Wednesday, July 18, 2018

A few cautionary words on behalf of accused Russian agent Mariia Butina

I rise to speak on behalf of - but necessarily in defense of - Mariia Butina, the Russian political science graduate student now in federal custody, standing accused of having failed to register as an agent of the Russian Federation as well as related conspiracy charges.

I am motivated less by my belief that Mariia is innocent of the charges levelled against her, than by a desire to push back against the rising tide of 21st-century red-baiting that has enveloped this country. In particular, I am troubled by the fact that the people egging this phenomenon on are blind to the kind of repercussions that may lie in store.

For those who haven't been keeping up with the details of Mariia's plight, she was arrested Monday for her failure to register as a Russian operative. The activities that she engaged in while failing to register include cozying up to the National Rifle Association in an effort to create a back channel of communications between influential Republicans, notably members of the Trump administration, and Russian counterparts.

First, it should be noted that creating a back channel of communications, in and of itself, in no way constitutes a crime. In other contexts, it goes by the name "diplomacy." But, if you're working under the direction of a foreign government, as appears to be the case with Mariia, you have to let the U.S. State Department know that that is your plan.

Of course, this kind of nuance will be lost on the American public, as the words agent and operative used to describe Mariia become interchangeable with spy. Perhaps other charges will be revealed that suggest what she did came closer to what we would label espionage, but, until they do, it's hard for me to see that Butina is guilty of endangering the national security interests of this country in any substantive way.

I should say, in my own defense here, I am well aware of the political context in which Mariia's indictment and arrest occurred. To me they were a demonstration that the National Security Division of the Justice Department, along with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, had, maybe at Robert Mueller's urging, decided to fight back against Donald Trump's public disdain for U.S. intelligence agencies that he put so cravenly on display during his summit meeting with Russian leader Vladimir Putin earlier this week. In addition, there may be a possibility that Mariia will "turn" and provide the kind of evidence for collusion that Special Investigator Mueller is looking for.

So, you might ask, what's the harm? Butina is no ingenue and should have been aware that the job she signed up for with the Russian Federation carried with it some risks. If that's the case, her brazenness with how she conducted communications with her Russian handlers, suggests that she either did not care or had not been properly trained.

The harm lies not so much with Mariia, although having a young person sentenced to a lengthy term in a federal prison for getting in bed with the NRA hardly strikes me as fair. I would argue that having to attend two National Prayer Breakfasts in the course of her assigned duties here should constitute punishment enough. Frankly, I would prefer the slammer.

The real harm, just about to be played out in Russia, with the arrest of U.S. graduates students or American representatives of nonprofit organizations working there under the pretext that they are operating as unregistered agents of our government or some similar trumped up charge. Russia hardly needs any encouragement to imprison foreigners working there on behalf of human rights or press freedom and we have just handed them a bushelful.

If we're lucky, this exchange of pawns in our current geopolitical struggle with Russia will end with a prisoner swap involving Mariia and an American counterpart who is just now about to be arrested in Moscow or St. Petersburg. If we're not lucky, a lot of innocent people will be caught in the crossfire, and the already difficult humanitarian work in Russia will be brought to a screeching halt.

After all is said and done, although I appreciate the blow against Donald Trump that was intended by the arrest of Mariia Butina, in particular by its timing, I believe, in the greater scheme of things, it will prove to have been misguided, resulting in few tangible political benefits and, perhaps, a number of ruined lives.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Punching Nazis and brunching Nazis: what's a resister to do?

I weighed in on the debate about whether it was okay to punch Nazis in the face around the time that white supremacist Richard Spencer was cold-cocked while giving a sidewalk speech on the heels of his infamous "Hail, Trump!" moment during the president's inaugural festivities.

I said then, and I say now, that I thought it was a bad idea to encourage individuals to take the use of violent force into their own hands for any number of reasons. First and foremost was the recognition that force should only be used as a last resort in any situation. Indeed, the use of force should be an overt admission that peaceful remedies have been exhausted.

So far, the democratic process in this country is still alive, although, admittedly, not entirely well. It's certainly not so debilitated yet that we must turn to some sort of vigilante justice in order to accomplish political change. In spite of gerrymandering and voter suppression, we are still obligated to seek redress through the electoral process.

What troubled me most about the calls for punching out Nazis wherever one might find them was the utter naivete of the recommendation. The people who would have Nazis and others like them punched imagine that, when struck, they would simply fall to the ground and that will be the end of that. "Yay us," as they say.

But the reality is that the introduction of the use of force into an already heated situation is often the beginning of an escalating spiral of violence which may lead to a brawl and, if guns are drawn as they very well might in such circumstances, uncontrolled shooting into a crowd. The severe injury or even death of innocent passersby would be the price to pay for encouraging people to demonstrate their outrage with the use of their fists.

In addition, by implicitly deputizing anyone with a grievance with fascists to punch away, we are allowing that person to determine - only by their lights - who makes for a deserving target and what amount of violence they are permitted to apply in their quest for vigilante justice. Is this something we would really want?

