Useful insecurities

I’m a white woman married to a Black man. I’m also the mother of two Black sons.

When I write that neoliberalism created the conditions for Charlottesville, it’s not to excuse racists, white supremacists, or nationalists. It’s not to to diminish the harm they can and do cause. It’s to put their rise into historical and political context, the better to rectify its root cause, or “the fundamental reason for the occurrence of a problem.”

I am deeply interested in my family’s ongoing safety. Such safety won’t be won by painting Manichean pictures of good-versus-bad, us-versus-them totality. It is much more likely to be won beginning with nuanced examination. By looking at history and asking, “How did we reach this point? How do we get away from this point, and build political systems that ensure we stay away for a good, long time, if not forever?”

While I began following #BlackLivesMatter about three years ago, I didn’t understand how its grievances fit within a larger context of oppression. It took last year’s American Democratic primaries for me to understand there is a larger context, and to realize I’d need to read more than a few short articles to wrap my head around that. Inspired by Hamilton and my siblings, I began a reading campaign.

With each book I read, I understand more keenly exactly how we reached this point. I understand intuitively, if not yet at a readily articulated level, what it will take to go–and stay–somewhere else.

I read Princeton professor Sheldon S. Wolin’s Democracy, Inc. in May. More than any other, this book helped me understand how a very specific sequence of actions and inactions brought the U.S. people the Trump presidency: Continue reading “Useful insecurities”


The Attention Merchants

While I’ve written many posts about my no-love relationship with Facebook, I only ever wrote one post specifically challenging Facebook’s claim to be “free.”

My background is in software contracts. When I wrote the post described above, I was principally troubled by Facebook’s ever-shifting privacy policies. I said that it wasn’t free, because users were paying in personal data. That we didn’t have to directly fork over portions of our paychecks didn’t mean we weren’t paying somehow.

Naturally, most comments were along the lines of how (1) it is free and (2) “if you don’t like it, don’t use it.” I was so annoyed by the comments that I didn’t return this accidentally deleted post when I returned most the others.

A few weeks ago, my sister Rache recommended that I read Tim Wu’s The Attention Merchants. I’d been talking about Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, and she thought this would be an excellent follow-on. She was not wrong!

Within a few pages, Wu pinpointed what I hadn’t been able to when I wrote my Facebook-ain’t-free post years ago. I’d been pointing at personal data as what users pay to access the service.

Why does Facebook–along with other providers of internet services–want lots of user data? The better to commodify users’ attention for others’ profit: “We’ve already seen the attention merchant’s basic modus operandi: draw attention with apparently free stuff and then resell it. But a consequence of this model is a total dependence on gaining and holding attention. This means that under competition, the race will naturally run to the bottom; attention will almost invariably gravitate to the more garish, lurid, outrageous alternative.”

Data was a means to an end, not itself the end. Wu elucidates this further the deeper he dives into presenting his case, engagingly answering so many of my lingering questions.

Wu’s chapter on propaganda is an excellent overview of how susceptible human beings are to manipulation through attention capture. There’s a lot to this, but two quotes bear sharing here.

Edward Bernard, Sigmund Freud’s nephew, was instrumental in successfully propagandizing the American public. He saw “the conscious and intelligent manipulation of organized habits and opinions of the masses as an important element in a democratic society.” There might be too much too-messy democracy without it: “I decided that if you could use propaganda for war, you could certainly use it for peace.”

(I hope you’re already asking yourself, whose peace?!)

Some days I read bunches. Some days I read little. Overall, though, I will not stop reading. Reading history and politics is my shield against propaganda; the more I read, the more robust my protection.

Nowhere is the need for this strengthening clearer than in the words of master propagandist Adolf Hitler himself:

I do not wish to be the subject.

Requiem for the American Dream

Despite having listened to Noam Chomsky’s Requiem for the American Dream on Netflix a half-dozen times recently, I bought his book of the same title. Sometimes I catch different things seeing words than I do hearing them.

Where other books on politics, poverty, and inequality can be hard to read and demand a lot of background knowledge, this starts from ground zero. It’s short and conversational, like the movie, but it goes beyond the movie by including source materials excerpts.

The book is physically beautiful, inside and out. But, of course, it’s its content that stands out: a laying-bare; a plain-spoken transference of knowledge from a sage whose days left to transfer knowledge are dwindling.

reqdr cover.jpeg

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Like Arundhati Roy, there’s seldom a day that passes without my thinking, “Chomsky zindabad” (“long live Chomsky”). When that is no longer a viable wish for his body, I’ll remain grateful that so much of his tenacious spirit and intellect will endure in his words.

Not just days, but decades

Last summer, I saw a sizable rift between the Democratic party as I’d envisioned it and as it actually existed. This meant I’d either imagined my own version of the Democratic party forever, or that it had once been–but no longer was–what I’d envisioned.

I dove into reading, and found confirmation as I read. Usually I found little kernels of confirmation in any one book; Winner-Take All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer–and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class, on the other hand, provided a wealth of information and details. It also gave me a name for the phenomenon whereby a political body (whether a party or a country) is still perceived as one thing while having become quite another: drift.

“Since around 1980, we have drifted away from that mixed-economy cluster and traveled a considerable distance toward another: the capitalist oligarchies, like Brazil, Mexico and Russia,” write its authors. Later, they define “drift” as “systematic, prolonged failures of government to respond to the shifting realities of a dynamic economy.” In the U.S., drift is a tool intentionally–not accidentally–wielded by politicians to satisfy their owners’ needs.

(The authors don’t describe lobbyists and their funders as politicians’ “owners.” That’s a designation I find more and more fitting with each page I read.)

A concept like drift is central to Sheldon S. Wolin’s 2008 Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism. Early on, he asks, “how would we go about detecting the signs of totalitarianism? how would we know what we are becoming? how, as a citizenry, would we set about separating what we are from the illusions we may have about who we are?” Envisioning the U.S. as a democracy, we instead live in “a system that legitimates the economic oppression and culturally stunted lives of millions of citizens while, for all practical purposes, excluding them from political power.” Continue reading “Not just days, but decades”