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2020-05-31

Anti-Social Media

I have come to dislike social media. 

I deleted my Facebook account more than two years ago. I might have a Twitter account associated with work, but I've been ignoring it for at least as long. I know I don't have an Instagram account. Reddit? Maybe for a hot minute, but found it too much work to find things of interest. Snapchat? Nope. Pinterest? No interest. 

I do have a LinkedIn profile, but that's just for professional purposes. I have a YouTube account, but these days only to find my favorites. 

Am I consistent in my position vis-a-vis social media? Not really. But I do have a position. It has to do with attention span. I like the long form. That's why I prefer the essay. I like to read the background story in the news media to understand the headlines. I prefer to get to the why rather than the how, much less the how many. 

Am I a "pseudo intellectual punk"? Yes, wholeheartedly. That was a charge leveled at me by a high school teacher and football coach as he pushed me up against a row of lockers in the school corridor. (He did pronounce pseudo "swaydo".) My crime was wearing a lapel button with a message favorable to contraception. 

I was attending a Roman Catholic military academy run by Benedictines. (I learned early that contradictions abound in life.) While I was a little concerned with getting a beating as he was infamous for bullying students and hitting them (see above, Catholic school), I was more worried about my sister's reaction as he tore the button from my coat. She had loaned it to me for the day. 

My preference for careful thought and argument are partly because of that episode. I was confronted by a person who used his authority with its implied violence as a way to squelch my voice. I still remember but do not feel the fear. Yet the more important result was the label that has stuck in my mind for almost a half century. He could not accept that my views were genuine and thoughtful. Granted, I was 16 at the time. But many teenagers have a finely tuned sense of fairness, if only applied to their situation. Mine, however, was turned outward because of my era–it was 1970 and the student movement was still alive. 

We now live in an era where our inward monologues and grievances are turned outward. Not in a thoughtful form but at its worst devolved into a hashtag. Those work because people can reuse them and some system somewhere keeps count. The problem with this is that we have abandoned the wisdom of the crowd for the mindless fury of the mob. The problem with mobs is that they have no brain, only impulsive emotions. The problem of mobs on social media is that their fury is encouraged to monetize interactions and contribute to the concentration of wealth in the hands of a very few people. 

In the meantime, the rest of us have to endure mindless spasms of spleen venting as some actually believe this social bile and take action. We are now far beyond the crazy, gullible individual who believed in Pizzagate, and have ostensibly sentient beings marching for the right to not wear a mask, gather together in tightly-packed mobs, and endanger themselves and all around them with infection of a deadly virus. Why? So the owners of social media companies will see their stocks rise.

They have become tech titans and their platforms span the globe. We have faced such concentrations before and used law to break them up. But those were trusts for manufacturing, oil production, and steel making. How do we break up companies built on algorithms? Do we have to use the very instruments of the social mob to organize to defeat these algorithmic owners? 

2020-05-29

Howard Zinn Was Right by Being Left

I joke that I'm a "recovering" historian. It's a lame joke that tries to expropriate the idea of being in recovery like a sober alcoholic. Some might be offended by adopting a term of struggle for myself. But it does describe something I had to leave behind. My first career was as a practicing historian. People even paid me money to practice it. Not much, but enough to ply my trade. Sadly, for me, I had to abandon that career to make a living. My recovery joke was a way to deal with the unacknowledged pain.

I tell this tale to set up the context. One of the historians I met and studied his books was Howard Zinn. You may be more familiar with his book, A Young Peoples' History of the United States. It examines all those people that first European and later American elites subjugated and exploited. There was a lot of violence and even mass murder along the way. It's a tale told from the bottom up and it ain't pretty.

When I met Zinn, I was a graduate student in history in the late 1970s. The political upheavals of the 1960s and early 1970s had ebbed in the wake of national guard troops killing four students at Kent State University and ending the military draft. The former was a warning to student protesters and the latter was a signal that they were no longer at risk of being sent involuntarily to Vietnam. Zinn was often labeled as a New Left activist and historian. That label had meaning among historians at the time. It's meaning was "be careful, there be professional danger here."

You see, when I became engaged with the formal study of history in the 1970s, the battles over race, sex, economics, global power, and the like were still raging in the academy. There were forces on the right trying to push back against the invaders. Those invaders had the temerity to say that Reconstruction may have been a good thing because it empowered and began educating freed slaves. Believe it or not, that was explosive thinking at the time. The people on the right were not defending slaveholders or Jim Crow, but they were pushing back on the tone of this revisionist history. Their critique was as much about manners as evidence. (A medievalist professor of mine once opined in class that he was glad that he could study the Middle Ages because it was "quieter".)

But the substantive arguments were more about looking away from the winners' version of the past to focus on the victims. Zinn was a leading figure in the movement as a "New Left" historian. Unfortunately, when I met him at a conference, introduced by one of my professors, I was still academically wet behind the ears. I did not have the perspective or experience to appreciate his case, but was more attuned to his critics than his evidence. At the time, I adopted a wait and see perspective and placed myself between the consensus historians who thought that America was basically a good thing with some serious problems and the New Left that charged that America was historically a white patriarchy fueled by exploitative capitalism that robbed those at the bottom of the social pyramid of wealth, power, and even a voice.

Soon after, I had to leave my chosen profession to get a job. I followed another enthusiasm, computer programming, that I had picked up along the way. (Long story, but not here.) I thought I had left the academy for good, but returned in my new guise in the mid 1990s. Yet, that argument over the basis of American society and its past never left my mind. My intellectual antennae were tuned to the issues raised by Zinn.

My career shifts offered a way to look at the past and present differently. I was employed by a university but not really part of it. Even after 20 years at the University of North Carolina I never felt part of the community there, despite rising to positions of some significance. Part of me held back because I could see that argument between winners and losers still playing out in the polite discussions during endless committee meetings. It was a subtext but text nonetheless. It gnawed at me, but never did more than shift me leftward. The leaps came later.

By leaps I mean the notion that Karl Marx was right in one sense, along with Zinn, that the powerful get to set the table of reality and most of the people are not seated there. I had to travel to Africa to see that truth in racial terms about my own country. I traveled there many times (another long story, not here) for work to assist in implementing and using information systems to support healthcare. The eye opening took several trips as I was repeatedly immersed in societies that were racial opposites of my home land. These are countries that are ruled by black elites who look like their citizens. Where all the police are black and being stopped while white–which happened a few times–gave me an appreciation of the situation here at home.

It's been a long journey to see the obvious inequities and injustices that are hidden in plain sight. "Black lives matter" is much more than a rallying cry. It is an indictment of a power structure that will take more than a few commissions and the occasional impartial investigation to address. The system has a flawed structure and a value system skewed to reward those who do not deserve the bounty of our nation. (Just ask an "essential" worker if they are paid enough.)

Our response to these realities needs to be more than charity, although that may help a bit. Philanthropists cannot correct the flaws in our society because they are deeper than the blemishes that mar the surface. The very bones of America need to be reset to enshrine the people with all the power and recognize their universal rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness". With cosmic irony, it was a slaveowner who penned those words. We as a nation have yet to recognize their import and meaning.

Zinn was right.

2020-05-03

The Haves and Otherwise

Human beings have divided economically, socially, and politically ever since we left the veldt and stopped living communally. By that I mean that some have more––food, shelter, comfort––than others. These differences often come with more freedom and power conferred to some than others.

As societies grew, those with more took these differences to mean that they deserved this higher material and social status with its ultimate expression in the divine right of kings. For those who may have dozed during that lecture, it means that the king asserts that God gave him the power to rule over all others. No one elected him. His power is conferred from above and therefore to oppose him is to oppose God's chosen one on Earth. It took some balls to make that assertion, but if you can put your rivals and whose who complain that your rule sucks to death, it's not that surprising.

You may think that we have matured beyond such fantasies, but if you ever wandered into a sermon on the prosperity Gospel, you get an updated version. For those with more secular frameworks, we celebrate the self-made billionaire as somehow deserving of those material riches. One of them, the steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, wrote a self-serving essay that came to be called "The Gospel of Wealth". It was a meditation on the responsibility of the wealthy to become philanthropists because they were wiser than the common folk and could put their wealth to the best social use. Bill Gates provides a 21st Century version of this idea through his philanthropic foundation that tries to address global health issues.

This is not to say that such foundations are mere ego-fluffers. Gates, Rockefeller, and many of the rest do valuable work. (Some of my work has been supported by them.) But they are still private and accountable to no one but their leaders. If the leadership is wise, like Gates, you get forward thinking programs and explorations on the issues that plague us. Carnegie endowed libraries in many small towns across the US (including the one where I grew to love reading). Gates has tried to address global health in general, malaria in particular, and now offering support for vaccine production if/when we come up with a candidate to fight SARS-CoV-2.

But should we need these private individuals leading the way? No one elected them. Nor do they assert that they are God's vessels, at least not publicly. Making gobs of money does show the results of energy and intelligence, but a huge dose of luck is necessary as well. Does that make one wise?

Well, not necessarily and not always. We tend to conflate wealth and wisdom. When the rich person speaks in the noisy room, everyone quiets and strains to listen. People even engineer audiences for such individuals so the rich person feels favorably to their host. Some even offer honors in the hope of future beneficence. But that's not evidence of wisdom. Nor should we offer the rich a megaphone larger than the one they can buy.

The problem with the rich having the first and last say is that they don't live with the rest of us. They are not in existential danger if they miss a paycheck or if a family member needs a trip to the emergency room. They don't have to worry if there will be dinner or a warm, dry place to sleep tonight. Their material abundance insulates them, and isolates them, from the troubles and worries that vex too many of us.

The current pandemic is exacerbating these differences. Testing is an issue in the US right now. We are far from getting the number and frequency of tests to detect COVID-19 that we need to re-open our society even a little bit. At the same time, everyone at the White House is getting tested frequently. Every visitor to the executive mansion is tested at the perimeter with results in 15 minutes. That is not happening at the grocery store, much less the hospital.

While the best policy to dampen the outbreak is to retain social distancing and remain at home, for 30 million of us that is not economically possible. That's the number of unemployment claims we have accumulated in a month with the expectation that the number will continue to climb. Our national leader gets all the testing he needs and seems to extrapolate that to the rest of the country. The rest of us are not so fortunate.

We need to grow out of the notion that wealth confers anything beyond money. At best, it may reveal wisdom (Gates), but at worst it also reveals folly (Trump). We are currently ruled by the latter.

We're in trouble.