On “Citizenfour”

Last Thursday, I filed my last articles of 2016 for both jobs. Buzzer-beaters, to be sure, but I celebrated all the same by putting on a movie. There was nothing remotely festive on my flash drive, it was a bit too late to dig up alternatives, and the US Congress’ Intelligence Committee had just released its findings on Edward Snowden.

And that, friends, is how someone ends up watching Citizenfour for the holidays.


The last documentary in filmmaker Laura Poitras’ trilogy on post-9/11 America, Citizenfour drops you into the riveting, paranoiac story of how the world found out that it was being watched. It’s you in a Hong Kong hotel room, conferring with Glenn Greenwald, Ewen MacAskill, and Edward Snowden on the US’ mass surveillance systems. It’s you on the receiving end of encrypted (and cryptic) emails with instructions for downloading classified documents. It’s you in the middle of game-changing revelations about privacy and state power. Or, no, that’s not entirely accurate: it’s Edward Snowden in the center, and for 144 minutes, you are an invested and equally vulnerable insider.

Make no mistake, this is an advocacy film. Citizenfour depicts Snowden as an intelligent and resolute NSA contractor who grew increasingly disillusioned with the agency’s ethically questionable surveillance programs. The leaks, Snowden says, were driven by patriotism and principle. Poitras and Greenwald never question him beyond that, nor does the film look at the fallout of Snowden’s actions. Instead, Poitras drills down on the leaks’ implications: millions of civilians under watch without cause or consent, the deception that sustained that surveillance, the alarming lapses in ethics and judgment that entails.
Together, your insider position and Poitras’ choice of focus transform Citizenfour from simple documentary to real-life cyberpunk thriller.

A lot of questions have been raised about Snowden’s motives and methods, and the recent US Congressional report on his ties with Russian intelligence only muddle the picture further. Faith in Snowden, however, is essential to Citizenfour. It creates clarity. That, in turn, lets the film have its high and immediate stakes: glossing over Snowden’s motives leaves him free to inhabit the role of intrepid cyberpunk protagonist, sending dispatches through the internet ether and living on a ticking clock set by sinister governments with motive and means to hunt him down. This is the chase that Citizenfour drops you into; the film’s narrow view indicates an understanding that looking over your shoulder is much easier when you aren’t asking questions about who’s beside you, too.

However, this gives the film an opacity that cuts a bit too close to the characteristic sins of its designated Big Bads. For a film about disclosure, Citizenfour holds back a lot. Like I said earlier, the film doesn’t go into the extent or the fallout of Snowden’s leaks either. There’s no mention or analysis of these disclosures’ effects on the US and UK intelligence communities, of what other forces (and states) can do with the leaked information, of what consequences (if any) the ensuing shake-up will have for civilians. That cuts out even more essential context for the leaks that Citizenfour asks you to judge, even applaud.

Overall, it’s an absorbing and illuminating documentary, though one that asks for more trust than its choices arguably earn. It’s a quality that Citizenfour shares with both Snowden and the agencies he exposes; in that sense, at the very least, Poitras has crafted the perfect portrayal.


Neither a bang nor a whimper

Two major incidents in the South China Sea last week.

On Tuesday, the CSIS’ Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative reported China’s new point-defense fortifications on its artificial islands in the Spratlys. Then on Friday, news broke of a Chinese ship illegally seizing a US Navy underwater probe in Philippine waters.


Chinese installations on Johnson Reef, care of the CSIS/AMTI report.

A lot of the ensuing analysis has focused on the US response and these events’ implications for US-China relations. That’s understandable, considering the US’ Asia pivot and the friction arising from territorial disputes in the South China Sea. But it’s exactly because of those disputes that I’m driven to examine what these events might mean for the Philippines, which—despite recent walk-backs of our stance on China—remains a claimant to these contested areas.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay recently declared that the Philippines will not stop Chinese construction on these islands. He also insisted that other nations concerned by these new developments can deal with China on their own. To wit:

“There are other countries that will have special concerns insofar as these activities of China are concerned. Such as… the right to the freedom of navigation that they would like to protect and overflight operations – the United States is concerned about this, Japan is concerned about this, the European Union is concerned about this […] Let them take whatever action is necessary in the pursuit of their national interest… and we will leave it at that, for the Philippines, we have our bilateral engagements with China.”

