Pray for Iraq but Question your State

 

Sen. McCain with leaders and operatives of the Free Syria Army, some of whom were members of Al-Qaeda in Iraq and are now members of ISIS.

Sen. McCain with leaders and operatives of the Free Syria Army, some of whom were members of Al-Qaeda in Iraq and are now members of ISIS.

Recently I have seen a host of “Pray for Iraq” memes, events and posts on my Facebook feed. Many, perhaps most of the people I know on Facebook are Western Christians from the U.S. and Canada. Many of them, including myself at the time, supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Some of them, even those admonishing others to stand in solidarity with those in Iraq, have rather broadly supported U.S. foreign policy and defended or argued for our actions in the larger Global War on Terror.

It appears that this sudden renewed attention and concern for Iraq has resulted from ISIS’ push into Iraq. ISIS subsequent behavior has cemented their reputation for being a brutal and evil organization centered on an extremist ideology. Some of ISIS behavior has been aimed directly at Iraqi Christians (and other minority groups) which is probably why many of my Christian peers identify with those suffering and are bringing attention to it.

I will not discourage people from praying for and expressing solidarity with Iraqi people, but  I think it is just as important, if not more important, for such persons to question the role of the United States in all of this and act accordingly. I say this because U.S. policy in Iraq is at the root of the rise of ISIS and the suffering of Iraqi civilians. Let me explain.

US Policy in Iraq, The Salvador Option and the Rise of ISIS

ISIS and their actions in Iraq coalesced in an environment of extremism and sectarian violence that was intentionally fostered by the United States. We encouraged this violence by categorically backing the Shia PM al-Maliki politically, economically and militarily despite his efforts to exclude other groups from the political process and power. We trained and equipped Shia militias and re-branded them as elite police units that have acted under his command. We turned a blind eye to the fact that these units operated as state backed sectarian deathsquads, responsible for numerous human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings and torture. In fact, this is what we wanted them to do.

We fostered this sectarian violence in an attempt to split the resistance in Iraq. We wanted Shia and Sunni Iraqis to fight each other, instead of fighting US occupation forces in a coordinated manner as they did initially after the invasion. This tactic lowered the overall number of U.S. deaths, so U.S. politicians could quell increasing dissent at home and pull out sooner, but sowed violence, injustice and resentment that we knew would have a long-standing ill effect in Iraq. The fact that we pursued this form of counter-insurgency strategy in Iraq has been rather clear since at least 2006. This policy has been a bi-partisan endeavor as it was initiated under Bush but has been continued and even escalated under Obama as Obama increased funding to al-Maliki before the current ISIS push.

This is not the first time the U.S. has implemented this counter-insurgency strategy. In the context of U.S. policy this strategy is referred to as the Salvador Option after Salvadoran Civil War, a conflict in which we intervened by pursuing the this same strategy. This doctrine is essentially to “fight terror with terror,” though we often stay one or two stepped removed from the actual killing and torture to avoid any moral or legal guilt in the violence we are directing. As if to underscore how little U.S. foreign policy has changed since then, the same person who was our man on the ground in the support of El Salvadorian deathsquads also had a hand in Iraq: U.S. Col. James Steele. Gen. Petraeus, a key figure in the Iraq occupation, even visited Steele in El Salvador to study under him for a time.

Simply put, during the occupation the U.S. fostered a civil war that smoldered and sometimes raged for years for our benefit. Even after the U.S. pulled out of Iraq, after achieving its fundamental goal of privatizing Iraqi oil so that Western companies could profit, this violence still went on but has been largely ignored by Western media because there were no more U.S. deaths. Obama claimed the ending of an unpopular war as a feather in his cap, but the carnage went on, out of sight and out of mind.

The extremism necessary for groups like ISIS to form was created in this U.S. orchestrated environment of injustice, human rights abuses, political disenfranchisement, external occupation and exploitation. It was during this time that the U.S. encouraged Saudi Arabia and Qatar to help fund ISIS and perhaps even provided direct aid and training to ISIS when they were ostensibly primarily fighting Assad in Syria, another regime that, like Saddam’s, we supported and then turned onIt was in this environment that even people who did not agree with ISIS’ ideology collaborated with them because the alternative of the “democratic” U.S. backed al-Maliki regime was just as bad or worse. This collaboration is what has allowed for ISIS to make such rapid gains and get their hands on a lot of U.S. supplied military hardware. For those of us in the USA, horrified by the actions of ISIS, we must accept the fact that we created an environment where ISIS could thrive, we encouraged our allies to fund them, and we may have even funded and trained them ourselves.

Understanding and Stopping/Changing U.S. Policy is Fundamental to Stopping Groups like ISIS

My point in all of this is that many appear to assume that ISIS’ formation and ideology “just happened” like some force of nature in the region. Others, perhaps shaped by the intentional fanning of Islamophobia in the post-9/11 U.S., believe that ISIS is “just another” expression of violence and anti-Christian sentiment inherent to Islam (which it isn’t). The reality is that Iraqis, after having suffered under the U.S. supported Saddam, after having suffered under the US supported UN sanctions against Saddam, after having suffered the invasion and occupation of their lands by U.S. forces, after having suffered under the U.S. supported “Shia Saddam” of al-Maliki are now suffering under the occupation of ISIS, a group primarily formed in the wake of and by U.S. policy in the region.

