America: Through the Eyes of Pop Culture

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Some argue that the idea of American “culture” is nonexistent. Some say we are simply a disorganized homogenization with no true identity. I attempted to debunk this assertion through extensive online research, combing the daily minutia of the internet–specifically, entertainment news. What I discovered is that pop-culture illustrates more than just the over-glorification of celebrity. It also serves as a mind-numbing reflection of American values.

The following images represent a vignette of American culture–albeit a vignette of disappointment and embarrassment. Nevertheless, it is a reflection of culture indigenous to America. It begins on a holiday, on the night of Halloween, in the Hills of Beverly:hugh hefner miley cyrus On October 28th, 2013, Hugh Hefner tweeted this photo of himself with 27-year-old wife, Crystal Harris. Hugh Hefner is 87, by the way. He was 60 when she was born. I’ll let that sink-in…

Crystal was dressed as Miley Cyrus from her now-infamous VMA performance, while Hugh was dressed as…I don’t know. He looks like a Madam Tussauds wax sculpture of a death row inmate. No. Wait. Sorry. He’s supposed to be Robin Thicke. Now I see it.

First of all, let’s start with Hugh Hefner. Essentially, this man’s entire career justified what Miley Cyrus did on stage at the VMAs. He made promiscuity acceptable in society. He turned the Hollywood image of empowered women like Marilyn Munroe into sex objects. We’ve grown to celebrate this type of “freedom” in American culture. Some might call that “empowerment”. But I dare those same people to watch one episode of The Girls Next Door and try making an argument for feminism. I’m not saying women in this country should be wearing burqas but there has to be self-conscious limitations on freedom of expression.

While it’s true that “progressive” values have ushered much-needed social change throughout history, America’s idea of “progression” seems to be limitless in certain aspects. Because as far as we’ve progressed, we’ve also taken steps backwards in terms of cultivating intellectual culture. We have completely lost sight of our moral boundaries. We’re becoming culturally desensitized to what is right and wrong.

Even our childhood institutions are no longer sacred. Look at Disney. Look what they did to Miley.

And Vanessa Hudgens. And Selena Gomez.

And Britney Spears. And Christina Aguilera.

And Bambi’s mom! WHY?! I was just a child, Walt! You twisted, bastard!

Over the past decade, Disney went from this:

before

To this:disney gals 75

[Side note: It was Nickelodeon who discovered Emily Ratajkowski (below), who, coincidentally, was one of the topless models in Robin Thicke’s controversial “Blurred Lines” video, which, subsequently, facilitated the controversial Miley Cyrus VMA performance, thus, culminating in the controversial aforementioned Halloween outfit of October 28th, 2013]

The circle of life:

emily r

The second image comes to us from Nashville, Tennessee. It’s Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood singing a scathing duet about Obamacare during the Country Music Awards: rednecks First of all, I don’t identify as a Democrat nor as a Republican. I’m not trying to defend the president here. But I bet 90% of people in attendance/watching the CMAs, couldn’t speak intelligently about America’s healthcare system for more than 5 seconds (and that’s being generous). So, why make the joke? Why involve topical political commentary? What’s the point? There is none.

That’s my point. Ask yourself, how many in attendance at the CMAs are likely Republican? Not to generalize but considering most country music comes from the south and most southerners are Republican, logic dictates that it’s probably a correct assumption. Let’s say a majority are Republican. Also ask yourself, how many people in attendance at the CMAs likely have health insurance? I would also guess, a majority. If you have the financial means to be a country music star, you probably have the means to be insured (e.g. millionaires like Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood).  Their motive is clear. They’re pandering to rich, white Republicans who already have healthcare and who already hate Obama because he’s a Democrat. For the producers, it’s a win-win. Everyone in the audience laughs while at the same time grasping the opportunity of a national stage to criticize the president.

However, from an outside perspective, an out-of-context parody about healthcare doesn’t appear tongue-in-cheek. Instead, it appears to be cheap banter for a like-minded audience, most of whom are probably hoping Obamacare fails, if for no other reason than out of spite. It’s pathetic how desperate the producers were to politicize an issue and turn it into entertainment in the name of petty dissonance.

I don’t recall Toby Keith ever getting on stage and singing a parody about the Iraq War during the Bush administration. Of course not. Because, according to country music, supporting your president for waging war is called being “patriotic”. But criticizing your president for trying to offer healthcare to millions of uninsured Americans? That’s worthy of cheap laughs and “Yee-haws!”.

Miley Cyrus “twerking” on stage while wearing a confederate flag bikini would have been more appropriate than singing a song about a failing healthcare system in a country whose government was recently shutdown because the people running it forgot how to be civil. There’s nothing funny about that. Accordingly, country music stars have no right to criticize something for being shitty. That’s hypocritical. After all, they’re country music stars.

The “joke” offers no alternative nor solution. There’s no productive discourse. It only contributes to an increasingly polarized public sphere, solely intent on being controversial for the purpose of ratings. The producers decided pandering to their predominately Republican viewership was opportunistic given their audience demographic. And they were right. Because, for the majority of attendees at the CMAs that evening, the reality of millions of uninsured Americans was nothing more than a laughable inconvenience, whose blame can be placed entirely on the people whose viewpoints they oppose. It’s too convenient for them not to laugh. It’s this same combination of stubborn ignorance and unashamed idealism that contributes to the ineffective bureaucracy in American politics. It’s the same thing that shutdown our government. Both sides must stop.

