Monday, June 10, 2013

Check Your Privilege and Fake Victimhood

I have been following the “scandals” regarding the IRS and the NSA that have dominated the media’s orbit over the last few weeks trying to see how all of this would play out. I find it is never wise to jump to a conclusion about a developing set of stories as the facts available to a layman revise swiftly. I initially thought there was more to the IRS scandal than apologists for the Obama Whitehouse wanted to admit, but have come to see that this is political hyperbole of the highest order. Worse yet, it has drifted into political territory I have little patience for: the desire for victimhood.

In many respects, this blog was started 7 years ago to confront some of the nonsensical hand-wringing and “woe is me” mentality that I had come to recognize on the left. As I left my radical circle of comrades and networks, I began to see just how removed from reality these activists were. I got tired of hearing how they were the victims of an undemocratic police force and surveillance network. The biggest badge of honor that could be bestowed on a young activist was to come in contact with the state’s bureaucracy or law enforcement, and claim to have been “abused” by said agencies, regardless of the punishment actually carried out. (Case in point, I remember attending a protest on the UCSC campus, and witnessing a police officer asking one of the protesters to not jump out in front of cars as they drove up towards the campus. Within an hour, this outwardly “white” student was at the microphone, claiming to have been a victim of racial oppression at the hands of the police. I could only roll my eyes in disbelief.)

I did not spend much time with those on “the Right” prior to leaving the university, and I did not realize that this sense of victimhood was common outside of leftwing circles as well. Smarter people than I have said that the IRS had overstepped its bounds when investigating conservative organizations looking for tax exempt status. Based on their knowledgeable assessment, I will have to assume this is true.

But the reaction by conservative media pundits and leaders of some of the groups investigated is truly baffling. Remember, these groups were looking to be free from taxes as an organization under a classification known as 501(c)-4. This wasn’t about the government or the Obama administration putting leaders of groups they disliked in jail. They were not shutting down their newspapers or radio stations. They were investigating whether these groups really were entirely educational non-profits that would not be involved in politics. If they were involved in getting candidates elected or measures put on the ballot in any way, they were still free to do so. They simply had to pay taxes like other campaign related organizations.

So when I see teary-eyed nonsense like the congressional hearing last week, I feel little but scorn for those groups “investigated” by the IRS.

Lots of blubbering about how America has lost its way, and done something inherently un-American by asking about the group’s political aims and operations. But this line really got me going:

“This is a willful act of intimidation to discourage a point of view. What the government did to our little group was un-American…..I want to protect and preserve the America I grew up in…and I am terrified that it is slipping away.”
I was struck by how silly this statement was, and couldn’t help but think of one of my least-favorite internet memes: check your privilege. Hadley Freeman from the Guardian summed up this internet trope well.

"To be fair to them, its meaning is not always obvious, because all too often the well-intentioned phrase is abused. But roughly speaking, it is a way of telling a person who is making a political point that they should remember they are speaking from a privileged position, because they are, for example, white, male, heterosexual, able-bodied or wealthy. It is, in other words, a sassy exhortation to acknowledge identity politics and intersectionality (the school of thought which says, for example, that different minorities experience oppression differently).”

Often used by the same activists I have heaped criticism on in the past, there is a significant grain of truth to the statement. Yes, it is often used by activist types to shut down any opinion they don’t like based on the messenger behind it, and in turn provide authority to anyone of the “right” background. Harebrained and thick as it is often employed, recognizing that one’s own problems and perspective may be greatly influenced by one’s background and status is a necessary reminder in a country that often allows the same circle of policy wonks and talking heads to use up all  the oxygen in our public debates. Becky Gerritson’s should have considered this before her congressional testimony that alluded to some coming totalitarian state under Obama.

Gerritson may not be aware that having the IRS ask her group to pay taxes is in fact not the greatest attack against American civil liberties. It wouldn’t even make the top ten. Here are just a few specifics Gerritson should spend time politicizing in her Tea Party group.

-          One convicted, black offenders receive longer sentences than whites for the exact same crime (as much as 10% more on average).

-          Most drug arrests occur primarily in communities of color where people of color are more likely to receive higher offenses. According to the Human Rights Watch, people of color are no more likely to use or sell illegal drugs than whites, but they have higher rate of arrests. African Americans comprise 14 percent of regular drug users but are 37 percent of those arrested for drug offenses.

-          Black men are much more likely to be pulled over and searched by police than their white counterparts.

In Gerritson’s eyes, having her group asked questions related to their attempt at not paying a single cent in taxes is an attack against the very framework of America. All the while, African Americans are subjected to real and documented discrimination in our legal system in a way that would make even less ardent Tea Party groups consider armed insurrection. So while I understand you feel it was unfair to have your group investigated by the IRS, stop with the exaggerations and victimhood. You are only making a fool of yourself.  

Update: This piece in the Atlantic should also put a wrench in the Right's narative on this issue.

"Close to a third of the advocacy groups named by the Internal Revenue Service as recipients of special scrutiny during tax-exempt application reviews were liberal or neutral in political outlook, a leading nonpartisan tax newsletter reported after conducting an independent analysis of data released by the agency."

The NSA Data Mining Non-Scandal

I’ll be the first to say that I have been underwhelmed by the recent “scandals” to rock the Obama administration. A great deal of the NSA data collection seemed rather rational and commonplace from an investigative angle, and the condemnation from Congressmen (who had signed the Patriot Act into law countless times) seemed like nothing more than taking the moral high ground in a hole full or dung.

Thankfully, David Simon (best known for creating “The Wire”), explains just how mundane the data collecting undertaken by the NSA is. Having spent years as a police reporter, he recognizes that this is nothing new and has been done for decades now in one form or another. He writes:
Having labored as a police reporter in the days before the Patriot Act, I can assure all there has always been a stage before the wiretap, a preliminary process involving the capture, retention and analysis of raw data. It has been so for decades now in this country. The only thing new here, from a legal standpoint, is the scale on which the FBI and NSA are apparently attempting to cull anti-terrorism leads from that data. But the legal and moral principles? Same old stuff. 
Allow for a comparable example, dating to the early 1980s in a place called Baltimore, Maryland. 
There, city detectives once began to suspect that major traffickers were using a combination of public pay phones and digital pagers to communicate their business. And they took their suspicions to a judge and obtained court orders — not to monitor any particular suspect, but to instead cull the dialed numbers from the thousands and thousands of calls made to and from certain city pay phones. 
Think about it. There is certainly a public expectation of privacy when you pick up a pay phone on the streets of Baltimore, is there not? And certainly, the detectives knew that many, many Baltimoreans were using those pay phones for legitimate telephonic communication. Yet, a city judge had no problem allowing them to place dialed-number recorders on as many pay phones as they felt the need to monitor, knowing that every single number dialed to or from those phones would be captured. So authorized, detectives gleaned the numbers of digital pagers and they began monitoring the incoming digitized numbers on those pagers — even though they had yet to learn to whom those pagers belonged. The judges were okay with that, too, and signed another order allowing the suspect pagers to be “cloned” by detectives, even though in some cases the suspect in possession of the pager was not yet positively identified. 
All of that — even in the less fevered, pre-Patriot Act days of yore — was entirely legal. Why? 
Because they aren’t listening to the calls.”

Read the whole thing.