The common thread in all of this suffering that has killed hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis of all faiths is U.S. policy, a policy dictated by the wealthy, a policy that primarily benefits the wealthy, a policy that offloads the cost of this policy onto others, and a policy which is often pursued by immoral means. To pray for Iraq but not consider how the U.S. has acted in Iraq and elsewhere, to pray for Iraq but not consider what consequences these policies have had for others, to pray for Iraq and not ask who has really benefited from all this, to pray for Iraq but continue to broadly and uncritically support U.S. policy is a recipe for a continuation of the status quo. More policies will be rolled out that benefit a handful of people while the violence, injustice, and misery caused by the pursuit of these policies will be offloaded onto other people, especially the most vulnerable in the world.

So by all means, Pray for Iraq, but Question the State.

Posted in Christianity, Politics | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Gaza, Blaming the Victim, and Violent Resistance

blame_hamas_by_latuff2

Credit: Carlos Latuff

Blaming the Victim

During the most recent bombings and incursion into Gaza, many in Israel and around the world blamed Palestinians, especially and particularly Hamas, for the violence Palestinians have been suffering at the hands of Israel. People quite literally blamed the victim, suggesting Israel’s hand was being forced, and the massive disproportionate violence it unleashed in the last several weeks was something it regrettably had to do in order to stop Hamas. The rationale was that if only Hamas had never fired any rockets, or would cease firing rockets, or would never have built any tunnels, or had never stockpiled weapons, or had never kidnapped and killed the three Israeli teens, there would be no bombings or incursions and the regrettable but unavoidable collateral damage. Naftali Bennett, an Israeli minister, certainly employed this train of thinking when he accused Hamas of “committing mass-self-genocide.” The argument that Hamas intentionally incurs this violence upon themselves in order to drive up civilian casualties and win a public relations victory against Israel is also built upon this notion.

Nevermind the fact that it was admitted (but later retracted) by an Israeli official that Hamas wasn’t responsible for the kidnapping of the Jewish youths that sparked this all offnevermind the fact that the Israeli government knew the youths were dead but still raided Palestinian communities which inflamed tensions, nevermind the fact that Israel is laying waste to entire neighborhoods, nevermind the fact that the UN Goldstone report found it was Israeli, not Hamas, that used Palestinians as human shields, nevermind the fact that the larger systemic violence, dehumanization and humiliation of Palestinians pre-dates and post-dates Hamas’ existence, (etc. etc. etc.), this line of thinking is illogical and morally abhorrent to me.

Blaming the violence of oppression on violent resistance to oppression exonerates the oppressor, demonizes the victims of oppression and ultimately is a recipe for perpetual conflict and escalation. The ultimate cause of this conflict is settler colonialism; foreigners came into Palestine and asserted themselves as the rightful owners and sovereigns of the land through force, a situation that has had to be maintained through systemic violence and injustice against Palestinians. So, to paraphrase Miko Peled and others: violent Palestinian resistance is in response to much more massive violent Israeli oppression; if Israel wants Palestinian violence to stop, it needs to stop its violence against Palestinians, end the siege of Gaza and establish an inclusive democracy and justice in its nation. Blaming Palestinians or Hamas for the violence of Israel only serves those who want to see the conflict continue and the state of Israel to continue following its present course of increasing right wing extremism.

Lessons from Black Liberation

When various Israeli media outlets, spokespeople, rabbis, and politicians employed this argument, blaming Palestinians for casualties Israel has inflicted, and when various U.S. media outlets, spokespeople, pastors and politicians repeated these arguments, all I could think about was an interview I had seen of Angela Davis. Take a few minutes and watch this interview, part of footage filmed by a Swedish TV crew that was recently discovered and featured in the Black Power Mixtape.

While Davis was speaking from the context of black liberation and resistance to the systemic white supremacy in the United States, I believe this interview touches on a few points that I think are pertinent to any assessment of the use of violence by the Palestinian resistance that’s not hasbara.

First, if violence can be justified whose violence justifiable?

When asked if black liberation might be pursued through violence Davis’ words first point us to consider the underlying merits of the principles and goals that are being pursued by violent or non-violent means. In the grand scheme of things the Palestinians are pursuing a just cause whereas Israel’s overall goals appear to be maintaining a Jewish-Supremacist state built upon ethnic cleansing, land theft and Zionism. If there is any “moral” violence happening within that context it is coming from the Palestinian resistance, not Israel.

Second, if violence is used as a form of self-defense, whose violence is a form of self-defense?

Later, Davis’ words also bring up the concept of violent resistance as a necessary form of self-defense that should be expected when people are suffering from massive systemic violence. Since at least the Nakba, Israel has created and maintained its state through the violence against Palestinians in one form or another, regardless of if the Palestinians were violent or not. In this context it would be absurd to demand or expect no violent resistance from Palestinians.  In this context violent resistance is self defense. Even though violent resistance to a system of oppression like this often takes the form of asymmetrical warfare/guerrilla warfare that occupiers and their allies label as terrorism even the UN has affirmed “the legitimacy of the peoples’ struggle for liberation form colonial and foreign domination and alien subjugation by all available means, including armed struggle.” (Emphasis added.)

