Emily Apter, Jacques Lezra, and Michael Wood discuss the Dictionary of Untranslatables [VIDEO]

Earlier this week, close to one hundred humanities lovers gathered for a discussion around the Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon with editors Emily Apter, Jacques Lezra, and Michael Wood, due out this month from Princeton University Press.

Please enjoy this video of the entire event, the first in this season’s Great New Books in the Humanities series co-sponsored by the Humanities Initiative and by the New York Institute for the Humanities at New York University:

 

Jenny White talks at the House of Commons (video now available)

On 4th February, Jenny White gave a talk in the British House of Commons as part of the Westminster debates held and organized by the Centre for Turkish Studies. The audience was a mix of politicians, scholars, students, and other interested people. The talk was moderated by Dr. Pelin Kadercan, of Reading University. A video of the event is now available to view here.White - Turkey Studies

In her recent book Muslim Nationalism and the New Turks, Jenny White argues that the polarization in Turkey isn’t due to an Islamist/secularist split as it is often portrayed, but rather is a result of the rapid transformation of society and consequent insecurity and search for new identities and meanings, particularly among the younger generations, regardless of whether they are secular or pious. The danger to Turkey comes not from Islam, which for many has become a lifestyle and object of choice, rather than an ideology, but from 20th-century habits of political autocracy that mirror familiar patriarchal authoritarian relations in the family that promise protection and stability.

In her talk at the House of Commons, Professor White brought these ideas up to the present, suggesting that the discourse that posits a father state protecting his citizen children from outsiders  aiming (with the help of traitorous insiders) to destroy the integrity and honor of the nation reappeared in the rhetoric and actions of both the prime minister and protesters during the Gezi protests of summer 2013 and in the Turkish government’s response to corruption allegations and other recent events. She explained why this discourse still works to mobilize major elements of the population, while other parts of the population now categorically reject these affiliations and patterns of political and personal relations. Turkey is at a tipping point between these forces.

This spring sees the publication of the paperback of this important book.  Muslim Nationalism and the New Turks will be reissued with a new afterword  in which White analyzes the latest political developments, particularly the mass protests surrounding Gezi Park, their impact on Turkish political culture, and what they mean for the future.

Image credit: Centre for Turkey Studies

 

Edmund Fawcett discusses Liberalism: The Life of an Idea [VIDEO]

Love it or hate it, liberalism is here to stay–and it has a long and fascinating history. Edmund Fawcett explains more about his forthcoming book Liberalism: The Life of an Idea in this wonderful video interview with Natalia Nash. How do we define liberalism? Edmund Fawcett explores the underlying ideas that guide the liberal story here:

Learn more about Edmund Fawcett and Liberalism at the Princeton University Press site.

In Search of the Spirit of Compromise

Missing: The Spirit of Compromise

Last Seen: Sometime in the mid 90’s

If found: Please return to Capitol Hill, Washington DC immediately

Reward: A well-functioning, responsible government

 

If only our leaders could learn that the election is over and that it’s time to govern, not shut down the government. May The Spirit of Compromise return to our representatives soon!

 

The Spirit of Compromise

Jeremy Adelman’s “Worldly Philosopher” One of Financial Times Econ Books of 2013

Jeremy Adelman – Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman
One of Financial Times (Alphachat)’s Econ Books of the Year for 2013

Diane Coyle and Tyler Cowen of Alphachat, a podcast of Financial Times Alphaville, listed their top picks for economic books published in 2013. They both placed Worldly Philosopher:The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman at the top of their lists of five books.

Worldly PhilosopherWorldly Philosopher chronicles the times and writings of Albert O. Hirschman, one of the twentieth century’s most original and provocative thinkers. In this gripping biography, Jeremy Adelman tells the story of a man shaped by modern horrors and hopes, a worldly intellectual who fought for and wrote in defense of the values of tolerance and change.

