Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Kafka's America

No Justice in Kafka’s America

Posted on Jun 12, 2011 in Truthdig

By Chris Hedges

In Franz Kafka’s short story “Before the Law” a tireless supplicant spends his life praying for admittance into the courts of justice. He sits outside the law court for days, months and years. He makes many attempts to be admitted. He sacrifices everything he owns to sway or bribe the stern doorkeeper. He ages, grows feeble and finally childish. He is told as he nears death that the entrance was constructed solely for him and it will now be closed.

Justice has become as unattainable for Muslim activists in the United States as it was for Kafka’s frustrated petitioner. The draconian legal mechanisms that condemn Muslim Americans who speak out publicly about the outrages we commit in the Middle East have left many, including Syed Fahad Hashmi, wasting away in supermax prisons. These citizens posed no security threat. But they dared to speak a truth about the sordid conduct of our nation that the state found unpalatable. And in the bipartisan war on terror, waged by Republicans and Democrats, this ugly truth in America is branded seditious.

The best the U.S. government could offer as evidence of Fahad’s crimes was that an acquaintance who stayed in his apartment with him while he was a graduate student in London had raincoats, ponchos and waterproof socks in luggage at the apartment and that the acquaintance eventually delivered these to al-Qaida. But I doubt the government is overly concerned with a suitcase full of waterproof socks taken to Pakistan. The reason Fahad Hashmi was targeted was because, like the Palestinian activist Dr. Sami Al-Arian, he was fearless and zealous in his defense of those being bombed, shot, terrorized and killed throughout the Muslim world while he was a student at Brooklyn College. Fahad was deeply religious, and some of his views, including his praise of the Afghan resistance, were to me unpalatable, but he had a right to express these sentiments. More important, he had a right to expect freedom from persecution and imprisonment because of his opinions. Facing the possibility of a 70-year sentence in prison and having already spent four years in jail, much of it in solitary confinement, he accepted a plea bargain on one count of conspiracy to provide material support to terrorism.

It has been a year since his 15-year sentence was pronounced in a New York courtroom. He is now held in Guantanamo-like conditions in the supermax ADX [Administrative Maximum] facility in Florence, Colo. He is isolated in a small cell for 22 to 23 hours a day. He has only extremely limited contact with his mother, father and brother, often going weeks without any communication. Between his transfer to Florence last August and this March he was permitted only one phone call. The rule of law in America, especially if you are Muslim, fits Kafka’s grim parody. The tyranny we impose on those held in Guantanamo, Bagram and the secret CIA “black sites” we impose on ourselves. This is and always has been the disease of empire. Empire imports the crude and brutal tools of control and violence back to the homeland. It creates internal as well as external colonies.

We no longer have freedom; there is only the appearance of freedom. We are consumed by an endless and vague war on terror in which the perfidiousness of our enemy, whose number, location and nature are never clearly defined, justifies the shredding of constitutional rights, torture, kidnapping, detentions without charges or trials and an occult-like battle against an absolute evil. And if you think the state intends to limit itself to the persecution of Muslims, especially once there is an increase in domestic unrest and instability, you know little about human history.

I spoke Saturday night to Fahad Hashmi’s father, Syed Anwar Hashmi. The elder Hashmi came to the United States from Pakistan when Fahad was 3 and his other son, Faisal, was 4. He worked for more than two decades as an accountant for the city of New York. He came, as most immigrants have, for his children. He believed in America, in its fairness, its chances for opportunity, its freedoms. And then it all crumbled when the state proved as capricious and cruel as the Pakistani dictatorship he had left behind. On the day of his son’s arrest, he says, “my American dream became an American nightmare.”

Three law enforcement officials appeared at his home in Flushing, Queens, on June 6, 2006, to inform him that Fahad, who had been in London completing a master’s degree in international relations, had been arrested at Heathrow Airport on terrorism charges. Fahad, after fighting the order for 11 months, was the first American citizen extradited under the post-9/11 laws. He was taken in May 2007 to the Metropolitan Correctional Center in lower Manhattan and placed in solitary confinement.

“I came to this country from Pakistan nearly 30 years ago, in 1982 with my wife and two young boys,” Fahad’s father said. “Coming from a Third World country, we were full of hope and looked towards America for liberty and opportunity. I had an American dream to work hard and give my sons good educations. I worked as an assistant accountant for the city of New York, six days a week, nine hours a day, including overtime, to support my family and to send both my kids through college. We all became U.S. citizens, and my sons fulfilled my dreams by completing their undergraduate and postgraduate education. I was very proud of them.”

