Remembering Jetta

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Jetta in 2006, waiting for some treat in the kitchen.

A little more than eleven years ago, at the very end of December 2003, we welcomed Jetta into our lives. Mira, our daughter, had done a very effective job of lobbying us to get a dog–even including a pitch for one in her Bat Mitzvah speech that previous September. We decided we wanted to “rescue” a dog rather than adopt a puppy, and found Jetta through a listing on Craigslist. She was living with a family in Greenwich Village in a small apartment–they had adopted her from friends who found her abandoned somewhere in Brooklyn, tied to lamp-post with a note saying something along the lines of “I’m a good dog, please adopt me.” She seemed happy there, but it was also clear she needed more space and the family that was taking care of her wanted her to be somewhere in the suburbs with more room and green. They were right.

On her ride home, Jetta was really nervous and nauseous, and it took Leslie doing several weeks of slow and steady behavioral training to get her comfortable being in a car. But as soon as she came into our home, she found her “house”–the cage that she had grown accustomed to living in in the city, and we marveled at how quickly she started to adjust to being a member of our family. I remember vividly how she behaved during a blizzard that winter–she desperately needed to go out to go to the bathroom (she never had an accident in the house), and somehow, in the whirling and blinding snow, she managed to find the one patch of grass to go pee on. A smart dog!

Something about being abandoned as a puppy definitely made her more nervous around other dogs than many Labs, and in those early years we worked on trying to help her with socialization–hiring a trainer to work with us on helping her calm down when other dogs might pass by, and then taking her up to Saugerties for some in-depth training. None of it completely stuck, but over time she got calmer and with some dogs in the neighborhood, didn’t care in the slightest when they passed by. Others–rivals? or just dogs who themselves were a bit more aggressive too–still got her hackles up. But I also think she was doing what she thought she needed to do to protect us and protect our house.

As she matured, we taught her some tricks, and she showed us some of her own. When she wanted to play, she could bring a rope toy over to you to ask for a “tug of war.” When Leslie was in the kitchen making dinner, she learned to wait patiently on the mat nearby in expectation of an eventual treat. When we had pizza, she always managed to beg some crust from me. And when we lit candles on a Friday night and ate challah, she’d come sit alongside us, knowing full well that she was going to get a piece of Leslie’s yummy homemade challah too.

When we got Jetta, the deal (in theory) was for Mira to be her main caregiver. But in truth, the real deal was for me and Leslie to parent her–and since Jetta’s nervousness around other dogs was sometimes worrisome to Leslie, I became her main dog walker for all the days that I worked from home, or in the mornings or evenings as well. And while walking a dog can be a chore–especially in bad weather–the truth is that Jetta was really good for my health. For a number of years we’d jog together, even in winter when I would bundle up in long-johns and thermal undershirts.

It’s hard to say exactly how this works, but at some point our walks simply became islands of calm focus in a sea of noise and competing demands on my attention. I almost never made or took a phone call while walking Jetta–walk time was our parentheses away from the rest of the real world, when being outdoors and noticing the changing light, or the birds in the trees, or some new flower or a change in one of our neighbors’ houses was more than enough stimulation.

When I had time, I’d take her up into the Hillside Woods behind the Hastings elementary school and let her run free–with plenty of treats to hopefully keep her nearby. That generally worked, except for the one time that she took off after a couple of deer and disappeared deep into the woods for about a half hour. That time, I kept calling her name, and Leslie went to different corner of the woods to try and spot her before she perhaps wandered onto a nearby street. We honestly began to worry that we had lost her. And then suddenly she appeared, right where she had left me to chase the deer, panting heavily, but with a happy glint in her eye.

We also jog or walk along the old Croton Aqueduct trail (that’s a photo of the trail in my blog’s header), and many years ago discovered that if you veered off the trail at one of the spots where the viaduct was built over a stream, you could actually get down to the water. Jetta came to know and love that spot, and often when we’d walk or run by, she’d pull to make sure I took the detour so she could cool off a little and drink the running water.

Jetta in the brook under the Croton Aqueduct trail

Over the years, we took a couple of trips with her. Once, when she was pretty young, she came with us to a house we rented out on the North Fork of Long Island. We had found that there was a local swimming area that allowed dogs to wade into the bay waters, and we took her there to try swimming together with the whole family. Back then, we weren’t sure how well bonded she was to us, so I think we were pretty nervous about letting her off the leash to swim. Knowing what I know now about her nature and intelligence, I am sorry we didn’t try doing that kind of swimming play with her more often. At Goldens Bridge, I only let her off the leash when we went walking deep into the woods (the “17 acres”) behind the colony, where she would run happily down to a stream she knew. Back at the house, we’d keep her on leash in the yard for fear of her running after some animal into the busy road nearby.

Jetta in the Goldens Bridge woods

She had endearing habits. In the summer, when her black fur undoubtedly kept her too warm, she’d curl up either on the bathroom floor downstairs, where it was really cool. That’s where she is right now, as I write these words. Or she’d plop down by the air conditioning duct in the main bathroom. Sometimes we would find her resting in the bathtub. Thunder and lightning made her really nervous and she’d bark unhappily during storms. She also always barked at the mailman as he approached the house. Even two days ago, when her illness was really weakening her and she could barely walk more than a few steps outside to pee, she barked heartily when the mailman approached. That game she always won, because her barking was always followed by him walking away.

She loved having her belly rubbed, and endearingly she would stick out her top paw and touch you on the chest or shoulder if you came close while giving her a scratch or massage. And if you asked for a “kiss” she was always happy to lick your face. Sometimes if you stopped petting her while she was sitting, she’d wag just the tip of her tail back and forth as if to say, “I like that–do it more!”

In the last year, before she got sick, she started to change in two ways. First, there was her arthritis, which weakened her back legs at the hips and made it much harder for her to get up stairs. Nevertheless, most mornings she’d come up to our room before we had awoken, either to lie nearby us or to start to nudge us awake. And the other big change was that she started to talk a lot more–she developed a whole repertoire of mild yips and low rumbling growls that weren’t full barks, and usually meant: “pay attention to me” or “feed me” or “let me out.”

