we are headed down that road.”

Santorum is saying that where Thomas Jefferson attributed our human equality and our right to life and liberty to a Creator, secularism sees no authority higher than the state. But what the state gives, the state can take away.

The media think Santorum is singing “Onward Christian Soldiers” while heading off into the fever swamps. But Santorum is wagering his political future on his assessment of where we are in 2012.

He sees America dividing ever more deeply between those who hold to traditional Christian views on marriage, life and morality, and those who have abandoned such beliefs. He believes that the former remain America’s silent majority, and he is offering himself as their champion against a militant secularism that has lately angered more than just the right. Read More…

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Law and Liberty

The good people at the Liberty Fund, who brought us the indispensable Online Library of Liberty (among many other useful programs), have launched a new web project this winter: the Library of Law and Liberty, including a blog with discussions of everything from Benedict XVI’s view of how natural law can repair the defects of religious fundamentalism and secular rationalism to “The Tragedy of Nonoriginalism and Substantive Due Process” (playing off of Timothy Sandefur’s Cato Unbound essay). It’s well worth bookmarking. The site joins a growing number of other high-toned classical-liberal online journals, not least Cato Unbound itself and the Pileus blog.

The Liberty Fund is an intellectually capacious organization — publisher not only of much James Buchanan, Hayek, and Mises, but also Richard Weaver and Michael Oakeshott — so I have high hopes the new project will include a healthy contingent of traditionalist conservatives mixing it up with the libertarians and Straussians. (One thing we could really use is an Oakeshottian approach to the law, a field in which dogmas and interests continually disguise themselves as impartial theories of justice and historical investigations.)

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International Students for Liberty Conference 2012

This weekend Students for Liberty hosted the Fifth Annual International Students For Liberty Conference in Washington D.C. It was the largest libertarian student event in history, featuring students from across the world and a variety of speakers. As well as featuring breakout sessions on topics such as second amendment rights, political economy, public education, Austrian economics, and social media, the conference also included an exhibition hall that included organizations such as the Learn Liberty, The NRA, GOProud, the Cato Institute, and Young Americans for Liberty. What became clear throughout the conference was that while most of the students were fiercely uncommitted to party politics they all expressed sympathy with some beliefs shared in the conservative movement. Given the ideological tendencies amongst what is a growing voting group, it is remarkable that the Republicans are not engaging younger voters more effectively. Read More…

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Stone and the Sly Fantasy

Praise be for Sean Stone, Imam of Abrahamic ecumenism, demiurge of the non-doctrine, and patron saint of religious homogenization:

“I am of a Jewish bloodline, a baptized Christian who accepts Christ’s teachings, the Jewish Old Testament and the Holy Koran. I believe there is one God, whether called Allah or Jehovah or whatever you wish to name him. He creates all peoples and religions. I consider myself a Jewish Christian Muslim.”

It is almost like I am a criminal for having accepted Islam. I didn’t realize Islamophobia was that deep. People have speculated that I have done this because I am from a spoiled family or that I am lost and trying to find myself. That is ridiculous.

“I don’t care if I get criticized. If I can open up a debate about religion and create some understanding, then it is worth it.”


All the while, he told AFP his conversion, “is not abandoning Christianity or Judaism.”

Far be it from me or anyone else to doubt Stone’s sincerity. But I think the story gets at one of the problems with the multicultural ethic that conservatives tend not to emphasize, which is its tendency to totalize religious belief within, to borrow a Dreher phrase, a therapeutic moralistic Deism. In the world of a mass culture scion like Stone, the result is a sort of reverse Orientalism – rather than emphasizing the contrast in order to shore up one’s own cultural camp, differences are sufficiently glossed that he can be a member of all three Abrahamic faiths simultaneously, a notion that would probably offend most religious people, Eastern or Western.

Make no mistake, this is a totalitarian ideology. Yet the critique against it makes strange bedfellows. Neocons prefer a Clash of Civilizations-style interpretation, in which someone like Stone would presumably be a trojan horse for multicultural values and, in turn, Islamic domination or something. I would suggest that this isn’t productive, because raising the banner of the Christian West in the face of perceived existential threats has required the same homogenization and politicization of religion in this country. (For more on this subject, stay tuned for D. G. Hart’s piece in the upcoming issue about America and the shift from the private practice of faith to the public performance of it) Thus a thing like the Defense of Marriage Act is considered insufficiently pious by some social conservatives and, to them, a good Christian is compelled to support a federal constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, regardless of one’s 10th Amendment convictions.

Conservative localism offers a better path to a more vibrant, tolerant, and diverse public life. There’s a great interview with David Thomas of Pere Ubu where he gets at some of these issues:

“All these monuments and landmarks of the Cleveland we loved and wrote so passionately about, the other side of the curtain of these things, all ceased to exist. They were “urban renewalized” and all that sort of stuff, but to us they still exist, and to us we still see them. That’s what I mean about living in a ghost town. What happens, and this began to happen in 1980, ’81, ’82, is that the real world and the town that you live in, the geography you live in, begin to diverge. They begin to separate. This is, I think, a very common feeling all over the world. It has to do with culture and the alienation of culture and what happens in a society where things become homogenized by the media and various mechanisms. … Wherever you go in the world, people feel the same thing. The world they live in in reality and the world of their spirit, as it were, or their home, no longer occupy the same space and the same time. This has to do maybe with multiculturalism being forced on everybody. You can look at it any number of ways. Mainly, it’s just the alienation of culture.”

David Thomas has some strange ideas, but they make a lot of sense. I would argue that the single biggest piece of evidence for the alienation of culture is the apathy people hold toward democratic participation now that most of its functions have concentrated in the hands of the federal government though. The irony that he contributes to that universal alienation is probably lost on Sean Stone.

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Gingrich in 1992: ‘The Reagan Failure Was to Grossly Undervalue the Centrality of Government’

The Washington Post provides more evidence of Gingrich’s progressive statism in a lengthy survey of his early political career in an article printed yesterday. Some highlights:

“He didn’t think government mattered. . . . The Reagan failure was to grossly undervalue the centrality of government as the organizing mechanism for reinforcing societal behavior.” [Gingrich in 1992]

“It is not my job to win reelection. It is not my job to take care of passport problems. It is not my job to get a bill through Congress. My job description as I have defined it is to save Western civilization.” [Gingrich in 1979]

“Gingrich had described himself as a “progressive” in his 1970 application to teach at what was then West Georgia College. That self-description changed to a “common-sense conservative” by his 1974 race, when Gingrich skewered his opponent, incumbent Rep. John J. Flynt Jr. (D-Ga.), for voting against numerous government programs.”

“He insisted on pursuing $60 million a year in federal funding aimed at building 12 space stations and a mine on the moon [in 1983]. According to a transcript, he said he wanted to “mandate” that NASA take the money. He proposed unionizing workers in space. And Republican leaders who were resisting additional funds for science, he said, were “idiots” and “so incredibly stupid.”

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