Grieving the American Dream

— Jo Schaeffer —

The Church of Scientology, Bank of America, Gene Simmons, and the FBI have at least one public embarrassment in common: a DDoS attack by a group of Anonymous internet users. In a DDoS (distributed denial of service) attack, a swarm of bogus access requests assault the target website’s server, choking the server’s TCP connections. It’s the network security equivalent of a bitch slap. Legitimate requests from users can’t be processed. A DDoS will put a target website down for the count: service denied. 

While Anonymous isn’t the only group or individual to DDoS a Web server (you can do it yourself with a PayPal account and the Google search results for “booter service”), their execution is notable insofar as the targets they selected for denial. Where have all the militant young blood anarchists gone? Look on 4chan and in IRC chat rooms. 

Using software applications with names like “Low Orbit Ion Cannon,” Anonymous targeted the Church of Scientology in 2008 for issuing a cease-and-desist letter to Gawker for copyright violation. Gawker’s offense: posting a video of Tom Cruise praising the church. In addition to DDoS attacks on the Church’s website, Anonymous members and others protested the Church of Scientology publicly, many wearing the Guy Fawkes masks that would become ubiquitous at other protests around the world. Protests were organized in the channels of 4chan. 

In 2010, Anonymous emerged once again from the shadows of the internet to DDoS numerous entities— from the U.S. Copyright Office to a British nightclub— for their efforts to suppress file sharing per copyright laws. In November of that year, Wikileaks began releasing thousands of leaked US diplomatic cables in the name of “bringing important information to the public” and providing “readers and historians alike with evidence of the truth.” In the ensuing controversy, numerous companies doing business with Wikileaks revoked their services, such as Web hosting and financial transaction processing. Anonymous initiated “Operation Avenge Assange” in support of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who was facing prosecution over the classified documents he published on the website. Anonymous DDoSed the websites of service-revoking companies including MasterCard, Visa, and Amazon as well as the websites of Senator Joe Lieberman, who encouraged service cessation to Wikileaks, and then-Governor Sarah Palin, who described Assange negatively on Facebook.

Even as Anonymous has widened their scope and diversified their targets, their activity has always suggested that the intent of their DDoS sorties is to deny more than Internet access requests. At a very basic level, through these melee attacks, Anonymous denies the ability of certain groups to communicate, to spread ideas. For example, by shutting down the website of the Westboro Baptist Church, in 2011 and 2012, Anonymous made a statement about the kinds of ideas that they would deny permission to exist— in some form and however temporarily. Underscoring that statement was the Anonymous affiliate who took down the official website of the Ugandan Prime Minister Amma Mbabazi in August of 2012. (Earlier that year, the Ugandan Parliament had re-tabled a bill that proposed capital punishment for homosexuality.) The text posted by the alleged hackers on the downed site read: “Your violations of the rights of LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] people have disgusted us. All people have the right to live in dignity free from the repression of someone else’s political and religious beliefs.” 

In October 2011, the Occupy movement was in full swing when Anonymous attacked the New York Stock Exchange’s website. It wasn’t Anonymous’s first foray into political unrest: in January, several Anonymous members aided the Arab Spring uprising in Tunisia, not only by hacking government websites but also by writing code to protect Tunisians against government surveillance. 

While Anonymous was DDoSing PayPal to avenge Julian Assange in December 2010, the “Arab Spring” was beginning in Tunisia. The uprising’s motto: “The people want to bring down the regime.” Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen saw leaders deposed. Protests took place in nearby Jordan, Djibouti, Oman, Kuwait, Iraq, and Bahrain. All these countries are, and were at the time, certified by the US Department of Defense as locations for combat zone tax benefits “due to their direct support of military operations.” Social media – Twitter, Facebook – and smartphones facilitated the uprisings; Wikileaks instigated them by exposing corruption. 

