Everything Is Impossible

Suppose I described a tree to someone who had never seen anything like it. I might say it was a giant creature with countless sprawling arms that never moved, and its body was full of intricate vessels that extracted water from the ground imperceptibly. Most fantastic of all, it had the power to transform light and air into its food, and grew to its great size without taking its bulk from the earth or any other solid thing. Nonetheless, its body was rigid, pound-for-pound stronger than steel, yet lighter than water.

The person being told this might be forgiven for taking this as a tall tale or myth, and the same is true for any natural object. Everything seems impossible or fantastic if we never experienced anything similar. If you saw nothing but cosmic dust, you might never imagine that there could be such a thing as a star. If you saw a barren planet, you might never guess that there could be such a thing as life. If you saw only bacteria, you might never deduce the possibility of more complex organisms. We are able to explain the complex in terms of the simple only after the fact. We have a poor record of determining in advance what is possible or impossible.

If all you knew was physics, you likely would not be able to derive much chemistry. Anything beyond the hydrogen atom is computationally problematic. The few unknown things we have been able to predict are mostly simple structureless entities like fundamental particles and black holes. Everything else comes as a surprise to us. No cosmologist or astronomer anticipated the existence of quasars or pulsars. As with most new things, we first observe them and then try to explain them.

After a long history of discovering things thought to be impossible, if they were ever imagined at all, we should realize how unreliable it is to claim that something is impossible simply because it is outside of our experience. Everything is impossible when abstracted from experience. It is only familiarity that makes these impossible things no longer fantastic.

Political Correctness as Ressentiment

Most of the so-called “social issues” in current events are expressed in a hypocritical language that conceals hatred behind supposed pity for the weak. This hatred sometimes reveals itself when journalists and other purveyors of mass culture bandy about the term “bigot” and other epithets to characterize anyone who fails to share their view of things, which is usually a selective egalitarianism. They have painted themselves into a corner, having constructed a naive morality where “love” is good and “hate” is evil, so they cannot admit themselves to having any real hatred toward any group, except with the odd justification that it is acceptable to hate hatred.

The key to understanding this so-called “political correctness” (though it is really more social than political) is Nietzsche’s concept of ressentiment (to be discussed at length in a future essay). The French term simply means “resentment,” a word that was not available in German, but Nietzsche gave it a more specific meaning. Ressentiment is the hatred of the weak toward the strong for being strong. This may be disguised by saying, “It is all right to be strong, but do not exercise force,” yet strength is nothing without its exercise. The weak demand that the strong should lay down their weapons and renounce all privileges, yet they hypocritically exert coercive force on would-be elites through the law, the state, etc.

In the present context, ressentiment especially manifests itself in discussions of race, gender, sexual orientation, and social class. Few would have the candor to say, “I hate rich white males,” but the reality of this belief is shown by repeatedly using such a type as an example of evil or bigotry, without fear of repercussion. The same who do not hesitate to complain that an organization “has too many men” or “is too white” would be denounced as “sexist” or “racist” if they complained of “too many women” or “too many blacks.”  Some whites and males have noted this double standard, and denounced it as “reverse discrimination,” while liberals laughingly deride these complaints, claiming it is absurd for them to pose as victims.

Both sides of the dispute miss the point, for they both presuppose the absurd logic of ressentiment, which actually makes being a victim a privileged position. Both sides are competing for the same worthless prize of being able to say, “I am weak, therefore I should have my way.”

We see this in other contexts as well. In discussions of history, it is pretended that the Europeans were evil for conquering the Americas and other parts of the world. Yet when has any of these supposedly victimized peoples failed to conquer when it was in their power to do so? The Native Americans repeatedly warred against each other, and the sub-Saharan Africans enslaved each other, to say nothing of Asian atrocities. They could claim no moral superiority, yet their descendants now do so on no other basis than having been the conquered rather than the conquerors. This is to say that their pretended moral superiority consists solely in their weakness.

I distinguish the pre-modern conquered peoples from their descendants, because the primary sources show no hint of ressentiment among the conquered. The conquered Aztecs gratefully embraced Christianity and integration under Spanish rule, as is attested by the literate among them. They resisted conquest manfully, but once defeated, they accepted their fate. While they still lamented some of the crimes committed by the conquistadores, they did not long for a return to independence. The North American Indians thought it unjust that they should be forced off the lands of their ancestors, but they saw nothing inherently wrong with war and conquest.

