Quote of the Day
”I have a number of literary projects on my desk at the moment, but I’ve decided to take time out to do a take-down of a youngish journalist, a New Yorker writer, named Malcolm Gladwell, whose books on semi-social-scientific subjects (their titles are Blink, Tipping Point and Outliers) rest for long periods atop the New York Times bestseller lists. Gladwell ￼is a Village Explainer: with the aid of second-line academic psychologists he’ll tell you why certain shoes come back into style or how people decide to hire tall CEOs or why Korean airline pilots had a strong propensity for crashing their planes. None of it is quite convincing: all of it flattens out the world, robbing it of its rich complexity. Gladwell himself is a terrific self-starter; he is said to give talks to corporations for as much as $40,000 a whack ( that’s a pretty good whack, I’d say). He is youngish, bi-racial with an Afro hairdo in such dishabille that he looks as if, instead of combing his hair, he chose to put his thumb into a live electric socket.”
- Joseph Epstein, writing to Frederic Raphael in Distant Intimacy
Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news
Randy Newman | Sail Away | Live in London
One of my favourites, beautifully recorded. And poignant in the age of Trump and Brexit.
Long Read of the Day
What Happened? by Kieran Healy
If you read nothing else today, read this.
Healy is a very smart sociologist who teaches at Duke. This essay is a strikingly plausible interpretation of what happened on January 6. And, in a way, it’s consoling for those of us who believe in the superiority of the cock-up theory of history.
Censorship, Parler and Antitrust
There’s an obvious, trivial point to be made here: Twitter, Apple and Google are private companies. When they remove speech on the basis of its content, it’s censorship, but it’s not government censorship. It doesn’t violate the First Amendment.
And yes, of course it’s censorship. They have made a decision about the type and quality of speech they’ll permit, and they enforce that decision using the economic, legal and technical tools at their disposal.
If I invited you to my house for dinner and said, “Just so you know, no one is allowed to talk about racism at the table,” it would be censorship. If I said “no one is allowed to say racist things at the table,” it would also be censorship.
Having got that out of the way, he goes back to Parler, which has been thrown off Amazon’s AWS cloud and seems currently to be trying to find an alternative host on the Web.
It’s true that no one violates the First Amendment (let alone CDA 230) (get serious) when Parler is removed from app stores or kicked off a cloud.
But we have a duopoly of mobile platforms, an oligopoly of cloud providers, a small conspiracy of payment processors. Their choices about who make speak are hugely consequential, and concerted effort by all of them could make some points of view effectively vanish.
This market concentration didn’t occur in a vacuum. These vital sectors of the digital economy became as concentrated as they are due to four decades of shameful, bipartisan neglect of antitrust law.
And while failing to enforce antitrust law doesn’t violate the First Amendment, it can still lead to government sanctioned incursions on speech.
The remedy for this isn’t forcing the platforms to carry objectionable speech.
The remedy is enforcing antitrust so that the censorship policies of two app stores don’t carry the force of law; and it’s ending the laws (copyright, cybersecurity, etc) that allow these companies to control who can install what on their devices.
Right on! There’s a deep connection between antitrust and democracy.
The backstory of an insurgent permalink
Matt Stoller has a thought-provoking post about the Trump supporter who was shot while trying to break into the Speaker’s Chamber in the Capitol building on January 6. Her name is Ashli Babbitt and she was the subject of a New York Times profile, on which Stoller drew extensively.
According to the New York Times, Babbitt was a 35 year-old woman from California who spent 14 years serving in the U.S. Air Force, deploying to both Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. government sent Babbitt abroad eight times, and though not every time was in a combat zone, such repeated deployments into violent areas tend to cause brain damage.
After her time at war, Babbitt had a modest propensity for violence, threatening a rival love interest by rear ending her with a car in 2016. She married, and bought a small business with her husband, a pool supply company called Fowlers Pool Service and Supply. There she ran into commercial problems common to small businesses these days.
She borrowed money at an extortionate rate (169%), then defaulted, but sued on the grounds that her lender had cheated her with too high of an interest rate. She lost, as “courts have held that such arrangements don’t amount to loans and are not bound by usury laws.” At which point she became more into politics through social media, and then was sucked into the QAnon conspiracy-theory-cum-cult.
So, says Stoller,
here’s the profile of a rioter, a working class person who went overseas eight times in military service, including two combat zones, who then tried her hand at a small business where financial predators and monopolists lurked. She then fell in with conspiratorial social media, and turned into a violent rioter who, like most of the rioters, thought she was defending America by overturning an election.
It’s easy to mock this kind of thinking, to see rioters as losers or racists. And no doubt there’s a strain of deep-seated racial animus that is with us and always will be, but I think ascribing all of it to such an explanation is too simple. Racist or no, Babbitt really was at one point a patriotic American, serving in the military for over half her adult life. More broadly, she’s far from alone in expressing rage at the status quo. There have protests against the existing social order for almost a decade, starting with the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, and then Black Lives Matter in 2014 and accelerating into protests and riots earlier this year. I’ve written about the relationship between unrest and corporate power in the context of those protests, a sense of alienation that normal political channels, that politics itself is not a realistic path for addressing social problems.
Babbitt, he argues,
was both an adult making dangerous political choices, and a product of our policy regime, having been a soldier in a violent unnecessary war and trying to make her way a society that enables predators to make money through financial chicanery and addictive products. She chose poorly, but she also had few choices to make, one of which was getting on social media and being lured into joining a violent and paranoid cult of personality.
As everyone and his dog has realised by now, the shambolic insurgency on January 6 has been a long-time building. It was the culmination of a decade-long process of alienation, inequality, white supremacy and right-wing and neo-fascist resurgence. But it leaves the US with an almost existential problem.
There are, Stoller thinks, only two paths in a representative democracy which has a large group of its citizens who live in a cult-like artificial world of misinformation, and many more who rightly or wrongly don’t trust any political institution.
One is to try to strip these people of representation and political power; that is the guiding idea behind removing Trump, as well as a whole host of conservatives, off of Silicon Valley platforms that have become essential to modern society.
The trouble is that “Removing these people is a choice to not have a society, to pretend that we can put these people into a closet somewhere and ignore them.”
It’s not going to work.
The alternative Stoller sees is less dramatic.
We can take on the legal framework behind social media so these products aren’t addictive and radicalizing. As I’ve written, there are legal immunities and policy choices that allow Facebook to profit in especially toxic ways through compiling detailed user profiles and targeting them with ads. If we change how social media companies make money, we can change how these services operate to make them socially beneficial instead of engines of radicalization.
Yep. The business model is the key to this. If it’s not brought under control then the game’s up. So there is an urgent connection between antitrust and other forms of regulation and the future of the US as a functioning democracy. Trump may or may not be finished, but the line of elected Republican presidential-hopefuls who lined up in the Senate and House to try to overturn the election shows that the supply-line of prospective autocrats is filling up nicely.
This blog is also available as a daily email. If you think this might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, delivered to your inbox at 7am UK time. It’s free, and there’s a one-click unsubscribe if you decide that your inbox is full enough already!