Speechless: An allegory for our time

They had warned me about the silence of the City. Living in the woods these last few years, alone with my pod-family, my mind’s ear had grown accustomed to nature’s carols of birds, crickets, and wind. From the City, I expected the cacophonies of my memory. But now, there was not a word.

When researchers agreed that this latest virus, MO’VID-29, was spread most effectively via talking or shouting — not to mention coughing and sneezing or, God forbid, singing — it did not take long for masks and silence to become the norm and then the law. In the last pandemic, too many millions of lives and insurance dollars were lost in the insane War of the Masks and its long-haul aftermath — so many that sense and science finally had to prevail, at least in this case. This time, with no vaccine in sight, the mandate to stick a sock in it finally did pass.

The irony of our next pandemic striking now, just as the last embers of online speech are dying out, is too obvious to be ironic. But that’s America. We never did irony well.

In this trip, on the subway, no one made eye contact — which was always true here, but all the truer now that the experts keep reminding us that a straight line is the shortest path to infection. Look down; breathe down. With our new muffling masks hiding every expression, with no glance into an eye, with no talk and no opportunity to eavesdrop, it was impossible to imagine what anyone was thinking; impossible to connect. An elevator ride had always been an antisocial experience, but in the morning as I left the hotel, I was not prepared for the sight of four people each facing a corner and an exhaust fan. On the street, people moved as if they were magnets projecting opposite poles.

The night before, when I’d arrived, I was hungry, and since I could not imagine how expensive the room service would be in my awfully expensive little hotel, I decided to try the New Automat I’d seen in constant commercials; we don’t have them out in the country yet. Back when I used to travel, I never minded eating out and alone; I loved reading books over dinner and wine. But this was too eerie: all the diners alone in their own plexiboxes, not unlike the Zoomboxes we use to enclose us so we may talk on calls. Instead of a person on the screen in front of me there was a menu and below it, a slot that would open when the conveyor delivered my meal. To complete the effect, I wondered why they didn’t add steel bars and name the chain Solitary.

I was in the City to see my editor, not that there was much point in coming in as we’d have to converse in our individual, sealed Zoomboxes anyway. But at least we could look at each other through the plexi rather than screens. I’m old enough to remember when authors and editors had lunch at tables with tablecloths and wine. I’m old enough to remember authors. Anyway, being an old fart, for auld lang syne, I decided to take the risk and come in for my final negotiations. Oh, how I wish it were like the old days, when we’d be arguing over the title of my book or my defense of the Oxford comma or my predilection — which I readily confess — for dashes. Now we had to hash out my fee: how much I would be paying to my fact-checker, to my risk actuary, for licenses of snippets of quoted and referenced material, and for my speech insurance.

Amazing how, since the death of Section 230, everything in my humble trade has been flipped on its side. That poor little law, just twenty-six words, never stood a chance, as the right and the left attacked it in an ideological pincer movement: the left demanding that too-big platforms take down hate speech and lies or lose their protections, the right protesting that the hate speech and lies the platforms took down was theirs and so they threatened to go after the companies for “canceling” them. Media poked the coals fueling moral panic, gleefully demonizing technology companies and ultimately the internet itself. They created the conflict they covered. But they never acknowledged the conflict of interest inherent in attacking companies that competed with them for users’ attention and advertisers’ dollars. They never saw that in going after this law they undermined the protection of their own free press. Never mind all that; it made a good story.

After 230’s end, any company carrying anyone else’s speech — words, sounds, pictures, video, memes, shares, links, creativity, and conversation of any sort — became liable for the content of that speech. Gawker suits sprouted like mushrooms in a dark, industrial pig barn. The by-now-broken-up platforms’ first instinct was to make everything ephemeral: all speech disappeared in the wind after twenty-four hours, then twenty-four minutes. That didn’t much matter, for entrepreneurial cryptodicks made trollish enterprises that scraped every word and thought from the baby nets as it occurred, stored it all offshore in their undersea data farms, and filed or merely threatened suits with evidence in hand. These bros became our evil librarians, for they held the only repository of our online life and culture in text and image and we who made it couldn’t get at it, but for a price.

Enter the insurance industry. Their bottom lines were slaughtered in the slaughter of citizens to the Trump virus — trillions of dollars gone in life insurance and medical payments and bankruptcies, with record losses even after government bailout upon bailout. Now the companies saw a new business opportunity in insuring speech after such a policy was pioneered by the British startup, the Stationers’ Company.

