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Autobiographical Confession in Pop Culture

Megan Brown is the author of American Autobiography after 9/11, published this week. She reflects in this post on contemporary examples of the performative aspect of confession and how we have come to expect that as an audience. Brown is an associate professor of English at Drake University, and her new book is published in the University of Wisconsin Press series, Wisconsin Studies in Autobiography

I need to confess something here: I am an avid fan of the kinds of pop culture that many in my field readily disparage. Yes, I’ll crank up the car radio volume if “Bad Blood” comes on, and yes, I like to cackle about episodes of the various Bachelor franchises with my friends, and yes, I’ll probably keep doing these things even as Taylor Swift songs and reality television shows become more predictable and repetitive over the years. Indeed, the predictability and the repetition are the very things that I find not only appealing, but also fascinating. Some viewers and listeners might find the familiar tropes—insisting on being at the week’s rose ceremony for the “right reasons” or dissing unfaithful men in uptempo C major—comforting in an uncertain world, but I find them strange. They are shorthand, performative gestures toward confession that blur the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction by manipulating and satisfying audience expectations. As Michel Foucault reminds us, audience is central to the workings of confession—as he writes in The History of Sexuality, “one does not confess without the presence (or virtual presence) of a partner who is not simply the interlocutor but the authority who requires the confession.” The confessor is expected and compelled to follow tropes of confessional narrative, and listeners will respond—often with credulity—according to the confessor’s level of fidelity to that narrative.

Let me explain further by turning first to Taylor Swift’s 1989, featuring the singles “Style,” “Shake It Off,” “Blank Space,” and the aforementioned “Bad Blood.” As these songs and their videos became popular, writers in music magazines and on social media alike focused on one factor above all: the lyrics. Billboard dished on 1989’s references to Swift’s ex, Harry Styles of One Direction fame. The Washington Post offered an extended analysis of “Bad Blood,” using quotations and screenshots of fans’ Facebook posts and tweets to suggest that the song was intended as a takedown of Swift’s fellow pop diva, Katy Perry. Questions swirled as listeners tried to map the singles’ lyrics onto the singer’s life. This phenomenon is by no means limited to Swift—consider, for instance, the summer 2016 arguments about the “real” identity of Beyonce’s “Becky with the Good Hair.” Why, though, would anyone assume that song lyrics are autobiographical? Why would we assume that “Becky” is a real, identifiable person, and that Beyonce’s Lemonade is her account of struggles in her marriage to Jay Z? Can’t a popular performer sing from the point of view of a fictional persona, or write songs about fictional characters? In interviews, Swift coyly drops hints about life events that inspired her songs, but—more importantly, in my view—listeners assume autobiographical narrative in her lyrics because she performs “what confession sounds like” in contemporary memoir. Her songs come from a first-person perspective, and they signal authentic vulnerability by presenting a flawed narrator (the girl who “goes on too many dates but can’t make them stay,” as “Shake It Off” proclaims) with less-than-pretty emotions.

Getty Images

Getty Images

Think, too, about the confessional imperative—the idea that Swift “keeps it real” is central to her appeal. Firmly ensconced in celebrity culture, she is always expected to write about her love life, to keep the conversation and speculation going, even if the songs become formulaic. While her audience is not “requiring” the confessions in the way envisioned by Foucault, her continued relevance may well depend on meeting listener/viewer expectations for autobiographical narrative. Her songs, and the items about her in gossip columns, feed each other in a symbiotic relationship that may assure her career longevity. (Or, at least, assure her ongoing notoriety—it’s interesting that her controversial 2016 dispute with Kanye West and Kim Kardashian West is again about “autobiographical” lyrics, this time in West’s “Famous.”)

If we turn to the example of reality TV, we can see how the performed confessional—again, the outward signs of authentic vulnerability—becomes crucial to contestants’ longevity or popularity on a show. Summer 2016 brought the twelfth installment of The Bachelorette, and the most recent Bachelor in early 2016 was the twentieth season of that series. In both of these iterations of

