Tag Archives: civil

Voting and Literacy

Voting is a right in the United States. But, as we know in the past this did not stop those in power from restricting those rights for many less fortunate or those having a different skin color (or gender). Some still justifiably maintain that voting rights are curtailed in some instances.

Louisiana in 1964 required voters to jump through some very high hurdles before they could even come close to a ballot box. The Louisiana State Literacy Test barred prospective from voters if they recorded even one wrong answer. So, just for fun take a look at the three pages of the test above and see if you’d qualify to vote in Louisiana. You have 10 minutes. Remember, one wrong answer and you’re disenfranchised!

From Slate:

This week’s Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder overturned Section 4(b) of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which mandated federal oversight of changes in voting procedure in jurisdictions that have a history of using a “test or device” to impede enfranchisement. Here is one example of such a test, used in Louisiana in 1964.

After the end of the Civil War, would-be black voters in the South faced an array of disproportionate barriers to enfranchisement. The literacy test—supposedly applicable to both white and black prospective voters who couldn’t prove a certain level of education but in actuality disproportionately administered to black voters—was a classic example of one of these barriers.

The website of the Civil Rights Movement Veterans, which collects materials related to civil rights, hosts a few samples of actual literacy tests used in Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi during the 1950s and 1960s.

In many cases, people working within the movement collected these in order to use them in voter education, which is how we ended up with this documentary evidence. Update: This test—a word-processed transcript of an original—was added by Jeff Schwartz, who worked with the Congress of Racial Equality in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, in the summer of 1964. Schwartz wrote about his encounters with the test in this blog post.

Most of the tests collected here are a battery of trivia questions related to civic procedure and citizenship. (Two from the Alabama test: “Name the attorney general of the United States” and “Can you be imprisoned, under Alabama law, for a debt?”)

But this Louisiana “literacy” test, singular among its fellows, has nothing to do with citizenship. Designed to put the applicant through mental contortions, the test’s questions are often confusingly worded. If some of them seem unanswerable, that effect was intentional. The (white) registrar would be the ultimate judge of whether an answer was correct.

Try this one: “Write every other word in this first line and print every third word in same line (original type smaller and first line ended at comma) but capitalize the fifth word that you write.”

Or this: “Write right from the left to the right as you see it spelled here.”

Read the entire article here.

Image: Louisiana Voter Literacy Test, circa 1964. Courtesy of the Civil Rights Movement Veterans website.


From the news reports first aired a couple of days ago and posted here, we now know the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) has collected and is collecting vast amounts of data related to our phone calls. But, it seems that this is only the very tip of a very large, nasty iceberg. Our government is also sifting though our online communications as well — email, online chat, photos, videos, social networking data.

From the Washington Post:

Through a top-secret program authorized by federal judges working under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), the U.S. intelligence community can gain access to the servers of nine Internet companies for a wide range of digital data. Documents describing the previously undisclosed program, obtained by The Washington Post, show the breadth of U.S. electronic surveillance capabilities in the wake of a widely publicized controversy over warrantless wiretapping of U.S. domestic telephone communications in 2005.

Read the entire article here.

Image: From the PRISM Powerpoint presentation – The PRISM program collects a wide range of data from the nine companies, although the details vary by provider. Courtesy of Washington Post.

Surveillance of the People for the People

The U.S. government is spying on your phone calls with the hushed assistance of companies like Verizon. While the National Security Agency (NSA) may not be listening to your actual conversations (yet), its agents are actively gathering data about your calls: who you call, from where you call, when you call, how long the call lasts.

Here’s the top secret court order delineating the government’s unfettered powers of domestic surveillance.

The price of freedom is becoming ever more expensive, and with broad clandestine activities like this underway — with no specific target — our precious freedoms continue to erode. Surely, this must delight our foes, who will gain relish from the self-inflicted curtailment of civil liberties — the societal consequences are much more far-reaching than those from any improvised explosive device (IED) however heinous and destructive.

From the Guardian:

The National Security Agency is currently collecting the telephone records of millions of US customers of Verizon, one of America’s largest telecoms providers, under a top secret court order issued in April.

