Saturday, March 17, 2018


The Cambridge Analytica Files

The first time I met Christopher Wylie, he didn’t yet have pink hair. That comes later. As does his mission to rewind time. To put the genie back in the bottle.

By the time I met him in person, I’d already been talking to him on a daily basis for hours at a time. On the phone, he was clever, funny, bitchy, profound, intellectually ravenous, compelling. A master storyteller. A politicker. A data science nerd.

Two months later, when he arrived in London from Canada, he was all those things in the flesh. And yet the flesh was impossibly young. He was 27 then (he’s 28 now), a fact that has always seemed glaringly at odds with what he has done. He may have played a pivotal role in the momentous political upheavals of 2016. At the very least, he played a consequential role. At 24, he came up with an idea that led to the foundation of a company called Cambridge Analytica, a data analytics firm that went on to claim a major role in the Leave campaign for Britain’s EU membership referendum, and later became a key figure in digital operations during Donald Trump’s election campaign.

Or, as Wylie describes it, he was the gay Canadian vegan who somehow ended up creating “Steve Bannon’s psychological warfare mindfuck tool”.

In 2014, Steve Bannon – then executive chairman of the “alt-right” news network Breitbart – was Wylie’s boss. And Robert Mercer, the secretive US hedge-fund billionaire and Republican donor, was Cambridge Analytica’s investor. And the idea they bought into was to bring big data and social media to an established military methodology – “information operations” – then turn it on the US electorate.

It was Wylie who came up with that idea and oversaw its realisation. And it was Wylie who, last spring, became my source. In May 2017, I wrote an article headlined “The great British Brexit robbery”, which set out a skein of threads that linked Brexit to Trump to Russia. Wylie was one of a handful of individuals who provided the evidence behind it. I found him, via another Cambridge Analytica ex-employee, lying low in Canada: guilty, brooding, indignant, confused. “I haven’t talked about this to anyone,” he said at the time. And then he couldn’t stop talking.

By that time, Steve Bannon had become Trump’s chief strategist. Cambridge Analytica’s parent company, SCL, had won contracts with the US State Department and was pitching to the Pentagon, and Wylie was genuinely freaked out. “It’s insane,” he told me one night. “The company has created psychological profiles of 230 million Americans. And now they want to work with the Pentagon? It’s like Nixon on steroids.”

He ended up showing me a tranche of documents that laid out the secret workings behind Cambridge Analytica. And in the months following publication of my article in May, it was revealed that the company had “reached out” to WikiLeaks to help distribute Hillary Clinton’s stolen emails in 2016. And then we watched as it became a subject of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible Russian collusion in the US election.

The Observer also received the first of three letters from Cambridge Analytica threatening to sue Guardian News and Media for defamation. We are still only just starting to understand the maelstrom of forces that came together to create the conditions for what Mueller confirmed last month was “information warfare”. But Wylie offers a unique, worm’s-eye view of the events of 2016. Of how Facebook was hijacked, repurposed to become a theatre of war: how it became a launchpad for what seems to be an extraordinary attack on the US’s democratic process.

Wylie oversaw what may have been the first critical breach. Aged 24, while studying for a PhD in fashion trend forecasting, he came up with a plan to harvest the Facebook profiles of millions of people in the US, and to use their private and personal information to create sophisticated psychological and political profiles. And then target them with political ads designed to work on their particular psychological makeup.

“We ‘broke’ Facebook,” he says.

And he did it on behalf of his new boss, Steve Bannon.

“Is it fair to say you ‘hacked’ Facebook?” I ask him one night.

He hesitates. “I’ll point out that I assumed it was entirely legal and above board.”

Last month, Facebook’s UK director of policy, Simon Milner, told British MPs on a select committee inquiry into fake news, chaired by Conservative MP Damian Collins, that Cambridge Analytica did not have Facebook data. The official Hansard extract reads:

Christian Matheson (MP for Chester): “Have you ever passed any user information over to Cambridge Analytica or any of its associated companies?”

Simon Milner: “No.”

Matheson: “But they do hold a large chunk of Facebook’s user data, don’t they?”

Milner: “No. They may have lots of data, but it will not be Facebook user data. It may be data about people who are on Facebook that they have gathered themselves, but it is not data that we have provided.”

Two weeks later, on 27 February, as part of the same parliamentary inquiry, Rebecca Pow, MP for Taunton Deane, asked Cambridge Analytica’s CEO, Alexander Nix: “Does any of the data come from Facebook?” Nix replied: “We do not work with Facebook data and we do not have Facebook data.”

And through it all, Wylie and I, plus a handful of editors and a small, international group of academics and researchers, have known that – at least in 2014 – that certainly wasn’t the case, because Wylie has the paper trail. In our first phone call, he told me he had the receipts, invoices, emails, legal letters – records that showed how, between June and August 2014, the profiles of more than 50 million Facebook users had been harvested. Most damning of all, he had a letter from Facebook’s own lawyers admitting that Cambridge Analytica had acquired the data illegitimately.

Going public involves an enormous amount of risk. Wylie is breaking a non-disclosure agreement and risks being sued. He is breaking the confidence of Steve Bannon and Robert Mercer.

It’s taken a rollercoaster of a year to help get Wylie to a place where it’s possible for him to finally come forward. A year in which Cambridge Analytica has been the subject of investigations on both sides of the Atlantic – Robert Mueller’s in the US, and separate inquiries by the Electoral Commission and the Information Commissioner’s Office in the UK, both triggered in February 2017, after the Observer’s first article in this investigation.

It has been a year, too, in which Wylie has been trying his best to rewind – to undo events that he set in motion. Earlier this month, he submitted a dossier of evidence to the Information Commissioner’s Office and the National Crime Agency’s cybercrime unit. He is now in a position to go on the record: the data nerd who came in from the cold. (...)

It was Bannon’s interest in culture as war that ignited Wylie’s intellectual concept. But it was Robert Mercer’s millions that created a firestorm. Kogan was able to throw money at the hard problem of acquiring personal data: he advertised for people who were willing to be paid to take a personality quiz on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk and Qualtrics. At the end of which Kogan’s app, called thisismydigitallife, gave him permission to access their Facebook profiles. And not just theirs, but their friends’ too. On average, each “seeder” – the people who had taken the personality test, around 320,000 in total – unwittingly gave access to at least 160 other people’s profiles, none of whom would have known or had reason to suspect.

What the email correspondence between Cambridge Analytica employees and Kogan shows is that Kogan had collected millions of profiles in a matter of weeks. But neither Wylie nor anyone else at Cambridge Analytica had checked that it was legal. It certainly wasn’t authorised. Kogan did have permission to pull Facebook data, but for academic purposes only. What’s more, under British data protection laws, it’s illegal for personal data to be sold to a third party without consent.

“Facebook could see it was happening,” says Wylie. “Their security protocols were triggered because Kogan’s apps were pulling this enormous amount of data, but apparently Kogan told them it was for academic use. So they were like, ‘Fine’.” (...)

Russia, Facebook, Trump, Mercer, Bannon, Brexit. Every one of these threads runs through Cambridge Analytica. Even in the past few weeks, it seems as if the understanding of Facebook’s role has broadened and deepened. The Mueller indictments were part of that, but Paul-Olivier Dehaye – a data expert and academic based in Switzerland, who published some of the first research into Cambridge Analytica’s processes – says it’s become increasingly apparent that Facebook is “abusive by design”. If there is evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, it will be in the platform’s data flows, he says. And Wylie’s revelations only move it on again.

“Facebook has denied and denied and denied this,” Dehaye says when told of the Observer’s new evidence. “It has misled MPs and congressional investigators and it’s failed in its duties to respect the law. It has a legal obligation to inform regulators and individuals about this data breach, and it hasn’t. It’s failed time and time again to be open and transparent.”

Facebook denies that the data transfer was a breach. In addition, a spokesperson said: “Protecting people’s information is at the heart of everything we do, and we require the same from people who operate apps on Facebook. If these reports are true, it’s a serious abuse of our rules. Both Aleksandr Kogan as well as the SCL Group and Cambridge Analytica certified to us that they destroyed the data in question.”

Millions of people’s personal information was stolen and used to target them in ways they wouldn’t have seen, and couldn’t have known about, by a mercenary outfit, Cambridge Analytica, who, Wylie says, “would work for anyone”. Who would pitch to Russian oil companies. Would they subvert elections abroad on behalf of foreign governments?

It occurs to me to ask Wylie this one night.


Nato or non-Nato?

“Either. I mean they’re mercenaries. They’ll work for pretty much anyone who pays.”

It’s an incredible revelation. It also encapsulates all of the problems of outsourcing – at a global scale, with added cyberweapons. And in the middle of it all are the public – our intimate family connections, our “likes”, our crumbs of personal data, all sucked into a swirling black hole that’s expanding and growing and is now owned by a politically motivated billionaire.

by Carole Cadwalladr, The Guardian | Read more:
Image: uncredited
[ed. See also: How Facebook’s destructive ethos imperils democracy.]

