The Iran-Israeli War

There is an article in this morning’s Washington Post by Ishaan Tharoor entitled, “Is regime change in Iran part of Trump’s agenda?” The answer offered is an assertive “yes.” The following evidence is offered:

  • Rudy (Rudolph) Giuliani, The Donald’s newly-appointed personal lawyer, just said so in an unexpected speech (both in timing and given his role as Trump’s personal attorney with no role in the White House) on Saturday to the Iran Freedom Convention for Democracy and Human Rights (IFCDHR) a front for the MEK, Mujahidin e-Khalq, stating that Trump was “committed to regime change” in Iran
  • Giuliani also said that, “We have a president who is tough… a president who is as committed to regime change as we are” and that confronting Iran is “more important than an Israeli-Palestinian deal.”
  • Giuliani has been a lobbyist for over a decade for the MEK (see Jonathan Vankin in the INQUISITR)
  • In 2012, Giuliani was widely credited with getting the MEK delisted from its fifteen-year-old U.S. State Department designation as a “terrorist organization” under a court-imposed deadline for a decision (cf. Spencer Ackerman in Share 12/09/2012)
  • The MEK as a proxy for the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq had been held responsible for the deaths of three American military officers and three military contractors
  • The MEK, following a 2004 NYT Magazine report, is widely regarded as a husband-and-wife cult led by Massoud and Maryam Rajavi given its controls over the sex lives and reading of its members, though it now presents itself as a pro-democracy organization and implacable enemy of the Islamic Tehran regime that provides intelligence (usually fake) on Iran’s nuclear program
  • In 2012, the MEK, in spite of the support it had gained among some American politicians and policy buffs, was still largely considered a fringe cult with limited appeal to Iranians
  • However, currently both John Bolton, Trump’s newly-named National Security Adviser, and Mike Pompeo, the newly-minted Secretary of State, are known supporters of the MEK
  • Trump in his campaign to be the Republican nominee, in his presidential campaign and as president, has repeatedly denounced the Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as a “bad one,” the “worst deal ever”
  • This week it is widely believed that he will renounce the nuclear deal and re-impose economic sanctions contrary to the dire warnings against such a move by world political leaders such as Emmanuel Macron, President of France, and UN Secretary General António Guterres because of the imminent prospect of war (Boris Johnson, the UK Foreign Secretary, arrived in Washington yesterday to continue Macron’s lobbying campaign)
  • May 12 is the deadline for making a decision about renewing sanctions by the U.S.
  • Trump is highly unlikely to go to war against Tehran given his dedication to pulling troops out of the Middle East and Far East (“We are going to stop spending US$7 trillion abroad and start focusing on infrastructure at home.”) in spite of the propensities and preferences of the hawks among his reborn foreign policy personnel

By all reputable accounts and inspection reports, Iran has kept the terms of the nuclear deal, but it has not curbed, and likely enhanced, its missile program as well as its troubling interventions in Syria, not just to back the Assad regime, but to establish long term military and missile bases in Syria. If the U.S. re-authorizes economic sanctions, thereby renouncing its commitment to the nuclear deal, a deep schism will result between the U.S. and its European allies who are intent on continuing their support for the nuclear deal.

The likely result will be that the U.S. will give, and has already probably committed itself to giving, Israel permission to act as its surrogate in attacking Iranian targets in Syria. Note the following:

  • Retired Israeli military generals and intelligence officers have become very vocal and have openly warned that withdrawal from the nuclear deal will make matters worse
  • In The Guardian on the weekend, Mark Townsend and Julian Borger reported that an Israeli intelligence firm had been employed by the Trump campaign to discredit those in the Obama regime (Kerry, Rhodes, Kahl, Biden) that had been active in forging the deal by means of “dirty ops” thereby helping to discredit the deal
  • Netanyahu in the week before presented an elaborate show-and-tell with an impressive array of detail captured by the Mossad on the well-known pre-deal record of lying and cheating by the Iranian regime on the Iranian nuclear program
  • Netanyahu almost explicitly claimed that Iran was continuing its past practices of lying and cheating in the post 2015 nuclear deal period but provided absolutely no evidence to that effect
  • Most ominously, Netanyahu insisted that Iran had to be stopped and it was better to do that now rather than later
  • Israel insists on continuing its policy of absolute control over the skies concerning any threats emanating from Syria as evidenced when Israel shot down an Iranian drone in February
  • In the past several weeks, Israel has upped the ante in attacking Iranian facilities in Syria; in the most significant action, Israeli F-15 fighter jets destroyed a cache of Iranian missiles and, in the process, reportedly killed dozens of Iranian military personnel
  • On 30 April, the Knesset voted to give Netanyahu authorization, if the Defense Minister agreed, to “declare war under extreme circumstances,” thereby amending the Israel’s Basic Law Clause 40A that states that the “state shall not start a war save by force of a government decision” and that such a decision will be conveyed to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Security Committee ASAP; the revised procedure would sideline the traditional pattern that the IDF, the intelligence institutions and the Foreign Affairs Ministry would all be consulted before such a decision
  • Netanyahu has repeatedly drawn a red line in the sand insisting that Israel will not permit Iran to establish military bases in Syria; in fact, there are three red lines: 1) no Iranian or Iranian proxies (e.g. Hezbollah) on Israeli borders; 2) no Iranian precision-guided missiles in Syria; 3) no expanded Iranian military entrenchment in Syria
  • Putin’s meeting this week with Netanyahu is unlikely to dissuade Israel from any further military action in Lebanon but will seek reassurances and mechanisms that Russian facilities will not be targeted
  • Hawkish Israeli cabinet members have insisted that Israel’s security will remain in dire jeopardy unless Assad is removed, an unlikely prospect, but holding that goal up will make Netanyahu’s military initiative against the Iranian presence in Syria appear as a more modest effort, even if quite disproportionate to the provocation, and will put further pressure on Assad to accede to Israeli demands that Iran be required to remove its military bases from Syria
  • A distraction from the eruptions expected from Palestinian quarters to the imminent U.S. embassy opening in Jerusalem in a week adds fuel to the increased prospect of a much higher military engagement of Israel against Iran in Syria
  • The disproportionate Israeli response to the Hamas efforts against the fence received relatively muted international criticism and Hamas has now been reduced effectively to pleading for a long-term military truce

Iran has become both very circumspect at the same time as it has been more vocal in warning the U.S. not to cancel the nuclear deal. More specifically,

  • Until 12 May, Iran has put further military initiatives in Syria on “pause”
  • On Saturday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani not only threatened the U.S. if it reneged on the nuclear deal, but also announced that, “We have plans to resist any decision by Trump on the nuclear accord…Orders have been issued to our atomic energy organization … and to the economic sector to confront America’s plots against our country”
  • American and/or Israeli diplomatic and/or military initiatives will weaken Rouhani and strengthen his rival hard line Revolutionary Guard Corps leader, Qassem Soleimani and solidify support for him by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
  • Soleimani is almost surely planning a quid pro quo attack on an Israeli military operation after 12 May even though it will almost surely result in a much larger retaliation against the Iranian military presence in Syria
  • In the May 6th elections in Lebanon, Hezbollah has run candidates, even more hawkish than before and in all constituencies for the first time in an effort to extend its control over Lebanese political and military policies and put Lebanon even further into Iran’s back pocket
  • The prospect of war with Israel and the imminent likely cancellation of the nuclear deal has led to a further precipitous decline in the value of the Iranian currency, putting more pressure on the regime to find a distraction and a nationalist rallying cry
  • The radical forces of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, especially the Al Quds division, is highly unlikely to retreat from its efforts to provide the point of attack for Iran to project power in the region even though in the past it moved into vacuums created by others; Soleimani likely views himself at a point of no return or retreat, but this is the critical breaking point on which Israel is forging its new activist agenda against Iran (cf. the recent piece by Jonathan Paris in the Fathom Forum)

