What is the NSA even doing for us? Rudimentary speculations on ‘security’.

So, it’s been a little over a year now since Edward Snowden leaked the NSA’s massive surveillance over many different forms of internet data. In that year, a whole disillusioning amount of nothing has happened in terms of reform, revolution, or anything to change the ubiquitous invasion of privacy. Many have written on the question of privacy rights in this year in a wide spectrum of political perspectives. Every possible allusion to Orwell’s 1984 has been made, slating the NSA as the ever-watching Big Brother overseeing all of us. Putting it briefly, I agree that the mass media surveillance is invasive and interferes with the very rights and liberties supposedly otherwise granted by the American Constitution, but I do also have some conflicting feelings about the role of privacy. However, I do not want to get mired into the discussion of privacy at this point.

Instead in this post, I want to focus instead on the question of security. As the National Security Agency is culling our data and metadata for its nominal purposes of security, I want to question the effectiveness of such measures. Putting aside the arguments of our rights, I want to ask what sort of help the NSA has even managed from hoarding data. My initial claim here is that the NSA has failed its own purposes here. If the purpose of culling citizen data is to protect the lives of citizens at large, then why have there been so many seemingly-preventable instances of domestic mass violence and terrorism in recent years? This morning’s events in Oregon mark the 74th school shooting since Sandy Hook. This includes the recent UCSB shooting rampage by Elliot Rodger, who had an extensive online record that the media was able to pour through within hours of his attack. We instantly knew his motives and the full extent of his misogyny through his infamous youtube manifesto and his MRA forum discussions. In fact, the standard fare now regarding any type of mass shooting is for the media to immediately share the killers’ online profiles with the public. The mainstream media often parades social media posts by killers that indicate that this violence was a long time coming. Either there’s clear signs of alienation, hatred, violent tendencies, an arsenal, or some other retrospectively-identifiable sign of intended harm. Perhaps it is easier for us to see the crystallization of violent tendencies with the hindsight bias of already knowing the extent of damage that a person has done. However I feel that with the ability to collect vast quantities of one’s online information, the rate of mass shootings in America should not be rising.

Yet, perhaps mass shootings enacted by individuals are too small of an operation for the NSA to feel that their resources are being put to good use. Perhaps instead they are focused on larger-scale organized attacks. But what about the Boston Marathon Bombings? It has been admitted that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was on an FBI terror watchlist up to 18 months before the bombing, and yet the NSA’s collection of online data did nothing to prevent the catastrophic event. Instead, law enforcement had to frantically piece together who the brothers were, causing the chase, the death of a police officer and suspect, and the lockdown of Watertown in order to catch the remaining bomber. The Marathon Bombing was a security failure in a supposed age of the panopticon. Despite being watched, the Tsarnaevs were able to act.

While several have touted out the foolish claims of a ‘false flag’ attack in many of these cases where it would otherwise seem preventable, I think the true horror of our panoptic government is this: in attempting to see everything, the NSA and other government agencies have lost their ability to focus on true threats. They can see the forest, but are amiss at making out individual trees. At this point in information technology, an individual leaves behind a massive trail of information, even if reduced solely to locational metadata. Multiply this immense amount of information by the population of the US, the number of cell phones/computers out there, etc, and one ends up with a massive amount of information that is unmotivated and unorganized. The NSA has glutted itself on our data, but I have yet to see it do anything productive with it. While recent films such as Captain America: The Winter Soldier have speculated that there will come a day when computers can determine an algorithm based on online data to determine who is a threat to the state, we do not have such a technology, nor do I feel convinced that such a technology is possible. Instead, the NSA sees all, but has no ability to process anything without guiding questions. Domestic evils, terrorism and shootings, persist despite the extensive invasions of privacy made in the name of security. Unlike Orwell’s Big Brother, we are not shown enemies of the state who are foiled by these intelligence measures. Unless there is a whole shadow world of clandestine threats and even-more clandestine preventions and salvations, there has been no public showcase of PRISM’s effectiveness for national security. We know their abilities, but not their focus in ‘security’.

