Nobody, Not Even You, Really Cares about Mass Surveillance

One reason why German journalism is often so naive is that many journalists seem never to have been trained to skeptically evaluate underdog stories. The German presumed-underdog list includes: Indian farmers, Palestinians, American death row inmates, African sharecroppers, artists, writers, indigenous/minority activists, human-rights lawyers, small-time entrepreneurs, folk healers, slum dwellers, etc. When interviewing an underdog, German journalists never critically question anything that person says, nor do they check that his behavior actually conforms to his claimed principles.
Another case in point: German magazine Der Spiegel filed a criminal complaint (g) claiming it has been subject to illegal mass surveillance by the NSA and other agencies, and asking the federal prosecutor of Germany to investigate the allegations. The German federal prosecutor announced it will take no action, meaning the case won't proceed. They cited a 'lack of concrete evidence' to back up the editors' suspicions. The editors are angry, but this is not big news in Germany.
Despite what you may have read, the majority Europeans and Americans don't really care about mass surveillance. They claim to, but the empirical social scientists' mantra is:
Stated preferences are meaningless, revealed preferences are not.
A revealed preference for maximal privacy would involve people encrypting all their communications. But they don't. Why download some app and think up yet another password when you have no proof you're being overheard, and even if you were, you would never know, and would never meet the person who heard your call, and even if you did, that person would never mention it? If you are not willing to incur any inconvenience or cost to realize your stated preference (100% privacy), you reveal that you don't really care about it as much as you claim to.
Voting behavior shows this as well. Germans claim to be deeply concerned about NSA spying, but the majority vote for parties which either endorse and cooperate with the spying, remain silent about it, or who mouth lip-service about how much they disapprove without ever actually doing anything.
German internet start-ups have repeatedly tried to profit from a model which promises supposedly privacy-obsessed German users 100% privacy and no data sales to corporations, but they have all been crushed by Facebook, Twitter, and others.
I could provide more examples, but you get the point. And one reason there is no genuine revealed preference for more privacy is because there have been almost no abuses. Intelligence agencies promise us that they don't care about and don't listen to the vast bulk of the data; they have algorithms that look for interesting stuff and they focus only on that. They also promise they haven't shared the data with anyone outside the law-enforcement community.

And so far, they have kept their promises, as far as anyone knows. There haven't been any stories I can find of the NSA blackmailing some ordinary citizen with recordings of his calls to his mistress, or of NSA leaking sexy pictures to the tabloids. Of course, you can always argue this is all going on in secret, etc., but things like this generally come to light. And they're apparently not happening.
Meanwhile, no matter what European governments say, their law-enforcement agencies eagerly accept the help of the NSA:
While normal wiretaps and mobile phone surveillance can be done by small intelligence and police services such as those in Belgium, grabbing huge amounts of phone data and electronic signal intelligence — and rapidly processing it — was beyond their capabilities.

The Belgian authorities knew they needed help, and had made a decision, which has not been previously reported, to involve an ally with a vested interest in dismantling a dangerous ISIS network: They called on the US National Security Agency (NSA).

The two officials described the scene at the funeral, where a known suspect was filming on his cell phone: “The guy is filming on a smartphone — that tells us he’s going to send that file to someone, right?” the security service source said. “We had the NSA hit that phone very hard.”

The NSA refused to comment on the operation, but a spokesman for the Director of National Intelligence forwarded an article in which James Clapper said: “The NATO Alliance faces an increasingly complex, diffuse threat environment. Consequently, we are always striving toward more integrated intelligence to stay a step ahead.”

On March 15, just a few days after the funeral, Belgian police made a move based on the information they had garnered from the NSA. Alongside French investigators, they raided an apartment in the Brussels neighborhood of Forest. It ended in a firefight; four officers were wounded and one of the occupants was killed. But investigators learned from fingerprint and DNA evidence that Abdeslam and a co-conspirator, Mohamed Abrini, had been there, although the two men escaped over city rooftops during the shoot-out.

