Category Archives: Rhetoric

Anti-TSA Opt Out Protest Planned & The Unbearable Privilege & Legitimacy of TSA Resistance

A new protest event is planned to fight the TSA’s use of whole body imagers and enhanced pat downs, however, this protest could be undermined by the privilege and access required to get into airports themselves.

Anti-TSA activist Ashley Jessica has teamed teamed up with to plan a  massive anti-TSA protest this November. The aptly titled Opt Out and Film protest is aimed at getting people en-mass to refuse the use of the TSA’s Advanced Imaging Technology (including backscatter technology which some critics claim exposes passengers to harmful radiation and millimeter wave technology which Jessica claims damages passengers’ DNA). The goal of Opt Out and film day is to:

OPT OUT and FILM Week takes place November 19, 2012- November 26, 2012


They will no longer use the threat of molestation to intimidate us into going through health damaging body scanners!

We will no longer tolerate them violating our civil liberties and human rights!We will no longer allow the TSA to stick their hands down our pants and touch our private parts!Any TSA agent who chooses to violate our rights and freedoms will be put on display for the world to see!


The protest capitalizes on two tactics that have been most successful in generating popular support for those who resist the TSA. First, in general, people who opt out whole body imagers are treated with admiration by many who oppose the TSA. Moreover, the protest aims to create more people opting out than a checkpoint can handle. Second, online videos of the TSA failing to follow protocol often sparks outrage among the TSA’s critics and even among those who often ignore the administration. Thus, a comprehensive strategy to force the agency to deal with more bodies than usual and to film those encounters will likely lead to increased tempers and mistakes. All of this suggests the potential for plenty of film to capture the kind of footage that creates the  anti-TSA narratives critics prefer.
This latest resistance effort got a boost when consumer advocate Christopher Elliot threw his support behind the protest, proclaiming the opt out week as a means to “kill” the TSA’s full body scanners. In a tweet Elliot even declared that 78% of travelers would participate in such a protest.
Of course Elliot fails to mention in his post that his 78% number comes from voluntary respondents to a poll on his website and on an article hosted by Huffington Post travel. Obviously 78% of travelers would not participate in “opt-out” week and to claim so is wildly misleading.
This underscores one of the major weaknesses with opt-out type protests: mobilization. In my own research I have found that large segments of anti-TSA critics, unlike Elliot or Jessica, either do not fly or overstate their actual opposition to the TSA. Evidence of this comes from their ignorance of TSA procedures or statements proclaiming that if the TSA were to touch them they would assault the TSA (instances of assault on TSA employees are rare).  Meaning, that even if they do fly they do not adhere to their values of resistance in actual airport spaces.
Moreover, Ashley Jessica and infowar’s opt out and film week, which takes place between November 19, 2012 at 6am and November  26, 2012 at 11pm, smacks of almost unbearable privilege. The protest asks passengers to:
Fly within the United States, OPT OUT of the body scanner and have someone FILM your pat-down;
You can also opt-out of other unreasonable TSA security procedures (i.e. eye scan, drink testing inside the terminal etc.) and film what happens.
There is a clear element of class here that comes with the ability to select to fly during one of the busiest and most expensive travel times during the year, preferably not alone, to have the ability & technology to film your pat down, and to have the leisure time to risk delays as a result of one’s protest. Because airport spaces require capital as a precursor to access, protesting them is a unique activity. Thus, Jessica, Elliot, and Infowars are taking an activity of privilege and protesting it. I want to underscore that I am not suggesting that actions by the TSA do not warrant resistance because of inherent privilege in air travel. However, given that many anti-TSA advocates dismiss those who support or refuse to oppose the agency (calling them plants or slaves online) or overstate the volume of those who resist the TSA; opt out and film week is particularly susceptible to its own unbearable privilege. I am not isolated from such privilege, after all my own research on airport spaces and resistance to the TSA is absolutely open to such critiques.
Will opt out and film be successful? I don’t know. I am sure that if it occurs the TSA will dismiss it as a minor inconvenience and its supporters will triumph it as a grand success. Both citing little evidence. However, unless it becomes a grand act of resistance it will fade quickly. Any history of resistance is also a history of persistence. Airport security, like airports themselves are about the persistence of capital- to flow in a globalized world-without the commitment to opt out beyond one week what incentive will the TSA have to make any change?
For all the complaints about abuses by the TSA, why do they deserve  more attention now than the decades of complaints of abuse by State actors against the poor who rarely have consumer advocates or access to privileged activities like flying that are supposed to be free of the indignities of State violence?

