Monday, June 17, 2013

The Green Scare, Prism, and the Rise of the Surveillance of Women

And I have known the eyes already, known them all—
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?       
  And how should I presume?
--TS Eliot, The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock
For most of the history of US domestic surveillance, efforts have been focused on those who seek to undermine hegemonic power, particularly communists, socialists, black nationalists, civil rights activists, union organizers, peace activists, political opponents of the reigning administration, and, to a predictably lesser extent, white hate groups. Of 92 total confirmed targets of COINTELPRO, 31 were organizations, 44 were men, and 17 were women. Of the 31 organizations, only one was explicitly dedicated to advancing women's rights. Considering that sexism is alive and well in the left even today, it was certainly exponentially more pervasive before Roe v. Wade and Title IX. Women who belonged to the 31 organizations monitored by COINTELPRO were relegated to subordinate roles; the leaders, officers, and most influential contributors were men. Consequently, men were the primary targets of COINTELPRO and its predecessors, and, I posit, its antecendents until roughly 2001, which ushered in the rise of the surveillance of women. 

The Green Scare

Between 2001 and 2006, the FBI improperly monitored several groups, including PETA and Greenpeace, as part of the Green Scare, a propaganda program that includes the labeling and prosecution of activists as terrorists. In animal rights and environmental activism, women occupy prominent positions and have achieved a gender equity previously unrealized in other social justice movements.(1)(2) Women are twice as likely as men to support animal rights and tend to be more sympathetic than men to environmental causes. As suppression of green activists became a state priority, an unprecedented number of women became targets of state surveillance. However, targeted surveillance of female green activists is only one aspect of the increased surveillance of women since 2001.
Thanks to for designing the logo and to those who suggested that I have one. Now to discover whether or not it acts as a thumbnail when the blog is shared...


Because women have historically been and still are largely locked out of official positions of power, our communication has been considered to consist of idle gossip and old wives' tales. Until recently, the communication of women has been dismissed as inconsequential; we have worn a metaphorical veil that has allowed us to remain invisible to the surveillance gaze. With the Green Scare and the implementation of the all-encompassing Prism program, for the first time in history female communication has been deemed worthy of state surveillance.(3) The surveillance gaze has determined it is interested in our previously disregarded communication; it has stripped the veil from us.

Invisibility and Subversion

In Algeria Unveiled, Frantz Fanon conceived the veil as a revolutionary tool that allowed women to use invisibility as a weapon of resistance within the Casbah during the Algerian War. When Algerian women wore the veil, they were invisible to the French colonizers, who resented their absence from the otherwise omniscient colonizing gaze. Algerian women became the focus of campaigns by the French to impose on them cultural hegemony, including (unveiled) women as objects of male observation. The concerted efforts of the French colonizers to unveil Algerian women serves as an apt metaphor for the ripping away of the veil that prior to 2001 protected women's communication from state surveillance.(4)

The US government, in its secret interpretation and application of the Patriot Act, is acting as a colonizing force upon the entirety of human communication. The hegemonic gaze seeks out individual subversives, as well as organized efforts to undermine the dominant power structure. Historically, women's participation in resistance has been minimized. However, the recent ascent of women within the animal rights and environmentalism movements has transformed us into dangerously veiled unknowables who must be exposed to the surveillance gaze in order to be catalogued and controlled. The implementation of the Prism program rends the veil from the communication of women, ostensibly neutralizing our potential threat to the dominant capitalist power structure.

We are controlled and coerced by this new pervasive surveillance, as we meticulously ensure our actions on behalf of animals, the environment, and other social justice causes could in no way be construed as threatening to the capitalist state. Because we are being watched, we go to great lengths not to raise any red flags, thereby distracting us and possibly weakening our revolutionary potential. This is a risk we cannot take. We must resist the urge to cease or constrain our organizing and social justice work. Comrades must download and properly use TOR, communicate with other organizers and activists in person or through anonymous email accounts and servers, and consistently practice Security Culture

Fanon also notes the duality of the revolutionary potential of the veil. Not only was it an invisibility cloak of sorts within the Casbah, but it was also something that could be shed to allow Algerian women to appear sympathetic and nonthreatening to colonizing forces and, therefore, to complete subversive tasks undetected within European cities after 1955 (174-7). We must transform the loss of the veil over women's communication into a revolutionary tool that allows us to effectively maneuver the channels of capitalist patriarchy. Programs such as the Green Scare and Prism make it clear that the state perceives us as threats to its power. Let us prove it right.

(1) The recent allegations of transphobia in Deep Green Resistance is beyond the scope of this post although I am open to addressing it in future.
(2) Perhaps with the exception of the women's liberation movement of the 1960s and 70s. 
(3) There have been a few exceptions to this, consisting of social justice activists. One prominent example is Assata Shakur, the first woman to make the FBI's Most Wanted Terrorists list, whose communications were undoubtedly monitored before her expatriation. Bernadine Dohrn has been a target of government surveillance for most of her life as well. 
(4) The reasons given by the French colonizers for wishing to impose European culture on the Algerians resemble the justifications of the Obama administration and the NSA for the Prism program: this is for our own protection, our own good. 

Thursday, June 13, 2013

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the NSA

Our first guest post, by John Wolfe.

The recent leak of NSA documents by Edward Snowden has confirmed what nearly everyone has long suspected about the extent of the surveillance conducted by the U.S. Government. The public reaction has been predictable. On the one hand, many are outraged. This outrage is interesting in itself. It cuts across the nominal political affiliations dividing society, uniting libertarians and leftists, as well as significant fractions of mainline Democrats and Republicans. On the other hand, supporters of the current administration have deployed rhetoric which, although it for the most part falls short of outright defending NSA activities, seeks to minimize the importance of the leak. A rather unsystematic and impressionistic survey of internet chatter about the case reveals two main strategies of minimization. One is the pose of the jaded cynic. Those who are upset by the contents of the leaked information will be told that everyone has already known about this for years, and asked why they are so upset now. This is uninteresting, and ignores the distinction between well-founded suspicion and undeniable confirmation. The second strategy is to ask what the difference is between the recently revealed government data mining, and the corporate surveillance we have all endured for years. After all, we have become accustomed to, if not exactly comfortable with, extremely elaborate and invasive data collection and synthesis from the likes of Facebook, Google, and even our local supermarkets for years now. What does it matter if the government gets in on this game? This objection, unlike the first, deserves some examination.

It is certainly true that we have been always been surveilled by internet providers, marketing departments and others well into the past. However, I would argue that something markedly different is going on here. What we have is nearly complete, real time, identifiable data on everyone. It was disturbing enough to know that this data was collected and utilized by various corporations. But this kind of polycentric surveillance is different from having all of this data funneled into one central authority, an authority controlled by the entity that deploys the more violent forms of power in our society.

To restate the above in a slightly different way, there is a qualitative difference between being surveilled by a thousand petty authorities, often acting at cross-purposes, and having one major authority collect nearly all of this data. The very centralization is significant in its own right. However, the petty authorities and the central authority have different agendas. As pernicious as corporate surveillance was and is, it really was not about us. What Wal-Mart and CVS wanted to accomplish was selling more of their products and the data collected on individuals was merely instrumental. What Google and Facebook want is to increase their profits, and they want to hawk the data the collect to people who want to sell more things in order to do this. Their activities are merely avaricious, not malicious. What the NSA and its associated agencies want to accomplish is about us. They are policing the general population. Gathering as much data on individuals as possible is itself the purpose. 

It is sometimes additionally said by liberal defenders of these programs that since we are just dealing with surveillance, rather than grosser “rights violations” there is little to worry about. Observation is not control. However, this is a na├»ve view. We have known better for years. One of the central insights of Foucault's work, particularly Discipline and Punish, is that observation itself functions as a system of control. Under surveillance of any sort people are understood, and come to understand themselves, not as agents but as sites for the generation of data. Under this self-understanding people come to internalize the surveillance, deploy it against themselves. More simply, if one knows that they are always under observation, they will alter their behavior accordingly. Now if this kind of surveillance is a form of control, then to call these NSA programs "totalitarian" is not the least bit hysterical—it is to pay attention to the conventional meaning of the word, namely the use of state power to control every aspect of life.
What is most remarkable here is the ways in which corporate giants like Verizon and Google simply rolled over and acceded to the government's demands. Make no mistake, this was clearly against their individual business interests. Google, for example, has constructed its public image as a defender of internet freedoms, with, for example, their staunch opposition to CISPA. All these companies do international business, and to run the risk of being revealed as effectively agents of the U.S. government is to risk the worst kind of damage to reputation and profits. We have become used to a situation where civil government becomes a puppet of corporate interests, yet here we see the reverse, corporations placing themselves at the disposal of the government for no clear gain.
Now, of course, we have witnessed a stream of carefully worded denials from the companies concerned and assorted government spokespeople who attempt to assure us that the extent of surveillance is not what the leaked documents indicate, and the cooperation of the named companies is far more limited. There may be an element of truth to this, but, at the same time, we must realize that of course this is what they would say. When interpreting secret and sinister activities, one must give more weight to the documents that the actors wish you hadn't seen, rather than to the polished presentations they want you to see. 
So, on the face of it, we see a major integration of corporate power into the state in a way which creates a new totalitarianism. The question then becomes, what does this mean for the left. I argue that, counterintuitvely, this is very good news indeed.  
Traditional leftist theory always centered around the state. Whether the objective was reform, seizure, or abolition, the state was always the main target. However, since at least the time of Marcuse, and accelerated by the failures of the May '68, leftists have come to regard the formal apparatus of "the state" as irrelevant. We have come to analyze the exercise of power in terms of broader systems of power. Herbert Marcuse, for example, made a monolithic, homogenizing entity known as “Advanced Industrial Society” the central actor in his story. Foucault spent his entire career elaborating a theory detailing the ways in which a decentralized power not vested in any one individual or group shapes everyone in a society. When one is fighting a system so broad, the options are limited. “The state” can be pressured or seized, “Advanced Industrial Society” cannot. 
Such a totalizing system leaves only two options. One may settle into a sort of quiescence, as Marcuse and his Frankfurt School compatriots seemed to do at their worst moments, or one may seek alternative forms of resistance. I think here of those currents within Occupy who regarded the primary purpose of the protests as “modeling a new kind of society” and showing people that “another world is possible.” Of course, few people were impressed by a “new kind of society” centered around sleeping on pavement and relying on the largesse of others for food. Theatrical strategies such as this seemed doomed from the outset.  
However, now, at least in the U.S., the state seems to be reasserting itself as the central organ of class power, which is an event of historical significance. The means of this reassertion is the apparatus of "security" in general, and surveillance in particular. The other organs of bourgeois power, the multinational corporations, are submitting themselves again to the formal apparatus of the state, at this point, only behind closed doors, but it may become more explicit in the future. 
We may still lack a suitable unified revolutionary subject, but our enemies have conveniently reunified themselves. As consolidation in one side of a conflict tends to lead to consolidation of the other side, we have every reason to hope for greater popular unity. So let's get back to targeting the state while the opportunity is ripe.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Implications of the Frozen Female Face

Botox, a type of botulism toxin, is used cosmetically by millions of individuals every year to freeze their facial muscles in order to smooth wrinkles in the skin. Women use it in far greater numbers than men--with men receiving around 10 percent of Botox injections in 2012--although Botox use in men is swiftly increasing numbers. Last year 6.1 million individuals received Botox injections in the US; 5.4 million of them were women. Of course, these numbers are official ones. Some folks can't afford to access Botox by regulated means, so they resort to self-endangerment by seeking out unlicensed practitioners, whose number of Botox administrations remain unreported. Others are endangering themselves by unknowingly receiving unapproved versions of Botox.

Of course, we understand why millions of women pay hard-earned money and endanger themselves for facial injections of a poisonous neurotoxin that is "the most acutely toxic substance known" and has serious potential side effects in order to appear younger for a few weeks, right? The extreme pressure on women to retain a youthful appearance; the unbearable cultural expectations of a certain type of hairless, thin, young, tall, white, European beauty; the constant conditioning and messaging that women's appearance and sexual appeal to men determine our worth... You know, the usual things that women constantly process on an hourly basis in every single aspect of our entire lives. But I want to look beyond the reasons we use Botox to the ramifications of that use.


Silencing Emotion

Jessie Cole's recent article for the Guardian piqued my interest in the implications of Botox use in women. She nicely summarizes the psychosocial dangers of Botox and the potential for a loss of empathy:

"...Botox...minimises micro-expressions, those brief, involuntary facial expressions that reveal our unconscious feeling of anger, happiness, disgust, embarrassment or pride. In a sense, communicating with someone who's had Botox is like communicating with a static image – much of the body language involved is silenced. Considering that body language, mostly consisting of facial expressions, makes up at least half of any message being communicated, this is a significant loss.

But this facial paralysis also inhibits the ability of the Botoxed to mimic the facial expressions of others, which is critical in the formation of empathy. Facial micro-mimicry is the major way we understand others' emotions. If you are wincing in pain I immediately do a micro-wince, which sends a message to my brain about what you are experiencing. By experiencing it myself I understand what you are going through. This suggests that not only do I find my Botoxed friends hard to read, but they are also hindered in their capacity to read me. An unfortunate feedback cycle. The possible implications of this are frightening."

Cole proceeds to suggest that friendships and mother-child bonds could be negatively affected by Botox use in women. Because women comprise the majority of Botox users and 4 million women give birth in the US each year, there are negative implications for children,* as well as society as a whole since the majority of children become adults that make up our population. If parents have frozen faces that cannot display emotions or microexpressions, thereby limiting their ability to empathize, then the development of children could be negatively impacted. She cites Edward Tronick's Still Face Paradigm as a scientific indicator that frozen faces on women would negatively impact children's social and emotional development.

Frozen faces not only physically arrest women, they are also emotionally arrest them. Botox use has been scientifically proven to prevent humans from experiencing a full range of emotions. Richard and C.R. Zwolinksi note, "Scientists agree that there is a causal relationship between facial expression and emotions–if you can’t smile, you can’t feel the emotion associated with that smile. In order to...fully experience the emotional content of language, you must be able to respond to that language with facial movements such as smiles or frowns."  By using Botox, women are perpetuating the cultural message that looking smooth and ostensibly young is more important than nonverbally expressing and feeling emotions.

Cole concludes her article with some fascinating questions:
"With the proliferation of 'selfies' and the focus on static representations of women's faces, are we forgetting how much of who we are is communicated through facial expressions? Are we, in some sense, choosing a form of silence far more insidious than women have ever known in the past? Who benefits from the silencing of women's faces? And what is the cost?" I am intensely curious about who benefits from the silencing of women's faces.

The Male Gaze

The male gaze transforms women into passive objects and requires that they remain in suspended animation indefinitely, perpetually prepared to be observed. Botox is yet another way to make women passive, uncomplaining objects of the gaze. By physically freezing one's emotive features, nullifying one's expressions, dulling one's empathy, and pacifying one's face, Botox makes women blank slates. Botoxed blank slates directly oppose vocal, empowered, expressive, independent women that men and the religions they have created find so troublesome.

Infantilization of Women

Because the gaze renders women past a certain reproductive status invisible and, therefore, useless, women are pressured into pursuing a culturally-accepted notion of youth as beauty. Botox perpetuates the cultural trope of infantilizing women by keeping them in a perpetual state of quasi-childhood. Although Botox does not actually arrest the aging process (or, in my opinion, even maintain a convincing appearance of youth), it does transform wrinkles and fine lines into a smooth, shiny surface reminiscent of a baby's bald head. The infantilization of women combined with the sexualization of girls creates more reproductively viable and visible females for the male gaze to observe and objectify. Now we begin to see who benefits from the "silencing of women's faces."

Those Without It

Without Botox, women have the opportunity to age into being comfortable with themselves, to embrace wrinkles as signs of wisdom, to accept aging as a badge of persistence and survival. The use of Botox is an admission that women are no longer attractive when wrinkled. If women as a class are arrested somewhere between their thirties and fifties, then the ability, as a group, to reject the pervasive cultural notion that they become useless once their reproductive abilities and sexual appeal to men wane, is undermined. The ability to destroy the Double Standard of Aging is eliminated, leaving that pervasive characteristic of patriarchy intact.

If women continue to submit to the male gaze's demand for passive objects, then the woman who refuses to inject botulism into her face--with her rare ability to visually express emotion, show and feel empathy, and age naturally--would become an anomaly. What our generation considers a typically-aging woman (picture your grandmother, assuming she isn't Joan Crawford) would become a grotesque caricature of human emotion and symbol of mortal decay. Her emphatic responses to suffering would make her an oracle of sorts, a deeply feeling poet and philosopher type, the only qualified therapist, mother, sister, and friend. An un-Botoxed woman would become a kind of eccentric character with perceived deep insights and mystical powers, a sort of aging white female version of the magical negro. She would primarily be found sipping lemonade on the Louisiana bayou or making blueberry preserves in the wilds of Maine.

Perhaps my imagination is running away with me. After all, there will always be plenty of working poor who cannot afford such luxuries as perpetual youth. Only in wealthy pockets of imperialist countries are billions of dollars poured into maintaining the patriarchy by accommodating the male gaze while elsewhere in the world poverty, hunger, female genital mutilation, and environmental racism persist.

Cultural hegemony has imposed a racist, imperialist standard of beauty (i.e. white, thin, and tall with straight hair) on cultural representations around the world for centuries. Those standards exclude women of color, women with the scars of work and motherhood, and women with Afro-textured hair. They have always been inaccessible and unattainable to poor women. If rampant Botox use adds an eternally frozen face to the Western standard of beauty, then working class women will be further removed from an already unattainable aesthetic, condemning them to further invisibility to the imperialist patriarchy that so ruthlessly and consistently exploits and ignores them.

Again, I fully understand the pressures to avoid aging at all costs, to be sexually attractive to men, to remain visible to the gaze. A waking hour has never passed during which I was not inundated with those messages. However, our psychosocial development and emotional health as a society should not be subordinate to our personal vanity and perverse internalized desire to uphold the patriarchy by passively accommodating the male gaze. Let us resist these trappings of a system that disgusts us in order to dismantle it.

*Obviously, not all births result directly in parenthood, but many do.