It was an embarrassing blow to the investigation, but the NSA was at least now helping the Belgians track the suspects via their phones. Having lost his safe house, Abdeslam was forced to move around and communicate with people outside his rapidly shrinking network. Abdeslam and Abrini called a friend searching for a new place to hide out.

That’s when, according to the military intelligence official, they got him: “Finally … we have this asshole.”

If you polled Europeans on whether it was right for the Belgian authorities to enlist the help of the supposedly infamous and hated NSA to catch a terrorist fugitive, 70-80% would say 'yes'. The number would probably be even higher among French and Belgian people.

Ordinary people have no problem with their communications being monitored, as long as (1) they don't know it's happening and no abuses come to light; and (2) the authorities can claim some legitimate purpose for doing so. You may find this apathy reassuring, you may find it appalling (this is not a normative argument about whether surveillance is good or bad), but it is the case.

If I were designing a remedial training course for journalists, one of the key lessons would be to always, always perform an independent check to see if your subject's revealed preferences line up with their stated preferences. Even if your subject is (what you consider to be an) underdog. Especially if he's an underdog.

The Clouseau-Like Incompetence of Belgian Justice

A few paragraphs from a recent New York Times article:

In 2012, two employees at the nuclear plant in Doel quit to join jihadists in Syria, and eventually transferred their allegiances to the Islamic State. Both men fought in a brigade that included dozens of Belgians, including Abdelhamid Abaaoud, considered the on-the-ground leader of the Paris attacks.

One of these men is believed to have died fighting in Syria, but the other was convicted of terror-related offenses in Belgium in 2014, and released from prison last year, according to Pieter Van Oestaeyen, a researcher who tracks Belgium’s jihadist networks. It is not known whether they communicated information about their former workplace to their Islamic State comrades.

At the same plant where these jihadists once worked, an individual who has yet to be identified walked into the reactor No. 4 in 2014, turned a valve and drained 65,000 liters of oil used to lubricate the turbines. The ensuing friction nearly overheated the machinery, forcing it to be shut down. The damage was so severe that the reactor was out of commission for five months.

This almost reads like a parody. "It is not known whether they communicated information about their former workplace to their Islamic State comrades." I'm sure the New York Times writers were chortling with dark humor as they penned this masterpiece of sardonic understatement.

And how does someone who once worked at a nuclear plant, ran off to join murderous jihadists, and then was convicted of "terror offenses" get released from prison in one year? Why, pray tell, was he even let back into the country?

One of the suicide bombers had a long criminal record including the following

His brother, Ibrahim el-Bakraoui, was the lookout for a robbery attempt in January 2010 at a Western Union branch in central Brussels. Surprised by a police patrol, Ibrahim opened fire with a Kalashnikov, hitting a police officer in the leg. As he and his accomplices tried to escape, they crashed their car and were forced to hide in a house in Laeken, the neighborhood where the Bakraoui brothers grew up, before surrendering to police.

Ibrahim was sentenced in August 2010 to nine years in prison for attempted murder and received parole in October 2014. As part of his parole, he was prohibited from leaving the country for longer than a month.

How does someone fire an AK-47 -- favorite weapon of terrorists -- at police during a bank robbery, hitting one cop, and serve only four years in prison?

Four years for attempting to murder a police officer.

Four years.

This is just the tip of the iceberg of mistakes, errors, and missed chances. Really, at some point you get the idea that the Belgian bureaucrats simply don't take the task of ensuring their citizens' safety seriously. A cynical observer might say that every democratic country gets the government it deserves, and if Belgians are incapable of electing a government which can protect them, perhaps they don't deserve protection.

But I'm not that guy. Not yet, at least. I love Belgium and have many friends who live there. But Belgians, instead of mourning and drawing chalk hearts and staging marches against fear, should be doing one thing: expressing their outrage at the idiocy and incompetence of the people who let this utterly preventable bombing happen. 

