On the surveillance society, media, and think tanks

On the surveillance society, media, and think tanks
Illustration by Graham Roumieu

This Note Will Self-Destruct . . .
I read Hal Niedzviecki’s article “The Spy Who Blogged Me” (May), which discusses camera surveillance, with great interest. Of course, this kind of surveillance is only a small part of the post-9/11 picture. Not only are we being videotaped as we go about our daily lives, but our travel, financial transactions, phone calls, emails, and cell-phone locations are also being tracked. Programs and companies with names like Terrorism Information Awareness, Server in the Sky, Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, and Quantum Leap Innovations ensure that the virtual trail of information we leave behind us each day is captured, stored, and made available to state agents in dossiers that reveal far more about us than video alone might.

Historically, the scope of law enforcement and security intelligence agencies has been limited to looking at specific threats in specific circles, and following leads from there outward. But surveillance has become much more generalized since 9/11. The old model of tailing known bad guys, or guys suspected on reasonable grounds of being bad, is being subsumed by a new model of mass surveillance, in which states engage in the continuous collection of information on entire populations. In this model, surveillance is used not merely to follow up on leads, but to generate them. More alarming, with the help of new data mining technologies, it is being used to assess the risk each of us poses to the state, to predict who might be a terrorist. In this project, the private sector is being harnessed as an agent of the state, and surveillance systems are becoming increasingly globalized.

Niedzviecki asks why nobody seems to care, and it’s partly that these systems have been implemented in an incremental, technocratic manner, outside ordinary democratic processes, and therefore off the radar of the public and even elected representatives. But as he indicates, there is also widespread apathy about, if not outright acceptance of, increased surveillance in Western countries, none of which have seriously debated the full implications. With the recent speed of change, we are still too busy playing with these toys. We haven’t figured out whether any of them actually makes us safer, nor at what point their potential benefits outweigh the harm they wreak on our democratic way of life.Citizens are the proverbial frog swimming in water the state is slowly bringing to a boil. We thought we learned something with the case of Maher Arar. Sadly, it will take a lot of John Smiths being detained, rendered, denied jobs or mobility across the border, or linked to crimes they did not commit before a critical mass of citizens wakes up to the fact that we are living in a society where the freedoms we once took for granted are subject to new regimes of permission, and where any of us — Muslim or not — could be swept off the street based on a flawed “risk assessment.”

Maureen Webb
, Illusions of Security: Global Surveillance and Democracy in the Post-9/11 World
Ottawa, ON

After reading “The Spy Who Blogged Me,” I was intrigued to come across a survey form, bound into the magazine, on which over half the questions addressed my personal life: how much money comes into the family annually, what we are likely to invest in, what we do in our spare time — it even asked about our alcohol intake. Did anyone else see the irony in this?

Ellen Pegg
Weyburn, SK

Tanks for Nothing
George Fetherling inappropriately lumps the Institute for Research on Public Policy into the group of think tanks he disparages in his May article, “In the Tank.”

“Given their corporate funders and ideological leanings,” he writes, “most Canadian think tanks tend toward predictable viewpoints.” Not the irpp, which is fiercely independent. We do not have members, do not rely on external funding, and hence are not beholden to anyone. In recent years, our board has been graced by former university presidents, academics, and politicos from across the spectrum, such as Bob Rae, Stephen Harper, John Manley, and Barbara McDougall. Our research is not passed through an ideological filter.

Notably, Fetherling misrepresents Globe and Mail columnist John Ibbitson’s view that “most think tanks are a waste of time” by failing to quote his further point: “The Institute for Research on Public Policy . . . and a couple of other smaller shops offer good value. They ask a question, conduct research, and reach a conclusion.” We do not advocate answers to policy questions; we let our research results speak for themselves. Fetherling may be right that advocacy groups disguised as think tanks muddle Canadian democracy, but the irpp only strengthens it.

Mel Cappe
Institute for Research on Public Policy
Montreal, QC

In his article on think tanks, George Fetherling takes a shot at the Conference of Defence Associations by quoting from Amir Attaran’s February 21 Globe and Mail article: “[The cda] got $500,000 from dnd last year. That money comes not with strings, but with an entire leash.” In response, it should first be noted that $500,000 is the total grant we will receive from the Department of National Defence over a five-year period, provided a number of requirements are met, and subject to yearly Treasury Board approval.

More important, however, the cda makes no apologies for receiving that funding. Originally formulated under the previous Liberal leadership, the conditions for the annual grant are meant to keep the cda at arm’s length from dnd. Since its founding back in 1932, the cda has both agreed and disagreed with the government, always taking a non-partisan and independent stance. For instance, in the 1990s we criticized the Liberal government for not doing enough for the Canadian Forces; we now applaud the Conservative government for wanting to address the neglect of previous decades. That our opinions occasionally dovetail with government policies does not imply that we are their mouthpiece.

