From Chaos to Monopoly – the End of Net-Neutrality

December 12, 2017

Those of us warning that American democracy is threatened have still been stunned by how fast. Political polarization elsewhere has led democracies to collapse. Polarization here has largely been the unintended consequence of a legal transformation. But the cure may be even worse.

Over the past half-century, legal changes fractured the media by helping cable television  and available broadcast channels expand. Before fake news became an industry, the fractured media promised us a more democratic marketplace of ideas. But it made us a fractured audience, no longer watching or hearing the same news.

Court decisions eliminated liability for innocent misstatements that defamed people. The fairness doctrine once required all broadcasters to provide balanced coverage of controversial issues of public import. It was dismantled in the 70s. Now TV and radio are much more one-sided. A new statute and court decisions gave internet providers immunity even for fake news. The internet rapidly became both the intended source of valuable views and information, and the unintended bastion of garbage, leaving readers, viewers and listeners much less well-informed about the competing arguments over public issues.

Meanwhile, courts and state legislatures put presidential primary elections firmly in control of the nominating system.  Primaries often drive candidates to the extremes to capture majorities of their own parties, not toward the center to capture independent voters. Instead of balancing each other, therefore, the media and nominating systems increasingly radicalized each other since the 1970s.

President Theodore Roosevelt once said “the military tent, where all sleep side-by-side, will rank next to the public school among the great agents of democratization.” The draft ended in the 70s, a casualty of our disagreement about the war in Vietnam. The public schools have been hollowed out by charter schools and re-segregated with the help of suburbanization, zoning and Supreme Court decisions after Rehnquist took its helm in 1986. So neither schools nor the draft bring us together as they once did.

Federal agencies were at the heart of segregating the suburbs before and even after Brown v. Board, deepening polarization in the process. Financial institutions only compounded the damage with their sub-prime loans.

In this polarized, divided, segregated era, the Court in Washington decided the nation’s most contentious issues of race, police behavior, school prayer, abortion, equal rights for women and people with differing sexual orientations.  These were mighty battles over justice with enormous consequences. Mildred and Richard Loving could marry and live as a devoted couple near their relatives in Virginia despite their difference in racial origin.  Similar opportunities opened for women, African-Americans and members of the LGBTQ community. Some went free who would have been hanged for crimes they did not commit.

But the Court’s decisions sharpened the polarization among us. Where now can we hold a “national conversation”? In a fractured media? In a primary system designed to favor extremists? In the military tent? Or walking our kids to school? We have, unintentionally, torn the fabric of our community. Still we could rewrite some of the rules that aggravated our polarization.

But on Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission wants to eliminate net-neutrality and give a few large corporations control over what we see and hear. I’m concerned by which friends of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai would get control over our news sources. We’re going from chaos to monopoly. With Trump leading the charge against the most careful and professional news sources, it feels like we are headed to autocracy and bye-bye democracy.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 12, 2017.

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Foreign Roots of the Tragedy in Florida

June 14, 2016

The tragedy in Florida is linked to issues abroad. One candidate sometimes suggests we could solve our problems by isolationism, keeping our troops home, and sometimes by wiping out our adversaries with overwhelming force. His adversary has won over American military leadership with a fairly hard-nosed approach to international politics meshed with the belief that part of America’s international strength comes from our ideological appeal and social justice. What’s going to work?

The Middle East has been getting more violent. And the U.S. has been struggling to figure out how to handle it. George H.W. Bush was careful not to unravel power relations there when he rolled Iraq back from Kuwait. George W. Bush was less cautious, eliminating the Iraqi power structure without a plan to replace it. Since then we’ve been fighting multiple wars in multiple countries. Wars with guerilla tactics like these are costly. Al Qaeda and ISIL or DAESH have learned to motivate individuals or small groups outside of traceable networks. Military forces work poorly against that kind of enemy. We may be a superpower against some obstacles, but not all. The history of warfare has been a multi-millennium cycle of upstarts defeating the super powers of prior ages with new tactics.

What if we disengaged from the Middle East? I doubt Americans have the stomach for it. Israel, our so-called “ally,” continually breaks its promises to America, so the Israeli mouse drives both American Middle Eastern policy and its consequences. America cannot be an honest broker in the Middle East while backing a government of heedless buckaroos who learn nothing from the failures and constant irritation of seven decades of war, eviction of Palestinians and indiscriminate retaliation. Still less can we be an honest broker by engaging in the same tactics that make refugees of millions and radicalize too many. Who are we to criticize the Israelis when our policies have been more and more like theirs? We too pay the price. Our removal of Premier Mossadegh and replacement with the former Shah of Iran contributed to the Revolution of 1979 and subsequent demonization of America. U.S. military moves created chaos in the Sunni world, pushed Turkey toward autocracy, and helped destabilize Europe with a flow of refugees not seen since the World Wars.

