Sunday, June 9, 2013

Sunday Reading

Why Keep It A Secret? — James Fallows of The Atlantic on the ethics of disclosing classified secrets such as PRISM.

The ethics of disclosing classified information can sometimes be a very close call. I don’t mean for the government-employee leaker. Those who signed a pledge to protect information are at best breaking their word, and at worst breaking the law and perhaps putting people in danger, when they divulge secrets, even when they believe they are serving a higher cause. I am talking instead about the ethics of the reporter or publisher who receives the leaked info, and the public that absorbs it. If a news story reveals that a certain detail came from inside the North Korean leadership, to choose a recent example — or from an al Qaeda confidante, or an Iranian scientist — that disclosure might dry up future information, alert the other group to the presence of a mole, or put that source in mortal danger. Disclosure may still be worth it, but it’s not an easy call — especially when the the very details that would endanger sources would make no difference to most ordinary readers.

But when it comes to PRISM? At face value, it seems to be one of the most clearly beneficial “security violations” in years. Why?

  • On the plus side, for the general public it is of very significant value to know (rather than suspect) that such a program has been underway. President Obama says that he is “happy to debate” the tradeoff between security and privacy. The truth is that we probably wouldn’t be having any such debate, and we certainly couldn’t have a fully informed debate, if this program (and others) remained classified. The greatest harm done by the 9/11 attacks was setting the US on a ratchet-track toward “preventive” wars overseas and security-state distortions at home. In withdrawing from Afghanistan and Iraq, Obama has partially redressed the overseas aspect of that equation. (On the other hand: drones.) These leaks, which he denounces, may constitute our hope for redressing the domestic part.
  • And on the minus side, what about the harm of the PRISM revelations? Again at face value, it seems minimal. American citizens have learned that all their communications may have been intercepted. Any consequential terrorist or criminal group worth worrying about must have assumed this all along.

This brings me to Fred Kaplan’s interview just now, in Slate, with Brian Jenkins, of RAND. Jenkins is an expert in terrorism whom I have known for decades and have often quoted in our pages — for instance seven years ago, in my “Declaring Victory” article. Now he tells Fred Kaplan that he worries about the implications of the security-state infrastructure the U.S. has erected. For context: Jenkins was a Special Forces combat veteran in Vietnam and is not a reflexive dove. All of his comments are worth reading, but this about the PRISM revelations really struck me:

“I cannot figure out why this was classified to begin with. It should have been in the public domain all along. The fact is, terrorists know we’re watching their communications. Well, some of them, it seems, are idiots, but if they were all idiots, we wouldn’t need a program like this. The sophisticated ones, the ones we’re worried about, they know this. There are debates we can have in public without really giving away sensitive collection secrets. It’s a risk, but these are issues that affect all of us and our way of life.”

There is a lot more to learn about this program, its reach into public life, its alleged or real benefits, and the possible consequences of its revelation. But at face value, I feel about this news the way I did when the Pentagon Papers were unveiled many decades ago. The public has learned something important about policies carried out in its name, at what seems — for now — a modest cost to vulnerable individuals or national safety as a whole.

Village Voice — Why is John McCain on every Sunday talk show every Sunday?

In many ways, the Sunday morning talk shows are like ID lanyards and BlackBerries. While much of the nation has lost interest in them, they hold a big — some would say disproportionate — sway in Washington.

The programs’ producers and members of Congress — and, to some degree, White House officials — collaborate in a weekly seduction ritual in which producers try mightily to get the most powerful guests and newsmakers of the moment, as the guests’ staffs weigh the risks of stepping before some of the toughest questioners in Washington.

When it comes to a dream guest, program hosts say, Mr. McCain checks almost every box: a senior Republican senator who can speak authoritatively and contemporaneously on many issues, flies secretly to Syria, compares members of his own party to deranged fowl and yet is a reliable opponent of most Obama administration policies.

“What makes a good guest is someone who makes news,” said Mr. Wallace, the Fox host. “To make news, you have to be at the center of the news and willing to talk about it in a noncanned way, someone who always come to the shows ready to play.”

He went on: “I sometimes think to myself, ‘Gee we’ve had McCain on a lot,’ ” not to mention Senators Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, and Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois. “But the fact of the matter is they are good guests.”