I have been a strong supporter of the Iran nuclear deal. I have also warned that the debates over the Iran nuclear were really over differences in how to respond to the increasing threat of a more conventionally militant Iran. Both issues are now merging once again and the most likely prospect is an Israeli enhanced military involvement in Syria targeting Iran and with an implicit backing of the U.S. I believe that such an enhanced response would be more effective if it was de-linked from the Iranian nuclear deal but the Netanyahu government seems to believe otherwise and that now is the time to take action in the interest of long-term as well as immediate strategic goals.

Expect war unless Soleimani backs away temporarily (unlikely) to increase his forces fighting in Yemen and with Turkish forces against the Kurds.

Advertisements

Immigrants and Refugees

In a recent New York Times column by Roger Cohen (20 April 2018) deploring Israel’s violent stance in dealing with Gaza demonstrators, he ended with the following: “Shabtai Shavit, another Mossad director, from 1989 to 1996, said: ‘Why are we living here? To have our grandchildren continue to fight wars? What is this insanity in which territory, land, is more important than human life?’”

The answer is not that difficult. The “inanity” rests on the fact that Israel’s Declaration of Independence begins with a call from the land, from Eretz Israel, to return. That is the dream of Zionism. Further, the land was never defined, but the opening paragraph harks back to ancient Israel that occupied both the east and west banks of the Jordan River. Ben Gurion’s document feeds the dreams of the right. The next question arises: who is to be invited and welcomed to live on that land?

First and foremost, Jews. (Go to see the movie, Red Sea Diving Resort when it is released, the story of the secret headquarters of the Mossad in Sudan for the sea and airlift of the Beta Israel fleeing Ethiopia.) The land shaped the spiritual, religious and political identity of Jews. Further, after their expulsion, they “never ceased to pray and hope for their return to it and for the restoration of their cultural freedom” as the Declaration of Independence declares. And, in recent decades, they did return and en masse, in spite of restrictive legislation. Further, those who returned really did make “deserts bloom, revived the Hebrew language, built villages and towns, and created a thriving community controlling its own economy and culture.” They did know how to defend themselves, or learned, but there is a debate over the extent to which they loved peace. Further, they did bring “the blessings [and curses] of progress to all the country’s inhabitants,” but not equally, as they aspired “towards independent nationhood.”

The heroic narrative of what they accomplished certainly resembles historic reality. It is not a fable. But the story of those who did return is in part. The implication is that the ancestors of the Ashkenazim who led the crusade of return were descendants of those forced into exile. This tale is certainly true of Mizrachi and Sephardic Jews. But not in the same proportion of Ashkenazim. Though the DNA of Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Mizrachi Jews show significant amounts of Middle Eastern ancestry and “Diaspora Jews from Europe, Northwest Africa, and the Near East resemble each other more closely than they resemble their non-Jewish neighbors” (Ostrer and Hammer), we now know via those DNA studies that, through maternal lineages, a substantial majority of Ashkenazi have considerable European ancestry.

One connection is with Tuscans from Italy. The largest majority of Ashkenazim descend from eastern European stock, such as the Khazars, who converted to Judaism. As a result, vast swaths of eastern Europe were once governed by Jewish kings who spoke and wrote Hebrew, followed Jewish holidays and religious customs, and circumcised their boy children when they were 8 days-old. Belarus towns and cities like Minsk had Jewish majorities. It appears that Arthur Koestler was partially correct (cf. Eran Elhaik) when he made the original claim that Jewish Ahkenazim trace their heritage back to the Khazars. (The Thirteenth Tribe: The Khazar Empire)

But the problem is created by the last two clauses in the Israeli Declaration of Independence. In a condescending way, it is these returnees who bring with them the blessings of progress. On the other hand, those to whom they purportedly bring that blessing do not belong nor want to belong to the nation aspiring towards statehood. In other words, the Zionist bring an economic benefit – assuming they do – but they also bring a political deficit, for the Jews are not returning so that the country’s inhabitants who are not Jewish can realize their political aspirations. Nor does the Jewish nation welcome them to join in that aspiration. “The First Zionist Congress convened and proclaimed the right of the Jewish people to national rebirth in its own country,” not the right of all the inhabitants to self-determination. “This right is the natural right of the Jewish people (my italics) to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign State.”

This is the right of return and national self-determination in the declaration was claimed as a “natural” right. Joined with that natural right were historic rights conferred by international recognition (The Balfour Declaration, the endorsement of the League of Nations, the UN resolution on partition), by the historical calamity of the Shoah and by the service and sacrifices in WWII performed by a multitude of Jews. Further, that “natural” right to self-determination was not recognized in the document for Palestinians.

In the U.S. Declaration of Independence, those natural rights belong to individuals, not a nation. Further, it is not a right of self-determination, but a right of an individual to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness, the latter interpreted as the right to acquire wealth ad infinitum. Those individual rights predate the formation of any government rather than being the result of a successful expression of national self-determination. Governments, according to the U.S. constitution, derive their just powers from the governed. In Israel, the government derives its right from historical precedents, the ancient history of the Jews as a self-governing polity and the modern international resolutions of the Balfour Declaration, the League of Nations and the 1947 UN partition resolution.

There is no right of revolution in the Israeli declaration as there is in the American one if a government “becomes destructive” as a result of a “long train of abuses and usurpations” to serving the goals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness of its members. In that long list of grievances, of injuries and usurpations, which make up about two-thirds of the American declaration, two are noteworthy for our purposes. “He (the king) has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.”

What a difference almost 250 years make when, under a Trump administration, the government copies the practices of King George III and obstructs laws for naturalizing foreigners and refuses to pass laws to encourage migration to the U.S. The American Declaration of Independence, much more than the Statue of Liberty defined the U.S. as a nation that welcomed new arrivals and offered them citizenship.

In comparison, although the Israeli declaration promises to “foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants…based on freedom, justice and peace,” the proclamation of the State of Israel declares that, “THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; as envisaged by the prophets of Israel.

Immigration, though not explicitly closed to others, targets only Jews who are defined as “exiles” returning to the land of their ancestors. Nevertheless, even as an explicit Jewish state, not only will the rights of all inhabitants, Jew or non-Jew by culture, language, religion, be guaranteed, but they will all be guaranteed equal social and political rights. But no right of return. If they previously fled or if forced to flee or they chose to flee in the war that was already underway, implicitly, there was no right of return.

The American Declaration of Independence does contain one very horrific passage. “He [King George III] has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.” Two different constituencies are cited in this paragraph. The first are the Loyalists, those who sided in the conflict with Britain. The King is accused of exciting “domestic” insurrection, that is, rebellion against the rebellion. What chutzpah!

