Over the last couple of days, I was listening (for the fiftieth time or so) to Beethoven’s opera Fidelio while commuting. This time I was suddenly struck by its applicability to the modern world. Florestan had spoken out against the abuse of power by Don Pizarro, the governor of a prison in Seville. Pizarro then abducted Florestan and thrown him into a dungeon of the same prison, letting the world think he had died. Florestan was a whistleblower, an Edward Snowden, a Bradley/Chelsea Manning.

Pizarro is portrayed as a rogue under a basically just government. After his wife Leonore rescues him and Don Fernando comes to investigate reports about the prison, he is freed and Pizarro is hauled away. In modern America, it’s more likely that Florestan would have been denounced as a traitor and sent back to prison, and Leonore would have joined him for plotting a jailbreak and threatening a government official with a firearm.

Fidelio is an opera that could be as strongly symbolic for us today as Beethoven’s setting of “An die Freude” was for the fall of the Berlin Wall. The story is supported by some powerful music: Leonore’s aria “Abscheulicher!” raging against Pizarro and expressing her hope, the chorus of prisoners, the unforgettable trumpet call announcing Don Fernando’s arrival, and the beautiful ensemble “O Gott, welch ein Augenblick.” (What a moment, indeed!) I can’t draw any significant amount of attention to it, but I can hold on to it as a symbol of what’s still possible.

Here’s a YouTube video of the Prisoners’ Chorus, appropriately illustrated with prisoners behind barbed wire.

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Sometimes everyone gets it wrong

In a recent story of a “War on Christmas” hoax, everyone ended up looking bad. A satirical site called the National Report ran a story claiming a student at Argon Elementary School in San Francisco was suspended for a week after wishing an atheist teacher a merry Christmas. This never happened, and there is no such school.

There is, however, an Argonne Elementary School there, and many people who were directed to the article assumed that it was the site of a real event. “Loving” Christians made threats which disturbed school officials enough to hire extra security.

The National Report website is itself quite inept. Every article I click on right now is giving me a 502 nginx error. The total effect of the home page should give most people a clue not to take it seriously, but if people find links to the individual articles, it may not be so obvious. The disclaimer on the home page merely says: “The National Report is an online portal for ‘citizen journalists’. The views expressed by writers on this site are theirs alone and are not reflective of the fine journalistic and editorial integrity of National Report.” There is supposedly a disclaimer somewhere that says the site is fictitious, but it’s not on the home page.

A Reddit user claiming to be Paul Horner, the author of the story, stated that he intended to deceive people. He said that comments on the story pointing out that it wasn’t true were deleted, and school officials have confirmed this. The article used a name that was close to a real school’s name, whether intentionally or not. The absurd “zero tolerance” policies which some schools enforce give it a certain amount of plausibility. If it had been true, there would have been good reason for people, Christian or not, to be angry.

The people who made physical threats don’t have an excuse, though. Even if the school had done what the article claimed, violence would not be justified. More broadly, the people who accepted the article’s accuracy without checking the facts against other sources (which is easy to do these days) showed their gullibility. But I can’t point too strong a finger; I’ve been taken in by a satirical news story or two. It’s important to be skeptical about single-source reports, especially from an unfamiliar website.

On the one hand we have someone, possibly a 13 year old kid, who deliberately fooled people and was entertained by the abuse the school officials had to endure. On the other we have people who fell for a dubious claim without considering the reliability of its source and, in some cases, showed a distinct lack of the forbearance Christians are supposed to practice.

But it isn’t quite true that there are no good guys in this story. Kevin L. Jones’ article on, which I linked to at the top, is a fine piece of journalism on the mess.

On firing people for their ideas

Phil Robertson is a jerk. Putting him on “hiatus,” whether that means outright firing or a suspension till things cool off, isn’t a violation of his Constitutional rights. Unlike Sarah Palin, I don’t admire him at all. But our principles are tested by how we respond to people we don’t like. Should employers fire people for public remarks them make outside work?

A Washington Post article provides some useful background for those who, like me, had never watched Duck Dynasty or heard of Phil Robertson. His remarks about gays have gotten the most publicity, but I personally take the most offense at his attack on the entire non-Christian world:

All you have to do is look at any society where there is no Jesus. I’ll give you four: Nazis, no Jesus. Look at their record. Uh, Shintos? They started this thing in Pearl Harbor. Any Jesus among them? None. Communists? None. Islamists? Zero. That’s eighty years of ideologies that have popped up where no Jesus was allowed among those four groups. Just look at the records as far as murder goes among those four groups.

