Sunday, April 28, 2019

Should Our Allies Hack Our Elections?

Two things about the Mueller report are not up for debate: the Russians interfered in our last election, and no one is going to do anything about that. One party is hobbled by the need for bipartisanship, and the other so blinded by partisanship that they'll treat attempts to ward off foreign interference as political attacks on their own side. While we're making this about Trump, out foreign adversaries are preparing to attack our elections again. We haven't punished them or done anything to stop them, so why would they stop? All we've done is give them time to improve their methods.

But it won't just be the Russians. It will be other hostile intelligence services. The Chinese, certainly. The North Koreans. Maybe the Iranians, surely the Saudis. Everyone might as well try, since we've created no downside for them. They get a risk-free shot at influencing American policy against American interests, and if that fails they still get to weaken us. No matter what happens, we lose and they don't.

The question, if we're going to allow foreigners to hack our elections without doing anything about it except saying they shouldn't, is at what point even our allies have to join in. If your nation's most important ally is allowing hostile powers to interfere in its elections, and those hostile powers want to weaken your alliances and harm your national interests, at what point do you have a duty to try to sway American elections yourself? When does it get so bad that the French have no choice but to hack us?

Let me very clear: I am absolutely opposed to any foreign power meddling in our elections. I don't want the French or Germans or Canadians messing with this any more than I want the Russians and Saudis and North Koreans. Every foreign power should stay the hell out.

But if we don't stop outside meddlers, outsiders will meddle, and the number of meddlers will only grow.

When I am trying to think through something strategically, I try to imagine myself not as the other party, but as someone charged to give that other party the best advice possible. Instead of thinking about what I want, or what I hope or think or imagine the other side wants, I try to imagine what I would tell the other side to do if I were an adviser with a duty to lay out all the options. That gets me away from wishful thinking to strategic realities.

If I were a Canadian (or Frenchman or German) staffing Justin Trudeau or Emanuel Macron or Angela Merkel, I would have to put forward hacking the American elections as an option to consider, and I would have to make sure to offer the prime minister (etc.) a plan to do that effectively. No one counseling them can take that option off the table.

If you're Justin Trudeau, you're facing a real danger of your neighbor to your south crashing your economy, and his own, and Mexico's, for no particularly good reason. The President of the United States routinely threatens to shut borders and disrupt North America's integrated supply chains. That is hard to stomach on its own, because if Trump crashes the whole NAFTA trade bloc Trudeau's voters will be out of work and nothing else will get accomplished but dealing with economic catastrophe. But it's all especially hard to take when this danger actually comes from a foreign power. Should Trudeau let Russia do this to Canada? Would you let them? Or would you do what it took to protect your country?

Hacking our elections on the side of positive values and international commitments would be harder than just sowing chaos and tearing down responsible leaders, as the Russians have done. It has always been harder to build than to destroy, and it's almost impossible on Facebook. But on the other hand, our allies have a better sense of our culture than our enemies do. But if it comes to running psy ops against us, the Canadians have a built-in advantage. Who knows us better?

This will of course, be a disaster, and part of a larger disaster, as friendly and hostile countries play cloak and dagger to swing Rust Belt electoral votes. It's a nightmare. It's also probably inevitable.

The only way to stop it is to protect our country's elections, for real. And our political establishment isn't ready to do that.

cross-posted from Dagblog. All comments welcome there, not here

Monday, April 15, 2019

Alas for Gene Wolfe

Gene Wolfe, one of the greatest of science-fiction writers, has passed away. His work was subtle and superb. Wolfe wrote paragraphs you could lose yourself in, like a labyrinth, and come out a changed person on the other side. He thought profoundly about what story-telling means as few other writers have. He was honored inside the genre and sometimes outside it, but deserved far more honor in both places. Any account of 20th-century American literature that omits Gene Wolfe is incomplete.

There are many places to start reading Wolfe: his novella "The Fifth Head of Cerberus," and his epic masterpiece The Book of the New Sun. But I would put in a word for the short story "The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories," a meditative story which, depending on how you look at it, depicts neglected boy losing himself in a book of pulp science fiction or a book of pulp science fiction entering a boy's abusive environment to salvage him. It's the title story of the hilariously-named collection The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories. (Wolfe also wrote "The Death of Doctor Island," which won the Nebula, "The Doctor of Death Island," and, somewhat later, "The Death of the Island Doctor.")

"The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories" was part of a famous and ghastly faux pas. The Nebula Awards MC, Isaac Asimov, actually announced at the awards banquet that "Island" had won that year's Nebula for Best Short Story, and Wolfe stood up to accept the award before Asimov realized that Wolfe was the runner-up. "No Award" had won for Best Short Story that year. If that sounds to you a bit like the story about Pynchon, the Pulitzers, and Gravity's Rainbow, both stories are from the same era and feature profound, boundary-pushing work. As I said, Wolfe was never honored enough, in his parish or out of it.

Here are just the first two paragraphs of "The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories":

Winter comes to water as to land, though there are no leaves to fall. The waves that were a bright, hard blue yesterday under a fading sky today are green, opaque, and cold. If you are a boy not wanted in the house you walk the beach for hours, feeling the winter that has come in the night; sand blowing across your shoes, spray wetting the legs of your corduroys. You turn your back to the sea, and with the sharp end of a stick found half buried write in the wet sand Tackman Babcock.

Then you go home, knowing that behind you the Atlantic is destroying our work.

Godspeed, Mr. Wolfe. You wrote in something far more durable than sand.

cross-posted from Dagblog. All comments welcome there, not here.