This isn't the time for peace and love, it's the time for righteous outrage and accountability. Belgians need to put aside their attitude of learned helplessness toward their dysfunctional state and demand brutal reforms. The many Belgian cops and intelligence officials who do care and are doing their jobs properly should start leaking to the press about all the other hundreds of slip-ups they know about. Belgian judges and corrections officers should be interrogated on national television as to why known jihadists and people who have committed terror offenses and tried to kill cops receive such insultingly brief prison sentences.

The people who let this latest attack happen through negligence should be publicly identified, stripped of their offices, and fined thousands of Euros, if not imprisoned. Since devotion to duty obviously isn't doing the job, fear of punishment will have to substitute.

The security of Western Europe depends on it.

Marcel Broodthaer's Poetry in English

Marcel Broodthaers was a poet before he was an artist, and two of his early collections have now been translated:

What comes across insistently in both collections is Broodthaers’s attraction to thresholds, to points of transition that equally signify ends and beginnings. He makes reference to voyages undertaken and to midday, daybreak, and other such points of passage in our experience of time. Midnight ends not in darkness but at dawn, as its concluding poem “The Morning” closes with a gift of visionary illumination: “A light filters through to me, a / light of the crests of grasses.” One of the more moving poems in the Siglio volume is simply called “Final Poem,” coming at the end of My Ogre Book, suggesting that the book’s particular journey has reached a kind of terminus:

The streets enter from all sides. Blue flies begin to circle. They cast their eyes down to the pavement. They cry out :

That it is morning

That it is war

That life is costly

That it doesn’t fail to run too fast

That a storm has come quick

That it isn’t surprising

And that one has said it well.

Telescoped here is a sense both of distilled experience and of pride: the poet has made it through, at a cost. But on the opposing page, as a kind of envoi, we’re told that the storm has subsided and “That which had been lightning / became the zigzag of my steps”—the finality of the book’s last poem has now been transmuted into new, animated movement, leading to an unknown beyond.

There’s a restlessness on display in Broodthaers’s poetry that reveals something integral about what he achieved through his career’s varied projects. The poems seem to come from a radically different place than the later visual and conceptual work, but what unites all of it is an emphasis on renewal, reinvention, moving onward in the wake of what one has brought to completion.

I Have Herpes, and So Does Justine Henin, and So Do You!

And now to one of the most amusing sources of cross-cultural misunderstanding there is. One fine day, a co-worker and I were chatting in my office in German and she casually said: "Damn, my herpes is back. What do you do about your herpes? Is there some special American treatment?"

I just barely avoided a genuine, honest-to-Allah spit-take. Before I could ask what this prim, attractive member of the German haute bourgeoisie was talking about, she added "Fortunately, most of the blisters are on the inside, so it's not that embarrassing." And then she showed me what she was talking about, pointing to the location of the outbreak. I recoiled in horror, crossing my arms in front of me, as she exposed her infected...

...lips. The ones on the mouth, that is.

As you probably know, there are a few different kinds of herpes, and almost everyone carries Herpes Simplex Type I, the virus that causes blisters on the lips now and then. English speakers, in our prudish way, call these outbreaks 'cold sores'. In the English-speaking world, the word 'herpes', standing alone, refers exclusively to genital herpes, the incurable sexually-transmitted disease.

Which brings us to the tale of how Belgian tennis champion Justine Henin unwittingly became a poster girl for venereal disease. In a 2007 interview, she stated: 

Q. Weren’t you afraid that the emotional side of things would have too much influence on that match?

JUSTINE HENIN: No, I didn’t panic. I knew I was not starting that match well. I can tell you, I had a horrible night. My herpes came out again, and I said to my doctor, “Well, I see everything is fine, it’s great.”

So, really, I was a bit anxious. But also, I really wanted to do well. And very early in the match, the match turned over. And then I knew I was going to be able to keep it up until the end.

I rather doubt that Justine Henin, at the height of her career, casually confessed to millions of strangers at the French Open post-game press conference that she has genital herpes. That would be an extremely un-European thing to do.

