August 10, 2018

Crisis: ¨Harmless Torturers¨, A.P.A., Iran Sanctions, ¨Democracy¨ in USA, Facebook Censors


1. Summary
Crisis Files
     A. Selections from August 10, 2018

This is a Nederlog of Friday, August 10, 2018.

1. Summary

This is a crisis log but it is a bit different from how it was until 2013:

I have been writing about the crisis since September 1, 2008 (in Dutch, but since 2010 in English) and about the enormous dangers of surveillance (by secret services and by many rich commercial entities) since June 10, 2013, and I will continue with it.

On the moment and since more than two years (!!!!) I have problems with the company that is supposed to take care that my site is visible [1] and with my health, but I am still writing a Nederlog every day and I shall continue.

2. Crisis Files

These are five crisis files that are mostly well worth reading:

A. Selections from August 10, 2018:
1. Are We All ‘Harmless Torturers’ Now?
2. Psychologists’ Group Maintains Ban on Work at Military Detention

3. Europe, Russia and China Defy Trump on Iran Sanctions
4. On the Ambiguity of "Democracy" in America
5. Beware the Slippery Slope of Facebook Censorship
The items 1 - 5 are today's selections from the 35 sites that I look at every morning. The indented text under each link is quoted from the link that starts the item. Unindented text is by me:

1. Are We All ‘Harmless Torturers’ Now?

This article is by Paul Bloom and Matthew Jordan on The New York Times. It starts as follows:

There is a dial in front of you, and if you turn it, a stranger who is in mild pain from being shocked will experience a tiny increase in the amount of the shock, so slight that he doesn’t even notice it. You turn it and leave. And then hundreds of people go up to the dial and each also turns it, so that eventually the victim is screaming in agony.

Did you do anything wrong? Derek Parfit, the influential British philosopher who died in January 2017, called this the case of the Harmless Torturer. Parfit first considered a simpler scenario in which a thousand torturers each turn the dial a thousand times on their own victim. This is plainly terrible. But then he explores a contrasting case where each of the torturers turns a dial a thousand times — each turn shocking a different one of the thousand victims. The end result is the same; a thousand people in agony. And yet morally it feels different, since nobody, individually, caused any real harm to any single individual.
But the world has changed since Parfit published his scenario in 1986. Today, in 2018, the two authors of this article are Harmless Torturers, and you — regardless of which side of any particular issue you are on — probably are one, too.
No, I am not. I do not use Facebook, I do not use Twitter (and never did, and never will), I never commented on anything whatsoever since 1996 (when I first did get internet), and I am also not a sadist, while I dislike the anonymity that permits the kind of sadism Bloom and Jordan describe.

Also, I have my own site, which I maintain myself, and would rather totally shut up than accept membership in Facebook or Twitter.

Then again, I probably am part of a small or very small minority, for the large majority seems to indulge themselves in what I refuse to do.
When we think of the savagery of social media, we often think of awful individual behavior — death threats and rape threats; the release of personal information, including home addresses and the locations of the victim’s children; vicious lies; and the like. Harmless Torturers never go that far; we just like, retweet and add the occasional clever remark. But there are millions of us, and we’re all turning the dial.
Once again: I am not. Also, while I am still - and since something like 18 years - a member of several sites for programmers, I have been only twice a member of other sites, namely Phoenix Rising and something of which I forgot the name, and I removed myself from the first in 2010, and was kicked from the other, a few months later.

What this told me is that I absolutely refuse to communicate with anonymous persons who do not have very good reasons to remain anonymous, and besides, that I detest having to read through very many pages filled with nothing but stupidities by anonymous figures (about whom one can get no information whatsoever): I think that is childish.

Finally, there is this bullshit in the article (and Paul Bloom is a professor of psychology at Yale, while Jordan is a student of his):
But isn’t this death by a thousand cuts a good thing? If it were Hitler, wouldn’t you be right to let him have it? Yes — but the problem is that when we are infused with moral outrage, acting as part of a crowd and operating in a virtual world with no fixed system of evaluation, law or justice, all our enemies are Hitler.
Quite possibly if you are Paul Bloom or Matthew Jordan, but not if you are me. (And indeed they admit they do or did so, for they say ¨we¨, which includes themselves, logically).

Finally: What is to be done about this anonymous abuse of almost anyone with a deviating opinion on Facebook and Twitter? Force
Facebook and Twitter  to admit only non-anonymous persons with real names - after all, the only ones who have no real knowledge of who is offending whom are precisely the victims: Facebook, Twitter and the secret services know all the real names (but do not disclose them).

Then again, this is most unlikely to happen, I admit.

2. Psychologists’ Group Maintains Ban on Work at Military Detention Facilities

This article is by Benedict Carey on The New York Times. It starts as follows:

After an escalating debate about the role of psychologists in military prisons, the American Psychological Association voted on Wednesday to reject a proposed change in policy that would have allowed members to treat detainees held at sites that do not comply with international human rights laws.

The proposed change would have reversed a 2015 determination by the association that prohibited such work, effectively blocking military psychologists from sites like the military detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, maintained by the United States.

That decision followed revelations that in the early 2000s the association had finessed its ethics guidelines so that psychologists could aid interrogations by suggesting lines of questioning, for example, or advising when a confrontation had gone too far or not far enough.

Well... I would not have put it like Carey does (I would e.g. have said ¨tortures¨ where Carey speaks of ¨interrogations¨) but this is more or less correct.

Also, two reasons to review this article is that I am a psychologist, and from my ¨education¨ in psychology (with only straight A´s in my M.A.), I have also concluded that anyone who has a similar ¨education¨ as I did is no more capable of helping people in need of help than anyone else (with an IQ over 115).

Here is some more:

The A.P.A. still forbids psychologists from participating in interrogations. The newly rejected policy change simply would have permitted psychologists in uniform to provide therapy and counseling to detainees who asked for it.

The association has little direct authority to restrict members’ ability to practice. But state licensing boards can suspend or revoke a psychologist’s license for a variety of reasons, including violations of the ethics code or professional policies.

The current policy allows psychologists to work in detainment facilities deemed in violation of human rights standards only if they represent an independent organization, like the International Red Cross, or detainees themselves, not the military.

Again this is not at all how I would have put the above, but I agree with the A.P.A.´s decision to - effectively - forbid its members from helping the American military to torture people.

Here is the last bit I quote from this article:

Opponents of the change saw it as a dangerous retreat on a core ethical issue for the profession.

“Unfortunately, the profession was tainted when some psychologists moved into interrogation,” and others into torture, said Stephen Soldz, director of the social justice and human rights program at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis.

“This profession is built on trust,” he added. “How on earth is a detainee going to have trust when psychologists have been doing and recommending bad things?”

The association’s governing council of representatives voted the proposal down 105 to 57 after numerous delays and after rejecting a motion to withdraw the proposal for further discussion.

Well... I know that very few people except psychologists have much of an - adequate - idea of what psychology is, so I wonder how almost anybody could have positive reasons to trust a psychologist in any special sense for any special reason (other than prejudice).

But in this case I agree with the majority of the A.P.A.

3. Europe, Russia and China Defy Trump on Iran Sanctions

This article is by Juan Cole on Truthdig and originally on Informed Comment. It starts as follows:

A further round of sanctions by Donald Trump against Iran went into effect Tuesday, but the president is failing to get buy-in from allies and rivals, who pledge to keep dealing with Iran.

Chinese automakers are flooding into Iran to replace French car companies there.  China has pledged to pay no attention to the Trump threats.

I say, for I did not know this, and this seems somewhat good news. Here is some more:

The European Union has signaled that it may impose substantial fines on European firms that pull out of Iran deals over fear of Trump’s unilateral U.S. Treasury Department sanctions.

It is likely that smaller European companies that trade with Iran but have no relationship with the U.S. will continue their relationship with the Islamic republic, using euros and non-U.S. banks. But large firms, such as French oil giant Total S.A. and Renault, have signaled that they will get out of Iran to avoid American fines.
This is probably correct. Here is the last bit that I quote from this article:

Moscow denounced any unilateral sanctions that went behind the back of the U.N. Security Council, especially if they involved third-party sanctions (i.e., Russia is upset about the prospect of the U.S. imposing sanctions on Russian firms investing in Iran, not just on Iran itself).

Russia observed, “The JCPOA has completely proved its worth and efficiency. The [International Atomic Energy Agency] regularly confirms that Iran unfailingly honours its obligations. The Plan’s verification, control and monitoring measures are being carried out in full. This itself reliably attests to the peaceful nature of the Iranian nuclear programme.”

Moscow called on the international community to prevent the U.S. from subverting the achievements of multilateral diplomacy, and expressed confidence that the parties to the treaty can keep it in place.”

Well... in the present case I agree with ¨Moscow¨. I also think the situation will radically change in case Trump (and Pompeo and Bolton) insist on a war with Iran, but until then it seems to me that the Europeans and the Russians are doing the right thing. This is a recommended article.
4. On the Ambiguity of "Democracy" in America

This article is by John Wallace on Common Dreams. It starts as follows:

In American public discourse –  articulated by public officials, media outlets, and ordinary citizens of virtually all political stripes – the United States is called a democracy.  However, this attribution is false and has been so since the foundation of the republic. Many know this, but many don’t. And the misuse of the term has become unusually, politically consequential since November, 2016.

Both James Madison and Alexander Hamilton argued clearly and directly in their briefs in 1787-1788 for making the Constitution the new framework for the American political order against "democracy," by which they meant the relatively direct exercise of power by adult white men in the thirteen states.  They wanted a government led by a small number of representatives, like themselves, to be responsible for lawmaking. They feared that if the demos was able to exercise political kratos, it would threaten property rights and act according to passion, not reason.
Well... I agree with Wallace on Madison and Hamilton. Also, since the briefest more or less adequate definition of what a democracy is is ¨government by the people¨ (which is almost a straight translation from the original Greek), I agree there is not much democracy in the present USA, and indeed not so much because ¨the people¨ do not govern, but because the elected representatives of the people, for the most part stopped listening to ¨the people¨ they represent and instead listen to their lobbyists, who offer a lot of money for their actual decisions.

Here is more about ¨democracy¨ in the USA:
The Founders, therefore, hobbled “democracy” in ways that had as much to do anxiety that democracy would challenge established interests as with the difference in population and size between modern societies and ancient Athens, the first democracy. To wit: the apportionment of power in the Senate by states rather than population; the Electoral College; the pivotal role of the unelected Supreme Court; the exclusion of women and the tolerance of slavery and second-class citizenship for African Americans until the mid-1960s (although there are democratic merits to a quasi-independent judiciary).  And then there are the shenanigans of gerrymandering at the state level, all of which have distorted democracy.
I more or less agree with Wallace, although I do not know what definition he would use for ¨democracy¨. Also, I think you should keep in mind that in the 18th Century, when the USA was created, there was no democracy of any kind anywhere.

And here is Wallace on the influence of money (and power) on those who did get elected as ¨representatives of the people¨ in the present USA:
And even if we pay homage to territory and population size and admit the need for “representative” vs. “direct” democracy, the “representative” function in the United States is not a filter for democracy in large-scale societies but more often than not an obstacle to it.  This is because minority interests in civil society are able to manipulate the political process in their favor – mostly via the unequal distribution of money and power. Notably but not surprisingly, and especially since the Civil War, the dangers to the well-being of the nation have not sprung from “majority factions” but “minority factions” able to capture the reins of American political power.
Yes, this is more or less correct. Here is more on Trump:
One man, along with a minority faction in the public at large and “representative” majorities in the House and Senate, have been able to take-over the institutions of American government and wield them in ways that most thoughtful Americans find appalling.  But there is little to be done about it, even after the November elections, given the shamelessness and overwhelming self-regard of the current American president (trumping Nixon). In any democracy worthy of its name, even in a Parliamentary system, the man would have been booted out. But there is no assurance that he will leave office before 2020, and one wonders about the security of American elections.
Yes, I agree. This is from the ending:
It surely is true that the United States in many ways is a democracy, in terms of many of its social and cultural habits and the belief of many of its citizens in the value of political participation.  But this kind of democratic temperament is under siege and on the ropes. For the American political system is tipped against it.
The problem is that I do not know what Wallace understands by ¨democracy¨ - which I agree is a difficult question to answer well. Anyway, here is one way in which I probably agree with Wallace that the USA is - so far - more democratic than not: The freedom of the press.

Then again, this is freedom is getting less and less by ever increasing monopolization of the various media, and because the current president of the USA hates the freedom of the press. And this is a recommended article.

5. Beware the Slippery Slope of Facebook Censorship

This article is by Matt Taibbi on Common Dreams and originally on Rolling Stone. It starts as follows:

You may have seen a story this week detailing how Facebook shut down a series of accounts. As noted by Politico, Facebook claimed these accounts “sought to inflame social and political tensions in the United States, and said their activity was similar — and in some cases connected — to that of Russian accounts during the 2016 election.”