When Mira went off to college, in 2009, we put up a fence closing off the backyard, so Jetta could run freely. Before that, we had a rope run which she never really enjoyed. If only we had put up that fence sooner! She loved being out back, either so she could patrol the grounds, or chase squirrels, or just zone out on the deck or in the grass. Like most Labs, Jetta was by nature an outdoor dog, one that needed plenty of exercise and stimulation. I remember the vet telling me, back in the days when I jogged with her regularly, that she had a very strong heart, no doubt because of all that exercise. And even in this last year, as her arthritis kicked in, she still often had the energy and desire to take a long walk with Leslie and me on the old Croton trail by the Saw Mill–we even did a really long hike with her and Mira deep into the Rockefeller State Park wood in April.

Fencing off the backyard also led to another one of her self-taught tricks. Often during a walk around the block, she’d pick up a stick to bring home. Once we got to our house, she’d tug me on the leash, still holding the stick, and walk us to the gate to the back. Once there, she’d drop the stick, sometimes to gnaw on it, and other times just to add to her collection. Here are two photos with truly enormous sticks she managed to carry home.

Jetta heading to the backyard with a big stick.

Another big stick!

Enjoying a stick!

I know that sometime in the last year, I started steeling myself for the possibility that she wouldn’t be with us for much longer. Her arthritis along with occasional odd bouts of stomach trouble were just reminders that like all creatures, Jetta was mortal, and that she couldn’t be with us all our lives. Of course, I also imagined that it wouldn’t be for a few more years. But I started taking more pictures of her, and thankfully we have some wonderful videos of her playing in one of this winter’s blizzards. I also discovered that she really liked going for dips in Sugar Pond–the cold water seemed to be good for her arthritis–and when we’d go up to the Hillside Woods nearby she’d often pull me to take her to the pond, just so she could get a drink and cool off a bit.

Jetta in Sugar Pond in May 2014

Today is the day we are saying goodbye. Writing those words is incredibly hard and right now I am taking turns howling, wiping back tears, and trying to collect my thoughts about how we can do this. But this is part of life with a dog, too. We’d noticed that she was getting a bit weaker, and not long ago Mira noticed that she seemed a little bloated. I took her to the vet Tuesday and sadly, we discovered that her spleen was quite enlarged and filled with tumors. For a dog at her age, surgery simply isn’t a realistic option. Even if she miraculously doesn’t have more tumors in other parts of her body, and even if she survived the operation and risk of complications, at best she might gain a few months of life, and she could still die suddenly, scarily and painfully, from hemorrhaging. Our vet is very experienced and humane, and when we asked him what he would do if this was his dog, he didn’t mince words. She’s terminally ill, he told us. The most humane thing to do is to give her a calm and painless release.

I know this is the right thing to do. But right now I am also reminded of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. In it, every human has a spirit creature or daemon that represents their inner self and manifests as some kind of animal that is intrinsically bonded to that person. In that fictional world, to be separated from one’s daemon is to lose a part of oneself. It is physically painful.

In our real world, we bond with many other beings, and the strongest of those bonds are made with unconditional love. As a parent of two wonderful children, I understand how this bond works, since I (and Leslie) have given only unconditional love to Mira and Jesse. And we have, fortunately, received unconditional love from our parents, who taught us well. But the amazing thing about a dog is that she gives unconditional love back to you. A dog’s mind may be simple, but in this one respect dogs are our masters. Jetta gave us the one pure thing a dog can give, and for this we are now tightly bonded, so much that our inevitable parting is causing me and the rest of our little family great pain. We have been blessed by her grace. May her soul be blessed.

Jetta in one of her favorite places, the Goldens Bridge woods

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Gloomy thoughts on Manning and Snowden

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Hopefully this is just a temporary phase of me being gloomy, since I’m a great believer in optimism of the will, and generally think that pessimism and cynicism just reinforce the status quo. “The man” wants us to be pessimistic and cynical, since then it’s harder to get people to expect (and demand) change. (This makes me wistful for Obama when he called himself a “hope-mongerer”–anyone remember that?)

When I wrote Wikileaks and the Age of Transparency at the beginning of 2012, I was trying to situate Julian Assange/Bradley Manning in the context of a much larger movement for greater political transparency. I still think that connection technologies are disruptive to traditional power structures and, in the long run, we will get to a new equilibrium where ordinary people have more power and voice and “we” can effectively watch and influence our government, politicians and corporations as much as they can watch and influence us. So, I still believe as I wrote in the book:

Transparency is the fuel; connectivity is the engine; a sense of oneself as a more effective participant in the democratic process (personal democracy, if you will) is the journey. What is emerging was a greatly expanded notion of the role of citizen not just as a passive consumer of political information and occasional voter, but as an active player, monitoring what government and politicians were doing, demanding a seat at the table and a view of the proceedings, sharing self-generated news of what was important, and participating in problem solving.

But it’s impossible to deny that what we’ve seen and learned over the last 18 months is pretty challenging to that goal and hope.

First, on Manning. I’m glad he was acquitted of “aiding the enemy” (a ridiculous and dangerous charge), but his treatment and trial should still leave us very concerned about the state of freedom in America today. When Daniel Ellsberg turned himself in after leaking the Pentagon Papers (which were all “Top Secret”–a level of classification that Manning did not breach), he was charged with various crimes and then allowed to go free on bail, free to speak to the country, until his trial. Manning was put in very harsh solitary conditions. Coverage of his trail has been constrained by a court that wouldn’t make transcripts available, and his defense was prevented from offering evidence showing that he did not harm the country (it’s a debatable point but my point here is he couldn’t even try to make that case). One would think there might be more of an outcry on his behalf (and there has been some), but there seems to be no one in our bipartisan political establishment willing to break with the notion that he is a hacker and a traitor. Even the Democrats who were vociferously anti-Iraq War, and question the war in Afghanistan and our diplomatic coziness with dictators around the world, had nothing to say in defense of Manning’s leaks.