The people were pissed. They organized protests through social media; some were dubbed a “Day of Rage.” The revolution was uploaded to YouTube; videos of violent government suppression incited further outrage. The Occupy movement began throughout the Western world that autumn. Goings-on at the Occupy encampment in New York’s Zuccotti Park were live-streamed 24 hours a day. Protest developments and police activity were tweeted in real time. 

We all saw the same cop at UC Davis casually walk across our screens a million times, discharging pepper spray into some cross-legged kids’ eyes at close range. Although Occupy is no longer camping out, there are today calls for another “Day of Rage” in Egypt.  Though despots were ousted- even skewered in Gaddafi’s case—there is still plenty of corruption.

 In 2012 and 2013, American mainstream conversation began to shift to income disparity, quantitative easing, and the rise of the stock market versus the stagnant growth of the real economy. Young people just out of college are drowning in debt —the price of college has risen 700% since the 1970s; student debt has quadrupled since 2003. Many can’t find an appropriate job to begin paying on their debt because appropriate jobs don’t exist in nearly the same ever-increasing quantities as the number of kids just out of college (unfortunately this problem is worse for some degrees more than others). Yet, the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security always seem to be hiring. You know what it’s like to be physically frisked by or had an image of your body inspected by an underemployed college graduate if you’ve gone through airport security in the last 7 years.  

To survive, you don’t have to fuck over other people or the environment. Everybody can find a way to get along, to live well and love well, and to leave the world a better place—and cheers to that, because after the recently-deceased American dream (“Everybody can have and be anything and anybody they want! P.S.: Go to college”) is buried, it’s the next best thing. 

But to get along in the world today, without going off the grid or just going to terrific inconvenience, to live as a social human being in regular contact with other human beings, you have to give away information about yourself. You trade away your privacy to perform informational transactions that exist in diverse forms (like internet search history or cellular communication metadata) and have nuanced implications in the physical world (e.g. an email or a Facebook message). In the bargain, you effectively become a product. Your data is bought and sold. Facebook’s users aren’t the customers. They’re the product. The advertisers are the customers. 

Our personal metadata is recorded online but also in the physical world. Black boxes in cars, facial recognition software, traffic camera systems, and license plate recognition- these are things we put up with so we can go about our lives in a first-world Western country. We make a deal. 

The Great Recession is the biggest recession since the Great Depression. It’s a depressing time for working people like fast food workers who don’t make a living wage and barely-less-than-full time Wal-Mart employees who qualify for food stamps. It’s also a depressing time for middle-income earners whose income has flat lined as their pensions have been cut. Likewise, upper middle class people are getting screwed with bummer interest rates on savings, inflation, and higher taxes even as the top 10, 1 and 0.1 % hoard the majority of the proverbial pie.

And it’s a full blown crisis for the planet— that is, the kind of planet human beings can survive on. Instead of working to heal the environment or to create sustainable systems, our scientists and engineers secure gainful employment by stripping the Alberta oil sands, unleashing the Stuxnet virus, and developing armed drones for use overseas. The MQ-1 Predator, made by defense contractor General Atomics, has seen combat over Iraq, Yemen, Libya, and Somalia. These countries are among those where “the people want to bring down the regime.” Drone strikes have incited protests on their own after the drone kills the wrong target or innocent civilians become collateral damage. For “the regime” to mean the United States, as well as those countries’ respective dictators, would not be a stretch. To call the U.S. the “real terrorists” is a foregone conclusion for the Yemeni father whose child was killed by a drone in the summer of 2012. 

The question is not whether we are going to accept this— we cannot accept this. All generations have a large struggle against which they are judged. Our chance to do something is now; the situation has already gotten nearly too dire. You don’t drive up to the edge of a cliff at 100 mph only to slam on the brakes at the last second. By the same token, you don’t grieve a dream for a way of life and start a new one in a flash. The question is what we do to imagine and then to create our next chapter. What matters is how we go on. Don’t wait for permission to bury the dead. Grieve as you must, then make it right by moving forward. Start the new, now.

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