How to Scale a Paywall by Proxy

The most touted feature of the public Internet is, and has always been, free access to information.  Whether that information is porn, what your friends are eating for lunch, or why your government is choosing to drop bombs on funeral goers is irrelevant.  The point is that the information is out there, you can get to it, and it’s as free as used condoms at a Greyhound bus station.  Except when it isn’t.

Since Capitalism can’t let anything go un-capitalized, there was a need to stop the ravenous masses from devouring the free lunch buffet of data swirling around in the tube-y netherworld that is the Internet.  And so Capitalist God created the paywall, and it was annoying as all fucking hell because you really want to read that article but they won’t fucking let you and nothing is fucking fair any more.  Calm down and fear not my child, for I shall show you the way up and over this devious machination of free market sourced technology.  Well probably anyway….

See there are two major types of paywalls: hard ones and soft ones.  Hard ones block access to all users until you pay the cyber-toll.  These are rare because this heavy handed approach will decimate your online audience and is worthless unless your content is worth something to enough people willing to pay for it.  For example, if I did this with The Daily Segfault even my own mother wouldn’t read it.  So of course, the only entities willing to do this are large media outlets, typically well read newspapers like the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal who have brand recognition, content people are willing to pay for, and steadily declining revenue streams.  Occasionally very desperate non-profits like WIkileaks do this, but it usually doesn’t end wellAs a side note: do donate to Wikileaks they do good work and really do deserve what ever money you can chuck at them.

Those hard paywalls I can’t help you with, and it should also be noted that the approach I will show you to scale paywalls may not work in every instance as not all paywalls are built the same way.  Thankfully though, most paywalls are of the soft variety and most of these use the same method for blocking us e-rabble.  A “soft” paywall is one that, instead of blocking you outright, will allow you to make a certain number of visits to the cherished content before it gets all bitchy and demands that you pony up the cash if you want to keep reading.  The key vulnerability in this system is that the site has to remember who you are, or else it might just block someone who isn’t a mooching, good-for-nothing, sack-o-shit, 47%-er.

So obviously the key here is to just stop being you.  Basically the way most sites determine if you are you is by checking the IP address of where your request to view the content is coming from.  The content protecting server then checks it’s database to see if you have consumed the dataz too frequently and need to be blocked, otherwise it lets you view the content for free this time and increments the number of times you visited the site in the database by 1.  Now you could scale a soft paywall by bypassing the organization’s firewall, executing an escalation of privilege attack, accessing the server’s database file, and resetting the value for the block counter to 0.  However, this is a lot of work and more than just a tad illegal for trying to view a side-boob article on the Huffington Post.

breaking news: look at that side boob!

BREAKING NEWS: Look at that side boob!

The answer is a lot simpler than that, although admittedly less sexy.  In the words of Mr. McGuire in “The Graduate”, “I just want to say one word to you. Just one word…proxies“.  A proxy is a very simple but powerful concept for hackers and anyone who just wants to be more anonymous on the internet.  Basically a proxy is just a server that makes a request of another server on your behalf.  So for example, if your work blocks facebook.com but not efreeproxyip.com (or one of the bijillion public proxy servers like it), you can go to said proxy and ask it to go to facebook for you.  It does this and then sends your computer the stuff you wanted from facebook.  Since this data is coming from the proxy and not the blocked site your companies router has no idea that you’re wasting time on facebook when you should be wasting time working.  Word of warning: obviously if you are going to be proxying personal information (like passwords, home address, etc) you better damn well trust your proxy, because they will have access to everything you send through the proxy.

So let’s try this out.  Our vict…err…helpful assistant today will be the website of my local media institution, the orlandosentinel.com.  Unless you have your own proxy server set up, you’re going to need a proxy.  Thankfully the helpful folks over at Public Proxy Servers have a database of public proxy servers.  As you can see from the picture here, the Orlando Sentinel will block you after you reached “your allowance of free articles”.  So to re-up your allowance it is time to become Mr. efreeproxyip.com by going to said site and typing in the URL of the article you want to see, such as http://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/local/breakingnews/os-teresa-jacobs-texts-memo-20121010,0,6681231.story.

Before and after the proxy pwn’ing…do note how the URL on the second picture is NOT the orlandosentinel.com.

It really is that simple.  Go surf the free web seas!