For a price, you can get your book or blog post published, but you must indemnify the platform or publisher that carries it. Contemporary nonfiction is nearly an impossibility; the risk is too high and so then is the price. Fiction retains its defense for the author and carrier of not being true, but now absence of truth must be certified. To get a policy and license to publish, you have to subject your work to the scrutiny of fact-checkers, who certify the fictional nature of the writing by finding and excising every fact and replacing it with an alternative fact. We used to call the process being Conwayed, until she sued for trademark violation.

As a result, most everything is fiction, all is allegory. We learned much from our Chinese internet cousins, who for years before us had honed the skill of replacing people with animals, ideas with memes. But woe be to whoever translates the alternative to the real. Lawyers await. When I complained to my agent, she said, “If Kafka could do it…” Yes, but he had metaphor and irony. We work amid the literal-minded Puritanism of the right-wing fundamentalists, who will label that which they don’t understand dangerous, so we must make everything in their sight obvious and anodyne. The third-person effect is now the rule of the land, its enforcers arguing that they alone are not vulnerable to hate, porn, disinformation, or heresy — but everyone else is. So they protect us from us. “This,” I shouted back to my agent from the safety of our Zoomboxes, “is rule not by Big Brother but by Barney.”

The only other loophole in the law that replaced 230 is the exemption for political and government speech: anything said by a politician or government official, including local pols and police, is safe from threat of suit. Was what followed an unintended or intended consequence? Candidates for public office got nuttier and nuttier and so the only free speech — theirs — was little else than conspiracies and lies. The few newspapers left — one or two bankrolled by billionaires, the others by nutters themselves, the rest abandoned by the hedge funds that controlled them because of the high cost of speech insurance — carried official words because they were official. And so, in the self-fulfilling prophecy that has always been political news, media assured election of extremes.

This is not to say that there are not still some people who speak their minds, if they indeed had them. The same people who bring and bankroll suits against us still spout their hate, bile, and flame because they have more lawyers than you do. These are the people who cried “cancel!”, though, of course, they were not the ones being silenced. By claiming “cancel culture,” they attacked the speech of those who dared criticize them. And they won. They owned the libs after all.

While in the City, I came upon a demonstration over the police killing of a man whose spoken cry of innocence became a capital crime. With cops all around ready to arrest anyone at the first sound, there were no shouts, chants, or songs. Instead, on the left, I saw a forest of brandished middle fingers: human emoji. On the right, a herd of angry white men in their uniform “STFU” gimme hats brandished their Trump thumbs. This scene seemed to me the perfect culmination of our culture wars: all emotion, no substance.

The public conversation simply does not exist. I don’t mean to say that the end of 230 was the sole cause of that; there were other conditions leading here. In the Petri dish of the last decade, the techlash created the perfect medium for the cloning of laws and regulations from around the world. Practically every nation passed a carbon copy of Germany’s NetzDG hate-speech law, which in practicality forced the baby platforms — each smaller and less able to afford defense of itself and the internet — to take down anything that might be taken as hate by anyone. Countless nations followed little England’s lead and deputized regulatory agencies to enforce a duty of care against online harm. To this day, no legislature or court has adequately defined harm or hate, so anything that might possibly offend, though legal, is vaporized. This is what they call neutrality.

Europe’s Right to be Forgotten is de jure universal as now any nation may demand that any platform take down anything worldwide: privacy über alles, Datenschutz for all, we have reached the lowest common denominator of freedom. This has made for a fascinating legal quandary: Who is to say who owns a conversation or a transaction? If you and I correspond and I don’t want you to remember or repeat what was said, I can claim ownership of “my” data and force you to erase your memory of it. Code being law, this question has been translated into not only the ephemeral eradication of most any uninsured public content but also private conversation. That is, my Zoombox will not let me record us and my Gmail will not let me keep or print our emails unless you sign my terms and conditions, and because of our speech liability policies, we all got ’em.

Seeing its opportunity to pounce, the old content industry — Hollywood and remaining newspaper moguls — managed to exploit this highly restrictive environment by expanding the content controls they had been dreaming of. Europe’s and America’s copyright extensions spread around the globe such that it is now nigh unto impossible to quote anyone or share anything anyone else has said without getting — that is, paying for — permission. That’s another hurdle my book will have to go through: Plagiarism.AI, which will ferret out any line, character, or idea that might have been said anywhere in almost a century — that is, the time covered by copyright — which could make me, my publisher, and my insurance company liable. A hit sets red lights and red pencils into action, unless I’m willing to pay Disney for the privilege of calling all this “Mickey Mouse.”