ABC.com

ABC.com

the reality franchise, the contestants receiving the most screen time spent much of that time confessing their feelings and telling stories about their pasts. Maybe these contestants were coached by show producers or by viewings of past seasons, but they seemed to know how to perform; one front-runner, Robby Hayes, was the first to tell the titular Bachelorette, JoJo Fletcher, that he loved her, and he led up to his confession of love by telling a dramatic part of his life story: “I came here [to be on The Bachelorette] because of huge changes I made in my life. Last year, on April 17, my best friend from growing up died. . . . It made me realize that if I’m not happy in the job I’m in, I’m not happy in the city I’m in, and if I’m constantly questioning the relationship I’m in, tomorrow might not be here.” This revelation, while potentially heartfelt, also worked as a strategy for Robby—JoJo later tells the cameras that Robby’s confessed feelings and experiences influenced her to keep him on the show and helped her trust him even when tabloids claimed he might have broken up with his previous girlfriend just so that he could appear on TV. The eventual winner of the season, Jordan Rodgers, similarly deployed autobiographical detail to win JoJo’s trust in the wake of controversial tabloid revelations. JoJo, and her viewing audience choosing to watch and commenting online, expected confessions and rewarded adherence to the well-worn tropes of autobiographical, confessional narrative.

Given the pop music and reality TV references in this post, a reader might be tempted to dismiss the observations here as trivial or irrelevant, but the performance of autobiographical conventions also affects, and can even shape, our politics. Just after summer 2016’s Democratic National Convention, Hillary Clinton enjoyed a “bounce” in her polling numbers, not just in terms of responses to her policy ideas, but also in terms of potential voters’ opinions on aspects of her character, such as being “in touch with the problems of normal Americans” and being “a president you could be proud of.” One reason for the post-Convention bounce? Former president Bill Clinton’s speech, which—as sources ranging from the New York Times to the Conservative Review commented—focused almost exclusively on “humanizing” the candidate via autobiographical stories about the Clintons’ relationship and family life. (This humanizing strategy was highly gendered, creating a portrait of self-proclaimed policy wonk Hillary Clinton as an emotional, even sexual, entity—a topic for another post.) Like Taylor Swift, Beyonce, Kanye West, and The Bachelorette’s many contestants over the years, Bill Clinton knew and used the power of the performative conventions of autobiographical narrative.

University Press Week 2016! #FollowFriday blog tour

upweek2016_LogoSmallThe University Press Week blog tour concludes today, with the theme of #Follow Friday.

 

 

 

 University of California Press offers links to blogs and social channels, showing how they foster community through their publishing and dynamic outreach efforts.

 Seminary Co-op Bookstores provides links to all UP authors that spoke at the Seminary Co-op in November.

University of Nebraska Press congratulates recent literary contest winners.

University of Minnesota Press writes about an upcoming symposium titled Avant Museology.

University of North Carolina Press shares a #FollowFriday post connecting readers to many of their publishing partners.

MIT Press writes about the MIT Press bookstore’s move to a new location.

 

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Thanks for participating in University Press Week 2016!

 

University Press Week 2016! Monday Blog Tour: The People in Our Neighborhood

One of the highlights of University Press Week is the blog tour, in which presses and bookstores celebrate the work of university presses with fascinating and diverse posts, with a different theme each day. Today’s theme is “The People in Our Neighborhood.” Begin today at Northwestern University Press. Rutgers University celebrated their 250th anniversary, and Rutgers University Press played a large role in the festivities—replete with fun photos. Check out Fordham University Press for another interesting post. The University of Toronto Press publishing blog features their history editor, who recounts her experiences running lectures at a nearby Jewish Community Centre in Toronto on Why History Matters Today, which showcases a string of their higher education authors. Their sister blog, University of Toronto Press Journals, spotlights one of their journal editors and the work they are doing in their own communities related to the journal. Seminary Co-op Bookstores shares a curated book list of favorite University Press titles from Haun Saussy, faculty member at the University of Chicago faculty and an author with both Columbia University Press and Fordham University Press. Athabasca University Press features members of their editorial committee. Be sure to return here tomorrow to continue the tour!

Remembering Jean Sue Libkind

Jean Sue Johnson Libkind. Photo by Robert Libkind.

Jean Sue Johnson Libkind. Photo by Robert Libkind.

In Memoriam, Jean Sue Johnson Libkind, former marketing manager of the University of Wisconsin Press

JEAN SUE JOHNSON LIBKIND, retired publishing executive and literary agent, died Oct. 17, 2015 at Penn Hospice at Rittenhouse, Philadelphia. Mrs. Libkind, 71, had resided in Philadelphia since 1984.