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Initial Conclusions on Public Resistance to the TSA

This serves as a quasi research update. The current dissertation chapter I am working on studies public resistance to the TSA by tracking public and official discourse about videos passengers have shot of their screening process. You can see an example of one such video here. In this video a women claims to have been detained by the TSA, and forced to miss her flight because of her attitude towards the TSA. I have yet to assess the veracity of this video.

One important trend among the videos in my study is that many of them claim in captions, blogs, and stories to show malfeasance on the part of the TSA while there was none or there was inappropriate actions taken by both agents and the passenger. I point this out because as stories of the heavy handed TSA circulate; critiques of the agency must be grounded in actual policy disagreements and agent malfeasance, not a mythos of rumored misdeeds. For example, a widely circulated video claims to show a young child being strip searched by the TSA at Salt Lake City International Airport. In reality, the child’s father took of the child’s shirt in an attempt to expedite the process. I am, by no means, trying to buffer the TSA from criticism, but my research points to a pernicious degree to which videos of this type are often said to show one thing even when they mean another. That said, a number of videos and stories exist that document instances of questionable actions by the TSA.

I offer seven preliminary conclusions based on what my research has found so far. This reads as some tough-love for TSA critics. Please do not assume I am fawning for the TSA, I have much to say to them as well.

1. The larger issue with TSA critics is that they argue privatization is the solution. Why is corporate surveillance preferred to State?

An undercurrent within critiques of the TSA is a specifically anti-government anti-big brother sentiment. Given the TSA’s techniques of surveillance (I discuss their surveillance technology in my dissertation’s previous chapter and their rituals and performances of surveillance in the next chapter), concern over surveillance is not unfounded. However, while I freely admit state surveillance is problematic I cannot accept that corporate surveillance is necessarily a better outcome. First, even in places where the TSA is using private companies to perform security screenings they use the same procedures as the TSA. Nothing has changed and it is unlikely that most consumers or the government would want to relax security restrictions any time soon. Second, a profit motive adds alternative drives for monitoring and data collection. These are different from the state’s desire to watch our bodies but are nonetheless disconcerting.

2. Absent a successful legal challenge, what would motivate Congress to dismantle the TSA?

This issue comes down to a basic burden of proof. The TSA has a remarkable safety record. How do we know that? We don’t. As long as the agency can show an effective record in securing our air infrastructure without large scale resistance from political moderates there is little political will to change the TSA’s mandate. Additionally, many assert the TSA is unconstitutional. While there are legal challenges underway, critics must become more nuanced than to claim it is unconstitutional because I say so. Knowing your rights is absolutely critical, but knowing them as the law defines them is more important than how you think the law ought to define them.

3. Those who call everything the TSA does security theater ignore the agency’s ability to cope with real threats & post 9/11 innovations.

Since 9/11 airport security has undergone a massive change in it techniques for securing our air transportation infrastructure. That said, the TSA is not an impenetrable wall of security and critics have taken to calling its efforts security theater to claim it is more about creating the appearance of security than actual security. I offer a more substantive critique of this in my research, not that I wholly dismiss it but I offer an alternative read. That said, some techniques that have been added post 9/11 may offer more advantages to the screening process. That does not make them inherently good, but it does mean critics need to be more nuanced than it is all security theater. Also, that does not mean the TSA should have unlimited fiat. The conversation must cease to be all or nothing.

4. Critics can’t claim the TSA violates their constitutional rights & demand the agency violate the Equal Protection clause.