Last but not least, Miley Cyrus (who has somehow become the focal point of this essay) (dammit):

miley joints

After Miley’s provocative twerk-filled performance at the 2013 VMAs, it was presumable we could expect similar antics from her at the more liberal EMAs (European Music Awards). Because Europeans are floozies. That’s why our ancestors left and came to America in the first place.

The 2013 EMAs were held in Amsterdam. Which, as we all know, is famous for their scones (as well as prostitution and marijuana). Accordingly, when Miley Cyrus was accepting an award on stage (dressed as a prostitute), she pulled a joint from her purse and smoked it in front of everyone.

The fact that Ms. Cyrus smoked “drugs” on stage is irrelevant. If you’ve ever seen VH1’s Behind the Music with Motley Crue, you’ll understand that everything that Miley has ever done, only scratches the surface of inappropriate things musicians have done throughout American history. But that didn’t stop broadcasters from censoring the entire EMA pot-smoking incident from American viewers.

Seriously?

For weeks after Miley Cyrus’ controversial VMA performance, media outlets across the country shamelessly replayed images of her simulating sex onstage, barely wearing clothing. Yet, the image of her smoking a joint is too offensive for our delicate sensibilities? Our priorities are in need of serious reevaluation.

It has nothing to do with whether legalizing weed is right or wrong. It’s about how American society dictates what is right and wrong–with an unreasonable disregard for common sense. A new poll suggests 60% of Americans support legalization. Nearly half the states in the U.S. have legalized weed in some form or another. What purpose does censorship accomplish? What is it fulfilling besides accordance with arbitrary FCC laws? Nothing. It only intensifies the idiocy in American culture, surrounding the debate between what we deem moral and immoral.

I don’t know what the future of America holds. If our culture is any indication, it doesn’t look promising. We constantly bear witness to the loss of innocence, the loss of decency, and the loss of common sense. At times, it seems as though we’ve lost our minds. America is one of the most perverted, opinionated, self-righteous, and greatest countries in the world.

If only we were more self-aware.

Reefer Madness: The Hypocrisy of Prohibition

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In 1936, an American propaganda film was released to the public, notoriously titled Reefer Madness. The story centers around the melodramatic events that ensue when high school students are lured by dealers to try marijuana. Which leads to a hit and run accident, to manslaughter, suicide, attempted rape and descent into madness. It’s like Breaking Bad without the meth.

“Public enemy No. 1”

The American public is far less naïve about marijuana use today, evident in the thriving pot subculture that exists in contemporary society. Nonetheless, for nearly half a century it has remained illegal in the United States on a federal level. Cannabis is classified as a Schedule 1 narcotic under federal law. It is deemed to have “a high potential for abuse and no legitimate medical uses”.

In early July 2011, the federal government ruled (once again) that marijuana has no accepted medicinal purposes. The decision marks the third time in over three decades that the reclassification of cannabis has failed. The first request was filed in 1972 and denied 17 years later. The second was filed in 1995 and denied in 2001. Both decisions were appealed, but the courts ultimately sided with the federal government.

Regardless of failed legislature, mainstream opinion of marijuana has shifted ten-fold. A poll conducted by the Pew Research Center in March 2013 found that 52% of participants supported legalization opposed to 45%. Not since 1969 has a majority been reached in favor of legalization. U.S. public support for legalizing marijuana was fixed in the 25% range from the late 1970s to the mid-1990s, but support jumped to 31% in 2000 and has continued to grow throughout the decade (Gallup). In fact, support has risen steadily by 11% since 2010.

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Support for legalization increased during the 70s. And then Ronald Reagan happened.

Marijuana is like the boyfriend a girl brings home to meet her parents for the first time. Of course, the parents are apprehensive of him [the parents, in this case, being the federal government]. It doesn’t matter if she swears, “He’s really great, you just don’t know him like I do,” Mom and Dad refuse to believe he’s good enough for their daughter [the American people]. She’s alone, awake at night, wondering, “Why can’t they see what I see in him?” They are cursed by forbidden love, forced to live their lives in secrecy. It’s tragic enough to be Shakespearean.

What legalization advocates find most infuriating about the classification of cannabis is the pure hypocrisy behind it. Alcohol and tobacco (both legal) demonstrate the exact characteristics of a Schedule 1 narcotic: a.) A high potential for abuse, and b.) No legitimate medical uses. Alcohol is linked to 50,000 deaths a year, which pales in comparison to tobacco: 400,000. I believe those numbers are reflective of “abuse”.

FDA-approved prescription drugs also display a “high potential for abuse” coupled with a higher risk of overdose than alcohol or tobacco. Drug overdose death rates in the United States have more than tripled since 1990 and have never been higher. In 2008, more than 36,000 people died from drug overdoses (avg. 100/day) (CDC).

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The misuse and abuse of prescription painkillers was responsible for more than 475,000 emergency department visits in 2009, a number that nearly doubled in just five years. (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration)

In contrast, there has never been a documented human fatality from overdosing on tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) (cannabis) in its natural form (“Cannabinoid analgesia” Pharmacology & Therapeutics). Marijuana, in its natural form, is non-toxic, virtually impossible to overdose on. One estimate for humans indicates that about 1,500 pounds would have to be smoked within 14 minutes (New England Journal of Medicine).

