Presenting the New Trailer for Beth Shapiro’s “How to Clone a Mammoth”

Should we clone extinct animals? Evolutionary biologist and “ancient DNA” researcher Beth Shapiro’s highly anticipated How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction takes apart an idea that not so long ago seemed more fiction than science. Now, several teams of researchers are working to reconstruct the mammoth genome. How to Clone a Mammoth is making its debut with an array of coverage, including a feature in yesterday’s Sunday Times. From the article:

What excites some scientists, and disturbs others, is that the genome could one day become a template to recreate real mammoths — or something like them.
In her new book, How To Clone a Mammoth, Beth Shapiro of the University of California, an expert on ancient DNA, said: “If we really want to bring mammoths back to life, then we’re in luck, as far as DNA preservation goes. Some mammoths lived in places where their bones and carcasses were buried in permafrost, like being stuck in a freezer for 30,000-plus years.
“It’s in pretty shoddy condition, so hard to piece together, but if we sort through these tiny pieces, finding where they fit along the elephant genome, then we can slowly build a lot of the mammoth genome.”

We are delighted to share the book’s wonderful new trailer:

 

Interview with n+1 co-founder and PUP author Mark Greif

As Adam Kirsch writes in Tablet Magazine’s review of n+1 co-founder Mark Greif’s widely-reviewed new book, The Age of the Crisis of Man, “[t]he word “crisis” itself seems to capture something essential about our relationship to history, which we now experience as a constant procession of unexpected, suddenly emerging threats.” From cold war to climate change, from economic recession, to war in Iraq, recent decades have seen their share of anxiety-provoking episodes. And yet, it’s safe to say the “crisis of man” has become something of a throwback expression. The notion that human nature itself is under threat is an intellectual artifact of mid-century American culture. Why so?

The question, and Greif’s new book, appear to have struck nerves in today’s intellectual community, inspiring, among an explosion of coverage, Kristin Iversen’s “Man-Splaining” in Brooklyn Magazine, and a widely discussed New York Times Book Review essay by Leon Wieseltier. Recently, Greif took the time to chat with Princeton University Press about his book:

You’re best known for your work as a founder of n+1 and your essays in that magazine. What connects that New York literary world to this book?

MG: To me, they’re tightly connected. When we founded n+1, I wanted to understand how the intellectual and literary worlds worked now. The opening section (of the book?) many of which I wrote in the early issues, was “The Intellectual Situation.” I wanted to know how conventional wisdom got settled; how certain questions became “important” and “serious,” but not others; and especially why new novels and essays sometimes had influence on other debates, and sometimes seemed irrelevant or old-fashioned, past tense. In the same ten years of n+1 attempts to intervene in literary culture, though, my “day job” in effect was as a scholar, I had been digging in the library to see, objectively, how we got where we are. I was reading through complete runs of old journals, Partisan Review, Commentary, to see how to make a twenty-first century journal. But also to see, archeologically, what had been obscured in our picture of the twentieth century. This book is the analytic and philosophical complement to n+1 for me. It’s my best effort to tell a new story of how the twentieth century determined what counts.

Can you say succinctly what the “Age of the Crisis of Man” is?

MG: Sure. It was a period in the center of the twentieth century, from the rise of Nazism to the end of the Sixties, in which we put a universal human character at the center of all “serious” discussion in public.Not incidentally, this period saw the shift of international philosophizing from continental Europe to the United States and England for a little while. And it saw a brief crest of the American novel to its high-water mark of reputation (though maybe not of literary production). And it saw dreams of utopian international order. All those strains come together around the figure of “Man.” But then the same concentration of energy helped create the civil rights and liberation movements that seemed to blow it apart.

So this is an era that we ought to remember and learn from?

MG: Not entirely. It’s not an era I want to champion. I don’t want to reify the Man debates as just one more rival aspect of the twentieth century, as if we need to add it to PBS documentaries alongside the Cold War, suburbanization, existentialism, all the ingredients of the canned version of midcentury. Many of the explicit “crisis of man” books feel empty, frankly. I want to have read them so others don’t have to! But I think the emptiness is important. My basic model of history tries to locate the empty spaces, or blank or negative spaces, in public philosophy and rhetoric and criticism. Those spaces that demand answers that are simply impossible to decide. They (the spaces?) set what matters, what is acceptable, what one should think or say. But as coercive as they are, they may be themselves quite weak, loose, or devoid of reason.

Does your history mean there wasn’t a “crisis of women” or crises in different communities in America, or political crises? How important is a universal “Man” to your story?

MG: Crises of women’s rights and equality exist in this period, and crises of African-American rights, and racism, segregation, white supremacy, you name it. The important thing to see is how “what counts,” as public discourse has it, makes women’s and African Americans’ claims harder to articulate in some registers—in contrast, say, to the earlier (does earlier modify 1930s, i.e. 1931 vs. 1937, or are you using it to mean the entire decade was earlier than the post-WWII starting point of your book?)1930s—and articulable in others. Yet later the same discourse will become a source of explosive power, as feminist and civil rights and black power speakers plant their flag on Man. Sex and race provided the most fundamental contradictions to a universal, unmarked man. But that line of difference, and how tortuously it rose to salience, is a big part of my story.