Of the 2.5 to 3 million in the thirteen colonies, 500,000 were estimated to have been Loyalists. Their leaders and soldiers who fought on the side of Britain – about 100,000 – were driven out. (Thomas B. Allen (2010) Tories Fighting for the King in America, America’s First Civil War) Some, like John Butler, had very large landholdings which were confiscated; the Loyalists received no compensation, even though the Jay Treaty that ended the War of 1812 “advised” states to offer restitution. That never came. The rebels were traitors. After all, Butler had organized and financed the Butler rangers who fought a guerilla war against the Continental army. On the other hand, those who did not flee or were not expelled enjoyed equality with and shared in the rights of the victorious revolutionaries, except for the black slaves. In contrast, about 3,500 Black Loyalists (other than slaves of Loyalists) who fled to Canada, did so as free men.

Imagine what would have happened if those who fled had not defined themselves as Loyalists wanting to stay under the sovereign rule of Britain but instead demanded a right of return. Would the U.S. have allowed these “traitors” to return? The evidence suggests that they would not be permitted and were not given such a right. However, in re-inventing themselves as having left for positive reasons, the Loyalists made new lives for themselves in Canada or, if they went to Britain, there as well.

The Israeli declaration is silent about expelled or self-exiled Arabs from Eretz Israel, but subsequent actions clearly demonstrated that the Israelis followed, not only the American precedent, but every other treatment of defeated persecuted ethnic or religious groups driven from a country in a time of inter-ethnic and inter-religious strife. The original modern refugees, the Huguenots, were guaranteed new homes in Germany and in Britain and in other Protestant lands. They were guaranteed what we now call non-refouement. They were not given a right of return and were not offered a way back.

But the part of the passage in the American declaration that is of even greater interest is the following: the king “endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.” Native Americans were savages and not civilized people. King George III had made treaties with them as nations worthy of recognition. This made the frontiers closed to American settlement. Some argue, and I believe with considerable justification, that the War of Independence was primarily fought, not over taxes without representation, but over the right to move west and settle the lands beyond the frontier in lands that the King had recognized as sovereign indigenous land.

In the process of Americans defining their own rights and manifest destiny to move west and conquer the frontier lands, the Indians were called savages guilty of slaughtering men, women and children wantonly. Maligning Indians in this way has been an inherent part of American culture since the founding of the American state. After all, their great hero and first president, George Washington, had been a land speculator in the territories that had been guaranteed by King George III as the sovereign land of native peoples.

Further, in their declaration, Americans celebrate mob rule, such as the wanton destruction in the Boston Tea Party in 1773, with some colonists disguised as “Indian Savages,” thereby blaming then for destroying property. It was not the first or only time. The conflict started with the protest in 1765 against the Stamp Act when mobs destroyed the manor houses of Andrew Oliver and Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson, wrecked the furniture and stole jewels. Mob rule is an inherent part of the American tradition. The riots of 1773 were met by Britain suspending the Massachusetts Legislature, an action that lay behind the complaint in the Declaration of Independence that the king was responsible for “suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.”

It seems clear that the Palestinians who fled or were forced to flee did not follow the Loyalist model, but rather the Jewish model of clinging to and praying for return, now for 70 years and perhaps eventually for thirty times as long to rival the Jews.

What is a declaration of independence for some, is not for others.

Declarations of Independence – Israel and the United States of America

Political comparisons are difficult and sometimes questionable. It is one thing to compare apples and oranges. It is another to compare cherries and potatoes. Do the two items being compared even belong to the same genus? However, whatever the difficulty in making comparisons, there are clear benefits. In this case, the very process of comparison shifts the ground away from making the American declaration the prototype and considering all other expressions of the same genus as either poorer imitations or outliers. Further, new and very different grounds may be used to justify independence. David Hume (about whom more later) in his 1746 volume, Of the Original Contract wrote that any group or people require a justificatory story and “a philosophical or speculative system of principles.” (40)

With an expanded set of explanatory-interpretive justifications, we become more open to both interpretive possibilities as well as limitations on our own thinking. We also see how common problems intermingled with very different ones offer deeper or, at the very least, alternative understandings of the two proclamations. Finally, assumptions built into the model considered to be paradigmatic suddenly can be openly questioned in light of very different justifications and rationales. We enter the arena of cross-cultural comparisons rather than a presumed derivation or deviation from a universal model.

The actual comparison will offer a test of these presumptions.

A minor but important consideration requires attending to what is being compared. In Israel, the only issue is one of an adequate translation into English of the declaration since that is the language being used for comparison. There is only one authentic document. However, in the U.S., there is the 7 June 1776 version introduced at the Second Continental Congress by Richard Henry Lee. Then there is the revised version (the Dunlap copy) introduced on 4 July 1776 which has a different title (“In Congress July 4, 1776, A Declaration by the Representatives of the United States of America in General Congress Assembled.”) than the “final” official version of 19 July, if only because of the inclusion in the latter of New York State as a signatory, and the declaration of the status of the document as unanimous. (“The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America“) However, the changes from the original to the revered copy are not central to my comparative analysis.

The latter issue, however, focuses on the authors of the proclamation as pre-eminent in the U.S. declaration. The authors are presumed to be political entities that have come together to a) become sovereign and b) become independent of the state which had been sovereign. However, the latter is secondary, as we shall see. The primary declaration is about the sovereignty of a people. The document only later was referred to as a declaration of independence as the war rather than political maneuvering became the main instrument for delivering that sovereignty.

So the opening sentence reads: “When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect for the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.” Note the following:

  1. The emphasis on necessity.
  2. The statement that the constituent members of the thirteen states are “one people,” thus declaring that, although the signatories are representatives of thirteen political entities, the proclamation is issued on behalf of “one people.” This will be crucial to the resistance of the north to a second secession in the American Civil War.
  3. The emphasis is on “dissolution” of existing political ties.
  4. The result will be a single sovereign state equal to others that exist on Earth.
  5. The entitlement is seen as twofold: Natural Law and Nature’s God (my italics); (I will deal with this in more detail in the next blog).
  6. The importance of justification for the act of separation.

Compare the above to the opening paragraph of the Israeli declaration of independence. “ARETZ-ISRAEL [(Hebrew) – the Land of Israel, Palestine] was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books.”

The U.S. declaration begins with “one people.” The Israeli declaration begins with the land of Israel. There is no claim that the land in North America was the birthplace of the “one people” on behalf of whom the declaration was issued. In history, rather, there was a presumption that the birthplace of the people was Britain and that these were Brits largely of Scottish-Irish (northern and Protestant) descent who were declaring themselves to be one people as a distinct political nation from the Tory High Anglican character of their motherland. Of the 56 who signed, 16 were Welsh. Although individuals ratified the document on behalf of states, 8 were Irish American Orangemen, 3 born in Ireland; all of the Irish officially signed the document together on 2 August 1776. At least 9 were of Scottish origin. In a speech, George W. Bush even traced the roots of the U.S. Declaration of Independence to the 1320 Scots’ Declaration of Arbroath arguing for Scotland’s freedom from England. Thus, over half had Celtic heritage.