Bill Watterson, Calvin and Hobbes

Outside Voices

The West Village is a ridiculous place to call home. People with unseemly bank accounts spend thousands of dollars freshening the flowerpots on their stoops. Rosebushes, hydrangeas, pansies, and zinnias—all casually exposed to marauding vagrants. Except there are no vagrants, not even marauding ones. It’s a generationally diverse area, but otherwise it’s as removed from reality as a movie set. Celebrities’ kids skip along the pavement, backpacks twice their size bobbing up and down. One of the houses visible from my apartment is owned by an elderly couple. The woman likes to tell guests how Hilary Swank used to climb a fence and exit through their house in order to avoid the paparazzi.

Down the block and around the clock, people take photos of the façade of Carrie Bradshaw’s apartment in “Sex and the City.” Submitting to their fate, the real owners have installed a donation box on behalf of a local animal shelter, to collect a contribution for every photo taken. These tourists’ heads would explode like a bomb full of nicotine patches if they knew that Sarah Jessica Parker herself lives around the corner. I can’t help but wonder what she feels when she walks past Carrie’s building. It must be like driving past your high school—at once everything and nothing.

I only cared about the celebrities the way all New Yorkers care about celebrities: I ignored them or, if they were especially famous, congratulated myself for ignoring them. The real draw of the neighborhood was the quiet. And not just any kind of quiet. Here, in the heart of Manhattan, was a pod of that suburban silence that had eluded me as a child. You could hear a pin drop in my bedroom—on the bed. Early mornings, I listened to the heckling of seagulls that had strayed inland from the Hudson River. On warm evenings, a cellist sat on the street corner with his case open. When it rained, water pelted the leaves outside my enchanted tree house.

And then one day the leaves dropped and Jared came out. Jared lived in the town house directly behind my apartment. He must have been on summer vacation or touring Europe by colonial rickshaw when I moved in. Jared was between fifteen and eighteen years old. It was impossible to tell. I could never get a good read on his height, as his resting state was slouched in a lawn chair, watching viral videos on his phone at full volume. And I never heard him say stuff like “Looks like I can be legally tried as an adult now” despite being someone for whom the distinction was clearly relevant.

How do I begin to explain my relationship with this creature? Is it a relationship if you’ve never met? Certainly this is an acceptable dynamic online, but played out in real life it’s called stalking. All five of the windows in my apartment faced Jared’s house. And, for as many years, I heard every word this kid said. I would like to tell you that his woes were typical of his age bracket: unrequited crushes, parental oppression, social strife. But Jared had no woes. Plato advised us to be kind, everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle, but I am here to tell you that I have witnessed Plato’s exception. Jared’s battles centered around selecting the right surfboard (for show or for use at a beach house, both equally abhorrent) and the occasional obligation to come inside and set the table. And that he didn’t have to do, so long as he ignored the sound of his own name. Jewish guilt is no match for teen-age entitlement.

I rarely saw the father, who was probably off somewhere devaluing my 401(k). The little sister was shy and kept to herself. The mother was an upscale fashion photographer. She had a Susan Sontag streak in her hair and doled out advice like “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.” Occasionally, she would pace in the back yard, phone in hand, all puffed up about some dead-eyed model. But for the most part the yard was Jared’s domain—a place to smoke cigarettes, molest a guitar, and throw raging parties.

Lest you think I don’t know what I signed up for by living on the most densely populated slip of land in America, rest assured that I do. There are sounds one learns to accept, even to be lulled by on occasion. Jackhammers that emerge seasonally and peck at the concrete like oversized woodpeckers. Screaming matches that make you grateful you’re not one of the two people in that relationship. I have lived over d.j.s, newborn babies, sheet-metal sculptors, and Ping-Pong patios. In Chelsea, I lived above a piano player who practiced scales. When I could stand it no longer, I sheepishly knocked on his door. He apologized and vowed never to practice scales in the house again. Which is how I wound up listening to “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy” every day for a year.

But Jared’s noise was different. It did not disrupt me, because disruption implies separation of activity, the intervening of outside elements. Rather, Jared’s world became my world. I was paying rent like a single person but living with an entire family in what amounted to an inaccessible wing of my apartment. Every afternoon, Jared and his friends returned home from whatever educational womb they attended and clunked down the back-yard steps, blaring music and demonstrating familiarity with one another’s last names. Jared was quick to laugh, which would have been his best quality were it not for the laugh’s resemblance to a hyena being choked to death by bubble wrap. His cackle was like one of those purposefully ugly sculptures, the kind of art that considers your irritation an accomplishment. Really, I can’t say enough bad things about it.

Smell is reportedly the strongest trigger of memory, but let us not underestimate the bone-chilling power of sound. The sound of cigarettes being packed against a table. The sound of tracks being skipped. The sound of a porch door banging. These were the harbingers, the sounds of my torturers clearing their throats. Sometimes Jared would leave the music on after he left, a tactic generally employed by war criminals. But mostly he and his friends stayed put, multiplying like gremlins.

Does it seem like I was spying? I was and I wasn’t. This was not so much a “Rear Window” situation as it was a window situation. If I was home, I was on an involuntary stakeout. If I was out, some perverse part of me hoped they would be in the yard when I returned, because then I could stop worrying about them being in the yard. Anthropologically, I was fascinated. Never in my life have I had a social circle as wide or as regular as Jared’s. Then again, I also have never lived in a five-story town house. It’s hard to say how much the house itself factored into Jared’s popularity. Surely his cohorts—preppy boys with laughs that died in their throats, and coltish girls with sea-level self-esteem—slumbered in comparable accommodations.

Very occasionally it was just Jared, alone in the back yard, pouring out the decibels. The mother would appear at the top of the stairs, mumbling something about homework. And he’d tell her to fuck off, which she fully deserved. Jared was a menace, true, but who had let him get that way? I remember with a haunting clarity lying in bed one night, being kept conscious by Biggie Smalls, when the mother screamed Jared’s name. My heart fluttered. Finally. An adult. An authority figure. A savior with her finger on the allowance button.

“Jared!” she shrieked. “Where’d you put the corkscrew?”

Of course I did. Of course I asked them to be quiet. Hey, guys, sorry to be a buzzkill, but can you keep it down? Hey, guys, can you take it inside your mansion, because I have nowhere to run? To which they apologized in a tone that suggested “sorry” was more of a password than a feeling. So I bought a white-noise machine and fancy headphones. I slept on my side to deafen one chosen ear. None of it worked. Finally, I bit the bullet and called 311, a placebo service for cranks on the brink. Operators forward complaints to local police precincts, at which point the police have eight hours to take action, assuming they’re done mocking you. Also: An eight-hour window? Even Jared didn’t party from midnight until 8 a.m. He lived in a town house, not a warehouse.

I pretended to write down my service-request number because, for some reason, it’s impossible to admit you don’t want your service-request number. Alas, help was never sent—a bad sign for me, a worse one for my fellow-citizens who actually needed it. (...)

Out of helpfulness or exasperation, friends floated suggestions. “Why don’t you—”

“Shoot them?” I interrupted. “I can’t shoot them—”

“Move out.”

It hadn’t occurred to me. Rather, it had occurred to me that murder was more of an option than moving—a true test of a New Yorker if there ever was one. I was fully aware there were other apartments I could live in, other boroughs I could go to. But to live in New York is to weigh your traumas, and moving is a formidable one. Plus, while I might not have been here first, I was here truest. I respected my apartment. I did not litter it with beer cans and try to set the furniture on fire. Instead, I begged for mercy. Please be quiet. Please please please. I did this sparingly, concerned about its diminishing effects but mostly concerned about something utterly mortifying: Jared’s impression of me.

by Sloane Crosley, New Yorker | Read more:
Image: Bianca Bagnarelli

Democracy: Russia Style

This Sunday Vladimir Putin will win his fourth term as Russian president. One of the only uncertainties ahead of the vote is how big the turnout will be. The Kremlin had initially set a target of a 70 percent result for Putin with 70 percent turnout, though it may have backed off on that in the past few days.

Still, why does Putin care about these numbers at all? Isn’t he going to win no matter what? Won’t he remain the near-Tsar of today’s Russia no matter how many people vote for him, or don’t? Yes and yes. But…

Elections in Russia are not an exercise in democratic accountability but a test of legitimacy — a regular assessment of how good the Kremlin is at shaping a particular narrative about Putin, and the ability of the “system” to reflect it.

The Kremlin will be keen to see if local, political and economic bosses are able to get out the vote without ham-fistedly messing with the tallies in a way that invites protests.