While conspiracy theorists fear that the government is in control of our waking life through their panopticon, I fear instead that the government has built a panopticon without knowing what to do with it. Just because the government has this technological ability does not mean that it is competent in using it against or for its people.


Five Years in Brooklyn

This month marked the five-year anniversary of Iron Frau and me living in Brooklyn together. A summer sublet in Prospect-Lefferts Garden, a horrid 1-month roomshare in Fort Greene with a pregnant woman, two years of semi-dangerous living in a Bed-Stuy duplex, and then nearly three years back in Lefferts Garden in a lightless railroad apartment. 

There is a lot that I like about Brooklyn. Still like about Brooklyn, despite moving on to brighter ventures in Pennsylvania. Brooklyn would be the perfect city for us if it weren’t Manhattan-adjacent. However, because of New York City’s cult status, Brooklyn is unaffordable: even in its uncool neighborhoods.  

This upcoming move is one of many mixed emotions, clearly. There have been good times and bad, but all of it has been living beyond our means and making due with disappointments. We have survived here, but after surviving we want to start living.

#askCranky, a new experiment

Tonight I went out with Cheery and we discussed (among many things) how I’ve been in a slump regarding writing for this blog. 

We jokingly came up with a new direction: turn this into an irreverent advice column. 

Any and all people looking for rigorously thought-out yet uncouth ethical advice for any crises or dilemmas, please send along to crankyethicist@gmail.com


returning to writing // a few ethical notes on questions of intentions, sacrifice

I’ve had a rough few weeks, and haven’t felt too comfortable expressing myself through my usual channels. Among other pressing issues, through an extremely invasive bout of eavesdropping, a member of my family found the cranky twitter account and took offense to things that I’ve said. This being the very same family member who has successfully stifled my voice and creative work in the past and helped shape me into the socially-anxious man I am today. So naturally, I’ve been very hesitant to write/tweet in the past weeks, or… I’ve been more deliberate in what I say. 

The point of the matter is, I am returning to writing. My lack of posts from the last couple weeks has not been from lack of ideas or inspiration, but a deep pit of depression and second-guessing myself. Iron Frau has pushed me to get back to it, so I will. I’m returning to writing unapologetically. 

*pulled from a productive day of sketching out a few notes, feedback encouraged*

Ethics can neither be reduced to the question of intentions nor consequences – or rather – intentions must be attentive to the consequences of actions in order to to see that they match the intended consequences of the actor. It doesn’t mean enough that a person meant the best of intentions despite having another effect in the world. One’s actions must be adaptive to fit any trouble between intentions and consequences. Best intentions too often go awry and harm others.

In the case of unfortunate consequences towards others that cannot be undone or rectified, a dialogue must happen between the actor and the wronged. While this may not be enough for the wronged parties, it is necessary that the actor looks directly into the harm caused despite even the best intentions. Only in looking at the scope of harm can one truly move on and develop a better ethics going forward. The lesson learned, even if it does not rectify the original situation of harm towards another, will ensure that the harm is not repeated again. 

However, the ethical actor’s investigation of harm that was caused cannot be a project of guilt. Guilt as it stands only further entrenches naive intentions. In guilt, one is further embroiled in a sense of paradoxical righteousness. – “I am doing this good deed for you for the harm I have caused/the sins of my predecessors” – “I apologize and carry good acts forward to make up for who I was in the past” – These are not purely moral propositions, but rather are transactions in order to clear a debt. These are payments off of a loan and while the consequences may match those of the right thing to do, this mentality begets a false humility and false piety. These are not good intentions, but the intentions of relieving oneself before the other.