Third, if all violence is to be condemned and rejected (regardless of context) what violence should be the focus of this criticism and dismantled first?

Some Palestinians and some supporters of Palestine may be uncomfortable or unable to affirm every type or manifestation of violence utilized by Palestinians in their self-defense. Some may see certain types of violence as immoral (regardless of context), counter-productive politically or militarily in the long run, or are committed to non-violent methods for whatever reason. (I am one such person due to my faith and my allegiance to the teachings of Jesus.)

How can such persons work towards Palestinian liberation, affirm the Palestinian right to self-defense, recognize some Palestinians lament the censure of their right to self-defense by their allies, and yet to be true to themselves and their own principles? On this tension I believe Davis’ interview can also be instructive.

In Davis’ day there were white and black people who condemned all violence, saw violence as counter-productive, and/or feared the violence might directly impact them. When the Swedish TV crew asked Davis about the possibility of violence being used within the struggle for black liberation, it was a question born out of this concern regarding the use of violence.  

Davis responded to this question by appropriately situating this question within the context of the extreme forms of violence black people had endured at the hands of the State and the hands of white supremacists.

The message of this response I think was clear. People were wringing their hands about the possibility of violence being used within the struggle for black liberation but had been silent as violence against black people had raged unchecked for centuries. If people were categorically against violence, why were they focusing on the relatively small violence coming from the black resistance, instead of interrogating the much more deadly, much more widespread, and much more unjust violence that was being used by the State and white supremacists?

Put another way, if a person believes all violence is counter-productive or immoral and as such all violence deserves to be critiqued, condemned and dismantled, the source of the greatest and most unjust violence should be their primary concern.

Within the context of Palestine it is clear that the violence of the State of Israel should be the chief and primary concern of anyone categorically against violence. The death toll between Palestinians civilians and Israeli civilians incurred during Protective Edge underscores this point. Even with Iron Dome possibly not working at all, Israeli lost two civilians as Palestine lost 1,504, billions in infrastructure, and a humanitarian crisis that will take years to recover from, even if the siege is lifted.

To wring our hands about violence coming from the Palestinian resistance while diverting attention away from the violence coming from the State of Israel, or even equally focusing our attention, is to fall into a trap that ultimately serves the State of Israel.

While people such as myself may have to utter a word of censure to Hamas’ use of unguided rockets against civilian areas or similar behavior, we should save the lion’s share of our moral outrage and our efforts to dismantle systemic violence for the State of Israel.

Posted in Politics | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Second Great Awakening and the Emptiness of Evangelicalism

Evangelicalism in the United States, and Christianity in the United States in general, has many problems. One only need to compare what is acceptable in Evangelical culture to the teachings of Jesus to see some of the more obvious conflicts. These problems go beyond the failings of individual leaders or the simple fact that human frailty constrains our ability to live out our espoused ideals. To me, Evangelicalism is empty; it is an easily distracted civil religion, led by charismatic leaders who may or may not follow Jesus’ teachings, that is easily co-opted by other agendas and ideologies.  I would argue that a lot of these problems stem from structural, theological and systemic issues at the foundation of Evangelicalism, some of which started during the Second Great Awakening. To explore this issue a bit more, after briefly introducing what the Second Great Awakening was, I want to focus on three problems within Evangelicalism that have come from this time: a focus on theatrics and technique, a focus on charisma, and the proliferation of a shallow Gospel.

What was the Second Great Awakening?

The Second Great Awakening was a second Christian religious revival in the United States that started in the late 18th century and continued into the early 19th century. This Second Great Awakening was actually a number of different revivals that unfolded in many different geographical areas, in many different denominations, but were nonetheless theologically and practically very similar. Revivalists in the cities and the frontiers hosted revival meetings that presented the Gospel to thousands of people at a time. Often these revivals events unfolded over the course of several days before moving onto the next area. During this time millions converted to Evangelical denominations causing a dramatic rise in their membership. Christianity in the U.S. still bears the impact of these movements. Today roughly one fifth of the U.S. identifies as a “born again,” evangelical Christian, direct theological and ideological descendants from this time.

While there are arguably some positive or progressive developments from this era, I want to turn to the three problems I think were initiated in this era and are still with Evangelicalism today.

A Focus on Theatrics and Technique

GSTS69420 VII-3

A depiction of a typical revival camp meeting on the Frontier.

The revivals of the Second Great Awakening were as much theater as they were preaching or teaching. The revivalists of this time recognized the importance of presentation, technique and entertainment to their endeavors and quickly incorporated them into their revivals. Everywhere a revival went, a theater like stage (such as the one depicted in the drawing above) was present. Plays, lighting, music and other methods started being used to cultivate an environment ripe with emotionalism and excitement to foster conversions. This was perhaps especially effective in the frontier revivals, where the remote location meant any large gathering of people would bear the promise of excitement far beyond what the area normally saw.

This begs the question if the revivals were the work of the Spirit or the work of man and emotional manipulation. Even in their day some revivalists worried conversions were being manufactured through the methods revivalists were using, not through a true conversion brought on by a genuine response to hearing the Gospel. The revivalist Nettleton, in worrying over the agency of God in the Second Great Awakening wrote, “Should a revival be desired, the machinery would go into gear and it would be created through sheer willpower and method.”