What have we lost, in the transition from the age whose portrait you give here, to the twenty-first century?

MG: That’s the toughest question. It’s very hard to look at these moments when “ideas mattered,” and novels answered “the big questions,” so to speak, and not be nostalgic. Clearly these ideas did have consequences, too in geopolitics, in the lasting revival of human rights, in the standing of literature, as well as in the creation of a whole atmosphere of life and thought. At the same time, it’s clear that lots of thoughtful and sensitive people found the “discourse of the crisis of man” gaseous and stifling, especially as it got older. Whenever you live, you live among the mediocrities and coercions of the ideas of your own time. History usually tends either to wash them out or take them at their own valuation, while condescending to them, of course, since we always know better now.

I guess what interested me most in my own research was that I came to see it as a mistake to declare we had gone “from universalism to difference” in ideas, or in our picture of the basic human subject. As if there once was unity (even if only among an elite population), which split into groups. Universalism, difference: each of these is an intellectual project, an effort. Neither is more original or more basic than the other, at least not in the twentieth century. You can’t decline from one to the other. That was one thing I tried to point out in the book.

You say in the conclusion that you want to figure out where we start for twenty-first century thought. Do you really think you can give a starting point?

MG: The starting points are already given. The question is: How much do we understand how history has determined our presuppositions—say, what counts for us as “serious” thought, or what role literature and art play in ethical and political thinking? And then: With fuller knowledge, can we choose among our starting points? Can we say that some are stupid, and likely to lead nowhere?

Personally, I am divided about this. The historian in me thinks it’s silly to ask anyone to produce a better discourse of public debate and art from the recognition of past follies. Looking back from the future, “stupidities” are all we have; by which I mean, contingencies, symptoms, actings-out, with no way to step outside of your own time to see how eternity (or the archive, or the leisure of future historians) will regard you. Would knowing the past really help restrain or channel our impulses, now? The “intellectual” in me, on the other hand, or say the participant in culture and literature, the writer, thinks it’s obligatory to try to figure out where your opinions and discoveries come from. Then to see where they’re tending, whether you like to admit those tendencies or not, and then to throw some overboard, while telling people the terrifying prophecy of others. Like a Jeremiah. Whether other people like to hear it or not.

Christopher Bail talks to Salon about “Terrified”

Christopher Bail, author of Terrified: How Anti-Muslim Fringe Organizations Became Mainstream, recently spoke with Paul Rosenberg for a feature in Salon on how anti-Muslim sentiment is fostered by the broader cultural landscape, and the innovative new methodology he has used to study that process. Paul Rosenberg at Salon writes:

It may be hard to fathom or remember, but in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 the American public responded with an increased level of acceptance and support for Muslims. President Bush—who had successfully courted the Muslim vote in 2000—went out of his way to praise American Muslims on numerous occasions in 2001 and 2002. However, the seeds were already being planted that would change that drastically over time.  Within a few short years, a small handful of fringe anti-Muslim organizations—almost entirely devoid of any real knowledge or expertise, some drawing on age-old ethno-religious conflicts—managed to hijack the public discourse about Islam, first by stoking fears, grabbing attention with their emotional messaging, then by consolidating their newfound social capital, forging ties with established elite organizations, and ultimately building their own organizational and media infrastructure.

How this all happened is the subject of a fascinating new book, “Terrified: How Anti-Muslim Fringe Organizations Became Mainstream,” by sociologist Christopher Bail, of the University of North Carolina.  The book not only lays bare the behind-the-scenes story of a momentous shift in public opinion, it employs cutting-edge computer analysis techniques applied to large archives of data to develop a new theoretical outlook, capable of making sense of the whole field of competing organizations struggling to shape public opinion, not just studying one or two the most successful ones. The result is not only a detailed account of a specific, significant, and also very pernicious example of cultural evolution, but also a case study in how to more rigorously study cultural evolution more generally in the future. In the process, it sheds considerable light on the struggles involved, and the difficulties faced by those trying to fight back against this rising tide of misdirected fear, anger and hatred.


Read the full interview with Christopher Bail that follows here.

Terrified, by Christopher Bail

Too Hot to Handle? Jonathan Zimmerman Q&A on the problem with sex education

A product in part of the Progressive Era’s efforts to eradicate prostitution, sex education today is more likely to take its cues from the hazards of sexting. But while sex education has always been emotionally fraught, according to Jonathan Zimmerman, author of Too Hot To Handle: A Global History of Sex Education, its opponents are not limited to the realm of evangelical ministers and Conservative pundits. What exactly is the world’s problem with sex education? Zimmerman has a terrific op-ed in today’s New York Times arguing that globalization, contrary to popular belief, has limited rather than expanded such instruction. He was recently interviewed for a piece by Jessica Lahey on the Atlantic.com, and spoke to the History News Network as well.