Sick Days, Neurotic Nights: Capitalism, Democracy, and the Orange County Commission

How to screw over your constituents for your corporate friend’s profit

OR

A citizen’s briefing on Orange County’s Earned Sick Time Struggle

Background

As some of our readership may be aware, there has been something of a kerfuffle in regards to a citizen led initiative to push for earned sick time in Orange county, Florida. To those who are NOT aware, an assortment of local residents and the activist powerhouse that is Organize Now have been attempting to place a provision on the ballot which, if passed would require businesses in Orange county to provide a measure of paid sick time for their employees should they so require it. As it stands workers in the county, particularly those in the oft miserly and inhospitable tourism and hospitality industry, are at the whim of their employment overlords least they contract the sick. Given that most people think that businesses who can afford to pay for their hard working employees when they happen to contract an illness, should do that and not be total dicks, the citizen activists of central Florida managed to quickly collect the requisite 50,000 petition signatures needed to place the provision on this year’s ballot.

Orlando Weekly cover showing Organize Now pushing for earned sick timeExcept that is exactly what will NOT happen. Apparently there are members of the “business community” (read: lobbyists for Darden restaurants, Disney, and the creatures from the Chamber of Commerce) who think that providing earned sick leave to their employees would EXPLODEZ TEH ECONOMY. These fine, upstanding assholes were ready to fight tooth and nail to ensure that the rabble quit their unseemly protest and immediately return to the theme park mines and eateries regardless of whether they were about to collapse from fever or pass a kidney stone on space mountain. They were ready for the worst, but as luck would have it their buddies on the board of the Orange County Commission were willing and able to handle all the dirty work for them.

When presented with the petitions the Commission were bound by their charter to place the provision on the ballot. However, there was a bit of an issue, namely the Commission really didn’t want to do that. The hearing on the earned sick time provision, by the lovely coincidences of life, came to pass on September 11th with 70 people coming out to urge the commission to do the right thing and place the provision on the ballot like they were supposed to. A few members of the “business community” were there too. When it came time to speak these be-suited defenders of Capitalism declared, to a man, that despite the fact that their businesses were struggling they managed to charitably provide earned sick time for their employees. However, despite that they could do this despite the economic downturn IF the county forced larger businesses to provide earned sick time it would create a magical cloud of uncertainty and keep their Orange county businesses out of Orange county just like the previous raise in the minimum wage did.

However before I ramble on any further, what exactly was in this provision to be voted on by the people of Orange County? Essentially the measure would have potentially provided 1 hour of paid sick leave for every 37 hours worked, with a maximum of 56 hours available per year (if the business already pays more, they won’t be forced to pay less). The worker would be required to provide documentation from a health care professional if they need to miss 3 or more consecutive days of work. The worker could use that sick leave to assist family members who were sick or injured and needed assistance. Also, and perhaps most importantly for the sake of argument, the ordinance would only apply to businesses with more than 15 employees. So despite what the lobbyists for Darden and Disney would have you believe, this measure was not in any way going to harm all those cute little mom and pop businesses that the creatures from the Chamber of Commerce love so much (which is not at all). You can find the full text of the proposed ordinance on the very petitions used to place the measure on the ballot here.

Residents of Orange County preparing to stand up to their Commissioners.

During the meeting on September 11th, the commissioners stated that the measure was confusing and that voters did not know what they were voting for. This is despite the fact that Vice Mayor Jennifer Thompson quickly wrote up a sloppy counter amendment to be placed on the ballot that would require that the Orange County commission be barred from regulating “employee-employer relations”. For some reason, this proposal was not held to the same standard that the earned sick time proposal was. After a marathon session, four of the seven commissioners (Fred “Old Man” Brummer, Jennifer Thompson, John “Daddy’s Boy” Martinez, and Scott Boyd) voted to delay the measure so that it would be unable to be placed on the 2012 ballot, despite what 50,000 Orange county residents may want and the OCC charter demands.

The Case for Earned Sick Time

Let’s be clear on one thing, the people whom are labelled as “job creators”, those assorted CEO’s and upper-level management, do not create jobs. Ever. Those described with this Orwellian title are more aptly described as gatekeepers to jobs, often restricting useful production for the sake of personal profit. The people who create jobs are the people who actually do them. One of the most fundamental problems with our capitalist system is that those who do not labor are given dictatorial control over those who actually do labor, and as such decide what we produce, and what policies we take as a nation (such as not providing earned sick leave).

The reason that the campaign is called the “Earned Sick Time” campaign, is because workers are the ones who earned the right to rest when injured or sick because they are the engine of our economy. Also despite what commissioners may think, they also have the right to take care of injured or sick family members without having to worry about being fired or going hungry. While Mayor Jacobs with her $100,000+ salary might not have to worry about such things, a minimum wage worker for Disney does. Earned sick time is a small step towards a more rational and just economic system where labor is controlled in a democratic fashion for the benefit of all.