More importantly, their intellectual heritage was Scottish. The heritage of the Scottish Enlightenment had perhaps the greatest influence on the American Declaration of Independence. Though Thomas Jefferson, who drafted the first version, was of mixed French and Irish ancestry, he is not included among the Celts, but he openly acknowledged that John Locke had been the greatest influence on his thinking. I well remember giving a lecture at the University of Edinburgh with portraits of John Locke, Adam Smith and David Hume on the walls. The era of the Scottish Enlightenment following the Dutch one was the portal to the modern world and one must stand in humility beneath those portraits.

Locke in the Second Treatise on Civil Government had set forth the thesis that all men are born equal with natural rights, rights which enabled them to determine whom they would bind with to form a people. A nation, therefore, was a construct itself of the self-determination of individuals who entered a social contract for mutual defense and benefit. David Hume, who died in the same year as the U.S. Declaration of Independence was signed, argued that, although justification required citing history and general principles, the primary motivation for action was passion or sentiment. “Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” (Treatise of Human Nature, II, iii, 1740) This would serve as a subversive strain in the American character given a scientific rationale through the recent works of Daniel Kahneman, Amos Tversky and George Lakoff.

John Locke, however, offered the dominant prescription for a government of, by and for the people. On very different grounds, both he and David Hume detested the Tory thesis of the divine right of kings and the pre-eminent sovereignty of the monarch which forbad revolution against the king. However, they offered a very different ground for the formation of a nation. Whatever differences over the motivation for a social contract, both agreed that a social contract was a foundation for the legitimacy of a state.

Not so in Israel. The people were formed by a land and a history rooted in a great historical document, the Torah of the Jews. Their identity was not constituted by a contract of self-interested individuals to ensure the security and happiness of those Jews, but by that history and the formation of their ancient state that shaped their culture. Though not derived from alleged universal principles and more akin to the moral sentiment espoused by David Hume, the Israeli declaration made the claim that the Jewish culture had a universal significance.

There is no foundation in logical or natural necessity for the Israeli proclamation. The declaration of independence did not constitute Jews as a people; peoplehood preceded the declaration of the State of Israel of 1948 or even the Israel of ancient history. The emphasis is not on dissolution of existing ties, but on re-constituting ancient ties both to the land and one another. Thus, the emphasis in the second paragraph on exile and return and restoration. However, the same idea of freedom forges a link between the two declarations which may go back to the days when the members of the Dutch Enlightenment (Hugo Grotius for example) had such an enormous influence on the Scottish Enlightenment since the Dutchmen justified the separation of the Netherlands from Spain, knew Hebrew and used the history of the Jewish people, adapted for Dutch purposes to justify the separate but equal status of the Netherlands.

The Israeli document bears the sweet scent, not of equality among nations, but about historical leadership by the People of the Book. They shall be a light among the nations. Finally, two-thirds of the American document focuses on tales of oppression and absence of recognition, whereas the Israeli document cites the worst type of oppression, genocide, but, more importantly, a history of recognition from the British (the Balfour Declaration), League of Nations and United Nations rulings. The Israeli state is rooted more in the international law of Hugo Grotius than in the social contract theories of John Locke and David Hume.

The traditional attachment, however, is vintage Hume. Further, the nation preceded the state and was not constituted by a social contract forming the state. The authors of the proclamation are not representatives of existing states seeking sovereignty, but of a nation seeking to reclaim its sovereignty. Thus, though referred to as the key document behind Israel’s Independence Day, the document does not seem to be about independence. The primary declaration of the American Declaration of Independence is about the formation of a sovereign people; the primary declaration of the Israeli Declaration of Independence is about the pre-existing sovereignty of a people.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Salvation versus Resurrection

 

ישעיה כו:יט יִחְיוּ מֵתֶיךָ נְבֵלָתִי יְקוּמוּן הָקִיצוּ וְרַנְּנוּ שֹׁכְנֵי עָפָר כִּי טַל אוֹרֹת טַלֶּךָ וָאָרֶץ רְפָאִים תַּפִּיל. Isaiah 26:19 Oh, let Your dead revive! Let corpses arise! Awake and shout for joy, you who dwell in the dust! For Your dew is like the radiant dew; You make the land of the shades come to life.

Resurrection is very infrequently cited in the Torah. In its rare expressions, it is most often interpreted as a vision of glory at the end of days. But try reading it as a nightmare of the end of days when ignorant nostalgia governs, when dead zombies take power, when the shades enter daily life and hide the rays of sun behind a dark cloud, when those who sleep in the dust of the earth on gold-plated beds awake to reproach all others and spread abhorrence and hatred. (Daniel 12:2).

The vision of resurrection is not something to be celebrated, as the rabbis and Jesus did, but to be feared and eschewed. The monster in the black lagoon may now be coloured green as in The Shape of Water and in our imaginations and apparitions, but the real danger lies in the monstrosity of breath entering the dry bones of a dead past, dry bones covered with sinews and flesh, dry bones made to breathe and live again, when those should have been left in the slow decaying heap where they belonged and left to return to dust. (Ezekiel vv:1-2) The goal should be to deliver the Promised Land to our children and our children’s children and not to those lifted out of their graves.

“Dry bones, ’dem dry bones, now hear the word of the Lord.”

In an age in which a consumer machine with the reach of Amazon, a surveillance machine with the reach of Facebook and a search machine with the power of Google, command the high reaches of our culture, filled in with hordes of more minor players, in an age in which it is so easy to brainwash all in the name of delivering freedom, choice and judgement, in an age when E.M. Forster’s spiritual command to “only connect” has been perverted in the extreme in a connect but totally uncommitted culture, I pray for salvation.

We live in an age of crony capitalism in which real competitive capitalists are exiled as those at the centre of power seek to reduce the independence of the judiciary and laud law and order instead of the rule of law as they create disorder and the rule of whim, in an age in which the political centre can ally with a powerful media network committed to perpetuating and elaborating the same lies instead of holding up truth to power, in an age of political gerrymandering that echoes the corrupt political days of old and power politics is based on a unity of white male elites who cry foul when not permitted to have their cake and eat it too, when simple and arbitrary connects replace commitment and commitment is gutted and converted to sloganeering, when NGOs that are transparent and dedicated are blasted as part of a hidden international conspiracy, when projection onto externals replaces taking responsibility for one’s own actions, when abuse of others replaces critical self-examination of oneself, I pray for salvation.

When those in power wallow in self-pity and victimhood, when the tactics of the powerful weaponize culture to instigate emotionally dominated culture wars, when a nostalgia for the greatness of a nation displaces a historical and critical examination of the past, when anyone committed to the universal oneness of humanity is blasted as a traitor and enemy, when the efforts to improve are turned into a piñata for abuse and calumny, when revenge rather than forgiveness has become the dominating immoral passion, when politicians with a noble conservative heritage turn into impotent patsies of populism, when illiberalism displaces liberalism and when crude nationalism shunts aside true national pride, when the graves for the death of democracies are being excavated, I pray for salvation.

When in the face of feuding sectarianism, shape-shifting allies and local government corruption one turns on one’s heel and retreats, abandoning long-suffering allies, taking with you your military toys, the path is open for corrupt coercion instead of coercion used in the defense of values, I pray for salvation.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

Police and Data: Responsa

I would never have expected to receive responses to a dry-as-dust piece on police and data. The blog must have touched a sensitive button. Not so much on the big issue of data, data crime and surveillance, but on issues with which the reader could easily identify – such as controlling vehicle speeds on residential streets.