It’s as if, as Tom Englehardt wrote, the government is operating under a new theory of nuclear deterrence, which is that the way to prevent a freer flow of information (i.e., fewer secrets! at a time when we’re classifying something like 90 million documents a year! and four million people have clearances!) is to go nuclear against any and all whistleblowers that may arise, to deter others. See his “How to be a rogue superpower: A manual for the 21st century” for the whole argument.

And that gets me to Snowden. Here I am a bit more hopeful about some reforms happening. The NSA’s overreach (emboldened by the whole post-9-11 climate and a FISA court stacked with conservatives by Chief Justice Roberts) is generating a strong response from civil libertarian minded folks on both sides of the aisle–the recent close House vote on the Amash/Conyers amendment to somewhat restrict the NSA’s activities being a sign of how quickly the shift is taking place.

But let’s not kid ourselves. Right now, our emails, social media activities, web browsing, phone records, phone location records, and possibly also content of our phone calls (I’ve lost track) are all collected and stored by the NSA for possible later retrieval and dissection. Not just foreigners, folks! (The Post Office makes a copy of the outside of every letter you’ve sent, too, for good measure.) When someone comes under suspicion and they get the FISA court’s okay we’re told they go up to three hops (connections of connections of connections) in how widely they spread the web of whose data they will then peruse. And if you’ve ever corresponded with a foreigner, the odds that your communications have been examined go up. I’ve exchanged emails with Julian Assange, which means if you’ve ever exchanged emails with me, welcome to the charmed circle of people who now have to wonder if they should say everything they want to say via email. That is a chilling effect on free speech, and we shouldn’t shrug it off.

Congress may finally push back on some of these excesses, but there’s still reasons for concern. First of all, anyone who has paid attention to the rise of authoritarianism anywhere in the world understands that this level of power of state surveillance is extremely dangerous. Even if NOW it is governed by “the good guys,” it still shouldn’t exist. It’s too much concentrated power, and it is and will be abused against the powerless. I say “it is” because if you are a Muslim in America, you know this already. Just emailing friends, posting videos, surfing the web, and making one trip to and from Yemen, got Tarek Mehenna 17 years in a “supermax” prison, based solely on the prosecution’s fevered argument that he was somehow aiding terrorists. (See this post by Kade Ellis, a terrific blogger/activist with the ACLU, for details.)

And finally, we need to worry about our own tendency to value convenience over privacy. The dystopia we’re living in, where so much of this information is easily obtained, is built largely on extremely weak privacy practices that we all casually submit to as we surf the web, post to Facebook, etc. Strong encryption tools exist, but they’re also a pain to use and most don’t really do what you want if most of your friends aren’t using them. See this terrific article for more details: “Thank you for choosing cypherpunk dystopia.

If all of this motivates you to act, I’d say to start by joining the “StopWatching.us” campaign that EFF and others are leading.

And if you feel like buying my Wikileaks book, please do so by going direct to my publisher, ORBooks, which is a great little independent press, and unlike Amazon, they won’t kick you off their servers if you’re a bad boy.

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Thoughts on visiting Auschwitz

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When I was born, my parents gave me three middle names: Emanuel, Samuel, and Levendel. The latter is my mother’s maiden name. The other two are for Mendl and Shmil, male relatives on my mother’s mother’s side of the family, who were killed during the Holocaust.

My sister and brother also have three middle names, for the same reasons.

My wife’s father has a list of 72 relatives who were killed.

If each of these people had lived out normal lives, how many of their descendants would walk the earth today? 200? 300? 400?

Our extended family is fairly large, with more than 30 first cousins, most if whom have married and raised families of their own. In all, we maybe number 150 or 200, scattered across the US, Israel, and, if you count the second and third cousins, Canada, South Africa, Belgium, and Italy as well.

So my first thought as I got ready to visit Auschwitz and Birkenau earlier this week is what a world we lost, just in my and my wife’s extended families.

Last Saturday, while in Warsaw, after our Personal Democracy Forum Poland conference ended, we took an informal walking tour of the nearby area, which happened to be close to the old Jewish Quarter of the city. Warsaw, it must be noted, was completely destroyed by the Germans before the end of WWII. In August 1944, the city rose up and managed to shake off German control for several weeks (while the approaching Russian Army held back, letting the Polish resistance deplete itself against the Nazis, which made the later Soviet occupation of Poland somewhat easier to imposed). In response to the rebellion, the Germans leveled Warsaw. A city that had 1.1 million inhabitants before the start of the war had barely one thousand living in its ruins at war’s end. The city looked like a nuclear bomb had hit it.

Near the auditorium where our conference was held stands an old row of decrepit buildings, some of the few that remained standing after the war. In their empty windows, someone has placed huge blown-up photograph portraits of the Jews who had once lived there. We walked past these buildings, crossed a few more streets, and then our guide pointed down to a line of bricks with an inscription in them: Warsaw Ghetto 1940-1943. The hair stood up on the back of my neck.

This was it; we were walking on the last home of 400,000 Jews condemned to live within its confines; 100,000 who died inside its walls from starvation and illness; the rest who were nearly all killed in the camps.

When I was in my teens, I belonged to a Jewish youth movement called Hashomer Hatzair (“The Young Guard”). It was at heart a scouting movement like the many youth movements of the 1900s, with two additional ingredients: socialism and Zionism. Our heroes were the kibbutzniks who were rebuilding the Jewish homeland and doing so by creating a “classless society” (or so we imagined). Like all the Zionist movements, we believed that Jews couldn’t be passive, waiting for some God to take care of them; they had to take positive action to make a better world for themselves and others.

Among our heroes there might have been none greater than Mordecai Anilewicz, who led the “ken” (or “nest”) for Hashomer Hatzair in the Warsaw Ghetto, and who was the leader of the 1943 uprising against the Nazis. Growing up in Hashomer, I went to a ken named for him: N’tiv Mordecai. Now, walking thru the cold and wet streets of a Warsaw that had been rebuilt, with no significant trace of the past left in view, I felt surrounded by ghosts.

These photos taken after the war was over, which happened to be displayed in the old town part of Warsaw while we were visiting, show nothing but a grave land of stones and bricks where the ghetto stood:

The next day we flew to Krakow, where we were met by a driver who took us the 45 minute drive to the camps. Auschwitz-Birkenau was two experiences in one day for me. First, we toured the concentration camp of Auschwitz.