Born in Berlin in 1915, Hirschman grew up amid the promise and turmoil of the Weimar era, but fled Germany when the Nazis seized power in 1933. Amid hardship and personal tragedy, he volunteered to fight against the fascists in Spain and helped many of Europe’s leading artists and intellectuals escape to America after France fell to Hitler. His intellectual career led him to Paris, London, and Trieste, and to academic appointments at Columbia, Harvard, and the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. He was an influential adviser to governments in the United States, Latin America, and Europe, as well as major foundations and the World Bank. Along the way, he wrote some of the most innovative and important books in economics, the social sciences, and the history of ideas.

Throughout, he remained committed to his belief that reform is possible, even in the darkest of times.

This is the first major account of Hirschman’s remarkable life, and a tale of the twentieth century as seen through the story of an astute and passionate observer. Adelman’s riveting narrative traces how Hirschman’s personal experiences shaped his unique intellectual perspective, and how his enduring legacy is one of hope, open-mindedness, and practical idealism.

Jeremy Adelman is the Walter Samuel Carpenter III Professor of Spanish Civilization and Culture and director of the Council for International Teaching and Research at Princeton University. His books include Worlds Together, Worlds Apart: A History of the World and Sovereignty and Revolution in the Iberian Atlantic (Princeton)

New Politics and International Relations Catalog

Be among the first to browse and download our new politics and international relations catalog!

Of particular interest is The Confidence Trap: A History of Democracy in Crisis from World War I to the Present. The current financial crisis is just the latest example of how things continue to go wrong, just when it looked like they were going right. In this wide-ranging, original, and compelling book, David Runciman tells the story of modern democracy through the history of moments of crisis, from the First World War to the economic crash of 2008.

Also be sure to note The Gamble: Choice and Chance in the 2012 Presidential Election. In this groundbreaking book, John Sides and Lynn Vavreck tell the dramatic story of the election—with a big difference. Using an unusual “moneyball” approach, they look beyond the anecdote, folklore, and conventional wisdom that often pass for election analysis. Instead, they draw on extensive quantitative data about the economy, public opinion, news coverage, and political advertising to separate what was truly important from what was irrelevant. Combining this data with the best social science research and colorful on-the-ground reporting, they provide the most accurate and precise account of the election yet written—and the only book of its kind.

And don’t miss out on Michael Suk-Young Chwe’s Jane Austen, Game Theorist. Game theory—the study of how people make choices while interacting with others—is one of the most popular technical approaches in social science today. But as Michael Chwe reveals in his insightful new book, Jane Austen explored game theory’s core ideas in her six novels roughly two hundred years ago. Jane Austen, Game Theorist shows how this beloved writer theorized choice and preferences, prized strategic thinking, argued that jointly strategizing with a partner is the surest foundation for intimacy, and analyzed why superiors are often strategically clueless about inferiors. With a diverse range of literature and folktales, this book illustrates the wide relevance of game theory and how, fundamentally, we are all strategic thinkers.

Even more foremost titles in politics and international relations can be found in the catalog. You may also sign up with ease to be notified of forthcoming titles at http://press.princeton.edu/subscribe/. Your email address will remain confidential!

If you’re heading to the American Political Science Association’s annual meeting in Chicago, IL August 29th through September 1st, come visit us at booth 300, and follow #APSA2013 on Twitter for updates and information on our new and forthcoming titles throughout the meeting. See you there!

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.


Yale University’s Hélène Landemore: “From crowdsourcing the hunt to crowdsourcing the law?”

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines crowdsourcing as the practice of obtaining needed services, ideas, or content by soliciting contributions from a large group of people, and especially from an online community, rather than from traditional employees or suppliers.

Hélène Landemore, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Yale University

Hélène Landemore, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Yale University

In this blog post, Hélène Landemore, Assistant Professor of Political science at Yale University, discusses crowdsourcing, its political advantage, and government involvement: 

Crowdsourcing has become a popular tool to engage people in processes ranging from urban planning to solving complex scientific problems. Yet it had never been used before for a high-profile police operation like the one involved in the Boston bombings. The success of this first attempt begs the question: Couldn’t crowdsourcing techniques be for other governmental tasks? In an age where technologies allow for quick, almost costless multiple-way exchanges between the public and the government, it seems like a waste of opportunity not to tap further the now famed “wisdom of crowds.”