This kind of test matters because in fact Russia’s political system is a lot messier than you’d think.
  • Personal relationships and opaque power networks are often more important than formal procedures, parties, and laws.
  • At the center of it all is a kind of spell — if everyone believes that the system is holding together, then so it is.
  • In a somewhat paradoxical way, the basic tool of democracy — elections — are the best way to gauge the effectiveness of that rather undemocratic spell.
What happens if the Kremlin falls dramatically short of the original 70/70 target?

Nothing immediately. After all, Putin will still comfortably win the election. But it would sow an unwelcome seed of doubt about Putin’s ability to continually master the theater of Russia’s politics.

by Alex Kliment, Axios | Read more:
Image: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

Friday, March 16, 2018

Woom Yoga, Napercize, and the Rise of Infantilizing Fitness

If you’ve ever attended a yoga class, chances are you’ve twisted into some variation of Happy Baby or Ananda Balasana. To assume the position, practitioners lay on their backs and cradle their feet in their hands. Out of all the contortions asana yoga offers, it’s the most ridiculous to see in the mirror, an awkward knee-splaying that results in an emphatic framing of the groin. I’ve always liked Happy Baby, mostly because it is fun, but also because it is invigorating to look like a complete goofball, limbs akimbo and distinctly kid-like, in a semi-public space. Happy Baby serves up a moment of deliberate infantilization, which makes its popularity in contemporary American yoga routines unsurprising. Fitness classes are, increasingly, spaces people seek out to feel cared for and mothered.

The connection between exercise and the search for the calm of feeling very young is exceedingly clear at Manhattan’s Woom Center, a cozy space on Bowery offering a variety of fitness classes and sound baths. The café attached to the space looks like the ideal place to plan a trip to Burning Man, with glass jars of unlabeled herbs, a pillow on the couch heralding “good vibes,” and a laconic barista offering dairy-free, adaptogen-sprinkled “Mylks” to leggings-clad class attendees chattering about shamanism. It’s a whole studio devoted to the feeling of Happy Baby. The practice space is a windowless cocoon, with spare, white walls. Classes have videos projected onto these walls that resemble a vintage Microsoft screensaver, the swirling images of blossoming flowers and cell division synced up to ambient instrumentals. The images cast warm light, and students can drape woolly blankets over themselves during the resting periods. At the beginning of the class I attended, students were asked to blindfold themselves for a guided meditation, with breathing work and inspirational words murmured. (Each blindfold says, helpfully, “Look Inside.”) The yoga class is not so different from a standard asana class, with lunges and Downward Dogs, but the instruction is geared toward play rather than exertion or achievement. Near the end, we were gently encouraged to throw our legs above our heads in a supported chin stand, cheered on by our teacher as we tumbled onto luxe mats and giggled like kindergartners.

Fitness classes fixated on pacifying frazzled attendees by encouraging them to act like toddlers—napping, crawling—have popped up in recent years. In the U.K., the fitness chain David Lloyd Clubs introduced a group fitness class called “Napercise” in 2017. It claimed the 45-minute class, in which attendees simply lie on the floor, is “scientifically designed to reinvigorate the mind, improve moods and even burn the odd calorie.” In New York, fitness instructor Christopher Harrison offers a “Cocooning” class at his AntiGravity Fitness Lab, in which attendees crawl into specially designed hammocks and take restorative snoozes. Crawling around like a 2-year-old has become a mini-fitness trend, with group classes offered around the United States and a “Crawl on the Mall” event gathering enthusiasts in Washington, D.C., for an outdoor recreational four-limbed race. Chiropractor Justin Klein, who organizes the event, told CNN that crawling is “like resetting the central loop in the nervous system to bring all of the parts involved in coordination, movement and reflexive stability into synchronization.”, citing an expert from the Mayo Clinic, called crawling “the ultimate total-body exercise.” While its calorie-burning abilities haven’t been widely studied, the way crawling has infiltrated adult workouts is another reminder of how frequently group fitness practices can mimic schoolyard play.

The trend of products and services that offer a babying effect is not limited to fitness. There’s a push in consumer technology toward soothing gadgets, including a rocking bed and a vibrating sleep robot. Silicon Valley companies like Yelp and Seamless, as writer Jesse Barron pointed out in 2016, often adopt a parental tone, asking if customers have eaten and assuring them that assistance is at their fingertips. When companies talk down to their customers, it can come across as condescending rather than comforting. (I don’t need Seamless to assure me about incoming “deliciousness”; I just want the food to appear.) Being treated like a child can be a bristling thing for an adult, especially when the parental figure in the situation is a corporation using cutesy messaging to woo millennials. But in the fitness world, maternalism is something people actively seek out, happily signing up for classes that will penalize them for skipping or showing up late and choosing instructors whose methods of mollifying or disciplining inspire them to do the grunt work of getting in shape.

by Kate Knibbs, The Ringer |  Read more:
Image: Getty/Ringer Illustration

Gray Hat

Marcus Hutchins was still recovering from the night before as he settled into a lounge at the Las Vegas airport one afternoon this past August. Hutchins, a 23-year-old cybersecurity researcher, had come from his home in rural England in part to attend DefCon, the world’s biggest computer-hacking conference, and in part to take a well-deserved vacation.

Three months earlier, a North Korean cyberattack known as WannaCry had crippled the British health-care system and caused a billion dollars in losses across 150 countries. The damage could have been much worse — tens of billions, by one estimate — but a few hours after the attack began, Hutchins figured out how to stop it, almost by accident, while sitting at a computer in his bedroom at his parents’ house.

That act made Hutchins the closest thing cybersecurity had ever had to a global celebrity. “Oops! I Saved the World,” read the cover of the New York Daily News. “Cyber Geek Accidentally Stops Huge Hack Attack.” Edward Snowden congratulated Hutchins, and strangers recognized him at Heathrow. Hutchins had gone to DefCon the year before and found the convention unpleasant — “I remember slowly moving down a packed hall in a sea of people who smelled like they hadn’t showered in days” — but in 2017, Cisco invited him into the VIP section at its party. “A year earlier, I’d never have gotten in,” Hutchins said. At six-foot-four, with hair that adds an inch or two, Hutchins was easy to spot, and conferencegoers asked him to pose for photos that they put online with the tag #WannaCrySlayer.

The post-WannaCry attention had been a bit overwhelming for Hutchins, but he loved Vegas. He stayed in an Airbnb with the city’s largest private pool, lit up a bin Laden target at a gun range, and drove around in a friend’s rented Lamborghini. Hutchins didn’t gamble, but he hung around the casino floor to get free drinks. “About to cross ‘turn up at a club in clothes I bought on the way’ off my bucket list,” he announced on Twitter as he went to the nightclub XS to see one of his favorite groups, the Chainsmokers. He wasn’t even mad when he lost his credit card and ID. “Chainsmokers was definitely worth the lost wallet,” he said.

In short, Hutchins was having the kind of Vegas experience that a 23-year-old’s dreams are made of — so much so that he was oblivious to the American law-enforcement agents who were watching him in Nevada. Hutchins didn’t know it, but before he came to the United States, a grand jury in Wisconsin had indicted him, alleging that, three years earlier, he had coded a piece of malware called Kronos that could steal people’s online banking information and conspired to sell Kronos to cybercriminals — charges that carried a maximum 40-year sentence. The legal system has struggled to deal with the reality that between the poles of “white hats,” the good guys, and “black hats,” who use their skills to do harm, many of the world’s cybersecurity experts got good by probing the large gray area in the middle. Whatever Hutchins had or hadn’t done years earlier, he now seemed to be one of the good guys — a hero, even — and a prosecution like this threatened to fray the already fragile connection between hackers and the government at a moment when the internet can use all the help it can get. All of which left Hutchins surprised, as he sat in the airport tweeting about his eagerness to start investigating a new cyberthreat, when several federal officers walked up and said they needed to ask him a few questions.
One Saturday in February, Hutchins walked into a bar in Santa Monica wearing black Etnies skate shoes, a gray T-shirt, and Apple headphones he kept in his ears until he met me at a table in the back. After his arrest last summer, he’d had a long weekend in jail, followed by a court date in Milwaukee, where he pleaded not guilty to the charges. A hacker he’d never met paid his $30,000 bail, though he wasn’t allowed to return to the U.K. (During intake at a halfway house, Hutchins, whose mother is Scottish and father is Jamaican, said an employee insisted on listing him as African-American, despite Hutchins’s noting that he was neither. “America is the only place that could try so hard to be politically correct that they just end up being plain racist,” he said.)

With nowhere else to go while awaiting trial, he had moved to L.A., where the cybersecurity company he works for is based but where he knew almost no one. At one point in October, he couldn’t recall having had a conversation with another human being for two weeks. “Not Going Home November is over and I’m halfway into Don’t Go Home December,” Hutchins wrote on Twitter, where he has documented his life with surprising candor for someone facing a federal conspiracy charge. “Pretty pumped for Just Stay In America January.”

