Archive for the ‘Criticism’ Category

In Response To Those Disturbed By Celebrating on the Death of Bin Laden

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2011

I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that. – Martin Luther King, Jr.

I started seeing this quote popping up in my Facebook feed last night. In response, let me say 2 things:

(1) It’s fake. Martin Luther King, Jr., didn’t say that. It’s loosely based on this quote.

(2) Do you remember your first time watching The Wizard of Oz as a kid? That feeling of elation in the moments after the witch melted and the munchkins and everyone else began to sing, “Ding dong, the witch is dead!”?

Whether rational or not, the figure of Osama Bin Laden — and our inability to find him — has loomed over our consciousness since September 11. His survival despite America’s might directed against him, despite the abhorrence of his crimes, suggested impotence and an inability to control events and affect our own fate. The knowledge that not only did he survive, but he continued to plan to kill and terrorize — that at any moment, some decision of his which we had no way of affecting could wreck the lives of thousands, even our own — loomed over us. But on May 1, 2011, order was restored and the villain taken down. And that is a catharsis worthy of storybooks.

Voices urging restraint and caution at such moments of national catharsis are good and worthy. Because moments of catharsis can be distorted — they can turn to ugly emotions. Wisdom counsels that we “Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thine heart be glad when he is overthrown.”  It is unseemly to celebrate murder — and all too easy to demonize one’s enemies to justify resorting to violence. But as another wise man said,  ”A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

And it was Martin Luther King who said, “the arc of history is long but it bends towards justice” — and even as this prophet of non-violence may not have condoned it — in Bin Laden’s violent end by American hands, there was justice.

An evil man who claimed theological justification and technological means to murder millions; who inspired, authorized and directed the killing of thousands; who wanted women confined to a second-class status; who directed the killings of the vast majority of Muslims as unclean unbelievers — an evil man who murdered 3,000 souls on one fateful September morning — this Sunday, he was removed from this world.

And the world is better for it.

And for that, we should all celebrate.

[Image by Dan Nguyen @ New York City licensed under Creative Commons.]

Bloomberg: How To Use Immigration Policy to Save Detroit

Monday, May 2nd, 2011

Three thoughts regarding this suggestion by Mayor Bloomberg on Meet the Press yesterday morning:

1) This is exactly the sort of sensible, pragmatic suggestion that Bloomberg is known for — that is business-focused but would never get through any Democratic or Republican legislature because of the anti-immigrant backlash.  But it’s a good idea — and one grounded in the American tradition — as Matt Yglesias explained a year ago — similar to the homesteading policies that the U.S. used to encourage settlers to move West. Which leads me to my next point.

2) When I heard Bloomberg say this, I thought: “Aha! I wonder if he reads Matt Yglesias too!” Probably a silly thought — as Bloomberg spends his days focused on urban policy. But when I first heard Bloomberg say it, I had thought this was one of Yglesias’s many excellent ideas — but as I read his original post, it was instead one of the many interesting ideas that Yglesias brings to his audience from other sources.

3) Bloomberg’s approach to government is so successful because it is pragmatic and businesslike. But this comment also reveals what he misses. He uses the rather obnoxious line that any business run as the government is would fail. Of course! That’s part of why we have a government — to perform tasks that aren’t profitable but are still necessary. Bloomberg explains how politicians fail to act like businessmen by focusing on “issues they can’t come together on.” For a company, it makes a lot of sense to steer your company away from any matter on which their isn’t agreement. But politics is precisely where these ideas are hashed out. Of course, the tendency of some purists to insist on halting all action until the other side gives in needs to be balanced with the pragmatism that all successful businessmen and politicians have in common.

AT&T Is Asking Us To Trust Them

Saturday, April 23rd, 2011

Earlier this week, I noticed a bit of traffic hitting an old post of mine about AT&T’s unlikely sponsorship of libertarian ideologues as they attempt to stop net neutrality. (Unlikely given their history of constantly pleading for government intervention in their favor.) I followed the source to the AT&T’s forum but could find no link leading back to my rather critical post about AT&T.