But that is exactly how American fans interpreted it. One tennis forum entry reads: OMG!!!! Justine has herpes, while other articles praised her for her bravery and called her a 'champion' for herpes sufferers worldwide:

With six Grand Slam titles to her credit, Henin is no stranger to plaudits. But even more need to be extended to her for speaking openly about something that is the secret of so many.

With that one turn of a phrase, millions and millions of herpes sufferers now know that they are by no means alone. And with her remark, the term “Champion” fits her even to those who have no interest in professional tennis.

Another American sports outlet noted: "Henin either doesn’t mind talking publicly about her herpes, or herpes = humor in Germany." And another titled a post, "That's Right, Justine Henin has Herpes" and speculated whether her "admission" might have had something to do with her then-recent divorce.

And the legend lives on! Andrew Sullivan recently wrote something about the shame and stigma of herpes, and received the following note from a reader:

Update from a reader: As your friend Dan Savage would attest, herpes is shameful only to Americans. Justine Henin, when she was the #1 tennis player on the world, was asked why she lost a match. She very matter of factly said she had a herpes outbreak. Americans attend support groups for herpes, can you imagine an American treating herpes like the flu, something you have, not something to be ashamed of?

I've sent in a correction by email to Sullivan, but I thought a blog entry was also in order.

Luc Tuymans in Brussels

Luc Tuymans is a Belgian artist, born in 1958. He still paints, and paints figuratively. That is, there's usually some sort of a recognizable object or surface in his paintings, and -- as a bonus -- the titles often indicate what it is ("Droplets", "Flag"). Tuyman's colors are washed-out and the edges blurred; the paintings look as if they've been left in the sun, or run several times through an antiquated copier. The curated text suggests their resemblance to Polaroid pictures caught in various stages of development. Tuymans does, in fact, often work from photographs. Artificial light plays a role as well: an interior illuminated by blacklight, a tree trunk caught in the harsh glare of a security spotlight, or a diorama throwing shadows against a wall. Tuyman's bleached, suggestive paintings work best as commentaries on the act of representation, without giving in to the self-referential emptiness of 'postmodern' works.


The problem starts when Tuymans gets political. There are paintings here of buildings in Brazzaville in the Congo, of Patrice Lumumba, of King Baudouin I, of the exterior of a concentration camp, of National Socialist functionaries, an American white supremacist, and of Condoleeza Rice. They are apparently intended as oblique political statements on European history, on Belgium's colonial past, or on post-9/11 America. But they're nothing more than Tuymans-esque paintings. Here, for instance, is Tuyamns' painting of a photograph of Patrice Lumumba:




The image is supposed to be freighted with political meaning,, exactly? There's no value added here, nor is there any mystery. Tuymans' genius is not fundamentally narrative, his best paintings don't try to structure reality or channel meaning. Applying a technique this grounded in ambiguity and visual paradox to subjects as fraught as the Holocaust or Belgian colonialism overfreights the technique badly, and invites charges of superficiality.


The real revelation of the show is in Tuymans' video works from the early 1980s, a period in which Tuymans lost the inspiration to paint and turned to video. He shot hundreds of hours of footage of everything from the exterior of cathedrals to security drills to television programs to the glasses and ashtrays on top of café tables to dolls propped up against various backgrounds and harshly lit from the front. Most of the takes are grainy, willfully cropped and framed, and sometimes out of focus. The overall effect is nothing short of mesmerizing: the blurring and cropping of the images invests the most mundane of subjects with some sort of droll, mysterious import. The irony is that the brief interludes of crisply-shot "narrative" are the most surrealistic. At one point, for example, a cutout of a man holding what appears to be a drumstick moves purposefully across the screen and hesitates before a panel of objects that appear to be crudely-drawn, oversized eyes, hesitating before several of them, perhaps trying to decide whether to hit them.


Overall, an intriguing show that's worth a visit. Oddly enough, given that Tuymans is Belgian, the show was exhibited four times in the U.S. and the stop in Brussels is its last. If you go, I would advise against reading the (well-written and well-translated) information placards that explain the "context" of the political paintings.