Some responses were matters of additional information. With respect to traffic calming methods rather than enforcement, I believed that I had provided an extensive list. The techniques I listed were just a drop in the bucket. I could have added the following measures to the list: speed humps (wider than bumps) and tables (wider still) as well as speed trays (bumps arranged like an inverted ice cube tray); mid-block barriers; raised crosswalks and intersections; cobblestone streets; circles, roundabouts, centre islands, chicanes (I had never heard the word before; they narrow a road at strategic places to slow traffic), chokers and neckdowns – chicanes at intersections; and, most interesting of all to me, illusory markings. It is worth writing a blog just to learn about the creativity of traffic engineers.

I was informed that in Norway and Britain, automated digital photo radar is used extensively. In Alberta, photo radar is used. However, without driver identification, unless an officer manning the radar can stop and identify the driver, only the owner of the vehicle can be held responsible for the fine. But without driver identification, no demerit points can be issued.  So why man the camera? I was also informed by another reader that reduction in speeds (say from 30 to 25 mph or 40 to 35 kph) actually reduces speeds to only 29 mph or 39 kph. Signs which show your speed do not work in decreasing that speed, but when accompanied by memes, that frown if you are speeding and smile if you go under the speed limit, do work. Another reader informed me of the opposite – that signs showing speeds without memes do indeed work. I did not do my research to ascertain which claim was correct. Does any reader know?

However, the greater the number of signs, evidently the less effective any of them are. Warning signs are evidently ineffective and, surprising to me, stop signs are counter-productive – drivers speed up to make up for lost time at the intersection. Four way stops also contribute to increased car pollution with every additional stop and go.

Of course, we could simply build the technology into a vehicle to prevent it from going over a posted speed limit. But in our world prioritizing individual rights, such a simple and inexpensive device belongs to a sci-fi world.

In the responses on a whole different level, I was chastised for being too lost in the clouds of philosophy and principles with little practical experience of the way cops behaved on the street. Cases of cops readily killing civilians were cited, most recently the case of the Sacramento police shooting and killing a young Black American in his grandmother’s backyard because they believed his cell phone was a gun pointed at them. Twenty shots were fired by the two police officers. One writer cited this as another case of American racism without noting that the police chief in Sacramento is Black. So was one of the two police officers doing the shooting.

Interestingly, the evidence for the shooting came from the body cameras on the police used for surveillance of police activity. Unfortunately, and questionably, the police afterwards turned off the audio and video recording by pressing mute when other officers arrived. This incident may have more to do with the readiness to use guns in the gun culture so central to America than with the deep-seated racism of America. Further, instead of police having as their priority protecting the safety and security of members of civil society and their property, the police adopt the values of a military culture where fear for their own safety and protecting their own security sets the priority for their responses.

I want to defend myself against the charge of innocence about life in the streets as I get lost in the clouds of abstract principles and philosophy. When I was a teenager, we lived a block away from a police station. We often heard the shrieks of those arrested as they were supposedly beaten by police. “Supposed” is a euphemism for lack of direct evidence through witnessing. However, when some of the police joined the crowd next door to peer at the small television screen, they would often boast about how they dealt out “justice’ to “criminals.” However, when I was indicted for a criminal offence as a young teenager (for scalping tickets) and was convicted, when I was arrested, I was treated fairly and with respect.

This was not true of two of my sons much later. One was arrested and handcuffed in his own home for evidently going through a stop sign three blocks from his home and failing to stop when signalled to do so by a police car following him which he had failed to notice. Another was arrested at the age of 13 or 14, cuffed and taken upstairs for hours of interrogation when we brought him into the police station because another youth had named him as the perpetrator of an assault and robbery of Halloween candies. The fact that my son was six inches taller than the description provided to the police by the accuser, the fact that he had five witnesses to testify that he was elsewhere on Halloween night nowhere near the alleged offence, seemed of no consequence as the detectives seemed committed to getting him to confess and undertook no investigation. After eight months, three appearances in court and huge legal bills, the charges were withdrawn.

Most recently, when I was assaulted physically in my own home, the police were very considerate and patient and went out of their way to be helpful, but they did advise that I not press charges, for the assailant claimed that I had attacked him. They would have to charge us both if I insisted on pressing charges. Better, they suggested, to let it drop, especially since my alleged assailant would likely just get off with his wrist slapped.

I am well aware that police are not paragons of virtue or the best expressions of the principles they are purportedly committed to uphold. But my issue was the theory of policing and its functioning in a society of large data, data crime on a large scale, and taking place in an increasingly surveillance culture. Nor am I unaware of the use of surveillance in the days pre-dating the collection of large scale data.

When I was a student at the University of Toronto and a leader in the nuclear disarmament movement, one of my philosophy professors asked me to come to his office. In that meeting he told me that he had been asked to come to speak to the RCMP. As it turned out, they wanted to question him about me.

On the desk of the detective was a file about 4” thick with material on my activities. He told them nothing because he knew nothing. But he was kindly and wanted to warn me.

I was not surprised. At our demonstrations, there was always a plain-clothed police officer – so evident, he might as well have worn a uniform – who, while participating in or observing the demonstration, took notes and pictures. I always made a point of welcoming him and asking him if I could do anything to help or involve him. After all, no one else was interested in recording my life for posterity. Later on, when the RCMP was running amuck to stop the Quebec separatists, they also torched our research institute on Huron Street, but only after collecting the files and sending them to the then editor of the Sun newspaper.

I could go on with other stories. I merely want to indicate that I am far from innocent of what takes place on the ground. I do not know the extent of the failure of police to uphold the principle of protecting and serving civil society, but I do recognize the discrepancy between practice and principles. The fact that practices fail to live up to principles is not a reason for cynicism or for failing to attempt to articulate what the role and principles of policing should be in the new large data world of algorithms and wide-scale electronic surveillance. Personal untoward experiences should not shade one’s eyes to the fact that the police, and other civil service policing establishments, are extremely underfunded and undertrained to combat the rapidly increasing criminality in this sphere, a criminality that even threatens the fundamentals of our democratic institutions.

Corruption of police on both the local level and on a national level in the U.S. is pervasive. Readers of my blog know that I winter in San Pancho in Mexico. It is an area that is very safe and up until two years ago did not even have a police force. However, many areas of Mexico are unsafe; the numbers of killings recorded are more similar to war zones like Iraq and Syria. Recently, two police officers received 25-year prison sentences for killing newspaper owner Moisés Sánchez in Veracruz, Mexico, in 2015. The local mayor – who allegedly ordered the murder – is a fugitive. Six police officers, believed widely to be part of a drug gang under the control of the mayor, have not been prosecuted even though the entire police force (36 officers) of Medellín de Bravo were questioned. Perhaps, the six were not charged because of the common conspiracy of silence practiced among members of the police.