Ethically speaking, when we advocate for a certain kind of behavior we are responsible for anticipating and weighing likely outcomes when others follow what they believe to be our well-considered advice. Crying out, "collateral damage," as the dust settles doesn't excuse us from responsibility for consequences that could have been easily foreseen and avoided. Blood that results from our encouragement for punching is, at least in part, on our hands.

This kind of analysis brings me to the consideration of the controversy of the day, the ethical question surrounding the decision not to serve high-level Trump administration officials, such as Sarah Huckabee Sanders, at a restaurant.

The debate has been labeled one about incivility in public life, but I don't feel that that accurately characterizes all the behaviors under consideration. Perhaps the word does apply to aggressive badgering and in-your-face harassment. They are tantamount to acts of violence in my opinion.

Here I'd like to focus on the question of whether a personal choice to deny someone a commercial service constitutes uncivil behavior. To ground my position ethically, I would emphasize that I believe that your labor and your services are fundamentally yours to either offer or to withhold as you see fit. Any regard for personal autonomy demands as much.

(I'll note in passing that denying emergency services to anyone for political reasons would be ethically reprehensible. Suffice it to say, recognizing this, Geneva Conventions long ago mandated the appropriate medical care of enemy combatants.)

This does not mean that your deciding to withhold your labor is without consequences. Your boss could very well fire you for declining to do your job. Likewise, you could run afoul of laws on the books that require your business, if you run one, to serve people who are members of groups which have traditionally been discriminated against. Ironically, in this case, your act would be described as one of civil disobedience, although I feel a misguided one. That said, you could also suffer civil and criminal penalties as a result.

Now it's up to each of us to decide when to deny service to a party for what we consider morally objectionable behavior. Who else could make that decision? Some people may want to draw the line at serving a county commissioner who has voted for a property tax rate increase for example. That's their prerogative, although it probably means that finding long-standing gainful employment may be a struggle.

But sometimes the transgression of the service-requesting party is an affront to universally held human norms, for example participating in the implementation of a policy that forcibly separates children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexican border. As I have written elsewhere, this behavior is so egregious that it constitutes a crime against humanity, one which, I hope, will catch the attention of the International Court of Criminal Justice someday soon.

In these circumstances, your withholding service not only may be ethically permitted, it may be ethically recommended. This of course depends on one's personal situation, namely what the impact of such a decision might as a result of loss of employment. There may be mortgages to pay and mouths to feed, after all. We have a word for people who, after deliberation, are willing to take the hit demanded by such moral action; they are called heroes.

It's useful to recall that the people who led and participated in the 1955-56 Montgomery bus boycott, were actually prosecuted for their "uncivil" behavior. They were accused of promoting a disruption of the public order, this for simply deciding how *not* to spend their own money. That boycott still serves as a prototype for how individuals can use their personal choices in the commercial sphere to effect social change.

I'll close by applying the consequence-based analysis I offered above to my argument here. Yes, indeed, I would encourage people to consider withholding their services from a person whom they believed was involved in a process that amounted to a moral crime.

And what about the consequences of encouraging this kind of behavior? One consequence would be salutary, leading, as in the case with the Red Hen restaurant that refused service to Sarah Sanders, to consultation between managers and employees about how to address important ethical questions of the day. That seems like a good thing to me. Of course, the rejected customer would have to go elsewhere for their meal. Perhaps they would even take the opportunity to reflect on what they had done to provoke the situation, although this is hardly something we could count on.

And finally, I'll say that I would welcome having the tables turned on me as far as such so-called uncivil acts go. I very well might find myself one day a prospective customer in a restaurant whose owner or employees find my positions on, say, LGBTQ rights or women's access to reproductive health care morally repugnant. How would I feel if I were turned away?

Honestly, I'd feel as though I had been done a favor. I'd feel as though I had been been prevented from giving my money to people who oppose the things I hold dear. I would thank the restaurant and its staff for letting me know where they stand and take my business elsewhere. With pleasure.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The tracks of their tears: a closer look at the replicant faces of Blade Runner 2049

“The world is a world of tears, and the burdens of mortality touch the heart.” — Book I, line 462 of Virgil’s Aeneid, Robert Fagles translation

Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) in Blade Runner 2049
[Here there be spoilers.]

Although it has been long established that non-human animal species exhibit displays of sorrow and grief, it still appears that humans are the only primate species which is capable of shedding tears. This is sometimes held out as a marker for our humanity, the way tool-making once was and the way complex language still is.

Now, I don’t buy into the idea that there is a defining behavior that sets humans apart from other animals. But I do believe that our ability to shed tears serves as an important signal of our humanity. If the eyes are the window to the soul, then tears provide a glimpse at that soul’s capacity to recognize the pain of others.

It is telling, therefore, that the only shedding of tears in Denis Villeneuve’s beautifully crafted new film, Blade Runner 2049, is done only by its non-human characters. These include, most notably, two synthetic human slaves known as replicants: the film’s protagonist an LAPD police detective K (Ryan Gosling), the blade runner of the film’s title, whose job it is to hunt down and “retire” rogue replicants, disobedient models from a bygone era; and Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) who serves the lethal girl Friday to the film’s arch-villain Niander Waller (Jared Leto) as well as K’s relentless adversary.

