Archive for the 'Politics' Category

Civil Society on Your Computer, Police State in the Streets

This week’s New York Times Magazine has a well done article about the role Facebook is having in the formation of civil society in Egypt. While the internet and social media’s potential for civic engagement is certainly large here in the West, in places where there are larger amounts of censorship, where it is illegal to organize publicly, where people are dragged off to jail in the middle of the night by secret police, the implications of its presence are likely to be more dramatic. The article gives a hint of both this potential as well as its limitations.

On the one hand, places like Facebook will provide a place to organize groups around issues in a way that the government can’t simply shut down. The article quotes Ethan Zuckernman, of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society and founder of Global Voices, on why it’s important that activism and organizing are happening on sites like Facebook in Egypt:

The April 6 movement illustrates what he calls the “cute-cat theory of digital activism.” Web sites or proxy servers created specifically for activists are easy for a government to shut down, Zuckerman says, but around the world, dissidents thrive on sites, like Facebook, that are used primarily for more mundane purposes (like exchanging pictures of cute cats). Authoritarian regimes can’t block political Facebook groups without blocking all the “American Idol” fans and cat lovers as well. “The government can’t simply shut down Facebook, because doing so would alert a large group of people who they can’t afford to radicalize,” Zuckerman explained.

This is incredibly important, and represents a shift in how regimes that censor are able to quiet inconvenient voices on the internet.

On the other hand, the article ends with a dose of reality about how far Facebook activism is going in the country. It seems that while there’s a great amount of excitement online for organizing against the authoritarian government in Egypt by its citizens, when groups attempt to bring people to the streets consistently, they are often met by police who are monitoring those same online forums that were used to organize actions, or simply by poor turnouts which might be attributed to fear or apathy. “What does it mean to have a vibrant civil society on your computer screen and a police state in the street?”, the article asks in its closing paragraph. Watch Egypt carefully and we may find out.

A Dramatic Memory on the Eve of Obama’s Election

Recently on our family listserve, my grandfather Irving shared an essay memoir he wrote to the Obama campaign.  It’s a moving recollection and reflection on his own involvement in the civil rights movement, something I’ve been meaning to write about for a while.  After asking to see if he’d be ok with it, I’m now happy to share it with you.  Enjoy!

A Dramatic Memory on the Eve of Obama’s Election

Irving M. Levine

One month after the dramatic election of Barack Obama, I celebrated my 79th birthday with renewed hope and considerable glee.  The day, December 7th, always evokes vivid memories of my 12th birthday in 1941. There wasn’t much to celebrate, of course, as I sat by the radio, hour-after-hour, hoping and praying that despite massive losses at Pearl Harbor, we might still prevail as a nation. Thank god that we had chosen FDR as our President. His indomitable spirit, inspirational character, and transformational leadership rallied us to victory against truly evil forces seeking to dominate the world.

From those times of dark shadows to today, my life’s journey has been a good and lucky one. Born into poverty, two months after the stock market crash of 1929, I grew up in a neighborhood largely populated by Jews, Blacks, and small enclaves of Italian and Polish families. We lived in the heart of Brownsville, Brooklyn—home to Murder Incorporated—and our fates were up for grabs.  For my three brothers and me, poverty and high-crime would not prove to be a knockout blow. A close family, mutual aid, the WPA, and our parents’ good character got us through the worst of times. But for many of my street-corner buddies, their lives went the wrong way.   Dozens ended “up the river” or died of drug and gang activities.

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Differing social media strategies of the Israeli Government

A video of air strikes in Gaza, from the Israeli Defense Forces Youtube Channel

In what might be the next iteration of government public relations during wartime, different parts of the Israeli government have recently created a range of social media sites. An IDF Youtube channel highlights videos from air strikes it is undertaking in the Gaza Strip, interspersed with clips showing humanitarian aid deliveries. Its blog contains posts about recent operations it’s engaged in and statistics on rocket attacks towards Israel, among other things. Following the US government’s embedded reporting program during the Iraq War, this is a logical step in information warfare, essentially cutting out any intermediary between the public and a government’s message.

I’m dubious, though, as to whether the Israeli government will have a net gain in its information war by moving into the social media sphere. Its success or failure will be dependent on it having a deep understanding of the environment in which it’s now experimenting, something I would definitely not assume of any government bureaucracy.

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Rediscovering Family History and Heritage via the Interwebs

I remember in the late ’90s when I first figured out that the internet could be used for research, I tried looking up both of my grandfathers to learn more about their civic and political lives. I’ve grown up with my maternal grandfather telling me for years about the work that he did in the civil rights movement, and hearing about my paternal grandfather’s political involvement secondhand. My dad’s father particularly intrigued me, as I never really knew him, but had heard a lot of interesting (and sometimes conflicting) snippets about his political involvement.

But when I looked them up, I came up with scant results. For my maternal grandfather, Irving Levine, this wasn’t really as big a deal, as I was able to go to him directly and hear it from the horse’s mouth. But for my dad’s father, John Santo Sr., the few things I was able to find just brought more questions.

The short story I’d always been told about him was that he was a powerful labor organizer in the US who ended up working for the Hungarian Communist government, and eventually defected from said government after seeing the levels of corruption that existed there. This was the short version, and I’d finally decided that I wanted to look into the long one.

I would search every year or so, and for a long time the only items of interest that came up were websites about L. Ron Hubbard’s FBI files being finally available to the public through the Freedom of Information Act. (For those that don’t know, L. Ron Hubbard is known somewhat infamously for being the father of Scientology.)

The sites had lists of all the recent FBI files with of people with last names starting with H that were released under FOIA sometime in the late ’90s. Obviously, my grandfather’s name had been John Santo, but I’d heard from my family that he had a number of aliases, and it seemed that one of them was Desideriu Hammer, which was listed on these pages. Given the amount I knew about my grandfather, I wasn’t exactly surprised that the FBI had files on him.
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How open is open?

open-for-questions1, the website of president-elect Obama, claims that it is Open For Questions. This new section on the site allows anyone willing to give a name and a zip code the ability to log in to both pose and vote on any question that they want the transition team to answer.

Obama’s staff has already proven its savvyness in understanding how to leverage new media to help make his campaign both one of the most effective and genuinely grassroots in recent history (though George W. Bush’s in ’04 qualified as both, it did not use tech near as competently, nor was social media in the same place then). Now it’s keeping its promise of continuing this process of engagement on

What’s been interesting to watch is how the site has evolved since it was launched a couple of days after the election. First it was just a couple of static pages, with one offering a space for input, encouraging you to “Share Your Story”. A couple of weeks later other interactive spaces were created where specific questions were posed about people’s opinions and experiences in regards to health care and the economy.

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Hi there.

Rafi in thailand, smiling

If you're reading this, then you've reached the web log of Rafi Santo. This is my little slice of the internet where I can share my passion (or whatever) with the world.

Research. Meditation. Learning theory. Spirituality. Activism. Cooking. New Media. Pedagogy. Photography. It's all fair game, and will likely coalesce into some unholy mixture thereof. But hey, that's the integral life.