Sacrifice and Love, Debt – Measuring action based upon that which one has sacrificed is a corrupt measurement system of one’s moral worth. Yes, one sacrifices much in love – but love cannot be measured in terms of sacrifice. One does not have the right in saying that one’s beloved is ungrateful for all that one has sacrificed ‘in love’. This is a bad faith account of love. The stakes to which one gives for love should be irrelevant to the measurement of love. One’s attempts to quantify that which has been given makes the sacrifice not for the sake of love, but for the sake of a transaction. – ” I am owed gratitude for what I have given you. I cannot believe that you are so ungrateful for all that I have sacrificed to you through the years.” – This is not the statement of real love/heartbreak, but of someone who feels cheated out of an investment.

This sort of ideal of reciprocal sacrifice/transaction seems to come to western society through Christianity, especially through the often-cited John 3:16. – How do we know that God loves us? – Because he sacrificed his only son to death and hellfire for us. The sacrifice of Christ is the ultimate form of love for western culture, yes, but the way in which we interpret it leads to a cruel limitation of love as a transaction/debt. The emphasis on John 3:16 in our culture (particularly American culture) gives our understanding of love a dark feeling of debt. It is touted as a reason to submit all to the Christian God. God gave us his only son; this gift must be recognized. That is the demand of John 3:16. This is a gift with conditions, we must be thankful for the time and sacrifice given within it. Whether asked for or not, the gift is given and demands gratitude. 

But this is perverse. – Such an emphasis on God’s sacrifice as the worth of his love to human being carries forward to offspring owing their parents indefinitely. The patronizing becomes the ultimate lover who deserves esteem and control over the patronized. Whether asked for it or not, the sacrifice itself outweighs its consequences or intentions. This is the perversity as it becomes the model of love as an economic transaction.

A sacrifice/gift is unasked for and by that fact it should have no pressing control over its recipient. But, the social stigma is that it does irrevocably have a purchase over the autonomy of the recipient.

If one measures life by only what one has sacrificed and what one has gained by these sacrifices, then this person is living resentfully and bitterly, unsure of actual love or human connection beyond the question of debt. The true, brutal fact is that no one can ever leverage what they “deserve”. -Or- more importantly no one deserves their lot in life. Many things are lucky privileges or unlucky downfalls that are outside of control. There is no earning anything in life, only moral luck. But of course – with all sacrifice one feels that one ought to be entitled to something better than that which was given up. This is petty and plays into the myth of ‘sustainable growth’.

Much of this boils down to the question of debt. What do we owe for our existence and genesis? What are we owed in our actions? These are the problems of ethics. The claim that there should be an incentive for ethical behavior is missing the point of ethics. One should not expect a direct incentive for doing the right thing, for that twists the intentions into vain and petty intentions. But the problem is that most of humanity needs incentives – they need this brutal petty mentality of being owed for their efforts – that inheritances are somehow earned through waiting and arriving at the right time.

One’s existential circumstances are undeserved. What one does with one’s circumstances is what matters. One’s interactions with others is what matters. One must be attentive to the realm of others to be ethical – not attuned to the possible incentives and rewards for doing well. 

Why do people assume that I am a woman? – An interesting phenomena of being Pseudonymous

Last night, a friend and I went to see Professor Myisha Cherry (@myishacherry) give a brilliant talk entitled “Acting ‘Mean’: Queering Hegemonic Masculinity through a Cultivation of Human Virtues” for the Brooklyn Public Library’s Brooklyn Public Philosophers series. Professor Cherry and I have followed each other on twitter for years now without ever meeting and have had an extensive history of discussing things back and forth through @-replies. I was excited to finally meet her in person and hear her work more directly and told her ahead of time that I would be there.

The room in the library where these talks are held, I found that there was no cell reception. After my friend and I found our seats, I quite shamefully stepped out to send a couple tweets.

In this time, Professor Cherry spotted and introduced herself to my friend, a woman, apparently thinking that she was me. After the talk, My friend and I came up to her to congratulate her and so that I could introduce myself. She and Professor Cherry picked up a conversation for a while while I stood off to the side, awkwardly. My friend then introduced me and I told Professor Cherry that I was Cranky.