Pulling out would leave a power vacuum that those we despise and sometimes fear would fill. If Russia or China were fool enough to move in, the throw weight of Islamic extremism would refocus on them. The short-run consequences, however, could be

Our policies toward the Middle East need to be rethought in light of new realities. Power relations in the Middle East have been drastically reshaped in the last fifteen years. And Saudi Arabia has been playing a double game, supporting radical Islam in return for denying the clerics the keys to governmental power, creating a Hobson’s choice for us. Obama has tried to avoid both disengagement and warfare, but his efforts to reshape thinking about the Middle East have, not surprisingly, run into a barrier of incomprehension. The U.S. should not be driven by the unreliable machinations of paranoid premiers, two-bit dictators and fractured armies in a region of declining importance to the U.S.

America accomplished a great deal in the past as a model of a fair and decent state. Foreign policy isn’t merely a contest of muscle and fire power. Its complexity requires a lot of patience. It took half of century to wait out the Soviet Union. Much as some Republicans want to credit Reagan’s grand gestures, that victory was hatched under Truman and pursued by eight presidents of both parties, without any know-it-all buckaroos upending decades of careful policy. Can we do it again? We’re going to find out.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, June 14, 2016.

 


Radicalization of Jihadi John

March 17, 2015

Identification of Jihadi John as a British citizen and college graduate has given rise to discussion about what radicalizes young people. There is no single answer but one aspect is to provide alternatives to the choice between deep frustration and dangerous radicalization.

Dreams of self-determination in much of the world have been shattered by dictators, corporate plunder and corruption of kleptocrats, too often with American backing. Dreams were shattered by the failure of pan-Arab and pan-African unity. Religious dreams were shattered by decades of repression of religious parties in the Middle East, jailing opposition leaders and attacking people over their faiths, and repeatedly denying them the fruits of victory at the polls. From the frustration of each failure came worse solutions. Our support and entanglement with repressive regimes have been a problem for us as well. And the damage is hard to undo – change creates instability and therefor danger.

The Humanitarian Law Project wanted to teach a Kurdish group how to bring their grievances to international bodies legally. Our government objected the group was on a terrorist list and teaching it peaceful ways to complain would only help it. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed and the lawyers backed off.[1]

We also have problems with radicalization. Some years ago, my research assistant and I discovered that high school history texts provided no models of citizen protest appropriate to a democracy. They systematically excluded dissent and disagreement in the name of patriotism. One of the books even pictured the Abolitionists before the Civil War as a lunatic fringe.

When people have no legitimate outlet, all hell can break out.

This country was extraordinarily lucky that the Civil Rights Movement had the leadership of wise and thoughtful people like Dr. Martin Luther King who took the path of nonviolence. They provided a path of peaceful protest, albeit protests that put the violence of the racist opposition on every TV set in the country. That reaction showed that everyone had been damaged by the repression of African-Americans, and that repression threatens democracy both because of what it does to the victors and to the losers. It showed that violence boomerangs in a democracy but does a great deal of harm – many paid with their lives for civil rights.

Many of us would just like other Americans to celebrate the virtues of America as it is. But chief among those virtues is the ability to go public with injustices and try to get them changed. That ability is also a powerful defense against home-grown violent movements. Unfortunately, it has been a well-kept secret in many schools. All too often, as in Ferguson, Missouri, we watch political leadership and police treating popular demonstrations as if they have no place in democracy, as if people are just supposed to keep their reactions to themselves.

The great Justice Louis Brandeis wrote, in 1927, that the Founders of our country

“knew that order cannot be secured merely through fear of punishment for its infraction; … that hate menaces stable government; that the path of safety lies in the opportunity to discuss freely supposed grievances and proposed remedies, and that the fitting remedy for evil counsels is good ones.”[2]

When people can’t or don’t understand how to get into that discussion, or are convinced they are powerless to participate, they are left with the hate that “menaces stable government.”

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 17, 2015.

[1] Humanitarian Law Project v. Holder, 561 U.S. 1 (2010).

[2] Whitney v. California, 274 U.S. 357, 375 (1927) (Brandeis, J., concurring).


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