“Nazis, no Jesus” is completely false. Hitler was a Catholic and was never excommunicated. The large majority of the Christian churches in Germany, with the conspicuous and brave exception of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, supported the Nazis. Nazi antisemitism had its roots in Christian condemnation of the Jews for “rejecting” Jesus, a condemnation which is consistent with Robertson’s view.

If those remarks are characteristic of Robertson, he’s not a very appealing person. But he could still be a good actor, a friendly person, perhaps even someone who gets along with people whose religion he despises. I don’t know, and I’d want answers to these questions if I were the one making a firing decision. This isn’t a legal issue of free speech, but an issue of tolerance and the spirit of free speech.

If employers commonly fired employees for things they said outside work, this country would be a very different place. Even with complete freedom of speech under law, people would be afraid to say anything controversial in public. Sometimes they are, but usually we can express our views without serious risk of losing our jobs as long as our words don’t directly impact our employers.

Perhaps TV actors are a different case, though. Their public image is a big part of the value they offer. If Robertson’s remarks made Duck Dynasty‘s ratings drop, A&E might have to get rid of him, just as a business decision. In this case, though, it’s possible that A&E has hurt itself worse by suspending Robertson and antagonizing conservatives. A more important problem is that those decisions lead to suppressing unpopular ideas, not necessarily bad ones. It’s been said that Hollywood people were afraid to criticize Obama’s proposal to bomb Syria because they’d be smeared as “anti-black.” If that could cost them work, their silence is understandable.

Robertson said some stupid things, and A&E had the right to suspend or fire him, but it would have been better simply to answer his irrational words with rational ones. You can’t chant that as a slogan, though.

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Snowden’s letter to the people of Brazil

I don’t have anything to add to Edward Snowden’s open letter to the people of Brazil, except that apparently a lot of reporters wrote about it without reading it. I recommend reading it, and quote it in full here:

Six months ago, I stepped out from the shadows of the United States Government’s National Security Agency to stand in front of a journalist’s camera.

I shared with the world evidence proving some governments are building a world-wide surveillance system to secretly track how we live, who we talk to, and what we say.

I went in front of that camera with open eyes, knowing that the decision would cost me family and my home, and would risk my life. I was motivated by a belief that the citizens of the world deserve to understand the system in which they live.

My greatest fear was that no one would listen to my warning. Never have I been so glad to have been so wrong. The reaction in certain countries has been particularly inspiring to me, and Brazil is certainly one of those.

At the NSA, I witnessed with growing alarm the surveillance of whole populations without any suspicion of wrongdoing, and it threatens to become the greatest human rights challenge of our time.

The NSA and other spying agencies tell us that for our own “safety” –for Dilma’s “safety,” for Petrobras’ “safety”– they have revoked our right to privacy and broken into our lives. And they did it without asking the public in any country, even their own.

Today, if you carry a cell phone in Sao Paolo, the NSA can and does keep track of your location: they do this 5 billion times a day to people around the world.

When someone in Florianopolis visits a website, the NSA keeps a record of when it happened and what you did there. If a mother in Porto Alegre calls her son to wish him luck on his university exam, NSA can keep that call log for five years or more.

They even keep track of who is having an affair or looking at pornography, in case they need to damage their target’s reputation.

American Senators tell us that Brazil should not worry, because this is not “surveillance,” it’s “data collection.” They say it is done to keep you safe. They’re wrong.

There is a huge difference between legal programs, legitimate spying, legitimate law enforcement –where individuals are targeted based on a reasonable, individualized suspicion – and these programs of dragnet mass surveillance that put entire populations under an all-seeing eye and save copies forever.

These programs were never about terrorism: they’re about economic spying, social control, and diplomatic manipulation. They’re about power.

Many Brazilian senators agree, and have asked for my assistance with their investigations of suspected crimes against Brazilian citizens.

I have expressed my willingness to assist wherever appropriate and lawful, but unfortunately the United States government has worked very hard to limit my ability to do so –going so far as to force down the Presidential Plane of Evo Morales to prevent me from traveling to Latin America!

Until a country grants permanent political asylum, the US government will continue to interfere with my ability to speak.