The order, a copy of which has been obtained by the Guardian, requires Verizon on an “ongoing, daily basis” to give the NSA information on all telephone calls in its systems, both within the US and between the US and other countries.

The document shows for the first time that under the Obama administration the communication records of millions of US citizens are being collected indiscriminately and in bulk – regardless of whether they are suspected of any wrongdoing.

The secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (Fisa) granted the order to the FBI on April 25, giving the government unlimited authority to obtain the data for a specified three-month period ending on July 19.

Under the terms of the blanket order, the numbers of both parties on a call are handed over, as is location data, call duration, unique identifiers, and the time and duration of all calls. The contents of the conversation itself are not covered.

The disclosure is likely to reignite longstanding debates in the US over the proper extent of the government’s domestic spying powers.

Under the Bush administration, officials in security agencies had disclosed to reporters the large-scale collection of call records data by the NSA, but this is the first time significant and top-secret documents have revealed the continuation of the practice on a massive scale under President Obama.

The unlimited nature of the records being handed over to the NSA is extremely unusual. Fisa court orders typically direct the production of records pertaining to a specific named target who is suspected of being an agent of a terrorist group or foreign state, or a finite set of individually named targets.

The Guardian approached the National Security Agency, the White House and the Department of Justice for comment in advance of publication on Wednesday. All declined. The agencies were also offered the opportunity to raise specific security concerns regarding the publication of the court order.

The court order expressly bars Verizon from disclosing to the public either the existence of the FBI’s request for its customers’ records, or the court order itself.

“We decline comment,” said Ed McFadden, a Washington-based Verizon spokesman.

The order, signed by Judge Roger Vinson, compels Verizon to produce to the NSA electronic copies of “all call detail records or ‘telephony metadata’ created by Verizon for communications between the United States and abroad” or “wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls”.

The order directs Verizon to “continue production on an ongoing daily basis thereafter for the duration of this order”. It specifies that the records to be produced include “session identifying information”, such as “originating and terminating number”, the duration of each call, telephone calling card numbers, trunk identifiers, International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) number, and “comprehensive communication routing information”.

The information is classed as “metadata”, or transactional information, rather than communications, and so does not require individual warrants to access. The document also specifies that such “metadata” is not limited to the aforementioned items. A 2005 court ruling judged that cell site location data – the nearest cell tower a phone was connected to – was also transactional data, and so could potentially fall under the scope of the order.

While the order itself does not include either the contents of messages or the personal information of the subscriber of any particular cell number, its collection would allow the NSA to build easily a comprehensive picture of who any individual contacted, how and when, and possibly from where, retrospectively.

It is not known whether Verizon is the only cell-phone provider to be targeted with such an order, although previous reporting has suggested the NSA has collected cell records from all major mobile networks. It is also unclear from the leaked document whether the three-month order was a one-off, or the latest in a series of similar orders.

Read the entire article here.

Geeks As Guardians of (Some of) Our Civil Liberties

It’s interesting to ponder what would have been if the internet and social media had been around during those more fractious times in Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall. Perhaps these tools would have helped accelerate progress.

[div class-attrib]From Technology Review:[end-div]

A decade-plus of anthropological fieldwork among hackers and like-minded geeks has led me to the firm conviction that these people are building one of the most vibrant civil liberties movements we’ve ever seen. It is a culture committed to freeing information, insisting on privacy, and fighting censorship, which in turn propels wide-ranging political activity. In the last year alone, hackers have been behind some of the most powerful political currents out there.

Before I elaborate, a brief word on the term “hacker” is probably in order. Even among hackers, it provokes debate. For instance, on the technical front, a hacker might program, administer a network, or tinker with hardware. Ethically and politically, the variability is just as prominent. Some hackers are part of a transgressive, law-breaking tradition, their activities opaque and below the radar. Other hackers write open-source software and pride themselves on access and transparency. While many steer clear of political activity, an increasingly important subset rise up to defend their productive autonomy, or engage in broader social justice and human rights campaigns.