“In high school and then as a student at Brooklyn College, Fahad became a political activist, concerned about the plight of Muslims around the world and the civil liberties of Muslims in America,” he went on. “Growing up here in America, Fahad did not fear expressing his views. But I was scared for him and urged him not to speak out. He would remind me that everything he did was under the law. But having grown up in a Third World country, I had seen that it did not always work this way, and so I worried. He was monitored by law enforcement and quoted in Time magazine. But he kept speaking out. And then, with his arrest, my fears came true.”

Judge Loretta Preska denied Fahad bail partly on the grounds that he had no ties to family and community. His family and friends, who sat crowded together in the courtroom, listened in stunned silence. And then, after five months, Hashmi, already isolated in solitary confinement, was suddenly put under “special administrative measures,” known as SAMs. SAMs are the legal weapon of choice used by the state when it seeks to isolate and break prisoners. They were bequeathed to us by the Clinton administration, which justified SAMs as a way to prevent Mafia or other gang leaders from ordering hits from inside prison. The use of SAMs expanded widely after the attacks of 2001. They are frequently used to isolate terrorism case detainees before trial. SAMs, which were renewed by Barack Obama in October, severely restrict a prisoner’s communication with the outside world. They end calls, letters and visits with anyone except attorneys and sharply limit contact with family members. Fahad, once in this legal straitjacket, was not permitted to see much of the evidence against him under a legal provision called the Classified Information Procedures Act, or CIPA. CIPA, begun under the Reagan administration, allows evidence in a trial to be classified and withheld from those being prosecuted.

The weekly visits Hashmi’s family made to the jail in Manhattan were canceled. A single family member was permitted to visit only once every two weeks, and on a number of occasions the family member was inexplicably denied admittance. During the last five months of the trial Hashmi’s family was barred from visiting him. Anyone who has contact with a prisoner under SAMs is prohibited by law from disclosing any information learned from the detainee. This requirement, in a twist Kafka would have relished, makes it illegal for those who have contact with an inmate under SAMs—including attorneys—to speak about his or her physical and psychological condition.

Once the SAMs were imposed, “He wrote us occasionally—one letter on no more than three pages at a time—but he was allowed no correspondence or contact with anyone else,” his father said of his son. “In addition, because of Fahad’s SAMs, we were not allowed to discuss anything we heard from him, including his health or any details of his detention or what he was experiencing, with anyone else. It was like being suffocated.”

In a pretrial motion, Hashmi’s lawyer presented the extensive medical and scholarly research that demonstrates the severe impact solitary confinement has on human beings, often leaving them incapable of defending themselves during their trial. It did not sway the judge. Fahad lived in a universe, before ever being sentenced, where he had no fresh air and was subjected to 23-hour lockdown and constant electronic surveillance including when he showered or relieved himself. He was barred from group prayer. He exercised alone in a solitary cage. He was denied access to television or a radio. His newspapers were cut up by censors. And this was all before trial.

“These years have brought deep disillusionment for my family in the American justice system,” his father said. “Fahad was restricted in reviewing much of the evidence against him, and even his attorney could not discuss much of the evidence with him. Secret evidence is something we knew from back home. The judge accepted the prosecutor’s motion to introduce Fahad’s political activities and speeches into the trial to demonstrate his mind-set. Where was the First Amendment to protect Fahad’s speech? Two days before the trial was set to begin, Judge Preska agreed to the prosecutor’s motion to keep the jury anonymous and kept under extra security—even though this could have frightened the jury and affected how they viewed Fahad.”
“On the day before trial, nearly four years since he had been arrested, I had just returned from dropping off clothes for Fahad to wear to court when I received a call from my attorney,” Fahad’s father said. “The government had offered a deal to drop three of the four charges against Fahad, if he accepted one charge which carried a 15-year sentence and Fahad had agreed to this plea bargain. I was shocked by my son’s decision on the eve of his trial, but after I thought more, I wondered how anyone could have decided differently in his situation. Fahad had been in solitary confinement, under SAMs, for nearly three years. The judge had in every instance sided with the government in pretrial motions. If convicted, Fahad faced a possible 70-year sentence. Under those circumstances, Fahad’s decision to accept one charge was no longer surprising. He has been in for five years this June.”