This week, Zimmerman took the time to sit down with Princeton University Press to shed some light on the fascinating social history of sex education, as well as his personal motivations for writing the book:

Ontario Sex Education Protest 20150224externalimagek104541

 

Why did you write this book?

Jonathan Zimmerman (JZ): My mother spent her career in international family planning and sex education. So she imbued me with the standard liberal American view of the subject: the United States was “behind” other Western democracies, which provide much more extensive, honest, and effective sex education than we do. And that’s why their teen pregnancy and STD rates are so much lower, or so the story goes.

So was your Mom correct?

JZ: Not exactly. First of all, it turns out that the USA was the global pioneer of sex education rather than a laggard. Eventually, countries like Sweden and the Netherlands did develop more detailed sex education than the USA, especially on the subject of contraception. But sex education is limited in those countries by citizen and teacher resistance, just as it is here. And, more interestingly, it has a different set of goals.

How so?

JZ: In Scandinavia and Continental Europe, the stated goal of sex education is not to limit negative social consequences, but rather to help each individual determine and develop her or his own sexuality. I didn’t understand the difference until I found an exchange in the Swedish archives between an educator in Ireland (where sex education was much more like the American version) and the leader of the RFSU, Sweden’s national sex education organization. The Irish educator wanted to know how Swedish sex educators kept teen pregnancy and STD rates so low. The RFSU guy replies with a kind note that says he doesn’t know whether sex education actually influences those outcomes, because there are so many other factors that affect young people’s behavior. And then he says, that’s not the point anyway! It’s to help them lead healthy and pleasurable sexual lives.

So the Americans emphasize social consequences, and the Europeans emphasize individual rights? That sounds like a very different story than the trans-Atlantic comparative tale we usually tell, in which the Americans stress the rights of individuals and the Europeans attend to the common good.

JZ: Exactly!

And I don’t imagine you could get elected to an American school board if you were pushing for a sex-education curriculum aiming to assist each teenager in developing sexual identity and pleasure.

JZ: Probably not. But there’s plenty of resistance to that perspective in Europe now, too, especially among new immigrants Countries like Sweden and the Netherlands have witnessed an enormous burst of immigration over the past two decades, mainly from Muslim and Hindu societies in North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. And many of these newcomers are angered and offended by a sex education stressing the “right” of each adolescent individual to engage in sex, which violates their communal or religious prescriptions on the subject. They also think that school-based sex education inhibits their own right to raise their children as they see fit.

What about their countries of origin, in the developing world? What does sex education look like there?

JZ: Until the 1980s, it barely existed. But the HIV/AIDS crisis changed all of that, especially in Africa. The question became not “Should we have sex education?” but “What kind of sex education should we have?” And in Africa and Asia, not surprisingly, it more closely resembled the abstinence-only or danger-centered approach that we see in many parts of the USA.

So would it be fair to say that an American-style sex education is more “culturally appropriate”—in many parts of the developing world—than, say, the Swedish version?

JZ: Yes, and that’s one of the central ironies of my book. Many people in the West who support so-called “comprehensive” sex education also fashion themselves “multiculturalists,” stressing the importance of diversity and the need for educators to respect it. It’s hard to square that perspective with a commitment to adolescent sexual rights, which are simply anathema in many cultures. I realized that, too, when I was in the archives in Sweden, and I came across a comment by a frustrated educator who had been trying—without a lot of success–to promote his approach in the so-called Third-World. As he acknowledged, many people in Africa, Asia, and Latin America did not share his premises on the value of the individual, at least not when it came to sex. “It is hard for people to be autonomous in cultures where autonomy seems to be of such little use,” he wrote.

What about conservatives? Wasn’t there also an irony in the way they invoked their “cultural” rights and prerogatives?

JZ: Definitely! In the USA and the UK, especially, white conservatives since the 1960s have often resisted “multiculturalism” as a divisive threat to the body politic. But on sex education, they invoked their own cultural and religious rights and—increasingly—they united with ethnic and religious minorities who shared their point of view. So in the UK, for example, you see white Tories joining hands with Muslim immigrant organizations against sex education.

And these conservatives make common cause across borders, right, as more and more people move across them?

JZ: Exactly. I think many people on the Left like to imagine that “globalization”—the rapid circulation of people and ideas around the world—as a force for liberal-ization. But in the story that I tell, globalization actually inhibits the spread of sex education by allowing critics to share ideas and strategies. Sex education has been a global movement, to be sure. But the same goes for its opposition.

In the USA and elsewhere, some conservatives have resisted or rejected scientific claims regarding evolution and climate change. Isn’t the opposition to sex education an example of similar behavior?

JZ: No. We simply don’t have the same kind of scientific knowledge or consensus about sex education as we do in the realms of evolution or climatology. And part of the reason is that there is so little sex education in the first place! It’s incredibly hard to show that something so brief and haphazard affects something as complicated as sexual behavior.

So maybe it’s really a story about what schools can do, and what they can’t?

JZ: I think so. The 20th century witnessed an enormous boom in formal schooling around the world, as well as new norms of sexual expression and behavior. Sex education brought these two trends together, but the marriage never really worked out. Kids get their messages and values about sex from other institutions, especially in the mass media. Schools just don’t factor into the equation very often, or very well.