Mrs. Libkind, born in Racine, Wisconsin, operated a literary agency in Philadelphia, the Bookschlepper, representing university and academic publishers in the management of subsidiary rights. After graduation from Park High School in Racine, she earned a bachelor of arts degree in journalism in 1966 from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She attended the university on a scholarship from Western Printing of Racine, the publishers of Golden Books, where her father was a staff artist. She also attended summer school at the University of Oslo, Norway. While at the University of Wisconsin, she was managing editor of the student newspaper, the Daily Cardinal. She also served as a board member of the Daily Cardinal Alumni Association.

Before starting her own agency, she was director of publishing operations for the Jewish Publication Society in Philadelphia, and before that worked as a marketing manager for the University of Pennsylvania Press, the University of Georgia Press, and the University of Wisconsin Press. She had also served as managing director of Worldwide Books in Ithaca, New York. Her professional affiliations included Women in Scholarly Publishing, of which she was a founding member, the Philadelphia Publishers Group, Women in Communications, and the Madison Press Club.

She was among the founders and later president of Friends of Eastern State Penitentiary Park, which improved the neglected property outside the walls of the historic prison in Philadelphia’s Fairmount neighborhood. While a resident of Madison, Wisconsin, she was president of seven after school day care centers. She was a member of the Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship of Athens, Georgia, and was until her recent illness active with the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia, including its women’s book club.

She was preceded in death by her son, Eric David Spradling; her father, John B. Johnson; her mother, Jean Barr Johnson; and step-mother, Loretta Richards Johnson. She is survived by her husband, Robert L. Libkind, as well as aunts and cousins in Wisconsin, Alaska and Norway.

In lieu of flowers donations may be made to the American Heart Association.

Jean Sue has asked that the following be sent to all her friends in the event of her death:

My apologia,

Like a bird on a wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir, I have tried in my way to be free. 

If I, if I’ve been unkind, I hope that you will just let it go by, and if I, if I have been untrue, I hope you know that it was not to you. 

I saw a man, a beggar leaning on his crutch. He said to me, “Why do you ask for so much?” There was a woman, a woman leaning in a door, She said “Why not, why not, why not ask for more?’

Like a bird on a wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir, I have tried in my way to be free.

— Leonard Cohen.

Here are some things you’ve heard me say; I call them “GienTsu-isms”—

  • It is not enough to survive. One must do it with a sense of style, a sense of grace and a sense of humor.
  • The mark of a civilization is how it treats its old, its young and its ill. We are barbarians.
  • “If you give a child a love of reading and teach him to read with ease, the child can learn anything.”
  • Romance doesn’t end in a marriage; the love evolves into something far deeper than mere romance with a bit of whimsy emerging every once in a while, just for fun.
  • It is not enough to practice what you preach; you must have the courage to preach what you practice.
  • It’s that damn “Y” chromosome: the leg of the Y gets caught in a man’s ear and he can’t hear what you’re saying.
  • There are twenty people in the world and everything else is done with smoke and mirrors.
  • The good news about the human race is that 99.9% of the people are doing the best they can; the bad news is that 99.9% of the people are doing the best they can.
  • A bird in the hand leaves a messy palm.
  • I earned every one of these wrinkles and gray white hairs.
  • I’m an old woman and I can do what I want.
  • The opinions of those who wish you well matter; the others can go to hell.
  • It is easier to ask for forgiveness than beg for permission.
  • Every time I see the light at the end of the tunnel, it’s some damn gnome with a lantern.
  • She’s got Bette Davis eyes; I’ve got Madelyn Albright’s hair.
  • Most policies are like fire hydrants. Everybody wants to leave his/her mark.
  • Subset: There is always a Chihuahua who thinks he is a Great Dane..
  • In case of an emergency, call an ambulance.
  • When the organic material impacts with the ventilating device, have a beer and remember the good times.

With love and affection—Jean Sue

  • Remember: No place is safe: Mrs. Elizabeth Anne Hewelett Hodges, 32, was asleep on the living room couch when a nine-pound meteor came through the roof of her Sulacauga, Alabama house, bounced off the radio and struck her hip (November 30, 1954). She was bruised; the radio did not survive.