“The U.S. government is concerned about human rights in China and Iran,” he went on. “I wonder about Fahad’s rights, and how they have been blatantly violated in this great land. It seems like ‘innocent until proven guilty’ is only a saying. My son was treated as guilty until proven innocent.”

“The Muslim community supported my son by offering prayers, particularly in the month of Ramadan,” he said. “But they were initially afraid to raise their voices against injustice. This reminds me of the fear the Chinese have under Communist rule, or Iranians under Ahmadinejad. As a citizen, I now have developed fear of my own government.”

“For one charge for luggage storing socks, ponchos and raincoats in his apartment, he is serving a 15-year sentence in the harshest federal prison in the country, still in solitary confinement, still under SAMs,” his father said. “The cooperating witness in the case, the one who brought and delivered the luggage, is now free and able to enjoy his life and family.”

The state, by making us afraid, is able to justify the disease of permanent war and the silencing of those who dare to dissent. The terrible suffering we have unleashed throughout the Middle East is rendered invisible if there is no one to decry it and document it. Communities and families, not only in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan but at home, have been plunged into needless grief and suffering because of the atrocities committed in our name. The despair and bewilderment of Fahad’s father are a reflection of the wider despair and bewilderment that have gripped the lives of hundreds of thousands of Muslims who have been forced to confront the dark heart of empire. In their pain we stand condemned.

“There are many things I’d like to be able to say about the visit and my son’s continuing detention, but because of Fahad’s SAMs, I am forbidden,” his father said. “Everything has changed for my family. Our first grandchild was born 19 days after Fahad’s arrest, our second two years later. But now everything has a cloud over it—graduations, birthdays, holidays, going to the store or the park or visiting family or running errands, and particularly the Eid day. In other words, we have lost our happiness.”

Chris Hedges is a weekly Truthdig columnist and a fellow at The Nation Institute. His newest book is “The World As It Is: Dispatches on the Myth of Human Progress.”

from TruthDig

Over Connected?

The Drug Pusher in Your Family Room

Jun. 14 2011

Apple, Google, Electronic Arts, Zynga, Facebook, LinkedIn, Sony, Microsoft, Research In Motion (RIM), and Nintendo are all leveraging Darwin. And why not, when it makes for such good business?

For 150,000 generations — 2.5 million years — humankind has been evolving in physical space. In the process, evolution designed our brain chemistry to deal with the physical environment we find ourselves in. For example, when faced with a threat from a predator, our bodies were designed to release dopamine and cortisol into our systems. Elevated levels of dopamine can improve our ability to pay attention and focus. No wonder natural selection designed this response into our physical systems. Individuals whose bodies excelled at releasing dopamine were less likely to be eaten and could go on and produce more offspring with similar responses.

Well-designed video games and computer alerts appear capable of triggering these same chemical releases. When they do this, they are appropriating our brain chemistry designed for physical space and leveraging it for their purposes.

Dopamine appears to signal to us that we are going to enjoy what is about to happen. For this reason dopamine is believed to play a role in addictive behavior. We think it plays a similar role in compulsive behavior such as the need to check emails on Crackberries a popular nickname for RIM’s Blackberry phones.

Brain plasticity is a well-known phenomenon. When someone suffers a stroke, part of the brain may be impaired. During the recovery process, new neural circuits are completed and the brain rewires itself around the damaged area. Sometimes almost normal function can be restored. Learning new skills takes advantage of brain plasticity. Creating new neural circuits and strengthening old ones is part of the learning process. One reason kids are so good at multitasking is that they are wiring their brains to be good at task switching.

Brain plasticity is about training the brain but evolution is about designing it. The training of the brain and altering its pathways is a relatively rapid process. Evolutionary design of the brain takes place over thousands of generations. Or, put another way, while technology changes rapidly, we are stuck with our clunky, out-of-date brains. Our brains are designed for physical processes not virtual ones.

None of this would matter very much if we were not living in an Internet-driven, overconnected world. The reason is analytics. For example, the designers of social games such as Zynga monitor our behavior patterns while we’re playing their games. They then modify the games to make them more engaging. When they do this, they may not realize what they are doing but they are probably taking advantage of our dopamine response system. We don’t know for sure but we suspect this might be happening. So the providers of online services and entertainment who claim they collect all of this information to make their products more appealing and better service our needs may in fact be designing products and services that are addictive.