The lack of ressentiment among pre-modern people is confirmed by the candor with which they admit the technical, and sometimes even the spiritual, superiority of European civilization. Even those who prefer their old ways candidly acknowledge their differences, without any sense that any one owes them anything.  They were likewise plainspoken about skin color, as the Indians chose the term “red skins” to describe indigenous Americans when speaking in English or French. Their descendants, exposed to white liberal culture, have adopted modern squeamishness about calling attention to racial differences.

The term “bigot” originally meant someone who is sanctimonious, and ironically the term is now used with insufferable sanctimony. “Sexism” and “male chauvinism” were invented by feminists in 1968 to pathologize anyone who disagreed with their doctrines, and the other epithets likewise serve the purpose of excusing liberals from making actual arguments. They all presuppose the “slave morality” that is consequent to ressentiment, which is to make the strong ashamed for being strong, while others are entitled to privileges for the accident of having been born weak. Max Stirner ridiculed such liberal pretenses over a century ago, noting that to claim you deserve free schooling because poor parents begot you is just another birthright.

The way out of this morass is to boldly embrace the charges thrown at the strong, without apology or shame. Point out the hypocrisy of liberalism, which derides the assertion of individualized force or privilege, while embracing the far more formidable coercive power of the state. For all their supposed love of the weak, in the end they only believe might makes right. Thus they will constantly call for new votes on a “progressive” social issue until the vote goes their way, after which we are never to revisit the issue. They will reinterpret the law or even strike down the law if it opposes their favorite principles, after which we are supposed to blindly respect the “rule of law.” All of this, of course, is backed by physical and financial coercion against those who oppose. I do not complain of this, but neither should they complain when a stronger group does likewise to them.

Exposing the Surveillance State

The mixed reactions to the IRS and NSA surveillance scandals illustrate the astuteness of Richard Nixon’s remark that:

…to the average guy, whether the Republicans bugged the Democrats doesn’t mean a… thing. It means something to intellectuals…. But the average guy is chewing his pretzel. He’s interested in jobs. He’s interested in war and peace and defense and patriotism and that’s about it… [Sep. 8, 1972]

Illegal spying (using informants, wiretaps, bugs, mail opening, break-ins, tax investigations) has been routinely practiced by both political parties since the time of FDR. At first, this was usually done through the FBI, and such operations against political enemies and subversives were centralized under the COINTELPRO program from 1956 until its exposure in 1971.

Various abuses of power (Watergate, assassinations of foreign leaders, covert coups) led to the formation of the Church Committee, whose public reports (1975-76) exposed past crimes in order to promote legislation against future abuses.

To prevent continued abuse of surveillance powers by the FBI, CIA, IRS and NSA, Congress passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) in 1978, which prohibited surveillance of Americans by the military, CIA and NSA, and required court approval for surveillance requests, under a system subject to congressional oversight.

From its inception, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) has operated in secret, approving 99.9% of surveillance requests. It is not a mere “rubber stamp” on that account; rather, the Department of Justice vets all applications so that only those known to meet a judge’s standards will be submitted.

There are two standards that FISA requests need to meet regarding privacy: (1) probable cause against the foreign national(s) who are the primary target of surveillance; and (2) relevance (a lower standard) of persons or communications lines to be monitored. The second standard is designed to minimize surveillance of innocent parties, while recognizing that this is sometimes practically necessary.

In the 1990s, the Bush and Clinton administrations adapted the Cold War era ECHELON signal intercept system to operate on newer Internet and satellite technologies. This global surveillance system was apparently used to spy even on private entities in friendly countries and to acquire industrial secrets. The existence and abuse of this system was documented in a European Parliament report in 2001.

Prior to the 9/11 attacks, the surveillance state was already expanding its domain. From 1996 to 2000, the number of FISA line attorneys increased from six or seven to 20-25, and the number of applications increased from 839 to 1005. Yet this was mild compared to the post-9/11 spike. In 2003, there were 1727 applications, and in 2005, there were 2074 requests, 2072 of which were approved. [See FISA annual reports]

Under the PATRIOT Act of 2001, the Bush administration claimed broad surveillance authority beyond what was authorized by FISA. From 2001 through 2006, the NSA conducted wiretapping operations without FISC approval on persons inside the U.S. They claimed presidential authority sufficed as long as one party to the conversation was a suspected foreign terrorist or associate. When it was revealed that even purely domestic calls were included in surveillance, public pressure resulted in an amendment to FISA so that this “terrorist surveillance program” would require FISC approval when monitoring U.S. nationals.

Ironically, the amendment to FISA made possible the recently leaked PRISM program, which allows the NSA to access user data from major Internet companies.

The latest NSA scandal does not involve bypassing the FISA court. Nor is there a Fourth Amendment violation, since the Supreme Court ruled in Smith v. Maryland (1979) that telephone register data is not constitutionally protected. Rather, the vast number of lines monitored – all Verizon customers – suggests that the statutory FISA relevance standard has been practically obliterated.

Indeed, James Baker, Bush’s DOJ point man for FISA applications, said in 2007 regarding the warrantless wiretapping: “We had five years of building up the law before the FISA court, building up precedents, getting to where we needed to be to be able to file this application, have the court consider it and then have them approve it.” This suggests that there has been an evolution in what the judges have been willing to approve, gradually expanding what is permitted to the executive branch.

What is being monitored? First, if you are not a U.S. citizen or permanent resident, the U.S. government claims the right to spy on you with impunity. The U.S. government does not recognize privacy as a natural human right, only as an American legal right. This is contrary to the Founders’ understanding of the Bill of Rights, which was a recognition of rights already held by the people, not granted to them by the state. Instead of enlightened cosmopolitanism, we have regressed to nationalist tribalism.

Second, although the FISA request in question concerns only “metadata” (i.e., who called whom when), the “incidental” collection and viewing of content can be conducted on the authority of an analyst under section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act (FAA). Indeed, public denials that our communications are read may be only technically true. Every phone call, e-mail, and other electronic message can be stored without necessarily being read by a human. NSA whistleblowers claim that the agency collects records on all domestic phone calls, and that they may even read or listen to the content of domestic communications on the authority of an analyst alone. [A summary of past and current surveillance programs can be found in a recent Washington Post article.]

Under the 1994 law known as CALEA, all U.S. phone companies were required to make their networks facilitate wiretapping, changing the hardware at their own (and their customers’) expense. This requirement has been expanded to VoIP and broadband communications. All U.S. electronic communications are required to be accessible to the government. For foreign communications, the NSA hacks into backbone Internet architecture, since no veneer of legality is required to spy on foreigners.

The sheer capacity of the NSA’s Utah Data Center, over 1 septillion bytes, implies that far more than metadata is being stored. There are 3 billion calls per day made in the U.S., and 12.4 billion globally. There are 30 billion e-mails per day globally (excluding spam and viruses). If we generously allow 1 kilobyte of metadata per communication (100 bytes would be more reasonable), then the Utah Data Center already has a billion times more capacity than needed to log every call in the U.S. for the past seven years, or 100 million times more than needed to track every call and e-mail in the world. Yet the government is expanding the facility, adding greatly to its capacity. Clearly, content is being stored, and since the average phone call has about 200 kilobytes of audio (e-mails are even smaller), the facility is capable of comfortably storing every phone call and e-mail worldwide from the past seven years.

How should one respond? First, give the U.S. government zero trust on this matter, which is the fair price they should pay for secrecy. They have no qualms about lying or giving misleading, technically true statements, since they have rationalized their deception in the name of national security, which really means the security of their own power.

Second, assume that all electronic communications are monitored. You can try to avoid this by using encrypted e-mail, which prevents interception in transit, since RSA encryption is computationally unbreakable. Keep in mind, however, that hosting ISPs in the U.S. must be CALEA-compliant, so e-mail is vulnerable once stored on their servers. This vulnerability can be minimized by using foreign ISPs, self-hosting, or real-time downloading of e-mail off of servers. Naturally, the most sensitive data should be kept offline or at least backed up offline.

Another approach, per Martin Luther, is to “sin boldly.” That is, express subversive ideas openly and publicly, daring to be persecuted. The U.S. government’s corporate culture hates scandal and bad publicity, so it will hardly persecute a visible gadfly, as this will arouse accusations of tyranny.

On the other hand, we should not alter our behavior too much. The size of the “haystack” collected by the NSA is too gigantic to be terribly useful for Big Brother-like surveillance of all individuals. Your data is likely to remain unread. This may change in future years, as improved analytics along the lines of IBM’s Watson may make it feasible for vast sums of data to be scanned effectively by an electronic pseudo-mind. Until then, our best defense is the stupidity of the Empire. [See Mozilla’s petition to stop domestic spying.]

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