Professor Cherry then took a step back in shock. Doubling back, she said “I always thought that you were a woman.” She did not know why she had always thought that, but had nevertheless. Given that her talk itself was about masculinity and its cultural perceptions, this made for a very interesting discussion that I want to now open up to a larger audience.

She’s not alone in this assumption. Over the years that I have maintained a psuedonymous account, first as @crankystudent and now as @crankyethicist, I have had several people who readily/openly assumed that I am a woman.

This has come from a handful of interactions. I have been called ‘sister’ by several feminists, or in several cases as well, I’ve introduced myself to people and have had a weird reaction from them in which they have disclosed that they also thought I was a woman. A handful have apologized for the misattribution, which assumes that I am offended by people thinking that I am a woman. I am not. Given the traditional views of masculinity, I am far from offended that people do not readily assume that I am male. I’m thankfully privileged enough to be comfortable with who I am despite cultural hegemonic demands on what can pass for masculine. I actively try to not be hostile, domineering in conversations, cruel, or patronizing, all of which seem to be “masculine” traits.

The belief that I am a woman through the lens of my pseudonymous twitter account is interesting. This is by no means a universal belief, a handful have guessed correctly that I am male, but those who have thought that I am a woman seem deeply-entrenched in that assumption. That is, deeply-entrenched enough to comment on it when I reveal myself as a male.

But what is it that makes people assume that I am a woman? What is it about the Cranky persona that brings up this confusion again and again? What does this say about masculinity?

I have a handful of theories, but I would love to hear from others as well.

In the beginning of actively using the @crankystudent handle, I developed it as a gender-neutral parody account of being a graduate student in philosophy. My initial thought behind this was that I didn’t want to exclude anyone outright. There are enough white males in philosophy. I did my best to cover my tracks and avoided gendered language or much in the way of autobiographical information. Over time, I lost interest in being a parody account and instead focused on developing my own voice as a thinker. My alter-ego absorbed me, as many do. I became a parody of myself alone. I remain pseudonymous, but have often introduced myself as myself either in person or online to those who I have had some extended interaction with and have deemed I can trust.

As time and my degree progressed, I started to fill in some personal information here and there, including that I live in New York City and that I am married. For a long time, I referred to the Iron Frau as simply ‘significant other’ which I then dropped to ‘spouse’ to shave off some characters for tweets. The intentional use of vaguely-nongendered language to describe my wife seems to be part of the source of some confusion/obfuscation, on top of my previous holding out on my own cismale-gendered existence.

When the Iron Frau then created her own pseudonymous twitter account to complement my own, I dropped any worries of gender ambiguity. However, it seems that those who followed me during my parody days still readily assume that I am female.

My hypothesis:

I do not actively tweet while identifying myself as a male, nor do I try to stoop myself into hypermasculine fights online. I try to stay out of pissing matches as much as I can. I am not ashamed of my nonconformity with culturally-heteronormative ‘masculine’ traits. I often tweet on feminist issues and retweet many women who write on feminist issues. I do not actively posture masculinity because I have nothing to prove to anyone on that front online.

Additionally, I tweet extensively on emotions and feelings. I often talk about struggling with depression and an anxiety disorder. The cultural ideal of masculinity is that males must suppress their feelings. I instead write extensively on the importance of emotions as motivating factors. This undercuts a position of masculinity.

It would appear, then, that the absence of masculine-posturing is culturally-perceived as feminine. Masculinity is such an insecure position of hegemonic domination that any refrain from proving one’s ‘manhood’ in a pseudonymous position suggests some form of negation of that manhood. I didn’t maintain gender-neutrality in being anonymous; people still use a placeholder-pronoun and form an idea of who I am from my tweets. My online persona fills out a person in the minds of others. There is something about the persona that drives people away from thinking that I am a male. It seems that my saying nothing about my gender has made it hard to believe that Cranky could be male.