Again, the TSA’s actions are not unconstitutional simply because you say so. I am fully sympathetic that most frustrations with the TSA begin with a simple premise: I pose no risk to this flight so why should I face any added scrutiny? However, your knowledge that you pose no risk and the TSA’s appraisal of you are two very different things. Moreover, many critics argue for implementing racial profiling. Not only does this violate the equal protection clause (note the irony for angst about constitutional violations) but it ignores the insurgent and adaptable tactics of terrorism as a technique for violence making.

5. Both critics & the TSA must cope with the fact that threats innovate, thus children, the elderly, etc become attractive means for terror.

This may seem redundant with the previous point, however, the people and means by which threats are brought to airports and aircraft are malleable. This is why profiling is ineffective.

6. While criticizing the TSA critics need to, at some point, address the number of weapons routinely found at checkpoints. Threats persist.

I am fascinated by the number of reports of handguns found by the TSA each week. You should follow @TSAblogteam on twitter if you don’t already. While the strange items they find attract the most attention, the number of weapons they find as a matter of course is surprising. While there is an argument to be made that these can be found without enhanced pat downs and whole body imaging technology, or without the TSA altogether, something is driving the desire to arm the friendly skies. As a side not, I am not saying guns are inherently bad.

7. We need robust discourse about the TSA across our society and it’s value in securing our transportation infrastructure.

We are just passing the ten-year anniversary mark for many airports ramping up their TSA operations. TSA security has become a fixture in contemporary American airports and they largely dictate how we fly. The conversation about the TSA has been largely driven by official PR work, a scattering of news stories dictated by that PR work and by legitimate issues within the TSA, and by a great many critics who trend towards the hyperbolic rather than the substantive.

A polarized debate driven by the issues I have identified above is rather unproductive. For example, those who argue that the TSA is “proudly molesting grandma’s & little kids since super-lez napolatino took office” delegitimize resistance. Aside from the personal attacks and the hate speech. I point to this tweet in particular because of the continued, and perplexing, argument that the TSA is associated somehow with advancing a homosexual agenda (See here & here). Whatever that argument means. Critics of the TSA need to engage with the agency in less hostile, personal, and hyperbolic ways that make use of material harms and congressional channels. Such efforts can maximize passenger angst and moderate dissatisfaction over fringe anti-state assumptions and hostile rhetoric.

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Obama’s Dour Presidential Address at the DNC

Overall, Obama was rather dour save for his crescendo at the end of the speech. It was nowhere near his best speech. However, that is hardly a fair critique because that ship sailed in 2004. He was very Presidential- “The times have changed –- and so have I. I’m no longer just a candidate. I’m the president.” I take that to mean he was assertive and much less cold and intellectual than he is often perceived.

One thing that struck me was that the speech did not feel totally built for his base. Some preaching to the choir, but most of it outlined the choice against Romney argument and built his Commander in Chief visage. This was especially clear in the foreign policy section. This has to be the most non-sensical contrast in the election. There is almost no daylight between Obama’s foreign policy and a hypothetical Romney-foreign policy.

Two takeaways:
1) The DNC showed that there is no more effective campaigner than Bill Clinton. The GOP has yet to really refute the bulk of Clinton’s substance. I take great heart in that. Not just because I appreciate the arguments but because out of both conventions Clinton was the only speaker to address actual policy differences between the parties with depth, substance, and length. He mustered ethos, pathos, and logos to make a policy-oriented argument for a candidate. The candidates should feel ashamed they lack that ability or are restrained by their consultants from using it.

2) Conventions matter, but a bump is unlikely. Unemployment fell today, by proxy of people leaving the workforce. That is bad news. At the end of the day the President has less control steering the economy than other factors. Nonetheless, this report will tamper what little momentum may have come out of the DNC. I am not a quantitative scholar and so I don’t prognosticate but those I watch (and whose methods I pay attention to because method matters) look for post-convention polls to return to pre-convention levels.

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The Epistemology of Fact Checkers

We treat fact as facts and fact checkers as arbiters of truth. However, facts are more complex than they seem and the current presidential campaign warrants a look at the rhetoric of fact checkers.

A curious tweet came across my feed during the Republican National Convention. With disdain and snark someone had lamented, “Epistemology is hard.” Their sarcasm was aimed at the factual inaccuracies they saw mounting in Paul Ryan’s primetime speech accepting the GOP’s VP nomination. The left’s outcry for fact checking was immediate. Sadly, fact checking is not a fast process. As fact checks rolled in the next day there were indeed a number of claims with which Ryan took liberty. During the first night of the Democratic National Convention, before speeches were even complete, Republicans were taking to twitter screaming “But where are the fact checkers?”

Fact checkers seem to be playing a curious role in this election. Romney Pollster Neil Newhouse said, “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.” While campaigns are quick to bring up fact checkers to attack their opponents claims, rarely do they modify their own dubious claims debunked by fact checkers. Some have taken to calling the 2012 election a post-fact campaign because of the lawlessness with which facts are abandoned. Such defenses are lazy and often made by those who rather report what happened or support a candidate instead of investigating what was said.

More than all of this, however, is the nagging issue of the epistemology of fact checkers. While simple sayings like facts are facts may sound convincing, the many non-partisan fact checking reports, not to mention the various news organizations engaging in their own fact checking endeavors, makes it clear that facts are actually tough things to check. Take a few examples:

1) How do we calculate jobs gained or lost under President Obama? Do we start the day he was inaugurated? Do we begin when his policies take effect? How would we measure that? Do we factor in GOP obstruction to Obama’s economic policies? Yes, if we think they would have worked. No, if we think they would have made unemployment worse. All of a sudden fact checking Obama’s 4.5 million-job record is a difficult thing.

2) Medicare is another wonderful example. Representatives of both campaigns (Obama & Ryan) have taken or proposed changes to Medicare. These changes forever alter Medicare. That sentence sounds scary, but theoretically any change no matter how small would forever alter Medicare because it was different than it was before. The scuffle over cuts to Medicare, and attempts to check these claims, is based on this very issue. What counts as a cut? Who do cuts impact? What are the effects of a cut? Is a cut bad if it increases the solvency of the program? Maybe not, but I can make it sound bad? Can I make it sound good?

3) Mitt Romney’s phantom middle class tax increase is a good final example. Romney has not proposed a middle class tax increase. Now listening to the DNC you would not know that. However, Romney also does not have an actual formally articulated tax policy. Democrats have been operating by inference that if Romney is increasing defense spending and cutting taxes for the wealthy the only way to cut the debt, even after cutting loopholes and spending, is to raise middle class taxes. They base this on a non-partisan study that argued this is the only way the math can work out. Here we see the complexity of facts. Fact: Romney has not proposed a middle class tax increase. Fact: Romney says he will reduce the debt. Fact: Romney cannot reduce the debt under his tax scheme without increasing middle class taxes (based on analysis of his tax outline). Obviously not all of these facts can be true at the same time. Democrats are creating facts by inference, filling in a gap in Romney’s policy for him. That is an inference not a fact. Yet, for some, even for fact checkers, this passes as a fact.

This brings me to what fact checkers (non-partisan and partisan alike) do. They inaugurate a regime of epistemology. When fact checkers determine what is true, what is half-true, and what is false they enter the discourse as truth tellers in a way that lends discourse an official status of truth regardless of its actual veracity. Regimes of epistemology have power because they serve as gatekeepers of knowledge, they help determine what counts as knowledge in our society, and even those who say they fact checkers will not dictate their campaign end up responding to fact checkers. Fact checkers are weighing important values in the conversation and verifying claims, that is an important role, but facts are complicated and fact checker’s determinations can be as faulty as a campaign’s original claim.

Ultimately, fact checkers matter because truth matters in a democracy. However, a lingering question is what counts as truth and knowledge in a democracy? We are already dealing with a very narrow window of discourse. The information that candidates say dominates the information that gets fact checked (obviously). They serve as gatekeepers for knowledge in this election. Fact checkers challenge them on that field, necessarily, and are thus complicit in the regimes of knowledge produced by campaigns. Is that cynical? You bet. However, we should take a moment to recognize that in an election marked by factual shortcuts and post-factual statements that the facts being contested and checked are already rigged. They are products of multi-media campaigns designed to produce very specific kinds of knowledge. That is the epistemology of fact checkers, a regime under which we are satisfied with the checking of the knowledge we are given instead of what we find on our own. That is not meant to call us dupes or to argue we are bad at democracy. I find little solace in sad militancy. However, we should be aware that every candidate, pundit, and fact checker has flaws and a regime of knowledge. Testing the limits of that epistemology is vital for our democracy.

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Rape Culture, Rape Prevention, & Masculinity

This was an invited talk at Your Community Center in Ogden, UT on April 14, 2012 to address the connection between masculinity, rape, & culture during a Take Back the Night event. They titled the presentation “How Not To Be a Rapist,” which I was not entirely comfortable with but working off that theme I addressed the need for to intervene in boys male teens, and men’s lives as part of rape prevention strategies. [Apologies for the poor sound quality]

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TSA Agent Nabbed in Child Porn Sting, Fear of TSA Increases

Consumerist, owned by Consumer Reports, keeps a healthy eye on the TSA and picked up this story by the Boston Herald that a TSA Agent was among the 55 individuals caught in a child pornography sting. Consumerist reports:

The Transportation Security Administration keeps getting hit with scandal after scandal — from thieving agents to employees with ridiculous demands, or those who leave creepy notes in passengers’ bags. And now, in an even ickier development, a TSA agent who worked at Boston’s Logan International Airport has been nabbed as part of a sweeping child pornography crackdown.

Now this entire issue is somewhat ridiculous, I say that because the TSA is being spotlighted while the employment status of the other 54 people arrested has not been released. Thus, it is easy to see how this story plays into TSA paranoia while others being charged could have had more direct and regular contact with children and the general public. That said there is some interesting material to explore here.

This article is fascinating for its link into the inherent anti-TSA paranoia propagated across the web. There are two tones of criticism of the TSA present in this story: one useful and the other that contributes to the ongoing conspiratorial rhetoric against the TSA.

The Boston Herald notes:

Periodic arrests of TSA agents on sex charges across the nation have fueled criticism of the agency’s screening of its own employees, tasked with patting down the traveling public and keeping the airways safe. At least two other TSA officers assigned to Logan have faced sex charges in the past two years. Sex charges against others have been reported in Virginia, New Hampshire, Nevada, Georgia and other states

While, The Boston Herald fails to establish any basis for knowing if this case, and these other periodic cases, when contextualized among the 50,000 TSA officers who have regular contact with the public. It is nonetheless important to consider the standards, or lack thereof, used in hiring and training TSA employees. Given my own research into the TSA’s use of pat-downs and performances of bodily contact, it does suggest that for jobs that regularly require rituals of bodies in contact more clarity of hiring standards could be needed. That said, it would be mistaken to assume that more stringent hiring standards would have automatically precluded this person from being hired by the TSA.

Having said there are legitimate concerns, the standard anti-TSA talking points come in full force in the comments section of the two publications. For example, “Cowboyesfan” wonders “Could looking at the porno scanners all day long have caused this?” “Toadboy65” offers a cogent explanations, “What kind of people do you expect to apply for a job where you are required to fondle people of all ages all day…” and an anonymous poster at the Herald asked “Was he strip searched like all the good TSAs do to the flying public?”

While ignorant internet comments are nothing new (understatement of the decade), discourse of this type shows the disconnect between public discussions of the TSA and the actual TSA itself. As long as this gap persists and the public is lodged in a paranoid vision of the TSA as a mass of pedophiles desiring to see and feel nude bodies, constructive criticism of the agency is unlikely to emerge.

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#Kony2012: Rhetoric of Retribution & Refusing to Address Incisive Criticism [Updated]

[Update] Via @KirtWilson on twitter USA Today is reporting on the first screening of the Kony 2012 in Uganda has lead to a disastrous response from Ugandans. Criticism was immediate and harsh. They report:

If people in those countries care about us, they will not wear T-shirts with Joseph Kony for any reason… That would celebrate our suffering.

You can see Al-Jazeera’s report on the screening below that ended in the crowed throwing rocks at the screen and scattering into the night. One viewer explains, “These are all white men, these are villains different from northern Uganda.” Clearly not the reception Invisible Children desired.


Kony Founders and Maturity Via my twitter account @AcaGuy I have been following the huge viral spread of the Kony 2012 video and the controversy that has surrounded the Invisible Children organization since the film’s release.

The 30 minute film, to its credit offers a compelling narrative that seems geared to a social media generation and aimed at getting audiences in high schools and colleges who screen Invisible Children’s films on the topic to passionately engage with, and care deeply about, stopping Kony.

After the video was released Invisible Children faced a firestorm of criticism and even felt the need to release a second video defending their organization:

The video ends on the right note, perhaps, “There is one thing that everyone agrees on and that is that Joseph Kony Should be stopped.”

As you may notice the video does take on some of the substantive criticisms of the group while simultaneously adding more fodder for some of the core critiques of Invisible Children.

Ben Keesey talks directly about the companies finances and attempts to take on the critique that roughly only a third of donations go to direct action. He emphasizes that about 87% of donations go to their mission and emphasizes their three fold mission:
1) They are a media company that makes people care about Kony
2) They ask for advocacy so that people contact their government
3) The organization is taking direct action on the ground in Uganda

The central issue here is that they are calculating their percent of donations on mission to include their media production budget and roadshows which dominate their finances and those efforts do very little to actually answer the question of how this stops Kony. They say they make “compelling movies and films” to create a narrative to get investment from people so they get involved and contact their government. However, with few answers on what more international action looks like (for them military intervention) there is little to suggest that these efforts achieve much success or make use of local resources. In fact, the only part of the response video that makes much of an impact is when they actually give a chance for local voices to be heard (despite their constant use of subtitles even when these voices speak in clear english). We can diagram the problem with Invisible Children’s model rather succinctly (borrowing from South Park):
1) Launch Massive Expensive Media Campaigns Making Movies and Films
2) ???????????
3) Stop Kony

A second more troubling critique of Kony 2012 has been its mobilization of the white man’s burden. One Ugandan blogger provided a fairly direct critique of Invisible Children’s outdated information and desire to go to Uganda and fix their problems:

Her argument is well articulated and ignored in the response by Invisible children. All of this comes to the main substantive critique of Invisible Children and their desire for (military) intervention in Uganda and in the search for Kony in neighboring African countries:
1) Why is it their job to solve this issue?
2) Who are they to dictate how Ugandan’s deal with their internal politics?
3) What drives their need to go elsewhere, ignoring the needs of the invisible children in their neighborhoods and communities that need help as well?
4) What was so bankrupt in Keller’s life that he had to travel the globe to find meaning for his life.

Some of the answer may lie in the colonizing and paternalistic discourse dripping from their campaign rhetoric and personal narratives of discovering Kony as the uncivilized other that must be stopped by the white knight. As Jezebel describes Keesey’s moment of conversion, he:

turned down a cushy job at a big accounting firm after he graduated from UCLA because he was so “deeply moved” by the low-production value of an earlier Invisible Children video that he just had to join in the fight to defeat Joseph Kony’s fading Lord’s Resistance Army”

Keesy needs to solve this problem because it is easier to deal with problems there than here and as has been pointed out by a mass array of critics, notably Visible Children, Invisible Children does this through a systematic oversimplification of the situation in Uganda. Be sure to check out the video, read up on Invisible Children, and ask questions. Keensey even says he is answering questions via twitter so shoot questions @Invisible #askICanything and maybe he will answer you. Anything can happen.

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