In the case of the manhunt, consider some striking aspects. It was the pictures, videos, and reports shared by the crowd that initially helped the FBI piece together who the bombers were. Then, after the FBI decided to go public with the pictures of the suspects, it was in part the information flowing from the crowd that helped quickly confirm the identity of the Tsarnaev brothers. Meanwhile social media kept the public apprised of the police progress and recommendations while gathering, processing, and circulating the information percolating up from the ground. Ultimately, it was a tip emanating from the crowd, in that case a Watertown resident who happened to own the boat on which the second suspect sought refuge, that brought the hunt to a speedy end.

There is no question that the police did an amazing investigative job of their own going over the mass of information, making difficult decisions at every step, and taking all the physical risks and responsibilities. But it is also apparent that one of their cleverest decisions was to involve the crowd from the beginning, a crowd that deserves some credit in the result. Without the crowd, the criminals might not have been identified as quickly, which could have resulted in their escape and more casualties, or perhaps in the second suspect being discovered dead rather than alive.

Crowdsourcing means less secrecy and more transparency. The FBI’s decision to go that route was a trade-off between the risk of letting the suspects know that they had been identified (thus giving them a chance to change their appearance or go underground immediately) and the cost of not capitalizing on the useful information lying somewhere within the crowd. Crowdsourcing also involves the risks of false rumors and informational cascades. Websites like Reddit, 4Chan, Twitter and others have been rightly blamed for rushing to conclusions and spreading false and damaging information about innocent individuals. 

Let’s not forget, however, that more traditional police operations are not foolproof either. Further, while the crowd can err, as can smaller groups of experts, it is also able to self-correct in ways that experts typically cannot or do not. Within a few hours after the mistake was revealed, the websites that had spread false information apologized and deleted the relevant links. There is definitely a learning curve to using these new technologies safely, but so far the evidence is that the crowd is up to the challenge. Most importantly, there are advantages to involving the crowd, in terms of diversity of perspectives as well as information-processing power, which, in this day and age, simply shift the balance against expertise and secrecy. 

In any case, my suggestion here is not that crowdsourcing should be used in every police operation. It is simply that when it comes to government as usual, where the stakes are generally lower than in a life-and-death scenario like the one Bostonians just went through, there should be more opportunities for regular people who happen to have the motivation, information, and smarts to participate and help along. 

The Obama administration has recently launched a promising Open Government initiative. Yet not much has been done, so far, to harness the power of crowds at the federal or state level. Cities like San Francisco, Chicago, and many others have been more ambitious in that respect, embracing not just Open Data and Participatory Budgeting but also experimenting with various crowdsourcing techniques. Other countries are also ahead of the curve, as evidenced in Iceland’s recent attempt at crowdsourcing, partly at least, the writing of a new constitution, or Finland’s ongoing experiment in crowdsourcing a contentious legislative process on off-road traffic (full disclaimer: I’m involved in this project). Couldn’t we imagine doing something similar on, say, Wall Street regulations or gun laws in this country? 

One of the many lessons of the Boston bombings, one that shouldn’t go to waste, is that there are many people out there both eager and uniquely able to help leaders, representatives, and the experts they rely on. Better still, they’re willing to do it all for free. If the crowd can help catch terrorists, why couldn’t they help fix the economy, education, healthcare, or the environment? The political problems we face are daunting and complex and we need all the brainpower we can get. I say, let the crowd in.


Democratic Reason: Politics, Collective Intelligence, and the Rule of the Many by Hélène LandemoreIndividual decision making can often be wrong due to misinformation, impulses, or biases. Collective decision making, on the other hand, can be surprisingly accurate. In Democratic Reason, Hélène Landemore demonstrates that the very factors behind the superiority of collective decision making add up to a strong case for democracy. She shows that the processes and procedures of democratic decision making form a cognitive system that ensures that decisions taken by the many are more likely to be right than decisions taken by the few. Democracy as a form of government is therefore valuable not only because it is legitimate and just, but also because it is smart.