The western societal view of masculinity is that it must constantly prove its worth as being masculine through stoic yet aggressive posturing. If one does not posture/disclose masculinity, one is perceived as feminine. My reluctance to engage in gender performativity leads to confusion over my identity from others.

This is at least my theory, and I do want to hear from others on this.

Philosophy’s moral panic?

Feminist Philosophers

It’s been suggested, recently, that a ‘lynch mob culture’ has developed in professional philosophy, and especially in on-line discussions among philosophers. The thought, I suppose, is that philosophers are in such a moral panic about climate issues within the discipline that they are willing to condemn without trial anyone who doesn’t toe the party line.

It’s worth reminding ourselves what lynch mobs really were. Groups of white people became so afraid of encroachments against white supremacy – and so terrified of the black male bodies they had formerly been able to own – that they would ‘take matters into their own hands’ and brutalize black men. Sometimes in lieu of due process. Sometimes just to set an example. Lynch mobs were ways in which those with power (white people) reinforced the status quo (white supremacy). To call some opprobrium and ruffled feathers on blogs and social media a ‘lynch mob…

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The Failed Interlocutor: those who will never get it

The title of this post is a bit ambiguous, which I suppose is appropriate. I tried to churn this out about a week ago but I cut my hand and had trouble typing. Here it is now.

Dialogue is great. It’s the best way to learn sometimes. One of the best things I’ve done for understanding more and becoming a better thinker and listener was delving into twitter. There’s something so beneficial to the character limitations that allow for easier communication and getting to one’s point quicker.

However, many times dialogue is mired by a person’s refusal to learn (cit ref, just about all of Plato). This persists disgustingly. There are several thematic archetypal examples of people who are terrible at having an open discussion, but I’m going to focus primarily on one trend I’ve recently noticed when it comes to online and in person discussions. This is the person who just doesn’t get it. I’m going to discuss not a particular person, but a series of people who I or friends of mine have dealt with recently.

The archetype, the failed interlocutor:

This failed interlocutor wants to understand. This person often times will try to get private attention from someone asking “I don’t understand what you mean by X, educate me” (this question itself is heavily problematic and for another time).

The failed interlocutor is trying. In fact, it hurts this person that there is a communications break down. However, this person additionally is the very cause of the communication breakdown due to holding on to a few harmful “principles”(willful ignorance). These principles are hard-fought or deeply entrenched within the ideological framework of this person’s life. Often, it seems that these principles are the cause of a very painful cognitive dissonance within the person’s worldview. Since they are so deeply entrenched these principles are often what is holding them back from being able to learn anything new from harmful experiences. For example, I’ve known countless women (including many within my family) who have been abjectly screwed over by misogynist cases of abuse, yet nevertheless conform and pressure others into the very same heteronormative patriarchal structures that have ruined them.

This is perhaps the worst part of those who cannot understand from dialogue; they are tirelessly hurt by the same thing that a mental paradigm shift from discussion would solve. The cognitive dissonance is so great, that often times they are unable to recognize a new position as anything but a cognitive dissonance itself. Paradoxes compound upon paradoxes. Despite trying, despite wanting to understand the alternate position, the failed interlocutor only gets confused and frustrated and the conversation ends with the failed interlocutor feeling guilty or inadequate and the other feels just as frustrated and pitying.

This is cyclical. The failed interlocutor continues in trying to understand. The other takes pity on the failed interlocutor and is led straight back to frustration and pity.

For the other person, the failed interlocutor would be able to understand them if only the failed interlocutor relaxed some blinding principles for a moment and understood more openly and empathetically. But the failed interlocutor is stuck in the mud.

The solution in dealing with the failed interlocutor:

Nothing. There is no solution or remedy. That is, there is nothing that another person can do for the failed interlocutor; the only solution is from the failed interlocutor.

The other cannot win over the failed interlocutor through pity or through violence or through better diagrams. The failed interlocutor must change one’s approach in order to understand.

This nonsolution is hard but one can only stay firm, otherwise gets emotionally mired in the failures of the failed interlocutor as one’s own.