This fight is also a fine example of how our ruling class will use capitalist concerns to trump the democratic will of the people. One of the major arguments that Mayor Jacobs, the commission, and the chamber have made is that if earned sick time passes, employers might be dissuaded from coming to Orange county. This shouldn’t be a concern, instead this should be welcomed! Do we really want to set up our public policy towards miserly plutocrats who cannot be bothered to consider the health of the people who make them their profits? Scaring off these rogues just means more opportunity for more just businesses to expand at their expense.

The day that Democracy died in Orange County.

What Now?

The commissioners who voted to stall the measure past the required deadline did so for blatantly political reasons. They realize that the measure is popular amongst an electorate with a high percentage slaving under lousy paying jobs with little protection under the auspices of the Mouse and other large service industries. Furthermore, the highest turnout is almost inevitably during presidential elections and if earned sick time were on the ballot, us proles would certainly vote for it. HOWEVER, if the measure was moved to a midterm or special election where the turnout is more skewed towards older, more affluent voters there is less chance that this ballot would pass. It would also give the commission more time to fight alongside their chamber of commerce allies to ensure that the bill is opposed with the full weight of the corporate class and hopefully, hopefully, people would lose interest.

Given that the deadline for printing provisional ballots has passed there is virtually no chance that the measure will be on the 2012 ballot. Yet if the creatures from the Chamber of Commerce think that this will die a quiet death, they appear to have been mistaken. Organize Now members and their community allies have been keeping media pressure on the commission by being a constant presence at Orange County Commission meetings and by pushing for information that has led to what this publication shall refer to as “textgate” (because all political scandals post-Nixion must have the “gate” suffix appended to them, it’s the law). However, this is tough work and needs the support of the majority of Orange county that wants to hold businesses accountable to basic standards of decency.

What can you do, well you can…

Doing Useful Stuff with the Wireshark Network Analyzer

Anyone interested in network programming and general hackery will eventually come into contact with Wireshark.  This is because Wireshark is an insanely useful and well built tool for network analysis.  Essentially what Wireshark does is something called “packet sniffing”,  but to describe this very useful function requires that we understand just a little bit of background knowledge.

osi_model

The International Standards Organization/Open System Interconnection (ISO/OSI), better known as simply the “OSI model”, displays the seven theoretical levels of network organization. For more information click on this image.

Whenever you send data over a network there is a necessary and complex process of encoding additional meta-data (data that describes data) which is used by routers to determine how and where to send the data.  Furthermore, additional meta-data is needed to instruct the receiving computer on how to handle the data, such as displaying the data as a web page, or a flash video, etc. etc.  There is also meta-data and special protocols required to negotiate between the computer sending the data and the computer receiving, to make sure that the data intended to be sent was in fact sent, and how to go about sending that data.  It is not uncommon for there to be more additional meta-data generated on how to send data, than the actual data that the user intends to send!

However, I think it is better to leave the course in data networks to the far better educators at MIT, who can teach you this for free and much better than me!  Basically the point I’m trying to make is that when you send even a small message over a network, it requires a lot of additional data to describe it.  Obviously all of this data cannot be sent in one pass, because it would be a real strain on the network (AND WOULD BREAK THE INTERNETS).  Also, what would happen if you sent all that crap and it wound up getting lost along the way?  That would suck, right?  So basically your computer chops up all this data into multiple pieces called datagrams or more informally, packets.

Wireshark basically reads all the packets received by your computer’s NIC (Network Interface Card) and displays all the information in a well-organized form allowing you to monitor your computer’s communications with other computers on your LAN (Local Area Network) and the Internet.  Often this traffic is conversations between your computer and another computer on your network or a server on the internet, although it can also include broadcast transmissions such as ARP packets (Address Resolution Protocol).  These packets are sent out to all computers in a network, for example ARP packets are sent out so a computer can determine where another computer is on the network.  Not unlike a person entering an office and asking each person “Hey are you Bob?”, until they find Bob. Obviously computers are a lot more patient than people.  With wireless communication the medium requires that all communications are broadcast to all computers within the range of the wireless access point.

Typically your NIC drops the packets of any broadcast transmission not intended for your computer.  This can be changed by setting your NIC into promiscuous mode (or as I like to call it “whore mode”).  Whore mode is particularly useful on wireless networks as you can monitor all traffic between each computer on the network and the wireless access point.  This is why you should always be careful on unencrypted networks, because any unencrypted packets you send can be read by any dick with Wireshark.  Unfortunately, some of the more prudish OS’s, such as windows, do not support whore mode with some wifi NIC’s.

Wireshark_Icon

Wireshark. For when you need to find out how you broke your network or just because you want to be a dick at Starbucks but can’t bring yourself to pretend to write a screenplay.