CLIMATE SHOCK authors on TheAtlantic.com: Will camels roam Canada again?

Climate ShockThe last time concentrations of carbon dioxide were as high as they are today, write Marty Weitzman and Gernot Wagner, authors of Climate Shock: The Economic Consequences of a Hotter Planet, camels lived in Canada. That was a bit over 3 million years ago, of course. But how certain does science have to be for the world to act? Wagner and Weitzman had a terrific op-ed appear today on The Atlantic.com where they argue that climate is best thought of as a global-scale risk management problem. Check it out here:

Will Camels Roam Canada Again?

What we know about climate change is bad enough. What we don’t could make it even worse.

Gernot Wagner and Martin L. Weitzman

You are cruising down the highway at 65 miles per hour, reading a book in your self-driving car. Your life is in the hands of a machine—an eminently benevolent one. Meanwhile, in the lane next to you, an 18-wheeler using decidedly last-century technology—relying on a fallible human driver—appears to be swerving your way.

Your car’s computer is on the case. Equipped with orders of magnitude more computing power than the Apollo moon lander, it determines with all the confidence it can muster that there’s a greater-than-50-percent chance—it’s “more likely than not”—that the truck is about to hit you.

You may want to look up from your book. More importantly, you want to know with certainty that your onboard computer will hit the brakes, even if there’s a 49-percent chance that doing so will be a false alarm.

If, instead of “more likely than not,” the danger were “likely,” “very likely,” or even “extremely likely,” the answer would be clearer still. Even if there’s a 95-percent probability of a crash, there’s still a 1-in-20 chance that nothing will happen—but no one would gamble their life on those odds. Your car’s computer hopefully will have engaged the anti-lock braking systems already.

A perfect self-driving car doesn’t exist yet, nor has the world solved global warming. But it’s surprising that, by the standards that we’d expect in a car to keep its occupants safe, the governments of the world haven’t stepped on the brakes to avoid planetary-scale global warming disaster—a 100-year-storm hitting New York every other year, frequent and massive droughts, inundated coastal cities. In 1995, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change declared that it was “more likely than not” the case that global warming was caused by human activity. By 2001, it had progressed to “likely.” By 2007, it was “very likely.” By 2013, it was “extremely likely.” There’s only one step left in official IPCC lingo: “virtually certain.”

Read the rest at The Atlantic.com here.

 

A special summer reading round-up from Executive Editor, Rob Tempio

Dear Friends, Book Lovers, and Knowledge Seekers:

photo[1]

A recent government-issued report on the security threats posed by climate change warns of the potential for widespread conflict due to food shortages and competition for resources. The fragility of our interconnected and interdependent global civilization is at stake. An unprecedented event? Not at all. In the 12th century B.C., the great civilizations of the late Bronze Age came tumbling down one by one wracked by war, famine, drought and numerous other calamities which in part may have been caused, recent evidence indicates, by an apparent change in climate. The archaeologist Eric Cline tells the story of this collapse in his fantastic and best-selling new book, 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed. The book is part of a brand new series just launched here at the press: Turning Points in Ancient History, edited by ancient historian Barry Strauss. Professor Cline’s book is one the most exciting I have ever published (if you don’t believe me, watch this trailer).

 

The collapse of the Bronze Age is, as the ancient historian Ian Morris put it, “one of history’s greatest mysteries.” And yet so few people are aware of this pivotal event in human history. Eric Cline’s book is going a long way to remedy that. And so far, readers like it—they really like it.

Would the inhabitants of the Bronze Age World have seen it coming if they had an oracle like the famous one at Delphi? Probably not. As Michael Scott points out in his new book, Delphi: The History of the Center of the Ancient World, the oracle’s pronouncements were almost always cryptic and open to the interpretation those seeking answers wanted to give it—often with disastrous empire-ending results (see Croesus, King). Yet people from around the ancient world flocked to the site for nearly a thousand years for religious, political, and even financial reasons as Delphi was also the banking capital of the Greek city-states. A sacred site indeed. Michael Scott tells the full story of this magnificent site from its founding to its archaeological rediscovery in the 19th century. It truly was the center of the world in ancient times. In fact, the Greeks called the site the omphalos or “the belly-button of the ancient world” (which I guess is better than being “the armpit of America” like us here in NJ).

Speaking of seeing it coming, I recently came across a peculiar ad in the New York Subway system for the Manhattan Mini Storage reminding (warning?) New Yorkers that in 1789 the French aristocracy failed to see the revolution that was in their midst—a revolution which would end with many of them headed to the guillotine.

Does Manhattan Mini Storage know something we don’t? What exactly were the signs of the coming revolution that those decadent aristocrats missed (and which apparently should have had them heading for their storage lockers)? To find out more about the animating ideas of the French Revolution (and possible signs for our own times) read historian Jonathan Israel’s major new intellectual history of the French Revolution, Revolutionary Ideas.

As we head into Memorial Day weekend, I can heartily recommend any of these books for reading at the beach (or the shore if you live in New Jersey), especially if you’d like to impress your fellow beachgoers with your intellect, if not your tan. Our Bronze Age is better for your skin anyway. But as you work on your tan, it would do you well to remember that vanity has its drawbacks, as the philosopher Simon Blackburn reminds us in his wonderful meditation on the use and abuses of self-love, Mirror, Mirror.

It’s been a great pleasure to work on these books and so many other important and fascinating books this past year. I hope you’ll find one you like. Or why not more than one? After all, you’re worth it.

Happy reading this summer!

Rob Tempio, Executive Editor of Philosophy, Political Theory, and the Ancient World

A letter from Ingrid Gnerlich, Executive Editor of Physical and Earth Sciences

Photo on 2014-05-14Dear Readers:

As many of you will know, in November 2013, the remarkable astrophysicist, Dimitri Mihalas – a pioneering mind in computational astrophysics, and a world leader in the fields of radiation transport, radiation hydrodynamics, and astrophysical quantitative spectroscopy – passed away.  Though deeply saddened by this news, I also feel a unique sense of honor that, this year, I am able to announce the much-anticipated text, Theory of Stellar Atmospheres:  An Introduction to Astrophysical Non-equilibrium Quantitative Spectroscopic Analysis, co-authored by Ivan Hubeny and Dimitri Mihalas.  This book is the most recent publication in our Princeton Series in Astrophysics (David Spergel, advising editor), and it is a complete revision of Mihalas’s Stellar Atmospheres, first published in 1970 and considered by many to be the “bible” of the field.  This new edition serves to provide a state of the art synthesis of the theory and methods of the quantitative spectroscopic analysis of the observable outer layers of stars.  Designed to be self-contained, beginning upper-level undergraduate and graduate-level students will find it accessible, while advanced students, researchers, and professionals will also gain deeper insight from its pages.  I look forward to bringing this very special book to the attention of a wide readership of students and researchers.

It is also with profound excitement that I would like to announce the imminent publication of Kip Thorne and Roger Blandford’s Modern Classical Physics:  Optics, Fluids, Plasmas, Elasticity, Relativity, and Statistical Physics.  This is a first-year, graduate-level introduction to the fundamental concepts and 21st-century applications of six major branches of classical physics that every masters- or PhD-level physicist should be exposed to, but often isn’t.  Early readers have described the manuscript as “splendid,” “audacious,” and a “tour de force,” and I couldn’t agree more.  Stay tuned!

Lastly, it is a pleasure to announce a number of newly and vibrantly redesigned books in our popular-level series, the Princeton Science Library.  These include Richard Alley’s The Two-Mile Time Machine, which Elizabeth Kolbert has called a “fascinating” work that “will make you look at the world in a new way” (The Week), as well as G. Polya’s bestselling must-read, How to Solve It.  In addition, the classics by Einstein, The Meaning of Relativity, with an introduction by Brian Greene, and Feynman, QED, introduced by A. Zee, are certainly not to be missed.

Of course, these are just a few of the many new books on the Princeton list I hope you’ll explore.  My thanks to you all—readers, authors, and trusted advisors—for your enduring support. I hope that you enjoy our books and that you will continue to let me know what you would like to read in the future.

Ingrid Gnerlich
Executive Editor, Physical & Earth Sciences

More from Gabriella Coleman on the NSA Leaks

Today in a final post in our ongoing NSA debate between authors Gabriella Coleman and Rahul Sagar,  Professor Coleman, author of Coding Freedom, responds to Professor Sagar’s recent post, offering a historical perspective on intelligence agencies and raising the potential for grave abuse in an era of increased technological capabilities. Read the wrap up post in this fascinating series here:

Gabriella Coleman:

Rahul Sagar’s thoughtful response has prompted me to think through a few troubling questions which have been plaguing me since Snowden’s bombshell revelations. It is without question that intelligence agencies require secrecy to effectively work.  I agree that this issue is not new. But if history is any guide, it also shows that secrecy, while necessary, is also a breeding ground for abuse. In a prior era, a dramatic leak by the Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI helped put an end to a 40 year reign of outrageous abuses, such as COINTELPRO, at the helm of J. Edgar Hoover who ruled the FBI with an secretive iron fist.

But this surveillance apparatus strikes as technologically and thus historically distinctive. It can be gravely abused with or without a Hoover. Never in our history have we had in place a surveillance infrastructure as extensive and powerful as we do now, nor administrations who have refused so systematically to declassify information. (One does wonder what Nixon could have done with the surveillance methods that the government has at its disposal today).  With enough computer power, it is frighteningly easy for the government to gather data. This ease will likely push them to seek questionable or ex post de facto justifications for their actions. This was put rather cogently and succinctly by civil liberties lawyer Jennifer Granick when “Of course, we see mission creep – once you build the mousetrap of surveillance infrastructure, they will come for the data.” It is not only that they have this power, but as sociologists and others, have noted, secrecy is alluring and really hard to give up/ This state of mind was put best by physicist Edward Teller who wrote, “secrecy, once accepted, becomes an addiction.”

