Friday, 22 November 2013

Reducing the Global Temperature in One Swell Foop

When various news items share a brain for a while, they are likely to connect. My brain holds, for example, that the existence of global warming is a consensus among scientists, but that they like to call it "climate change" these days. Those facts share brain space with knowledge that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, contributing to global warming, that greenery takes up carbon from the air and sequesters it, reducing the amount of carbon dioxide in the air, that parts of the Gobi Desert are being reclaimed for greenery and that the Sahara Desert is expanding. I know that sea water can be desalinated, if there is sufficient energy for the job, and that a big enough supply of fresh water can cool and irrigate the fringes of a desert, driving them back. These points, connected, raise the innocent question of whether a large part of the campaign to limit global warming should be devoted to making the Sahara green. Let us investigate whether what I "know" is valid before I make up my mind.

The reality of global warming

Al Gore, a former Vice President and almost, at one time, the President of the United States, is quite convinced that the rise of atmospheric carbon dioxide, which was due to human activity, was leading to hotter climates. In 2006, he expressed his opinions in an Oscar-winning documentary with a wonderful title, An Inconvenient Truth. The film may have helped him to win a Nobel Peace Prize the next year. It did win him a storm of controversy that can be glimpsed on Youtube as well as in print.

On the other hand, his views are widely shared, despite their inconvenience. One study of climate change studies found a 97% consensus that human activities are causing the average temperature of the world to rise. (The inevitable criticism of the study is here.  Shame on you Forbes! The reply to the criticism is here).

Even NASA takes a stand that humans contribute to global warming. It says
Ninety-seven percent of climate scientists agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities, and most of the leading scientific organizations worldwide have issued public statements endorsing this position. The following is a partial list of these organizations, along with links to their published statements and a selection of related resources.
Other respected organizations have released statements along the same line line, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the American Chemical Society, the American Geophysical Union, the American Meteorological Society, and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. In other words, there is no controversy among the best informed scientists that global warming is real and that humans are contributing to it.

The growth (or not) of the Sahara Desert

The Sahara Desert, according to the appropriate Wikipedia article, covers over 9,400,000 square kilometres (3,600,000 sq mi). It is about the same size as the United States now, but it has been growing at the rate of 30 mi per year. That rate may slow and even reverse as a paradoxical by-product of climate change. However, there are more deserts than the Sahara, so a hotter world will be a drier world, on the whole, and one with more desert.

We Have the Technology (and Some Experience)

The expansion of the deserts could be slowed, and even reversed, by human efforts if enough clean water were available to create a self-sustaining ecology. We have the technology to provide the water and to introduce such ecologies. For example, the Desert Rose concept uses solar energy for desalination, then introduces nitrogen-fixing plants to stabilize the soil. The Seawater Greenhouse distills seawater in, as it says on the tin, greenhouses, but is otherwise similar. Other methods of reclamation focus on stabilizing the soil rather than providing the water.

An interesting and successful experiment in creating a self-sustaining ecology on a burnt-out cinder of land took place on Ascension Island, in the Pacific, thanks to an idea from Charles Darwin and the help of Joseph Hooker and the Royal Navy. I quote from a BBC News article on the experiment.
Ascension was an arid island, buffeted by dry trade winds from southern Africa. Devoid of trees at the time of Darwin and Hooker's visits, the little rain that did fall quickly evaporated away.
Egged on by Darwin, in 1847 Hooker advised the Royal Navy to set in motion an elaborate plan. With the help of Kew Gardens - where Hooker's father was director - shipments of trees were to be sent to Ascension.
The idea was breathtakingly simple. Trees would capture more rain, reduce evaporation and create rich, loamy soils. The "cinder" would become a garden.
So, beginning in 1850 and continuing year after year, ships started to come. Each deposited a motley assortment of plants from botanical gardens in Europe, South Africa and Argentina.
Soon, on the highest peak at 859m (2,817ft), great changes were afoot. By the late 1870s, eucalyptus, Norfolk Island pine, bamboo, and banana had all run riot.

The Cooling Effects of a Green Sahara

A desert turned green would curb global warming in three ways:
  1. by absorbing a major greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, and storing much of its carbon in tree trunks and soil; 
  2. by absorbing sunlight in the trees' leaves before it can warm the earth; 
  3. and by creating a region of evaporated water, which not only cools the local area but creates clouds, which then travel, cooling more distant areas by reflecting light, creating shadow, and depositing rain.
So much is the theory, but would transformed deserts have enough of an effect to counteract man's contribution to global warming?

How Much of an Effect?

The effect of desert greening depends on how much desert you green and how much cooling effect the greenery produces. Let us start with the question, "How much desert could, potentially, be greened?"

Deserts, defined as areas with "a moisture deficit" make up a substantial portion of the world--33% of the world's land--but that includes Antarctica. However, just three of the biggest hot deserts constitute a large area by any standard. The Sahara has about 9,400,000 square kilometres; the Arabian, 2,333,000; and the Gobi, 1,300,000. I am leaving out the Australian desert because, in the words of Randy Newman, "I don't want to hurt no kangaroo." The Sahara, Arabian, and Gobi deserts together give us 13,033,000 square kilometres.

If I could find a figure for the cooling effect of a single square kilometre of such a forest, we could start to have a very interesting discussion about the economics of greening the deserts. Unfortunately, that information is not available or is not easily found through an internet search. However, an article on biosequestration mentions that "The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that the cutting down of forests is now contributing close to 20 per cent of the overall greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere." If reversing the deforestation could cut 20% from the greenhouse gasses, the creation of large new forests would do even more.

Not an Original Idea

This is not a new idea, of course. Two worthy projects are operating now: the  The Great Green Wall and Sahara Forest Project. However, the first is only trying to hold the line so that the Sahara will not expand further and the second is just beginning. The fully operational Sahara Forest Project Pilot Plant was opened in Qatar only in December 2012. China's Three-North Shelter Forest Program is also focused on limiting the Gobi Desert's spread. Despite having created the world's largest artificial forest, this project would have to operate for three hundred years to reclaim the desertified land.

Problems, Political, Economic, and Cultural

There are problems with the idea of taking responsibility for tweaking the Earth's climate. First and foremost is the idea of taking responsibility. There was a time when cities dumped raw sewage into the sea, not knowing or caring where it would travel. "Nature would take care of it." Ask the people who live downcurrent of Victoria, BC about that and they will tell you that nature isn't doing the job. Billion-dollar sewage treatment plants are a painful alternative to blissful ignorance.

Taking responsibility for the climate would be an even longer-term, more international, and more expensive responsibility. The countries covered with desert could not pay for the project that turns bare sand and stone into soil and trees. The money would have to come from more fortunate countries, a difficult trick to manage.

The local problem, putting aside the political instability and corruption of many states near the great deserts, is that people whose cultures grew up in desert would have to change their ways. The Bedouin, for example, know how to live in desert. Though their numbers are not great, their antagonism could make the project impossible. Would they be willing to adapt to a new environment?

I think they might. The desert landscape may be appreciated best by those who live somewhere else. I recall Alec Guinness, playing an Arab leader, lecturing an Englishman in the film Lawrence of Arabia, making this point: "I think you are another of these desert-loving English...," he said, and listed a few of them; "No Arab loves the desert. We love water and green trees, there is nothing in the desert. No man needs nothing."

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Comparing "The Handmaid's Tale" by Margaret Atwood with "If This Goes On..." by Robert Heinlein

The novel The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood has attracted great attention since it was published in 1985. Some of the attention was in the form of awards--the Governor General's Award among them--and some in the form of adaptations, such as a Danish opera. I am sure that the most financially rewarding attention it has received was the film adaptation, released in 1990.

The book's setting is in an indirectly specified near future. Judging from the book's epilogue, the Handmaid wrote her tale at least 150 years before 2195, i.e. before 2045 (pg. 315). The Handmaid was a young woman at the time of the coup, working as a librarian, and she was still in her reproductive years during the story. A defensible estimate is that the Handmaid was born in the late 1990's, that the coup took place about 2020, when she when she was in her early twenties, and that the events of the story transpired around 2030 to 2040, when she was in her thirties.

The story is set in a dystopia instituted by a group called "The Sons of Jacob Think Tanks" which had seized power through a coup and reinvented the United States as the Republic of Gilead. Its repressive policies include a caste system, disempowerment of women to the point of depersonalizing them, deportation of blacks to areas contaminated with radioactivity, and death penalties against Catholics and other dissenting Christians. 

The coup is an unrealistic fantasy. Atwood states that the President and members of Congress were all killed by a massive conspiracy (pg. 318). Some unspecified person then suspended the Constitution, then a mysterious army of "Angels," which is not the US army (which is unaccountably absent from this story) suddenly appeared out of nowhere, "like Martians."
The political system of the Republic of Gilead is equally vague. Atwood never mentions whether there is a council of elders or a Supreme Leader or an Inner Party at the helm. Instead, she tells us that the heart of the Republic of Gilead lives within people (pg. 33). It is thus a state of mind, or a system of belief, rather than a place. In that, it resembles the Kingdom of Heaven, which cannot be pointed at because it is in our midst (Luke 17:21, Atwood 204). This vagueness transforms Gilead's leadership from a government as we know it in the real world to a symbol for a mode of thought.

Though Gilead's heart was unchanging, its boundaries had shifted. Originally, the Republic expanded to include Central America (pg. 35). Now, all that territory has been lost, and Radio Free America is based in Cuba (pg. 221). Some of the original United States are not part of the Republic, either. For example, the loss of California and Florida has imperilled the supply of oranges.

Beyond being a dystopia, it is tempting to classify the book as "science fiction" because it takes place in the future. However, in a radio interview, Atwood called it "science fantasy" rather than "science fiction." For what reasons is it not "science fiction"?

To answer that question, I'd like to compare The Handmaid's Tale to a science fiction story called "If This Goes On...," written by Robert Heinlein and published in 1940. In it, the USA has become a theocracy under the control of a Prophet. "If This Goes On..." is not greatly concerned with how the theocracy was established, but an odd essay called "Concerning Stories Never Written"--the postscript to a book called Revolt in 2100--fills in many details. Heinlein was clearly concerned that such a revolution was plausible.
I imagined Nehemiah Scudder as a backwoods evangelist who combined some of the features of John Calvin, Savonarola, Judge Rutherford and Huey Long. His influence was not national until after the death of Mrs. Rachel Biggs, an early convert who had the single virtue of being the widow of an extremely wealthy man who shared none of her religious myopia--she left Brother Scudder several millions of dollars with which to establish a television station. Shortly thereafter he teamed up with an ex-Senator from his home state; they placed their affairs in the hands of a major advertising agency and were on their way to fame and fortune. Presently they needed stormtroopers; they revived the Ku Klux Klan in everything but the name-sheets, passwords, grips and all. It was a "good gimmick" once and still served. Blood at the polls and blood in the streets, but Scudder won the election. The next election was never held. 
Thus, the first Prophet gained power due to television preaching (like that of Serena Joy in The Handmaid's Tale) plus violent support by a paramilitary force (like the army of Angels in The Handmaid's Tale), plus a rigged or, at least, controversial election. These methods are similar to those used by Adolf Hitler in his rise to power, with the exception of television, which could be replaced by other forms of mass communication. Heinlein clearly thought that these methods could work as well in the United States, under the proper circumstances, as they had worked in Germany.

The society in "If This Goes On..." shares many details with that in The Handmaid's Tale. Soldiers are called "Angels of the Lord." The "Virgins of the Prophet" are kept for sexual services, and are thus holy prostitutes, like Handmaids. In the Heinlein story, the principal enemy of the regime is a group called the Cabal, established by the Freemasons. Its natural allies include Mormons and Catholics, whose faiths had been suppressed, and a group called Pariahs, who might be Jews, although this is unspecified. In The Handmaid's Tale, the internal enemies of the regime include Baptists, Catholics, Quakers, and gays. 

Both books state how some groups are persecuted. In Atwood's book, blacks are exiled to Homelands, Jews are sent to Israel or death, and Baptists, abortionists, Catholics, and gays are killed in "Salvagings" (= savagings) or sent to the Colonies, which are war zones, ghettos, toxic dumps, or radiation spills (pg. 260). Also there went old women, sterile women, incorrigible women, and gay men. Similarly, Heinlein's book has this news report: "The Minnesota ghettos have been closed and all local pariahs will be relocated in the reservations in Wyoming and Montana in order to prevent future outbreaks."

In both books, parts of the old United States had become independent of the central government. I have already discussed the mentions of civil war in Atwood's book. Heinlein's mentions that a Republic of Hawaii exists.  

In both books, places are renamed to reflect the new regime. Atwood's theocracy has renamed the United States as the "Republic of Gilead" while Heinlein's has renamed the capital city, "New Jerusalem."

Another similarity between the two stories is that the theocratic faith is not Christian. Even the Wikipedia article on The Handmaid's Tale states that it is, but there is no evidence to that effect. The Handmaid's Tale has no references to Christ except, a couple of times, in swearing (pp. 168, 228). Its only references to a cross are as part of the female symbol (pg. 130) and the upside-down cross on executed Catholics (pg. 210). Even the graveyard has no crosses. The symbol of the faith, instead, is the winged eye.

The Handmaid's Tale has quotations from the Bible, of course, even though the Bible itself is kept locked away (pg. 98) where it cannot be consulted. As a result, many of the references to biblical passages are misquoted. Those references are, in addition, almost all from the Old Testament (pg. 99), though some are from St. Paul (72, 233), the most misogynistic source in the New Testament. The only quotation from Jesus, the beatitudes, is expurgated and altered. Accordingly, the Handmaid's prayer, though in Latin, is hardly Christian: "Nolite te bastardes carborundam" (pg. 101), means "Don't let the bastards grind you down."

Like the Bible itself, certain hymns are forbidden (pg. 64) as being too dangerous. Other hymns are deemed innocuous enough to be used (pp. 92, 94).

The Heinlein story, similarly, makes no reference to Jesus or to Christianity, even though people quote the bible often and correctly. However, the official interpretations of the biblical passages distort their meaning in order to justify the non-Christian practices of the official faith, such as the keeping of women for the sexual use of the Prophet. As a result, the only explicitly Christian groups in the story, Catholics and Mormons, largely oppose the state religion.

Despite their many similarities in setting, The Handmaid's Tale and "If This Goes On..." have some clear differences, of course. For one thing, the point of view characters are different (a man in the Heinlein story, a woman in the Atwood; a soldier, a handmaid), so only Atwood's book has the position of women in society as a major theme. It is a minor theme in the Heinlein book because two important characters are women: Sister Judith, a naive Virgin assigned to the Prophet's service, and Sister Magdalene, a strong, decisive member of the revolutionary Cabal. The protagonist is led to revolution because the misuse of Judith revolts him, but his own patriarchal views of a woman's role are challenged by Magdalene. 

The initial question set for this post was whether Atwood's book is science fiction. It is hard to argue that it is not, given its substantial similarities to Heinlein's story, which is clearly science fiction. However, it is better to avoid that argument and say that both works are twentieth century dystopias. We can save the larger argument about whether dystopias are a subset of science fiction for another time.

I have always wondered if the setting of Heinlein's dystopia directly influenced the very similar setting of Atwood's. In fact, I once wrote to Margaret Atwood, care of her publisher, to ask her whether she had read Heinlein's story before she wrote hers, but I received no reply. If Atwood had been influenced by Heinlein, it would be no surprise and no shame. He is a widely influential writer and "If This Goes On..." is a part of his largest literary project, the Future History.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Asian Help for the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan

The recent typhoon that hit the Philippines has affected about thirteen million people. The international response has been quick and generous. For example, the US has sent the aircraft carrier George Washington and its escorts to help. The George Washington will triple the number of helicopters available to authorities and can produce 400,000 gallons of fresh water per day. (That's 1.5 million liters). Food and supplies can be moved from the US Marines' pre-positioned stores. The 1000-bed hospital ship USNS Mercy is being activated to go to the Philippines, too, although it will take a while to arrive. The US has also given twenty million dollars in relief money so far.

A British relief organization raised £13 million in 24 hours. The British government has dispatched two relatively nearby warships to help out. One of the ships is the helicopter carrier HMS Illustrious, whose helicopters could be especially helpful in distributing aid.

The Canadian government will match the $15 million dollars (Canadian) raised through charity on top of the $5 million in aid it has already committed. Australia is donating $30 million (Australian). South Korea is sending $5 million in aid and a team of relief workers. Japan is providing a thousand soldiers, three warships, several planes, and over ten million dollars of aid so far.

Even a company such as IKEA was able to offer more than $2 million.

With all of this, the government of China initially saw fit to offer only $100,000. With other sources of aid included, the total Chinese aid so far comes to less than $2 million. This puts the country in a sad light.

There are unfortunate tensions between China and the Philippines. (Such tensions, in fact, exist between China and almost every other country whose waters touch China's). The tensions, exacerbated by statements by Chinese government officials, have apparently created a hostile public opinion that sees no benefit and little virtue in giving much help to the Philippines. On the other hand, the Chinese government denies that these tensions are affecting its response to the disaster. That is hard to believe.

A person who wishes to insult a waiter does not refuse to leave a tip; he deliberately and noticeably undertips. Like a penny tip left on the table, China's minuscule aid represents an insult to its Philippine neighbours. A sad and self-defeating insult that will drive the Philippines closer to the United States than China would wish.
Update (20 Nov. 2013): China has announced that it is sending a 300-bed hospital ship, Red Cross workers, and a disaster relief team to the Philippines. The BBC report adds,
The announcement will be seen as an attempt by Beijing to repair the damage to the country's battered reputation, our correspondent says.
Meanwhile, British charities have raised £50 million for the Philippines in eight days of campaigning.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

"Social Studies": A Sonnet

I must say that my own poems don't get many views on this blog but, on the other hand, the really good ones by famous poets don't get them, either. Does this mean that we write equally well?

Perhaps not.

Here is a poem I wrote about three years ago, while watching a high school student preparing for a Social Studies test. So that I wouldn't distract her, I had moved from my usual place at the front of the class to a desk behind her. I was thus able to observe the positions of the neck and shoulder blade referred to in the poem, and I wrote the poem as she studied.

The shoulders’ stress, the angled blade of bone,
the neck—these reflect the pain that’s stencilled
clearly on her face. She bites her pencil
and faces down the world’s whole past alone.
The textbook takes a dessicating tone,
removing love and horror from the facts that still
ring changes on the world and always will,
beyond her knowledge till her world has grown.

I wish that I could find another way
to stand her in some former time and place
and see how blue the sky was on that day,
how cold the sea that splashes on her face,
how joyous dolphins, leaping from the sea,
how joyless we, so far from delphin grace.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

How to Report the News

One word of bad language here, so be warned, but this video is otherwise just a accurate and funny recipe on how to report the news on television. If you're on the BBC, that is, which means that this is how to report the news if you're actually among the best television reporters. Other stations won't do as good a job. (Scary thought!)

And just how far from the mark can journalists, editorialists, and so on go? Well, here's one example from the American author and commentator Ann Coulter.

One would think that she would be appropriately chastened when her mistake became clear, but no, not at all. And she had her supporters, too.

Has Bill O'Reilly ever heard of Godwin's Law? According to that, whoever first invokes the Nazis in an argument is considered to have lost the argument.

Here's another low point in the history of fact checking, just to give printed media the same opportunity to embarrass itself: "Stephen Hawking would be dead if he were British." Umm, the last I checked, he was not dead but was British.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Privacy and Whistleblowing

The names Julian Assange, Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning, and Edward Snowden are now well known. They either publicized large numbers of documents which contain evidence of government wrongdoing or made those documents available for publication. Each of them has paid an ongoing price for their actions.

Assange has lived in the Ecuadorian embassy in London since 19 June 2012. If he steps outside it, he will be arrested by the British police and extradited to Sweden. He, and I, suspect that the charges in Sweden are being pursued partially to undermine the activities of the WikiLeaks organization that he founded.

One reason to suspect the motives of the Swedish government is the timing of its interest in his case. Two women complained about aspects of consensual sex that they had with Assange in August 2010. On 21 August 2010, the investigating prosecutor downgraded some of the charges against him, dropped one, and cancelled the Swedish arrest warrant. On 18 November 2010, another prosecutor re-issued the arrest warrant and, for the first time, characterized Assange's activities as rape, a much more serious charge. Only three days later, WikiLeaks made the first large release of many secret diplomatic cables. The fuss over the warrant helped to adulterate the public's attention on the contents of the released documents and to diminish public support for Assange. It is hard to believe that the close timing of the arrest warrant and the document release was coincidental. It was too convenient to be coincidental.

Assange, and I, also suspect that he would never stand trial in Sweden anyway, but be whisked away to the United States. Many prominent people in the United States have expressed a desire to try Mr. Assange in that country and a leaked document confirms that a secret indictment exists to arrest Assange.

Because of his belief that the United States will extradite or kidnap him if he leaves the Ecuadorian embassy, Assange is essentially and indefinitely under house arrest there until such time as the Ecuadorian government can be persuaded to end its sanctuary.

Many of the documents that WikiLeaks published were provided by Private Chelsea Manning (formerly known as Bradley Manning). She released the information to WikiLeaks after trying to release it to The Washington Post and The New York Times, which were not interested. She was arrested on May 27, 2010 and held in conditions that were identified as "cruel, inhuman, and degrading" by a United Nations special rapporteur on torture and as "unconstitutional" by 295 academics (most of them legal scholars). The brig commander was subsequently replaced. After Manning's trial, she was sentenced to 35 years of prison. She will be eligible to apply for parole after eight years although, with the number of powerful enemies she has, I believe that she has little chance of being paroled.

Edward Snowden, like Julian Assange, has escaped Manning's fate by choosing exile. He has been given asylum by Russia as a political refugee.

I think it is fair to say that the United States and its allies have struck back strongly against these three people, using whatever tools for retaliation they have. The governments presume is that is dangerous, illegal, and even immoral to reveal their secret activities to the people, even if those activities turn out to be dangerous, illegal, or even immoral, as some of them have been.

Thanks to Assange and Manning, we now know  the following facts:
  1. There is an official policy to ignore torture in Iraq.
  2. Guantanamo prison has held mostly innocent people and low-level operatives.
  3. There is, contrary to Presidential statements, an official tally of civilian deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan.
  4. The State Department successfully backed opposition by American companies (such as Nike) against an increase in the Haitian minimum wage.
  5. Despite its public statements to the contrary, the United States would not support Tunisian President Ben Ali against a popular uprising.
  6. Known Egyptian torturers were trained by the FBI in Quantico, Virginia.
  7. Contrary to the United Nations Convention, the State Department directed American diplomats to steal DNA samples, credit card information, and other information from UN officials, including the Secretary General, and other countries' representatives to the UN.
  8. Both Japanese and American governments were warned in 2008 by the International Atomic Energy Agency that the Fukushima nuclear energy plant would not be safe in the event of a large earthquake, but neither took any action. The damage done by the Fukushima reactor is now considered as great as that of the previous record-holding nuclear disaster, Chernobyl.
  9. The United States allowed Yemen's President to cover up a secret American drone bombing campaign.
Not highlighted in that article were other WikiLeaks revelations, such as the "Collateral Murder" video or the hiring of dancing boys (a class of people often abused as sexual slaves) by an American defence contractor.

Edward Snowden's revelations are even more voluminous and serious. (A Wikipedia article tries to give an overview). They show that, despite statements from President Obama and the heads of intelligence agencies, systematic, massive spying on the communications of American citizens, among others, was standard operating procedure. Specific revelations that the United States tapped the telephones of the leaders of friendly countries, including Germany, have affected international relations. In addition, America has had to cease its attempts to shame China for its close control over the Internet within its borders and its attempts to hack information from Western companies and government agencies: In light of American spying on the Internet and telephone communications, the American lectures on morality have been widely perceived as hypocritical.

An advisor to the White House, Dan Pfeiffer, said that Snowden should "return to the U.S. and face justice." This may sound properly respectful of the rule of law, but the reaction to Assange and Snowden and the pre-trial abuse of Manning has very little to do with the rule of law. Assange is an Australian citizen who received leaked documents (as journalists do routinely) and published them in Europe: it is hard to say that he comes under the jurisdiction of American law. Snowden, as an American citizen, does come under American jurisdiction, but his actions may be compared to Daniel Ellsberg's highly-praised leaking of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. Some people disagree with that assessment, but Ellsberg himself is not one of them.

The fervour for justice in the cases of Assange, Manning, and Snowden has an interesting counterpoint in the case of James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, who has admitted to lying about the spying programs to Congress, the courts, and perhaps to the President. There is little chance that he will ever have to face justice for his perjury. He may even receive a promotion of sorts.

The implacable rage that government officials have shown to the leakers contrasts with the impunity that they have granted Clapper. I'd like to put both of these reactions into a context provided by David Brin's book The Transparent Society.

In that book, Brin argues, first, that the technology for invading privacy has grown in power and pervasiveness over the years and that, second, governments will not give up that technology. Thus, Brin argues, if the general population insists on maintaining its right to privacy then all the spying will be in one direction: the state will spy on the citizens at but the citizens will know little about the government. This is a situation that is ripe for the development of corruption. Clapper is a fine example.

Assange, Bradley, and Snowden have done a vital service to the American people by showing them what their government does behind closed doors. If the data collection on Americans continues, we can hope that it will continue with informed consent of the American people. To date, it has not been.