I see some worrying implications from Sec. Yasay’s response, and I’ll try to go into those one by one.

First, it’s important to look at how China asserts its claims in the South China Sea. The prevailing strategy seems to be a push for de facto legitimacy. Perhaps to reduce space for contest, China mainly stakes its claims through practice: however shaky the concept of Chinese sovereignty over the Spratlys (and other territories) might be, China makes that notion “real” by acting as if it already is.

Infrastructure and personnel deployments, of which these installations are just the newest example, form the primary pillars for China’s territorial claims. (In a way, the claims are their own “proof.”) By leaving these new installations unchallenged, we’re giving China free rein in the main avenue it uses to validate its claims: practice, and the situation on the ground. China gains greater control over territories in all but name. Remember that this is the country that refused to participate in proceedings at the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) and later rejected that court’s rulings. It’s safe to assume that “name” is a secondary consideration for China here.

If international opposition or rebuke does not involve substantial effects on its actual control over these islands, or on its global standing more generally, then it seems China will not be deterred.

Second: Global standing is key. The Philippines is clearly disadvantaged in these disputes. (This is also why I’m skeptical of bilateral talks as a means of resolution.) One of the few things we can leverage against China is its status on the international stage: its credibility, and any effects that a blow to its reputation might have on relations with key foreign entities. Those are the only levers we can pull that have real impact on China’s economic, military, diplomatic capacities. (Hence the missed opportunity that is the PCA ruling, I think, but that’s a different point.)

The South China Sea disputes involve many other states. By taking the lead—notably in the PCA case—the Philippines adds weight to its own claims and puts itself in a better position to influence how regional (and even global) powers approach China. International cooperation makes the Philippines a bigger player in these disputes than it could realistically be otherwise.

By leaving other concerned states to deal with China by themselves, we signal an aversion to joint responses or multilateral approaches for these disputes. This weakens diplomacy-based support for our own claims.

That brings me to my third point: Secretary Yasay’s statements are troubling in light of other recent shifts in Philippine foreign policy. Just a week ago, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said that the Philippines would “very likely” stop aiding US freedom of navigation patrols in the South China Sea. (There are many problems with US-Philippine military relations, but those are for a different post altogether.) It’s worth noting that US was our foremost military partner for decades. With China far outstripping us in naval capabilities, the bulk of whatever armed presence we can assert in the South China Sea stems from US partnerships.

As Secretary Yasay keeps reminding us, we’ve already put the PCA ruling “on the back burner,” watering down the legal buttresses of our position. Cutting off any involvement with US patrols in the South China Sea signals a retreat from our own claims on yet another front.

Secretary Yasay notes that objecting to these very real developments will do harm, whereas there’s nothing to be lost by keeping silent. Diplomatic rules of thumb generally agree, and we don’t have the military capabilities to pose credible challenges in the sphere that China’s claims are working in (i.e., reality on the ground). But silence disregards and undermines our capacity for opposition in the spheres that our claims work in: legal, diplomatic, conceptual. Any declarations we make about defending our claims hold no water when we’ve already ceded them in practice.

Besides, Secretary Yasay’s assurances that we will “pursue peaceful means at which all of this can be prevented” are belied by his own declaration that the Philippines will refrain from calling or issuing a note verbale regarding these developments. This silence, we are led to believe, will lead to warmer bilateral relations between the Philippines and China.