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Above all, cannabis has proven, in contrast to its classification as a Schedule 1 drug, to clearly possess a multitude of medicinal purposes.

Benefits include the use of treatment in various conditions: cancer, HIV/AIDS, multiple sclerosis, glaucoma, anorexia nervosa, Crohn’s disease, epilepsy, anxiety, depression, insomnia, migraines, and chronic pain. “No legitimate medical uses”?

In addition, studies indicate that THC has an “anti-cholinesterase” effect. Anti-cholinesterase is a chemical compound that inhibits the acetylcholinesterase enzyme from breaking down “acetylcholine”, thereby increasing the functionality of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine.  The function of acetylcholine in the brain relates to the nervous system. Specifically, sensory perception and motor skills. In layman’s terms, THC has the ability to promote elasticity in neurotransmission. This may implicate it as a potential treatment for Alzheimer’s, Dementia, and Myasthenia Gravis (all severely debilitating neurological disorders). This research also helps debunk the widely-held stereotypical belief that marijuana kills brain cells (it doesn’t).

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Recently, Dr. Sanjay Gupta of CNN reversed his long-standing objection to medical marijuana after extensively researching the benefits in patients across the country. The byproduct of his research is a documentary, titled: “Weed”. Accompanying this documentary, Dr. Gupta wrote an open apology concerning his stance on medical marijuana:

“I am here to apologize. I apologize because I didn’t look hard enough, until now. I didn’t look far enough. I didn’t review papers from smaller labs in other countries doing some remarkable research, and I was too dismissive of the loud chorus of legitimate patients whose symptoms improved on cannabis.

Instead, I lumped them with the high-visibility malingerers, just looking to get high. I mistakenly believed the Drug Enforcement Agency listed marijuana as a Schedule 1 narcotic because of sound scientific proof. Surely, they must have quality reasoning as to why marijuana is in the category of the most dangerous drugs that have “no accepted medicinal use and a high potential for abuse”.

They didn’t have the science to support that claim, and I now know that when it comes to marijuana neither of those things are true. It doesn’t have a high potential for abuse and there are very legitimate medical applications. In fact, sometimes marijuana is the only thing that works.-Dr. Sanjay Gupta

c figiCharlotte Figi

A focal point of the documentary is Charlotte Figi, a 6-year-old girl from Colorado who was diagnosed with Dravet Syndrome as an infant. Dravet syndrome, also known as Severe Myoclonic Epilepsy of Infancy (SMEI), is a rare and catastrophic form of intractable epilepsy that begins in infancy. According to Dr. Gupta, “[Charlotte] started having seizures soon after birth. By age 3, she was having 300 a week, despite being on seven different medications.” He adds, “Medical marijuana has calmed her brain, limiting her seizures to 2 or 3 per month.

Dr. Gupta’s credibility as a neurosurgeon and his subsequent endorsement is appreciated. But it’s also understandably frustrating to those who advocated for years–claiming the same facts–despite being systematically ignored and undermined by the federal government.

A third precursor to being classified as a “Schedule 1” is: a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug or other substance under medical supervision. However, the effective dose of THC is at least 1000 times lower than the estimated lethal dose; this means the amount it takes a person to feel the effects of cannabis is one thousand times lower than what it would take for them to overdose. This is measured by a “therapeutic ratio”. Marijuana has a therapeutic ratio of 1000:1. By comparison, the ratio of alcohol is 100 times less: 10:1. Heroin is 6:1. (“Comparison of acute lethal toxicity of commonly abused psychoactive substances” Addiction)

Using cannabis is no different than drinking a glass of wine with dinner or smoking a cigarette during your work break. The only difference is, people aren’t incarcerated for the latter. The reality of modern-day prohibition is evident in the heavy price that we–the people–have paid since its inception. In 2009 alone, approximately 850,000 Americans were arrested on marijuana charges (more than all violent crimes combined, i.e. rape, murder, assault). 88% of people convicted were charged with only minor possession–a misdemeanor (30% were under the age of 19). Taxpayers are left spending an estimated $10 billion/year to enforce marijuana prohibition (NORML).

pot cartoon

In America, there is still no legally controlled market for marijuana. Dealing and buying is most commonly accomplished through the underground black market, which is widespread and overwhelmingly successful. In a 2012 report titled, “Marijuana Production in the United States,” by marijuana policy researcher Jon Gettman, the author cites marijuana as the top cash crop in 12 states and among the top three cash crops in 30 others. The study estimates that marijuana production exceeds the combined value of corn ($23.3 billion) and wheat ($7.5 billion). It’s difficult to estimate an annual market price for the entire U.S., considering most transactions are unregulated and illegal. However, estimates place it anywhere from $10 billion to $120 billion annually.

pot prices

The price of marijuana per state: Top-producing states according to DEA search and seizures are California, Hawaii, Kentucky, Oregon, Tennessee, Washington, and West Virginia.

Overall, in contrast to it’s classification as a Schedule 1, cannabis displays less evidence of abuse than it’s legal predecessors, more evidence of medical benefits, and financial opportunity for a subpar economy (e.g. increased state revenue as well as job creation). So, despite all the evidence, why does cannabis remain illegal on a national scale? What is the real impetus behind prohibition? It’s easy to point fingers and place blame on the DEA. But this a common misconception. Yes, the DEA enforce the laws that are already in place, contributing to the failed policies of the drug war. But the real reason why enforcement of marijuana laws still exist, can be blamed entirely on a separate culprit.

