Monday, July 29, 2013

Reza Aslan has a good PR team

The religion scholar Reza Aslan recently went on Fox News to discuss his new book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.  As one might imagine for a debate about Jesus on the famously parochial news channel, the interviewer threw all kinds of sludge at Aslan, especially questioning his "bias" in writing such a book as a Muslim.  A video of the exchange went viral, with headlines such as "Is This The Most Embarrassing Interview Fox News Has Ever Done?"  A Washington Post blogger thundered for an apology to Aslan, amongst other disdain and outrage over Aslan's treatment.  Consequently, Aslan's book shot to #1 on Amazon's best selling book list, propelled by the controversy.

Now I certainly have no evidence whatsoever to prove this, but Aslan's decision to go onto Fox to discuss his book, and the predictable brouhaha cum book publicity, strikes me more as a savvy public relations move designed to elicit exactly this result than an earnest attempt to discuss religious scholarship.  He certainly knew what he was getting into by agreeing to be interviewed by the channel and the timing is concurrent with the promotion of his new book.  He (or whoever manages his PR) likely knew that the 'bash on Fox for bigotry' narrative would be a too-tempting treat that would be devoured by the liberal media.

Well played, Aslan, well played.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Warren Buffet's Son Argues for Dismantling Capitalism in the NYT (Kind of)

Peter Buffet is the son of billionaire investor Warren Buffet, who apparently transferred much of his wealth into charities that he then charged his kids with running.  Peter has a pretty radical-sounding column in Friday's New York Times entitled "The Charitable-Industrial Complex" which spells out some of the ongoing problems with philanthropy.  Peter decries "Philanthropic Colonialism" and continues:
As more lives and communities are destroyed by the system that creates vast amounts of wealth for the few, the more heroic it sounds to “give back.” It’s what I would call “conscience laundering” — feeling better about accumulating more than any one person could possibly need to live on by sprinkling a little around as an act of charity. 
But this just keeps the existing structure of inequality in place. The rich sleep better at night, while others get just enough to keep the pot from boiling over. Nearly every time someone feels better by doing good, on the other side of the world (or street), someone else is further locked into a system that will not allow the true flourishing of his or her nature or the opportunity to live a joyful and fulfilled life.
Amen, Peter!  Those are some pretty serious problems!  What do you propose we do about it?
My wife and I know we don’t have the answers, but we do know how to listen. As we learn, we will continue to support conditions for systemic change.

It’s time for a new operating system. Not a 2.0 or a 3.0, but something built from the ground up. New code ... [A]s long as most folks are patting themselves on the back for charitable acts, we’ve got a perpetual poverty machine.
Woah, "systemic change"?  "Time for a new operating system"?  How did this ever get past the NYT editors, who usually scrupulously prevent any such radical rhetoric from appearing on the Grey Lady's pages?  Oh, wait, I see:
I’m really not calling for an end to capitalism; I’m calling for humanism.
Such a shame that Peter disavows the only real solution to the problems he agonizes over in an otherwise pretty good column; I suppose that's the price of admission to the NYT's column space.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Chris Floyd on Twitter

Chris Floyd may very well be the best political writer on the Internet.  I highly urge everyone to read all of his stuff.  Here he is riffing on the scourge that is Twitter:
Our entire political discourse -- at least in the rarefied climes of media-world -- now seems to take place almost solely through this remarkable medium, where the instantaneous, scarcely masticated outpourings of third- and fourth-rate brains are offered up in dumbed-down tidbits, which appear as momentary blips in a long string of juvenile, even infantile formulations.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Thoughts on Ernesto "Che" Guevara (after reading Jon Lee Anderson's Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life)

Arguably the world's most famous photo

I indulged in the pleasure of reading Jon Lee Anderson’s Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life while on a recent trip to Cuba.  Without delving into a full-blown review of the book, I will say that it is well-written, comprehensive and refreshingly free of either the hagiography or sanctimonious condemnation that tends to dominate commentary on Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s life.  I did, however, want to highlight some parts of Che’s life and times that I found notable.

The Politics of the Cuban Revolution

The Cuban Revolution did not start as a Communist project, but ended as one.  

To topple the Batista regime, Fidel Castro and company needed to craft a wide nationalist coalition.  Castro formed the July 26th Movement, which drew members with a wide range of political views.  Castro also courted support from the Soviet-linked Popular Socialist Party (PSP), a Communist party in Cuba, but needed to be discreet about it to avoid angering both the anti-Communist July 26th Members and international anti-Communist powers, notably the United States.  Members of the PSP were split over how radical Castro was and if they should support him, which they eventually did.  Throughout Castro’s guerrilla campaign in the sierra (mountains), there were constant personal, political and tactical disagreements between his group and the July 26th members in the llano (lowlands), who were waging concurrent campaigns to weaken Batista.