So, today, I decided to check on what had happened. I didn’t see any easy way to contact the people posting or the moderators, so I posted myself asking if anyone knew what had happened. Tifa_Shines “answered” my question by censoring my link as “spam.”

Her message to me justifying her censorship said:

Links to material that contains political discussion and/or promotion of third party websites are violating the guidelines and will be removed.

And further that it is “inappropriate” and “unacceptable” to:

discuss[...] participant bans or other Moderator actions

I replied thanking her for “answering” my question — and that post was subsequently deleted. In my 5 minutes as a member of AT&T’s Community Forum, I discovered at least 2 rules:

  • Thou shalt not discuss the political activities AT&T engages in rather than providing decent service.
  • Thou shalt not discuss when AT&T censors you so as better to maintain the fiction of a ‘Community’ Forum.

Knowing that links AT&T, for whatever their reason, did not approve of were labeled “not relevant” and “spam,” I went back to the original page that was the source of traffic and found the offending, censored post — attempting to put AT&T’s bandwidth caps in the context of it’s efforts to fight net neutrality and their history of attacking every innovation from the Hush-A-Phone to the internet in their quest to create “the perfect system” without being distracted by that terrible thing called competition, and coincidentally, extracting the maximum profit from their customers.

In the scheme of things, the injustice of this censorship is rather small. AT&T is a private company and they can do whatever they want in a private forum that they run. Even the Westboro Baptist Church has rights.

But AT&T, by opposing net neutrality, is asking that we as a people trust them to not censor the internet.

They are asking for permission to change the structure of the internet by violating one of it’s foundational principles — net neutrality. (A principle that AT&T coincidentally opposed when government scientists were attempting to create the internet in the 1950s.)

They are asking that we trust them to not make websites that disagree with them slower and making those they approve of faster.

They are asking that we trust them as an ISP to provide access to content that criticizes them.

They are asking that we trust them not to quash the next disruptive technology that will use the internet in ways we haven’t yet thought of or that will be even better than the internet.

Their sordid history of pleading for special favors from the government to destroy any opponent or innovator (as detailed in many places, but most memorably and recently, in Tim Wu’s The Master Switch) – and their attempts to strangle the internet before it even existed — gives us little reason to trust them.

Their bankrolling of former libertarian economists and thinkers such as Adam D. Thierer (who before they sold out were vicious critics of AT&T) to lie about net neutrality gives us little reason to trust them.

AT&T’s attempts to game the political system with a “slush fund” sponsoring what former VP and Director of Communications, Dick Martin, called “so-called ‘grassroots’ organizations all over the place, astroturfing the countryside” give us little reason to trust them.

That various people AT&T has sponsored (including Grover Norquist) have now joined up with right wing religious fanatics to oppose net neutrality on the grounds that it will prevent the censorship of “obscenity and other objectionable content,” is yet another reason not to trust AT&T.

To summarize, AT&T is making the argument that they should be trusted as a steward of the internet and that the government should not allowed to protect one of the foundational principles of the internet that has made it a libertarian utopia of competition and free markets in the name of…libertarianism. Yet it’s history and current incarnation betray a culture of censorship and anti-competitive behavior that extends down to an Orwellian policing of it’s ‘Community’ Forum — labeling links it disagrees with as “Spam” and forbidding any discussion of it’s own censorship.

If it succeeds in overturning net neutrality, how much longer will it be before any website criticizing them is labeled as spam — just as a link to my blogpost criticizing them was? And how long before any attempt to discuss such labeling will be forbidden as against the user agreement you accept by getting your internet through AT&T?

Mad? Want to do something? Take a moment and email your Congressperson today to tell them how important net neutrality is to you.

Capitalism in Practice

Tuesday, April 19th, 2011

I’ve started Tim Wu’s The Master Switch, a history of information industries in America; and having read Ayn Rand’s fictional Atlas Shrugged earlier this year — I wonder what Rand would make of this history of industrial warfare.

One of the motifs of Wu’s history is a theme of Rand’s novel — the extreme lengths the rich and powerful will go to in order to quash a disruptive technology. In the novel, it was Rearden steel — a metal stronger, cheaper, and better in every way than ordinary steel; in Wu’s history, it is every technological innovation from the phone to FM radio to television to the internet. In both history and the novel, the established industry used corrupt scientific experts, intimidation of suppliers, government regulation, and the blocking of financing to prevent the disruptive technology from taking off.