Despite their differences, there are certain  websites and conferences that bring the various hacker clans together. Like any political movement, it is internally diverse but, under the right conditions, individuals with distinct abilities will work in unison toward a cause.

Take, for instance, the reaction to the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), a far-reaching copyright bill meant to curtail piracy online. SOPA was unraveled before being codified into law due to a massive and elaborate outpouring of dissent driven by the hacker movement.

The linchpin was a “Blackout Day”—a Web-based protest of unprecedented scale. To voice their opposition to the bill, on January 17, 2012, nonprofits, some big Web companies, public interest groups, and thousands of individuals momentarily removed their websites from the Internet and thousands of other citizens called or e-mailed their representatives. Journalists eventually wrote a torrent of articles. Less than a week later, in response to these stunning events, SOPA and PIPA, its counterpart in the Senate, were tabled (see “SOPA Battle Won, but War Continues”).

The victory hinged on its broad base of support cultivated by hackers and geeks. The participation of corporate giants like Google, respected Internet personalities like Jimmy Wales, and the civil liberties organization EFF was crucial to its success. But the geek and hacker contingent was palpably present, and included, of course, Anonymous. Since 2008, activists have rallied under this banner to initiate targeted demonstrations, publicize various wrongdoings, leak sensitive data, engage in digital direct action, and provide technology assistance for revolutionary movements.

As part of the SOPA protests, Anonymous churned out videos and propaganda posters and provided constant updates on several prominent Twitter accounts, such as Your Anonymous News, which are brimming with followers. When the blackout ended, corporate players naturally receded from the limelight and went back to work. Anonymous and others, however, continue to fight for Internet freedoms.

In fact, just the next day, on January 18, 2012, federal authorities orchestrated the takedown of the popular file-sharing site MegaUpload. The company’s gregarious and controversial founder Kim Dotcom was also arrested in a dramatic early morning raid in New Zealand. The removal of this popular website was received ominously by Anonymous activists: it seemed to confirm that if bills like SOPA become law, censorship would become a far more common fixture on the Internet. Even though no court had yet found Kim Dotcom guilty of piracy, his property was still confiscated and his website knocked off the Internet.

As soon as the news broke, Anonymous coordinated its largest distributed denial of service campaign to date. It took down a slew of websites, including the homepage of Universal Music, the FBI, the U.S. Copyright Office, the Recording Industry Association of America, and the Motion Picture Association of America.

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article after the jump.[end-div]

Guns, Freedom and the Uncivil Society

Associate professor of philosophy, Firmin DeBrabander, argues that guns have no place in a civil society. Guns hinder free speech and free assembly for those at either end of the barrel. Guns fragment our society and undermine the sense and mechanisms of community. He is right.

[div class=attrib]From the New York Times:[end-div]

The night of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., I was in the car with my wife and children, working out details for our eldest son’s 12th birthday the following Sunday — convening a group of friends at a showing of the film  “The Hobbit.” The memory of the Aurora movie theatre massacre was fresh in his mind, so he was concerned that it not be a late night showing. At that moment, like so many families, my wife and I were weighing whether to turn on the radio and expose our children to coverage of the school shootings in Connecticut. We did. The car was silent in the face of the flood of gory details. When the story was over, there was a long thoughtful pause in the back of the car. Then my eldest son asked if he could be homeschooled.

That incident brought home to me what I have always suspected, but found difficult to articulate: an armed society — especially as we prosecute it at the moment in this country — is the opposite of a civil society.

The Newtown shootings occurred at a peculiar time in gun rights history in this nation. On one hand, since the mid 1970s, fewer households each year on average have had a gun. Gun control advocates should be cheered by that news, but it is eclipsed by a flurry of contrary developments. As has been well publicized, gun sales have steadily risen over the past few years, and spiked with each of Obama’s election victories.

Furthermore, of the weapons that proliferate amongst the armed public, an increasing number are high caliber weapons (the weapon of choice in the goriest shootings in recent years). Then there is the legal landscape, which looks bleak for the gun control crowd.

Every state except for Illinois has a law allowing the carrying of concealed weapons — and just last week, a federal court struck down Illinois’ ban. States are now lining up to allow guns on college campuses. In September, Colorado joined four other states in such a move, and statehouses across the country are preparing similar legislation. And of course, there was Oklahoma’s ominous Open Carry Law approved by voters this election day — the fifteenth of its kind, in fact — which, as the name suggests, allows those with a special permit to carry weapons in the open, with a holster on their hip.

Individual gun ownership — and gun violence — has long been a distinctive feature of American society, setting us apart from the other industrialized democracies of the world. Recent legislative developments, however, are progressively bringing guns out of the private domain, with the ultimate aim of enshrining them in public life. Indeed, the N.R.A. strives for a day when the open carry of powerful weapons might be normal, a fixture even, of any visit to the coffee shop or grocery store — or classroom.

As N.R.A. president Wayne LaPierre expressed in a recent statement on the organization’s Web site, more guns equal more safety, by their account. A favorite gun rights saying is “an armed society is a polite society.” If we allow ever more people to be armed, at any time, in any place, this will provide a powerful deterrent to potential criminals. Or if more citizens were armed — like principals and teachers in the classroom, for example — they could halt senseless shootings ahead of time, or at least early on, and save society a lot of heartache and bloodshed.

As ever more people are armed in public, however — even brandishing weapons on the street — this is no longer recognizable as a civil society. Freedom is vanished at that point.

And yet, gun rights advocates famously maintain that individual gun ownership, even of high caliber weapons, is the defining mark of our freedom as such, and the ultimate guarantee of our enduring liberty. Deeper reflection on their argument exposes basic fallacies.

In her book “The Human Condition,” the philosopher Hannah Arendt states that “violence is mute.” According to Arendt, speech dominates and distinguishes the polis, the highest form of human association, which is devoted to the freedom and equality of its component members. Violence — and the threat of it — is a pre-political manner of communication and control, characteristic of undemocratic organizations and hierarchical relationships. For the ancient Athenians who practiced an incipient, albeit limited form of democracy (one that we surely aim to surpass), violence was characteristic of the master-slave relationship, not that of free citizens.

Arendt offers two points that are salient to our thinking about guns: for one, they insert a hierarchy of some kind, but fundamental nonetheless, and thereby undermine equality. But furthermore, guns pose a monumental challenge to freedom, and particular, the liberty that is the hallmark of any democracy worthy of the name — that is, freedom of speech. Guns do communicate, after all, but in a way that is contrary to free speech aspirations: for, guns chasten speech.

This becomes clear if only you pry a little more deeply into the N.R.A.’s logic behind an armed society. An armed society is polite, by their thinking, precisely because guns would compel everyone to tamp down eccentric behavior, and refrain from actions that might seem threatening. The suggestion is that guns liberally interspersed throughout society would cause us all to walk gingerly — not make any sudden, unexpected moves — and watch what we say, how we act, whom we might offend.

As our Constitution provides, however, liberty entails precisely the freedom to be reckless, within limits, also the freedom to insult and offend as the case may be. The Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld our right to experiment in offensive language and ideas, and in some cases, offensive action and speech. Such experimentation is inherent to our freedom as such. But guns by their nature do not mix with this experiment — they don’t mix with taking offense. They are combustible ingredients in assembly and speech.

I often think of the armed protestor who showed up to one of the famously raucous town hall hearings on Obamacare in the summer of 2009. The media was very worked up over this man, who bore a sign that invoked a famous quote of Thomas Jefferson, accusing the president of tyranny. But no one engaged him at the protest; no one dared approach him even, for discussion or debate — though this was a town hall meeting, intended for just such purposes. Such is the effect of guns on speech — and assembly. Like it or not, they transform the bearer, and end the conversation in some fundamental way. They announce that the conversation is not completely unbounded, unfettered and free; there is or can be a limit to negotiation and debate — definitively.

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article after the jump.[end-div]

[div class=attrib]Image courtesy of Wikipedia.[end-div]