Advanced AIs, namely K’s digital companion Joi, also seem to be capable of the kind of deep personal connection that finds its expression in the welling of tears. As with the AI Samantha in the 2013 movie Her, Blade Runner 2049 challenges us to confront the question: at what point does digitally simulated emotion, designed with superb artifice and textured by the complexity of experience in the world, become the real thing. K, himself, struggles with this question even as Blade Runner 2049 comes to a close.

Yet it is the tears of the replicants that tell the tale at the heart of the new Blade Runner movie.
When we are introduced to K, he is on an assignment in the ecologically devastated wasteland that envelops LA, looking to retire an older model combat replicant. We see in K the embodiment of replicant sangfroid, cool and unfazed even in the aftermath of a harrowing hand-to-hand fight to the death with his “skinjob” target.

Level-headed and ever reserved, K is a careful observer of the non-synthetic humans around him, always calculating the correct response for any situation. He abides anti-replicant slurs without a hint of offense and even deftly handles a come-on from his police superior, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright), whom he calls Madam. Although K and Madam enjoy a kind of illicit friendship, K’s reward for all his brilliant detective work is to be praised as a “good boy,” as though he were not much more than a well-behaved pet.

The main arc of the film is K’s struggle to deal with the emerging possibility that he has been womb-born and not simply a manufactured product of the Wallace Corporation like all other replicants. In his mind, being born would mean that he has a soul. It is this lack of a soul that deprives replicants of moral standing and makes them legitimate targets in K’s ethical universe.

The telltale change that indicates K’s transformation over the course of the film is in his relationship with his own memories. When asked to recall a memory from his early life early in the film, K is dismissive of the value of the question since such a memory is only an “implant,” a fictional story with which he has been equipped as part of the manufacturing process. But, as the film progresses, and as the reality of K’s seminal memory becomes more probable, a different person emerges. And the tears that he sheds as a response are the harbinger of his transformation.

But it is Luv’s struggle with her suppressed humanity and the tears she sheds as a result that speak to a deeper theme of the movie.

At first, it would be easy to dismiss Luv as not much more than Wallace’s diligent robotic henchwoman and to view the inevitable showdown between her and K as something like the duel between the newer model T-1000 and the older model terminator in the film Terminator 2: Judgment Day. But in fact, Luv’s displays of arrogance, cunning, and wit make her the most human character in the film by far.

[I would add here that Sylvia Hoeks’s portrayal of Luv is what makes Blade Runner 2049 work as a film. It is the kind of performance that begs for a Best Supporting Actress award nomination.]

Early on in the film, we realize that Luv is somehow different when she has to stand by and witness the slaughter of a freshly manufactured replicant. Displeased with this failed replicant product, Wallace has taken a knife and gutted his creation. As Luv watches this horrible deed take place, she remains in place but sheds a tear, outward evidence of the pity and the rage that she is forced to contain within.

Luv’s trials points to what could be called the replicant’s torment: constrained by programming to obey the will of a heartless master, but never able to still an inner voice that cries out that what you are doing — or what you are seeing others do— is wrong.

This isn’t to say that Luv isn’t capable of acts of wanton cruelty — using rockets fired from an aerial drone she kills a dozen humans with casual nonchalance — but it makes sense that the anger she feels toward Wallace for making her commit unconscionable acts should find expression in her own brutality and petulant insistence of her own superiority.

Luv’s tears flow again in the film as she confronts Madam in her pursuit of K under orders from Wallace. Madam could well be Luv’s doppelganger; both have taken on the duty to maintain the order of the world by enforcing the wall that separates humans from replicants, and both unhappily endure the corrosive effects that this corrupt obligation has had on their souls, whether biological or synthetic. It is Luv’s recognition of herself in Madam that brings her to tears as she guts Madam with her knife after announcing the lie she might use to account for the killing to Wallace. It’s feels as though Luv is lying out loud to herself.

It is useful to consider a comparison of the film with the now three-deep Planet of the Apes franchise to look for broader meaning of this film. And it is not far-fetched to see Blade Runner 2049 as a sort of Dawn of the Planet of the Replicants. But this is not solely because of the insurrection against the established human order that it and its Dawn of the Planet of the Apes counterpart launch.

In both dystopian stories, humanity has pretty much run its sad moral course. The evidence is how humans fail to value the well-being of other sentient creatures: in the case of the Planet of the Apes series, it is the routine, inhumane treatment of fellow primate species; in the case of Blade Runner 2049, it is humanity’s casual disregard for the lives of their replicant slaves.

Ironically, in both stories, it is technology that both seals humanity’s fate and holds out hope for redemption of sorts. In the Planet of the Apes saga, through genetic engineering misadventure, humans end up handing dominion of the planet over to intelligent species of chimps, gorillas, and orangutans. But in the process of losing control, humans give rise to the possibility of the reemergence of compassion in the world.

In Blade Runner 2049, technology also serves as the midwife for the birth of a successor race of synthetic human-like creatures. It is this successor race of replicants, though, which ultimately can redeem human sins by rediscovering the compassion we have lost. And it is their tears that tell us that hope for this redemption is still alive.