Atticus Finch and Witnessing Whiteness

Reposted from the blog MoralesWrites by Jennifer Morales

Jennifer Morales

Jennifer Morales

Jennifer Morales is on a national book tour for her fiction collection, Meet Me Halfway: Milwaukee Stories (UW Press), and having conversations about race in America

Tuesday was the first time on the Meet Me Halfwaybook tour when the travel schedule, the weather, and our health aligned to allow me and Keren to get out with the “Please Talk With Me About Race” sign. The sign is about 4 feet tall and is painted with black lettering on a white background. We have a 1×4 to prop it up so passersby can read it easily.

We looked for an area of St. Louis that had two things: diverse foot traffic and a laundromat. (It’s Day 6 and we were running out of underwear …) While the clothes spun in the washer, we drove down S. Grand Avenue to find a good place to set up shop. There was a little pocket park in the middle of a row of restaurants, Ritz Park, run by the local business improvement district. It had concrete benches near the sidewalk where diners, students, and others were going by. So when the laundry was dry, we went back there.

I settled myself in on one of the benches with the sign next to me and put on my “door face” — the open, welcoming, cheerful face I used to wear whenever I rang a doorbell during voter outreach on the campaign trail.Meet Me Halfway

I took notes on each interaction we had — from the African American studies professor who outlined the racial divisions in St. Louis County for us, to the white man who flew by saying, “I’m late for a meeting but I’m so glad you’re doing this,” to the black homeless Army veteran who told us how he lived and worked odd jobs in this neighborhood “365 days a year” but was still regularly arrested by white police officers for no reason at all.

But I want most to talk about Gordon. He is a 30-year-old African American man, currently down on his luck and couch surfing. When I asked him if he would talk with me, he looked at my “Please Talk With Me About Race” and said, “Sure, as long as you’re talking about how to end it. As long as it’s for good.”

After he told me familiar stories about his dealings with cops — don’t gather in groups larger than two, try to stay by older folks if possible, walk away slowly if you see a white cop coming but don’t let him know you saw him — I asked Gordon if he thought the state of racial dialogue was better or worse since the death of Mike Brown in Ferguson.

Jennifer in a St. Louis pocket park with the "Please Talk With Me About Race" sign.

“Definitely worse,” he said. The people in the mostly white areas of the county were using the protests that followed Brown’s death as further reason to look down upon and shut themselves away from young black men like Gordon.

I asked him what he thought would change things for the better. He thought for a short minute and said, “It’s going to take time, all of us being human and all. It’s going to take time.”

He paused and then pointed to organizing. He called on the “old heads” to help the younger generations focus their protests in the most powerful and effective ways. But he acknowledged the importance of mass protest to make the case for justice, regardless. “Dr. Martin Luther King didn’t do it all himself. It was a lot of people over a lot of years.”

Finally, he mentioned white allies speaking up. He had recently seen an old movie about a black man charged with rape and the white lawyer who defended him.

“To Kill a Mockingbird?” I suggested.

“Yeah, that was it. White people have to get to the point of saying ‘This is wrong.’ That white lawyer knew the guy didn’t do it, so he stood up.”

Read more of Jennifer Morales’s blogs from her tour, talking about race in America at MoralesWrites.com.

Margaret Beattie Bogue named recipient of the first Frederick Jackson Turner Award

The Midwestern History Association this week announced the winner of its first annual Frederick Jackson Turner Award, bestowed on an individual for lifetime service to Midwestern history. The honor is conferred upon Margaret Beattie Bogue, professor emerita of history and liberal studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Margaret Beattie Bogue

Margaret Beattie Bogue

Bogue joined the University of Wisconsin Extension program in 1966 and later the Department of History at UW–Madison. Her research interests have included the fisheries and wetlands of the Great Lakes region as well as Midwestern agricultural and environmental history.

The Midwestern History Association was formed in 2014 to advocate and support greater attention to Midwestern history among professional historians. Bogue is the first recipient of this new award, which will be presented April 17th at the annual meeting of the Midwestern History Association in St. Louis, in conjunction with the Organization of American Historians conference.

“The Midwestern History Association is proud to confer the first Turner Award upon Professor Bogue, who has been a long-time leader in studying the American Midwest, especially its deeply agrarian character and the decisive role of the Great Lakes in the region’s development,” said Jon K. Lauck, president of the association.