Rand’s novel though divides the everyone into two categories: the productive who are proud, competitive, inventive individuals who make everything of worth; and the looters who are unproductive and seek to leach off of the productive using the government, religion, and pity.

Wu’s history reveals a rather different story. There is no figure in history to match the strong, creative, independent, self-made industrial magnate Dagny Taggart. There are few who resemble her brother, the weak, dependent, self-loathing James Taggart who adds nothing of worth to the business except to plead with the government to stop his competitors because their superiority is unfair,

Only rarely do the inventors become rich. More often, they are outmaneuvered by corporate titans who use every means at their disposal to win. When Edwin Armstrong invented FM radio in 1934, he had pioneered a technology that allowed for better sound quality and that could fit more stations in the same radio spectrum with less interference. David Sarnoff, a major figure in the AM radio industry, was able to prevent FM radio from gaining wide acceptance until the 1970s through a combination of public propaganda, lobbying to change obscure rules relating to radio spectrum usage, and control over the manufacturing of radio players. David Sarnoff managed a vast business empire; he was at the cutting edge of innovations in radio and television. He won not because he was weak and unproductive (as Rand’s villains are) — but because he was ruthless.

Rand’s many fans aren’t typically the creative inventors. They are the very businessmen who see moral justification for their wealth in her philosophy. But they, like the businessmen in Wu’s history, are distinguished not for their purity of motive or love of competition, but their willingness to use any means at their disposal to achieve the corporate empire they seek. Unlike the fictional heroes of Rand’s novel, they do not seek competition. They seek a final victory and end to the competition.

In the theories of Rand and many of her acolytes, capitalism is about competition. In practice, capitalism has about brute strength and force used in restraint of competition.

[Image by Ron Schott licensed under Creative Commons.]

Campbell’s Law

Wednesday, March 30th, 2011

Andrew Sullivan and Ezra Klein both posted today about Campbell’s Law, citing an article by Dana Goldstein in the Daily Beast about corruption in schools under Michelle Rhee’s chancellorship in Washington, D.C.:

In the social sciences, there is an oft-repeated maxim called Campbell’s Law, named after Donald Campbell, a psychologist who studied human creativity. Campbell’s Law states that incentives corrupt. In other words, the more punishments and rewards—such as merit pay—are associated with the results of any given test, the more likely it is that the test’s results will be rendered meaningless, either through outright cheating or through teaching to the test in a way that narrows the curriculum and renders real learning obsolete.

I can think of cooler things that might be called Campbell’s Law — but such as it is, it goes a long way to explaining the flaw in capitalism without enough regulation. Organizing an economy around the pursuit of currency is efficient but not in the way it was intended — as any shortcut or corruption is utilized, as every possible cost is externalized.

It also goes a helps explain — but not as completely — how government tax incentives subsidizing gasoline, corn, middle class mortgages, student loans, and health care costs has led to escalating demand for these resources — seemingly distorting the market more than a direct intervention would. There seems to be something about tax incentives that distorts markets more than direct interventions. (A topic that seems up Matt Yglesias‘s alley to explore.)

On a related note, when taxpayers demand their receipt for government services– it should reflect not only disbursements, but the cost of tax benefits and loopholes.

The Sheeple of r/libertarian

Tuesday, March 15th, 2011

The rantings of a self-proclaimed “Libertarian Asshole” who is so incredibly deluded as to think that the America is approaching something worse than a despotic government — an “Absolute Despotism!” — aren’t generally worth responding to. But I like reddit — and I like libertarians. Which is why I’ve been consistently frustrated with the regressive turn that the /r/libertarian has taken since Obama’s election.

How else to explain the popularity of the Libertarian Asshole’s factually-challenged post blaming “Liberals” for the Bush administration’s regulation being enforced in his story?