And good guests become frequent guests. The programs tend to be dominated by a handful of predictably quotable politicians. Others make only rare appearances when a pet issue rears its head. And still others, by choice or by elimination, never make the cut at all.

“I usually go where I’m asked,” said Senator Johnny Isakson, Republican of Georgia, who has not been on a Sunday talk show in the last few years. “I did Greta the other night,” Mr. Isakson pointed out, referring to the Fox News program “On the Record With Greta Van Susteren.”

Mr. Isakson, like several other Republicans, says Mr. McCain does not serve as a spokesman for them or their party. “We all speak for ourselves,” he said.

Critics of the Sunday programs argue that the words spoken on them are at once too calculated and overly interpreted, simply by virtue of where they are delivered. “You can go on Charlie Rose midweek and have a long conversation that ends in a game of strip poker and no one will pay attention,” said Philippe Reines, a senior adviser to former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. “You go on a Sunday show, and everyone is looking for the slightest change, a new syllable, some new nuance.”

Sometimes No News… — Hendrik Hertzberg on stories that don’t get the hypercoverage.

Cheerios launched a thirty-second spot called “Just Checking,” produced by the firm of Saatchi and Saatchi. “Just Checking” features a white mom and a black dad, whose adorable little girl is “just checking” to see if Cheerios really are good for your heart. The end frame highlights the word “Love.” With a Cheerio for the period, of course.

The ad has been viewed some two and a half million times on YouTube, though not in all cases approvingly. In fact, General Mills, the cereal’s parent company, ended up disabling the video’s “Comments” section. “The comments that were made,” Camille Gibson, a Cheerios marketing executive, said primly, “were, in our view, not family friendly.” But General Mills is sticking with, and sticking up for, the ad. “We were trying to portray an American family,” Gibson said. “And there are lots of multicultural families in America today.”

That there are. According to a 2012 Pew Research Center study, a solid fifteen per cent of new marriages in 2010 “were between spouses of a different race or ethnicity from one another, more than double the share in 1980.”

Last week, when the Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly was explaining to the Fox News contributor Erick Erickson why he is an ignoramus for thinking that working mothers are destroying Western civilization, especially when they make more money than their husbands, she pointed out that that “huge, huge numbers” of Americans used to believe that the children of interracial marriages were doomed. “And they said it was science and fact if you were the child of a black father and white mother or vice versa you were inferior and you were not set up for success,” she said, adding: “Tell that to Barack Obama.”

Or tell it to John Boehner. A couple of weeks ago, the London Daily Mail picked up a story that went largely unreported in this country: the happy news of the wedding of the daughter of the Speaker of the House. During the ceremony, in Delray Beach, Florida, the bride wore a strapless white gown that showed off a tattoo on her arm, and the groom, an immigrant construction worker from Jamaica with waist-length dreadlocks, wore a light-gray suit and a flower in his lapel.

Boehner, notwithstanding the President’s teasings about the Speaker’s perma-tan, is unmistakably a white guy. His daughter’s husband, Dominic Lakhan, just as unmistakably, is not. But what was most interesting about the coverage of the wedding, in addition to its having been minimal, was that it placed less emphasis on the racial angle than on a probable difference of opinion between the father of the bride and the groom on the question of marijuana, for the possession of which the latter has twice been arrested. The contrast “may not have gone down well with Boehner, a Republican who is a staunch opponent to legalizing the drug,” the Daily Mail noted. “However, if there was any tension it was firmly pushed to one side as Boehner, who had donned an orange tie for the occasion, wore a grey suit to match his new son-in-law.”

To be considered news, something has to be unexpected, out of the ordinary, novel. So it’s good that it’s news when anonymous fools make racist remarks. And it’s a big ho-hum when a (white) Speaker of the House—beaming in a matching light gray suit and flower, surrounded by scores of guests in a lush Florida garden—gives his (white) daughter in marriage to her (black) intended. That’s good, too.

Our polity may be deadlocked, but our society is dreadlocked. Something to celebrate.

Doonesbury — Up late.

One bark on “Sunday Reading

  1. And we have a Supreme Court Justice (a conservative, no less!)who’s a black man married to a white woman. As many problems as I have with Clarence Thomas being on the SCOTUS, this isn’t one of them–it’s actually a sign of progress.

Comments are closed.