However, I believe the situation is 25% as dangerous in the U.S., yet we rarely consider not travelling to the U.S. because of violence. In Mexico in 2017, almost 30,000 people were murdered by guns and other means in a population of 130 million at a rate of about 23 for each 100,000 in population. The U.S. total of homicides by guns alone was about 35,000 of a population of 326 million or just over 10 per 100,000 population. However, over half were self inflicted suicides. On the other hand, if non-gun violence is included, the total of violent deaths rises to almost 41,000, and the rate of killings is about 5 per 100,000. Compare that to Canada with just over 600 violent murders for a population of 37 million. Given the American experience, we could expect over 4,000. If Mexico has a violent death rate of almost 5 times that of the U.S., the U.S. has a violent death rate of over 7 times that of the peaceable kingdom to the north.

Mexico has its violent gangs and drug cartels concentrated in specific areas; the actual rate of violence in those high-risk areas is much higher. On the other hand, gun violence in the U.S. is far less unevenly distributed. More significantly, the rate of violence in the U.S. is directly correlated with its gun culture far more than the degree of criminality. Take the example of the billionaire, Robert Mercer, the backer of Breitbart News, heavy contributor to the Trump presidential campaign and the financier behind Cambridge Analytica. He is not only the owner of gun companies (Center Firearms and PTR Industries in South Carolina), but is himself a voluntary police officer for at least six days a year in the Town of Lake Arthur with a population of only 433. Such a position allows him to carry a concealed weapon virtually anywhere in the U.S. because a Congressional law passed in the Bush junior administration in 2004, the Law Enforcement Officers Safety Act, allows police to carry concealed weapons anywhere in the U.S without any need to acquire a local license. In the U.S., as discussed in previous blogs, any civilian can shoot another person if they have a reasonable belief that his or her life was at risk.

Neither the police in America nor American civil society endorse the principle that police enforcement is directed at serving and protecting civil society. Quite the reverse; in many areas the doctrine is that police and civilian self-protection are the priorities. Given this focus, it is unlikely that police agencies will be funded or encouraged to combat data crimes. The privacy of individuals and the right to self-protection takes precedence. The public is also jaundiced against the police in many western and eastern seaboard states just when the internet, once associated with anonymity, is now associated with surveillance, and distrust of that surveillance. Putting the police in charge of supervising that surveillance appears to many a risk that they are not willing to take to fund police to protect and to serve.

The principles governing police activity are actually very simple. Police enforcement, though administered by governments, exists to serve and protect civil society. To the extent that police are turned into government enforcers, or to the extent they are viewed as militant members of an individualist Wild West, in neither case can they serve their primary function. That primary function requires educating police in this ethos, and funding and equipping and training them to fight the most extensive and threatening criminality now extant, that of large scale data crimes.

With the help of Alex Zisman

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

 

Next: Data and Health

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri – Guilt and Vengeance

DO NOT READ THIS BLOG UNLESS YOU HAVE SEEN THE FILM. The film is brilliant, but even more brilliant than most critics perceived.

How would you feel if you, a mother, had an argument with your teenage daughter, Angela – not exactly an archetypal angel – about whether to let her use your car to go out on a date on a Saturday evening? What if your daughter stormed out of the house saying she would walk and if she got raped it was your fault? What if you, as she fled out the door, called after her in anger that she should get raped for the foul language and insults hurled at you? What if you said this really to get back at her because you had just learned that she was exploring moving out and moving in with her father, Charlie, who used to beat you and whom you divorced when he ran off with a 19-year-old bimbo?

And then she was raped that evening. Not only raped, but murdered. Not only murdered, but raped while she lay dying. Not only murdered and raped, but her corpse burned. As much as you might live in a modern world and knew that, in this case, what happened was not a consequence of your words, the guilt you bore would go so deep and be so mutilating that you wanted, that you needed, to displace any responsibility onto another. What do you do with the ugly and agonizing pain, with the weight of that ton of guilt, with the deep burning embers of a searing grief? What better place to displace that responsibility but onto a club of cracker cops unable to find the murderer and rapist?

This is NOT a film about an enraged, unrelenting, uncompromising woman of steel, determined to ensure justice for the murder and rape of her child. It is not even a film about righteous vengeful fury. There is no righteousness whatsoever. And there certainly is no desire for justice. When Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) insists that she wants the government to set up a database with the DNA of every male so that it can be matched with the DNA on her daughter’s burnt corpse, it is not to obtain and exact justice, but to obtain and exact vengeance.

“Be sure and kill ‘em.” She is a hard-hearted woman so deeply frozen and dead on the inside and so full of fire and brimstone and steely edges on the outside, that we as the audience are sucked into applauding her devil take all attitude if only because the language of both sympathy and bureaucracy is so cold that we welcome, indeed applaud, someone who talks without thinking and fires away with little if no concern for or empathy with her targets. What magic when a writer/director can make such a detestable woman so tremendously likeable that we offer her our deepest sympathies. The chief target of her rage is Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), a man of affection and sensitive attachment, like his predecesor in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. He is intelligent, sensitive and conscientious rather than an indifferent oaf.

The film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, begins with a distraught but very determined mother bent on displacing that guilt in the ostensible pursuit of justice, with which we as viewers easily identify. Especially since her method of embarrassing the police is so public. She pays for putting up signs on three obsolete titular billboards to express her rage and frustration. The motive is unbeknownst to everyone, except her son who witnessed the altercation between mother and daughter. The billboards are used to displace that deep and very painful guilt. Critics who look at Mildred as “morally unimpeachable” are truly blind and deaf.  She is a harridan, immensely likeable and sympathetic, but still a vicious harridan.

Gradually as the film unfolds, we learn of the source and depth of that guilt. But we learn much more. For Ebbing is a town where the use of foul language is the norm, where the mistreatment of Blacks is the norm, especially by one police officer, Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) who has never been held responsible for his violent and outrageous behaviour. It just so happens that this violent cop is a mama’s boy, his mother is a virulent bitch and he is probably a repressed homosexual. He gradually wins our sympathy.

It is a town in which a happy family of a couple, a police chief (Willoughby), his wife and two children, play a game by a stream whereby the two young girls are required to fish for stuffed animals around the blanket on which they are sitting without leaving the blanket, while the parents go off for some nookie. But the instructions to the girls are delivered in the foulest language imaginable. As Mildred says at the beginning of the film when discussing the wording with her son on the proposed billboards, you may address your children in the foulest language, but on public billboards you “can’t say nothin’ defamatory.” It is a world of deep hypocrisy.

The sin permeating this town goes much deeper. When a priest, Father Montgomery, comes to the home of the distraught mother to try to persuade her to take down the billboards that are causing such stress to the popular police chief, the mother kicks him out, but not before reducing him to quivering silence by accusing him of complicity for doing nothing, just as he did nothing when his altar boy was seduced or raped by another priest. And in guilt, we sit silent in the theatre oblivious to the fact that this is a tale of raw vengeance and shame rather than of justice and guilt. The male secretive self-protective clubs of the town are now under attack by one enraged woman and her wild jeremiad. And the moral universe is inverted in McDonagh’s view when priests become priests and cops become cops because they want to do good, but are perceived now as sinister simply because of the costumes they wear, whether a clerical collar or a police uniform.

Unequivocally, Ebbing is a town in which sin has raged like a wildfire so that it permeates the language and behaviour of ordinary citizens and officers of the law alike. It is a town where the rule of impulse outweighs the rule of law. It is a town in which any efforts to purify the town had fallen by the wayside and became as obsolete as those billboards did when the new highway was built to bypass the old road. Bad behaviour had become the norm in this town in the heartland of America and sin is everywhere. The town is morally polluted. Not even the torching of the billboards and then the police station, and the scorching of the dumb and distasteful racist Constable Dixon, can even expurgate the sin. Dixon is, of course, the antithesis of Dixon of Dock Green (Jack Warner), the archetypal London bobby of the twenty-year long-running BBC series about a police officer full of common sense and empathy,

But that is just the background, the setting, very important but not the central theme of the movie. The town ceremonies and rituals and rites provide no opportunity any longer to expiate that sin, to cleanse the society of its moral pollution. Moral pollution has become the norm. There is no ritual whereby the town, its leaders and its ordinary citizens can acknowledge their responsibility for the sins. Everyone is complicit. Everyone “stands by.” For the movie is about guilt transmuted into shame, and sin transformed into vengeance.

Guilt goes deeper than sin. It is at the root of sin. It is the failure to take responsibility for one’s actions. At the end of the film, the most vicious police officer becomes a burnt offering and seems to repent (following the guiding note of his now deceased chief of police to learn about guilt, confession and love), owning up to one’s responsibilities and learning to love oneself and others as a good Christian should. It is clear that the members of the town, especially this police officer and his ardent accuser, the mother of the raped girl, go off to possibly murder a suspect who they now know could not have killed the daughter. The town and the people of the town have no rite, no ritual, no religious practice through which they can expiate their guilt and accept responsibility for what they did and what they do. For the fundamental moral code of the town has become displacement of responsibility. The town is awash not only in sin but in guilt. There is no act of reparation available to them. Instead, they get a rifle and ostensibly set out possibly to murder an innocent man. They will decide en route whether they will do it.

There is no redemption. There is no means of redemption. Guns and violence as the answer to problems have so permeated the value structure, have so displaced any real moral code, that the only answer to any action is revenge, not understanding and certainly not any acceptance of responsibility for what has taken place. There is no mechanism to sharpen any individual’s conscience. Paganism has returned to occupy central stage in the heartland of America. It is a Manichean world in which demonic forces seem to continually defeat any divine force. It is a world which has lost most of its humanity where each human, every male and every female, assumes responsibility for him or herself to ensure a divine presence on earth and the expulsion of the demonic.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri is about the demonic taking control of a town in the heartland of America just as it has taken over the White House. Any rituals to contain and dispose of moral impurities have largely been sacrificed to cowardice, to ambition and to complicity. We have returned to an age in which a young teenage girl is raped, is murdered, is raped while dying, is offered as a burnt offering, but not to a divine order of a healthy, responsible life, but to a demonic order of guns and irresponsibility, of anarchy rather than the rule of law, of impulse rather than thoughtful consideration. It is a world in which the police station as the central symbol of the rule of law has been burnt to the ground. It is a world in which we who watch cheer this act of revenge and pseudo expiation, thrilled at the violence rather than discomfited by the phenomenal moral deterioration in our human moral code.

God is death. Humans must be wedded to life. The rituals of death, of sin and guilt need a place, a temple, where they can be disposed of. If a rabbi reminds me of the sensuousness, the incense and the smoke, the vibrancy and the flavours of a place of temple sacrifice, then that rabbi is totally out of touch with the function of the temple and the meaning of its absence. For without a temple, all responsibility rests on each and every one of us to be accountable for the commissions of sinful acts that thrust shards of guilt deep into our souls. The destroyed temple does not simply belong to a more primitive past in the sense of appealing to our basic sensuality as if it is simply an outdoor food market.

Why do we need to significantly reduce and limit a gun culture? When do we need blood prohibitions – when the police chief vomits up blood from his cancer, we must recognize the symbolic significance. After all, as McDormand says, “When you croak, the billboards won’t be as effective.” When the sadistic dentist is forced to drill into his own fingernail rather than into the not quite frozen tooth that needs removal, we get a glimpse of a place where inflicting pain has become a way of life and not a place where we try to make pain as painless as possible. So even the police chief’s self-sacrifice to minimize the pain to be inflicted on his family comes across as a positive but largely meaningless gesture, for the core meaning of what this hero did for the town is lost in a miasma of meaningless vengeance totally detached from justice.

Death is now totally intertwined with life instead of hived off and restricted so that life can thrive and blossom. The billboards ask a question intended to embarrass the police. But they are a sign of a society reduced to a shame rather than a guilt culture, a society in which out of helplessness and hopelessness conflicts are resolved by either coercion or shaming rather than by acknowledging guilt and assuming responsibility.

When a movie can put such a profound theological and social commentary before our eyes, and do so with humour and wit, when it so deliberately and cleverly misleads us into a failure to recognize who the hero and who the villain is, when a movie takes us into the bypassed rural routes of the heartland of America to unveil the miasma of sin and the absence of guilt and the rule of law that pervades the town, and when the acting by Frances McDormand , Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell are all so brilliant, the writing and direction of Martin McDonagh so nuanced, the movie deserves every reward it received even though it appears that most commentators missed its religious and social profundity.

The land needs to be cleansed, especially the heartland Only then can positive mitzvot and proper ethics once again rule in the land of milk and honey.

Data

 

Everywhere I turn, articles, seminars, news reports and scheduled seminars focus on the issue of data. The article Sunday morning in The Washington Post by Craig Timberg entitled, “Trump campaign consultant took data about millions of users without their knowledge,” begins with Facebook’s recent suspension of Cambridge Analytica, a data analytics firm that evidently played a key role in President Trump’s 2016 election campaign. Cambridge Analytica had claimed that it was at the pinnacle of marrying the art of political persuasion to the science of big data by tailoring advertising to the psychological traits of voters, in this case, political messages and fundraising requests married to political dispositions through psychographic targeting. The company boasted of possessing 5,000 data points on every American.

I am not here concerned with the ethics of privacy (improperly sharing data and failing to destroy private information), the ethics of spying given the covert character of data, the tactics, the accuracy of using five selected basic traits such as openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism, to develop correlations, the lack of regulation of this Wild West frontier of human knowledge or the effectiveness of these correlations, however valid any one of those questions may be. Quite aside from the immoral and probably illegal use of data from tens of millions of Facebook users without their permission or knowledge, and using that data for nefarious political purposes, the specifics are even more frightening with tales of Alexander Nix, the recently suspended CEO of Cambridge Analytica, and his cohorts caught openly claiming to have used shadow companies as fronts, using bribes, sex workers as traps and a host of other unethical practices to advance the position of the company.

My focus is the significance of the effort in gaining access to the psychological profiles of an estimated 50 million Americans and equivalent numbers in other countries. For example, on the issue of effectiveness, Cambridge Analytica claimed that its data modeling and polling showed Trump’s strength in the industrial Midwest and shaped a homestretch strategy that led to his upset wins in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. The actual as well as potential for undermining Western democracies is important and leaders of populist parties, like the Five Star Movement in Italy, which won 33% of the Italian vote in the 4 March elections and has been the first major digital political organization in the world, boasted that the dawn of electronic populism has come ending the era of liberal representative democracy. Luigi Di Maio: “You can’t stop the wind with your hands.” Digital means and digital data are combined to revolutionize politics and supposedly return power to the people.