The practice of using theatrics and technique to cultivate a specific response from the congregation never left Evangelicalism. It can be found at large mass rallies and contemporary revivals but also in your average Sunday service. Walk into any Protestant church in the United States and they will probably have a designated stage with at least a modest lighting and sound system. Some churches have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on lighting and sound systems that rival local theaters and cinemas. This theatrical apparatus is used to foster an environment of entertainment and emotionalism, ripe for religious experience. It is any surprise some hold a consumer attitude towards church attendance, where they attend churches so long as that church can provide the spiritual experience they are looking to consume or enjoy?

A Focus on Charisma

broadway tabernacle 2

The Brooklyn Tabernacle, created for Charles G. Finney, was either the first or the forerunner of the megachurch in the U.S.

The Second Great Awakening also rather quickly became centered around personalities. As the revivals unfolded a handful of specific revivalists became incredibly well known. Soon lecture halls and tents were erected specifically so that these famous revivalists could be heard and enthralled by as many people as possible, hopefully leading to a revival in the area. The creation of the Brooklyn Tabernacle (pictured above), built so that thousands of people could hear Charles G. Finney speak at one time, is one such example of this.

In the environment of the revivals it was charismatic leaders with strong voices, handsome faces, and winsome personalities who won the most converts, received the most attention, and gained the most sizable following. This led to a situation where personal charisma become the most prized trait in a Christian leader. Education, character, or knowledge of and allegiance to the teachings of Jesus, became afterthoughts to a leader’s ability to win and keep a cult-following through personality alone. For example while Nettleton expressed his worried that the revivals were not authentic and were being manufactured, Finney responded by basically saying, “Well it works.” History has shown that the unconcerned Finney is remembered by many while Nettleton is essentially forgotten.

This preference for charisma has never left Evangelicalism. In her piece The Line Between a Heretic and a Prophet is Thin, Suey Park, stated that “What I didn’t realize was how much white evangelical Christians would cherish this skill [the ability to perform and be liked]; the church often values charisma over character.” This Evangelical preference for charisma over character is not something new, and if anything it has heightened. Evangelicalism is today essentially captivate to super-apostles who write books, run mega churches, go on speaking circuits and launch movements, whose success is due more to their personality than any other aspect of their life or faith.

A Shallow Gospel, and Room for Other Ideologies

Most importantly the Second Great Awakening sparked the proliferation of a very shallow Gospel.

The revivalists employed an incredibly simple and short Gospel in their work. It went was something like this:

Humanity is sinful and deserves eternal punishment. To forgive us, God sent his only son Jesus to die for our sins. To get into Heaven and avoid going to Hell, a person has to pray to accept Jesus as their Lord and savior.

I call this Gospel the Evangecube Gospel, or the Heaven’s Gates Hell’s Flames Gospel after some more contemporary methods used to share this same Gospel. When combined with charismatic leaders using theatrics and techniques to stir up emotionalism, it was (and is) wildly successful at winning converts.

The problem is then that these newly minted followers of Jesus had a faith based on a dubious spiritual experience that was grounded in an understanding of the Gospel that is either woefully incomplete or an altogether false representation of the Gospel.

Even if accepted as the Gospel message, it must be admitted the Gospel of the revivalists is a very shallow or narrow Gospel that omits much of the scriptural story. This Gospel is devoid of any connection to or even mention of the history of Israel. This Gospel is devoid of any of Jesus’ teachings that He would have His followers embody and live out. This Gospel cannot be reconciled with the historical and cultural context within which it supposedly originated. While many verse-bites allegedly support this Gospel (*glares at John 3:16*), it cannot be reconciled with a broader reading of scripture. Ultimately this Gospel is about assuring a person of their individual salvation and not much else.

This shallow Gospel leaves a lot of room for other ideologies to creep into the lives of believers. This has produced a situation where people claim to be Christian followers of Jesus, and perhaps even identify their faith as the central aspect of their identity, who live their lives according to other ideologies, many of which conflict with the teachings of Jesus.

As history has progressed other ideologies have indeed taken root within American Evangelicalism, to the point where they eclipse the actual teachings of Jesus. Nationalism has crept in, allowing for followers of Jesus to violate Jesus’ teachings on non-violence without concern. Consumerism, capitalism and materialism has crept in, allowing for followers of Jesus to violate Jesus’ teachings on wealth. The pursuit of the American Dream has crept in, allowing followers of Jesus to pursue the well-being of their family while ignoring the plight of all others, despite Jesus’ teachings on justice and social welfare.

What does this all mean?

The Second Great Awakening set the evolutionary trajectory of Evangelical Christianity for decades to come, if only because of the sheer amount of people these revivals won to the Evangelical movement. A focus on theatrics and technique to craft an emotional/spiritual experience, the focus on charisma, and the proliferation of a shallow Gospel are three main aspects of Evangelical culture and theology that come from this era. Of these, the proliferation of the shallow Gospel is perhaps the most problematic. Because the Evangelical Gospel is so thin, it barely conflicts with other ideologies, so long as these other ideologies do not present an alternative pathway to personal salvation. This created room for other ideologies to creep in and even dominate Evangelical culture and theology, without anyone realizing how inappropriate these ideologies are for followers of Jesus. If this issue is to be addressed, the core definition of the Gospel in Evangelicalism must be addressed. Anything less will probably be as fruitful as polishing the brass on the Titanic.