BogueFishingBogue’s definitive history of the decline of the Great Lakes’ fisheries—Fishing the Great Lakes: An Environmental History, 1783–1933 was published in 2000 by the University of Wisconsin Press and received national and regional awards, including the Wisconsin Library Association’s Outstanding Achievement book award. She also brought the rich local histories of the Great Lakes region to the general public through two guides to historic sites: Around the Shores of Lake Michigan and Around the Shores of Lake Superior, also both published by UW Press. In her 2007 second edition of the Superior book, she added historical essays on the Ojibwe presence, French exploration, industry on and around the lake, and the impact of this human history on the natural environment, garnering that book several awards, including the Award of Bogue_LakeSuperiorLGMerit for Leadership in History from the American Association for State and Local History. Her first book, in 1959, was Patterns from the Sod: Land Use and Tenure in the Grand Prairie, 1850–1900 (Illinois State Historical Library).

“Margaret Bogue does meticulous research and analysis, but she makes her work accessible to general readers as well as scholars. She’s always been active in bringing history to the citizens of the Midwest and Great Lakes regions,” noted Gwen Walker, editorial director of the University of Wisconsin Press.

The Turner Award is named for the prominent historian Frederick Jackson Turner, whose famous 1890 lecture on the influence of “the frontier” on American identity considerably shaped the historiography of the Midwest and the broader field of U.S. history. Turner was born in Portage, Wisconsin, in 1861 and earned his BA from the University of Wisconsin in 1884. His essays on regionalism and the American Midwest won the Pulitzer Prize in history in 1933. As a professor at the University of Wisconsin and later at Harvard, Turner trained many historians and helped shape many fields of historiography. Perhaps his greatest contribution to the discipline of American history was his focus on Midwestern history, an emphasis that was carried on by his many students.

The members of this year’s Frederick Jackson Turner Award committee are Pamela Riney-Kehrberg of Iowa State University, Brian Hosmer of the University of Tulsa, and Jane Pederson of the University of Wisconsin—Eau Claire.

“the most conservative-minded revolutionaries that ever put through a successful revolution”?

Jason Knirck’s new book challenges the depiction of the 1920s as a period of political inertia in Ireland

Jason Knirck

Jason Knirck

Reposted from the IRISH TIMES

BY JASON KNIRCK, author of Afterimage of the Revolution: Cumann na nGaedheal and Irish Politics, 1922–1932

In March 1923, Ireland’s Cumann na nGaedheal government was criticised in the Dáil (Irish parliament) for allowing the military to seize cattle found trespassing on a landlord’s estate.  TJ O’Connell of the opposition Labour party claimed it was hypocritical for the government to insist on strict enforcement when Sinn Féin had openly encouraged disrespect for the law during the revolution.

In response, vice-president Kevin O’Higgins denied that his party had preached anarchy and famously said, “we are the most conservative-minded revolutionaries that ever put through a successful revolution.”

Kevin O'Higgins

Kevin O’Higgins

This rather disingenuous statement has come to define Cumann na nGaedheal and the postrevolutionary period in Ireland, as historians often depict the 1920s as an era of stultifying conservatism and inertia. John Regan has even labelled the government counter-revolutionary, with its main goal being the creation of the Irish Party’s imagined Home Rule state.

The common notion is that the promise of the revolution faded in the 1920s as a conservative government replicated the institutions and ethos of its colonial predecessor. While the achievements of the revolution undoubtedly disappointed many, and were largely carried out in an atmosphere of social and cultural conservatism shared by much of the Sinn Féin leadership, recent research has increasingly questioned the depiction of Cumann na nGaedheal as counter-revolutionary or static.

The revolution and its emancipatory rhetoric cast a deep shadow over the following decade, as members of the government Knirckand their anti-Treaty opponents generally defended their policies by invoking revolutionary principles. Although most Treatyites understood the importance of the transition from active revolutionaries to government ministers, this shift did not necessitate a wholesale abandonment of revolutionary ideals.

Like any postrevolutionary government, Cumann na nGaedheal emphasised some aspects of the revolution while downplaying others. Notions of self-determination, anti-imperialism, and Irishness inherited from Sinn Féin became the key points around which Cumann na nGaedheal policies pivoted.

Taking a closer look at the Free State’s relationship with the British Empire is crucial in this regard. Despite constant criticism that the government was pro-British or pro-imperial, Cumann na Gaedheal consistently sought to protect and expand the state’s sovereignty against British threats.

