Ai Weiwei, Alcatraz, Dissent, and The Limits of Free Speech

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31 Responses

  1. Avatar Jim Heffman says:

    “Yet the NSA still is recording tons of data against everyone and seems to show no signs of stopping or reforming. People still go through security theatre to board plans. Nothing seems to deescalate. ”

    Maybe because, despite the cries of Dudes On Tumblr, most Americans think that what’s going on is a necessary and proper government function and is part of what security actually looks like.

    If someone buys a locking mailbox after their mail gets stolen we don’t call it an intrusion on communication and start spouting made-up quotes about trading freedom for security.Report

    • Avatar j r says:

      If someone buys a locking mailbox after their mail gets stolen…

      Is that really the right analogy?Report

      • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

        I was thinking a better analogy was the use of militarized police force in the neighborhoods that get that kind of policing.Report

      • Avatar Jim Heffman says:

        “Is that really the right analogy?”

        Is it really *not*?

        You’re taking it as a given that all this stuff is a useless waste of time that clearly doesn’t work.

        What if it isn’t?

        It’s certainly true that if the NSA had been permitted to cue the FBI to take a look at a certain group of guys attending flight school in Florida then the WTC attacks wouldn’t have happened–and that “the NSA isn’t permitted to cue the FBI” was a specific decision rather than something that just happened by accident.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        they don’t have the talent to make it anything other than a brute force project.
        And I’m not sure they have the talent to do that properly and securely.

        If google can make a hackable car (yup, got hacked. Then got FIXED), and google’s rather smarter than the Us Gov’t… I don’t think this is likely to be a terribly effective program.

        Blackhatting North Korea was a nice trick, I’ll admit, but that’s hardly needed to come from the surveilance state.Report

  2. Avatar aaron david says:

    Lego’s represent your own ability to protest, and how easy it can be.

    That said, I am reminded how much I dislike art installations. I am not a fan of being forced how to think (the part I dislike the most are the quotes.)Report

  3. Avatar Kazzy says:

    Speech is just that: speech. And free speech is just one form of freedom. Just because our ability to use our relatively free speech to denounce restrictions on other freedoms or rights is unsuccessful doesn’t mean more free speech is worse than less.Report

  4. Avatar j r says:

    There seems to be some way in which free speech can render reform toothless.

    I am not sure that I understand this point. I get that the ability to speak freely and criticize and perform activism doesn’t necessarily lead to reform, but are you arguing that it actually works against reform?Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq says:

      Free speech can make it seem like reform isn’t really that needed. If people could protest about police wrong-doing without getting in trouble, it show that things aren’t really that bad, right?Report

  5. Avatar Kim says:

    Shame on Lego. If they’re going to say “no Politics with our toys” they blasted well ought to mean it.

    Sorry, I can’t say that with a straight face.Report

  6. Avatar Kolohe says:

    From the website of the foundation that sponsored Ai Weiei’s project that you linked:

    The page on “with wind” (the large dragon) indicates that the quoted individual is indeed Mandela. Regarding the owls

    Scattered around the room are other kites decorated with stylized renderings of birds and flowers. These natural forms allude to a stark human reality: many are icons for nations with records of restricting their citizens’ human rights and civil liberties.

    The other US portraits in the Trace (Lego) exhibit are Shaker Aamer, Shakir Hamoodi, MLK, John Kirakou, and ex-PFC Manning. I guess Mumia and Peltier don’t have the juice anymore. It also appears that none of the Pussy Riot women made the cut for Russia. Finally, It must take a special talent to be the only representative of Iraq and to have been jailed by all the governments on either side of the 2003 overthrow.Report

  7. Avatar LWA says:

    (Forgive me if I’ve used this anecdote before, but seems appropriate here):

    I had a Mormon friend who did his mission in Argentina in the late 70’s. I asked him a few years afterward if he didn’t feel terrified being in so dangerous a place during the Dirty War.
    He looked puzzled, and said he had no inkling of it- everywhere he went, things were peaceful and safe.

    I realized that even in the most dangerous and oppressive regimes, there is a strata of people who are totally unaffected by it. It isn’t necessary of even desirable for a regime to oppress ALL the citizens; as long as the majority are not troubled or inconvenienced, you can pretty much do whatever you want with the minority.

    How many people here have been inconvenienced or harmed by the NSA wiretapping? How many here have been disappeared into a black site or had friends who were?

    I’m thinking now of the revelations about Chicago’s black site jail. Its inconceivable that the victims of it didn’t talk about it to their friends and family. Yet who was listening? No one who mattered.

    There is an observation that revolutions never start with the oppressed poor; they start only when the bourgeoisie become disaffected, and rise up. Only they actually possess the tools and wherewithal to stage effective action.

    Its another reason why adding voices of people of color and the working class to the national dialogue is important; we need to hear from people who actually have had NSA wiretapping used at their criminal trials, not just the rest of us who experience it vicariously.Report

    • Avatar Kim says:

      I have, for what it’s worth. Probably best not to get into details.
      Know someone who got yelled at by the State Department, too
      [for something more appropriately described as “being too nebby” rather than “helping a foreign state”].Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

      I think the Russians and Cubans might disagree with your observation about revolutions but I generally agree with the over all point.Report

    • Avatar Lyle says:

      Actually there have been admissions that as long as we don’t devote 30% of GDP to internal spying (such as the East German Stasi did ) we don’t have the resources to watch everyone. I recall hearing that it takes about 8-10 full time equivalent folks to track one person. So that suggests that does suggest absent a very paranoid government universal spying won’t happen as it is to expensive.Report

      • Avatar Glyph says:

        I suspect that ratio no longer holds, or if it does now, will not hold indefinitely. Technological advance makes everything less labor intensive and cheaper. I imagine that goes for surveillance as well.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

        Not only is the hardware to watch everyone getting cheaper and more prevalent, the software to analyze the result is getting smarter (and the hardware *that* runs on is getting cheaper.) Which is vital: there’s no point in having 24×7 video of everyone if you need people to watch it all looking for misbehavior.Report

      • Avatar James K says:


        And even if they can’t monitor everything, they can store what they record so if they want to investigate you more later (or just make an example of you), they’ll be able to go back over what they have on you.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

        I want to make a comedy about some poor schmoe who has the job of reviewing the most mundane and boring footage and phone conversations and e-mailed captured by the NSA.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

        @glyph @mike-schilling

        You can also do a comedy where the most mundane conversations are brought to heightened levels of threat:

        NSA Head Honcho: “She said brings your laundry on Sunday. What does laundry mean?”

        NSA entry-level spy: “She is his mother and he is visiting on Sunday. Laundry means his dirty clothing….”Report

      • Avatar Kolohe says:

        “I want to make a comedy about some poor schmoe who has the job of reviewing the most mundane and boring footage and phone conversations and e-mailed captured by the NSA.”

        Make sure you cut Terry Gilliam a royalty check.Report

  8. Avatar Burt Likko says:

    I very much enjoyed this art review, @saul-degraw . I’ve done the Alcatraz tour before and it ought to be a high point of every new tourist’s visit to San Francisco. I recall some of the moments narrated that you related to — the sound of women laughing coming across the bay, the instructions about how to move about the prison. Broadway. The importance of serving good-tasting food and library privileges.

    I might not make it to Alcatraz in time to see the Ai Weiwei installation, though, so this put me in a position where I had to partially imagine the experience. Alcatraz strikes me as an appropriate place for an installation of Ai’s work.

    While the winged creature may have seemed a bit over-the-top and obvious to your companion and you, and the Legos offered for sale may seem a bit commercial and common, bear in mind that Alcatraz is visited by people of all levels of artistic sophistication and you are probably among the elite in terms of training and ability to autonomously interpret contemporary art. And, you had the benefit of a companion who could assist with interpreting symbols rooted in Ai’s cultural vernacular.

    Kids like playing with Legos. Hell, grownups like playing with Legos. If selling Legos a) support the expenses of maintaining the national park, b) support the exhibition of contemporary art, c) remind people that sometimes, and in some places, people who have done nothing wrong wind up imprisoned, and d) remind people of the need to demonstrate humanity even to those rightfully put behind bars, then I’d say that the Legos have more than done their job.Report

  9. Avatar James K says:

    I don’t understand your argument about speech and political activity for two reasons:

    First, the logic that speech is a substitute for political action doesn’t make sense to me for 3 reasons:
    1) Political action requires coordination and coordination requires speech. Impairing the coordination of dissidents reduces their ability to dissent.

    2) Humans are social and sensitive to the beliefs of others. If a viewpoint is forbidden dissidents will be led to underestimate the fraction of people who believe as they do due to availability bias. This may discourage them from trying to change things.

    3) Laws banning certain viewpoints will tend to lead to the proponents of those viewpoints being imprisoned. It’s a lot harder to change policy from inside a cell.

    Secondly, it feels like an explanation in search of a question. Why have calls for prison reform gone unanswered? The simplest explanation is that the median voter is comfortable with the status quo, either because they don’t know how bad things are, or because they don’t care (or are even pleased by it). If there aren’t a substantial number of people willing to change their vote over prison reform, the Democrats have no incentive to do anything about it.Report

  10. Avatar Damon says:

    As long as free speech is directed where it can be expressed harmlessly, it’s not a problem. Where dissent is ignored it will be. Where it causes trouble to the ruling order it will be put down. Those with more to loose are naturally reluctant to risk what they have.Report