 

Posted in Christianity | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Episode 6: Christine Apa and the 24 Foundation

christine apa

On today’s episode we will be discussing the 24 Foundation (www.24foundation.org) and their work to help people heal through art with their founder and CEO, Christine Apa.

Episode 6: Christine Apa and the 24 Foundation

Thanks for listening, I hope you enjoyed today’s episode and feel free to email me any questions, comments or concerns at speakfaithfully@gmail.com

-SF

Posted in Podcast | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Weaponization of Social Media and Sociology

The Power of Perceived Consensus

Many years ago I learned about the Asch Conformity Experiment. I could explain it, but this video, with footage from the actual tests probably introduces it best.

This study highlights the powerful effect that our perception of the consensus around us has on our behavior. In this study it was found the majority of people would deny what they knew to be objectively true if the group around them unanimously denied that truth. People either convinced themselves that their perception must have been wrong because everyone else around them held a different view, or they just went along with the group to avoid being criticized or making waves.

Additionally, while only one dissenting voice was enough for others to also break ranks from the group consensus, people who yielded to group pressure served to increase the pressure to conform on those around them by adding another voice supporting the group’s denial of reality.

In an individual situation this may not be to dangerous or harmful.  However, according to Alasdair MacIntyre’s theory of tradition-constituted rationality, humans perceive and define what is reasonable or appropriate based largely on tradition. Tradition itself may be thought of as a group consensus that is transmitted over time. This means that in a larger perspective, the yielding to group pressure, despite plain evidence to the contrary, is the first step towards something clearly false evolving into something that is so widely accepted as true it is rarely, if ever, examined or criticized

I bring this up because it is in light of humanity’s propensity to yield to the consensus we perceive around us that a number of recent revelations regarding the State and Social Media should be seen. Understood and seen together, these revelations should be quite alarming to anyone paying attention. In this post I will examine recent stories regarding the Facebook “emotional contagion” study, the Minerva Research Initiative, and revelations regarding GCHQ programs and what they mean for the future.

The Facebook “Emotional Contagion” Study

p1

It was recently revealed that the Facebook corporation carried out a social experiment on hundred of thousands of its users. (The actual manuscript published from this study can be found here.) In this study they manipulated the number of positive and negative messages a user saw on their timeline and they observed the impact this had on the nature of the posts the user themselves put forward. The result was that they discovered they could manipulate the emotions of their users through controlling the type of content they saw. People who saw less positive postings posted more negative messages, while those who saw less negative postings posted more positive messages.

Before I say more I should just say that as someone working in mental health research, having such a gigantic population that is uploading a vast trove of data, information and interactions at your disposal and open to your manipulation for experiments is just about any researchers dream. However, I believe this study was unethical because Facebook and their Cornell collaborators carried out this research without properly obtained informed consent. Facebook’s terms of service include a clause that states that users release their information for “data analysis, testing, [and] research,” so this study had legal consent, but this is not the same thing as informed consent required by most social disciplines. “Participants” who were manipulated were never informed of this study nor of any dangers it may have posed to them. This research was unethical but carried out anyway for the benefit of Facebook, not its users.

Considered by itself, this study might not be that unnerving. In fact, ethical issues aside, similar studies have shown the same phenomenon occurs with text message and other forms of community. But it does act as a proof of concept that someone with the power to control the Facebook feed can influence large groups of people in certain ways. This becomes more alarming when we look at what else was recently revealed.

The Minerva Research Initiative

p2

Around this same time new information came to light about the Minerva Research Initiative. The Minerva Research Initiative or Project Minerva is a series of studies and research programs at various academic institutions being funded by the Pentagon. While individually they appear to be rather normal research efforts that are undertaken by universities, as a whole they reveal that the Pentagon is spending millions of dollars studying civil unrest and social movements in the hopes of better understanding them, controlling them, and preparing for a possible social collapse. This, in the words of Natasha Lennard of Vice, is an example of “using the academy for the militaristic purposes of studying and stemming dissent.”

There are two aspects of this initiative that are especially troubling and relevant to note here. First, one of the researchers from the Facebook “emotional contagion” study, Jeffrey T. Hancock of Cornell University, has also received funding from the Minerva Research Initiative. In his work funded by the Pentagon Hancock has been studying the spread of ideas through social media under oppressive state regimes. Where one study tracks “emotional contagion” another tracks “social contagions” or the spread of ideas and popular opinion. The desire to understand the spread of ideas and beliefs in social movements is not being funded by the Pentagon to in a desire to contribute beneficial information to the discipline of sociology, but is to increase the Pentagon’s ability to stop, undermine or control social movements and the spread of ideas that challenge the State.

Second, the Minerva Research Initiative is focused in some cases explicitly on peaceful activists, not militants or extremists. The rationale underlying this is that any activist, peaceful or not, who is critical of the state or corporate status quo is on or part of “a conveyor belt to extremism.” Again, studying the behavior and actions of peaceful activists, including their utilization of social media, is being pursued to enable ways for the Pentagon to limit the effectiveness or even manipulate such persons. This isn’t about fighting terrorism; this is about fighting challenges to the status quo.

For more on the Minerva Research Initiative check out Unauthorized Disclosure’s interview with Nafeez Ahmed, one of a small number of journalists who has been following this Initiative for some time, or his interview with Abby Martin of RT.

State Manipulation of Society Through Social Media

p3

 

While perhaps unethical or unsettling, some might suggest the pursuit of this research isn’t indicative of the State’s desire or ability to exert control over society through social media. I would disagree and recent revelations from The Intercept back me up.

Edward Snowden has recently provided evidence revealing that the Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group (JTRIG), an extension of the British spy agency GCHQ, has developed tools to do exactly that. Glen Greenwald reports that the documents reveal JTRIG “has developed covert tools to seed the internet with false information, including the ability to manipulate the results of online polls, artificially inflate pageview counts on web sites, ‘amplif[y]‘ sanctioned messages on YouTube, and censor video content judged to be ‘extremist.'”

I encourage my readers to look at the actual document and read over the extent and scope of these programs. Twitter, Linkedin, Tor, Youtube, Google+, Paltalk, Facebook, MSN Messenger, SMS text messages, Dailymotion, Blackberrys, eBay, IRC, and GSM/Satellite phones are just some of the technologies and social media platforms targeted by these tools.

This is clear evidence that governments are not just attempting to monitor social media, and they are not just attempting to silence or discredit dissenters on social media, but they are looking for ways to very directly manipulate social media and to manipulate people through social media to their own ends. Frighteningly enough JTRIG has boasted most of the programs it advertised internally are “fully operational, tested and reliable.” Call me suspicious, but I doubt the NSA does not already have similar programs in place or not also pursuing them.

State and Corporate Collusion and Lack of Public Oversight and Accountability

secrecy

 

The reality of research into and the weaponization of Social Media is additionally troublesome considering Social Media corporations have proved willing to continue the longstanding tradition of State and Corporate collusion. While many of the corporations implicated in revelations about the NSA’s PRISM program denied their involvement and feigned outrage and ignorance, some of these statements have been proved false. Additionally, Google has moved towards becoming a defense department contractor on the payroll of the U.S. Government. Maybe Google just realized how lucrative war is. Huge U.S. corporations such Yahoo, Google, Cisco and Microsoft have also already proved they are willing to censor their services at the request of foreign governments and their “we were legally bound” stance on NSA programs shows they are willing to work for and with the U.S. government in the same manner.

Making things even worse is the reality that in this arena both the State and Social Media corporations are operating behind the scenes with no real oversight. The State hides behind the claims of the need for secrecy to maintain national security. Even government officials tasked with providing oversight are prevented from discussing what they believe the public would be appalled by and others indicate they have been kept in “utter ignorance” regarding the full extent of these programs. Social Media corporations hide behind claims of proprietary technology and algorithms. The public is kept in the dark on how the systems they use work and who really controls them. How does Google decide will be on what page of your search results? How do Facebook and Twitter decide what will be displayed on your newsfeed? According to what criteria do some of the algorithms make these determinations? Can these algorithms be manipulated or specific results altered, and if so by whom? We know, at least with Facebook, there is apparatus in place to alter the newsfeed of hundreds of thousands of people in very nuanced ways with basically no way for anyone to detect this. So who has the power to do this, what scrutiny are they under and who do they answer to?

So far the only way the public has become aware of abuses of these powers is through whistleblowers like Snowden, people who the current administration, an administration that promised transparency, and has consistently prosecuted with vigor.

State (and Corporate) Efforts to Manipulate Through Media Are Not New

media

Now the State has always looked to use media to quell dissent and shape public perception and opinion in favor of State interests, which often turn out to be corporate interests. This is nothing new. For example, public opinion in the U.S. was so anti-imperialist and anti-expansion that the annexation of Hawaii in 1883 was seen as un-American. However, after a deluge of jingoistic newspaper articles, “Five years later, this consensus evaporated. Almost overnight, it was replaced by a national clamor for overseas expansion. This was the quickest and most profound reversal of public opinion in the history of American foreign policy.” And the annexation of Hawaii was ultimately so that missionaries-turned-sugar-barons could avoid paying a new tax on their sugar being sent to the U.S.

Radio and television media have likewise been used. The centralization of all media in the U.S. has increased the ease with which media is controlled and the danger it poses to everyone. Today in the U.S. six companies control 90% of the media, and directly determine what stories get reported and in what way. To think these forms of media are not already being used to shape public opinion and steer public discourse in favor of State and corporate interests would be absurd. So what’s the big deal about the weaponization and manipulation of Social Media?

Social Media as a Democratic, Unauthorized, Uncontrolled Space for Discourse

sm

Social Media has created a space for unauthorized and uncontrolled discourse where the “social contagion” of ideas can spread rapidly. Social Media and the internet in general have also allowed us to connect to alternate sources of information from which to fact check and criticize the dominant narrative being pushed by centralized State and Corporate controlled Media. Today, regardless of whatever information or narrative a State or Corporation might be disseminating about a people, a situation, or a policy, I could go online and educate myself by connecting with other people and information available online. This was not possible a couple decades ago without time, travel and serious effort on my part. So, for example, despite media stories consistently being slanted against Hugo Chavez, I could examine his actions and the actions of his administration for myself thanks to the internet, connecting with people on the ground in Venezuela or by reading news sources not controlled by the State or Corporations.