There might be a very good reason to have the surveillance methods that the NSA has now, but until that reason is disclosed, there is no reason for them to have such awesome technical (and questionable) legal powers currently at their disposal. The problem is we have these programs and our government could use them as a tool of oppression (in fact the mere fact of their existence serves to stifle dissent). Even if abuses are not so grave today, what is so troubling is how these programs enable any future person who might gain control of them to utilize these tools for serious oppression.

We as a society have to ask whether this is a gamble we are willing to take. Since the stakes for the future are so high, the decision about the scope and depth of eavesdropping cannot and should not be an undertaking that is decided by the President, the FISA court, or even all the three branches of government acting in agreement. Only we as a people, who hold the truths described in the constitution as self-evident, are allowed, by that very constitution, to make changes to these rights. “to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men [and Women et al.], deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government” At some point, the actions of the government go too far, and it is up to us to sound the alarm. The Pentagon Papers, the COINTELPRO leaks, the Tet Offensive, these are many instances when citizens have not trusted our elected officials and with good reason.

It is our responsibility to hold our elected officials accountable, although we  can only effectively do so with the aid of a free press. Journalists help keep whistle-blowers accountable. Snowden worked with journalists, from independent film maker Laura Poitras to Glenn Greenwald at the Guardian to Barton Gellman of the Washington Post. The fact that respected news organizations accepted the leaks, filtered the information, and wrote extensive and thoughtful stories demonstrates the validity and responsibility of Snowden’s actions. If his leaks posed such a grave threat to the state of security, I trust these media establishments would not gone public with them.

Finally, I would like to clarify Snowden’s statements on Nuremberg. He is not equating the NSA with Nazi Germany, he just simply referencing a principle. He is also not saying that this principle exonerates him in any US court, but simply that it justifies his actions on a moral level. Snowden is saying that there are times where it is not only moral to break the law, but that it is immoral and wrong to not break the law. Further, it might be interesting  engage  in a thought experiment about how Snowden’s actions also might relate to the Nuremberg Principles.  For the purposes of this experiment, we would submit some undisputed facts about The United States. The United States continues to torture and cause substantial suffering to 44 people who are still held against their will in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, via forced nasal intubation twice daily. In the past, they were tortured by electrocuting their genitals, and simulated drowning through waterboarding. The US has forcibly rendered people to other countries for purposes of torture, and deprive them of their liberty without charge or due process, calling them “detainees”. If we look how Nuremberg Principles defines a “crime against humanity” the United States has committed over half of the abuses on that list. The programs that Snowden has revealed likely were involved in the capture and detainment of many of these people.

In the end I, like everyone else, wants to live in a state of security. This means not only  thwarting terrorism—though it invariably includes it—but means having the security to engage in dissent, thus the security to call out the grave human rights abuses—such as those at Guantanamo Bay—which our elected officials have allowed to transpire and to raise red flags about programs, such as Prism, which might lead to grave abuse in the future.

 

 

More from Rahul Sagar on the NSA Leaks

Last week Rahul Sagar, author of Secrets and Leaks, and Gabriella Coleman, author of Coding Freedom, began a fascinating debate on the complex moral and political issues surrounding Edward Snowden and the NSA leaks. You can read professor Sagar’s thoughts here and Professor Coleman’s response here.

Today Professor Sagar responds once more to Professor Coleman, discussing the flow of information, the morality of foreign surveillance, and how to prevent the abuse of secrecy.

Rahul Sagar:

As I said, Snowden is brave to have revealed his identity. Professor Coleman is right to say that Snowden has not tried to draw attention himself. I would, however, point out that Snowden’s silence may owe more to Vladimir Putin’s instruction that he not cause trouble if he wants to stay on Russia. Hence, our evaluation of Snowden the person must await further evidence.

I am also not sure that Snowden’s actions are the product of the “contemporary historical moment.” It has become commonplace to describe leaking and whistleblowing as a response to the “excessive” secrecy of the Bush and Obama Administrations. The reality is that these practices have existed throughout American history, and they have consistently attracted controversy. So the fact that Snowden is not alone in making unauthorized disclosures does not answer the moral question of whether and when public employees should disclose classified information.

Professor Coleman praises Snowden’s actions because they “open the spigot so valuable information could flow to a thirsty public who holds the right to know.” This is to take the view that the American people themselves should decide when and how electronic surveillance is conducted. This emphasis on a participatory form of democracy is problematic though. National security requires secrecy. If we publicly rule out certain surveillance methods —for example that the government should not spy on Facebook users — then Al Qaeda will start using this channel. It is because we cannot openly discuss surveillance measure that we delegate the management of national security to our chosen representatives.

How, then, to prevent the abuse of secrecy? One way to do so is to rely on the separation of powers. The other is to rely on our own good sense. We cannot see what the President or the FISA court see, but we can appoint to these offices people whose character and judgment we can trust. Professor Coleman dismisses these constitutional measures too quickly. She takes the view that asking whistleblowers and leakers to respect democratically elected officials subject to checks and balances is to urge “blind respect for dubious laws”. But why should citizens believe that unelected and unaccountable individuals like Julian Assange, Bradley Manning, and Edward Snowden are better placed to know what’s good for America, and what should be secret? And how can we undo their actions if their disclosures turn out to have been rash?