Here, Jews were held along with Polish political prisoners, Gypies, and other persecuted groups. It reminds me very much of Dachau, which I had visited a few years ago with my brother David, also in winter. Barracks side by side for slave laborers who were tortured and starved. A small crematorium for the people who died on a daily basis. A cramped prison and public execution and hanging grounds, where people were killed on little more than an SS officer’s whim. The massive collections of hair, shoes, suitcases and other detritus left by the inmates are harrowing, but I knew they would be there.

Birkenau is different. It feels like a whole planet of death, not one plantation. Even though the crematoria and original barracks have all been destroyed, the remnants and the handful of reconstructed buildings are sufficient to establish Birkenau’s awful scale.

I left a stone on the metal ledge of a cattle car that stands halfway along the railway tracks that traverse Birkenau from its entrance to the site of the crematoria roughly 2km away. The car looks like it could have held maybe 8 cows. Instead, our guide tells us, it was probably packed with 80 humans. Every day, the Birkenau crematoria could process several transports of victims. Whole ghettoes numbering in the tens of thousands went to their deaths in a matter of days. It was the industrial production of mass slaughter, but it also was still very personal, and required deliberate deception at every step, to keep the people who were about to be gassed from understanding and then perhaps rebelling.

We didn’t have a lot of time on this visit, about four hours in all at the camps. So I wasn’t able to deviate much from the standard tour that our guide was taking us on in both camps. I managed to see a special special exhibit that the country of Belgium had donated, depicting the suffering of the 25,000 Jews who were deported from there to Auschwitz in 1942. Very few survived. My mother and her immediate family, thank goodness, were helped by the Belgian Resistance and were saved by going into hiding before the deportation began. There by the grace of good people, go I.

I also managed to walk through an exhibit that detailed all the ways people in the camps resisted the Nazis, and the heavy price they paid for such actions. Since the SS kept detailed records we know of a few of these incidents, but since the vast bulk of their records were destroyed as the SS prepared to close the camp in late 1944 as the Russian Army approached, we don’t know how many more times they happened. I was glad to be reading about the Sonder-commando unit of prisoners who rebelled and managed to blow up Crematorium 3, before all being put to death, in October 1944. Standing on the massive plaza that memorializes the killing grounds in Birkenau, near that crematorium, I felt a tiny glint of satisfaction. They fought back, even here.

Had I been with a group of fellow Jews, I think I would have wanted to chant Kaddish for the dead. I’m not religious, but I respect the ritual and know it is important to honor and remember the dead. Also, the Kaddish is a paradoxical mourning prayer. Its words make no mention of death or heaven, as might expect; they speak only of the glory of Creation. It is as if to remind the mourner, “You are in the world of the living, cherish it.”

Leaving the camps with my friends Andrew Rasiej and Jen Vento who shared the visit, I saw a sign for a synagogue and Jewish museum in nearby Osweicsim, and I asked them if we could make a quick detour to visit. It was unlikely, but I thought these might be a group of Jews there, enough to say a proper Kaddish. Unfortunately, I discovered that these is no living Jewish community there any more. Before the war, there were as many as 7000 Jews living in the town, a majority. But afterward the few survivors emigrated to Israel or America. The afternoon I visited, it was empty save for one employee of the museum. I left a donation for its upkeep. And then I said to my friends, like the mourners leaving a grave site, let’s return to the world of the living.

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Remembering Christopher Hitchens

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I have three memories of Christopher Hitchens, who died this week, that are worth sharing.

I first got to know Christopher when I began working at The Nation magazine in 1983, when he was then writing his Minority Report column. I started there as an intern, and slowly made my way up the publishing and editorial totem poles. By the fall of 1984, my job title was something like director of publicity and promotion, which meant that I was in charge of trying to get Nation writers and stories into the mainstream media.

It was a challenging time to be on the left in America. Ronald Reagan cruised to re-election against the hapless Walter Mondale. Just about everything I cared about–civil rights, human rights, ending the danger of nuclear war, economic inequality–none of that seemed to matter to the people in charge in Washington, DC. The New Right was ascendant and the left seemed powerless, or worse, divided amongst itself by identity politics. And these were the days before the Internet, when being in a minority meant being marginalized, seemingly shut out of the national conversation. A handful of major media outlets–the TV networks, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Time, Newsweek–set the agenda. If you weren’t on their radar, it was as if you didn’t exist.

Here is where Christopher first made a deep impression on me. We had somehow gotten him placed on Firing Line, William F. Buckley’s long-running political talk show. He was there as the ostensible balance to R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr., then the swashbuckling young editor of The American Spectator and Buckley protege, who had a new book out to flog called “The Liberal Crack-up.” The date was December 11, 1984.

Hitchens on Firing Line

Christopher Hitchens on Firing Line, December 2004

The whole video does not appear to be available online, but I have found the printed transcript on a Stanford website. A snippet is up on YouTube (from which this photo is snagged) but it only gives a few minutes of opening remarks between Buckley and Tyrrell.) The whole transcript is worth reading through, not just because it shows the young Hitchens’ rhetorical strengths in all their glory (at one point he accuses Buckley of “an undistributed middle” in his logic), but because of what it displays about Hitchens’ political values, at least back then. It starts with Buckley tossing a softball at Tyrrell that is supposed to help him showcase his book, but soon Hitchens has seized the upper ground, arguing that for Tyrrell to sneer at liberal losers like George McGovern and Jimmy Carter means he must also believe that Richard Nixon was good for America, calling his administration’s “appalling corruption…practically…a coup against the Constitution in Washington.”

This gets Buckley’s goat, and the old man (who was then very much in his prime) tries to argue that nothing Nixon did was worse than the Kennedys (John and Bobby) who secretly taped Martin Luther King Jr, or even FDR’s use of taping. But Hitchens keeps the upper hand, declaring that he had often criticized the Kennedy and Johnson administrations for their abuses of power, but “in Watergate quantity was turning into quality; that there was an attempt to institutionalize the use of agencies of the state as a private political police force.” Moments after making that point, he goads Tyrrell into declaring that he indeed thought that Nixon’s election in 1972 was a good thing.

The argument meanders for a while, with Hitchens making fun of Tyrrell’s feeble attempts to turn his opposition to feminism into some kind of old-fashioned gallantry. But all along it’s clear that Tyrrell is completely outmatched by Hitchens, who has turned the discussion of the Liberal Crack-Up into a roaring defense of the left, and Buckley keeps stepping in to try to save his protege, to little effect. The two men of the Right think they have god and the facts on their side, since Reagan and Reaganism are at their heights, this being December 1984, but Hitchens refuses to do what just about every liberal was doing back then, which was to bow his head and accept that this meant the battles of the 1960s were wrongheaded and futile.

The high point comes when he declares:

“The American left–American radicals and American liberals, many of them–in starting the civil rights movement for black Americans, in combatting an unjust war in Indochina and in beginning the emancipation of women–the way we think about sex–changed the way everyone thinks and the way everyone lives far beyond the borders of the United States. It was a tremendous time, and the whole world is in debt to the American left–I’d rather call it–for those three enterprises. Now it’s true that they’re all now in rather low water, those movements, but I see not reason to sneer at them now or to forget the grand contribution they made, unsurpassed by any conservative rival.”

Later he adds:

“I’ll just remind you I began by saying that when I still lived in England before I became an emigrant, I was, as many, many millions of people were, very inspired by the American examples, in particular Dr. King, but also, later, the movement to arrest the unjust war in Indochina and, as I say, it was American women who really began to show women in the advanced countries that they needn’t live on the assumptions that had dictated their lives up till then. These were the examples that stirred me and that I still am inclined to defend….attitudes of my peer group–other people like me who are white and male, I mean by that–towards women have undergone a vast improvement in the last 15 years or so. I think one of the good things about the civil rights movement was how it improved the moral standards of white people, and I think one of the great things about the women’s movement, or the feminist movement, if you like, is that it’s changed the way that men think. And I think that’s been good for our sake as well as theirs. That’s what’s good about reform movements is that they’re not what are now called interest groups or selfish, narrow, contained things.”

Hearing that said back in 1984 left a strong impression on me. Here was this young guy, outnumbered two to one, producing a ringing defense of the biggest liberal causes of our time. The American left, he was saying, mattered in the lives of millions of people. There was no need to apologize for it.

Fast forward to April 11, 2000. Working with political science professor Frances Fox Piven, I helped put together a conference on “Third Parties and Independent Politics” at the CUNY Graduate Center. I had been doing a lot of reporting and writing about third party efforts ranging from Ralph Nader and Ross Perot to Jesse Ventura and the New Party (which later took root in NY as the Working Families Party), and for this event we managed to get a terrific array of speakers from inside these movements as well as from the left wing of the Democratic Party. Hitchens was a featured speaker, though the moment I remember most had nothing to do with his time on stage. (You can listen to an audio recording of the plenary session here.)

It had been a number of years since I had seen Christopher (I left the Nation in 1997), though we kept in light touch throughout. For example, he had gladly contributed a fantastic essay of his for The Gulf War Reader, an anthology I co-edited with Christopher Cerf back in 1991. Christopher’s essay, “Realpolitik: A Game Gone Tilt,” was a tour-de-force critique of America’s disturbing pattern of cozying up to dictators in the Persian Gulf, and then in tilting one way or the other, letting our allies launch foolish wars like Iraq’s 1980 attack on Iran, its genocidal assault on the Kurds and then its 1991 attack on Kuwait.

Something had happened to him, though, despite the continued brilliance of his writing. To put it frankly, he looked like shit. At CUNY, he showed up bedraggled and wearing open-toed shoes, which I think he said he needed because he had some kind of skin condition. The drinking and smoking and terrible eating habits showed. I felt badly for him but didn’t bother saying anything; we all knew Christopher wanted to live this way and wouldn’t have it any other way.

There’s a moment though, from the conference, that made me start to wonder about Christopher’s independence of mind. My friend Dan Cantor, who had just gotten NY’s Working Families Party off the ground a few years earlier, was on stage making a nuanced point about how progressives could attract the support of white working class people, mainly by emphasizing common economic concerns. Christopher ambled up to the mike to ask a question: “Well,” he declared to Cantor, “you surely must think you have your finger on the clitoris of the working class.”

It was a shocking statement. Why would he choose such language? And why attack Cantor, a fundamentally decent and hardworking political activist, in such a coarse way in public? It was at this point that I decided I didn’t really understand Hitchens at all, and wouldn’t try to engage with him further. While he could be incredibly charming and friendly to people he knew–and I always felt that he related to me honestly and with respect–his apparent need to show off and top everyone else in public could have some very ugly effects.

In later years, we only crossed paths twice if memory serves, both times by email. The first, as recounted here on my blog, was over a minor point that I took him to task over, and as you can see, he was fairly gracious in admitting a mistake, albeit a modest one. The second was about a year ago, after I started reading his memoir Hitch-22. The fact that he was terminally ill had recently become public. Somewhere early in the book he has a line about not waiting until too late to send a note.

So I wrote him:

Dear Christopher:
Though I know we haven’t seen each other in many years, and thus our friendship is one of those “weak ties” things that some people think don’t matter, I first and foremost appreciate that you were always unfailingly decent and kind to me when we were both colleagues at The Nation. And then later, when I asked you for a favor or to show up at some conference or another that I was doing or appear in one of my anthologies on the Gulf/Iraq Wars, you were always a gentleman. That for me counts enormously. You know this already but that has always been your most redeeming quality, whatever your political choices. Life is too fucking short to live it any other way. Thank you for always being a mensch to me. Now, get well!

He wrote back:

Dear Micah,
That’s very generous of you.
Many thanks.
I hope you thrive.
As always
Christopher

I could never finish reading his memoir. While I enjoyed learning about his early life and in particular was deeply moved by the impact of his mother’s suicide, by the middle of the book where he brags about becoming a citizen of the United States under the watchful eye of then Department of Homeland Security head Michael Chertoff, I started to give up. When I arrived at his long chapter on the Iraq War, which I knew would be full of his defense of that terrible mistake, I put the book down. It was too narcissistic for me. The Hitchens I knew and respected so highly from 1984 was no longer the Hitchens of the present. I realize that they are both part of the fuller picture and that we are all entitled to our contradictions. But I prefer to remember him the way he was when he was younger and not after success, booze and the other demons in his life took him to where he ended up.