With that out of the way, let’s crack open a wee bit of the shark and see what we can do with it.  You can download Wireshark binaries for Windows and Apple, as well as source code here.  With Linux you can either directly compile the source code or use a package manager such as yum or aptitude, although I’m pretty sure Linux users already know this.  The Wireshark page is a vast trough of information on all things Wireshark, and I’d recommend going there for Wireshark related questions.

So once you install Wireshark, you should be ready to go.  Now you need to start capturing packets, you can do this by going to capture -> interfaces.  At the menu you can see all the NIC’s present on your computer including two special interfaces “any” and “lo”.  As any suggests it captures traffic from all of your NIC’s at once which could come in handy if you want to sniff traffic on a wireless and wired network at the same time, among other possibilities.  Lo stands for “local” and doesn’t actually capture packets on the network.  Instead lo captures inter-process communications within your own computer, essentially allowing you to view programs talking to other programs on your local machine.  You can also set options such as capture filters which can be used to block out certain types of traffic that you aren’t interested in, which is a subject for it’s own post.

 Here is an example of where Wireshark can be used for good.  You know when you’re connecting to an encrypted wireless network and it gives you a bunch of options for authentication like PEAP, TLS, WTF, ETC?  I was having trouble connecting to my university’s (go Knights!) wireless network and wasn’t sure why it was being such a bitch.  This is what Wireshark does.

MAC Addresses redacted to protect me from the NSA.  Click the image to be directed to a page with this enlarged to readable size.

So, I started up Wireshark and started capturing network packets on my wireless card.  What you can see from the image to the left (when enlarged anyway) is my computer’s NIC (“TwinhanT”) attempting to negotiate my use of the university’s WPA encrypted network with the wireless access point (“Cisco_16:e7:12”).  As you can see by the packets marked “Failure”, my NIC is not having much success getting our friend Cisco to let us onto the network so we can be snarky on Facebook.  This shall not stand!

What is happening in this exchange is that TwinhanT and Cisco are trying to negotiate which authentication protocol to use.  The clue to what is going wrong can be seen in the “info” portion of packets numbers 3, 8, and 13; namely the “Request, PEAP”.  We only need to dig slightly deeper to find the problem.

Click the image to be directed to a page with this enlarged to readable size.

The reason for the aforementioned problem can be seen in the highlighted portion of the image to the right.  Basically, Cisco is all like, “Yo TwinhanT mang, I’m down with the PEAP let’s use that for authenticating our secret convo”.  However, TwinhanT is saying, “You know I’m really more into EAP-TTLS, myself”.  So then Cisco is all like, “NAH BRAH, REJECTED GTFO!!1!”.  Long story, short, I switched the authentication method to PEAP and everything was sunshine and puppies.

Pictured: sunshine, puppies, and the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

That pretty much wraps up what I hope was a useful introduction into what Wireshark is, and the good / evil that can be done with it.  If you fractured pieces of humanity in the screaming void of madness and trolls that people refer to as “the Internet” appreciated this rambling nonsense I would be more than happy to waste more of my time fabricating more rambling nonsense for you to jam into your dirty mind holes.  Please feel free to point out all the mistakes I made in this column and how much it sucks, but be forewarned that I will almost certainly ignore you.

Why President Obama Should Pardon Whistle blower Pfc. Bradley Manning

On May 2010, Private First Class Bradley Manning was arrested while on duty in a military base near Baghdad.  It would eventually be revealed that the 22 year old intelligence officer had managed to release 260,000 classified cables detailing US activity in Iraq, Afghanistan, and US embassies from around the world to the pro-transparency organization Wikileaks.  In the coming months, five major newspapers from around the world would chronicle the troubling contents of these cables to the world and an American public kept purposefully in the dark by their own government as to its action’s abroad.  Among the many revelations found in the quarter-million highly classified documents is evidence of US meddling in the internal affairs of foreign democracies such as Haiti and India, the use of American diplomats as spokespeople and spies for corporations such as Monsanto and Boeing, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calling on American diplomats to spy on their UN counterparts, and the US military covering up the deaths of two reuters journalists shot by an American gunship.  Manning’s trial is scheduled for sometime between February 4 and March 15 of next year, where the former intelligence officer faces a possible life sentence.

Bradley Manning was only twenty two when arrested for exposing rampant and unnecessary secrecy within the US military, diplomatic, and intelligence communities. The response of the US military justice system was brutal, placing Mr. Manning into 11 months of solitary confinement under conditions which the head of the UN Commission on Human Rights, Juan Mendez referred to as “cruel, inhuman and degrading”. Mr. Manning was transferred out of solitary confinement as a result of coordinated protests by the likes of the Bradley Manning Defense Network and Firedoglake.

