Monthly Archives: January 2013

Music and intelligence analysis

So, last time I talked about trying to incorporate different sensory inputs in order to improve analytical production.  Now I’m entering into speculative territory here but while I was primarily looking to different types of visual stimuli (the written word, graphics, images, etc.) I’ve been thinking about the possibility of using our sense of hearing to either improve the analytical or production process.

I therefore submit to you, then, this interesting project.  It takes a piece of classical music and, while you’re listening to it, describes it with accompanying text.  In doing so it conveys more information that either the musical piece or the text individually AND more then if you experienced both but separately.  The ‘extra’ value comes from getting the explanation at the same time the music is playing.  That not only reduces the chance of miscommunication (‘Is this supposed to be the teeth chattering or….this?’) but also helps improve the ‘stickiness’ of the information.  Associating the text with the music helps ‘anchor’ it in your mind.  The next time you listen to the music you’ll be more likely to remember the text.

Is there any value in incorporating music into the production process?  Might customers retain more with particular accompaniment?  Could music be used to emphasize particular pieces of information?  How about in terms of explaining probability, risk or threat?  Does the human mind respond consistently to certain types of music and sound or is the process so individualistic that the incorporation of sound is just as likely to hinder the transference of meaning as enhance it.

Up to now I’ve been talking about the production part of the intelligence cycle but music might have an easier fit in the analytical part of the cycle.  There’s evidence that distraction can assist in problem solving, particularly in helping identify weak connections between items or when thinking about difficult problems with multiple variables.  Sitting down and trying to force yourself to solve problems doesn’t work well when compared having your subconscious take a crack at it.

The goal is to get into the proper mental state:

It means not actively working on a problem but instead letting yourself happily mind-wander, freely associating and relaxing into a quiet mental state. It is like being okay to feel how you feel when you first wake up in the morning – relaxed, with diffuse, easy attention.

I’ve found that some of my best insights came about when I was most definitely not working on the problem that needed solving.  Running, reading, sleeping or…yes…listening to music.  I began wondering if there was any possibility tapping into that insight potential collaboratively after playing with my latest time sink, turntable.fm.  Is there any benefit to having analysts, working on the same problem, simultaneously sharing something like music playlists and listening to the same songs at the same time?  If you assume that a person’s choice in music is a reflection of their mental state and preferences, would sharing music give you a glimpse into how other analysts are thinking?  If so, would that help to look at problems through a slightly different perspective and, therefore, improve you problem solving skills?

Many questions for which I have no answers but interesting to think about.  Now, time to listen to some tunes….

Crowdfunding intelligence

You may not have seen it in the news but lately poachers have been killing animals at alarming rates in Africa.  Rangers aren’t only frequently outgunned (with reports of poachers not only using military weapons but also relying on aircraft to find animals) but usually outmaneuvered since they have huge areas to cover while the poachers hold the initiative of when and where they’ll operate.

One conservancy in Kenya has decided to embrace technology to address some of these problems through the purchase and use of an aerial drone.  Their program to fly a drone will allow them to cover significant amounts of territory, providing both real time visual data and, through a program of implanting RFID transmitters in some of the animals in the park, through tracking key members of the animal population.  They did have a problem, however.  How does a non-profit afford a drone aircraft with all the associated training, maintenance, etc?

They decided to launch a crowdfunding appeal on indiegogo.  They requested $35,000 and surpassed that with ease, thanks in part to pretty significant press coverage.

Allow me to take this opportunity to recycle a post of mine from almost one year ago where I spoke in a bit more detail about the potential of crowdfunding the analysis process.  It’s probably not efficient for a long term strategy but such a method could be used for a very specific program like this when more traditional funding isn’t available or would be too slow.  Of course, you’d have the regular problems with crowdfunding such as over-promising and under-delivering in various forms but they can be mitigated.

But beyond that, I’ve been talking to people about intelligence training.  Across the field training is pretty spotty with tons of beginner level training out there (of varying qualities) and much less advanced training, especially good advanced training.  There just doesn’t seem to be a critical mass of people who need such advanced training in a place that would justify the development and presentation of that sort of thing 1.

Would be possible to crowdfund intelligence training as well?  hmmm…more to think about.

 

 

 

  1. well, not including D.C. where the intelligence community can do so

If you aren’t reading Paul Pillar…

…you should be.

With far more clarity and deftness than I can muster up, he manages to discuss and raise a number of worthwhile questions about our (American) assassination program, entrenchment of institutional interests and inertia, and the (perhaps unintentional) use of language to convey subtle messages.  On that last point, allow my to butcher a passage of his (please read it in full) about the naming of the counter-terrorism manual a ‘playbook’.

In football, a playbook is a very tactical manual that organizes the quick thinking that coaches and players have to do on each play….But the playbook doesn’t provide any help in bigger decisions with larger and longer term consequences, such as whether to leave your injured star quarterback in the game…By routinizing and institutionalizing a case-by-case set of criteria, there is even the hazard that officials will give less consideration than they otherwise would have to such larger considerations because they have the comfort and reassurance of following a manual.

This sort of analysis can go too far at times.  As the saying goes, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and sometimes words reflect poor word choice, limited vocabulary, or some other factor.  But, at times, it can provide some extra insight.

 

 

 

 

Countdown to 2014

Everyone is in full wind down mode with regards to Afghanistan and we seem to be entering a period of neglect for just about everyone who isn’t actually there.  By the end of 2014, it looks like we’ll still have a military presence in the country but it’ll be small enough that we can all pretend that it’s not a real military mission.

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Small Afghan village circa 2003(Photo credit: me)

And what will Afghanistan (and Pakistan) look like?  Well, it looks like the safe money is some sort of frustrating stalemate where we provide enough support for the current regime to maintain control in the cities and along major lines of communication while the hinterland falls under the control of the Taliban and various insurgent groups.

I read this article over the weekend which gives a great feel for what this dissolution looks like at the micro level.  As I read it, I couldn’t help feeling that a very similar article could be written in the Western Roman Empire in the mid to late 5th century.  Borders are shrinking, increasingly conflicts are resolved (even if only temporarily) through co-option rather than forcing submission as overwhelming force is no longer as available as it once was.  This leads to a dilution of distinction between the competing sides as both have to take on attributes of the other.

And that’s yet another problem we’ve had thinking about this conflict.  Despite the numerous warnings we’ve continually measured the Afghans against our own standards.  It’s little wonder we’ve been disappointed:

Afghan soldiers do have difficulty making appointments on time, it’s true. They also don’t like to stand in straight lines or dress according to regulation or march in step or do so many of the things intrinsic to a Western notion of professional soldiering. When a lieutenant calls a formation of Afghan privates to attention, they will inevitably resemble, as my drill sergeant used to say, “a soup sandwich.”

This would be like Roman legionnaires looking at the Parthians with disdain because they couldn’t form a testudo to save their lives.   Of course, that road can lead to ruin.

And as this proceeds…Al Qaeda continues to fade from significance and Afghanistan returns to chronic disorder it gets harder for those serving there to understand why they’re actually there.

There might have been a time early in the war when most American soldiers and Marines genuinely believed that they were fighting to protect their homeland, their watan. But those days are over now; they have been for a while. You can feel it just as surely as you can feel that for soldiers like Karim they will never end.

How else does dissolution manifest?  Well, the U.S. embassy in Kabul is reported to be less than secure.  The fetish with privatizing everything (‘The market is efficient!’) leads to security being handed off to contractors whose primary goal is maximizing profits.  The result?

One of the biggest problems, guards say, is that their team has been stretched dangerously thin by long hours for days on end and too few people to do the job. Guards have worked 14- and 15-hour workdays, for six or even seven days a week, with limited days off or leave time, sources said. That, in turn, has led to high job turnover, low morale, and other problems, they said.

Remember home economics 101:  You get what you pay for.

For a more macro view I can recommend ‘Little America‘ which describes the lead up to and execution of the Afghan ‘surge’ of 2009-2011.  If you’ve been following Afghanistan here you hear anything shockingly new (you’re probably too calloused and cynical for that) but the book does a nice job of painting a more complete picture than you’ve had before.  And lest you fear that our actions in Afghanistan reflect some new level of bumbling or incompetence, worry not!  We’ve been screwing up there for half a century!

 

Intelligence analysis, avalanches, and Sally Fields

An excellent article by the BBC that uses archival footage to talk about the mutually dysfunctional relationship between Israel, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.  Also demonstrates that while we often think the Arab-Israeli conflict has been unchanging for the last 60 years, there has, in fact, been significant changes in attitudes on both sides…and not for the good.

Speaking of interesting ways to present information, check out this amazing use of video and graphics to convey information about an avalanche that swept up a group of experienced skiers.

These sort of stories are fine examples of how information can be transmitted more efficiently and effectively through the use of mixing media.  We’re all familiar with the trope that people learn information differently and we also know that the more senses we can engage with a piece of information will make it more ‘sticky’.  That’s one reason, for example, that the Obama campaign in both 2008 and 2012 were insistent that campaign people have at least three contacts with voters they were looking for.  Voters that had such contact were more likely to vote for the President.  Now some of that might be a result of voters saying ‘Hey, they like me!  They really like me!’

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Some of that, however, is due to the voters internalizing the positions of the campaign by hearing the arguments repeatedly through different mediums.  A phone call, a knock on the door, an email, you get the point.

So, why not think about that in terms of intelligence products?  Frequently, products come out in one format *cough* pdf *cough* but why?  I’m convinced that a lot of it has to do with ingrained prejudices about what products are ‘supposed’ to look like.  But c’mon, that’s all based on style guides from 50 years ago when people were using typewriters and carbon paper (look it up).  At that time, strict uniformity made some real sense since we’re no longer getting out information primarily from the physical, written word.  Whole new venues have been opened up and yet the conventional wisdom seems to be that we should try to make our digital products mimic paper ones as much as possible.

That’s kind of like inventing the airplane but then only using it to taxi to where you want to go.

But we might want to think about this not just in terms of production but also analysis.  If one of the cornerstones of analysis is trying to understand some aspect of our environment by reducing bias and making connections maybe there are ways to engage multiple areas of the brain at once.

More on this later….

Are bureaucratic functionaries any good at intelligence?

No.  Ok, thanks for coming and we’ll see you next time….

Well, perhaps a slightly longer answer is appropriate.

We are now 12 years past the September 11 attacks.  In those 12 years we have spent billions of dollars in the pursuit of ‘homeland security’ (a phrase which I have only grown to dislike all the more with the passage of time).  Regardless of whether or not you think the changes which have been wrought have been good or bad for us, no one can deny that our lives today are very different than they were 13 years ago.  The concepts of privacy, travel, state/citizen interactions and much more are fundamentally different then they were when, for example, I was a child.

All these changes, well, at least those that were *ahem* ‘planned’, were designed to protect America from the existential threat of terrorism.  Right?  Some of them were designed reduce the threat but many were designed to increase bureaucratic power and influence (see here) and others were designed to appear to reduce the threat (see here).  I’ll deal here with the latter case today.

We had, according to a variety of very serious and very smart people at the time, a wily opponent that was always evolving, learning, recruiting, exploiting new technology and cultural shifts as they happen…able to strike anywhere and disappear back into the shadows.  A more dangerous threat than any we’ve faced in generations….perhaps ever.

And who did we (and do we) put in charge of organizations designed to do battle with these fiends?  Career civil servants.  Now, that’s not necessarily a deal breaker…I’ve been in government employ for years at a time and I’ve certainly seen people in all levels of government that are exceedingly competent, intelligent, imaginative and driven in their fields.  But let’s face it….those aren’t exactly the qualities that leap to mind when thinking of government bureaucrats.

After spending most of the past 12 years in and around homeland security circles I’ve been continually astounded by the lack of imagination, curiosity and awareness of the world around many of the people in positions of authority.  So much so, in fact, that I’ve been forced to consider the possibility that much of homeland security is designed for appearances sake.  Or, to quote someone who I was speaking with recently:

It’s an operational solution to a political problem.

If terrorism was really an existential problem in the United States would we create and defend a system which has been described (accurately if you want my humble opinion) as being comprised of ‘pools of ineptitude‘?

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Intelligence work, at its core, is an exercise in creativity.  It’s thinking about problems (or evaluating potential problems) in situations where you will never get complete information.  The deck, however, is stacked against us.  There are a host of evolutionary and cultural biases that make creativity and critical thinking difficult under the best of circumstances.  Leaving the responsibility for that sort of work in institutions that exemplify satisficing and conformity is like going to a gun fight with a rubber knife.

And that’s why, more than a decade after 9/11, our Intelligence Community which has grown to enormously bloated proportions and scoops up vast quantities of data, remains unable to prevent strategic surprise or address new threats very well.

Or, as Josh Kerbel puts in this very well done article (which I’ll expand upon in a later post):

…the intelligence community remains fixated on reacting to discrete actors rather than helping the federal government proactively shape the broader global environment.

In that vein, I’d recommend this article in Slate which summarizes research about how much we actually don’t like creativity despite what we’ve learned to say in job descriptions, pep talks, and such.

Staw says most people are risk-averse. He refers to them as satisfiers. “As much as we celebrate independence in Western cultures, there is an awful lot of pressure to conform,” he says. Satisfiers avoid stirring things up, even if it means forsaking the truth or rejecting a good idea.

So, what is to be done? How can intelligence analysis be done effectively in an environment where the conditions suppress its key components?  An important first step to addressing this, like any problem, is getting some widespread acceptance that it exists. That’s a herculean task in itself.

As much as I’d like to deeply erode the hierarchies that operate in most intelligence shops (as they tend to avoid providing the direction and prioritization decisions that should be their primary goal) that’s just not going to happen.  Much of the responsibility for improving things is going to have to rely on those fairly low on the food chain in ways that would probably be regarded as subversive by the existing powers.  The horse doesn’t just need to be led to water…it needs to be made to drink, either through force or trickery.

Components of threat (another view)

Lung Hu presents an exceptional view of a topic I’ve written about here over the years: The components of threat and risk.

He defines risk thus: R[isk] = V[ulnerability] + T[hreat]

And, of course, threat is defined as: T[hreat] = [I]ntent + [C]apabilities 1 = [I]ntent * [C]apabilities to account for the fact that without both intent and capabilities there is no threat.  The same would apply to the risk equation as well.]

Lung Hu does some yeoman work here and brings up some very important points that are worth repeating and thinking about.

Intent: While this should be a fairly ‘easy’ component to threat (and risk) to consider, we continue to have a great deal of difficulty in plugging it in to the equations. Intent often becomes a tool by which security (civilian or military) forces can use to push their own agendas or project their own fears.

Back in the late 1990s street gangs were the big rage. Warnings were issued with a regularity you could set your watch to that various gangs had expressed the intent to form highly centralized and organized nationwide organizations that would control a wide array of criminal activity. Never mind that these plans were usually written in a run down basement or a jail cell and each would be modern criminal Napoleon had difficulty in securing the loyalty of more than a handful of (usually) talentless flunkies. And even those who were able to demonstrate skills and ability were lost in a sea of criminality which expressed no desire to be tamed or placed under the yoke of some criminal mastermind.

Tis better to reign in petty crime squalor, apparently, than serve in the world of a criminal mastermind

But intent was intent. Lung Hu describes this as a function of American culture and I suspect there’s some truth to that. Among the descriptions I’ve heard of Americans by others is that we do tend to say what we mean. And, an old bugbear of intelligence analysts when trying to get into our adversary’s mind is when we project our own cultural and personal biases and beliefs into our foe. Then allow the madcap hilarity to ensue…

Why would Saddam not open up his chemical facilities? No self respecting, corn-fed, middle American farm boy would act so deceptive if he had nothing to hide. Therefore, he must have a fully functioning chemical and biological weapons capability.

<laugh track> Ooops!</laugh track>

The past decade is littered with alerts, notifications and grant requests all built around the intent of adversaries that had virtually no possibility of becoming reality.

It works the other way as well. Is it politically uncomfortable to pay attention to an ideologically motivated threat because they have sympathetic elements associated with one major political party *cough* right wing militias/white supremacists and the Republican party *cough*? Well, ignore their actions (and accompanying rhetoric) and voila(!), no threat. 2

Get a bunch of 20 somethings hanging around in a drum circle and advocating alternatives to the unregulated derivative market? Well, Rush Limbaugh won’t be mobilizing the masses if we crack some of those heads so let’s go boys!

In that vein, allow me to recommend this article from Outside. I did consider building a whole post around it but the story is a familiar one.  FBI looks to make a big counter-terrorism score to make careers and justify budgets so they find some knuckleheads who don’t like the status quo, plant a source to rile them up, goad them to action and provide them with the ‘materials’ to conduct an attack.  It should sound familiar as it’s been the playbook of most of the domestic terrorism arrests we’ve seen over the past few years.

The problem, as it appears from this and similar stories is the apparent disregard of threat as a consideration of priorities and focus.  And while I am loath to suggest that any sort of rigorous thought process governs law enforcement/homeland security investigative decision making it appears whatever thought goes into such a decision looks like this:

T[hreat] = Pi (Possible intent) + Pc (Possible capabilities)

In this equation we no longer need to concern ourselves with what sorts of actions people actually (or even probably) will engage in and you can base decisions on speculation about what people might do if they get access to the appropriate capabilities.

So, let’s work though the scenarios which make up most of our counter-terrorism ‘success stories’.  Someone is displeased with the status quo and considering taking violent action in response (for the purposes of this little experiment, let’s say they’re serious and have actual intent to do harm but keep in mind that this is often less than certain).  Unfortunately for this prospective anarchist, jihadist, etc., they don’t have the technical know how to carry out their plot 3.  They can’t build their bomb, culture their anthrax, whatever.  They also lack access to that knowledge from whatever social network they are plugged into.  They lack, in short, the capability to carry out their attack.

Now, according to the threat equation that’s kind of the end of things.  If intent is particularly strong you can do some investigative due diligence like doing some checks to make sure they don’t acquire the capabilities portion of the equation or even just talk to the suspect.  Reading over these cases, one gets the impression that many of the suspects are people who get caught up in ideological echo chambers which serve to escalate radical thought.  There are simply few opportunities to bring these people back to the reality of shared cultural norms.  A visit from the feds could be that shock to the system that lets the knuckleheaded 20 something know (s)he’s actually messing around with serious issues that have serious consequences.  4 I’m not so naive to believe this would work in all cases or wouldn’t, particularly when talking about emotionally disturbed persons, result in an escalation of intent but the point here is to give us options for reducing or eliminating threat at the lowest level of suppressive/oppressive force.  It’s one of the tenets of intelligence led policing (and, for that matter, counterinsurgency doctrine).

So, we’ve got aspiring terrorist ‘X’ who has the intent to do some mischief but not the capabilities and no way, close at hand, to get those capabilities.  What to do?  Quick! To the interwebs!

Here’s where things get really weird.  In order to get something in the ‘capabilities’ column terrorist X goes on the web and finds some forum or social network that he thinks contains members who can help him out.  So he goes on and, sooner or later, posts something like ‘Anyone know where I can get some C4?’ 5

Now, it’s important to realize the assumption wrapped up in classifying this as a threat.  What is needed is, at the same time mind you, someone who actually has access to or knowledge of this capability being in that location.  So, let’s say you’ve got your hands on 50 pounds of primo plastic explosive (never mind where you got it…let’s just assume you found it at a yard sale).  Maybe you’re a true believer (well, not that true of a believer or you’d use it yourself, right?) or you just need some cash.  How in the world, would you convert all that sweet, sweet explosive power to money?  Respond to an anonymous request on an internet forum asking for explosives to blow up a government building?

Sure, why not.

To summarize, we need someone with intent who has no clue about capabilities.  We need someone with capabilities willing to transact with the perspective terrorist.  We need both to be connected to the same social network at the same time AND we need  neither to be distracted by deception operations.  Oh, and ideally we’d also need them both to confine their monumental stupidity solely to the area of how these two meet and communicate so that they can find each other but not botch every other aspect of whatever plan they come up with.

That’s a tall order in itself and recent terrorism cases give some hint at how difficult it is to get those stars to align.  The homeland security complex frequently has to rely on generating both sides of the equation in order to get an arrest.  It both has to encourage potential terrorists to action sufficient to meet the conspiracy threshold AND provide the capabilities.  Certainly, many of the people arrested have demonstrated some willingness to discuss violent action but what isn’t clear is if this talk goes beyond what’s considered within the normal range of current behaviors.

Can we really say that we’re any safer by having these sorts of investigations occurring where

So, how could (or dare I say it, should) these sorts of things work?  Well, I’ll start by saying what it doesn’t have to be.  There’s no need for an adversarial system (after all, that’s what’s court can be for) where someone plays a permanent role devil’s advocate.  You could use that system but I don’t think it’s necessary.  What does seem imperative is a viewpoint hardwired into the system which has a different orientation than the one that views success in terms of arrests and seizures.  That means people whose careers don’t depend on being involved in ‘successful’, complex cases.  Intelligence personnel could fill that role but only if the source of their power becomes independent from the prosecutorial system which now runs the whole show.

An independent intelligence function (without arrest powers) could fill that role, forwarding cases to law enforcement that meet some criteria for their attention and forwarding (or ignoring) others based upon their threat and the most effective method for dealing with them.  One of the problems with our existing system is that it presupposes the best solution (investigate, arrest, imprison) in all cases.  When that’s your solution then you have to rig the threat equation in such a way to make it look that everything deserves that level of attention.

And then, you find yourself hiring a 17 year old to play the role of agent provocateur, and encouraging a bunch of people to commit terrorism so that they can be arrested. 6

 

  1. Here, I’d suggest that maybe this equation should be T[hreat
  2. This is an interesting case which involves at least 2 homicides, tens of thousands of dollars of weapons and a plot to assassinate the President and attack a military base.  How’s it handled?  It’s being prosecuted at the county level.  No FBI, no DHS.  The homeland security industrial complex doesn’t seem to want to touch it with the proverbial 10 foot pole.
  3. And, most definitely, the ability to create a successful plan to execute a terrorist attack. We often overlook the ability to plan and coordinate an operation but, as we’ve seen over the past decade, it’s just as essential as getting the required equipment. For purposes of this, we’ll assume (again) that this isn’t a problem but if you’re playing along at home, keep track of all these big leaps of faith we have to take just to get to a plot being within the realm of possibility.
  4. Of course, defusing a would be terrorist doesn’t get the press coverage and promotional heft as an arrest.
  5. Alternately, he might try to do this physically, going someplace where he thinks like minded, but more technically sophisticated, people will eagerly respond to a stranger asking for explosives expertise.
  6. By the way, I have no information about the informant in the Outside piece but it does raise some serious questions about our informant system.  Is anyone else concerned that law enforcement agencies are putting people (with no training) into supposedly highly dangerous situations?

Boobs for freedom

Last month the Atlantic ran a profile of the Ukrainian activist group Femen which is worth your consideration (and I mean read the article, don’t just look at the pictures). The group has become (in)famous for conducting demonstrations on a variety of issues ranging from prostitution and human trafficking to religion, the environment and economic issues. Sure, lots of groups protest issues like this but none do it like Femen. Femen does it in various states of undress (usually topless) which guarantees generous media attention and (equally important) interesting responses from security officials.

FEMEN

FEMEN (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m unsure if Femen arrived at their strategy independently or if they took a page from the playbook of CANVASS (Centre for Applied Non-Violent Action and Strategies) but they hit upon one of the central tenets of success for a small activist movement in a state with a significant security apparatus: make the security forces appear foolish and play the role of bullies in order to undermine their authority.

And there are few ways to do that then to have lots of photos and film of big, burly cops, loaded for bear manhandling half naked women. ‘Why did they need three cops to throw that girl to the ground and cuff her?’ Well, you’d have a pretty tough time claiming it was because she might have a concealed weapon. Even if the security forces aren’t too heavy handed in their approach Femen can always take a page from professional soccer and ham it up for the cameras making a walk to the squad car look like a torture session at Gitmo.

For better or worse, one of the very things Femen most objects to, the patriarchal society, is their greatest source of strength. Show a half dozen 20 something men getting roughly handled by police and no one will blink an eye. Show the same number of half naked young women getting treated that way and the image itself is likely to elicit sympathy regardless of the politics. It is the very image of the weak against the strong which tugs at our deeply held beliefs in fairness and reason for society.

And we’ve seen similar things recently in protest movements here. If you think back to the Occupy movement, which were the images which roused the strongest emotion? The two girls who were trapped and then pepper sprayed by the NYPD. The students who were sitting down and casually sprayed by the now notorious Lieutenant John Pike. The veteran who was shot in the head.

All cases of people who clearly posed no threat yet were the victims from a security service which clumsily used its power.  We’ll have to see if these protest movements are just interesting footnotes or can actually lead to change (or, at least keep opposition movements alive until they can generate the numbers and influence to present a serious challenge the status quo.

The (anarchist) Men Who Made America?

I recently got a chance to watch the History Channel mini-series ‘The Men Who Made America’ about the rise of robber barons in the late 19th and early 20th century. The series isn’t perfect and suffers from many of the flaws all too common in basic cable documentaries but even so it is remarkable and worth you time for several reasons.

While the series ends in a clumsy way, making Henry Ford look like the major progressive force behind the 8 hour work day, fair wages, and improvements in working conditions throughout the country and putting forth the argument that the robber baron era was essential to making the U.S. the best est, most civilized, and greatest nation on the face of the earth’, the rest of the series is much less certain on that point. In fact, there are elements of the series that are downright subversive.

The series mentions the Anarchist movement in two places in the series and, in both cases, in a favorable light. That’s surprising because both mentions revolve around activity that today would most definitely be classified as terrorism. The first was the attempted assassination of Andrew Carnagie lieutenant Henry Frick. Frick was depicted as a cruel, exploitive ogre who got his hands dirty with the business of extracting labor from employees so Carnagie wouldn’t have to. In the end, Frick’s callousness contributed to the Jonestown flood and violently putting down strikes. The filmmakers were clearly setting Frick up to be the ‘bad’ robber baron who deserved to be struck down by an assassin’s bullet (Frick didn’t die, however) so that the ‘good’ robber baron (Carnagie) could ride in and save the day by firing Frick and beginning his campaign of philanthropy.

Later in the series, Carnagie and the others engage in equally rapacious behavior yet it is portrayed differently than Frick’s episode. The latter had a vignette with workers huddled around the body of a dead co-worker, struck down by the unsafe working conditions. The former was merley done in a brief voice over with various pictures of life in late 19th century America and designed to not stick in the mind the same way as the latter.

The second act of anarchism was the assassination of President William McKinley. McKinley was a wholly owned creature of the robber barons, not even given a part in the series and clearly not worthy of respect or consideration. His assassin was described sympathetically as a man at his wits end after being thrown out of his factory job. The assassination signaled a serious blow against the robber barons by ushering in Teddy Roosevelt presidency and the era of trust busting.

President William McKinley, half-length portra...

President William McKinley, half-length portrait, seated at desk, facing front (cropped) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In both cases, reform (really the only significant reform in the series before Henry Ford’s appearance) came about through the application of politically motivated violence, against the agents of capitalism. For the History Channel, I find that message curious and can only wonder at the underlying message there. Is this basic cable’s attempt to plug into the anti-capitalist sentiment of the 2008 crash and Occupy movement? If so, one must applaud the subtle way in which they did it. Superficially, the series is an homage to capitalism and entrepreneurs (and while the interviews with modern ‘mogels’ add nothing to the story, they do provide an interesting view of self-absorbtion and hubris) but I just can’t shake the feeling that there’s something else going on underneath the surface. The section of Ford seems hastily added on and doesn’t really fit with the rest of the narrative (and no mention of that whole Protocols of the Elders of Zion thing which, admittedly,  would have been awkward). I can almost imagine some producer saying there needs to be a clear captialist hero and Ford was the one who fit in the time frame (or, perhaps, History Channel was hoping for a huge ad buy from Ford).

The whole series could use a good editing and be brought down from it’s existing six hours (well, 8 with commercials) to a tighter, more effective three or four hour piece.  Reviews have been rather ‘meh’ overall but my quick review of them all seem to take the show at its most superficial.  There’s gold (well, ok, maybe electrum) in them thar hills!