As a liberal, let me tell you that stories of government corruption and government idiocy, of victimless crimes prosecuted and overreach make me mad. I believe in good government — and not government and regulation for it’s own sake. I believe a law should not be unjustly applied. Liberals have made a strong showing in opposing regulatory capture – when organized lobbies of special interests (such as optometrists) are able to get a regulatory agency to act against the interests of the public and in favor of the lobby. That’s why liberals have fought against the FCC to allow for more competition on the radio waves and that’s why liberals pointed to the corruption in the Minerals Management Service. That’s why Matt Yglesias — one of the web’s most prominent liberals — focuses so much on opposing rent-seeking and unnecessary regulation. As a liberal, I believe the government is capable of acting in the public interest — but that citizens must always provide a check against the inevitable abuses.

I only state this because in the world of the Libertarian Asshole, the phantom “Liberals” are those who say the “Law’s the Law” as they turned in runaway slaves because they…are like “cheap whores” with no self esteem.

With that brilliant insight into the Liberal mind, this Asshole struck r/libertarian gold — as 268 redditors and counting demonstrate.

——–

One more thing: The Libertarian Asshole apparently wasn’t satisfied with a rather sympathetic story of a businesswoman who was busted for selling decorative contact lenses without prescriptions and made to sell her car.

He had to embellish. And by embellish, I mean, apparently, to lie. A few minutes on Google reveals the following:

  1. Lie: The Libertarian Asshole claims that Da Young Kim, who ran an internet store selling contact lenses, was “arrested” for doing so.
    Fact: The Court records and the FTC’s records both show that this was a “civil complaint” — not a criminal one. No where does the news or any other source support the out-of-the-blue claim that Kim was arrested.
  2. Lie: The Libertarian Asshole claims that the FTC spent “your tax dollars on an undercover sting operation.”
    Fact: There’s nothing in the news or in the record or elsewhere on the web to back this up. None of the evidence presented against Kim was from any sting operation.
  3. Lie: The FTC acted because they believed the internet store run by Da Young Kim “might not be checking every customer’s prescription.”
    Fact: According to the FTC complaint, Kim kept no records of prescriptions at all. This wasn’t a few contact lenses sold without prescription — this was a business plan.

Protesters Bring Missiles to Ground Zero

Thursday, September 2nd, 2010

With a closeup of the sign:

Rachel Slajda of Talking Points Memo reports that the missiles seen being dragged around Ground Zero have been donated by an ad agency that recommissions missiles for advertising purposes.

One of the websites listed on the missiles – WhatDoYouMakeOfThis.com — is an error-filled diatribe by the owner of the ad agency, JetAngel, Arye Sachs. He repeats a number of the errors I tried to correct in my piece on “Fighting the Lies, Damned Lies, and Paranoia” about Cordoba House. On the positive side, the poll on his site shows majority support for what he insists on calling the ‘Ground Zero Mosque.”

Can we agree that the circus atmosphere and blatant bigotry of these protests disrespects the sacred ground near Ground Zero far more than a community center and mosque run by a patriotic Sufi Muslim?

[First set of images found on LGF; second image on Gawker by Mark Borden of Fast Company.]

The Victimhood Complex of the Right-Wing

Monday, June 14th, 2010

Andrew Breitbart, while claiming to be some sort of serious journalist, more closely resembles the papparazzi that hound celebrities. (And as he apparently regularly checks any blog references to himself: Hello Andrew, and welcome.)

The stories he has broken seem to place as much emphasis on the “reporter” as on the subject — most notably the pimp at ACORN — but today’s newest right-wing talking point (in video form) is similar:

More bothersome to me than this shallow and callow approach to news is what it reveals about the story of victimhood that seems to so excite the right-wing these days.

I remember a time when the right-wing thundered in righteous indignation over the subversive and un-American nature of claiming moral authority and material advantage by victimhood — the core of the conservative critiques of affirmative action, political correctness, hate crimes, the value of diversity, and welfare. They highlighted with glee any case where race-baiters, scammers, or any other purported victim claimed race, gender, or some other prejudicial factor without good cause. But that was the 1990s. By the 2000s, right-wingers had begun to adopt the tactics of those few authentic race-baiters as their own.