Ever since 9/11, the American government has shown a dangerous increase in the level of obfuscation, willingness to violate US citizen’s civil rights in the name of national security, and complete lack of accountability for high ranking officials.  Whereas in 1991 the US government classified 6 million documents, by 2010 that number had ballooned to 77 million.  Information in these secret documents has been shown to contain blatantly illegal activity by the US government such as the NSA’s warrantless and indiscriminate wiretapping of US citizens (a fact itself disclosed to the New York Times by a government whistle blower).  All of this has developed despite the fact that pre-9/11 intelligence was already aware of a planned attack on the world trade center.

The charges against Manning include aiding the enemy, wrongfully causing intelligence to be published on the Internet, transmitting national defense information and theft of public property or records.  However, despite the charges high ranking US officials such as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Vice President Joe Biden, have downplayed the damage of the leaks, with Mr. Biden going so far as to say, “I don’t think there’s any damage.  I don’t think there’s any substantive damage, no.” in a televised interview with MSNBC’s Adrea Mitchell.  With such high ranking insiders, one is forced to ask not only how Mr. Manning aided the enemy (and if the ‘enemy’ includes the American public), but as to why the information was classified in the first place.

Upon being elected president Obama promised to run the most transparent administration in US history. Since 2009, he has presided over the administration with the highest level of classified documents and the most prosecutions of whistleblowers.

Lost in the debate has been not only that no one has been reported to have been harmed by the leaked cables, but on the obviously altruistic motives displayed by Manning, common to all whistleblowers.  Fellow whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, famous for his release of the Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam war has come to Manning’s defence stating that the release of the cables was “exactly the right thing to do”.  It is for these reasons that President Obama should pardon Bradley Manning, and I believe the argument on why to do so is best expressed by Manning himself in his conversation with the man who turned him into the government, “I want people to see the truth…regardless of who they are… because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public”.

The Neglected Question: Should We Have a President?

In Noam Chonsky’s 1998 book “The Common Good” he noted that the U.S. ruling class allows for a very vigorous debate on social, political, and economic topics, but only within a narrow window of what is to be taken seriously by the news media and opinion shapers.  This creates an illusion of healthy and spirited debate on the topics of the day, while in reality not only shepherding the political consciousness of the masses, but allowing for a means of partisan venting which allows for excess anger to be safely expelled from the system.  While the ingress of the age of Occupation has done much to till the soil that is our collective political consciousness, it has still stumbled in an attempt to convey higher progressive concepts and derive a coherent course of action from them.

It is my belief that the main impetus of the failure in this transition is attributable to the practice outlined above.  The great machine that is our modern political system is in essence running overheated, and the heated dialog (and more importantly the material conditions wrought by the recession!) cultivated is outpacing the rate at which it may be properly vented.  However, the intentionally narrow scope of “acceptable” political discourse has left many of us carrying an ill-formed and oft illogical political conception.  The result of these factors is angry populist movements such as the tea party and the occupy movement, which can often correctly identify general problems in the system (to varying extents), but struggles with suggesting feasible solutions that are outside the mainstream or have been implemented under past conditions.

Obviously there are key differences in the Tea Party and Occupy movements.  The former resembles more of a traditional political party, and its conservative bent keeps it in-line with previously established policy and social idioms.  Within this movement particularly, old ideas (typically those advanced on or near 1787) are venerated and thus its political consciousness is mired in the state of an idealized past.  The Occupy movement takes a radically different approach, finding its solutions not in an idealized depiction of the past, but rather in the varied utopian movements of American history (such as the New Harmony community, the “back to the land” communes of the 1960’s and 70’s, etc.).

The key similarity between these two nascent movements is that their ideas, while often outside the “acceptable” current of the U.S. political mainstream are often (or in the case of much of the tea party, always) based mostly on past policy or political thought.  This can be seen in some of the key appeals of both movements; a return to the gold standard, the reinstatement of the Glass-Stegall act, and the alike.  While new ideas are expressed, particularly within the Occupy movement, they are often confused or overly idealistic.  As any participant in even a moderately sized General Assembly can attest to, these ideas often flounder in practice due to the many horrible variables introduced by reality.

It is at this point I feel it necessary to clarify that this is not an attack on the Occupy movement.  Indeed there are many intelligent people within the movement whose political acumen outstrips that of this author.  However, the key problem in the transition of the Occupy movement from a generalized, communal declaration of outrage to a more focused and disciplined movement is due to a larger societal problem.  That key problem is our unintentionally internalized conceptions of society as dictated by the limits imposed upon us by the ideological superstructure built of the ruling class.  While the populist movements in the U.S. have obviously shed much of their allegiance to the mainstream political current, Americans as a whole have not been able to shake or even think to question certain conventions of a system whose class interests and media monopoly have driven said ideas to be incorporated by us.

Nobody 2012

Courtesy of Wade Hampton of the Wade's World blog. Click image for link to site.

One of the most surprisingly unquestioned norms of American politics is that of the Office of the Presidency.  While the Occupy movement has taken a very conscious and decidedly utopian decision to oppose any form of official leadership within their own movement’s supporting organizations, they have been less vocal about the legitimacy of positions of leadership outside the confines of their movement.  This is not to say that occupiers have been entirely silent on this issue; various contingents of occupies across the country have been mock-campaigning in support of “Nobody” for president.  While this definitely challenges the worth of those running for the office, it only indirectly challenges the legitimacy of the office itself.  In fact, one could potentially argue that by confining the challenge to the well-worn moors of a presidential campaign they have further supported the very concept they seek to depose.

This campaign for Nobody has been the closest Americans have been to even imagining the possibility of an America without the executive office.  To the overwhelming majority of Americans this is literally an unthinkable proposition, not in that many or even most of us would oppose it, but in that it simply is something we do not think of.  It is easy to see why this is the case.  Particularly since the infamous Citizens’ United decision, there has been an increasing trend towards ever more money being deployed in the presidential election cycle.  This in turn fuels more advertising revenue, which compels media companies to focus more attention on the presidential race.  Given the omnipresent talk of the president in U.S. politics, particularly in the ever growing election “year”, why would anyone even think that America could survive without one?

The original purpose of the president was to provide a function very similar to that of the king in the former colonies.  Many in the triumphant bourgeois of the revolution were worried that the lack of a strong executive would lead to anarchy, as the malcontent working classes assumed control and threatened their wealth and privilege.  Some floated the idea of submitting to a European royal such as Prince Henry of Prussia or Frederick Duke of York (George III’s son).  Eventually however the pressures brought from the common veterans of the revolution kept such schemes from being feasible.  Instead in 1787, the founding fathers choose to institute the executive branch under the aegis of the president, who assumed many of the powers of the British monarch, yet in a fashion constrained by the newly formed federal legislature.

While the question of monarch or president has been asked in the course of American history, few have so much as raised the question of the legitimacy of any post which grants such enormous power to any individual.  Yet ever since the rise of the “war on terror” and the corresponding increase in the powers of the now conceived “unitary executive”, this is a question that should be asked more now than ever.  The original compromise on the question of the executive office rest upon the dual distinctions of the presidency in contrast to that of a monarch, that the president is not chosen by birthright and that the president is constrained by the national legislature.

Both of these distinctions are becoming ever more tenuous.  As the wealth disparity has grown we have become witness to a growing number of presidential lineages; such as the Roosevelt’s, the Kennedys, the Clintons, and the Bushes.  Furthermore, as money becomes more of a determining factor in presidential elections the number of likely candidates is shrinking as the super wealthy and the established political insiders become the only viable options.  While this is not necessarily a new problem, it has become vastly exacerbated by a new class of uber-bourgeois, whose massive wealth allows them to buy political power at a degree unprecedented since the last gilded age.

Even more disturbing is the quiet creep of the exceptional executive.  With the cover of the 9/11 terrorist attacks the Bush administration begun a blitzkrieg on the constraints of the presidency, a campaign continued in earnest under their predecessors.  This campaign for dominance by the executive branch has assured that positions as extreme as the assassination of U.S. citizens without trial, formal charges, or any accountability are now uncontroversial and bipartisan positions within the mainstream current.  The Democratic party, once a chorus of voices against this growing tyranny have become silent as one of their own has adopted the throne.  No discussion of this matter can be uttered within the party for fear of losing the only position worth having in the U.S.

It certainly is not only the “war on terror” which is responsible for this presidential overreach.  The growth of presidential influence is likely attributed to the development of mass media and the quickening trend of globalization in the late twentieth century.  While the presidency has been the focal point for most countries’ political cultures for a little over a century, it has been historically dulled by provincialism brought about by local concerns.  As our vision, in a political, cultural, and economic sense, has expanded so has the tendency to look towards the personification of our countries’ political systems, the president.  This development has greatly expanded the power of the so-called “bully pulpit” at the disposal of the president, the ability of a single individual to guide the political consciousness of an entire nation.

Granted this enormous power, like all such tools, is a double edged sword.  Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Lynden Johnson used it to advance much needed Keynesian reforms to the American economy.  President Lincoln used it to put an end to slavery and restore unity to a divided nation.  Indeed, perhaps a likely reason we have never thought of abolishing the presidency is due to the memory of such accomplishments as well as the fact that we measure our very history based on presidential terms.

An interesting side note: presidential approval seems to have less to do with the conventional wisdom of concurrence with a strong economy or wartime success. In the case of the latter there is indeed a massive short term gain, but this is followed in each instance by well bellow average ratings. This is probably due to the fact that the period of wartime success is immediately followed by additional mired conflict (Korea for Truman, Iraq for both Bushes). Also note in half of the listed administrations the initial approval rating is never surpassed, and only two of the twelve presidents had a higher approval rating at the end of their term than at the beginning (Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan, the modern standards for both political parties). Image courtesy of USA Today / Gallup, click image for link.

Despite the provocative nature of this article, and my barely concealed disdain for the current breadth of executive power, it is not my intention to highlight what a president-less U.S. would look like.  Not only because I feel that raising the question is necessary well before it can even begun to be answered, but also because I largely am unable to answer the question myself.  So total is my experience of a country personified under one individual that I can hardly relate to how we would move beyond it.

Even if I could move beyond my immersion in a history and political culture so defined by the presidency (which I believe I could), the question of how to keep power from consolidating in the hands of one person is one that is currently well-beyond my grasp.  It is not merely the legalistic question of checks and balances, but also the innately human social instinct which (like our evolutionary forbearers) has historically been drawn to a hierarchal structure lead by one individual.  Perhaps it is easier to do than to speak to vast, faceless coalitions and material conditions, as even the most politically progressive of us find our way back to describing the aforementioned forces by consolidating them into the familiar visage of a single, human being.

Note that the approval ratings for the more vague concept of "congress" are almost always lower than that of the president. The most notable exception being mid-1974 when Nixon resigned (37% congressional approval v. 24% approval of Nixon). Image courtesy of Gallup, click image for link to site.

It is important that we ask such questions of our society, even if they are difficult and especially if they are uncomfortable.  No higher form of society can be obtained if it cannot even be imagined by those who would seek to build it.  I would hope that those reading this essay would begin to look at the enormous power we have vested in the presidency, and begin to ask if such a condition is truly conducive to a more advanced and fair democratic system.  We should begin to ask if such vested power is a net good, or the seeds which shall sprout into a modern monarchy.

An Urgent Appeal to All Members of U.S. Democratic Party Clubs

             The events of the last year have been quite dramatic even in the context of the last decade.  With the unexpected rise of the Occupy movement we have seen another powerful indication that the American people will no longer stand idly by while multinational corporations and their allies corrupt the basic tenets of our democracy.  At the same time we have also witnessed some of the most profound challenges to our most basic political liberties.  With the passage and signing of sections 1031 and 1032 of the National Defense Authorization Act, America has now been declared a “battlefield” and the standing practice of the president to indefinitely detain any individual without trial has been codified into law.  Furthermore, it has been revealed that the executive branch is now overseeing a secret committee which is ordering the assassination of U.S. citizens without trial or so much as formal charges.

            It should be evident that such provisions and practices are anything but trivial matters.  These extraordinary presidential powers are nothing short of dictatorial and entirely unwarranted.  Despite president Obama’s signing statement in regards to the aforementioned provisions of the NDAA, the simple legal existence and general acceptance of these practices by the highest powers in the U.S.is the death knell of democracy.  The response from every true progressive and loyal Democrat must be a resounding, “This shall not stand!”

            What I am to ask of you is no simple matter, but it is desperately necessary.  I am calling on all U.S. Democratic Party Clubs to send formal resolutions denouncing the signing of the NDAA, and the twin evils of indefinite detention and execution without trial.  This call in and of itself should never be difficult, indeed it should be something that should be done regardless of any impediment if one is truly dedicated to the principles of self-rule and political liberty.  However, it is unfortunately the case that this will require you to rebuke a president who is popular within your party during an election year.

It is highly unfortunate that such a trivial matter should stand in the way of doing what is right and necessary.  For whatever reason, the abuses which were so widely and justly criticized by the party during the Bush administration are now ignored under the present.  While it is understandable that it is difficult to criticize an individual who has achieved so much, while facing opponents so depraved as those in the Republican party, neither should impede the necessary defense of the core tenet of our Democracy.  No individual in our nation should have the ability to deprive any of us of our liberty or our lives without a fair trial by a jury of our peers.

For those party organizations which are noble enough to take up this call, know that you will receive sharp opposition from all corners of your party.  When this happens be sure to point out how vital it is that these issues be discussed immediately.  Ask your comrades in the party what a president Romney, Santorum or Gingrich would do with such unrestricted power.  It is likely that you will face opposition so vehement that the question of the membership of your club may come in to question.  If this is to happen, it is at this point that the question must be asked as to why it is worth supporting a party that would sacrifice its most core principles to have a member residing at a house on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  I would hope that this is a conversation that no one within the party will have to undertake.

I urge those members of the party reading this appeal to reject the petty partisan concerns of electability in a presidential election season.  Is the campaign for one political office so important as to sacrifice the freedom of the common man and woman?  The office of the president is vastly out of reach to those who are not rich and powerful.  What hope do we stand if we sacrifice all our liberties for the hope that those elite who vie for the office will respect our petty concerns such as to be held innocent before proven guilty?  Can we trust our present and future presidents to responsibly wield ultimate power?  I would hope that you realize the answer to these questions, and I beg you all to do what is right.                     

What is Wrong is Wrong Regardless of Season

As we enter into the New Year, six months into the presidential election, I think it is very important that progressives stop and think about what is important and what is not.  The enormous outpouring of money into presidential elections, greatly assisted by the egregious and elitist “Citizens” United decision has exacerbated the already worrying and ever narrowing conception of American government to the executive office alone.  The oversized concern for the executive branch is incompatible with Democracy and has assisted in the frightening concentration of government power into the two hands of the president.  This should be worrying enough for not only to the common man of the 99%, but also to many of those elites in the 1% who would be the first to taste the steel of a hostile administration.  These developments should make all self-identified progressives stop and reflect, in a period where the news media and political campaigns would like nothing more for us to keep marching to their narratives.

The last few years have seen some truly disturbing developments.  The Democratic Party’s control over the legislature and the executive branch was not followed up with anything resembling bold policy.  This allowed the virtually annihilated Republican Party to regroup around the Tea Party, rescue itself from obscurity, and obstruct all but the most conservative of legislation.  Worse yet, much of the progressive energy derived from anti-Bush criticism were sapped by a supposedly progressive president assuming power.  This obsession with the White House and the overconfidence placed in its new tenant’s promises quickly brought an end to the growing anti-war movement along with other progressive causes.

Unfortunately, the majority of candidate Obama’s promises, particularly the most important of them, were quickly dismissed or even opposed by President Obama.  In some particularly alarming ways, President Obama has exceeded Bush in pushing for an all-powerful unitary executive.  Obama has initiated several secret wars such as those in Yemen and Somalia and an open war with Libya without congressional approval and in blatant violation of the War Powers Act.  The one-time constitutional scholar has also approved of measures to declare the United States a “battlefield” and approve of measures to indefinitely detain U.S citizens, even going so far to create a secret committee which has no oversight and deliberates on the assassination of any individual regardless of citizenship or whether they have been even so much as accused of a crime.

Despite Obama’s signing statement on the National Defense Authorization Act (another provision candidate Obama so criticized Bush on), he has opened the door quite widely for the worst imaginable abuses of civil liberties.  It is at this point that as Americans particularly those of us whom identify as progressives, should question what we should be doing in 2012.  No longer should any true progressive support the agenda of an administration which has so violated our basic principles, regardless of his political opposition.  No longer should any true progressive live under the illusion that president Obama would bring about the change we desire if only he could be freed from Republican obstruction.  It should be clear as crystal that an administration which has chosen not only to avoid persecuting Wall Street criminals, but to elevate them to positions of leadership within their ranks certainly has no concern for the >99% of us who haven’t initiated a world-wide financial meltdown.

Many American progressives have not come to these conclusions because they fixate entirely too much on the presidency, as do most Americans.  It is so venerated in our society that it seems as a current that is inescapable.  This current is leading us away from the shore of our vaunted ideals of Democracy and is moving us closer and closer to an ocean of tyranny.  However it is vital that we swim against this current, difficult as it may be, and realize that the modern White House is not an institution which should be sought, but one that should be fought.  No person in a true Democracy should hold the kind of power our president does.

One of the most reliable reactionary tools of the bourgeois in this country has always been the two party system.  It can be seen quite clearly in the fear that a vote not cast for Obama will instead go to one of the uber-conservative cretins which infest the Republican party.  By focusing intensely on this possibility and feeding the never ending horse race which is the presidential news cycle, truly progressive voices become silenced.  Not simply in the sense of losing a potentially progressive candidate, but in also keeping ideas which threaten the status quo outside the realm of consideration.  Thus a “major progressive victory” is the ability for homosexuals to openly serve in our military, bolstering the ability to wage aggressive wars and illegal occupations.  One would hope that progressives have more to offer the LGBT community than opportunity to more comfortably die on some foreign shore in service to the greed of our ruling class.

We must shake off these petty and self-destructive fears.  A better society will not be built from the White House, it will be built by our own hands and in the model of our hopes and dreams.  We have everything to lose by playing into the shell game which is the presidential election. For if we vote for the lesser of two evils it will enshrine the most dangerous elements of the “war on terror” as the bipartisan norm.  Is this truly “winning the White House”?  For to me it sounds like a defeat of everything we stand for.