The pharmaceutical industry has been–and continues to be–by far the most profitable of all businesses in the U.S. In 2006, the global market raked in $643 billion. The U.S. accounts for more than half of the entire market (11 out of 19 of the top grossing pharmaceutical companies are American). According to the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics, pharmaceutical companies spent $900 million on anti-marijuana lobbying between 1998 and 2005, more than any other industry in America. During the same period, they donated $90 million to federal candidates and political parties, giving approximately three times as much to Republicans as to Democrats. This is particularly noteworthy, considering the Republican Party routinely supports prohibition with a strict, conservative, anti-drug agenda.

According to the 2013 Pew Research Poll, only 37% of Republicans supported marijuana legalization, opposed to 59% of Democrats in favor and 60% of Independents in favor. The one issue Democrats and Republicans seem to agree on is whether or not “government efforts to enforce marijuana laws cost more than they’re worth”. On average, regardless of party affiliation, 72% agree. When Democrats and Republicans openly agree on something, it’s a testament to legitimacy.

partisans

The FDA’s motives are illustrated by the success of their top-selling product. In 2008, antipsychotic medication became the single top-selling therapeutic class of drugs at $14 billion a year in the U.S. alone. Antipsychotics are a group of tranquilizing drugs used to treat psychiatric conditions; the most commonly prescribed medication in the U.S. Coincidentally, many of these drugs are the same used to treat several conditions cannabis would treat if it were decriminalized. Simply put, legalizing marijuana would be a threat to the profit margin of the American drug industry.

In 2009, prescriptions written for antipsychotics totaled 20 million. That amounts to nearly 1 in 15 Americans. In an article for Al-Jazeera, Marcia Angell, former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, points out that a study the same year showed that 18 of the 20 psychiatrists who wrote the APA’s (American Psychiatry Association) most recent clinical guidelines for treating depression, bipolar disorders, and schizophrenia, had financial ties to drug companies, whether through research grants or stock holdings. This seems like an egregious conflict of interest. Yet, it is perfectly legal. Not only do pharmaceutical companies pay doctors to speak on behalf of their drugs, they pay sales representatives based on the number of prescriptions written by doctors. Their not focused on curing the most people. Their focused on selling the most drugs. That’s not an opinion. That’s a fact.

The over-prescribing of medications is compounded by the nature of psychiatric diagnoses. They’re primarily subjective. That is, therapists make a diagnosis through the process of observation. The lack of biological tests for mental disorders makes psychiatry especially vulnerable to industry influence. It doesn’t help that we are constantly expanding the criteria for mental illness, so that nearly everyone has one. Expanding the variety of diagnoses leads to a cornucopia of new, relevant drugs. As Marcia Angell puts it, “Psychiatrists are in the pocket of industry.”

Consider the pharmaceutical industry as the kingpin of the American drug market. It’s bad for business to be competing with cannabis: a potential medicine that treats an array of psychiatric conditions, with little to no side effects. This is reinforced by the fact that the drug industry’s top-selling products (anti-psychotics/painkillers) are used to treat the same conditions that cannabis would treat, if legal.

commonly abused

What is most threatening to the pharmaceutical industry is that marijuana is all-natural. More importantly, it is most effective in it’s natural form. Cannabis can be grown by anyone with seed, soil, water and sunlight. Cultivation relies on farming. It relies on investment in agriculture. If marijuana laws are reformed, cannabis would be a contender. Imagine: an organic, sustainable medicine in America. That’s potentially stiff competition. The process doesn’t require chemicals nor does it require synthetic manufacturing by technicians in a lab. There is no need for pharmaceutical companies to produce and distribute it. Additionally, there is no legal parameter for patenting something that grows in the ground (unless you’re Monsanto). In summary, there is no money to be made by the drug industry. Although, that hasn’t stopped them from trying.

Synthesized THC is known as dronabinol. It is available in the United States as a prescription drug under the generic name Marinol. It is classified as a Schedule III, available by prescription, considered to be “non-narcotic and to have a low risk of physical or mental dependence.” However, Marinol was cited by the FDA as being responsible for 4 deaths in a study of 17 different FDA-approved drugs between January 1, 1997 to June 30, 2005 (The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) (SAMHSA). Four deaths in eight years might seem negligible to some. But reconsider the fact that the “toxicity” of natural THC has failed to report killing anyone, ever.

marinol

A list of side effects for the prescription drug Marinol:

More common

  • Clumsiness or unsteadiness
  • dizziness
  • drowsiness
  • false sense of well-being
  • nausea
  • trouble with thinking
  • vomiting

Less common

  • Changes in mood
  • confusion
  • delusions
  • fast or pounding heartbeat
  • feelings of unreality
  • hallucinations
  • loss of memory
  • mental depression
  • nervousness or anxiety
  • problems with memory

Millions of Americans remain comfortably numb, hooked on FDA-approved drugs (Oxycontin is practically synthetic heroin). The pharmaceutical industry makes billions annually, pushing pills toward a vague definition of psychiatric disorders ranging from hypochondria to restless leg syndrome. On the other end of the spectrum, nearly one million Americans a year are incarcerated for a plant that grows in the ground.