In 2008, Sarah Palin mastered this flip — flinging charges of sexism and misogyny against all of her critics as she winked and engaged in name-calling and gutter politics. She was a post-modern demagogue — and excited all the passions for and against her that demagogues rely on to gain power — but she explained away all criticisms of her as part of her victimhood, as a right-winger and a powerful woman. It was a brilliant move.

Marked by Sarah Palin’s rise, the right wing has constantly claimed victimhood: Michelle Bachman warned of concentration camps for conservatives; Rush Limbaugh claimed he was on the president’s enemies list; Glenn Beck declared that his words were so powerful, powerful people were attempting to silence him; Matt Drudge warned that the FCC was considering enacting a tax that he called, “a Drudge tax;” TownHall sent out emails claiming conservatives would be denied medical treatment under ObamaCare;  and of course, Sarah Palin herself has posited giant conspiracies against her, and positioned herself as the victim of her neighbors, bloggers in Alaska, her daughter’s one-time boyfriend, David Letterman, Katie Couric, Rahm Emanuel, and of course, the “lamestream media.”

Andrew Breitbart himself doesn’t seem to claim to be a victim. He happily engages in political war. But the news his sites promote are consistent with this culture of victimhood that has come to dominate the right-wing. There are few better examples than this video as discussions of policy or of politics are left behind in favor of a short video in which a right winger is shown as the victim of the left. Congressman Bod Etheridge’s reaction was no doubt inappropriate. But calling this an “assault” is such a glaringly obvious attempt to play the victim. It’s unclear how much the video was edited — but the facial blurring of the anonymous college student further adds to the obviousness of this attempt — but in typical Breitbart fashion, it has the potential to extend the story as the identity of the student is released in the coming days.

This culture of victimhood is pernicious because it is self-reinforcing — and helps insulate the right-wing from adapting to political circumstances — and may even, in the worst of all worlds, lead to the Republican nomination of Sarah Palin for president.

Must-Reads of the Week: The IRA, Journalism, Unsavory Profits, Bipartisanship, and the Tyranny of New York

Friday, May 21st, 2010

1. Double Agents in the IRA. I recently came across an excellent article by Matthew Teague in The Atlantic about the British counterintelligence program and the IRA. It’s from 2006, but still engrossing.

2. Restoring Journalism. Maureen Tkacik talks about her life as a journalist, the nothing-based economy, and the future of journalism:

If journalism’s more vital traditions of investigating corruption and synthesizing complex topics are going to be restored, it will never be at the expense of the personal, the sexual, the venal, or the sensational, but rather through mastering the kind of storytelling that understands that none of those things exists in a vacuum. For instance, perhaps the latest political sex scandal is not simply another installment of the unrelenting narcissism and sense of invincibility of people in power. Most of the journalists writing about it have—as we all do—some understanding of the internal conflicts that lead to personal failure. By humanizing journalism, we maybe can begin to develop a mutual trust between reader and writer that would benefit both.

What I’m talking about is, of course, a lot easier to do with the creative liberties afforded a blog—one’s humanity is inescapable when one commits to blogging all day for a living.

The piece is long, and worth every word. (H/t to John Cantwell.)

3. The Papacy, Blumenthal, and Now Goldman Sachs. The New York Times took on Goldman Sachs earlier this week with a look at the perfectly legal but unsavory practices it uses to make money:

Transactions entered into as the mortgage market fizzled may turn out to have been perfectly legal. Nevertheless, they have raised concerns among investors and analysts about the extent to which a variety of Wall Street firms put their own interests ahead of their clients’.

“Now it’s all about the score. Just make the score, do the deal. Move on to the next one. That’s the trader culture,” said Cornelius Hurley, director of the Morin Center for Banking and Financial Law at Boston University and former counsel to the Federal Reserve Board. “Their business model has completely blurred the difference between executing trades on behalf of customers versus executing trades for themselves. It’s a huge problem.”

4. Erroneous Assumptions. Matt Yglesias concisely summarizes what left-leaning advocates of bipartisanship have found time and again:

Oftentimes people reach the conclusions that conservatives might support this or that by the erroneous method of pretending that conservatives believe in the stated reasons for their policy positions. It seems to me that private views of wonks aside in practice the conservative political movement simply opposes anything that would increase government revenue and/or be bad for rich people.