Social Media in particular has proved especially important as a platform for silenced and ignored voices. Things we would never consider or learn about have been brought to our attention by connecting with people or ideas via networks outside the mainstream historic media systems. For example, #BringBackOurGirls hashtag on Social Media made Boko Haram’s mass kidnapping an international story. While the State’s use of this crisis to advance its agenda regarding the militarization of the African continent, one would not have expected this story to reach international levels without Social Media.

The Bottom Line: This is New Territory With Frightening Possibilities

censor

Social Media then represents a threat to the ability of the State to exert control over its populace. It’s only natural then that the State would then seek to understand how Social Media operates and how to manipulate it thus bringing Social Media into their already considerable influence it has over other existing forms of media.

Just as the advent of drones has sparked a revolution in warfare and policing, so the State’s efforts to manipulate bring Social Media under its influence will also represent a revolution in the State and Corporate ability to influence and control society.

The Facebook “emotional contagion” study proved that large scale secret manipulation of Social Media and of people through Social Media is possible. The Minerva Research Initiative has and will continue to increase the State’s understanding of and ability to influence and undermine social movements, civil unrest and peaceful activists. The GCHQ programs are evidence that the State has already developed ways to secretly manipulate the content of Social Media in many ways.

As it stands, it is currently possible for certain persons to secretly manipulate the information millions of people take in, crafting it to suit whatever agenda they have in mind, in real-time. We have no idea who these people are, who they answer to, or what apparatus, if anything, holds them accountable. This all adds up to the weaponization of Social Media, and we are just at the beginning of this new push for control by the State.

What makes this new situation so frightening is that underlying all of this is what the Asch Conformity experiment pointed to: the incredible power of our perception of consensus. If it only took three or four people unanimously denying reality to get another person to yield to group pressure and also deny reality, what happens when a person sees a story, message or video with literally millions of views, hundreds of positive comments, likes and other evidence of agreement and consensus by their peers? How many people can be scared into silence or convinced to abandon their true perception of reality due to a false consensus being presented through Social Media? How could a person ever consider the alternatives to the status quo if every story they see through Social Media and other media about these alternatives is a straw-man caricature of these alternatives or a story that demonizes and embarrasses people who espouse them?

Because of this, secret State manipulation of Social Media does not just hinder or cripple Social Media’s ability to allow us to step outside of State and Corporate controlled narratives but will also expand the State’s ability to influence people through Social Media. Due to the prolific use of Social Media, previously impossible Orwellian forms of shaping public perception about the world are now possible, leaving us to consider the possibility of a rather dystopian future even worse than what we have now. We would do well to pay attention to this situation, prepare for more research and development from the State on this issue, and do whatever we can to enable and require transparency and fairness regarding the flow of information through Social Media.

Posted in Politics | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Suey Park and the Dire Need for the Prophetic Tradition

“Where are all the prophets who love God?”

- Ramone, spoken word poet

Suey Park, (who was mentioned last on this blog regarding the furor over #CancelColbert) recently posted about her experiences in the church, and before you continue please give it a read (LINKED HERE and also HERE).

Our trajectories out of Christian ministry and to a place with one foot in conservative faith communities and another in activist communities are eerily similar.

We both had become ardent members of evangelical circles involved in parachurch ministries. We both endorsed the “narratives of ascent” and “before and after” stories of faith exalted in these spaces. We both got stuck in weird stances on LGBT issues where we tried to maintain the traditional condemnation of queer identities as sinful but at the same time attempted to avoid marginalizing queer people. We both began questioning the culture of faith we knew. We both began connecting with other communities in order to learn and connect, not to proselytize. We both began to recognize the damage common Christian theology and practice does to marginalized and traumatized people. We both looked upon the killing of Osama Bin Laden and the Christian nationalism it evoked around us with criticismWe both were accused/questioned of being lesbian/gay when we began standing in solidarity with the queer community. We both began to see how Christianity often supported or was complicit in a variety of injustices.

Ultimately both of us failed to keep quiet, we rocked the boat too much, and have since begun sorting out how to pursue justice beyond the traditional boundaries of the Church.

To this end Park has recently co-founded with a number of others Killjoys and Prophets, “a consciousness-raising faith collective centering on women of color, feminism and activism.” Their hashtag is #killjoyprophets and their Twitter is @KilljoyProphets. Please take the time to check them out if this is something that sounds like your kind of deal.

Currently Park states that she is pondering two huge questions that I think are the right kind of questions to be asking of Christianity:

1) Will Christians embrace justice if it means letting go of the privileges they often find comfort and safety in?

2) Is the church willing to look within at its creation and perpetuation of systemic inequity rather than simply pointing fingers to the “secular” world?

The Death of the Prophetic

I wish all those involved with Killjoys and Prophets the best of luck. Their second piece, on racial reconciliation within the Church, especially in regards to AAPI communities, dropped a few days ago and it seems they are not pulling any punches with their critique and their desire is for real substantive change.

However, Park is not the first Christian that I’ve come across who has found themselves alienated from their faith community because of their faith inspired pursuit of justice and criticisms of the Church. I have met many people with very similar stories over the years.