Even after the July 26th Movement seized power in early 1959, Castro was careful to tread the line between alienating his valuable Communist allies and inciting the United States and his various anti-Communist supporters with mentions of socialism.  As time progressed, however, Castro’s rhetoric (and actions) grew more radical, declaring the Revolution “socialist” in 1961 and forming the Cuban Communist Party in 1965.

Che’s Political Transformation

Che seems to have had little interest in politics early in life.  After an episode in which Che refuses to march in support of students jailed for protesting a repressive Argentine coup, Anderson comments “Displaying a complete apathy about political activism was to become a consistent pattern during Ernesto’s growing-up years.” (31)  On his later famous travels throughout Latin America, the poverty and suffering he encountered prompted him to think critically about class and politics.  Spending time with a Peruvian leperologist named Dr. Hugo Pesce impressed upon Che what it meant to dedicate oneself to the common good.

The changes in Guatemala that were occurring under President Arbenz and the subsequent CIA-backed overthrow of Arbenz were the events that politically radicalized Che.  In a letter to his aunt, he declares, “I have sworn before a picture of the old and mourned comrade Stalin that I won’t rest until I see these capitalist octopuses annihilated.  In Guatemala I will perfect myself and achieve what I need to be an authentic revolutionary.” (126)

A short time later, in letters to his mother, he explicitly articulates his Communist convictions.  “[T]he communists maintained their faith and comradeship intact, and were the only group which continued to work [in Guatemala]... I believe they are worthy of respect and that sooner or later I will join the Party... [Becoming a communist] is reached by two roads: positively, by being directly convinced, or negatively, after a deception with everything.  I reached it by the second route only to immediately become convinced that one has to follow the first.  The way in which the gringos... treat America had been provoking a growing indignation in me, but at the same time I studied the theory behind the reasons for their actions and I found it scientific.  Afterward came Guatemala.” (165)  Che went so far as to sign one letter to his aunt “Stalin II.” (167)

Che’s Views on Race

Anderson quotes one decidedly non-progressive passage on race from Che’s diary which he wrote while in Caracas:

"The blacks, those magnificent examples of the African race who have maintained their racial purity thanks to their lack of an affinity with bathing, have seen their territory invaded by a new kind of slave: the Portuguese. And the two ancient races have now begun a hard life together, fraught with bickering and squabbles. Discrimination and poverty unite them in the daily fight for survival but their different ways of approaching life separate them completely: The black is indolent and a dreamer; spending his meager wage on frivolity or drink; the European has a tradition of work and saving, which has pursued him as far as this corner of America and drives him to advance himself, even independently of his own individual aspirations." (92)

This passage is surprising since Che worked quite closely with many blacks during the Cuban Revolution (Cuba has a sizable black minority population) and also sought to wage a similar war of liberation in the majority-black Congo.  It seems that this statement was written at a relatively young age, and is an aberration from the generally egalitarian views that he espoused, especially later in life.  A good discussion of this quote and the context is here.

Che’s Attitude towards Women

Che enjoyed a healthy sexual appetite and seemed to rarely pass up the opportunity.  Especially in his youth, he was a “extroverted and relentless seducer of girls.” (55)  He writes in less than flattering terms about many of his actual and desired partners.  While traveling in La Paz, he notes, “Something undulating and with a maw has crossed my path, we’ll see...” (103)  In Guatemala, he records “a little adventure with a dirty female teacher.” (126)  On a boat ride Che seduced a woman he calls “more whorish than a hen with sixteen years on her back.” (119)  He says of a newcomer to his sierra encampment, “[She is a] great admirer of the movement who seems to me to want to fuck more than anything else.” (238)  Che seemed to often have, in his words, an “urgent need for a woman who will fuck” (166)

Che had two marriages; the first was to Hilda Gadea, a Peruvian revolutionary.  Throughout the book Che’s attitude towards Hilda seems to oscillate between indifference, neglect and contempt (that is, when she was not bankrolling his activities or going to bed with him).  Che eventually abandoned her and their child to go fight in the Cuban Revolution.  Strangely, Hilda’s recollections of Che seem positively rosy.  At one point, Anderson dryly remarks, “As usual, Ernesto and Hilda’s accounts about their on-off relationship don’t dovetail.” (164)  Che’s second marriage to Cuban revolutionary Aleida March, by contrast, was much more happy and entirely faithful.

