The fact is…

That people are being gas-lit every day.

That the environment is getting worse.

That we’re only a few steps away from reenacting The Handmaid’s Tale.

That subjugation and merciless violence continue unabated.

That the rights, freedoms, and unnamed liberties that some segment of Americans take for granted remain elusive or unrealized for millions more.

And the fact is… the majority of people in a position to change things don’t care.  At least enough to actually get out and do something about it.

What’s true or factual doesn’t matter anymore, in light of what these same people in their positions of power believe.  Belief has overtaken consideration or reasonable inquiry.  The belief that doing the least harm and the most good has been abandoned.  Greed and selfishness have overridden common sense.

Instead of building a longer table and working harder to uplift, we’re constantly being sold on the virtues of self-centered and illiberal belief structures.

Screw you, I got mine.

Gotta stick it to the Libs!

Are you triggered yet, snowflake?

And instead of being able to have reasoned discourse, the response is to treat that attempt at discourse as an affront–an attack on the very values that the victim claims to hold sacrosanct.

The fact of the matter is this: not everyone can be reached.  No amount of data, reasoned discourse, or inquiry can have an impact on those who choose not to be reached.  The ones who have already made up their minds have made them based on a flawed world-view and without empathy.

Do you expend energy reaching out to them, constantly being rebuked and further entrenching them in their recursively-reductive positions of scarcity and fear?

Or do you instead reach out to the ones who haven’t yet made a decision?  To the ones that are looking for a compelling argument as to why they matter, why their friends and family matter, and why they should care about others who aren’t yet their friends or family?

That’s the question that’s screaming for an answer.  That’s a fact.

How much does it cost…

  • To buy your consent?
  • To buy your ignorance?
  • To buy your ethics?
  • To buy your blindness?
  • To buy your silence?

On the inverse-side:

  • To buy your generosity?
  • To buy your kindness?
  • To buy your empathy?
  • To buy your curiosity?
  • To buy your alignment?

The cost isn’t always paid in terms of monetary exchange.  It’s more likely you gave something up for free or shifted the cost to someone else.

When you allow someone to “buy” your consent, ignorance, ethics, blindness, or silence for a product, a political maneuver, or social issue, are you really getting what you expected from the exchange?  What about the non-white, non-Christian, non-binary people proverbially adjacent to you?  Or how about that sweat-shop factory on the other side of the planet?  Or that family member that looks up to you and loves you dearly?

Sometimes cost isn’t measured in money.  Sometimes there’s an indirect social or political cost.

Are you weighing the costs?

“Social” Media

If it wasn’t clear before the Cambridge Analytica scandal came to light, it should be abundantly clear to any onlooker now:

Companies like Facebook make a profit by tracking your behavior online, quantifying it through ruthless algorithms and questionable business decisions, and working to sell you (in quantified data) to another company to target directly for advertising and “news”.

Let me absolutely clear about this point: they are not selling “data”, they are selling you.  Every click, every search, every page view, every integration on every single popular site you visit, every sign-in or “create account” action taken via Facebook’s identity management (the ever-present “Sign in using your Facebook account”) – all of these build an incredibly detailed profile of your behavior.  Facebook, its advertising customers, and other “research” companies (like Cambridge Analytica) know more about you than you consciously know about yourself.

If the above points aren’t presenting a clear enough picture, let’s make it absolutely explicit: companies like Facebook make a profit by knowing you better than you know yourself.  Companies like this build incredibly detailed profiles of who you are with information that McCarthy-era intelligence agencies and rogue/vigilante actors would have killed to get a hold of.

If these violations of privacy don’t bother someone, then there’s nothing more to discuss with that person.  It’s likely someone with such a lax attitude on surveillance of this scope and scale not only doesn’t care, but is likely complicit or an active accomplice to the increasing overreach of the broader surveillance apparatus.  “Nothing to hide” only matters when what individuals aren’t hiding remains legal, free from scrutiny, or above challenge.

Personally, when the apparatus invariably turns its attention and barbaric ministrations on those very same people, all they’ll get from me is a cold shoulder and an “I warned you”.

Pride In Common Work

From the outside, it seems as though American society plays a lot of lip-service to the idea of what I would call “common work”; trades and labor specifically.  People pay a lot of attention to the rates of college graduates, advanced degrees, and technical or scientific expertise–but the same kind of attention and respect is seldom given to the silent majority that does things with their hands.

What happened?  When did we become more concerned about the output of unseen hands on computers and sensitive equipment than with the number of mouths fed, bodies sheltered and clothed, and hearts mended?

I wish I had been given the option by my parents to find a trade in addition to building my technical acumen.  Technical expertise only extends so far in a world that still straddles the fence that separates “modern” and “post-modern”.  Had someone told me that they could be as proud of me for swinging a hammer as they would if I helped find a cure or treatment for something, I’d have probably rushed head-long into both worlds.

If I ever have children, or if I’m ever in a position to mentor or be a god-parent, I’d tell them what I wish someone had told me a long time ago.  Building homes for the homeless, finding cures for cancer, making ends-meet doing roofing, or exploring the far-flung reaches of Earth and beyond; I’d be proud of them all the same.

For me, it wouldn’t be about the outcome beyond that person feeling fulfilled and happy.  It’d be about the effort and the joy it brings.  Being happy with anything less would hurt them, and demanding or expecting anything more beyond that would be setting them up for failure.  Accepting them for who they are and what they choose to do is probably the biggest thing I could do.

So what happened here?  When did Americans become so unhappy with the prospect of labor and trade skills?  Maybe it’s the idea of “American exceptionalism” still playing itself out long after it was declared dead.  Who knows.

E Pluribus Unum

It’s been difficult to put into words the frustration surrounding the utterly improbable political situation we now find ourselves in.  Was it because white Americans didn’t spend enough time considering their privilege?  Was it because fanatics and raving lunatics on both sides were screaming at the tops of their lungs and failing to provide anything of substance?  Or was it because the media, the self-appointed arbiters of truth in the public forum and “fourth estate” occupants, failed to understand the dire implications of treating the candidate with the same respect as any other candidate with merit?

Whatever the reasoning, our country’s image is now tarnished; likely for the foreseeable future.  Whatever claim we had to any semblance of moral high-ground is no longer valid; our collective reticence around privilege, class, and race has become the raison d’etre for the resurgence and rebranding of hate-groups and racism.  Misogyny, homophobia, and religious hatred are not part of the “post-” world that liberals and leftists claimed had won–the “culture war” having been soundly decided.

To the contrary: the culture war is never over.  Culture itself is an Ouroboros, ever in a cycle of consumption of ideas and renewal in new growth and paradigms.

What liberals and leftists have failed to comprehend is the deleterious effects of the new media streams that have created the proverbial “walled gardens” and “echo chambers”.  We spend time in our respective bubbles, kept clearly segmented from others who think, speak, pray, and present differently.  We wrap ourselves in this identity politics like a safety blanket, believing that the bogey-men of racism, classism, and extremism will simply “go away” if we stop giving them further infusions of energy by ignoring them.

We ignore the elements that could undo our imperfect Union from within at our own peril.  By not addressing them directly, turning our attention away from efforts to improve the condition of those individuals who are most often targeted for recruitment by those same elements, we instead dig the shallow grave for our Union to be laid in.

Are we collectively at-fault?  Jury’s out on that one.  I imagine that history will not be flattering or favorable to any of us if our Union survives.

“E pluribus unum” seems like a quaint and meaningless placation in light of the troubles we collectively face.  If our divisions since the founding are any indication, we are no further along the path to stamping out any of the myriad “-isms” or phobias that have formed the contrasts that we now see amplified in our mass-media-driven politics: you’re either for something, or against something by simple virtue of which pundits to which you listen, who you have as friends on social media, and where you happen to live either by circumstance or choice.

Urban-versus-rural, secular-versus-religious, post-racial-versus-racist, modern-versus-classical–the short list is daunting on its own.

What should we be engaging in?  What should your response be if you are an urban, secular, post-racial, “modern” American?  What of the opposite?  What should your response be if you are a rural, religious, (even passively) racist, classical sort of American?

I’d postulate that our divisions are both because of and exacerbated by our inability to empathize and to step into the shoes of another.  Our uncompromising belief that “they” are always wrong, and that we are always right isn’t just preposterous, it’s downright dangerous.

Let’s take an extreme example of contrast and instead perhaps see the similarities:

A non-white, female, urban college-student and a white, male, rural farmer.  What can we make of their commonality?

  • They’re both Americans by virtue of being citizens, they’re both likely under a tremendous amount of debt (one due to college, the other likely due to bank loans for the farm that they are operating).
  • They’re both probably concerned about the environment, albeit for potentially drastically different reasons (one due to living conditions abroad and health crises, the other due to the ability to reliably produce quality crops).
  • They’re both probably interested in making sure that healthcare is affordable and equitable (college students historically don’t make a lot of money, and neither do farmers).
  • They’re both probably at least somewhat concerned about the other.  College is often times the avenue of escape for children born into rural families and urban families are often similarly aligned in this desire.
  • Poverty is a big deal to both of them, seeing as how neither one wants to starve or depend on others.
  • Equity in the “social contract” that makes up civil society in America matters to both of them–one wants an equal share of what is rightfully hers by virtue of being an American citizen and being devoted to equality, the other just wants a “fair-shake” in the marketplace and to not get screwed.

Are there social divisions?  Of course.  There always has been.  After recognizing the points of commonality between both of the aforementioned people, is it difficult to believe that relation and empathy are impossible?  When engagement happens from both sides through discourse and debate, when one does not treat the other as inferior, and instead they recognize that one without the other dooms the “grand experiment” to failure?

When we spend our time in identity politics and reveling in our respective circles, failing to expand beyond them, we limit our scope and our ability to understand each other.  We fail to empathize–and when our empathy fails us, we do not have the ability to see our similarities and make common cause.

This is the primary reason why Hillary Rodham-Clinton lost.  Not because of scandal, not because she has been Scapegoat and Enemy Number One of entrenched misogyny and anti-intellectualism (though these things certainly didn’t help), but because she was dangerously out-of-touch with the electorate that she was expecting to lead.

Working-class families of all colors are looking for answers.  Middle America is looking for a reason to be hopeful again.  Coastal elites are looking for opportunity.  Former Secretary Clinton offered none of these things.  Tepid, procedural, and unquestionably lacking in personal energy or magnetism, she oozed elitism and did nothing to distance herself from the forces that have loudly and publicly sought to line their pockets and leave everyone else with the bill.

And the people responded–loudly.  A feckless demagogue and consummate sociopath is now en-route to the highest office in the land.  “Better an evil that we can see than one that will use every trick in the book to obscure and confound.”

The chance to rectify this situation passed with the end of the Democratic nomination process–and let’s not mince words about it: Senator Bernie Sanders was effectively robbed of the opportunity to provide the one thing that might have provided us with some semblance of continuity and possibility.  A true fight for the emotional core of our country would have gone a much longer way toward bringing us closer together as a nation than the tone-deaf placations that were proffered by the establishment candidate.

If that opportunity was robbed from us and democracy left to bleed-out in the street, the proverbial knife in the second-longest political night in historical memory, then what is left to be done?

All of us, regardless of the space that we occupy on the political spectrum, the unique economics that we experience, the color of our skin, the names of our deities, or even our names specifically, have a duty; one that likely all of us have forgotten.  Democracy is not built and engaged upon once and set in stone, it is a living body whose maintenance lies in the exercise of discourse, dissent, discovery, and determination.  We have largely failed in our duty to engage each other as equals, as described in the founding documents of our nation:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” – United States Declaration of Independence, 2nd paragraph

I would argue that instead of shrinking from conflict, that we instead fix our gaze upon them.  We must be steely-eyed and stand at our fullest heights, emboldened by the power of wanting and being wanted.  That all of us may not be desired or loved by all, but there are people out there who desire us and love us.  Whether your belief is in an Almighty God, many Gods, Goddesses, or none at all; now more than ever we must make appeals to the angels of our better natures.

But–we must remain firm in our belief that we all have a right to the spaces that we occupy, the air that we breathe, and the ability to use our voices.  Though we may vehemently disagree with each other, we must respect each other as best as we can.  Where violence, inequality, and disenfranchisement rear their ugly heads, we cannot shrink from those struggles.  Appeal to the laws where necessary; disobey when the hands of Justice remain still.  The moral arc of the universe bends toward justice and equality only when we exert the pressure necessary to make it so.

Above all, I would beseech everyone to commit this phrase to memory: “E pluribus unum”.  Literally translated, it means “From many, one.” We are one.  Lest we forget.

2016

We on the left more or less left the rest of the country behind. In our attempts to try and be “better” for ourselves and for the people that could grok the changes we were trying to advance, we on the left either explicitly or implicitly told people with whom we weren’t willing to engage the same pejorative statements that we had been touting internally for decades. Like a petulant pack of rabid children, we shouted them down and didn’t give them anything in return; not debate space, not chance to reset or reflect, not even an iota of human decency.

“You’re racist!”
“You’re a hick!”
“You’re sexist!”
“You’re stupid!”
“You’re misogynist!”
“You’re homophobic!”
“You’re xenophobic!”
“You’re deplorable!”

On and on the tirades went, without asking the one question that might have gotten them to do the one thing that liberals and the left have spent decades doing for themselves: to think.

“Why do you believe that to be true? What events or facts have led you to believe that to be the case?”

In our mad scramble for power and the ability to firmly anchor our country at some kind of political loggerhead in the dead-center of the left-right spectrum so we could catch a breath and “save democracy”, we exacerbated one of the largest and most telling problems in our nation’s history. We widened the rift between urban and rural, rich and poor, white and not-white, straight and not. Instead of working to understand the individual and trying to actively engage them in thought and civil debate, we on the left have descended into a brand of name-calling and demagoguery entirely of our own making.

Instead of trying to tell personal stories to people that will listen and get them to understand that the world isn’t divided along arbitrary, binary lines, we devolved into escapism and name-calling. We built our own echo chambers and closed ourselves off. The people we trusted to tell us the truth instead started telling us a version of that truth, colored by a truth that didn’t quite line-up with reality. We allowed our own demagogues and demons of our worse natures to run amok over our sense of empathy for our fellow humans, regardless of where they lay on the innumerable spectrums. Instead of engaging with a sense of realism or realpolitik, we allowed idealism to run roughshod over our political aspirations and in doing so abandoned the very people we had in mind when we embarked on this endeavor in the first place.

We’ve allowed phrases like “flyover state” and “basket of deplorables” to replace honest discourse and inquiry. Instead of standing in our identities, individual power, and agency–able to confront injustice and ignorance where we find them, we settled for the truncheon in lieu of conversation. The very weapons of oppression that we ourselves were subjected to.

Where does that leave those of us on the “left”?

We still have to organize. We still have to advocate. We still have people that are depending on us to make the right choices and do the right things. Conflict visits us when we forget the basic tenets and mutual agreements contained our founding documents and social contracts: non-aggression, free speech and assembly, and the rule of law.

Lest we forget them, we are in danger of becoming that which we vigorously oppose: bullies with pulpits and social clubs.

Encryption for Instant Messaging

Instant messaging seems to be a mystery to most people that use it.

The people I know really don’t think about the mechanisms that are involved in transmitting a text message over the internet from one person to another. Fewer still understand the security implications of exposing sensitive information over unencrypted communication channels between two or more transfer points.

The fact of the matter is that no instant messaging system is secure. No instant messenger platform or network that I am aware of currently enables end-to-end encryption by-default, and most (if not all) of those networks are either vulnerable to, or are already actively being exploited by, various government and non-government agencies for various surveillance ends. To combat this, growing numbers of individuals are utilizing encryption methods such as OTR (Off-The-Record) with instant messaging clients such as Pidgin and Adium. Others still are moving to more secure networks altogether such as Diaspora or BuddyCloud. The aim of this article is to specifically speak to the basic security measures and encryption methods that anyone may begin employing to begin securing their communications.

To start, reducing your overall exposure by limiting the number of networks you communicate over is a great first step to reducing potential exposure of your information. If you communicate over several instant messaging networks, picking a single network to operate from makes it easier to reduce the number of potential routes that your sensitive communications are traveling over as well as the overall chance of your communications being intercepted during transmission.

Picking a single communications network to operate from is not the end of this particular part of the story, either. Picking the right network to operate from is the next challenge. Almost every network is indistinguishable from another, save for the fact that no networks currently communicate with each other. The only exception to this rule is AOL Instant Messenger’s cross-connects to Google’s Talk network (both of which are XMPP/Jabber-based). Given the recent revelations that Google isn’t securing it’s own internal networks when transmitting data between it’s own data centers, it calls into question the practices of all other service providers of the same caliber. If Google, a best-in-class Fortune 50 technology behemoth, isn’t securing it’s traffic between data centers who else is avoiding due-diligence in this same area?

Bearing that question in-mind, treating all networks and all communications as exposed or compromised gives you a more truthful perspective to work from. By using Off-The-Record and verifying your partner’s signature(s) or key(s) either separately via a separate channel (perhaps a key-signing party, a text copy of a signature provided on an encrypted USB stick, etc.) or via the Socialist Millionaire cryptographic solution. Google’s “Off The Record” functionality present in the Gmail and Google UIs should not be confused with OTR functionality provided by libpurple-based clients. Google’s OTR option only prevents logging of chats in your Google account and still potentially logs your chats to Google-controlled servers.

Once OTR messaging is established between two parties, two features that are far less common among cryptographic communication schemes (text borrowed from the OTR chat Wikipedia page):

  • Perfect forward secrecy: Messages are only encrypted with temporary per-message AES keys, negotiated using the Diffie-Hellman key exchange protocol. The compromise of any long-lived cryptographic keys does not compromise any previous conversations, even if an attacker is in possession of ciphertexts.
  • Deniable authentication: Messages in a conversation do not have digital signatures, and after a conversation is complete, anyone is able to forge a message to appear to have come from one of the participants in the conversation, assuring that it is impossible to prove that a specific message came from a specific person. Within the conversation the recipient can be sure that a message is coming from the person they have identified.

With OTR enabled, it becomes possible to truly trust communications over protocols such as XMPP/Jabber (GTalk/AIM) and certain IRC networks when combined with an OTR & libpurple-based client. Taking this first step empowers the individuals involved to re-secure their communications and begin to rebuild trust while significantly hampering any efforts by third-parties to engage in clandestine surveillance or man-in-the-middle attacks.

Preventing or significantly hampering digital surveillance is paramount if we are to continue to exist as a free and empowered society. A society in which journalists are able to more easily share their information and knowledge with the world at-large. A society in which citizens are able to freely browse and accumulate information without fear of censorship or reprisal from authority figures. And most importantly, a society in which the free flow of information is uninhibited by small people with big ideas about how the world must be instead of how it can be.