During the 2012 campaign, I, like every liberal writer whose job it is to comment on politics every day, wrote many unkind things about Mitt Romney. Much of the time I found him more sad than despicable; politicians who nearly reach the pinnacle of their profession while being manifestly awful at politics are a rare and curious breed. Like Al Gore before him, Romney's discomfort with the requirements of campaigning was so close to the surface that he couldn't help but inspire a kind of pity. That isn't to say that I didn't find plenty of his statements and policy positions contemptible, because I certainly did, and said so without hesitation. But in the end, Romney wasn't as easy to hate as some other politicians might be.
So a year after he joined that small, melancholy club of presidential losers, it's time that even those of us who thought it would be a terrible thing if he became president can see Romney as a human being. In January, Netflix will be releasing a behind-the-scenes documentary called "Mitt," and the preview is surprisingly endearing:
It might seem that an argument about whether Santa Claus and Jesus are "really" white is nothing more than an opportunity for Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to make fun of people on Fox News, and not a matter with actual political consequences. After all, Santa is a fictional character whose current visual representations here in America have their origins in early 20th Century newspaper and magazine illustrations, but he's portrayed in different ways around the world. But before you dismiss this as just silliness, let me suggest that it does have important political effects.
Unlike some snob, John Boehner had this for breakfast. (Flickr/Shawn Honnick)
From the "Politicians—they're just like us!" file today, we have something seemingly aimed straight at one of my pet peeves, the habit of Blue Collar Chic among politicians (and to an even greater extent, certain bigshot media figures). Esquire magazine asked John Boehner to "endorse" something, and what he came up with was "breakfast at a diner," which he says he has "most mornings when I'm in Washington." You may have thought the Speaker was a merlot-sipping, golf-playing gent who had risen above his hardscrabble roots. Au contraire!
Boston Dynamics' Atlas marches over the rubble of our shattered world.
When Amazon bought a robotics company called Kiva Systems last year, it made perfect sense. Kiva makes robots that move things around warehouses; Amazon has a lot of warehouses full of a lot of stuff that needs moving around. Google, on the other hand, would seem to have no obvious need for robots, which is why it might appear odd that they just announced the purchase of Boston Dynamics, a company developing robots that mostly resemble animals and are designed to do things like carry equipment for soldiers, run really fast, and jump really high. In fact, it's only the latest of a bunch of robotics companies Google has bought.
So what are they up to? In some ways, Google increasingly resembles a corporation out of a near-future sci-fi novel, one that begins by making some nice but (seemingly) not exactly world-transforming product, then that product turns out to be bigger than anybody imagined, then it gradually expands into one area after another until it controls practically the entire world. Eventually, the corporation becomes a nuclear power and wages war on its few remaining competitors, then becomes a practical one-world government. If that's their goal, a steady supply of robots would obviously be extremely useful.
The revelations about the scope of National Security Agency surveillance from the documents released to the public by Edward Snowden have been so numerous and so extraordinary that I fear we may be becoming numb to them. That's partly because there's just been so much, one revelation after another to the point where the latest one doesn't surprise us anymore. It's also partly because mixed in with the genuinely distressing surveillance programs are some things that seem almost ridiculous, like the idea of NSA agents trying to unearth terrorist plots in World of Warcraft. But there are some basic facts about this whole affair that should make us all really frightened. We can sum it up as follows:
1. The scope of the NSA's surveillance is far greater than almost anyone imagined.
2. Barack Obama is not only perfectly fine with that surveillance, he was perfectly fine with it being kept secret from the American public.
3. As much discussion and consternation as Snowden's revelations produced, there has been no restraint on those surveillance powers, nor is there likely to be any time soon.
4. As new technologies and techniques of surveillance are developed, the NSA will incorporate them into its arsenal, continually expanding its reach.
5. Before long, there will be a Republican president who will appoint hundreds of other Republicans to high-ranking positions within the intelligence apparatus. Many of these will be former Bush administration officials and/or people who would like nothing more than to expand the NSA's surveillance of both foreigners and Americans as much as is technologically feasible.
We may have no more than three years to do something about it. Or it may be too late already.