The broadest strokes of this policy are well-known, culminating with the 1931 renunciation of the British parliament’s right to legislate for the Dominions, but the government’s support for Irish sovereignty went beyond these major initiatives.

Shortly before his assassination, for example, O’Higgins represented Ireland at a naval disarmament conference in Geneva. Although Ireland had no immediate interest in naval matters, O’Higgins attended in order to prevent Britain signing any agreement on behalf of the “British Empire,” an entity that he claimed had no legal existence.

The Irish government also earlier turned down a British offer to pay the expenses of Irish delegates travelling to London for the 1926 Imperial Conference, seeing this as an infringement on Irish independence. In this case, the desire to protect sovereignty even triumphed over the tightfistedness of the Department of Finance.

The government also invoked the other Dominions in protecting its sovereignty. Treatyites claimed that existing Dominions would be guarantors of Irish freedom, as any British interference with the Free State would implicitly threaten other Commonwealth members as well. This reimagined the British Commonwealth as an anti-imperial empire: a collection of sovereign states united against the metropole.

continue to page 2, on the Irish Times site here

Books are great gifts!

books_equal_gifts

For your holiday shopping convenience, we have suggestions of University of Wisconsin Press books that would be great gifts! At this special gift suggestions page, find a wide range of selections: biographies, fiction, movies, poetry, traveler’s tales, natural history, Civil War, hunting and fishing, farm stories, classics in translation, Wisconsin, and more. Or just use the “custom search” box in the left sidebar to search our books using the key words of your choice.

America’s Cops View Citizens as “The Enemy”

By Lev Raphael, originally published on The Huffington Post

That’s right. And not just black citizens. All citizens. Skin color doesn’t matter.

A sea change has been taking place over the last decade that’s been invisible to most Americans. Across the country, in big cities and small towns, police forces have been turning into armies. It’s taken the events in Ferguson to blow things wide open.

The fancy word is “militarization,” but it sounds too clinical for what’s been going on. Even before 9/11, the Pentagon was lavishing cops in every state with military equipment, but that’s escalated since 2006 as the Pentagon has unloaded surplus assault rifles; armored vehicles; planes and helicopters. The total dollar amount has now reached into the billions since that terror attack has made everyone think they’re the next target, now matter how improbable it might seem.

Even tiny towns want armored personnel carriers. And they use them. For things like serving warrants and drug raids. That’s right. For ordinary police work that used to done without military hardware.

45,000 SWAT team raids take place in this country every year. The U.S. is now a war zone and our police have morphed into soldiers. They raid at night for maximum shock and awe, break down doors, use flashbang grenades, shoot people’s dogs, wreck homes, and commit violence on innocent citizens. They often raid the wrong house because their information is out of date. Sometimes they even kill unarmed citizens. And they haven’t really been accountable to anyone, despite the string of news stories that have been appearing on local TV stations and in local and national newspapers for years.

I started reading about these epidemic SWAT raids about five years ago and how police forces were recruiting ex-military and radically shifting their consciousness and their perceived mission. Forget serving the public. The public is the enemy, at least potentially, and the enemy has to be crushed. As more ex-soldiers have entered the police force and more cops have been trained by the military, the danger has increased to the general public everywhere.

You know this is a searing problem when organizations as different as the ACLU and The Heritage Foundation agree that America’s police are out of control.

That’s one reason I wrote Assault With a Deadly Lie, a novel of suspense that explores the crushing effects of police brutality on innocent people. Because nowadays, none of us are really innocent in the eyes of the law. We’re all criminals, no matter who we are or where we live. As the defense lawyer in my book says, after 9/11, “You think you have rights and freedoms, but everything is contingent now.”

2014-08-15-RaphaelCoverDesign.jpg

Lev Raphael is the author of twenty-five books in a dozen different genres: http://www.levraphael.com

Follow Lev Raphael on Twitter: www.twitter.com/LevRaphael

Mass Surveillance Began with World War I

One hundred years ago, the outbreak of World War I in Europe eventually led to extensive domestic spying in the United States on German Americans and a startling array of other citizens and residents. Al McCoy’s article below, which was originally published in January 2014 on the blog Tom Dispatch, describes a century of surveillance cycles, documented in far greater detail in his award-winning UW Press book, POLICING AMERICA’S EMPIRE: The United States, the Philippines, and the Rise of the Surveillance State. Of related interest is another UW Press book, UNSAFE FOR DEMOCRACY: World War I and the U.S. Justice Department’s Covert Campaign to Suppress Dissent by William H. Thomas Jr.