Six months ago, I revealed that the NSA wanted to listen to the whole world. Now, the whole world is listening back, and speaking out, too. And the NSA doesn’t like what it’s hearing.

The culture of indiscriminate worldwide surveillance, exposed to public debates and real investigations on every continent, is collapsing.

Only three weeks ago, Brazil led the United Nations Human Rights Committee to recognize for the first time in history that privacy does not stop where the digital network starts, and that the mass surveillance of innocents is a violation of human rights.

The tide has turned, and we can finally see a future where we can enjoy security without sacrificing our privacy. Our rights cannot be limited by a secret organization, and American officials should never decide the freedoms of Brazilian citizens.

Even the defenders of mass surveillance, those who may not be persuaded that our surveillance technologies have dangerously outpaced democratic controls, now agree that in democracies, surveillance of the public must be debated by the public.

My act of conscience began with a statement: “I don’t want to live in a world where everything that I say, everything I do, everyone I talk to, every expression of creativity or love or friendship is recorded.

That’s not something I’m willing to support, it’s not something I’m willing to build, and it’s not something I’m willing to live under.”

Days later, I was told my government had made me stateless and wanted to imprison me. The price for my speech was my passport, but I would pay it again: I will not be the one to ignore criminality for the sake of political comfort. I would rather be without a state than without a voice.

If Brazil hears only one thing from me, let it be this: when all of us band together against injustices and in defense of privacy and basic human rights, we can defend ourselves from even the most powerful systems.

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The Desolation of Smaug (spoilers)

First, the good: The dragon was impressive.

For the rest, Tolkien’s story collapsed under the weight of Peter Jackson’s treatment. Nothing from the book made it into the movie unmangled. The changes in the first movie strengthened Bilbo’s character, and on balance I liked them. Here almost all the changes are for the worse. The wonderful scene in which the dwarves arrive at Beorn’s door a couple at a time is gone, replaced by Beorn in bear form pursuing them into the house. There’s a love triangle that was apparently added just to include a female character and let Orlando Bloom play Legolas again. And there are orcs everywhere, even in Laketown.

One point I’ll grant is that Bard’s character is better fleshed out; in the book we’re barely introduced to him before he kills the dragon. Here he’s part Han Solo, part Robin Hood, and he has a family.

I’d hoped that Jackson would do something good with Gandalf’s expedition to Dol Guldur, which is mentioned but not presented in The Hobbit. Sauron makes an impressive appearance, but in the end it’s more of the recipe of adding orcs to everything.

Many parts of the book are problematic in a movie for adults, but there could have been better fixes. The dwarves’ escape in barrels always bothered me, because they should have suffocated if the barrels were watertight. In the movie they’re open, so they should make useless boats, especially in rushing water.

I’m not at all impressed.

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Grimm (spoilers for Dec. 6 episode)

The December 6 episode of Grimm, “Stories We Tell Our Young,” has a number of good themes. It deals with a child who sometimes undergoes physical changes and becomes violent. In investigating this, Nick first thinks he’s dealing with some kind of Wesen (prounounced “vessen” — that’s the least of the atrocities the show commits on the German language). A priest thinks that the kid is demonically possessed and attempts an exorcism. The Wesen Council knows of a history of such cases and calls them “Grausen,” a German word meaning horror. It considers assassination necessary.

It turns out that the child is suffering from a non-supernatural brain parasite. Nick stops the would-be assassin and explains this to him; he’s convinced enough to abandon his quest. In resolving a seemingly supernatural event with a natural explanation, and in showing how people (including Wesen) can react to what they don’t understand by trying to destroy it, the show makes good points. (The Wesen are cryptids but still natural beings in the show’s terms.)

On the negative side, the story is resolved with a ridiculous cure for a previously unknown disease based on wild guesses, and the parasites flee out the kid’s nose. It reminded me of the miracle cures in so many Star Trek episodes. I suspect the writers had trouble wrapping this one up; TV shows can do horrible things to adults, but they get complaints if children die. Still, it was a very good episode for the way it dealt with the conflict between the Grimms and the Wesen, among the Wesen themselves, and between different ways of dealing with an unknown threat.

This helped to make up for the previous episode, in which Nick threatened to kill two witnesses if they didn’t talk. They were naiads who would die if kept out of water for too long, and Nick knew it as he said they’d be held until they gave him the information he wanted.

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