Similar? What does “similar” mean?

The death-pit for civil liberties is usually found in a combination of fringe/unpopular people or ideas and a national security emergency.

This is where we are with this unsettling new confab of Facebook, Congress and the Trump administration.

Yes, I thoroughly agree: If the asserted ¨similarity¨ of American sites and Russian sites is sufficient ground to shut the American sites, this sounds more like totalitarianism (except if you use Wikipedia´s intentionally false definition) than like anything else, for being merely ¨similar¨ to sites which the present government dislikes, means in effect that Facebook or the government can shut down any site.

Here is some more on sites that were banned by Facebook:

Many of the banned pages look like parodies of some paranoid bureaucrat’s idea of dangerous speech.

A page called “Black Elevation” shows a picture of Huey Newton and offers readers a job. “Aztlan Warriors” contains a meme celebrating the likes of Geronimo and Zapata, giving thanks for their service in the “the 500 year war against colonialism.”

This sounds ridiculous to me, but the following bit does not sound so at all:

Facebook was “helped” in its efforts to wipe out these dangerous memes by the Atlantic Council, on whose board you’ll find confidence-inspiring names like Henry Kissinger, former CIA chief Michael Hayden, former acting CIA head Michael Morell and former Bush-era Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff. (The latter is the guy who used to bring you the insane color-coded terror threat level system.)

These people now have their hands on what is essentially a direct lever over nationwide news distribution. It’s hard to understate the potential mischief that lurks behind this union of Internet platforms and would-be government censors.

If you trust Kissinger and Hayden, all I can say is that you sound crazy or stupid or extremely ignorant. But then there is this:

As noted in Rolling Stone earlier this year, 70 percent of Americans get their news from just two sources, Facebook and Google. As that number rises, the power of just a few people to decide what information does and does not reach the public will amplify significantly.

I say! Well... if this is true (I do not know, but I fear it is) 7 out of 10 Americans are stupid or ignorant, for that is what you are if you get your ¨news from just two sources, Facebook and Google¨.

Here is more that is relevant:

The First Amendment, after all, only addresses the government’s power to restrict speech. It doesn’t address what Facebook, Google, YouTube and Twitter can do as private companies, enforcing their terms of service.

Yes, precisely. Moreover, there is this major difference between Facebook, Google, YouTube and Twitter on the one hand, and - say - The New York Times, Truthdig and Common Dreams on the other hand:

That all changed with digital media. Way back in 1996, when mastodons roamed the earth and people used dial-up to connect to the Internet, Congress passed the Communications Decency Act. It contained the following landmark language:

“No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

Essentially this meant that Internet providers wouldn’t be treated like news organizations. In the eyes of the law, they were less like CBS or Random House than they were bookstores or newsstands.

The rule allowed platforms to grow exponentially without the same fear of litigation. Companies like Facebook and Google became all-powerful media distributors, and were able to profit from InfoWars-style programs without having to be liable for them.

Precisely. Here is the last bit that I quote from this fine article:

It is already a scandal that these de facto private media regulators have secret algorithmic processes that push down some news organizations in favor of others. Witness the complaints by outlets like Alternet, Truthdig and others that big platforms have been de-emphasizing alternative sites in the name of combating “fake news.”

But this week’s revelation is worse. When Facebook works with the government and wannabe star-chamber organizations like the Atlantic Council to delete sites on national security grounds, using secret methodology, it opens the door to nightmare possibilities that you’d find in dystopian novels.

Quite so. And this is a strongly recommended article.


[1] I have now been saying since the end of 2015 that is systematically ruining my site by NOT updating it within a few seconds, as it did between 1996 and 2015, but by updating it between two to seven days later, that is, if I am lucky.

They have claimed that my site was wrongly named in html: A lie. They have claimed that my operating system was out of date: A lie.

And they just don't care for my site, my interests, my values or my ideas. They have behaved now for 2 years as if they are the eagerly willing instruments of the US's secret services, which I will from now on suppose they are (for truth is dead in Holland).

The only two reasons I remain with xs4all is that my site has been there since 1996, and I have no reasons whatsoever to suppose that any other Dutch provider is any better (!!).
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