I believe we should be more circumspect. State secrecy makes it hard to oversee officials, lawmakers, and judges and to bring them to account. This is frustrating, but the answer is not to encourage unauthorized disclosures on the grounds that this quenches the public’s thirst for information. The public may end up swallowing air instead of water. For instance, there might be very good reasons for why the NSA is using the surveillance methods it uses, but these reasons cannot always be shared with the public. One-sided disclosures like those made by Snowden can leave the public with a distorted sense of what the NSA is up to.

This does not mean that whistleblowers and leakers do not play a valuable role. They aid American democracy when they disobey the law in order to expose serious wrongdoing. But Snowden has not met this standard. Even if his initial disclosures about NSA surveillance had merit, his subsequent disclosures about American surveillance of foreign powers are inappropriate. Snowden has defended these disclosures by citing the Nuremberg Principle. But spying on foreign powers is not a crime against humanity. To equate foreign surveillance with Nazi war crimes betrays a lack of judgment. And to argue that foreign surveillance is immoral while taking refuge in a country that is run by a strongman from the former KGB is doubly odd.


Gabriella Coleman, Author of Coding Freedom on the NSA Leaks

Yesterday Rahul Sagar, author of the forthcoming Secrets and Leaks: The Dilemma of State Secrecy, offered his thoughts on Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the benefit and dangers of whistleblowing. Today, Gabriella Coleman, author of Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking joins us to respond to Professor Sagar’s view, offer her take on the impassioned debate surrounding Snowden’s actions, and the media’s allegations of narcissism. (Also, catch Professor Coleman today on Huffington Post Live discussing whether the FBI has ‘dismantled’ the hacker collective Anonymous.)

Gabriella Coleman:

Out of all the charges lobbed against Edward Snowden I find the lay diagnosis of  his “narcissism” to be the most puzzling and spurious. How exactly is risking your life—by which I mean life in jail—an instance of a narcissistic temperament? Even though he went public, partly for self-protection, he has kept his interactions with the media to a bare minimum, clearly not seeking more undue attention. Given the lack of evidence of this pathology, labeling him as such strikes as a character assassination meant to detract from the more pressing issues his actions have raised.

If we contextualize what he did, not in terms of personality but in light of the contemporary historical moment, what we see without a shadow of a doubt is that Edward Snowden is not alone. He is part of a growing cohort of individuals who have for years diagnosed the explosive rise of state secrecy and surveillance as enough of a problem that they are willing to take on personal risk to impel debate and change. What is most notable is that this cohort is composed of insiders (William Binney, Thomas Drake, Edward Snowden, Bradley Manning) and outsiders (Julian Assange, Barrett Brown, and James Bamford). The fact that there is a chorus is significant.

The public should perhaps be more skeptical if it were only one person or only the Julian Assanges’ of the world—long time activists who have always sat outside the state apparatus —who were crying foul. That we have investigative journalists, military personnel, employees from security agencies, and activists join the fray signals the extent of the problem; there are different unconnected individuals from distinct walks of life coming forward identifying similar problems.

This brings us to the shores of the second issue: the sanctity of the law. What I think is clear by now is that the revealed programs violate aspects of the law in both the spirit and the letter. Lawyers have recently put it in no uncertain terms: “The two programs violate both the letter and the spirit of federal law. No statute explicitly authorizes mass surveillance.” In an ideal world we would simply use legal mechanisms to eliminate bad laws or fight grave injustices. Critics should walk down this path before law-breaking. This is exactly what happened in this case. Since the inception of the Patriot Act, which was passed under a time of great national duress and fear, we have seen various attempts by civil liberties organizations to curtail efforts at the vast enterprise that is unwarranted, warantless wiretapping using the law. One lawsuit first brought forward by the EFF and ACLU in 2006 against AT&T was not only drawn out, it was ultimately stonewalled by a dubious law that granted telecoms who cooperated with the government with retroactive immunity. The law has been tampered with to such an extent to have rendered using it in this case useless.

Along with legal efforts,  individuals have also used available channels at their disposal to effect change but to no avail. We have to look no further than Thomas Drake, a long time NSA employee who  grew uneasy with the violations he witnessed first hand. His first actions were reform based. He went to his superiors with his concerns and was told to stop. He went to the press with unclassified information for which he payed dearly being the subject of a DOJ investigation, eventually dropped but not before his career had been ruined.

The only actions to have engendered substantive debate and faint wisps of change have been Snowden’s leaks. Why? Foremost is that there is no fabled majority who support surveillance.
When news about Prism first broke and polls were taken, only 56% were in favor of state surveillance and the polls failed to mention Americans were targeted. Even then, how it is a number which represents a mere half of a country can be cast as a majority? It can’t. This issue is
unsettled. Further, as more damning allegations have come out, numbers have shifted, and more Americans are in opposition to current programs, especially when the question reflects the fact that American’s digital lives are being captured and stored.