Hutchins had been living under decreasing levels of surveillance — house arrest, a curfew, a GPS monitor on his ankle — but much of his old life had fallen apart around him. A girl he’d been seeing off and on stopped talking to him, and when a friend suggested Tinder, Hutchins pointed out that “I’m under federal indictment, don’t have a car, and can’t go out between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m.” didn’t seem like a very good pickup line. He spent his days playing video games, learning to cook — this was his first time living away from home — and day-trading cryptocurrency: One night, Hutchins got drunk and shorted bitcoin, and a subsequent crash paid the rent on his L.A. one-bedroom for three months. His defense team was working pro bono, but he’d just been forced to sell most of his holdings to help cover the legal fees that came with retaining two immigration lawyers and another attorney “to explain to me where the fuck I’m supposed to pay tax.” He wasn’t allowed to work and was having trouble sleeping. “The FBI took everything from me,” Hutchins told me. “My job, my girlfriend, my bitcoin.”

Hutchins is a self-described introvert and pessimist. (“I don’t really like people,” he deadpanned.) But he also has the youthful confidence that comes with knowing he possesses one of the world’s most in-demand skills: By his own estimate, there are only five people in the world — “I know of three, but five is a round number” — with his particular expertise. When I asked about his post-WannaCry life as a “mini-celebrity,” he objected to the modifier. He was annoyed at those who defended him by saying he wasn’t skilled enough to have made Kronos in the first place. “I don’t know what hurts more,” Hutchins said. “That people think I’m a shitty person or that people think I’m that bad at programming.”

Hutchins started learning to code when he was 12. By high school, his skills were advanced enough that administrators blamed him for an attack that took down the school’s servers. (Hutchins maintains his innocence.) He went on to a local technical school for two years, where he found the computer-science offerings primitive. In 2013, he started a blog. featured wonky posts in which Hutchins detailed his amateur explorations into “reverse engineering,” a critical cybersecurity job in which researchers dissect malware to figure out how it works. In a post titled “Coding Malware for Fun and Not for Profit (Because That Would Be Illegal),” Hutchins declared that he was “so bored” with the malware being produced that he had made some himself, assuring readers that, “before you get on the phone to your friendly neighborhood FBI agent,” he had designed the malware so it couldn’t be deployed.

A year later, Hutchins started looking for a job in cybersecurity. He says he applied to GCHQ, the British equivalent of the NSA — his résumé included links to his blog and a childhood swimming certification — but the background check took ten months. By then, he’d become interested in tracking botnets, the giant networks of poorly secured computers, baby monitors, and other devices that cybercriminals use to deploy malware. “I was never trying to make a career out of it,” Hutchins said. “I was just kind of bored.” But in 2015, Salim Neino, who runs Kryptos Logic, a computer-security firm in L.A., saw Hutchins’s blog posts about a major botnet called Kelihos and offered him a job without even meeting him. “He was extremely talented,” Neino said. “You can teach certain things, but in computer security, raw talent is almost irreplaceable.”

by Reeves Wiedeman, Select/All | Read more:
Image: Jeff Minton

Richard Diebenkorn

Surprise Billing 

Adapted from An American Sickness: How Healthcare Became Big Business and How You Can Take it Back

Lee Schaefer has great federal employee insurance through Blue Cross Blue Shield, but she and her husband are “risk averse,” she says, so when it came time to finish out her pregnancy, they took pre-emptive steps. They researched the costs of her delivery, went to an in-network hospital, including an in-network anesthesiologist — in other words, they thought they’d figured out all the fees before she delivered her daughter, Etta, in 2010.

After Ms. Schaefer was induced at thirty-seven weeks for high blood pressure at New Jersey’s Overlook Medical Center, the baby stopped breathing in the nursery and was transferred to the neonatal intensive care unit. The hospital charge for eight days of ICU observation was fully covered. But “we got billed for ten thousand dollars from MidAtlantic Neonatology — the pediatricians — and they don’t take our particular insurance,” she said. (The neonatology group staffs four intensive care units in suburban New Jersey.) The Schaefers negotiated that down to $5,000 but, she said, “despite our insurance and all our research, we ended up on a long-term payment plan.”

We live in an age of medical wonders — transplants, gene therapy, life-saving drugs, and preventive strategies — but the healthcare system remains fantastically expensive, inefficient, bewildering, and inequitable. How many of us have thought we had an idea about how much a medical encounter might cost, or thought we’d played by our insurers rules, only to receive a bill we’re expected to pay, displaying terrifying numbers? At first, you assume it must be a mistake, but in the end, most of us will write a check, perhaps under threat of collection. How much longer can we keep setting up payment plans, maxing out credit cards, and tapping into retirement savings? And yet we’ve come to accept such bills as an inevitable burden of being American. (...)

Surprise bills often arise because an insurer and a group of providers — such as the neonatology group — don’t agree on what the physicians’ services are worth. In many U.S. hospitals, the physicians are independent contractors who bill separately for their services. Right or wrong, the doctors feel the increasingly stingy insurers are low-balling payments for their particular type of work. So the physicians simply refuse to join an insurer’s network. That may be a fine solution for the doctors and the insurer, but it leaves patients financially vulnerable, billed for out-of-network treatment. Our wallets are, quite literally, collateral damage in their trade war.

The big problem, of course, is that patients have little choice when it comes to hospital treatment: the ambulance decides to take you to the nearest hospital, which may or may not be in your network. Or like in our example, in spite of your best efforts to choose providers and facilities which participate in your insurance plan, one or more of the doctors involved in your hospital care (the pathologist or the surgical assistant or the anesthesiologist or the ER doctor) did not: “We regret to inform you that this provider does not participate in your insurance plan,” the bill reads.

Until the laws and regulators in your state better address this problem, we have to push back ourselves. Informed consent is a bedrock legal and medical principle and your grounds to not pay. This is the essence of your argument:
  • You went to an in-network hospital so that your care would be covered.
  • You were not informed of the out-of-network status of these providers and did not consent to them participating in your care.
  • If it’s an emergency — if you were taken to the nearest ER or your newborn suffered a respiratory arrest — you were not in a position to go elsewhere.
Don’t write a check. Find out if your state has passed a surprise billing law. Then, whether it has or not, write a letter of protest. (In my book, I provide some templates for protest letters that you may adjust to suit your situation. They work. I’ve used them myself.)

Many out-of-network providers will negotiate bills, which is how Lee Schaffer got the $10,000 charge knocked down to $5000, on a payment plan. Remember the doctors do not participate in the network because they are displeased with the insurer, but they may well feel more sympathetic towards you.

But I would drive an even harder bargain: the doctor or hospital and the insurer should have to work out a fair payment between themselves. You did what you could to stay in network.

Acknowledging this growing problem, a few states have recently passed laws offering patients some protection from surprise out-of-network charges. New York is considered a national model. Such laws generally stipulate that if you visit an out-of-network hospital in an emergency or get treatment from an out-of-network doctor at your in-network hospital, you are only responsible for an amount equal to your plan’s in-network charges.

But the onus for invoking that right is still on the patient. First, you have to know such a law exists. Then, you exercise that right by sending the surprise bill back to your insurer and to the provider, along with a form that can be downloaded from the Internet, all in duplicate and on paper.

Do it! Hospitals and doctors get away with unconscionable prices and practices because they think patients will be too timid or tired to call them out on their greed, and usually they’re right.

Ultimately, we might need legislation to really affect change. But, in the meantime, wouldn’t it be good public policy if hospitals in your network were simply required to guarantee that all the doctors who treat you on their premises will be in your insurance network. State regulators could insist that this be written into insurance contracts, and your company HR representatives could insist on this during annual policy negotiations. The hospital has contracts with emergency room doctors, anesthesiologists, pathologists, and radiologists. It has up-front bargaining power to ensure they join networks if they want to work under the hospital’s roof. Of course, not every single doctor has to participate in the many insurance plans with which the hospital has contracts. But if you have Cigna insurance, for example, and the hospital takes your plan, the ancillary doctors who treat you should take Aetna too. After all, my hospital knows which of its anesthesiologists take my insurance and assigns the anesthesiologist to my case.

This is just one solution to the surprise billing landmine that catches so many patients off-guard, straining their finances. Hospitals and insurers will say this particular solution is complicated for them to implement. But for patients, figuring out who is in network is more than complicated — it’s impossible.

“No Surprise Charges” could and should become the industry mantra. Hospitals making that simple promise would have my business. Yours?

by Elisabeth Rosenthal, Medium |  Read more:
Image: on Unsplash

Long Live Mister Roger's Quiet Revolution

In 1969, when a second season of the popular year-old children’s TV show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was threatened by a funding pinch, children nationwide sent in rolls of pennies and single dollar bills totaling almost $4,000 to save the show. Among Fred Rogers’ tiny supporters was a 5-year-old Miami girl who told a Herald reporter that the humble, singing host in his trademark cardigan “teaches us things!” When asked what Rogers taught her specifically, she replied with characteristic preschooler candor, “I don’t know. But I love him!”

This tot’s bewildered devotion captures the long-running affection for Rogers and the show, which debuted to a national U.S. audience 50 years ago. But it also captures some of the contributions of—and controversies about—the show. Rogers, the former Presbyterian minister turned one-time NBC news assistant, was on the vanguard in promoting public television. He brought attention to the emotional lives of children and an imaginative vision of a country that looked more like his friendly neighborhood than the United States in 1968, a time marked by civil unrest and questions about what racial equality and civic responsibility looked like.

While Rogers became a fixture for generations of children and families, public television—and children’s programming on public television—were largely unknown quantities at the outset. Americans were buying more and more televisions, but public television was a new idea, with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting having just been created months before Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood premiered. Its flagship show, Sesame Street, would follow in 1969. (...)

In public television’s infancy, the medium found itself challenged by naysayers who questioned its value and, importantly, its funding. Rogers, whose carefully cultivated milquetoast TV persona belied a steady eye on politics, went on the defensive. Just a year after his show hit national airwaves, Rogers testified before Congress about the social necessity of public television.

[ed. See 2:25 - 3:15]

Key to Rogers’ approach was the idea that a healthy child should play, feel, and be able to inhabit a Land of Make-Believe where creativity reigned, emotions could be discussed, and supportive adults listened. It was the quintessential modern interpretation of Progressive-era ideas that children were, in fact, different from grown-ups, and need a gentle-but-firm hand for guidance. Rogers also subscribed to a school of thought that proper behavior—marked by being in touch with one’s feelings and thinking about others’—could be taught. For every emotion, there was a strategy to deal with it. When you are angry, Rogers told his young charges, you don’t have to knock somebody down.

“There is an almost total disregard for the inner needs of children,” Rogers said during his 1969 acceptance of a Peabody Award for outstanding children’s programming. “For instance, when a 3-year-old sees a cartoon animal with big teeth, he focuses on the teeth because he happens to be in a stage where he thinks a lot about biting. Our program is based on development tasks children need to focus on.” And for those who complained of his show’s slow pace and storylines, he added, “I feel that drama comes from within.” Even performing the simplest task such as taking a bath, a child might fear that she would get sucked down the drain along with the water.

His philosophy was one of acceptance without conditions, as expressed by the lyrics of one of his many songs: “I like you as you are, exactly and precisely. I think you’ve turned out nicely. I like you as you are.”

But not everyone agreed that television could be a teaching tool. From the moment of its inception, television had champions who touted its potential and detractors who worried that the technology could influence public opinion and the minds of American youngsters. The American Federation of Teachers shared its skepticism in a unanimous resolution that “we are unalterably opposed to mass education by television as a substitute for professional classroom techniques.” As late as 1976, when Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood had been on air for almost a decade, education professor Rose Mukerji described the help-or-harm debate about youth and television as a “checkerboard scene” of cases for and against. Anti-TVers cited concerns about on-screen violence and questioned the assumption that television programming could make children “pro-social” and better acclimated to the world around them.

More than any other television booster, Rogers argued by example and in his quiet, firm way that television’s power could be harnessed to shape future generations for good. (...)

In the fourth episode of the first season, Rogers introduced Mrs. Carol Saunders, a black teacher. Though the character was introduced without ceremony or fanfare, it was notable that she was referred to with the “Mrs.” courtesy title that many whites denied to African-American women. She was a feature of the first two seasons, sometimes towing a racially diverse group of students—at a time when U.S. schools were struggling to desegregate, resisting the process, and also trying to diversify their teaching staff. Her appearances were included as a matter of course, with no reference to residential or school desegregation.

Later in the show, Rogers also introduced another regular black character, real-life cop Officer Clemmons, with whom Rogers shared a plastic wading pool on-screen. Again no mention of conflict over making public facilities—including previously white-only swimming pools—available to people of all races. But Rogers could not have been oblivious to the vitriolic battles over public spaces and swimming pools, which unfolded even in his (theoretically unsegregated) home state of Pennsylvania.

Rogers created a neighborhood that was united by values and seemingly impervious to racial animus and urban crisis, a neighborhood that fit better in his imaginary world than in the actual one inhabited by the millions of Americans who tuned in. He created a Neighborhood of Make-Believe that children could enter through a magical trolley ride and the flights of their own imaginations. But in his imagination, there was a place where a code of compassion ruled, where conflicts were few and resolved quickly, and where it was possible to welcome every person as a neighbor.

by Cynthia Greenlee, JSTOR |  Read more:
Image: Grand Communications/The Fred Rogers Company

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Balint Alovits

Does Anyone Have the Right to Sex?

On 23 May 2014, Elliot Rodger, a 22-year-old college dropout, became the world’s most famous ‘incel’ – involuntary celibate. The term can, in theory, be applied to both men and women, but in practice it picks out not sexless men in general, but a certain kind of sexless man: the kind who is convinced he is owed sex, and is enraged by the women who deprive him of it. Rodger stabbed to death his two housemates, Weihan Wang and Cheng Hong, and a friend, George Chen, as they entered his apartment on Seville Road in Isla Vista, California. Three hours later he drove to the Alpha Phi sorority house near the campus of UC Santa Barbara. He shot three women on the lawn, killing two of them, Katherine Cooper and Veronika Weiss. Rodger then went on a drive-by shooting spree through Isla Vista, killing Christopher Michaels-Martinez, also a student at UCSB, with a single bullet to the chest inside a Deli Mart, and wounding 14 others. He eventually crashed his BMW coupé at an intersection. He was found dead by the police, having shot himself in the head.

In the hours between murdering three men in his apartment and driving to Alpha Phi, Rodger went to Starbucks, ordered coffee, and uploaded a video, ‘Elliot Rodger’s Retribution’, to his YouTube channel. He also emailed a 107,000-word memoir-manifesto, ‘My Twisted World: The Story of Elliot Rodger’, to a group of people including his parents, his therapist, former schoolteachers and childhood friends. Together these two documents detail the massacre to come and Rodger’s motivation. ‘All I ever wanted was to fit in and live a happy life,’ he explains at the beginning of ‘My Twisted World’, ‘but I was cast out and rejected, forced to endure an existence of loneliness and insignificance, all because the females of the human species were incapable of seeing the value in me.’

He goes on to describe his privileged and happy early childhood in England – Rodger was the son of a successful British filmmaker – followed by his privileged and unhappy adolescence in Los Angeles as a short, bad-at-sports, shy, weird, friendless kid, desperate to be cool. He writes of dyeing his hair blond (Rodger was half-white and half-Malaysian; blond people were ‘so much more beautiful’); of finding ‘sanctuary’ in Halo and World of Warcraft; being shoved by a pretty girl at summer camp (‘That was the first experience of female cruelty I endured, and it traumatised me to no end’); becoming incensed by the sex lives of his peers (‘How could an inferior, ugly black boy be able to get a white girl and not me? I am beautiful, and I am half-white myself. I am descended from British aristocracy. He is descended from slaves’); dropping out of successive schools and then community college; and fantasising about a political order in which he ruled the world and sex was outlawed (‘All women must be quarantined like the plague they are’). The necessary result of all this, Rodger said, was his ‘War on Women’, in the course of which he would ‘punish all females’ for the crime of depriving him of sex. He would target the Alpha Phi sorority, ‘the hottest sorority of UCSB’, because it contained ‘the very girls who represent everything I hate in the female gender … hot, beautiful blonde girls … spoiled, heartless, wicked bitches’. He would show everyone that he was ‘the superior one, the true alpha male’.

Late in 2017, the online discussion forum Reddit closed down its 40,000-member ‘Incel’ support group, for ‘people who lack romantic relationships and sex’. Reddit took the action after introducing a new policy of prohibiting content that ‘encourages, glorifies, incites or calls for violence’. What had started out as a support group for the lonely and sexually isolated had become a forum whose users not only raged against women and the ‘noncels’ and ‘normies’ who get to sleep with them, but also frequently advocated rape. A second incel Reddit group, ‘Truecels’, was also banned following the site’s policy change. Its sidebar read: ‘No encouraging or inciting violence, or other illegal activities such as rape. But of course it is OK to say, for example, that rape should have a lighter punishment or even that it should be legalised and that slutty women deserve rape.’

Soon after Rodger’s killings, incels took to the manosphere to explain that women (and feminism) were in the end responsible for what had happened. Had one of those ‘wicked bitches’ just fucked Elliot Rodger he wouldn’t have had to kill anyone. (Nikolas Cruz, who gunned down 17 students and staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on Valentine’s Day, vowed in a comment on a YouTube video that ‘Elliot Rodger will not be forgotten.’) Feminist commentators were quick to point out what should have been obvious: that no woman was obligated to have sex with Rodger; that his sense of sexual entitlement was a case-study in patriarchal ideology; that his actions were a predictable if extreme response to the thwarting of that entitlement. They could have added that feminism, far from being Rodger’s enemy, may well be the primary force resisting the very system that made him feel – as a short, clumsy, effeminate, interracial boy – inadequate. His manifesto reveals that it was overwhelmingly boys, not girls, who bullied him: who pushed him into lockers, called him a loser, made fun of him for his virginity. But it was the girls who deprived him of sex, and the girls, therefore, who had to be destroyed.

Could it also be said that Rodger’s unfuckability was a symptom of the internalisation of patriarchal norms of men’s sexual attractiveness on the part of women? The answer to that question is complicated by two things. First, Rodger was a creep, and it was at least partly his insistence on his own aesthetic, moral and racial superiority, and whatever it was in him that made him capable of stabbing his housemates and his friend a total of 134 times, not his failure to meet the demands of heteromasculinity, that kept women away. Second, plenty of non-homicidal nerdy guys get laid. Indeed part of the injustice of patriarchy, something unnoticed by incels and other ‘men’s rights activists’, is the way it makes even supposedly unattractive categories of men attractive: geeks, nerds, effete men, old men, men with ‘dad bods’. Meanwhile there are sexy schoolgirls and sexy teachers, manic pixie dreamgirls and Milfs, but they’re all taut-bodied and hot, minor variations on the same normative paradigm. (Can we imagine GQ carrying an article celebrating ‘mom bod’?)

That said, it’s true that the kind of women Rodger wanted to have sex with – hot sorority blondes – don’t as a rule date men like Rodger, even the non-creepy, non-homicidal ones, at least not until they make their fortune in Silicon Valley. It’s also true that this has something to do with the rigid gender norms enforced by patriarchy: alpha females want alpha males. And it’s true that Rodger’s desires – his erotic fixation on the ‘spoiled, stuck-up, blonde slut’– are themselves a function of patriarchy, as is the way the ‘hot blonde slut’ becomes a metonym for all women. (Many in the manosphere gleefully pointed out that Rodger didn’t even succeed in killing the women he lusted after, as if in final confirmation of his ‘omega’ sexual status: Katherine Cooper and Veronika Weiss were non ‘hot blondes’ from Delta Delta Delta who just happened to be standing outside the Alpha Phi house.) Feminist commentary on Elliot Rodger and the incel phenomenon more broadly has said much about male sexual entitlement, objectification and violence. But so far it has said little about desire: men’s desire, women’s desire, and the ideological shaping of both.
It used to be the case that if you wanted a political critique of desire, feminism was where you would turn. A few decades ago feminists were nearly alone in thinking about the way sexual desire – its objects and expressions, fetishes and fantasies – is shaped by oppression. (Frantz Fanon and Edward Said’s discussions of the erotics of racial and colonial oppression are important exceptions.) Beginning in the late 1970s, Catharine MacKinnon demanded that we abandon the Freudian view of sexual desire as ‘an innate primary natural prepolitical unconditioned drive divided along the biological gender line’ and recognise that sex under patriarchy is inherently violent; that ‘hostility and contempt, or arousal of master to slave, together with awe and vulnerability, or arousal of slave to master’ are its constitutive emotions. For the radical feminists who shared MacKinnon’s view, the terms and texture of sex were set by patriarchal domination – and embodied in, and sustained by, pornography. (In Robin Morgan’s words, ‘Pornography is the theory, rape is the practice.’) That there were women who seemed capable of achieving pleasure under these conditions was a sign of how bad things were. For some the solution lay in the self-disciplining of desire demanded by political lesbianism. But perhaps even lesbian sex offered no decisive escape: as MacKinnon suggested, sex under male supremacy might well be ‘so gender marked that it carries dominance and submission with it, no matter the gender of its participants’.
Some feminists in the 1980s and 1990s pushed back against the radical critique of sex advanced by MacKinnon and other anti-porn feminists. They insisted on the possibility of genuine sexual pleasure under patriarchy, and the importance of allowing women the freedom to pursue it. MacKinnon disparaged such ‘pro-sex’ feminists for confusing accommodation with freedom, and for buying into the idea that ‘women do just need a good fuck.’ To be fair, MacKinnon’s pro-sex adversaries weren’t arguing that women needed a good fuck – though some came uncomfortably close to suggesting that MacKinnon did. Instead they insisted that women were entitled to sex free of guilt, including heterosexual sex, if they wanted it. In ‘Lust Horizons: Is the Women’s Movement Pro-Sex?’, the essay that inaugurated sex-positive feminism, Ellen Willis set out the basic case against the MacKinnonite critique of sex: that it not only denied women the right to sexual pleasure, but also reinforced the ‘neo-Victorian’ idea that men desire sex while women merely put up with it, an idea whose ‘chief social function’, Willis said, was to curtail women’s autonomy in areas outside the bedroom (or the alleyway). Anti-porn feminism, Willis wrote, asked ‘women to accept a spurious moral superiority as a substitute for sexual pleasure, and curbs on men’s sexual freedom as a substitute for real power’.

Since Willis, the case for pro-sex feminism has been buttressed by feminism’s turn towards intersectionality. Thinking about how patriarchal oppression is inflected by race and class – patriarchy doesn’t express itself uniformly, and cannot be understood independently of other systems of oppression – has made feminists reluctant to prescribe universal policies, including universal sexual policies. Demands for equal access to the workplace will be more resonant for white, middle-class women who have been forced to stay home than it will be for the black and working-class women who have always been expected to labour alongside men. Similarly, sexual self-objectification may mean one thing for a woman who, by virtue of her whiteness, is already taken to be a paradigm of female beauty, but quite another thing for a black or brown woman, or a trans woman. The turn towards intersectionality has also made feminists uncomfortable with thinking in terms of false consciousness: that’s to say, with the idea that women often act against their own interests, even when they take themselves to be doing what they wanted to do. The important thing now is to take women at their word. If a woman says she enjoys working in porn, or being paid to have sex with men, or engaging in rape fantasies, or wearing stilettos – and even that she doesn’t just enjoy these things but finds them emancipatory, part of her feminist praxis – then we are required, as feminists, to trust her. This is not merely an epistemic claim: that a woman’s saying something about her own experience gives us strong, if not indefeasible, reason to think it true. It is also, or perhaps primarily, an ethical claim: a feminism that trades too freely in notions of self-deception is a feminism that risks dominating the subjects it wants to liberate.

The case made by Willis in ‘Lust Horizons’ has so far proved the enduring one. Since the 1980s, the wind has been behind a feminism which takes desire for the most part as given – your desire takes the shape that it takes – and which insists that acting on that desire is morally constrained only by the boundaries of consent. Sex is no longer morally problematic or unproblematic: it is instead merely wanted or unwanted. In this sense, the norms of sex are like the norms of capitalist free exchange. What matters is not what conditions give rise to the dynamics of supply and demand – why some people need to sell their labour while others buy it – but only that both buyer and seller have agreed to the transfer. It would be too easy, though, to say that sex positivity represents the co-option of feminism by liberalism. Generations of feminists and gay and lesbian activists have fought hard to free sex from shame, stigma, coercion, abuse and unwanted pain. It has been essential to this project to stress that there are limits to what can be understood about sex from the outside, that sexual acts can have private meanings that cannot be grasped from a public perspective, that there are times when we must take it on trust that a particular instance of sex is OK, even when we can’t imagine how it could be. Thus feminism finds itself not only questioning the liberal distinction between the public and the private, but also insisting on it.

Yet it would be disingenuous to make nothing of the convergence, however unintentional, between sex positivity and liberalism in their shared reluctance to interrogate the formation of our desires. Third and fourth-wave feminists are right to say, for example, that sex work is work, and can be better work than the menial labour undertaken by most women. And they are right to say that what sex workers need are legal and material protections, safety and security, not rescue or rehabilitation. But to understand what sort of work sex work is – just what physical and psychical acts are being bought and sold, and why it is overwhelmingly women who do it, and overwhelmingly men who pay for it – surely we have to say something about the political formation of male desire. And surely there will be similar things to say about other forms of women’s work: teaching, nursing, caring, mothering. To say that sex work is ‘just work’ is to forget that all work – men’s work, women’s work – is never just work: it is also sexed. (...)
‘The beautiful torsos on Grindr are mostly Asian men hiding their faces,’ a gay friend of mine says. The next day I see on Facebook that Grindr has started a web series called ‘What the Flip?’ In its first three-minute episode, a beautiful, blue-haired East Asian guy and a well-groomed, good-looking white guy trade Grindr profiles. The results are predictably grim. The white guy, now using the Asian guy’s profile, is hardly approached, and when he is it’s by men announcing that they’re ‘Rice Queens’ and like Asian men for being ‘good at bottoming’. When he ignores their messages, abuse is hurled at him. The Asian guy’s inbox, meanwhile, is inundated with admirers. Talking about it afterwards, the white guy expresses his shock, the Asian guy cheerful resignation. ‘You’re not everybody’s cup of tea, but you’re going to be somebody’s,’ the white guy offers, feebly, before they hug it out. In the next episode, a ripped Ryan Gosling-type switches profiles with a pretty-faced chubby guy. In episode three a fem guy trades with a masc guy. The results are as one would expect.

The obvious irony of ‘What the Flip?’ is that Grindr, by its nature, encourages its users to divide the world into those who are and those who are not viable sexual objects according to crude markers of identity – to think in terms of sexual ‘deal-breakers’ and ‘requirements’. In so doing, Grindr simply deepens the discriminatory grooves along which our sexual desires already move. But online dating – and especially the abstracted interfaces of Tinder and Grindr, which distil attraction down to the essentials: face, height, weight, age, race, witty tagline – has arguably taken what is worst about the current state of sexuality and institutionalised it on our screens.

A presupposition of ‘What the Flip?’ is that this is a peculiarly gay problem: that the gay male community is too superficial, too body-fascist, too judgy. The gay men in my life say this sort of thing all the time; they all feel bad about it, perpetrators and victims alike (most see themselves as both). I’m unconvinced. Can we imagine predominantly straight dating apps like OKCupid or Tinder creating a web series that encouraged the straight ‘community’ to confront its sexual racism or fatphobia? If that is an unlikely prospect, and I think it is, it’s hardly because straight people aren’t body fascists or sexual racists. It’s because straight people – or, I should say, white, able-bodied cis straight people – aren’t much in the habit of thinking there’s anything wrong with how they have sex. By contrast, gay men – even the beautiful, white, rich, able-bodied ones – know that who we have sex with, and how, is a political question.

There are of course real risks associated with subjecting our sexual preferences to political scrutiny. We want feminism to be able to interrogate the grounds of desire, but without slut-shaming, prudery or self-denial: without telling individual women that they don’t really know what they want, or can’t enjoy what they do in fact want, within the bounds of consent. Some feminists think this is impossible, that any openness to desire-critique will inevitably lead to authoritarian moralism. (We can think of such feminists as making the case for a kind of ‘sex positivity of fear’, just as Judith Shklar once made the case for a ‘liberalism of fear’ – that is, a liberalism motivated by a fear of authoritarian alternatives.) But there is a risk too that repoliticising desire will encourage a discourse of sexual entitlement. Talk of people who are unjustly sexually marginalised or excluded can pave the way to the thought that these people have a right to sex, a right that is being violated by those who refuse to have sex with them. That view is galling: no one is under an obligation to have sex with anyone else. This too is axiomatic. And this, of course, is what Elliot Rodger, like the legions of angry incels who celebrate him as a martyr, refused to see. On the now defunct Reddit group, a post titled ‘It should be legal for incels to rape women’ explained that ‘No starving man should have to go to prison for stealing food, and no sexually starved man should have to go to prison for raping a woman.’ It is a sickening false equivalence, which reveals the violent misconception at the heart of patriarchy. Some men are excluded from the sexual sphere for politically suspect reasons – including, perhaps, some of the men driven to vent their despair on anonymous forums – but the moment their unhappiness is transmuted into a rage at the women ‘denying’ them sex, rather than at the systems that shape desire (their own and others’), they have crossed a line into something morally ugly and confused.

In her shrewd essay ‘Men Explain Lolita to Me’, Rebecca Solnit reminds us that ‘you don’t get to have sex with someone unless they want to have sex with you,’ just as ‘you don’t get to share someone’s sandwich unless they want to share their sandwich with you.’ Not getting a bite of someone’s sandwich is ‘not a form of oppression, either’, Solnit says. But the analogy complicates as much as it elucidates. Suppose your child came home from primary school and told you that the other children share their sandwiches with each other, but not with her. And suppose further that your child is brown, or fat, or disabled, or doesn’t speak English very well, and that you suspect that this is the reason for her exclusion from the sandwich-sharing. Suddenly it hardly seems sufficient to say that none of the other children is obligated to share with your child, true as that might be.

Sex is not a sandwich. While your child does not want to be shared with out of pity – just as no one really wants a mercy fuck, and certainly not from a racist or a transphobe – we wouldn’t think it coercive were the teacher to encourage the other students to share with your daughter, or were they to institute an equal sharing policy. But a state that made analogous interventions in the sexual preference and practices of its citizens – that encouraged us to ‘share’ sex equally – would probably be thought grossly authoritarian. (The utopian socialist Charles Fourier proposed a guaranteed ‘sexual minimum’, akin to a guaranteed basic income, for every man and woman, regardless of age or infirmity; only with sexual deprivation eliminated, Fourier thought, could romantic relationships be truly free. This social service would be provided by an ‘amorous nobility’ who, Fourier said, ‘know how to subordinate love to the dictates of honour’.) Of course, it matters just what those interventions would look like: disability activists, for example, have long called for more inclusive sex education in schools, and many would welcome regulation that ensured diversity in advertising and the media. But to think that such measures would be enough to alter our sexual desires, to free them entirely from the grooves of discrimination, is naive. And whereas you can quite reasonably demand that a group of children share their sandwiches inclusively, you just can’t do the same with sex. What works in one case will not work in the other. Sex isn’t a sandwich, and it isn’t really like anything else either. There is nothing else so riven with politics and yet so inviolably personal. For better or worse, we must find a way to take sex on its own terms.

by Amia Srinivasan, London Review of Books |  Read more:
Image: Beth Holgate
[ed. Whew... how did everything get so complicated.]

Herman Heijenbrock, Interior of a confectionery

Josef K. in Washington: Closing the Courthouse Door

Erwin Chemerinsky is one of the country’s most distinguished legal scholars—the dean of the University of California, Berkeley School of Law, the author of several books, and a frequent commentator on the Supreme Court who is able to explain legal complexities clearly. His subject in Closing the Courthouse Door is a dozen legal doctrines that make it difficult or impossible to vindicate our constitutional rights through the judicial system. A few were created by Congress, but mostly they are the work of the Supreme Court, which in his view goes to great lengths to stop Americans from getting their day in court. The twentieth-century expansion of civil liberties and civil rights encouraged Americans to go to court to hold government and business more accountable. The Court responded by reinterpreting the Constitution and procedural rules to stop lawsuits it viewed as undesirable.

Many of these doctrines are not well understood by people outside the legal profession. For example, as Chemerinsky observes:
If the Supreme Court were to hold that the government can give unlimited amounts of money to religious schools, the decision would make the front-page headline of every newspaper in the country. But if the Court were to hold that no one has standing to challenge the government when it gives money to parochial schools, that would get far less attention. Yet the effect is exactly the same: if no one can challenge a government action in court, the government can do what it wants.
Article 3 of the Constitution ensures that the courts only hear genuine “cases and controversies,” but it was not until the 1920s that the Supreme Court began using it to limit who can sue the government. In 1992, the Court declared, in Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, that citizens lack standing to challenge a government action in court unless it causes “a concrete and particularized” injury to the person suing. Chemerinsky thinks this is absurd: he argues that “it makes no sense to have a situation where no one can sue because of a hypothetical concern over wanting to make sure that there is the best plaintiff.” (True to his principles, Chemerinsky is one of the legal scholars who has filed a lawsuit challenging Donald Trump’s business ties as a violation of the Constitution’s emoluments clause—a challenge that some experts predict will fail for lack of standing.)

What is standing? The standing doctrine prevented Adolpho Lyons, an African-American choked until he became unconscious by Los Angeles police in a routine traffic stop in 1976, from requesting an injunction against the LAPD’s chokehold policies. He was able to sue for his injuries and collected a nominal settlement, but the Supreme Court declared that Lyons could not challenge the police policy of using chokeholds, because he could not show that he would likely be the victim of one in the future. Obviously, nobody could show that—and so nobody has standing to challenge the policy in court. Police officers continue to use chokeholds, as the death of Eric Garner in 2014 reminds us. (...)

In criminal cases, Congress and the Court have dramatically reduced federal judicial review of convictions and sentences pursued through habeas corpus petitions. (“Habeas corpus,” Chemerinksy explains, “allows a federal court to provide relief to a person who was convicted or sentenced in violation of the Constitution and laws of the United States,” and has been used, for example, to challenge “grossly disproportionate” sentences.) Apparently troubled by repeated prisoner petitions, the Court has erected technical barriers to them. For example, it found that petitioners who failed to raise their constitutional challenge in state court cannot later raise it in a habeas petition, in effect dooming those whose defense lawyers failed to raise the challenge earlier. In 1996, during an upsurge of tough-on-crime sentiment, Congress passed the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA). One of its stated aims was reducing the number of appeals filed in death penalty cases, and it erected further obstacles to habeas petitions, including a one-year statute of limitations.