 

Surveillance and Scandal

Time-Tested Weapons for U.S. Global Power 

For more than six months, Edward Snowden’s revelations about the National Security Agency (NSA) have been pouring out from the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Guardian, Germany’s Der Spiegel, and Brazil’s O Globo, among other places. Yet no one has pointed out the combination of factors that made the NSA’s expanding programs to monitor the world seem like such a slam-dunk development in Washington. The answer is remarkably simple. For an imperial power losing its economic grip on the planet and heading into more austere times, the NSA’s latest technological breakthroughs look like a bargain basement deal when it comes to projecting power and keeping subordinate allies in line — like, in fact, the steal of the century. Even when disaster turned out to be attached to them, the NSA’s surveillance programs have come with such a discounted price tag that no Washington elite was going to reject them.

For well over a century, from the pacification of the Philippines in 1898 to trade negotiations with the European Union today, surveillance and its kissing cousins, scandal and scurrilous information, have been key weapons in Washington’s search for global dominion. Not surprisingly, in a post-9/11 bipartisan exercise of executive power, George W. Bush and Barack Obama have presided over building the NSA step by secret step into a digital panopticon designed to monitor the communications of every American and foreign leaders worldwide.

What exactly was the aim of such an unprecedented program of massive domestic and planetary spying, which clearly carried the risk of controversy at home and abroad? Here, an awareness of the more than century-long history of U.S. surveillance can guide us through the billions of bytes swept up by the NSA to the strategic significance of such a program for the planet’s last superpower. What the past reveals is a long-term relationship between American state surveillance and political scandal that helps illuminate the unacknowledged reason why the NSA monitors America’s closest allies.

Not only does such surveillance help gain intelligence advantageous to U.S. diplomacy, trade relations, and war-making, but it also scoops up intimate information that can provide leverage — akin to blackmail — in sensitive global dealings and negotiations of every sort. The NSA’s global panopticon thus fulfills an ancient dream of empire. With a few computer key strokes, the agency has solved the problem that has bedeviled world powers since at least the time of Caesar Augustus: how to control unruly local leaders, who are the foundation for imperial rule, by ferreting out crucial, often scurrilous, information to make them more malleable.

A Cost-Savings Bonanza With a Downside

Once upon a time, such surveillance was both expensive and labor intensive. Today, however, unlike the U.S. Army’s shoe-leather surveillance during World War I or the FBI’s break-ins and phone bugs in the Cold War years, the NSA can monitor the entire world and its leaders with only 100-plus probesinto the Internet’s fiber optic cables.

This new technology is both omniscient and omnipresent beyond anything those lacking top-secret clearance could have imagined before the Edward Snowden revelations began.  Not only is it unimaginably pervasive, but NSA surveillance is also a particularly cost-effective strategy compared to just about any other form of global power projection. And better yet, it fulfills the greatest imperial dream of all: to be omniscient not just for a few islands, as in the Philippines a century ago, or a couple of countries, as in the Cold War era, but on a truly global scale.

In a time of increasing imperial austerity and exceptional technological capability, everything about the NSA’s surveillance told Washington to just “go for it.”  This cut-rate mechanism for both projecting force and preserving U.S. global power surely looked like a no-brainer, a must-have bargain for any American president in the twenty-first century — before new NSA documents started hitting front pages weekly, thanks to Snowden, and the whole world began returning the favor.

As the gap has grown between Washington’s global reach and its shrinking mailed fist, as it struggles to maintain 40% of world armaments (the 2012 figure) with only 23% of global gross economic output, the U.S. will need to find new ways to exercise its power far more economically. As the Cold War took off, a heavy-metal U.S. military — with 500 bases worldwide circa 1950 — was sustainable because the country controlled some 50% of the global gross product.

But as its share of world output falls — to an estimated 17% by 2016 — and its social welfare costs climb relentlessly from 4% of gross domestic product in 2010 to a projected 18% by 2050, cost-cutting becomes imperative if Washington is to survive as anything like the planet’s “sole superpower.” Compared to the $3 trillion cost of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, the NSA’s 2012 budget of just $11 billion for worldwide surveillance and cyberwarfare looks like cost saving the Pentagon can ill-afford to forego.

Yet this seeming “bargain” comes at what turns out to be an almost incalculable cost. The sheer scale of such surveillance leaves it open to countless points of penetration, whether by a handful of anti-war activistsbreaking into an FBI field office in Media, Pennsylvania, back in 1971 or Edward Snowden downloading NSA documents at a Hawaiian outpost in 2012.

Once these secret programs are exposed, it turns out that nobody really likes being under surveillance. Proud national leaders refuse to tolerate foreign powers observing them like rats in a maze. Ordinary citizens recoil at the idea of Big Brother watching their private lives like so many microbes on a slide.

Cycles of Surveillance

Over the past century, the tension between state expansion and citizen-driven contraction has pushed U.S. surveillance through a recurring cycle. First comes the rapid development of stunning counterintelligence techniques under the pressure of fighting foreign wars; next, the unchecked, usually illegal application of those surveillance technologies back home behind a veil of secrecy; and finally, belated, grudging reforms as press and public discover the outrageous excesses of the FBI, the CIA, or now, the NSA. In this hundred-year span — as modern communications advanced from the mail to the telephone to the Internet — state surveillance has leapt forward in technology’s ten-league boots, while civil liberties have crawled along behind at the snail’s pace of law and legislation.

The first and, until recently, most spectacular round of surveillance came during World War I and its aftermath. Fearing subversion by German-Americans after the declaration of war on Germany in 1917, the FBI and Military Intelligence swelled from bureaucratic nonentities into all-powerful agencies charged with extirpating any flicker of disloyalty anywhere in America, whether by word or deed. Since only 9% of the country’s population then had telephones, monitoring the loyalties of some 10 million German-Americans proved incredibly labor-intensive, requiring legions of postal workers to physically examine some 30 million first-class letters and 350,000 badge-carrying vigilantes to perform shoe-leather snooping on immigrants, unions, and socialists of every sort.  During the 1920s, Republican conservatives, appalled by this threat to privacy, slowly began to curtail Washington’s security apparatus. This change culminated in Secretary of State Henry Stimson’s abolition of the government’s cryptography unit in 1929 with his memorable admonition, “Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail.”

In the next round of mass surveillance during World War II, the FBI discovered that the wiretapping of telephones produced an unanticipated byproduct with extraordinary potential for garnering political power: scandal. To block enemy espionage, President Franklin Roosevelt gave the FBI control over all U.S. counterintelligence and, in May 1940, authorized its director, J. Edgar Hoover, to engage in wiretapping.

What made Hoover a Washington powerhouse was the telephone. With 20% of the country and the entire political elite by now owning phones, FBI wiretaps at local switchboards could readily monitor conversations by both suspected subversives and the president’s domestic enemies, particularly leaders of the isolationist movement such as aviator Charles Lindbergh and Senator Burton Wheeler.

Even with these centralized communications, however, the Bureau still needed massive manpower for its wartime counterintelligence. Its staff soared from just 650 in 1924 to 13,000 by 1943. Upon taking office on Roosevelt’s death in early 1945, Harry Truman soon learned the extraordinary extent of FBI surveillance. “We want no Gestapo or Secret Police,” Truman wrote in his diary that May. “FBI is tending in that direction. They are dabbling in sex-life scandals and plain blackmail.”

After a quarter of a century of warrantless wiretaps, Hoover built up a veritable archive of sexual preferences among America’s powerful and used it to shape the direction of U.S. politics.  He distributed a dossier on Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson’s alleged homosexuality to assure his defeat in the 1952 presidential elections, circulated audio tapes of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s philandering, and monitored President Kennedy’s affair with mafia mistress Judith Exner. And these are just a small sampling of Hoover’s uses of scandal to keep the Washington power elite under his influence.

“The moment [Hoover] would get something on a senator,” recalled William Sullivan, the FBI’s chief of domestic intelligence during the 1960s, “he’d send one of the errand boys up and advise the senator that ‘we’re in the course of an investigation, and we by chance happened to come up with this data on your daughter…’ From that time on, the senator’s right in his pocket.” After his death, an official tally found Hoover had 883 such files on senators and 722 more on congressmen.

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 Get more information about Torture and Impunity: The U.S. Doctrine of Coercive Interrogation by Alfred W. McCoy, or Unsafe for Democracy by William H. Thomas J.