Che had healthy relationships with female family members and also seemingly respectful relationships with many female revolutionaries (who were, of course, a minority among the Cuban revolutionaries).

In one passage comparing Fidel Castro and Che, Anderson observes, “Both were imbued with Latin machismo: believers in the innate weakness of women, contemptuous of homosexuals, and admirers of brave men of action.” (178)

Che at War

Che spent time in Cuba, the Congo and Bolivia as a guerilla fighter.  Of course, guerilla war is still war and war is not pretty.  Che “frequently had to resort to coercion” (722) at times to extract what he wanted from the populace surrounding his fighters.  Hostage taking, hijacking, making deals with local strongmen, executing traitors, purging spies, maintaining discipline among sometimes unruly soldiers -- often the line between righteous action and destructive atrocity was quite fuzzy.  Guevara, however, was utterly convinced of the validity of his cause: “Ernesto Guevara was now at war, trying to create a revolution, the result of a conscious leap of faith.  He had crossed a boundary that was invisible to outsiders and had entered a domain where lives could be taken for an ideal and where the end did justify the means.” (233)

Che wrote about his successful military campaign in Cuba, urging others to use Cuba as a model for their own revolutionary guerilla movements.  His sees the primary lessons from the Cuba campaign as: “1. Popular forces can win a war against the army.  2. It is not necessary to await for the conditions to be right to begin the revolution; the insurrectional foco (guerilla group) can create them.  3. In underdeveloped Latin America, the armed struggle should be fought mostly in the countryside.” (470)

Che as “Supreme Prosecutor”

Perhaps what Che is most controversial for is his role as the “supreme prosecutor” of revolutionary tribunals that tried former Batista regime members after the July 26th Movement took power.  “Several hundred people” (387) were put to death under these tribunals.  Anderson describes the trials as “[mostly] above board, if summary affairs, with defense lawyers, witnesses, prosecutors, and an attending public... In truth, there was little overt public opposition to the wave of revolutionary justice at the time.” (387-388)  For Che, this purging of the remnants of the Batista regime was an absolute necessity: “[Che] never tired of telling his Cuban comrades that in Guatemala Arbenz had fallen because he had not purged his armed forces of disloyal elements, a mistake that permitted the CIA to penetrate and overthrow his regime.  Cuba could not afford to repeat it.” (389)

Che’s Asthma

Che had a lifelong asthma condition that, ironically, disqualified him from Argentine compulsory military service (45).  It is further ironic that Che chose subtropical Cuba as the main site of his military adventures, where his asthma condition would be particularly crippling (242).  At times Che’s asthma so debilitated him that he was not able to even reach for his medicine (113).  Che’s frequent struggle with asthma, including on his military campaigns, is a recurring theme throughout Anderson’s book.

Anderson’s Conclusion on Che

“Che’s unshakable faith in his beliefs was made even more powerful by his unusual combination of romantic passion and coldly analytical thought.  This paradoxical blend was probably the secret to the near-mystical stature he acquired, but seems also to have been the source of his inherent weaknesses -- hubris and naivete.  Gifted at perceiving and calculating strategy on a grand scale, yet at a remove, he seemed incapable of seeing the small, human elements that made up the larger picture...  [T]he men he believed in consistently failed him, and he consistently failed to understand how to alter the fundamental nature of others and get them to become “selfless Communists.”  But along with his mistakes, what is most remembered about Che is his personal example, embodying faith, willpower and sacrifice... Forever youthful, brave, implacable, and defiant, perpetually staring out with those eyes full of purpose and indignation, Che has defied death.  As even his closest friends and comrades wilt with age or succumb to the comforts of a life where “la revolución” no longer has a place, Che remains unalterable.  He is immortal because others want him to be, as the solitary example of the New Man who once lived and dared others to follow.” (752-754)

Further Reading

A much more opinionated piece on Che, written from an Anarchist perspective, also using Anderson's book as a reference.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Bebel dreams of the Kladderadatsch

"For August Bebel, one of the Second International's main personalities, the Kladderadatsch, or great collapse of the system, was always round the next corner." -- Goeff Eley, Forging Democracy: The History of the Left in Europe, 1850-2000

The footnote to the above passage in Eley's book reads:

"Every night I go to sleep with the thought that the last hour of bourgeois society strikes soon." -- August Bebel to Friedrich Engels, 7 December 1885, cited by Lidtke, Outlawed Party, p. 233

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Book Review: Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism is Turning the Internet Against Democracy by Robert W. McChesney

What do Internet “celebrants” (Clay Shirkey, Henry Jenkins, Michael Nielsen, Yochai Benkler, Jeff Jarvis) and Internet “skeptics” (Jaron Lainer, Eli Pariser, Evgeny Morozov, Nicholas Carr) miss in their analysis?  Well, capitalism, duh.

This is the central thesis of Robert W. McChesney’s book Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism is Turning the Internet Against Democracy.  Drawing on his analysis of the contemporary economy in a previous work, The Endless Crisis, McChesney “attempts to connect the digital revolution... to the overriding crises of our times.”  McChesney believes that “most assessments of the Internet fail to ground it in political economy; they fail to understand the importance of capitalism in shaping and, for lack of a better term, domesticating the Internet.”

In the first chapter, McChesney sets the stage by assessing why both Internet celebrants and skeptics fail to account for the capitalist elephant in the room: “Whenever scholars examine their own society, it is generally taboo to challenge the prerogatives and privileges of those who stand atop it and benefit from the status quo, even in political democracies.”  Seeing as how the Internet has become of paramount social importance, McChesney concludes “The democratization of the Internet is integrally related to the democratization of the political economy.  They rise and fall together.”

Chapter 2, “Does Capitalism Equal Democracy?” (“As you may have already guessed, the short answer to the chapter title’s question is no.”) gives a whirlwind tour of how capitalism is affecting contemporary American society.  It briefly covers the historical origins of capitalism before diving into the topics of growing inequality, labor disempowerment, monopoly capitalism, political corruption, advertising, technology, declining growth, and public and private goods.  McChesney then references many formative Americans who recognized the threats of capitalism to democracy (one highlight is Lincoln’s State of the Union address in which he warns against the “returning despotism” of capital over labor).  The chapter ends with a discussion of how capitalism has produced a “golden age of insincere communication” which is “a toxic environment for democracy, and it flames the flames of cynicism,” leading to mass depoliticization.

Chapter 3 introduces the subfield of Political Economy of Communication (PEC).  McChesney introduces the idea of “critical junctures” (abrupt structural transformations that produced previous phenomena such as professional journalism) and suggests that we in the throes of another communication critical juncture.  Whether this can lead to a communication transformation on par with the printing press, he opines, remains to be seen.  McChesney blasts the entertainment media for not delivering what people want, contrary to conventional wisdom, and inundating children with harmful advertising.  He also reviews the various giveaways to media corporations, notably copyright, that keep them afloat.  The chapter then turns to an interesting history of journalism in America, and how capitalism has eroded the profession.  Finally, McChesney notes that “American history is rich with popular involvement with communication policy making” and “in the coming decade there will be a series of policy debates that will be crucial for the fate of the Internet.”

Chapter 4 describes “how capitalism conquered the Internet.”  McChesney recalls the non/anti-capitalist history of the early Internet, and its sudden privatization in 1995 amidst a fury of deregulation.  The Internet Service Provider market, once very competitive, is now dominated by a cartel of firms that are providing comparatively poor service by international standards and continuously lobbying the government to exclude potential competitors.  The rest of the chapter relates how old-guard media companies continue their dominance in the Internet age: copyright, Digital Rights Management, proprietary systems, etc.

Chapter 5 chronicles the new Internet markets that have gone “from competitive to oligopolistic at breakneck speeds.”  Google, for instance, has 70 percent of the Internet search market and 97 percent of the mobile search market.  The Internet giants form monopolies through network effects, patents, proprietary technical standards, anticompetitive pricing, buying out competitors, and large startup costs that raise barriers to entry to potential competitors.  These monopolies are dependent on favorable regulation, taxation policies (and their evasion thereof) and lack of antitrust activity for their survival.  Also, they are heavily dependent on advertising which calls for “violating any known understanding of privacy.”  Even though this book was written before the breaking of the NSA surveillance scandals, McChesney presciently ends the chapter with details about the intermingling of Silicon Valley and the military industrial complex, and how the monopolists really don’t have a choice in cooperating with the national security state.

Chapter 6 tackles the subject of journalism in the Internet age.  It is no news to anyone that journalism is in decline, but the Internet is not the root cause -- the Internet is only “[finishing] off the job that the market began.”  Declining budgets for reporting are leading to substituting corporate PR for news.  Scandals abound, such as local news sites farming out reporting to low-wage countries and algorithms generating editorial content.  McChesney singles out online nonprofit news media as a small bright spot among the sea of darkness that is Internet news.  He proposes public investments in journalism to remedy the dismal situation, noting there are plenty of precedents in American history and sensible policy proposals for doing so.

Chapter 7 finishes the book with a series of policy recommendations.  He also engages in much more radical musings: “If capitalists oppose reforms to make their own system functional, why exactly do we need them?”  McChesney sees a critical juncture coming for both the Internet and society as a whole, and the fortunes of the two will likely track each other.

I fear that such a short summary can not do justice to this book because it is overflowing with argument, information and insight.  It is truly one of the most dense books I have ever read -- dense as in having a high concentration of useful facts and commentary.  It clocks in at just over 200 pages but in that space manages to squeeze the knowledge of maybe ten Internet policy books between its covers.

A strength, and perhaps a fault, of the book is that it spans so many topics -- the Internet, democracy, journalism, advertising, capitalism, etc. -- that it can feel like the narrative is wandering at times.  Nevertheless, the history and data presented are so enthralling that it is hard to care too much when things seem to be headed slightly off the rails.

This work truly sets the standard for Internet policy books.  Anyone serious about Internet affairs would be well served to master the content in order to have a realistic grasp of what the current state of the Internet is and where it is headed.

Addendum to "What We Lose When We Embrace Copyright"

In early 2010 I wrote an article entitled “What We Lose When We Embrace Copyright” (WWLWWEC) advocating for the abolition of copyright.  The first response of many upon hearing this argument is to wonder how artists would be remunerated in a world in which copyright has been eliminated.  I addressed this concern in a Q+A section at the end of the article, specifically under the heading, “But how will X make money if copyright is eliminated?”  My answer to this question was, in short, that there were plenty of ways for artists to make money under a non-copyright regime, and that artists really don’t have any special privileges to be subsidized by society anyways if their business models don’t work out.

Over the past several years I have come to modify my views on this issue.  I still believe that copyright should be scrapped, but I would now advocate that a healthy system of public subsidies for artists be put in its place.  The rest of this article will discuss why I wrote what I did at the time, why I had a change of heart, and how such a subsidy system might be implemented.

The zeitgeist of WWLWWEC

I wrote WWLWWEC with the audience of, primarily, fellow software engineers in mind.  Many in this profession adopt as their political philosophy what might be called right-libertarianism or techno-libertarianism.  This outlook embraces a laissez-faire attitude towards economic markets and sees government intrusion on said markets as inefficient, meddlesome and undesirable.  So, crucially, any policy proposal that one makes must include little to no state intervention to appeal to a techno-libertarian.

It seems, however, that the position that governments and markets are and should be fundamentally separate entities is increasingly difficult to defend in the current political climate.  The financial crash of 2008-9 and its aftermath hammered home the critical dependency of business on the state.  Consequently, many free market zealots have been losing their religion in recent years.  So I think there are many who previously abhorred any state intervention in the economy who now are reasonably open to the idea.

People like art

I stated in the WWLWWEC Q+A, “[T]here is no a priori obligation on the part of society to ensure that a certain profession is subsidized.”  While this is true in a certain sense, it is also possible for there to be widespread agreement throughout society about certain properties people think should be preserved.  I’m going to take it on assumption that people generally like art, a lot of art (probably as much as possible), and don’t want to see an art-impoverished world, whatever the political or economic system.  And if good art is to be made, it makes sense that people that devote themselves to their craft professionally -- that is, artists -- would make the most valuable and rewarding art (and that people probably prefer exceptional art to mediocre art done by non-professionals).  Thus we can say with reasonable certainty that society should subsidize artists, in any event, to free them from distractions that would prevent them from producing art.

Subsidizing artists

There are many schemes one could create to subsidize artists.  Economist Dean Baker made one such proposal, which relies on a voucher system.  Basically, taxpayers get vouchers that they can use to allocate to whatever artist(s) they want, and artists, as a requirement for receiving money through the system, are forbidden from copyrighting their work.  Such a system leverages the already existing tax infrastructure, would be more than sufficient to cover artists’ costs, and does not even require any sweeping changes like elimination of all copyright (besides, of course, passage of law that would bring the program itself into existence).  In short, the proposed voucher system is a relatively unobtrusive reform that could easily be implemented within the context of the current legal and economic system.  The political effort required to enact it, however, is another story, of course.