More importantly, AEDPA forbids habeas petitions unless the state court decision against the prisoner was an “unreasonable application of clearly established federal law.” In the Court’s view, this means that the error in the state court’s decision must be “beyond any possibility for fairminded disagreement.” But as Judge Stephen Reinhardt explains:
If the “fairminded jurist” rule were taken literally, it would mean that a federal court could never grant habeas relief. That is because, in order to grant habeas relief, we would need to find that each of the state court judges who denied the petitioner’s claim was not fairminded…. In fact, under the Court’s rationale, if only a single Supreme Court justice agreed with the state court, the rest of the Court would have to adopt the view that the dissenting Justice was not “fairminded” in order to grant habeas relief.
Chemerinsky attacks not only doctrines that reduce government accountability but also those that protect private defendants by keeping plaintiffs out of court. In 1938, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure made it possible to initiate a lawsuit by filing a plain-language complaint setting out what the plaintiff intends to prove. Because plaintiffs cannot begin acquiring information from the defendant (in the process called “discovery”) until a complaint is filed, the rule ensures that complaints will not be dismissed for lack of evidence. Injured persons claiming that a company knew its products were unsafe or plaintiffs claiming employment discrimination, for instance, normally need discovery to prove their case, and the legal reformers who drafted the 1938 rules aimed to make this possible. Convinced that legal technicalities were keeping legitimate lawsuits out of court, the Court followed their recommendation and created an open-door policy.

However, in Ashcroft v. Iqbal (2009), the Supreme Court unexpectedly reversed this seventy-year-old rule. The Pakistani-American plaintiff had been arrested in November 2001 in relation to the September 11 attacks and held for months. He charged that he was arrested solely on the basis of his religion and ethnic background, but to win the case he would have to prove the discriminatory motive of the officials he was suing. For that, he would need discovery. But the Court demanded that when plaintiffs file complaints, they must “contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.”

As one writer puts it, the decision threatens to trap plaintiffs in the catch-22 of needing discovery to get discovery. Citing two studies, Chemerinsky argues that Iqbal has had harsh effects on civil rights plaintiffs as well as criminal defendants, and has led to cases being dismissed much more frequently. Here, however, matters are not as clear as he suggests; there have been more than a dozen studies of Iqbal’s effect, and they disagree substantially over whether it has made a difference.

Other doctrines that limit access to courts include restrictions on class actions, which are the only way that large groups of consumers who individually suffer relatively small losses from corporate misconduct can afford to bring suit. The Court has made it harder to certify classes and has imposed requirements that plaintiffs give notice to all individuals who might be affected by the case, which can be extremely expensive. Furthermore, it has upheld arbitration clauses that forbid class actions, even if state law declares those clauses illegal because consumers and employees have no real choice whether to sign the contracts that require arbitration. Justice Scalia, writing for the majority in ATT Mobility v. Concepcion (2011), explained that if defendants face the threat of class actions they “will be pressured into settling questionable claims.” In Chemerinsky’s words, “the Court’s desire to protect business and its hostility to class action suits could not have been more clearly stated.” (I once heard a distinguished federal judge quip that Justice Scalia’s definition of a frivolous lawsuit was any lawsuit that the plaintiff wins.)

Chemerinsky might have mentioned additional doctrines created by the Court that make it hard for civil rights plaintiffs to bring their cases to trial. Recognizing that civil rights cases don’t always provide plaintiffs with a financial remedy, in 1976 Congress passed a law permitting courts to award attorneys’ fees to prevailing parties in many such cases. The Court has since whittled away at that law. In 1985 it ruled that prevailing plaintiffs would not be entitled to compensation for any attorneys’ fees incurred after a settlement was offered unless the settlement was less than the award at trial; a year later it allowed defendants to offer settlements on the condition that plaintiffs waive their right to attorneys’ fees. In one case, the Court ruled that plaintiffs would not be entitled to attorneys’ fees if the defendant provides the relief a plaintiff requests, even if the case has gone on for years, with the legal bills mounting. The decision empowered defendants whose strategy is to bankrupt public-interest law firms by drawing a case out for years and then granting the requested relief at the last moment before trial.

In Chemerinsky’s view, the basic mission of the federal courts is not to settle disputes among litigants, but to interpret and enforce the US Constitution, while safeguarding it from the will of political majorities. The judiciary’s job is
to serve as the nation’s moral conscience—an institution responsible for identifying values so important that they should not be sacrificed, and reminding the country when its own most cherished values are being violated.
If this is indeed the judiciary’s task, then the doctrines Chemerinsky discusses, including many unanimous decisions to throw cases out of court, are a regrettable failure. Chemerinsky clearly sees matters that way. But readers are likely to come away from his book with a far less agreeable and idealistic image of how the Supreme Court views its mission: it labors hard to keep cases out of court, and it succeeds regularly, decade after decade. Perhaps the Court does so out of fear of a flood of frivolous litigation, perhaps out of a bias toward giving government officials a wide margin of error, or perhaps out of a political ideology of “our Federalism,” the Court’s sentimentalized term for favoring states’ rights over national government (except when the state courts are too friendly to class action plaintiffs, in which cases, under the Class Action Fairness Act of 2005, the suits are moved to the federal courts).

by David Luban, NY Review of Books |  Read more:
Image: Anacleto Rapping/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images
[ed. See also: Who Killed Habeas Corpus?]

Who Owns Water?

As Scott Carpenter and a few friends paddled down the Pecos river in New Mexico last May, taking advantage of spring run-off, the lead boater yelled out and made a swirling hand motion over his head in the universal signal to pull over to shore. The paddlers eddied out in time to avoid running straight through three strings of barbed wire obstructing the river.

Swinging in the wind, the sign hanging from the fence read “PRIVATE PROPERTY: No Trespassing”.

One member of their party waded into the swift water to lift the wire with a paddle for the others to float under. As they continued downstream, Carpenter, a recreational boater from Albuquerque, looked over his shoulder a see a figure standing outside the big ranch house up the hill. He offered a wave, but received nothing in return.

It’s a scene playing out with increasing frequency in New Mexico, where a recent bid to legally privatize streams has public users like Carpenter more than a little alarmed, not least for the precedent it might set beyond the borders of this western state.

While the fight over US public lands has reached a fever pitch unlike anything seen in recent decades, and the Trump interior department seeks to lease out vast areas to private interests for mining and drilling, the fate of public waterways has largely flown under the radar. Now New Mexico has become a battleground for that very issue, with the state government, landowners, and outfitters on one side of the fight and anglers, boaters, recreationalists and heritage users on the other. At the heart of the argument: who owns the water that has long been considered the lifeblood of the arid west.

Water use rights and access vary by region across the country, though the water itself has always been a public resource for people to fish, paddle, wade and float in. Private landowners have long taken unsanctioned steps to keep the public out of waterways, as in the recent case of an Arizona man convicted of shooting at kayakers boating down a river that runs through his land.

But in the last hours of 2015, efforts to bar public access received official sanction, when New Mexico’s state government quickly and quietly passed a bill that implies private ownership of public waters that run through private land. It was a response to a statement from New Mexico’s then attorney general, Gary King, that the public can wade and fish in streams running through private property, as long as they remain in the stream, which is in line with common doctrine in many states. Landowners and outfitters protested.

The rule remained mostly dormant until late December, when in a special meeting with only 10 days’ notice – just a third of the 30-day standard – the state began a process to allow landowners to certify streambeds as private property.

“Prohibiting access from the public is privatizing what has been historically ours, and the way this happened is chilling,” says Robert Levin, New Mexico director of the American Canoe Association. “The process was hasty and moved through more quickly than it should have been. From a recreation standpoint on this, you start to worry about an erosion of inclusion.”

Garrett VeneKlasen, 51, grew up fly-fishing the Pecos, a well-known river that cuts across western New Mexico, with his father. He remembers when it was possible to walk nearly the entire length of the river without running into fencing. “As long as you were respectful to the landowner and private property, you could pretty much come and go and fish right through that entire watershed,” he recalls. “There was almost no exclusivity.”

But when the experience of fly-fishing became a commodity, things started to shift. VeneKlasen had a front-row seat to the evolution when he landed his first job as a fishing guide at 15 years old. He explains it with an example he’s seen play out on what’s now a fenced section of the Pecos.

“That landowner started out just like any landowner, and he had trout in the stream that runs through his property. He decided to do some in-stream improvements, and the trout fishing got better. Then he started to stock big trout in the section that ran through his land, and feed them so they’re artificially big – and suddenly, you can sell an experience. So he fences the river to keep other people out, and to some extent, to keep those fish in. And just like that, a lifestyle became an industry.”

by Cassidy Randall, The Guardian |  Read more:
Image: Garrett VeneKlasen