We know more about gambling addiction than Internet addiction, but the parallels are striking. Gamblers appear to get shots of dopamine in response to the random rewards involved in playing games of chance. There is every reason to believe that winning in the unpredictable environment social game providers design evokes the same type of response.

None of this should come as a surprise. These techniques have been used for decades. In 1957, Vance Packard wrote his classic book, The Hidden Persuaders. The book shocked readers, who discovered how consumer companies were, according to Packard, using advertising promises that were so compelling that they drove suggestible consumers to purchase products. If Packard had appreciated the role of dopamine, he probably would have accused consumer product companies of inducing addictive behavior. The difference between 1957 and today is that the Internet did not exist. It was expensive to collect detailed data that would effectively enable you to predict behavior and optimize the design of marketing campaigns.

Our Internet companies are discovering what drug dealers have known for a long time: addiction is good business. My guess is that when they throw around the words addictive behavior, it doesn’t dawn on them that they may be stimulating dopamine releases in their customers–the same releases that make cocaine so insidious.

I’d put my money on the probability that Crackberries, video games, virtual lives, texting and email can be the source of physical addiction — not for everyone but for a percentage of the population. For example, one study suggested that while virtually every regular cocaine user gets addicted only 4% of gamblers do.

The key thing to realize in our personal lives and the lives of our children that the minute we venture into virtual space, drug dealers may be lurking – not in a darkened alley, but right there in the family room.

Bill Davidow is the Founding Partner of Mohr, Davidow Ventures and the author of Overconnected: The Promise and Threat of the Internet. Forbes Magazine

Monday, June 06, 2011

Starting from scratch

Decided to change my template. More changes than I'd imagined. The huge header is disconcerting so I am trying to figure out how to downsize it. Biggest change is that my hit counter disappeared so I'm starting from scratch on the hit counts. Before switching templates, my blog had had 11,166 hits. Not too shabby although I suspect at least 80% of those hits were from people looking for a White Stripe. Oh well, new day.

Irritability is at manageable levels today ~ as opposed to yesterday. Saw an interesting program today that discussed the link between mental illness and addiction. Current thinking and research suggests that addicts first begin using in order to medicate their primary disease. I'm bipolar ~ a diagnosis that has been confirmed by 4 psychiatrists. Most of my life, I had been considered m o o d y, emotional in the extreme and filled with unrealistic expectations (magical thinking). More frightening to me were the delusions and paranoia I carried around in some messy cerebral nest of secrecy and shame. I will discuss these things here at a later time. New template, new start ~ this time I plan to write about myself with brutal honesty coupled with introspection and, hopefully, little narcissism or self-pity. Re: the later, it is important to make a distinction between self-pity and having compassion for oneself. As Lao Tzu concluded in ??? 67, "compassionate toward the self, we reconcile all beings in the world." Me, I self-flagellate in the extreme. It's time to try holding back on the whips.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Just one of those days

when it all feels pointless. Sick of being lied to by the holier than thou crew. Not to mention the f-ing judgment. Look at me!! Look at me!! Sickening.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

My Life Under Covers

How accurately do memoirs reflect the people who write them? Nic Sheff, our newest columnist, has a few thoughts on that.

The 'Beautiful Boy' Grows Up
I’m a writer.

Or, I’m trying to be one.

I mean, I’ve been trying since I was a little kid.

It’s what I’ve always wanted to be.

Honestly, I’m not even sure why that is exactly. My dad and mom are both writers—that is, journalists—so maybe that has something to do with it. Plus I always read a ton. I mean, if anything, reading was probably my first addiction—my first taste of how much I crave escape from myself at every possible moment. And I guess writing is an escape for me, too. Even when I’m writing about myself (which is pretty much always), it’s still a form of escape, of not having to be completely present in my own life. I get to transform myself into the character I’ve created of myself—the character I’ve created as “me.”

But, then again, sometimes it’s hard for me to figure out which “me” is really me, you know? When I wrote my first book, a memoir about IV crystal meth and heroin addiction, called Tweak, I was 21 and 22 years old. The “me” in that book definitely reflects the me at that time. But going back and reading passages from it feels kind of like reading the wprk of a total stranger. I mean, yes, all the events I said happened actually did happen (post James Frey, before I was able to go on Oprah, they fact-checked every minute detail in the book like I was being investigated by the goddamn FBI), but the voice of the narrator, my old voice, is so arrogant and insecure and lost and, well, just young, I guess. I was young. I was like a little kid in a lot of ways.