Meanwhile, the Chinese Defense Ministry justifies its new military installations by reminding everyone that “China has indisputable sovereignty over the Nansha [Spratly] islands and its adjacent waters.” Xinhua reports that China’s seizure of a US naval probe in the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ)—well beyond even China’s problematic nine-dash line—occurred “in its [China’s] waters.”

China seems confident in its ability to assert power even within clear-cut Philippine boundaries. Whatever “good relations” are being built between China and the Philippines seem to come at the price of surrendering any credible opposition we might stake against China’s claims in our territories.

Secretary Yasay notes that “we can later on go back into the issue of our dispute with the South China Sea,” once relations have improved. At the rate things are going, those discussions will be moot and academic.

Radiolab on thinking trees

Great episode from Radiolab on the vast underground networks that link trees together. Does that sound dull? It’s a testament to the Radiolab team’s skill that this remains one of the most riveting podcast episodes I’ve heard in months.

On human rights and drug-related killings

I caught a really thought-provoking interview on human rights featuring the philosopher John Tasioulas recently. Being an (old) episode of the Philosophy Bites podcast, which caters to a general audience, the interview focused on a basic1 question: What are human rights?

Basic, but not simple, since “human rights” has become both a very charged term and, perhaps in some circles, one so overused as to have turned into a bit of a hollow buzzword. Which is why it’s notable how Tasioulas kicks off the interview by first dispelling the, shall we say, “special snowflake” air that has enveloped the concept: human rights are only one kind of rights, he asserts. Now this doesn’t undercut the importance of these rights, but it at least does away with the tunnel vision that they tend to inspire and situates them within a broader category of similar concepts that, he implies, are no less worthy of discussion.

But the dissolution of the term “human rights”‘ definite edges is, like I’ve said, something of a problem. So what distinguishes human rights from other kinds of rights? Tasioulas says: universality, these rights’ applicability throughout humanity.

This is the point I find most interesting, mostly because of personal experience. Ever since it became clear that our new president had won the post, there’s been a disturbing spike in drug-related extra-judicial killings. The number keeps ticking up to this day, and there’s been a lot of debate about the validity and ethics of these incidents.


Ancient civilizations and failures of imagination

A couple of months ago, the BBC reported new findings on puquios, which  are spiralling holes scattered across Peru’s Nasca region. Through satellite imagery, a team of Italian researchers deduced the purpose of the once-mysterious holes: based on their placement and proximity to settlements, puquios seem to be part of a complex water retrieval and distribution system.

The BBC report carries a standout quote from the lead researcher:

“What is clearly evident today is that the puquio system must have been much more developed than it appears today,” says Lasaponara.

There are a lot of other notable quotes regarding this breakthrough, but that one dredged up a memory from one of the anthropology classes I took in college.


Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells These Stories: Orlando and Narratives of Trauma

“There are no words.”

There’s also no counting how many times I’ve said that in response to various facets of the Orlando shooting: first, the burst of reports; then the rising death toll; then the slow unraveling of each victim’s biography; and then, the aftermath, the responses — in forms both heartwarmingly compassionate and shamelessly opportunistic.

The extent and range of those responses isn’t surprising. Forty-nine people died and 53 were injured at a mass shooting in Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando. This is the deadliest mass shooting in US history, and the shooter targeted the LGBT+ community, a group that — despite significant progress in recent years — remains a minority in every sense of the term. Many members of the community have already spoken about how jarring, how traumatic this attack has been; many more have continued to speak about how subsequent responses have been disrespectful, exploitative, damaging, or unhelpful at best.

I found myself unable, somehow, to join those engaged in the former. So far, the most I’ve been able to do is retweet messages of support and guidelines for volunteers, because secondhand sentiments are the only things I felt comfortable posting about the matter. Let me be clear: 140 characters, no matter how many sets I retweet, will never be enough to articulate the grief, anger, and despair I feel about this attack. However, shameful as it is to say so right now, 140 characters are more than enough to be a potential breach in the illusion of safety that stems from being a straight-passing, low-key member of the community.  (more…)