Although medical marijuana has made progress on a state level, the medicinal dispensary system is being widely abused. In Seattle, there are currently more weed dispensaries than Starbucks. In Denver, there are more weed dispensaries than Starbucks, liquor stores, and public schools. In California, a medical marijuana card can be purchased with ease. As Esquire’s John Richardson puts it, “[In California] the law is nothing but a fig leaf that can be purchased with an $80 medical exam… It’s a joke. And it’s not good policy to make the law into a joke.”

Richardson aptly describes the hypocrisy of medical marijuana policy in CA: “California has the worst of both worlds. Marijuana is essentially legal, but people still go to jail for it and the state still spends millions of dollars in police time, court costs, and prison cells for no reason. It’s stupid. There’s no other word for it, no rational justification. We are paying for our hypocrisy with wasted taxes and the wreckage of other people’s lives.”

Meanwhile, most non-residents are still out-of-luck:

medi marijuana graph

America’s prohibition of marijuana offers a sentiment that suggests: “Why heal people if we can’t make profit?” Anti-drug law enforcement is rooted in hypocrisy, furthering an increasingly counterproductive dichotomy between state and federal regulations.

If we legalize, we can begin helping people—all people—who actually need it. We can stop placing stigmas on recreational users and stop filling prisons with harmless offenders. Collectively, we can come to accept the overwhelming truth over hypocrisy.

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UPDATE: Support for marijuana legalization spikes to 58% (Washington Post)

Uruguay becomes first nation to fully legalize marijuana (Reuters)

GSK announces it will no longer pay doctors for drug endorsements (WSJ)

Mad as hell… and no one cares

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homeland

I have a compulsive habit of making analogous references to film and/or television. Not only because their narratives are relevant but also because I’m a lonely nerd who’s obsessed with both. It’s become entirely subconscious. Accordingly, when news broke concerning the recent NSA scandal, I couldn’t help but make a connection with one of my favorite TV series: Homeland.

A quick summary for the uninitiated: The show centers around two main characters, Carrie Mathison and Nicholas Brody. In the opening scene of the first episode, we’re introduced to our protagonist–Carrie–a hot, blonde-haired CIA agent with a knack for doing things her own way. We find out that Carrie has bribed her way into an Iraqi prison to speak with an informant. The informant, reluctantly, tells her that, “An American prisoner of war has been turned”. Coincidently, a few days later, Nicholas Brody, a sergeant in the Marines who went missing 8 years prior, is rescued from captivity in Iraq and brought back to America. Upon his return, Brody is presented to the country as an American hero. Carrie, however, has her suspicions. Is Sergeant Brody the P.O.W.-turned-terrorist that Carrie’s informant warned her of? If so, what are Brody’s plans? And, more importantly, will Carrie and Brody eventually cross paths, resulting in a sexually-charged love affair? You’ll have to see for yourself.

I know I’ve gone completely off-track but it’s for the purpose of context. My analogy is related to a specific scene in Homeland when Carrie’s suspicions lead to paranoia. She’s convinced Brody is a spy and wants him under 24/7 surveillance. She confides in her mentor at the C.I.A. (Saul Berenson). Carrie begs for permission to spy on Brody. However, Saul’s response is surprisingly blunt: “No”. As a veteran of the agency and a man of principle, Saul chastises Carrie on how un-American it is. How the C.I.A. doesn’t spy on it’s own citizens. How Carrie is absolutely prohibited from doing so. (Spoiler Alert!) She does it anyway. Saul eventually finds out. At first, he’s outraged with Carrie. But after a scolding, Saul convinces a judge to grant Carrie a month-long FISA warrant giving her full-access to Brody’s life. Even though she already orchestrated her own version of big brother within Brody’s home–without permission–she never faces the repercussions. On the contrary, she’s encouraged to continue. It was after I recalled this particular scene when I asked myself: is this not a perfect reflection of the current state of affairs in America? A society defined by status and devoid of accountability. The worst part about it is: no one cares.

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Back in the real world, in early June, the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper began publishing a series of exposes outlining the extensive nature of America’s top-secret surveillance program. The whistleblower responsible for the leak turned out to be a contractor working for the NSA (National Security Agency) named Edward Snowden. It began on June 5th, when the Guardian released top-secret information regarding a request made to the FISA court, ordering Verizon to provide data for all telephone calls “wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls, and all calls made between the U.S. and abroad.” This revelation wasn’t exactly mind-blowing. The PATRIOT Act made it clear that this has been happening since 9/11. However, what we didn’t know, was the extent of the surveillance. What no one expected was that the warrantless wiretapping that took place during the Bush administration was only the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Let’s rewind. To better understand this issue, one must better understand a brief history of domestic surveillance. In 1978, an act was signed into law known as FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act). This law prescribed procedures for the electronic surveillance and collection of foreign intelligence information (which may include American citizens and permanent residents). More importantly, FISA set up the FISC (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court). This federally-appointed court is charged with overseeing the processing of all FISA requests (requests for surveillance). Important to note is that these court hearings are “ex parte”: a legal proceeding brought by one person in the absence of and without representation or notification of other parties. Basically, “ex parte” is a big middle finger to due process. It remains true that FISA–initially–was enacted as a form of checks and balances, in the wake of the Watergate scandal. Ironically, FISA was supposed to limit the surveillance of American citizens by filtering unjustifiable requests through the FISC. Unforeseeable, the events of September 11th, 2001 would change everything.

After 9/11, the Bush administration added an amendment to FISA known infamously as the PATRIOT Act (Providing Appropriate Tools Required (to) Intercept (and) Obstruct Terrorism) (our government LOVES acronyms). Among other things, the PATRIOT Act significantly weakened restrictions on law enforcement agencies’ gathering of intelligence within the United States. The act also expanded the State Department’s classification of “terrorist” to include “domestic terrorist”. What followed was a substantial increase in the number of operations to which the PATRIOT Act’s expanded law enforcement powers could be applied. Not surprisingly, this free-range access of information led to widespread abuse of power. A New York Times whistleblower would eventually disclose information confirming the unauthorized warrantless wiretapping of American citizens by the Bush administration. While the FISC demonstrated executive overreach by giving the middle finger to due process, the PATRIOT Act gave the middle finger to the entire U.S. constitution.

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Fact: John Ashcroft has never been refused a woman’s phone number.

To think of the FISC as a jury of peers would be a complete misperception. The court is basically just there, ostensibly, as a tribunal to make the FISA process appear as if it exists in the realm of legality. In truth, the FISC is what’s known as a “rubber stamp”. Surveillance requests are granted by the FISC 99.97% of the time. Since 1979, nearly 34,000 FISA requests have been made and only 11 have been rejected. About 20,000 of those requests were made following September 11th, 2001. Nearly 60% of all requests were filed within the last decade.

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Fast forward to 2013. On June 6th, one day after the Verizon leak, another bombshell was dropped on the American people by the Guardian and Washington Post. It was revealed that Verizon was just one of nine companies, all contributing to a top-secret clandestine surveillance program known as PRISM. This program operates under the FISC and is the primary source of all analytical data at the NSA. Among leaked information were slides from an NSA Powerpoint, outlining the extensiveness of PRISM:

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Strange how something so evil can look so shitty.

PRISM takes surveillance to entirely new levels. Forget warrantless wiretapping, this program data mines EVERYTHING. Honestly, look at the above list and tell me you haven’t used your computer for at least one of those reasons, through at least one of those carriers. And if you think the government is asking nicely for permission, you’re sadly mistaken.

According to the New York Times, in 2008, Yahoo challenged a FISA court order requiring the company to give them data without a warrant (Yes. The FISC–the federally appointed court charged with granting warrants for spying–asked Yahoo for permission to spy without a warrant). Yahoo’s argument was simple: “The order violated its users’ Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures.” The FISC responded by saying, give us the data or face federal charges of obstruction of justice.  Yahoo obviously lost. Subsequently, in 2008, the company became one of the first of many to join the ranks of PRISM (albeit, against their will). 

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In the grand scheme of things, no one should necessarily be shocked that this type of covert operation exists. Since September 11th, it’s no longer breaking news that homeland security has metastasized into a monolithic entity. My concern isn’t so much with the extensive nature of surveillance slowly pervading this country. My concern is more focused on the fact that no one cares. By that I mean, what does it take for Americans to get pissed off at the establishment again? Where is the red line? Does it even exist in contemporary society?

During the Vietnam War, one of the most famous intelligence leaks in American history came to light thanks to a man named Daniel Ellsberg. He was a military analyst working for RAND (Research and Development). In 1971, Ellsberg leaked a cache of top-secret DoD intel to the New York Times known as “The Pentagon Papers”. Not only did the documents outline the U.S. government’s decision-making policy related to the Vietnam War but also provided a thorough report on U.S. political-military involvement in Vietnam between 1945-1967. The Pentagon Papers revealed that the U.S. had unknowingly expanded it’s war in Vietnam with bombing campaigns in Laos and Cambodia. Above all, as the New York Times said of the 1971 leak, “demonstrated, among other things, that the Lyndon B. Johnson administration had systematically lied, not only to the public but also to Congress, about a subject of transcendent national interest and significance”. Consequently, from 1971 to 1975, the largest grassroots anti-war movement in American history reached it’s tipping point, eventually playing a significant role in ending the conflict in Vietnam.

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We currently find ourselves in the same situation. A top-secret intelligence leak coupled with yet another “revelation” that are government lies to the masses and lurks in the shadows. And what is our response? Protests like the 60s and 70s? Of course, not. Instead, we illustrate an overall sentiment that defines a generation of Americans. It’s characterized by a form of complacency which occurs by not caring about what’s happening in the world, simply because you’re not being directly affected by it: out of sight, out of mind. “Why should I care if the government has access to my life? I have nothing to hide.” You should care because this is just the beginning. Because, since 9/11, surveillance requests have tripled. You should care, because, if you don’t care, it sets a precedent and sends a message to our government that translates to: “Do whatever you want.”

During it’s time, the Watergate scandal epitomized government corruption. So much so, that President Nixon was forced to resign. Within the past decade, we’ve watched as the pinnacle of corruption has reached new limits. We’ve seen the Bush administration fabricate sources to justify invading Iraq. Wikileaks became the Pentagon Papers on steroids. And now PRISM.

In the past decade, we’ve also seen incredible injustice. We’ve seen Wall Street nearly bankrupt the world economy. We’ve seen the BP oil spill, the largest ecological disaster in American history. We’ve seen two wars. Mass shootings on the rise. Incompetence in Congress. A shrinking middle class. Shrinking employment. Shrinking privacy.

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“It was shrinkage!”

It seems in the aftermath of incredible injustice, there is rarely ever a face on which to place the blame. However, when it comes to whistleblowers–Bradley Manning, Julian Assange, Edward Snowden–fighting AGAINST injustice, it seems there is always someone there to conveniently absorb the wrath of the U.S. government. It’s rarely the other way around. And for that, we the people, are to blame.

At what point do you say, enough is enough? At what point do you become angry at everything that has happened and everything that is happening around you? Are you even aware of what is happening? Or do you just not care?

You should care. Regardless of politics. Regardless of whether or not you think all whistleblowers are traitors. Regardless of whether or not you believe anything I said directly affects your life. If you’re an American citizen, you should care. Because not caring only shows our government that they don’t have to care either. If Homeland taught us anything, it’s that our government is rarely held accountable. Carrie spying on Brody? No problem, here’s a FISA warrant. The NSA spying on Americans? Oh well, shit happens. Our government is basically the geo-political equivalent of Chris Brown.

The less accountability we choose to wield, the less power we hold as a democracy. The more complacent we become, the more powerful and unaccountable our government becomes. Thanks to the internet, our generation has access to more information and more ways of sharing information than anyone in history. It can be utilized to bring about social change only if it is protected by the people who use it. The same can be said about our democracy. We have the tools to stand up and be heard, to fight for our guaranteed rights, and we live in a country that still allows us to do so. It’s time to start caring while caring is still an option. It’s time to get mad as hell. (See below)

mad as hell

UPDATE: Snowden claims U.S. surveillance worse than Orwell’s “1984”

Boston Marathon Bombing: Under the Microscope

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Watch video of the Boston Marathon bombing. The uninjured can be seen continuing toward the finish line with a sense of trepidation–not yet terror. It was reminiscent of a decade ago–the moment when the first plane flew into the World Trade Center on 9/11–bystanders half confused and half in shock. A second explosion 10 seconds later would confirm their deepest fears: this was undoubtedly an attack on American soil. Following the bombings, law enforcement and citizens alike were left with more questions than answers. Specifically, who was the bomber? And, more importantly, where were they now?

On the day after the bombing, officials still had no potential suspects. In accordance, American citizens and self-prescribed ‘armchair detectives’ flocked to internet aggregators such as Reddit and 4Chan to contribute to an unorganized but thorough user-generated analysis of all available video evidence of the bombing. It became a terrorist version of “Where’s Waldo?”. Countless theories and accusations began to accumulate from the virus-like spread of information. Given the plethora of pictures and videos, coupled with the collective wisdom of an online community, it was plausible that the internet might find a suspect before the Feds. However, while online efforts proved to be tenacious, their analysis provided expectedly lackluster results: i.e. every brown-skinned man carrying a backpack suddenly became suspect.

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A user-submitted image from 4Chan identifying the wrong suspect

Gawker summed up the shoddy investigating by poking fun at the ineptitude of internet sleuths:

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In the end, the outpouring of information from the Internet transitioned from a serious investigation into a sociological study of racial profiling. Additionally, the fervent nature of the 24/7 news cycle was contributing to an uncanny amount of misinformation. At one point, CNN reported the bomber was captured and in police custody, only to later retract that statement entirely. The New York Post ran a front page photo in which they misidentified the same two suspects that the internet amateurs were outwardly suspicious of:

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New York Post fail

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Internet fail

The only information concerning the bomber which was available in the 24 hours following the attack was information based on assumptions. Al Qaeda and it’s affiliates hadn’t claimed responsibility for the attack (their crème de la crème), thus, we could assume it probably wasn’t a terror cell. Also, the bombs were placed at a specific location (at the finish line with the highest density of people), thus, we could assume the bomber knew the area, was familiar with the marathon, and was probably a Boston resident (at least for a short period of time). Finally, the bomb itself offered insight. It was a relatively cheap, do-it-yourself IED (improvised explosion device) (the same used by insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan) (the same recipe featured in Al Qaeda’s online periodical [Inspire] using a pressure cooker as a bomb), thus, we could assume that they probably had ties to Islamic fundamentalism and were provided with limited outside funding (if any).

All of these assumptions were not far from the truth. The suspects were not Al Qaeda operatives. In contrast, they were two brothers from Chechnya. The younger brother was a naturalized citizen of the United States. He had attended high school in Boston and was an undergrad at UMass. The brothers lived together in Cambridge, just outside of the city. The suspects worked alone. They were both Muslim. Born in a region of the world that breeds fundamental Islam and Al Qaeda affiliates. Overall, they fit the description of a homegrown terrorist motivated by radical ideology.

Unlike failed domestic terror plots in the past (notably, the Nigerian “underwear bomber”, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, and the Pakistani-American “Times Square bomber”, Faisal Shahzad) the Boston Marathon bombing was executed with measurable results: mass casualties. Not to mention, the images were replayed in homes across America for an entire week–essentially the M.O. of terrorism. In terms of an attack of that nature, it was entirely successful. The bombers accounted for discretion, location, timing, and hysteria. What they didn’t account for was a witness: Jeff Bauman.

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Jeff Bauman (bottom right)

Bauman was waiting at the finish line of the marathon for his girlfriend when the first bomb detonated at 2:49 p.m. Shrapnel from the blast destroyed Bauman’s lower legs. Unable to walk, he was wheeled to the nearest ambulance with the help of a good Samaritan who has become known colloquially as “the cowboy” (Carlos Arredondo, pictured above). He applied a makeshift tourniquet and pinched Bauman’s arteries closed with his bare hands. Arredondo was simply acting as any human would during a time of crisis. What he didn’t know–nor did anyone else at the time–was that keeping Bauman alive meant finding the bombers.

Bauman regained consciousness in a drug-induced haze following his double amputation procedure. Apparently, his first request was for a pen and paper. He managed to write eight words that would kickstart the most high-profile manhunt in recent history: “bag. saw the guy. looked right at me.” The Feds already knew–thanks to forensic evidence–that the bomb was placed in a backpack near the finish line. They already had multiple suspects who fit the description and location. All it took was Bauman to identify one man in a black hat and sunglasses: Tamerlan Tsarnaev. Within hours, the FBI had video surveillance of Tamerlan and his younger brother Dzhokhar, both carrying backpacks and moving through the crowd of spectators toward the finish line (See below). The Feds also claim they have unreleased footage of Tamerlan placing his backpack down and walking away, moments before it detonated.

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And yet, we STILL don’t know who murdered Biggy and Tupac.

In 1949, a novel was published by author George Orwell, titled Nineteen Eighty Four. The setting is a dystopian future where citizens live under the rule of an omnipresent totalitarian government. In our world, the year 1984 is synonymous with Wall Street, synthesizers, and cocaine. However, in the novel, the conclusions made about the dangers of unchecked power are agreed upon by many to be an eerily accurate prophecy of contemporary society. This perception has become so ubiquitous among readers that the novel eventually spawned its own adjective to describe unjust government rule: Orwellian. The word is still commonly used today. More specifically, it is used to describe aggressive surveillance of a population by authority figures. Accordingly, in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, the term Orwellian effectively blurred the lines between fiction and reality.

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On September 11th, 2001, no one was pointing a camera at the World Trade Center waiting for something to happen. In fact, I’m pretty sure cell phones were still kinda shitty and you couldn’t take video with them anyway. The point being, the Boston bombing was different in the sense that the entirety of the event was captured on video: the marathon, the suspects, the planting of the bomb, the explosions, the aftermath, and even the bombers reactions (unreleased footage apparently shows that both suspects remained at the scene to witness the chaos, which, consequently, helped apprehend them), the entire event was captured for the world to witness. It was put under the microscope. What remains is a visual timeline of a terrorist attack: a moment frozen in time.

Nineteen Eighty Four predicted that our future would be characterized by extensive surveillance. Cell-phone cameras and social media are both testaments to Orwell’s prophecy. More so, the Orwellian influence of the information age has paved the way for hypothetical “time travel”. Consider how the suspects were caught. Digital video provided a series of ones and zeros organized by time stamps. Collectively, they represented a re-playable moment in time. Given enough vantage points, one could theoretically recreate time itself. In doing so, it allows us to utilize the past like never before. All made possible by self-imposed “surveillance”.

Live coverage of the Boston bombing was so extensive, that the iconic Sports Illustrated image (below, right) was able to be captured by a different photographer, from a different location, at the exact same moment in time (below, left), all while the second bomb detonated in the background.

Droste

A single piece of video evidence–the Zapruder film–remains the reason why the JFK assassination continues to be the most discussed and debated conspiracy theory in American history. On November 22nd, 1963, Abraham Zapruder was standing in Dealy Plaza in Dallas, Texas, filming the president’s motorcade as it drove down Elm Street. He didn’t know it at the time but Zapruder’s 486 frames spanning 26 seconds would become the only video evidence of the assassination of JFK. It was subpoenaed during the Warren Commission as the only video evidence. Since becoming available to the public, the Zapruder film continues to fuel conspiracy theories to this day.

Zapruder was only one man with one camera. Consider how exponentially different it was on Boylston Street in Boston on April 15th, 2013. There were hundreds of Zapruder films, i.e. hundreds of perspectives in Boston that day. Within 24 hours of the bombing, the Feds had identified both suspects on surveillance cameras. Within another 24 hours they had both their names and faces plastered on the evening news. Within another 24 hours, they were found. At the end of five days, Tamerlan was killed in a shootout and Dzhokhar was captured alive. From start to finish, the Boston bombing narrative illustrated the inescapable nature of an Orwellian society.

In the coming weeks and months, what happened in Boston will be placed under the microscope. America will debate a handful of related issues: gun control, immigration reform, domestic terrorism, etc. The media will point fingers at who could have done what differently and the blame game will be played until the next tragedy strikes.

Expect to hear the phrase “Orwellian” tossed around the news as the media’s latest buzz word. It will spark a debate about whether or not our privacy has been diminished and personal freedoms infringed upon.  The truth is, that’s already happening. Google managed to map every inch of the planet in a decade, imagine what the government is capable of. The one question we should be asking is: how extensive is surveillance of American citizens? Perhaps, Orwell’s prophecy is more fact than fiction.

UPDATE: NSA leaks info on top-secret PRISM program: the covert surveillance of American citizens through Facebook, Apple, Google, and more. (Guardian U.K.)

Well played, Orwell…