While no community enjoys receiving criticism, the Christian church seems especially averse to any sort of exposure of its own problems. It has become incredibly adept at utilizing sophisticated deflections to avoid critique from anyone, Christian or not.

I believe this situation is in a large part due to the death of the prophetic tradition within Christianity. While the prophetic tradition exists in our Bible, and Ephesians 4:11 makes it clear this tradition was supposed to continue, Christianity rather quickly adopted structures and systems of power that mirrored secular institutions around them. The prophetic tradition had no place in this new order and any understanding or practice of the prophetic tradition was rather thoroughly eradicated from Christianity, to Christianity’s own detriment.

The Work of the Prophets

Before I say anymore I should make it clear what my understanding is of the prophetic tradition, and what its function was and is supposed to be.

Contrary to how I have heard the term commonly used, acting as a prophet does not mean standing up for vaguely defined Christian values as they become unpopular or condemning the sins of the secular world and speculating about the coming judgment of God.  Reading the prophetic works of the scripture it is clear the prophets often explained the judgments of God and this was at least part of their role, but it was rarely focused on the sins of outsiders and foreigners. They would explain the punishments that would befall (or had already befallen) the people of God and what sins or problems in the community had prompted these judgments.

Sometimes this problem was cultic (how the people of God were worshipping God). Sometimes this problem was idolatry (who the people of God were worshipping). More often than not the problem was in regards to justice (what the people of God were doing or failing to do).

In regards to that last point it should be noted that while that some of the moral codes in the Bible have changed or been modified over the centuries, providing justice for the vulnerable has been a consistent exhortation throughout scriptures. The people of God were and are judged as righteous or unrighteous according to how they are treating the poorest and weakest among them. Are they providing justice to the foreigner, the widower, the orphan and the poor or are they exploiting the most vulnerable among them?

The prophets or prophetesses were calling the people of God back to their senses and inviting them to return to the ways of the God of Israel, the ways of justice. In his book The Challenge of Jesus N.T. Wright labels this important function of the prophets as “critique from within.” While criticism from the outside might be merited and important to pay attention to, it is indispensable to have people within our own communities calling us to live aligned with our own ideals, people from within calling us to be true to ourselves.

The Dire Need for Prophetic Voices

Over the centuries, the loss of the prophetic tradition has been problematic for Christianity as a whole. Time and time again both within scripture and in the history of Christianity, the followers of the God of Israel have drifted far from that God’s teaching and will. Time and time again Christianity has needed prophets and prophetesses to provide a critique from within and call us back to ourselves. Yet Christianity continued in its injustices and drifted farther away because it had silenced the very voices it needed.

This has been especially problematic for Christianity in the United States. During the Second Great Awakening Christianity in the United States took a dramatic turn for the worse. The legacy of the manufactured revivals and camp meetings was that Christianity became easily enthralled by spectacle and theatrics, Charisma became the most sought after trait among its leaders, and the faith of many was founded upon an extremely narrow understanding of the Gospel. (I will deal with this in greater detail in my next post.)

Since the Second Great Awakening, the devolution of Christianity in the U.S. has continued, in part due to the lack of a robust prophetic tradition to bring it to its senses. This has left us with an easily distracted civil religion, led by charismatic leaders who may or may not follow Jesus’ teachings, that is easily co-opted by other agendas and ideologies. Christianity again finds itself excusing, participating in, and even advocating for various injustices often in violation of some of Jesus’ most basic teachings. (How many Christians serve in the U.S. empire’s military, perhaps the largest single source of violence and oppression in the world today, without a second thought despite Jesus’ teaching that we should love our enemy?)

Looking out upon the current state of affairs, in which I see a highly problematic and ultimately apostate status quo dominating much of Christianity, I, as Niebuhr, am forced to ask, “What must the church do to save itself?”

Ultimately I think a rebirth of the prophetic tradition is an integral part of any serious attempt to address longstanding issues within Christianity. Christianity desperately needs prophets who love God more than their acceptance within Christian culture. Indeed any answer to Park’s two questions will require that Christianity create a space where it can receive criticism and enact reforms, and what better way to do this than to revive what it has lost?

So while people like Park and the other Killjoy Prophets, people asking the tough questions of the Church, people pointing out injustices in the Church, are often branded as insufficiently Christian, silenced, alienated or are put out of the Church, I hope they continue to keep speaking up. Like the prophets of old, they may find themselves operating from the margins, calling to the establishment in the city from the lonely places in the desert, but how else will the injustices and problems within Christianity be challenged or changed?

Posted in Christianity, Politics | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Speakfaithfully Podcast Episode 5: The Walk for Change at UND with Dani Miller and Emmy Scott

 

walk for change

Today’s episode focuses on the Walk for Change at UND, a Native American organized event that was created in response to a variety of racist and insensitive incidents at UND. At the end of the walk organizers put forward a number of demands to the UND administration and laid out the consequence if these demands were not met by December 2014. For more on this and the larger context at UND we turn to Native American UND alumnae Dani Miller and Emmy Scott.

Episode 5 – The Walk for Change at UND with Dani Miller and Emmy Scott

Thanks for listening, I hope you enjoyed this episode. Stay tuned for next week’s interview!

 

Posted in Podcast | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment