What Brexit means for Labour

In Cambridge, where I live and work, 74% voted to Remain in the EU, while 26% voted Leave. In Stoke-on-Trent, the respective figures were 31% Remain, 69% Leave. My friends and academic colleagues were astonished by the results from places like Stoke.

I wasn’t — because I know Stoke well. My late wife Sue came from there and my parents-in-law still lived there, so I spent a lot of time in the city and so saw at close hand how it had been devastated by globalisation, automation and central (and local) government neglect.

A few days ago I read Dominic Cummings’s astonishing account of the Brexit campaign, and afterwards started digging back into pre-referendum coverage. In the process I came on this remarkable video made by John Harris in Stoke-on-Trent. From my knowledge of the city, it’s spot on. And Harris is right — the video also illustrates the depth of the problem that the Labour party now faces in UK politics.

UPDATE And no sooner had I posted this than the news broke that Tristram Hunt, the improbable Labour MP for Stoke Central constituency, has been appointed Director of the V&A Museum and so will resign his seat. Which means there will now be a by-election in Stoke.

Magical thinking and President Trump

In psychology, the term magical thinking denotes “the belief that one’s thoughts by themselves can bring about effects in the world or that thinking something corresponds with doing it”. It’s what small children do, often in entrancing ways. But at the moment it’s what the entire ‘liberal’ establishment appears to be engaging in, as its members contemplate the prospect of a Trump presidency. So there’s much chatter along the lines of “well, of course, he’s just the President-elect and doesn’t yet have to operate under the constraints of office”, or “surely he’ll have to give up Tweeting when he’s President”.

For a salutary antidote to this kind of fatuous thinking, see Polly Toynbee’s scarifying piece in today’s Guardian. Way back in 1988 she interviewed — and profiled — Trump. And it’s clear from her report that the monster hasn’t changed one bit. “Trump’s nature”, she writes, “was never a secret”.

He has never dissembled, he can’t dissemble. Why would he when he worships every aspect of himself, each hair on his head, each word he tweets? Greater self-love hath no man.

Apart from his lost good looks, he is unchanged since I interviewed him for the Guardian back in 1988. He was 41 and in Britain to plug his book, The Art of the Deal. Then as now, he was a petrifying megalomaniac with no grip on reality, or not a reality shared by others. At the time I described his “demonic power and energy waiting to spring”. Now look how far he has sprung.

I wrote about his aura of “glitz, greed, glamour and an ambition so colossal that it will probably not rest until he rules the world – which one day he just might”. And next week, God help us, he will. But nearly 30 years ago was his eye already on running for the presidency? I put the question to him. “Not for a period but I am involved politically. You could do it from where I am,” he replied with the same nonchalance he might describe making a pitch for some new property or casino in New York.

She asked him what his platform would be if he ran for President. “Respect”, he replied.

We’re a second-rate economic power, a debtor nation. We’re getting kicked around.” His current determination to tear up Barack Obama’s carefully brokered nuclear deal with Iran has a long history. He told me that as president, “I’d be harsh on Iran. They’ve been beating us psychologically, making us look like a bunch of fools … It’d be good for the world to take them on.”

Sound familiar? That was 29 years ago. Toynbee asked him what he thought about Britain. “Your country’s distaste for success”, he replied, “is a national disease.” Brexiteers, please note. “What kind of trade deal”, asks Toynbee, “does Liam Fox imagine he will broker with this man whose contempt for Britain, even back in its most Trumpish era, was so withering? Just as Trump’s view on Iran is unchanged, I doubt he has formed any new views about Britain”.

And the moral of this little story: if you think the presidency might domesticate Trump, think again. Magical thinking is best left to toddlers.

Quote of the Term

“Increasingly, we become so secure in our bubbles that we accept only information, whether true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that’s out there.”

Barack Obama in his farewell speech, Chicago, 10 January 2017.

The Frankfurt School redux

As the world tries to adjust to the election of a narcissistic fantasist and incorrigible liar as President of the US, thoughtful people have been re-reading those prickly academics of the Frankfurt School, particularly Theodor Adorno. Long before Trump appeared on the horizon, though, the New Yorker critic Alex Ross wrote an interesting review article about a raft of biographies of these guys and noted that they were enjoying

a modest resurgence. They are cited in brainy magazines like n+1, The Jacobin, and the latest iteration of The Baffler. Evgeny Morozov, in his critiques of Internet boosterism, has quoted Adorno’s early mentor Siegfried Kracauer, who registered the information and entertainment overload of the nineteen-twenties. The novelist Benjamin Kunkel, in his recent essay collection “Utopia or Bust,” extolls the criticism of Jameson, who has taught Marxist literary theory at Duke University for decades. (Kunkel also mentions “The Corrections,” noting that Chip gets his salmon at a shop winkingly named the Nightmare of Consumption.) The critic Astra Taylor, in “The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age,” argues that Adorno and Max Horkheimer, in their 1944 book “Dialectic of Enlightenment,” gave early warnings about corporations “drowning out democracy in pursuit of profit.”

Having recently been corresponding with Tim Wu about his new book, The Attention Merchants: From the Daily Newspaper to Social Media, How Our Time and Attention is Harvested and Sold — about the way the Internet’s early promise has been attenuated by corporate capture, Ross’s perceptive essay resonated with me. Especially in this passage:

The Internet threatens final confirmation of Adorno and Horkheimer’s dictum that the culture industry allows the “freedom to choose what is always the same.” Champions of online life promised a utopia of infinite availability: a “long tail” of perpetually in-stock products would revive interest in non-mainstream culture. One need not have read Astra Taylor and other critics to sense that this utopia has been slow in arriving. Culture appears more monolithic than ever, with a few gigantic corporations—Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon—presiding over unprecedented monopolies. Internet discourse has become tighter, more coercive. Search engines guide you away from peculiar words. (“Did you mean . . . ?”) Headlines have an authoritarian bark (“This Map of Planes in the Air Right Now Will Blow Your Mind”). “Most Read” lists at the top of Web sites imply that you should read the same stories everyone else is reading. Technology conspires with populism to create an ideologically vacant dictatorship of likes.

Ross concluded the piece (which was published in 2014) with the thought that “If Adorno were to look upon the cultural landscape of the twenty-first century, he might take grim satisfaction in seeing his fondest fears realized.”

Well, guess what? In a new essay, “The Frankfurt School Knew Trump Was Coming”, Ross writes:

I spoke too soon. His moment of vindication is arriving now. With the election of Donald Trump, the latent threat of American authoritarianism is on the verge of being realized, its characteristics already mapped by latter-day sociologists who have updated Adorno’s “F-scale” for fascist tendencies. To read “Prophets of Deceit” is to see clear anticipations of Trump’s bigoted harangues. (The script in 1949: “We are coming to the crossroads where we must decide whether we are going to preserve law and order and decency or whether we are going to be sold down the river to these Red traitors who are undermining America.”) As early as the forties, Adorno saw American life as a kind of reality show: “Men are reduced to walk-on parts in a monster documentary film which has no spectators, since the least of them has his bit to do on the screen.” Now a businessman turned reality-show star has been elected President. Like it or not, Trump is as much a pop-culture phenomenon as he is a political one.

What Adorno identified as the erasure of the “borderline between culture and empirical reality” is endemic on social media. The failure of Facebook to halt the proliferation of fake news during the campaign season should have surprised no one; the local hirelings of logic are too enamored of their algorithms—and of the revenue they generate—to intervene. From the start, Silicon Valley monopolies have taken a hands-off, ideologically vacant attitude toward the upwelling of ugliness on the Internet. A defining moment was the turn-of-the-century wave of music piracy, which did lasting damage to the idea of intellectual property. Fake news is an extension of the same phenomenon, and, as in the Napster era, no one is taking responsibility. Traffic trumps ethics.

So here we are, living in a novel that Don DeLillo hasn’t quite finished yet.

‘Fake news’ has just become an all-purpose term of abuse. Like ‘neoliberal’ perhaps?

Interesting piece in the Washington Post:

Fake news has a real meaning — deliberately constructed lies, in the form of news articles, meant to mislead the public. For example: The one falsely claiming that Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump, or the one alleging without basis that Hillary Clinton would be indicted just before the election.

But though the term hasn’t been around long, its meaning already is lost. Faster than you could say “Pizzagate,” the label has been co-opted to mean any number of completely different things: Liberal claptrap. Or opinion from left-of-center. Or simply anything in the realm of news that the observer doesn’t like to hear.

“The speed with which the term became polarized and in fact a rhetorical weapon illustrates how efficient the conservative media machine has become,” said George Washington University professor Nikki Usher.

Tim Wu: ‘The internet is like the classic story of the party that went sour’

My Observer piece about Tim Wu’s new book, plus an email exchange between him and me.

Tim Wu is a law professor at Columbia University. His specialities include competition, copyright and telecommunications law. So far, so conventional. But Wu is an unconventional academic. For one thing, he ran for the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governorship of New York (and won 40% of the popular vote, though not the primary election). For another, he served for a time in the office of New York’s attorney general, specialising in issues involving technology, consumer protection and ensuring fair competition among online companies. “If I have a life mission,” he said once, “it is to fight bullies. I like standing up for the little guy and I think that’s what the state attorney general’s office does.”
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As I said, no ordinary academic. But it gets better. Wu is also the guy who coined the phrase “net neutrality”, which has turned out to be a key concept in debates about regulation of the internet. He was for a time a senior adviser to the Federal Trade Commission, America’s main consumer protection agency. And somehow, in the middle of all this activity, he writes books that make a big impact.

The cue for his new book, The Attention Merchants, is an observation the Nobel prize-winning economist Herbert Simon made in 1971. “In an information-rich world,” Simon wrote, “the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.”

Read on

Be careful what you wish for

This morning’s Observer column:

In 1996, two US congressmen, Chris Cox (Republican, California) and Ron Wyden (Democrat, Oregon), drafted a law that they felt was essential if the nascent internet was to grow and prosper. The clause they wrote eventually found its way on to the statute book as section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, part of the sprawling Telecommunications Act, which Bill Clinton signed into law in 1996.

Cox and Wyden had been troubled by the rise of libel suits against internet service providers (ISPs) for defamatory content posted on websites that they hosted. The key sentence in the clause that they eventually drafted read: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

This single sentence provided the legal underpinning for how the world wide web has evolved…

Read on

Fake policy — and fake news

Lovely NYT column by Paul Krugman. He starts by reminding readers of how big the US economy is. It employs 145 million people. And every day, on average, 75,000 people get fired or laid off.

But why am I telling you this? To highlight the difference between real economic policy and the fake policy that has lately been taking up far too much attention in the news media.

Consider, by contrast, the story that dominated several news cycles a few weeks ago: Donald Trump’s intervention to stop Carrier from moving jobs to Mexico. Some reports say that 800 U.S. jobs were saved; others suggest that the company will simply replace workers with machines. But even accepting the most positive spin, for every worker whose job was saved in that deal, around a hundred others lost their jobs the same day.

In other words, it may have sounded as if Mr. Trump was doing something substantive by intervening with Carrier, but he wasn’t. This was fake policy — a show intended to impress the rubes, not to achieve real results.

So why don’t news media put Trump’s fatuous bluster into that kind of context? Search me.