Snowden’s reasons for revealing information cannot be simply reduced to “secrets should not be kept.” His statements about why he did what he did, and the documents that he leaked have shown a much more complicated rationale that cannot be omitted from our analysis. What Snowden did was open the spigot so valuable information could flow to a thirsty public who holds the right to know. Only then, can the public move to a realistic assessment about what course of action to take with a government agency, which currently holds limitless powers for surveillance and who actively withheld information and lied to Congress about its actions.

The type of impassioned debate generated by Snowden and the fervent coalition building and advocacy which has cropped up to press for change in the wake of these revelations and not blind respect for dubious laws, represents the living pulse of democracy. We are indebted to Snowden to have opened the gates. It is now up to us to finish the job.

Rahul Sagar Talks Secrets and Leaks, and the NSA

Rahul Sagar, professor of politics at Princeton and author of the forthcoming Secrets and Leaks: The Dilemma of State Secrecy took some time to talk about his very timely book and offer his take on the NSA disclosures. Read his thoughts here, and stay tuned tomorrow for another perspective from Gabriella Coleman, author of Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking, anthropologist of hacking culture, and digital rights activist.

Professor Sagar, In SECRETS AND LEAKS, a book that really could not have been more well-timed in terms of recent events, you talk about how disclosures like the NSA ones are the only credible means of checking the executive power, and because of this, must be tolerated. This sounds like a pretty reluctant acceptance of whistle-blowing, so I wonder if you could explain more about where your skepticism, as well as your acceptance comes from.  How skeptical are you in regards to Snowden’s actions?

Secrets and Leaks argues that our usual responses to state secrecy are problematic. For nearly a century now, we have responded to the concern that secrecy might be misused by calling for legislative and judicial oversight. But this response shifts rather than resolves the problem, because it is only a matter of time before citizens begin to wonder whether their lawmakers and judges are doing a good job overseeing secrecy.

This is what we’re witnessing today. Even though Congress and the FISA court are overseeing the NSA, citizens are now questioning whether Congress and the FISA court are doing an adequate job. Of course they can’t know the answer to this question, because they can’t peer inside the secret committees in Congress or inside the secret FISA court.

So how then can citizens feel confident that state secrecy is not being misused? I argue that unauthorized disclosures of classified information — in the form of whistleblowing and leaking — provide an answer. Because someone, somewhere could make an unauthorized disclosure, government officials do not feel very confident about being able to conceal wrongdoing. This makes unauthorized disclosures a powerful regulatory weapon.

But this regulatory weapons can backfire. Unauthorized disclosures can actually hurt democracy. I am thinking here of the anonymous disclosures that led to wrongful charges being brought against Wen Ho Lee and Steven Hatfill. These episodes —- merely the tip of the iceberg — caution us against instantly making heroes of whistleblowers and leakers and the press who cover them. We must remember that these actors often have their own interests and agendas at heart. This is the source of my reluctance or cautiousness.

I have mixed feelings about Snowden’s actions. I do see him as having done something brave and idealistic. I appreciate his decision to reveal his identity. Reportedly he did this in order to prevent his colleagues from being harassed and interrogated by investigators. If this was really his motive—and not narcissism—then this is admirable.

At the same time, I am troubled by self-righteousness on the part of those who break the law. To break the law is a very serious thing. It must be done under certain circumstances — when it reveals egregious legal or moral violations — and in certain ways — by carefully revealing only so much as is necessary.

Both Bradley Manning and Snowden have revealed information because they think secrets should not be kept. But this is not a sound basis for breaking the law. A number of administrations, representatives, judges — from all three branches — as well as a majority of citizens support electronic surveillance. Therefore, to simply override what the majority have lawfully chosen with your personal beliefs smacks of moral arrogance.

Therefore, I see Snowden as misguided. He has imposed his own values and ideas on the public—a majority of whom support electronic surveillance, and whose representatives have repeatedly endorsed the NSA’s programs. This is all the more true with respect to Snowden’s disclosures concerning foreign (rather than domestic) surveillance.

Snowden’s rashness also sets a very bad precedent. If Snowden is allowed to break the law, then shouldn’t others be? What is to stop a fiscal hawk in the Defense Department from following Snowden’s example and revealing what he considers ‘wasteful spending’ on nuclear weapons research? This sort of behavior can seriously undermine the effectiveness of our national security apparatus.


Michael Chwe’s Jane Austen, Game Theorist makes a splash

j10031[1]Jane Austen, Game Theorist by Michael Chwe, an associate professor of political science at UCLA, has become an overnight sensation thanks to a tremendously popular feature in the New York Times by Jennifer Schuessler. Chwe’s new take on the beloved writer as a strategic analyst has been the talk of twitter this week, with even Chelsea Clinton tweeting that she can’t wait to read the book. Chwe has several exciting appearances coming up that we’ll announce in the coming days. You can enter to win a copy of the book at Goodreads, but while you wait for the winners to be announced on May 10, check out Jane Austen’s letter to Dr. Chwe in Scientific American , and Dr. Chwe’s own clever response.

Also, y
ou can watch the charming book trailer here: