Category Archives: Random Blogging

The Intriguing Question

Ultimately, all societies must debate and answer a fundamental question: how should humans live together? What should–and shouldn’t– governments do? What are governments for?

Yesterday, I marveled at the bilge being produced–and consumed–by the GOP. The ability to peddle and sell it comes back to the growing differences among Americans when they answer that foundational question. Michael Flynn thinks government should impose religious conformity; a number of Republican officeholders think government should favor White Christian heterosexual males ,and they all appear to believe government has an obligation to abet GOP lawbreakers.

The current mess that those prejudices have made of American governance is one thing. A more existential issue is whether the various countries on planet Earth can come together to avert the worst consequences of climate change. According to a fascinating research paper from Yale, it turns out that the answer to that (seemingly unrelated) question also comes back to the philosophical one: what do citizens of a country think an ideal society should look like? What–and how much– do they want their governments to do?

The researchers concluded that the answer to that question is in the process of change. Here’s the lede to their report (I’ve omitted the citations.)

Individuals’ attitudes toward climate change risks and solutions are shaped by personal and social factors other than knowledge of climate change alone. One such factor is differing cultural worldviews, or values regarding how society should be structured and the role of government in addressing problems.

Two important types of cultural worldviews are egalitarianism and individualism. People with a more egalitarian worldview tend to believe that society should promote equality, social justice, participatory democracy, and diversity, and are generally more concerned about environmental hazards including climate change. They also tend to favor government actions to solve societal problems, including increased environmental regulations. In contrast, people with a more individualistic worldview are more likely to believe that society should promote individual liberty, autonomy, and opportunity. They tend to be less concerned about environmental hazards and favor greater freedom for industry. As a result, they generally oppose government intervention and environmental regulations.

Our Climate Change in the American Mind surveys have repeatedly included questions over the past 12 years that measure these worldviews among the American public. Here we report on how several key measures of these worldviews have changed among registered voters over time.

Not surprisingly, the study found that Democrats and Republicans these days have very different cultural world-views, with Democrats tending to be more egalitarian and Republicans tending to be more individualistic. The researchers report that, while their data suggests that Democrats have become more egalitarian since 2008– Republicans have remained “highly individualistic.”

Democrats are more likely to support social programs, to be concerned about the wealth gap (both domestically and between rich and poor countries), and to support various government regulations. Large majorities of Democrats think that discrimination against minorities is a very serious problem, while only 4 in 10 Republicans agree.

The Yale researchers were focused on the consequences of those very different world-views on government efforts to combat climate change, and that concern is certainly appropriate. However, I was intrigued by other questions raised by the research.

The most obvious of those questions is: what happens when political identity reflects an individual’s moral commitments? As a number of political scientists have noted, the days when both parties sought votes from the moderate middle and thus erected bigger “tents”–the days when there were a number of philosophical overlaps– are long gone. Political identity has taken on the aspects–and fervor– of religion. You can compromise on tax rates when the issue is how to raise revenue without stifling economic growth; that compromise is out of reach when one party sees taxation through a social justice lens and the other sees it as theft.

Less obvious–and arguably more consequential–is a question of language, of definition of terms. I consider myself a strong proponent of individualism and individual rights, but I see those rights in the context of America’s constitutional system. I find myself increasingly appalled by positions asserted by self-described “defenders of individual rights”: the “right” to refuse vaccination (really, the right to endanger others); the “right” to access public services without paying one’s fair share/dues; the “right” to ignore laws with which one disagrees, or that are seen as an inconvenience; the “right” to deny other Americans their equal rights….

We need to draw a line between the actual human rights that a free society must respect, and selfishness masquerading as individualism.

 

Who’s Talking?

I finally got around to reading an article about Facebook by a Professor Scott Galloway, sent to me by a reader. In it, Galloway was considering the various “fixes” that have been suggested in the wake of continuing revelations about the degree to which Facebook and other social media platforms have facilitated America’s divisions.

There have been a number of similar articles, but what Galloway did better than most was explain the origin of Section 230 of the Communications Act in language we non-techie people can understand.

In most industries, the most robust regulator is not a government agency, but a plaintiff’s attorney. If your factory dumps toxic chemicals in the river, you get sued. If the tires you make explode at highway speed, you get sued. Yes, it’s inefficient, but ultimately the threat of lawsuits reduces regulation; it’s a cop that covers a broad beat. Liability encourages businesses to make risk/reward calculations in ways that one-size-fits-all regulations don’t. It creates an algebra of deterrence.

Social media, however, is largely immunized from such suits. A 1996 law, known as “Section 230,” erects a fence around content that is online and provided by someone else. It means I’m not liable for the content of comments on the No Mercy website, Yelp isn’t liable for the content of its user reviews, and Facebook, well, Facebook can pretty much do whatever it wants.

There are increasing calls to repeal or reform 230. It’s instructive to understand this law, and why it remains valuable. When Congress passed it — again, in 1996 — it reasoned online companies were like bookstores or old-fashioned bulletin boards. They were mere distribution channels for other people’s content and shouldn’t be liable for it.

Seems reasonable. So–why the calls for its repeal? Galloway points to the multiple ways in which the information and communication environments have changed since 1996.

In 1996, 16% of Americans had access to the Internet, via a computer tethered to a phone cord. There was no Wi-Fi. No Google, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, or YouTube — not even Friendster or MySpace had been birthed. Amazon sold only books. Section 230 was a fence protecting a garden plot of green shoots and untilled soil.

Today, as he points out, some 3 billion individuals use Facebook, and fifty-seven percent of the world population uses some sort of social media. Those are truly astonishing numbers.

I have previously posted about externalities–the ability of manufacturers and other providers to compete more successfully in the market by “offloading” certain of their costs to society at large. When it comes to social media, Galloway tells us that its externalities have grown as fast as the platforms’ revenues–and thanks to Section 230, society has borne the costs.

In sum, behind the law’s liability shield, tech platforms have morphed from Model UN members to Syria and North Korea. Only these Hermit Kingdoms have more warheads and submarines than all other nations combined.

As he points out, today’s social media has the resources to play by the same rules as other powerful media. Bottom line: We need a new fence. We need to redraw Section 230 so that it that protects society from the harms of social media companies without destroying  their  usefulness or economic vitality.

What we have learned since 1996 is that Facebook and other social media companies are not neutral platforms.  They aren’t bulletin boards. They are rigorously managed– personalized for each user, and actively boosting or suppressing certain content. Galloway calls that “algorithmic amplification” and it didn’t exist in 1996.

There are evidently several bills pending in Congress that purport to address the problem–aiming at the ways in which social media platforms weaponize these algorithms. Such approaches should avoid raising credible concerns about chilling free expression.

Reading the essay gave me some hope that we can deal–eventually–with the social damage being inflicted by social media. It didn’t, however, suggest a way to counter the propaganda spewed daily by Fox News or Sinclair or their clones…

Business Versus The Coup

A project I’ve been working on with a friend–a project unrelated to this blog– recently required me to think about the definition of bigotry–racism, anti-Semitism, etc.

Here’s what we came up with:

the belief that identity trumps individuality and behavior—the belief that people who share a skin color or religion share essential characteristics that distinguish them from “us.” It is a worldview that fails to see people as people—individuals who deserve to be approached and evaluated as individuals.

I think that description fits more situations than the tribal conflicts our project is addressing. Humans have a deep-seated need to categorize the world, to find shortcuts to understanding our social environment, and when taken too far, those shortcuts all too often harden into stereotypes.

Take the widespread stereotypes of “big business.” Many commenters to this blog clearly accept the notion that the people who manage America’s large corporations are focused on shareholder returns and the bottom line to the exclusion of the common good. There are plenty of reasons for the wide acceptance of that belief, but–just as with other prejudices–it overlooks the complexity and individuality of the group being characterized.

That brings me to the article that prompted this discussion.It began:

The CEOs started calling before President Trump had even finished speaking. What America’s titans of industry were hearing from the Commander in Chief was sending them into a panic.

It was Nov. 5, 2020, two days after the election, and things weren’t looking good for the incumbent as states continued to count ballots. Trump was eager to seed a different narrative, one with no grounding in reality: “If you count the legal votes, I easily win,” he said from the lectern of the White House Briefing Room. “If you count the illegal votes, they can try to steal the election from us.”

The speech was so dangerously dishonest that within a few minutes, all three broadcast television networks spontaneously stopped airing it. And at his home in Branford, Conn., the iPhone belonging to the Yale School of Management professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld began to buzz with calls and texts from some of the nation’s most powerful tycoons.

The CEOs of leading media, financial, pharmaceutical, retail and consulting firms all wanted to talk. By the time Tom Rogers, the founder of CNBC, got to Sonnenfeld, “he had clearly gotten dozens of calls,” Rogers says. “We were saying, ‘This is real—Trump is trying to overturn the election.’ Something had to happen fast.”

The article describes the subsequent deliberations of a group of 45 CEOs representing nearly one-third of Fortune’s 100 largest companies. They heard from a colleague of Sonnenfeld’s, a historian of authoritarianism, who told them that in countries where coups have been attempted, business leaders have been among the most important groups in determining whether such attempts succeeded. “If you are going to defeat a coup, you have to move right away,” he told them. “The timing and the clarity of response are very, very important.

The group agreed on the elements of a statement to be released as soon as media organizations called the election. It would congratulate the winner and laud the unprecedented voter turnout; call for any disputes to be based on evidence and brought through the normal channels; observe that no such evidence had emerged; and insist on an orderly transition. Midday on Nov. 7, when the election was finally called, the BRT immediately released a version of the statement formulated on Zoom. It was followed quickly by other trade groups, corporations and political leaders around the world, all echoing the same clear and decisive language confirming the election result.

Timothy Snider, the authoritarianism scholar , believes the CEOs’ intervention was crucial.

“If business leaders had just drifted along in that moment, or if a few had broken ranks, it might have gone very differently,” he says. “They chose in that moment to see themselves as part of civil society, acting in the defense of democracy for its own sake.”

The issuance of the statement was not a one-off; the group came together again to push back on Trump’s effort to overturn the results from Georgia, and again in the wake of the January 6th insurrection.

The lengthy article is worth reading it its entirety; it provides a nuanced history of business’ relationship with the GOP, and describes the reasons that relationship has been withering. For his part, Sonnenfeld believes a new generation of business leaders understands that doing well requires a stable democratic society; they want to do well by doing good.

Not all businesspeople, of course. But stereotypes rarely, if ever, describe all members of a group–a point worth remembering.

 

 

Fear Of” Replacement”

It was in August of 2017 that the torch-bearing mob in Charlottesville, Virginia marched and chanted “Jews will not replace us.”

Sines v. Kessler is a civil case growing out of that episode; it was brought against two dozen neo-Nazis and white nationalist groups who organized the 2017 Unite the Right rally. There are nine plaintiffs, including people who were injured when James Alex Fields Jr., a white supremacist, drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters and killed Heather Heyer, 32. He injured at least 19 others.

The New York Times had a recent update on those proceedings. The article focused on the testimony of Deborah E. Lipstadt, a renowned Holocaust scholar, who linked the chant to the history of Nazi anti-Semitism.

The plaintiffs, who seek unspecified damages, say they want to show Americans how the chants of the marchers are connected to other forms of racism and have gained a renewed foothold in American politics. Dr. Lipstadt declined to comment for this article — attorneys for the plaintiffs barred her from interviews before her testimony — but in a 48-page report she prepared for the trial, she wrote that “this fear of active replacement by the Jew, derived directly from the historical underpinnings of antisemitism, is a central feature of contemporary antisemitism.”

“Two animuses — racism and antisemitism — come together in the concept of a ‘white genocide’ or ‘white replacement’ theory,” Dr. Lipstadt wrote in the report. “According to adherents of this theory, the Jews’ accomplices or lackeys in this effort are an array of people of color, among them Muslims and African Americans.”

The Right-wingers who marched in Charlottesville were protesting the removal of Confederate monuments. They did so while “wearing and displaying Nazi symbols, waving Confederate flags and chanting slogans associated with the Third Reich.”

But since then, their animating ideology, great replacement theory — the false idea that religious and racial minorities are bent on eradicating white Christians or replacing them in society — has moved from the fringes to the mainstream, Dr. Lipstadt and civil rights groups say.

Replacement theory has joined–and supported– conspiracy theories about voting fraud, about Jewish “globalists,” and warnings of “invasions” by black and brown immigrants.  The theory has been endorsed by Fox News commentators, by Republican members of Congress and–unsurprisingly–by former President Donald Trump, who insisted that there were “very fine people on both sides” of the chaos in Charlottesville. According to the Times, perpetrators of at least three mass shootings since 2017 have expressed belief in replacement theory.

In April, Fox News host Tucker Carlson espoused replacement theory on air. “The left and all the little gatekeepers on Twitter become literally hysterical if you use the term ‘replacement,’ if you suggest that the Democratic Party is trying to replace the current electorate, the voters now casting ballots, with new people, more obedient voters from the third world,” Mr. Carlson said on the broadcast. “That’s what’s happening actually. Let’s just say it: That’s true.”

Carlson’s comments have been echoed by Ron Johnson, Republican Senator from Wisconsin, as well as by several Republican members of the House of Representatives, including the odious Matt Gaetz, lending the idea of “replacement” a faux legitimacy.

“There’s this kind of hate laundering that takes place, where fringe ideas move from the margins into the mainstream laundered by pundits, political candidates or even elected officials as if they are some kind of legitimate discourse,” Jonathan Greenblatt, the chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League, said in an interview.

 Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism have persisted on both the political right and the far left, and have provided impetus for bigotries targeting other groups.

“When expressions of contempt for one group become normative, it is virtually inevitable that similar hatred will be directed at other groups,” Dr. Lipstadt wrote in “Antisemitism: Here and Now,” her 2019 book about the resurgence of antisemitism in different guises. “Even if anti-Semites were to confine their venom to Jews, the existence of Jew-hatred within a society is an indication that something about the entire society is amiss.”

I keep coming back to that speech in An American President, in which the film’s fictional President describes his opponent as someone who is “not in the least interested in solving your problems–he only wants to make you fear them and tell you who to blame for them.” Those lines are more relevant than ever.

Replacement theory is somewhat more sophisticated than space lasers funded by George Soros, but the intended effect is the same: to make White Christian Americans fear Jews and people of color, and blame them for whatever is going wrong in their lives.

 

 

Extremism Goes Mainstream

I really try to stay positive.

Take the environment, where there are signs of genuine progress. Despite the mounting effects of climate change, there is much to applaud about the multiple efforts at what I’ll call “eco-responsibility”–for example, in the most recent issue of the Engineering News Record (my husband subscribes), there are stories about efforts to add plastic additives to road construction (thus extending pavement life while re-using plastic waste), new methods of decreasing concrete’s carbon footprint, and a particularly encouraging article about updating the U.S. grid to aid in the transition from fossil to renewable energy.

In a number of areas, serious people are making serious efforts to confront the multiple threats to our various societies that range from problematic to dangerous, and in many of these areas, there is slow but discernible progress.

But. (You knew there was a “but”…) A significant number of humans evidently cannot cope with the world they now inhabit, and are retreating into fantasy, hate and violence.

ProPublica recently explored the extent to which such individuals control today’s Republican Party.

North Carolina state representative Mike Clampitt swore an oath to uphold the Constitution after his election in 2016 and again in 2020. But there’s another pledge that Clampitt said he’s upholding: to the Oath Keepers, a right-wing militant organization.

Dozens of Oath Keepers have been arrested in connection to the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, some of them looking like a paramilitary group, wearing camo helmets and flak vests. But a list of more than 35,000 members of the Oath Keepers — obtained by an anonymous hacker and shared with ProPublica by the whistleblower group Distributed Denial of Secrets — underscores how the organization is evolving into a force within the Republican Party.

ProPublica identified Clampitt and 47 more state and local government officials on the list, all Republicans: 10 sitting state lawmakers; two former state representatives; one current state assembly candidate; a state legislative aide; a city council assistant; county commissioners in Indiana, Arizona and North Carolina; two town aldermen; sheriffs or constables in Montana, Texas and Kentucky; state investigators in Texas and Louisiana; and a New Jersey town’s public works director.

ProPublica found over 400 members and/or newsletter recipients who used government, military or political campaign email addresses; they included candidates for offices ranging from Congress to sheriff–a list that also included a retired assistant school superintendent in Alabama, and an award-winning elementary school teacher in California. There were significant numbers of police officers and military veterans.

Oath Keepers pledge to resist if the federal government imposes martial law, invades a state or takes people’s guns, ideas that show up in a dark swirl of right-wing conspiracy theories.

By far the most frightening aspect of the revelations is the degree to which these commitments have become mainstream within the GOP.

“Five or six years ago, politicians wouldn’t be caught dead hanging out with Oath Keepers, you’d have to go pretty fringe,” said Jared Holt, who monitors the group for the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. “When groups like that become emboldened, it makes them significantly more dangerous.”

The article identifies a number of current lawmakers as members. Among them is Indiana state Sen. Scott Baldwin, whose spokesperson said he was unavailable to comment. The article meticulously categorized the members whose identities were disclosed by the hack: elected officials, GOP party leaders, and (chillingly) poll workers.

In the wake of the hack and the disclosures, several media outlets investigated how enrollees learned about the organization– how it was able to spread so readily. One conclusion: social media, particularly Facebook, is central; it provides a platform for the “patriot” movement. That conclusion would seem to confirm other recent studies showing how social media recruits for the far right more generally. One report found that Facebook was joiners’ most frequently cited source for having first heard about the Oath Keepers.

Mother Jones found that certain right-wing media outlets and figures, notably Alex Jones and Infowars, have played key roles in spreading the extremism. But more “mainstream” outlets and figures were also found to play central roles: Fox and Fox News were prominent.

There have always been extremists, malcontents, and outright lunatics. What is different today–and scary–isn’t just that they have moved the Overton Window and become almost mainstream. It’s that they have effectively taken over one of America’s two major political parties–and made it impossible to govern. Nationally, the GOP simply refuses to participate in legislative activities, preferring to wage culture war. That has driven virtually all sane people to become Democrats or Democratically-leaning independents–but they represent such a broad spectrum of political ideology that it is nearly impossible to unite them behind a single agenda.

Bottom line: Either the fever will break, or the country will.

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