Americans for Prosperity’s “confidential” junk mail

Today I received a mailing from Americans for Prosperity; like a lot of junk mail, it gave only a street return address on the outside, not saying who sent it. Unlike most junk mail, it’s full of demands that I not tell anyone about it. A cover letter says in boldface, “This Prospectus is strictly confidential.” A booklet says:

CONFIDENTIAL: The enclosed is privileged information prepared for your sole use. It contains strategy initiatives, past performance, budget allocations, target markets and it is to be regarded as forward-looking. Please do not disclose, discuss, or disseminate the contents herewith.

There’s nothing all that exciting inside. It lists members of Congress they want to put pressure on. (From my own state, these include Carol Shea-Porter and Jean Shaheen.) States it will target include Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida, New Jersey, and North Carolina. The budget allocations apparently didn’t make it into the booklet.

I agree with some of what they say, but when an organization takes that sort of demanding tone in their junk mail, they won’t get any support from me. AFP, your “secrets” are now on the Internet. Don’t try to sue me; you sent me unsolicited mail, and I can do what I want with it.

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Living in the Surveillance State

The NSA scandals have clarified a couple of things: (1) The people in charge in Washington are beyond redemption. (2) The public, for the most part, doesn’t give a damn. If you had any thoughts that the public would rise up in fury if they just learned how really bad our rulers are, they should be thoroughly dashed now. Our government tortures and assassinates people and claims “national security” as an excuse for hiding anything it can’t justify. Americans don’t give a damn. Our problem isn’t so much a corrupt government as a corrupt population; people will give anything up for goodies at other people’s expense, legal advantages over people they don’t like, or a microscopic or nonexistent increase in safety.

So let’s take one thing out of consideration: There isn’t going to be any significant trend toward reversing governmental power grabs within the next decade or more. This isn’t a reason for despair, though. It’s a basis for choosing our goals and options.

What can you do as an individual? You can minimize your vulnerability and maximize your freedom within the available range. Much of the power of secret governmental operations comes from fear and uncertainty; you don’t know what they know about you and what they might do, and this can cause fear out of proportion to the chance anything will happen. (Notice that this is exactly what terrorists do.) Reversing a common phrase, just because they could be out to get you, you don’t have to be paranoid.

Don’t grant assent, explicitly or by silence. You don’t have to pick arguments, but do let people know where you stand. Don’t grant a power-grabbing scumbag the title “the Honorable.” If someone claims you support things you don’t (for example, by saying “everybody agrees…”), correct the error.

Find some way to speak out, not because you’ll immediately change any minds, but as a practical way of withholding assent. Not everyone’s in a position to do it publicly. (If you’re in a position where you can’t do it at all, think about how to get out of it.) Even if you can just encourage others when they say and do the right things, that’s something. If you’re able to speak or write or sing about it, better yet.

Watch out for informational traps. The news media have never been especially reliable sources of information. Look past the headlines. Check for independent sources. Watch out for disinformation campaigns. Remember that even the people you agree with can be misinformed or decide that it’s OK to shade the truth in the name of a cause. Follow information sources you disagree with, if they’re honest. Look for areas of limited agreement with people who might not share all your views (as if anyone shares all of them).

If you have money to spare, put some of it where it will do some good. Even small victories are worth going after. The Institute for Justice is one of my favorite organizations for defending individual rights at the courtroom level.

Have some idea what you’ll do in worst-case situations. What if you get a National Security Letter or a SWAT team bursts into your home? They’re unpleasant to think about, and not very likely events for most of us, but having some idea of how you’d respond can make them less scary.

“Going Galt” isn’t an option for most of us, but there’s a good piece of advice in Galt’s speech in Atlas Shrugged for anyone who loves freedom:

When they force you, obey — but do not volunteer. Never volunteer a step in their direction, or a wish, or a plea, or a purpose. Do not help a holdup man to claim that he acts as your friend and benefactor. Do not help your jailers to pretend that their jail is your natural state of existence. Do not help them to fake reality. That fake is the only dam holding off their secret terror, the terror of knowing they’re unfit to exist; remove it and let them drown; your sanction is their only life belt.

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A friend from 1624

Woman Tuning a Lute by HonthorstThere are stories of people being deeply struck by a painting, feeling a strong sense of recognition, and falling deeply in love with the person portrayed. When I visited the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (Musée des Beaux-Arts), I was struck, not quite with love, but with recognition of someone who might have been an old friend except for four centuries’ difference. The painting was Woman Tuning a Lute by Gerrit von Honthorst. The subject of this 1624 painting seemed to be someone I’d instantly be at ease with, someone I’d urge to come to the filksing.

I’m not much of an art analyst, but some things which make it work are that she’s tuning, not playing, and that she’s looking joyously not at the viewer, but off to the side. She could be looking at another musician outside the frame, maybe someone she’s getting ready to do a song with. It shows her living and connecting through music, not just performing for an audience.

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Moving to the next career stage

In a week I’ll be starting a new job for a small company. The time I’ve spent as an independent hasn’t been especially profitable, but it’s been very rewarding. I ran a wild ride of a Kickstarter campaign, self-published Files that Last as a result, went to England for a hackathon, worked on FITS open-source software, did several releases of JHOVE, provided consulting for the Harvard Library, and built up my skills. I’ve also had time to bicycle my way into the best physical condition in years.

Most importantly, I’ve recharged myself. At Harvard I was starting to lose my love of programming. That came back when I got away from the problems there. Now I’m looking forward to regular work with a company that’s doing interesting and exciting stuff — and to having a regular income.

The road goes ever ever on.

Speech codes at SF cons?

Harassment at science fiction conventions is a real problem; some people use the open and relaxed atmosphere as a cover for making others seriously uncomfortable, or they assume that all the women are there for sex. Some people, unfortunately, use legitimate fear to advance their own unrelated goals. An example is this proposed “harassment” policy, which some people have said should be adopted by SF conventions.

It has short, medium, and long versions. The short one is just a pointer. The medium one is an expression of puritanism: Its one specific characterization of harassment is “sexual language and imagery,” which is declared “not appropriate for any conference venue, including talks.” No bawdy filksongs. No panels on Pon Farr.

The long version gets worse.

Harassment includes offensive verbal comments [related to gender, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, religion, [your specific concern here]]…

The prohibition on “offensive verbal comments” is similar to the speech codes at many institutions of higher learning. Any strong opinion is likely to be offensive to someone. If someone says I’m going to Hell for not subscribing to his religion, I find that offensive. If I answer that his religion is superstition, he’ll probably be offended. Under normal circumstances, that’s all there is to it. But if we exchange those views at a con with that policy, we can both be cited for “harassment.” Only bland opinions are safe. (Actually, I’d be safe, the evangelist not so much. Speech code enforcement targets unpopular views.)

[Exhibitors in the expo hall, sponsor or vendor booths, or similar activities are also subject to the anti-harassment policy. In particular, exhibitors should not use sexualized images, activities, or other material. Booth staff (including volunteers) should not use sexualized clothing/uniforms/costumes, or otherwise create a sexualized environment.]

Have you ever been to Arisia? If only the G-rated dealers remained, the dealers’ room would be about a fifth of its current size.

However, staff should take immediate action to politely and calmly stop any presentation or event that repeatedly or seriously violates the anti-harassment policy. For example, simply say “I’m sorry, this presentation cannot be continued at the present time” with no further explanation.

Panels would just be shut down on the spot, without explanation, if the opinions expressed or the images presented were offensive to somebody.

I’ve come across a tweet, by a person who endorsed this policy proposal, attacking its critics for being “old” and “white.” Their prohibition on offensive race-related remarks evidently doesn’t apply to themselves.

It’s been argued that SF cons are private functions and therefore not bound by the US Constitution to grant freedom of speech. This is true but beside the point. Free and open discussion is a value to the human mind, even when government force isn’t at issue. It’s better to be able to hear ideas and say why they’re wrong than to live in a controlled environment where unpleasant ideas are banned. How can you answer them if you’re protected from hearing them?

Dealing with actual harassment at cons is a difficult matter. The concom can’t be everywhere, and its legal options are limited. There’s generally a provision that people can be kicked out for broadly specified misbehavior, but concoms are reluctant to use it because of possible repercussions, especially when it’s one person’s word against another’s. Some conventions have adopted zero-tolerance policies, which make no distinction between major and minor offenses and have driven people away. A convention can ban offenders from the function space, but not from the hotel, so even a stringent policy might not stop a serious problem.

If you run into really serious harassment, contact hotel security or law enforcement. They can do something that will stick. The committee should be ready to make sure they don’t just brush it off. Some fans are lawyers and can be a big help.

If you see someone being harassed in more subtle ways, speak up. It can be easy to mistake banter between friends for real trouble, but it’s OK to ask if there’s a problem, and to offer support if there is. Don’t physically intervene unless it’s an emergency; that’s a recipe for trouble. A lot of fans are habitually oblivious to what’s going on; learning to notice trouble can help. Making it clear that it’s OK to say no and mandatory to accept it can also be a big help. A well-written convention policy can be a good source of moral support, as long as the concom isn’t expected to police everyone’s behavior. Creating a safe environment is everyone’s responsibility, not just the job of the overworked convention organizers.

There’s been a lot of good material lately about harassment, and I don’t want the speech-code people to cash in on it. For instance, this post by Carrie Cuinn and its followup cite some really outrageous things that happen at cons and make good points about the approach to take.

There are a few real nasties who frequent SF cons, and it’s hard to say just what to do with them. Sometimes they get banned, but this is a slow process and a last resort. Certainly no prohibition on panels about sex will slow them up. The best approach is awareness by everybody.

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