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The Rich are Neither Happy Nor Smart

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So, when people are offered a huge reward for their labors (i.e. high pay) they make worse decisions than when they’re offered a moderate prize, Dan Ariely shows in this talk he gave at PopTech in 2009.

Money is a double-edged sword, Ariely argues, it’s a motivator and a stress-inducer. People who are completing a task that offers them a huge reward turn out to be too stressed to work as carefully and well as they would otherwise. So much for the theory that we need to allow for unlimited incomes to motivate innovators.

Now, according to this fascinating essay in the Atlantic, we learn that people who are ultra-rich ($25 million and up) and supposedly ultra-secure, turn out to be deeply unhappy. So much for the theory that money buys happiness.

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Who Organized That?

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Before this blog existed, I had an earlier on called IraqWarReader.com, which started out as a place for me and Christopher Cerf to post stuff related to our 2003 book of the same title, but over time it also evolved into covering more of my personal journey into the internet-politics arena. In October 2004, I started this blog, micah.sifry.com, and promised to transfer over the old posts after I managed to clean out the comment spam. Needless to say, that didn’t happen. But now that I’ve finally got this blog on an updated platform, I’m going to go back and figure out how to restore some relevant posts, fitting them in where they belong date-wise.

That said, I wanted to post this item, from my experience at the February 2004 Digital Democracy Teach-in held at E-Tech in San Diego. The Howard Dean campaign had just fallen apart, but there was a lot of talk in the air of what comes next to this net-powered movement. As you can see from the post, I was a bit frustrated by how much emphasis people seemed to be putting on tools rather than organizing. There also was this endemic problem of seeing movements from afar, and thus not really understanding how much they are actually organized by people and institutions with real names and structures. Today, with all this talk of “Twitter Revolutions,” I think the arguments I made seven years ago are still relevant.

Notes on the Digital Democracy Teach-In in San Diego. [Originally posted on IraqWarReader.com February 10, 2004]

Reality check
It’s wonderful to be immersed in a welcoming community of searching minds, to meet a lot of new and interesting people, and to get such an intriguing peak over the horizon at what’s ahead. (And to bask in the glow of good will generated by my little brother, on top of that!) Thus it’s a little hard maintain distance, and even worse, to have some critical things to say. But this community seems to thrive on strong debate, so here goes. For all the intense discussion going on online and in the hallways about what the Dean campaign did or didn’t do right, and on how social software tools can empower people, I’m amazed by how little interaction this community seems to have with people who actually know something about social movements, political organizing and power analysis. Perhaps that’s a reflection of how new to politics so many of the people here seem to be, and that’s ok. After all, DeanforAmerica (my shorthand for the decision to try to run an “open-source”-style campaign, as opposed to Howard Dean the candidate for President) clearly inspired many people both in and outside of the hacking community and the A-list blogging community to get excited about personal political participation, and hopefully that will be a lasting thing.

But people here talk like all that’s needed is better tools, and then people will pick them up and take back their country from the powers-that-be. There’s almost no sense of how hard organizing actually is, or why. Britt Blaser, who I’m getting to know and like a whole lot, is talking about “one-click politics,” as if mobilizing people for collective action might be made as easy as buying a book on Amazon. Last night at the open participant session on continuing the Dean campaign, someone said something about how change can take place in an instant, as if it were simply a matter of spreading the right meme or something.

Umm, sorry, but change is hard. There are no shortcuts. If this–empowering average people to have a genuine say in the decisions that affect their lives–were easy, it would have been done already. (More on that thought below.) And this isn’t simply because Howard Dean wasn’t what folks hoped he was. (My pal Doug Ireland has a characteristically tough take on that notion here [Note: Unfortunately, TomPaine.com's archive from 2004 appears gone.]) That is, no doubt, a big part of the reason his campaign foundered, but there was also an awful lot of wishful thinking going on about what was happening at the base, too. For example, I keep hearing about the magic of Meetups, how 80,000 people supposedly showed up at Dean Meetups at the beginning of February, and how empowering all this is. There’s almost no empirical backing for these assertions, but they’re accepted anyway. I know for a fact that the number of people RSVPing to go to the Meetups in my area in Westchester, N.Y., dropped dramatically this month, and my local Meetup group was significantly down in attendance, according to the young woman volunteer coordinator who I’m in touch with. Names on a list, even people in a room, do not equal well-organized change agents. The Iowa caucuses were just another example of this, come to think of it.

Also, there’s no discussion or analysis of how you build a coalition to alter power relations in America. The closest we get is general criticism of “broadcast politics”–the webocrats catchphrase for top-down, capital-intensive politics, where the main goal is having or raising enough money to buy broadcast power to send a message to the passive masses. We’re all against that, for sure. But that isn’t the WHOLE problem. If we don’t talk about the enduring facts of racial and class division and act as if they’re not critical to the maintenance of the status quo, any movement for change these well-intentioned folks are going to construct is also going to founder well before it achieves critical mass.

A wise organizer friend of mine, Becky Glass, who runs the Midwest States Center, once told me, “It’s awfully hard to be invited to dinner after the first course has been served.” What she meant was, if you want your movement to be inclusive and diverse, it has to be so from the very beginning. You can’t invite blacks and Latinos and working-class people to join you later, as so many well-intentioned middle-class white progressives so often do. The Dean campaign’s social base was white well-educated boomers and their college-age kids (Jay Rosen and his nephew Zack Rosen, if you will). This isn’t a huge surprise, as high-intensity Internet users are disproportionately whiter, younger and better educated than the general population, and antiwar activists were also very white, middle-class, etc (a truism of antiwar movements in America going back quite a ways). Yet no one seems at all worried about plunging ahead with grand plans and visions, without stopping to think that they haven’t got everyone you need on board this ship, not yet, anyway.

