Stagger onward rejoicing

Tag: democracy (page 1 of 1)

Ken Burns’s ‘The U.S. and the Holocaust’ – Dara Horn:

Burns has a soft spot for Franklin and Eleanor, the subjects of one of his prior films, and here he treats them with kid gloves, blaming most of the missteps on State Department antagonists. The series makes a point of establishing the bigoted, racist atmosphere of the U.S. at the time, showing Nazi rallies in New York, clips of the popular anti-Semitic broadcaster Father Charles Coughlin, and colorized footage of a Nazi-themed summer camp in New Jersey. But the film goes out of its way to outline the pros and cons of Roosevelt’s decisions, leaving his reputation intact. To be clear, Roosevelt is an American icon and deserves to remain one. The problem with this approach is less about Roosevelt (there are plenty of convincing arguments in his favor, not least that he won the war) than about how it contradicts the rest of the film’s premise. The goal of the series is seemingly to reset America’s moral compass, using hindsight to expose the costs of being a bystander. But every bystander, including Roosevelt, can explain his choices. The film’s refusal to judge the commander in chief plays into a larger political pattern: offering generosity only toward those we admire.

Or whom we perceive to be on Our Team. The whole essay is excellent, but I especially appreciate the unpacking of this point: “Democracies, for all their strengths, are ill-equipped for identifying and responding to evil.” 

bad dispensations

The idea that we must choose between two intolerant illiberalisms, one on the Right and one on the Left, is, it seems to me, increasingly common today. It was also quite common in the 1930s. For instance, in 1937 the British House of Commons was debating whether or how to intervene in the Spanish Civil War, and a number of M.P.s insisted that it was necessary to choose between the Fascists and the Communists. But one Member of the House replied,

I will not pretend that, if I had to choose between Communism and Nazi-ism, I would choose Communism. I hope not to be called upon to survive in the world under a Government of either of those dispensations…. It is not a question of opposing Nazi-ism or Communism; it is a question of opposing tyranny in whatever form it presents itself; and, having a strong feeling in regard to the preservation of individual rights as against Governments, and as I do not find in either of these two Spanish factions which are at war any satisfactory guarantee that the ideas which I personally care about, and to which I have been brought up in this House to attach some importance, would be preserved, I am not able to throw myself in this headlong fashion into the risk of having to fire cannon immediately on the one side or the other of this trouble…. I cannot feel any enthusiasm for these rival creeds. 

The Member who so refused to make that choice was Winston Churchill. When many thought that liberalism and democracy were unsustainable, were not long for this world, he stood up for liberalism and democracy anyway. That was the wise course then, and it’s the wise course today. 

underwriting democracy

From an interview with James Davison Hunter:

In this tangle between very powerful institutions and very powerful cultural logics, there are serious problems that are deeply rooted. The great democratic revolutions of Western Europe and North America were rooted in the intellectual and cultural revolution of Enlightenment; the Enlightenment underwrote those political transformations. If America’s hybrid Enlightenment underwrote the birth of liberal democracy in the United States, what underwrites it now?

What is going to underwrite liberal democracy in the 21st century? To me, it’s not obvious. That’s the big puzzle I’m working through right now. But it bears on this issue of culture wars, because if there’s nothing that we share in common — if there is no hybrid enlightenment that we share — then what are the sources we can draw upon to come together and find any kind of solidarity? … 

I have this old-fashioned view that what we’re supposed to do is to understand before we take action, and that wisdom depends upon understanding. That basically makes me a conservative today — but it also makes me a progressive by conservative standards.

James is a friend, but still, it’s true: His work becomes more and more important, its prescience becomes more and more clear, as time goes by. I have recently been re-reading To Change the World and am really struck by the ways it anticipated all the pathologies that have wounded American Christianity in the past decade. 

Manorial Technocracy

This morning I have a post up at the Hedgehog Review on “Our Manorial Elite.” The core idea, as you’ll see if you click through, comes from Cory Doctorow, or rather a historian friend of Doctorow’s. “[Bruce] Schneier calls [our current arrangement] ‘Feudal Security,’ but as the medievalist Stephen Morillo wrote to me, the correct term for this is probably ‘Manorial Security’ — while feudalism was based on land-grants to aristocrats who promised armed soldiers in return, manorialism referred to a system in which an elite owned all the property and the rest of the world had to work on that property on terms that the local lord set.”

What the rabble who stormed the Capitol building have unwittingly done is to consolidate (a) the social power of the enormous transnational tech companies and (b) the intimacy of those companies’ connection with the United States government. Given the recent usefulness of Facebook, Twitter, and Amazon to the currently dominant political party, what are the chances that a Democratic Congress will pass legislation curbing their power, or that, should some such bill emerge, a Democratic President would sign it into law?

So let me bang this antique drum one more time: You need to own as much of your turf as you can. I explain why and how, in detail, in this essay. Avoid the walled gardens of social media, because at any moment they could appeal to digital eminent domain and move the walls somewhere else, and if they did you’d have zero recourse.

Now, to be sure, even when you “own your turf” you don’t really own your turf — as the people who run Parler have recently discovered: they didn’t just lose their access to Apple’s App Store and Google Play, and their data storage account with Amazon’s AWS, they lost their text message and email service provider. I was reminded of just how vulnerable my own digital presence is last year when there were plans to sell the .org domain to a private equity firm. That situation has been avoided for now, thanks in large part to the efforts of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, but there are no guarantees going forward. When I’m on the open web, I own my data — which is a big deal, since the owners of the walled gardens also own your data — but I don’t own the power to share my words and images with others.

I hold no brief for Parler, which I am glad to see shut down — it has been a foul thing by any reasonable measure — but as I note in my Hedgehog post, the big social media companies are making up their rules as they go along, and in so doing setting the standards for other, smaller companies to follow. So are the other big companies: As Glenn Greenwald points out, the planning for the assault on the Capitol wasn’t done on Parler, it was done on Facebook — yet we don’t see Apple banning Facebook from its App Store, do we?

The smaller, the more vulnerable. If I were to say something controversial enough, my own hosting company, the wonderful Reclaim Hosting, could give me the boot. It’s not at all likely, of course, but my point is that it’s possible. I could be fired by Baylor, Google and Apple could shut down my accounts, I could probably be cut off by my ISP. I think the only thing left would be a landline phone, which, if I’m not mistaken, we in the USA still have fairly strong rights to use. But I don’t have a landline. (Maybe I should remedy that?)

It’s possible, then, for any of us to be not just shamed or dragged on social media but really and truly digitally shunned — to be completely cut off from every possibility of electronic discourse and community. I don’t see how you can’t be concerned about this possibility. So even a lawyer for the ACLU — which has in recent years explicitly refused to support speech that it doesn’t approve of — says, “I think we should recognize the importance of neutrality when we’re talking about the infrastructure of the internet.”

Until that neutrality in enshrined in law, we are all at the mercy of our manorial technocracy. But if we stay outside the walled gardens, we are safer and more free. I would encourage all of you to ditch Twitter, ditch Facebook (including Instagram), ditch all of them and learn how to live once more on the open web. The future of our democracy just might depend on it.

I can see clearly now

I thought this day was coming, but I didn’t expect it to come so soon. I don’t believe Beijing expected it to come so soon either: the Chinese authorities were playing a long game, biding their time and building their power, and I do not think they were relishing an immediate confrontation with Western capitalism. But the Hong Kong protests forced their hand. Beijing clearly perceives these protests as an existential threat, and have decided that the moment has come to go all-in. They have pushed all their chips into the center of the table … and the capitalists immediately folded like a Chinese-made lawn chair. 

NBA officials are bowing and scraping to Beijing and begging forgiveness while trying to tell Americans that they’re not really apologizing. (Adam Silver says he’s not apologizing for Daryl Morey’s exercise of free speech, but then what is he apologizing for?) ESPN/Disney is muzzling its employees. Apple is banning apps that Beijing wants banned, for whatever reason

This has all gone better for Beijing than CCP officials probably dared hope, but in fact they held the strongest hand. Tim Cook, who got his job as Apple CEO after spending years proving that he was a wizard of the supply chain, knows better than anyone that China has a stranglehold on Apple’s supply chain, and it would take years or even decades to loosen that hold. I don’t know how much revenue the NBA gets from China, but even if it’s far less than they get in this country, that Chinese revenue can be cut off altogether in an instant; by contrast, not one American NBA fan in ten thousand will care enough about what happens in China to stop buying jerseys and tickets and League Pass. 

If nothing else, this whole shameful display should put an end, once and for all, to the ridiculous idea that there is some natural and intrinsic connection between democracy and capitalism. There very obviously ain’t. When shareholders and the bottom line are not benefitted by democracy, then democracy gets flushed down the toilet. American big business has firmly decided for a totalitarian regime and against people who want democratic freedoms. The business of America really is business after all. 

But here’s an interesting question: How woke will our woke capitalists remain if an emboldened Chinese regime starts to rail against moral perversion in the form of homosexuals and trans people? 


“Believe me, the China situation bothers me. . . . But at the end of the day, I have a responsibility to my owners to make money,” then–NBA commissioner David Stern said in a 2006 interview. He may not have known then where his allegiance to the bottom line would lead the league and the game he helped to grow.

To hear him tell it then, Stern was intent on turning the NBA into an exporter of American values. Under his leadership, the league began its “Basketball Without Borders” program, which initially sent NBA players to run basketball camps in geopolitically tense parts of the world. “NBACares” television spots dominated game breaks. “We’re going to keep right on showing them,” Stern told Sports Illustrated when asked about public annoyance with the frequency of the ads. “Because social responsibility is extremely important to us.”

You know it was an article of faith for Stern that “make money” and “social responsibility” could never come into irreconcilable conflict with each other. No doubt Adam Silver and Tim Cook have been similarly catechized. But their religion is in vain, so what will they do? They’ll keep making money and tell themselves that they are also socially responsible, no matter what happens on the ground. For faith is the evidence of things not seen. 

UPDATE 2: Paul Farmer, in Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains, on WLs (White Liberals): “I love WLs to death, they’re on our side. But WL’s think all the world’s problems can be fixed without any cost to themselves.” (More about Farmer, on related themes, here.) 

liberalism and democracy

This is very shrewd and thought-provoking from Adrian Vermeule:

Liberalism both needs and fears democracy. It needs democracy because it needs the legitimation that democracy provides. It fears, however, that its dependence on, yet fundamental difference from, democracy will be finally and irrevocably exposed by a sustained course of nonliberal popular opinion.

In this environment, the solution of the intellectuals is always to try to idealize and redescribe democracy so that “mere majoritarianism” never turns out to count as truly democratic. Of course the majority’s views are to count on certain issues, but only within constraints so tightly drawn and under procedures so idealized that any outcomes threatening to liberalism can be dismissed as inauthentic, often by a constitutional court purporting to speak in the name of a higher form of democracy. Democracy is then reduced to a periodic ceremony of privatized voting by secret ballot for one or another essentially liberal party, safely within a cordon sanitaire. In the limit, as Schmitt put it, liberalism attempts to appeal to a “democracy of mankind” that erases nations, substantive cultures, and the particularistic solidarities that are constitutive of so many of the goods of human life. In this way, liberalism attempts to hollow out democracy from within, yet retain its outward form as a sort of legitimating costume, like the donkey who wore the lion’s skin in the fable.