Landemore considers how the argument plays out with respect to two main mechanisms of democratic politics: inclusive deliberation and majority rule. In deliberative settings, the truth-tracking properties of deliberation are enhanced more by inclusiveness than by individual competence. Landemore explores this idea in the contexts of representative democracy and the selection of representatives. She also discusses several models for the “wisdom of crowds” channeled by majority rule, examining the trade-offs between inclusiveness and individual competence in voting. When inclusive deliberation and majority rule are combined, they beat less inclusive methods, in which one person or a small group decide. Democratic Reason thus establishes the superiority of democracy as a way of making decisions for the common good.

Can whistleblowing ever be justified? — Edward Snowden exposes NSA’s confidential surveillance program and is said to be hiding in Hong Kong

The National Security Agency (NSA)National Security Agency (NSA) has a secret program that allows the commission to gain access to user information stored by big-name internet organizations. Some of the most recognizable companies include Facebook, Google, Yahoo, and Skype.

29-year-old Edward Snowden, a mid-level IT worker contracted by the NSA, leaked top-secret NSA documentation about PRISM. PRISM tracks user information such as photos, content of e-mails, live chat, videos, and login alerts. Snowden is said to be hiding out in Hong Kong. All companies involved have allegedly denied allowing NSA to gain direct access to their databases. It is currently up for debate as to whether or not Snowden is a hero to the public or someone that acted recklessly, endangering the safety of all Americans.

PRISM is reported to have been authorized and enforced in 2007. President George Bush passed PRISM along with other changes to the US surveillance rules. President Barack Obama renewed the edict last year.

KQED Forum: Edward Snowden

The Guardian via Getty Images — Edward Snowden speaks during an interview in Hong Kong.

KQED Forum with Michael Krasny is a live call-in program that presents wide-ranging discussions of local, state, national and international issues, as well as in-depth interviews. On Tuesday, June 11, Krasny posted a session that includes political science expert and author of Secrets and Leaks: The Dilemma of State Secrecy, Rahul Sagar. Sagar is an Assistant Professor at Princeton University within the Department of Politics. Sagar has taken a firm stance that Snowden was “misguided” and his choice to leak information was ill-considered. He feels that Snowden has acted inappropriately by taking the law into his own hands. By exposing this information, Sagar believes Snowden acted wrongfully from a legal standpoint and should have pursued a safer avenue if he wanted his discovery to be revealed.

To hear more about PRISM and Sagar’s viewpoint on whistleblowing, listen to Krasny’s segment on the NSA leak:

View this recording on the KQED Forum webpage: http://www.kqed.org/a/forum/R201306110900

Secrets and Leaks:
The Dilemma of State Secrecy

Rahul Sagar

Rahul Sagar -- Princeton U: Assistant Professor, Department of PoliticsRahul Sagar is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Politics at Princeton University. His primary research interests are the field of political theory and include topics in ancient and modern political theory including executive power, moderation, tyranny, and political realism.

Sagar’s first book, Secrets and Leaks: The Dilemma of State Secrecy, is set to be released in October 2013. Sagar examines the complex relationships among executive power, national security, and secrecy. State secrecy is vital for national security, but it can also be used to conceal wrongdoing. How then can we ensure that this power is used responsibly? Typically, the onus is put on lawmakers and judges, who are expected to oversee the executive. Yet because these actors lack access to the relevant information and the ability to determine the harm likely to be caused by its disclosure, they often defer to the executive’s claims about the need for secrecy. As a result, potential abuses are more often exposed by unauthorized disclosures published in the press.

But should such disclosures, which violate the law, be condoned? Drawing on several cases, Rahul Sagar argues that though whistle-blowing can be morally justified, the fear of retaliation usually prompts officials to act anonymously–that is, to “leak” information. As a result, it becomes difficult for the public to discern when an unauthorized disclosure is intended to further partisan interests. Because such disclosures are the only credible means of checking the executive, Sagar writes, they must be tolerated. However, the public should treat such disclosures skeptically and subject irresponsible journalism to concerted criticism.