This morning, I also received an email inviting me to attend the Walter Clarkson Symposium.  The keynote address by Deborah Stone addresses the “The Ethics of Counting” and the day-long symposium itself will focus on: “The Social Implications of Data-Driven Decision-Making.” The issue: how data is collected to result in policies based on evidence-based decisions to produce statistical methods and models relied upon for policy decisions. The advocates promote such data for the ability to reduce complex realities to objective and comparable metrics. Critics suspect the evaluations.

The effects on humans clearly extends into the economic sphere. Last evening, I attended a symposium of top Canadian applied economists focused on prognostication or prophecy, the core purpose of the data age according to Jill Lepore. The economists looked at the tea leaves of fiscal and monetary policy, housing and taxation as well as trends and forces affecting the value of the Canadian dollar to paint a relatively bleak picture of the Canadian economy based on each of the economist’s efforts at large data crunching.

The reliance on data as a primary form of knowledge and determinant of policy has a definite history which Jill Lepore argued began with photography in the nineteenth century. Initially, I found this ironically to be counter-intuitive, but her point was that the era of facts correlated with the Sanctuary of Truth, of numbers correlated with the Sanctuary of Method, was succeeded by the primacy of large data that, in my argument can be correlated with the university as a Social Service Station. The reason Jill pointed to film was because photography in the late nineteenth century was used as evidence. This was coterminous with the decline in faith of eye-witnesses in identifying individuals involved in crimes. As our senses were undermined, though data had not yet filled the vacuum, the first steps had been taken to displace our senses and prepare the ground for the empire of data.

Ironically, according to Jill, these first efforts were used for utopian reasons – to undermine the case for the ill-treatment of the Negro in the U.S. At the same time, the effort established the pathway to indirect evidence and that a “picture was worth a thousand words.” James Frye developed the lie detector in the 1920s to show that a compilation of data in one’s body, of which we were not consciously aware, could be a more reliable detector of lying than that of any so-called expert at “spotting” lies. Orson Wells radio broadcast, “War of the Worlds,” seemed to prove that in the age of radio one could no longer rely on one’s ears any more than one’s eyes.

The negative efforts to disenfranchise the senses had prepared the ground for the age of data which began in 1948 with the invention of the computer following the secret work at Bletchley Park in Milton Keynes in Britain during WWII. Bletchley Park has been commemorated in a number of films, especially Enigma in 2001 with Kate Winslet, Saffron Burrows and Dougray Scott, but even more effectively in The Imitation Game (2014) staring Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing. The government code and cypher codebreakers learned to penetrate the German and Enigma ciphers, an impossible task without the use of a proto-computer. The “Ultra” intelligence produced undoubtedly shortened the war.

UNIVAC was put on display in 1951. It was used in a Spencer Tracy/Katharine Hepburn film, Desk Set (originally a William Marchant 1955 play), in 1957 to show how facts could be established using such a device far faster than relying on human observations and analyses. Spencer Tracy plays the “electronic brains” engineer who manages EMERAC (the Electromagnetic MEmory  and Research Arithmetical Calculator). Katherine Hepburn plays what will become an obsolete “fact checker.”

JFK would become the first television-age politician when “The Simulation Project” was launched in 1958 to determine what policy positions would turn on voters and which would turn them off. Data had entered the age of political manipulation. But numbers still reigned even as data sciences rose in academe to claim not only that data knew faster, but that it knew better and, even more importantly, that only data could tell us some things – such as the key elements of sociology – demographical distributions – and economics – such as the material I heard last night correlating falling single house prices in the GTA with rising condo prices with speculative investing with numbers of overseas investors to create a graph of demand and supply correlated with market prices. This was not just a matter of adding and correlating numbers, but of employing algorithms to knit the data together and produce a formula for predicting shifts in market pricing.

It was no surprise, in line with Gauchet’s analysis, that these economists all seemed at heart to be committed to neo-liberalism. When you marry a Trump regime that seems to have no respect for a balanced budget and engages in redistribution of wealth to the rich – quite aside from is impulsive, unpredictable and shape-shifting character – with the Trudeau regime in Canada also based on deficit financing and a redistributive rather than growth budget, but one dedicated to serving the middle class rather than plutocrats, then the outlook has to be pessimistic and even more pessimistic for Canada that is in such a vulnerable position, exacerbated when it does not cut corporate and individual tax rates to compete with the Americans.

However, economic suicide is not the same as political enslavement. In 1989, a London think tank gathered vast quantities of data about an audience’s values, attitudes and beliefs, identifying groups of “persuadables,” and targeted them with tailored messages. In the 1990s, the technique was tested on health and development campaigns in Britain and then extended to international political consulting and defence. Those were efforts at control at the same time as data was being collected and spliced and diced to careen everything out of control.

An algorithm invented in 1999 by a graduate student at the University of Waterloo was used to bundle mortgages together and sell them as tranches, a system which began to reel out of control in 2003 as salesmen and bankers promoted the products without an iota of understanding or even any ability to develop such an understanding, of precisely what they were selling. For it was based on a computer projection and different taxonomic tools to create a new species of monetary instruments. The economic bust of 2007-08 that followed almost brought down the whole international economic order. As indicated above with the story of Cambridge Analytica and Facebook, privacy, so critical to the age of the Sanctuary of Truth and the age of facts but also to the world’s public in general, became a major casualty. The world of data seemed to produce greater calamities than benefits, especially for the ordinary man or woman.

As also indicated above, we are entering a new age in which evidence-based medicine in numerous fields can be handled better by the computer than by highly trained individuals. But, at the same time, as data is crunched and analyzed in ways no ordinary human can do, falsification becomes barely detectable until the economic house comes crashing down. As also indicated above, the data predators have emerged out of the woodwork who, like termites, are currently eating through the foundations of our homes. It should be no surprise that paranoia increases, which in turn can be exacerbated by the complexity, inaccessibility and control over parts of our lives and its overall trend towards decontextualizing. History itself gets thrown into the waste bin of history. As the speakers said at last evening’s symposium, Canada has the highest proportion of its population with tertiary degrees but also the highest level of unemployed educated individuals. In a day of data, who needs historians or philosophers.

What is the link to data as a new foundation stone of evidence for a university. Some believe the issue is not evidence, but the wearing of blinkers to ward off unwanted information. As Heather MacDonald noted, we not only educate large numbers who cannot get jobs comparable with their degree of education, but we also bring up our children without the appropriate values of character and resilience (characteristic of the teaching in the Sanctuary of Truth) needed in such circumstances. “Instead, we merely validate them. From their earliest days of school, we teach them that they are weak individuals in need of constant therapeutic support. In England, the ‘safe space’ pedagogy was introduced in elementary schools long before students began to demand safe spaces at universities. High school students were told that they didn’t have to listen to lectures about suicide or other difficult subjects because they were likely to be traumatized. So by the time they enter university, students have become entitled to this kind of protection and validation. They actually feel that they have a right not to hear words that jar or challenge them, and that speaking these words is a cultural crime.”

It is the world of the data-based university as a Social Service Station that I will explore tomorrow.

Tomorrow: The Primacy of Data and the end of the Social Service Station