Not that we shouldn’t plunge ahead. But a little more humility and a little more exploration of the insights of others couldn’t hurt.


Why Social Movements are So Rare

I love that Joe Trippi keeps talking about getting two million Americans to each pitch in $100 to build an independent organization to take back the country from wealthy special interests. It’s a valuable echo of Ross Perot’s United We Stand America (1.2 million people who gave $15 each, until they realized what a scam that was), and of Ralph Nader’s call for a million organizers each willing to put in 100 hours and/or $100 to change the country. But Trippi, who I’m sure knows better, talks as if all it would take is people waking up one morning and doing this. Poof! Actually, he’s not thinking big enough.

What I have in mind is something like Solidnarsc (Solidarity) in Poland, which emerged from within the totalitarian Communist system and signed up 10 million members out of a population of 40 million around the demand for a “free and independent trade union,” something they built–in the face of fierce repression. Try to wrap your minds around that!

One of my intellectual mentors, Lawrence Goodwyn, the great historian of American populism, has a book about Solidarity called “Breaking the Barrier,” in which he unearths the real history of that movement’s construction. I wish I could point to a link for what follows, but believe it or not, it ain’t on the web! (The horror, the horror!) The questions he asks are, or at least ought to be, central to the question of the moment,IMHO.

How do people move from thought to action? Goodwyn’s answer is deceptively simple. “Protest moves from idea to action when it becomes social–that is, when it is organized so that people are acting rather than writing or talking about acting.” [hello, fellow bloggers!] But, Goodwyn points out, large-scale social movements for change are extremely rare beasts:

Societies are not routinely afflicted with ‘movements.’ Things are usually ‘normal’ and people behave in conventional ways. A relatively small number of citizens possessing high sanction move about in an authoritative manner and a much larger number of people without such sanction move about more softly. Some among the multitude may be seen energetically to be doing all they can to acquire a measure of status, but in the meantime, they join their less-energetic neighbors in behaving with conventional deference.

Movements disrupt this normal order. A considerable number of unsanctioned people appear publicly in a new guise; they present petitions or voice demands; they suddenly arrogate to themselves the right to criticize inherited customs and may even issue manifestos proclaiming the precise way they intend to rearrange received habits. Moreover, they have a pronounced tendency to conduct activity out-of-doors where everything is visible. People march, they strike, they demonstrate, and they may even suddenly riot and burn down or otherwise dismantle certain physical signs of established tradition.

How do we get large-scale protest?–what Goodwyn calls “unusual acts of unsanctioned assertion by previously little-known persons.” This is where our ignorance begins. We have been trained by decades of received historical tradition to not understand this crucial issue. Our observers–journalists, academics, etc–rarely explain how social movements are created and sustained. As Goodwyn notes, they borrow heavily from the weather school of writing. “Movements ‘flare up’ and ‘gather steam.’ They ‘boil.’ They can then ‘burst into flame’ and ‘burn like a prairie fire’ before, in time, ‘flickering’ out. A social movement can also be understood as a ‘gathering storm’ that when gathered ‘sweeps like a cyclone’ through vulnerable regions.” This, he says, is “a view from afar.” It is, for all the talk of “granularity,” the primary view we’ve been taking of the DeanforAmerica phenomenon.

“Large scale democratic movements do not happen in any of these easily characterized ways,” Goodwyn writes. “Democratic forms are ordered. To function well, they must be experientially tested. Their construction requires overcoming many culturally based hierarchical impediments. They happen, then, when they are organized. They happen in no other way.”

That’s why I think we’ve got our work cut out for us.

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Qwikileaks

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Yes, it’s true, I am writing a book, entitled WikiLeaks and the Age of Transparency, exclusively available from that link. In the wake of a very successful event that we at Personal Democracy Forum did on WikiLeaks on December 11th (see PdFLeaks for details), John Oakes–the ‘O’ in OR Books and an old college friend and a good guy whose been around independent quality publishing for his whole life–suggested a quick short book on the topic. At first, I resisted the idea because a) books are hard hard work, and b) I didn’t think WikiLeaks by itself was a topic I could do justice to.

But then I thought about it, and realized that in fact it would be really useful to place WikiLeaks in context, as part of a much larger transparency movement, one that I know quite a bit about. Time to connect the dots, as it were. So, consider this a placeholder of a note on the book’s progress. More details soon.

Until then, if you’re in NYC and interested in this topic, set aside Jan. 24 and/or Feb. 9 on your calendar, when PdF is doing two more WikiLeaks-themed public events with folks like Clay Shirky, Floyd Abrams, Daniel Domscheit-Berg, Gabriella Coleman, Evgeny Morozov, John Perry Barlow and Deanna Zandt.

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Finally, back on line!

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I didn’t have blogging privileges turned on.

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Notes on PopTech08, and Life At the End of the World as We Know It

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October 22, 2008
Camden, Maine
Dear Mira and Jesse:
Here’s what it felt like at the end of the world as we know it on one day in October.
This morning, I heard a wise man who knew everything that was possible to know about numbers, and how much energy it takes to run the whole world, describe exactly how much each American’s life would need to change to bring it into balance with what it will take for all 6.6 billion people on Earth today to avoid a climate catastrophe. If we don’t want more than a 5 degree increase in the average temperature of the world by 2030, we have to make big changes now in how much energy we use. I started looking at all the ways I and we use energy, using an amazing new tool this man helped build, and I wondered, could I cut my travel down to no more than three plane flights a year. Could we stop buying bottled drinks? Could we cut how much we drive in half? Could we convince our friends, relatives and coworkers to do the same?
Then another wise man showed me how much the ocean’s life was being depleted by how we over-fish it, and how we pollute it. He showed us a picture of an albatross, one of the world’s most beautiful birds, with a wingspan of up to 11 feet, soaring in the sky. And then he showed us another picture, of an albatross chick that died because its mother unknowingly filled its stomach with detritus from the ocean, like cigarette lighters. He told us that great fish like the bluefin tuna, were in danger of being over-fished out of existence, because humans loved them too much in sushi. I thought about whether we could give up eating sushi. I learned that there was much we could do to help the ocean heal.
Then I heard a third wise man (not sure why there weren’t more wise women speakers by the way) explain how so much human potential is thrown away, and not just because for many people, poverty closes off opportunities at a terribly young age. Sometimes it is human stupidity. Sometimes it is because we ourselves don’t work hard enough, and blame other causes for our own lack of achievement.
And then I heard a fourth wise man explain all the connections between working too hard, eating poorly, not getting enough exercise, being addicted to fast food and coffee, not getting enough sleep, and our out-of-balance economy. He showed how the “invisible hand” that Adam Smith predicted, in 1776, would balance individual self-interest with society’s common good, had broken down. He showed, how our own reptilian part of our brains, which governs our most instinctive actions, didn’t know how to deal with living in a world of abundant everything, and so we were getting fatter, more materialistic, and less healthy, and allowing the balance of our society to spin out of control. I decided I needed to read his book.
You might think by now that I was getting depressed, but I wasn’t. The morning ended with one of my favorite (and your favorite) new musical artists, coming on stage to play three of her songs live. It was magic. Here’s what it looked and sounded like:

I also heard another musician play, someone I had never heard of. He too made incredible music. It reminded me of how much beauty was possible in the world. I thought about maybe spending more time re-learning how to make music, and maybe less traveling.
Then I took a break, and looked at what was happening in the world. The stock market went down 400 points, and then up 500. The number of Americans newly applying for unemployment insurance rose to nearly 500,000. I wondered, yet again, about our house and retirement savings, and then decided not to think about it.
In Washington, one not so wise man, but a very powerful man, was admitting that he had been wrong, for a very long time, about the economy, but only realized it now, with the stock market’s meltdown. In New York City, another very powerful man, was getting his wish to extend his time as Mayor, without a real vote from the city’s voters saying they wanted to give him this chance.
I went back to paying attention to PopTech for the late afternoon sessions. I heard one wise woman (finally) describe how she had decided to change her life doing design work for corporate clients, saying “It’s really depressing spending your life creating landfill. So now I work for love.” Her artistry is amazing. She told us, “Please remember, always write your love letters by hand.” I thought about the letters your Mom and I have shared, and thought about writing her a new one.
I heard a self-styled “perfume critic” walk us through a tour of different manufactured smells. They were beautiful, but I wondered at the luxury and excess of it, especially in these times. $50,000 for a kilo of one of these perfumes?! And yet, the other 500 people listening alongside me seemed to love everything he was showing us.
And then I heard one more wise man, a symphony conductor, who taught us what it means to live in a time of possibility. He showed us how we could sing as if we really meant it, and then he brought a 15-year-old cellist out to play for us, and showed him and us why it’s great to make mistakes and learn from them.
As it always does after a day at a conference like PopTech, my head hurt. On the one hand, I was filled with ideas and hope. I saw, again, how much an individual or a small group of individuals can do, to make a difference. And at the same time, I saw how much we were still caught in forces much larger than us. We had just heard about how we needed to trim our consumption and curb our addictive impulses, but we were putty in the hands of the perfume critic. We had just been shown the power of community, but as soon as the last talk was over we went back to our separate spaces and lives.
I don’t know. We are facing huge challenges, and you deserve to live in a world as good as the one I and your Mom have grown up in. But to face these challenges, we have to make bigger changes in our lives than we imagine–and not just personal lifestyle changes, but big changes in how we, as part of larger communities, behave together.
I think we are living in a time of great change. I think that in less than two weeks, we may be living in a new world. I am looking forward to that future. I hope you are too.
Love,
Dad

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The Looting Decade: S&Ls, Big Banks, and Other Triumphs of Capitalism

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“Have the poor suckers of this world ever lived in an age that offered such entertainment? Costly, to be sure, and they are the ones who are going to pay for it, but at least they are getting to watch some wonderful burlesque–first the pirates of a fraudulent system of communism forced to scuttle their own ship, and then the pirates of a fraudulent system of capitalism beginning to do the same.
So long as their focus was on Eastern Europe, our press and politicians couldn’t talk enough about ‘the triumph of capitalism and democracy.’ But now that they begin reluctantly to concentrate on piracy at home, they are–perhaps because so many of them are part of that piratical crew–understandably reluctant to admit the obvious: that our system is just as bogus and corrupt and irrelevant and defeated in its own way, offering neither the risks of true capitalism nor the safeguards of true democracy. Our system is a hoax.
If anyone still had faith in the system, the savings and loan adventure surely must have brought him to his senses and to his knees. The gambling debt of $500 billion ($150 billion plus interest and other incidentals)–or will it be, as some economists predict, a trillion four?–that the S&L industry left with the taxpayers has prompted even that deadpan Tory, George Will, to remark in wonderment, ‘We seem to have a capitalism here in which profits are private and we socialize the losses. Why are we, in effect–if you’re big enough, if you’re a huge bank or a savings and loan–why, in effect, are we guaranteeing everything?…What I’m asking is isn’t there a way to reform the system so that the taxpayers don’t get stuck with what happens when you have deregulation and risk taking that goes wrong?”
The answer to his question is: No, there is no way to reform the present system, because the system is owned and controlled by those who are ruining it. Voters, ordinary taxpayers, have nothing to say about it.”

That is from the opening paragraphs of Robert Sherill’s majestic, troubling essay “The Looting Decade: S&Ls, Big Banks, and Other Triumphs of Capitalism,” which was published as a special issue of The Nation back on November 19, 1990. I was assistant editor of The Nation then, and I had the privilege of working closely with Sherrill on that essay, along with a great group of intern/factcheckers (who amazingly enough included one Nicholas Clegg, who is now the leader of the British Liberal-Democratic Party!).
I’ve been asking my old friends at The Nation to get the full text of The Looting Decade up on their website, but they have their hands full at the moment. So, I’m posting the .pdf here for your downloading pleasure, and making an appeal: if you can help me get the text converted into .html and posted, please let me know asap.

In the meantime, as I have time I will post more choice excerpts. If you want to understand today’s Wall Street meltdown, you have to start at the beginning, in the 1980s, when the deregulators first started running amok.

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