All through high school and the end of grade school, I was smoking pot every day and then, of course, I got into harder and harder drugs and I never matured like a normal person. When I tried to get sober when I was 20, I had basically no coping skills at all. Plus I hated myself and, for some reason, refused to stay on the psych meds I’d been prescribed for bi-polar disorder and severe fucking depression. So the “me” writing Tweak was a very fucked up me and so my voice in the book is really foreign to me now. In some ways, that’s why I never want the people in my life to read the book: because it doesn’t reflect me anymore at all, really.

After writing Tweak, I relapsed I think five different times. So obviously I had a whole lot of growing up still to do. I mean, even when I was on book tour for Tweak, going around and talking about sobriety with high school kids and on national television—even then I was relapsing—going back home to Savannah and smoking pot on the weekends before setting out on the road again. So, I’d say pretty obviously, the Tweak “me” couldn’t possibly be me.

So who am I?

I mean, who is me?

In April I had a second memoir come out—a follow up to Tweak called We All Fall Down. The new book basically starts off right where Tweak left off—at this new-agey rehab in Arizona—and follows my life up through this last time I spent getting sober. I write about relapsing while on tour with Tweak and about my time living in the South and my struggles with relationships and medication and then, ultimately, starting to find a recovery program that worked for me.

The “me” in We All Fall Down, at least in my mind, is a more mature me—a humbler me. Plus I wrote the whole thing when I was sober and I haven’t relapsed since. Going on tour this last time for We All Fall Down, I managed to stay clean. And when I was talking to high school kids, I was able to give a much firmer anti-drug message than I was the first time, because I wasn’t still trying to convince myself that smoking pot was okay. I was able to be a whole lot more myself this tour. And, in going back and reading We All Fall Down, the voice is definitely a lot more recognizable as my own. And the “me” is a whole lot more me than before.

But it’s still not me. It’s been about two years since I wrote We All Fall Down. When I wrote it, I was only clean for six months. What I thought I knew about recovery then is not what I know about recovery now. What I thought I knew about life then is not what I know about life now.

Reading back through the book, there is such a deep melancholy in my voice as a narrator. I mean, beyond how fucked up and sad the subject matter is, the “me” writing the book seems still so lost and hopeless. Even the conclusion of the book reflects a bleakness in me—a resignation to sober life being a distant consolation prize to a normal life without addiction.

And that makes sense.

The me that wrote We All Fall Down was a bleak me, resigned to a sad sober life. I had no connection with spirituality or love or gratitude. My days then were all about killing time—making it through—getting by. That’s the “me” who wrote the book. That’s the me that I was.

But I’m not that me now.

I’m 28 now, almost 29. I’m getting married this summer to a girl I’ve been in love with since I first met her, back when I was 11 years old. I’ve found a new sense of spirituality and the knowledge that, yes, I am being taken care of. I’m grateful not to have to drink or get high every day. I’ve even grateful that I am an addict—that this was the life chosen for me. Because I love my life today. I really do.

I mean, sure, I have fears and anxieties and days when I feel so drained and insecure and needy. But mostly I just feel content. I am more connected with gratitude and love than anything else in my life. That is the “me” today. And that is the “me” that isn’t present in either of my books.

So what do I do with the “me” that is me now? Do I write another memoir to try and reflect the new person I think I’ve become? Or did this “me” come about only because of all the failed “me”s that have come before? The truth is, I am the culmination of everything and the culmination has left me here, in this moment, and I am grateful. I mean, gratitude is my whole voice. Or, at least, it is today. For the moment.

But I do know—I really believe—that as long as I stay sober, my life will just keep getting better—day by day by day. And by the time my next book comes out (which, I promise, will definitely not be a drug memoir), I’m sure I’ll look back at the 28, almost 29-year-old me, and wonder how I could’ve been so insecure and unsure and fearful of the future. I’ll look back at the gratitude and love that I feel now, and it’ll seem so tiny and insignificant.

Because, for the “me” that I am and all the “me”s that I will be, it will just keep getting better and better.

At least, that’s what I believe today.

As long as I stay sober.

And as long as I keep holding on.

Nic Sheff is the author of two memoirs about his struggles with addiction, Tweak, and We All Fall Down. He is 28 and lives in Los Angeles with his fiancee, two hound dogs, and a cat. He is currently working on a novel about sisters growing up in a Northern California cult.