5. The Tyranny of New York (cont). Continued from last week, many voices around the interwebs weighed in on the conversation started by Conor Friedersdorf on the tyranny of New York in media and culture. There’s a lot of good pieces to read on this — but the 2 I will recommend are this response in the New Yorker by Amy Davidson and this follow-up by Friedersdorf himself.  Davidson, as an aside mentions an E. B. White essay “Here Is New York” that I now need to read:

(Friedersdorf mentions “living vicariously through” E. B. White, who once wrote that there were three New Yorks, that of the native, the commuter, and the newcomer from smaller American places, and that “Of these trembling cities the greatest is the last—the city of final destination, the city that is a goal…Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness, natives give it solidity and continuity, but the settlers give it passion.” But I’ve never really bought that, as matchless as many of White’s descriptions of the city are, maybe because, as a native, I feel no shortage of passion, and don’t much like being called solid. And, again, for many of the most interesting newcomers, this is an entry point to America, not the “final destination.”)

[Image by me.]

Some brief thoughts on Rand Paul

Thursday, May 20th, 2010

All those people who brand Rand Paul a racist and use this clip to prove it aren’t worthy of serious consideration. It is either ignorance of libertarian philosophy or partisan hackery to claim so. It isn’t racism to claim that the government has no right to intervene in private businesses to stop discrimination.

As Ezra Klein explains though, it is relevant:

Paul’s defense of himself is that his take on the Civil Rights Act has nothing to do with race and so he is not a racist. But by the same token, the fact that Paul’s view on the Civil Rights Act is so dominated by his libertarian ideology that he cannot even admit race and segregation into the calculus is exactly why this is relevant to Paul’s candidacy, why it’s an issue and why it’s among the best evidence we have in understanding how he’ll vote on legislation that comes before him. If this isn’t about race, then it is about all questions relating to federal regulation of private enterprise. As a senator, Paul will be faced with that question frequently. And his views on it are clearly very, very far from the mainstream.

These libertarian views do reflect accurately an ideology whose language is gaining prominence in the GOP in the form of the Tea Party movement. This movement in its different incarnations has been around for some time, and emerged as a populist right-wing backlash to John F. Kennedy, to Bill Clinton, and now to Barack Obama. In each instance, the movement died as soon as it gained a toehold on power as it had no real agreed-upon agenda other than opposition to “liberalism=socialism=communism.”  Andrew Sullivan puts his finger on an important aspect of this:

[T]he tea-party movement [is] un-conservative. It is dealing with the world as it would like it to be, not as it is. It has an almost adolescent ideal it cannot compromise. I think that makes the movement, in its more serious incarnation (like Paul), a useful addition to the public debate, especially in reminding the GOP of some core principles it threw away under Bush and Cheney… Its bright, fixed glare also helps us illuminate what we believe in – merely by revealing what we no longer believe in.

I agree with Connor Friedsdorf and Andrew Sullivan and Daniel Larison that Rand Paul’s nomination is a good thing. Even if he wins the Senate seat, I see this as a good thing. To have his voice, his ideological clarity, as 1 of 100 would improve the Senate. The fact that his extremism could lead him to side with the Democrats on some issues (if he was able to resist the partisan pressures in Washington, which is a big if) and that his extremism could simultaneously help discredit and marginalize the GOP are both bonuses. Even without these, I would see his election as a net positive as it would give some measure of power to those people whose inchoate anger has helped form the Tea Party movement and force its members to make hard decisions about what they actually want.

Rand Paul is the rare right-wing politician who doesn’t just bad-mouth government but wants to get rid of the Federal Reserve, who opposes the government encroachment represented by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as well as the PATRIOT Act and the Affordable Care Act, who opposes Social Security and Medicare as well as any new additions from Obama. He would never campaign in favor of Medicare while calling Obamacare socialism — he would deride them both as such.

This is why I see Rand Paul as a clarifying figure who can help move our national debate forward — if he remains honest.

[Image by Gage Skidmore licensed under Creative Commons.]