Alain Pellerin, Colonel (Retired)
Conference of Defence Associations
Ottawa, ON

Gloves Off
Jan Dutkiewicz and Jeremy Keehn’s “Grounds to Pound” report on mixed martial arts (May) is one of the most depressing articles I have read in a very long time. Most discouraging is its lack of serious analysis. The rise of mma marks a significant change in Western society, which banned most blood sports during the nineteenth century, in the name of Enlightenment values and an aversion to pandering to the worst of human instincts. What has changed in our society that makes violence increasingly acceptable? Or, more to the point, what has made it almost impossible for those who oppose the legitimization of competitive violence to mount a credible campaign against it?

We need to take a critical look not just at the sport, but at its two sets of actors: the fighters and the spectators. When a person engages in behaviour he knows will hurt him and could possibly even kill him, should we not suspect him of suffering from some psychopathology? What about someone who seeks to inflict pain? And yet mixed martial arts fighters are considered sane, even heroic, and paid for their efforts.

Watching these men fight is like watching a live sex show: you project your frustrations and yearnings onto the performers, and hopefully your fantasy is realized — but only vicariously, which is why you keep coming back for more. The pornography of violence is potentially just as profitable as the pornography of sex, and appeals, not surprisingly, to the same demographic. I would have expected the writers to plumb the mindset of these voyeurs of dominance and submission.

Most of us (I desperately hope) perceive violence, especially for its own sake, to be a social evil, but we permit this organized violence, even dignify it with the name of “sport.” We are told mma is increasingly professional and involves great skill. Well, you can professionalize anything, and the art of effective torture also demands exquisite skill. We can’t really call ourselves civilized if we allow this type of spectacle to flourish.

Steven Spencer
Toronto, ON

French Kiss
The mostly Montreal-based, sex-driven narratives discussed in Marianne Ackerman’s “Femmes Fatales” (May) present the nouveau récit of shifting sexual, social, and cultural values. Nelly Arcan is the iconic figure of this movement, with her powerful auto-fictions, Putain and Folle. Anne-Rose Gorroz and Marie-Sissi Labrèche express female sexual-urban angst in more torrid and twisted stories, tales in which S&M is considered alongside architecture and motherhood, or where sex is performed as an exutoire to madness.

These young female authors hold up their lived experience as a narcissistic mirror, but also as a way of depicting the society in which they live. They write about their sexual journeys with authenticity and intensity, two qualities often lacking in similar works by their male counterparts. Perhaps this literary wave, like the popular 1986 Denys Arcand film Le Déclin de l’empire américain, is a provocative answer to Quebec’s latest identity crisis. In this case, it’s white de souche female characters substituting nationalist politics with bedroom politics.

Chantal Maillé
Simone de Beauvoir Institute
Concordia University
Montreal, QC

Name Shame
I was very much looking forward to The Walrus’s coverage of my work (May), even though one never knows how a press interview will be interpreted or contextualized, and there is always a certain degree of anxiety. In this case, I have to say my concern was warranted.

While I was impressed with the visual presentation, I simply cannot fathom the editors’ choice of title: “Tonto Takes Charge.” I have tried reading several layers of irony into it, but it fails on every level. Considering that the article accompanying my painting consists entirely of direct quotations from me — an artist of Cree ancestry whose work challenges culturally dominant representations of aboriginal people — the title is just plain offensive.

Try to imagine a similar piece about an artist like Kara Walker, who confronts constructions of African-American identity in art history, running with the title “Little Black Sambo Takes Charge.” I see no difference, as both Tonto and Little Black Sambo are derogatory, one-dimensional characters created by white people.

In the context of the article, in which I make no mention of Tonto, it would seem that this racial epithet is being used to describe me. After all, the Hollywood stereotype, played by Jay Silverheels (real name Harold J. Smith) in the 1950s TV serial the Lone Ranger, is incapable of taking charge. Only real people can take charge. It follows that “Tonto Takes Charge” refers to me, a First Nations artist addressing these very clichés. The slur diminishes me, my work, and all native people, and it makes me realize how much more work still needs to be done.

Kent Monkman
Toronto, ON

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Letters may be edited for length, height, width, depth, clarity, and accuracy, and may be published in any medium (such as disappearing ink).

“The time has come,” The Walrus said, “to talk of many things.” Send us a letter, an email (letters@thewalrus.ca), or a tweet, or post on this website. Comments may be published in any medium and edited for length, clarity, and accuracy. Mail correspondence to: 411 Richmond St. E., Suite B15, Toronto, Ontario, Canada  M5A 3S5

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