I blame the politicians for passing their cynical laws. I blame the nutters and the uneducated, angry cultists who voted them into office. I blame media for their latter-day Luddite crusade against technology, their negligence to tell the truth about the insanity gripping Earth, and their failure of vision on the internet. I blame the technology companies for their hubris, greed, secrecy, awful decision-making, and refusal, in the end, to defend our internet because they thought it was theirs. But I also blame my fellow academics and writers. For I remember my horror when I first saw a paper that asked — just asked, mind you — whether the First Amendment was outmoded, obsolete. I remember how appalled I was when I read another professor’s blog post arguing that we have “too much speech.” I shouted into the air, when we still could: “Who is to say whose speech is too much?” It was this letting down of the guard around freedom of expression for all that led us to the uncomfortable silence we endure today.

The net that I hoped would let anyone and everyone speak freely past the gatekeepers and censors, the net that would introduce us to each other and make strangers less strange, the net that eventually would spark creativity yet unimagined (perhaps a century and a half hence, for that is how long after Gutenberg it took for new forms of media and literature to flourish) — that net is dead.

Or is it?

This is a tale of privilege and power to which the privileged and powerful are willfully blind. It is ever thus. Whenever a new means of speech is created, enabling voices previously unheard to speak, the incumbents in charge of the old mechanisms try to control it. They have since Gutenberg. Scribes objected to printing, newspapers to radio, print to television, media to the net — at each stage in cahoots with other threatened institutions of power: princes, popes, parliaments, legislators, regulators, industries, elites. They have used many tools of control: censorship, banning and burning (of books and their authors), criminalization, the granting of monopolies, licensing, copyright and the protection of exclusionary business models, moral condemnation, and critical belittling. The net finally allowed anyone connected to it to speak to anyone else, everywhere. That is what made it more threatening to the privileged and powerful than each technology before: the scale of its freedoms. That is why they so overreacted. Every time before, speech would out. I am yet optimistic that it will again — that, for example, #BlackLivesMatter’s Reformation will rise like Luther’s. But it will take too long and I am too old to wait.

You might wonder why I dare write these facts and accusations, undisguised. Well, I left my editor’s office that day with a bottom line: I would pay more in insurance and fees than the publisher would pay me for my work. We’d both lose money on it. I realized that today, we no longer pay to read; we have to pay to write. Speech is not free. I can tell you its price to the penny.

I decided to speak out nonetheless. I would like to think this was a decision on principle: to tell the truth. But the truth is, I’m cowardly. I write this not in the City or from my country pod but instead from one of the last two sane nations on Earth. I chose Iceland thanks to a very nice politician there, whose lovely old dog I used to watch on the late, lamented Twitter as they strolled the streets of their Reykjavik neighborhood. She became a friend from afar only thanks to the internet and social media back in the day, when that was still possible. She worked to grant me writer’s asylum and entry into the creators’ refuge camp on her island, which — like the other island of sanity in our world, New Zealand — has managed to stay disease-free. Here I treasure my little room, my thick sweaters, my keyboard, and my voice.

Our movement

Every year at this time, I am impressed with the imagination, invention, daring, and mission of our Social Journalism graduates at the Newmark J-School as they reimagine and reinvent journalism. I am particularly impressed this year as they were hit with the pandemic, forcing them to take their work of showing up and listening indoors and online. In this, the last week in the term, we watched 2020’s graduates and next year’s students present their work with communities. 

These students consistently push the old, sealed envelope of journalism. Examples: A few are experimenting with fiction as journalism. One planned a play to educate tenants about their rights in evictions. Some reached their communities with posters on phone polls. One enabled refugees to take their own pictures so they could tell their stories rather than having them told by others. One tried to get newspaper publishers to print absentee-ballot applications (the papers refused). One made a zine with political cartoons to educate journalists. One made a guide for young Latinx journalists to help them get their stories told in newsrooms. More than one realized that to gain the trust they were asking for, they needed to be open about themselves; one offered her community an opportunity to ask her anything, another tells the story of his addiction. One got dragged out of a meeting by a mayor because of her reporting; the mayor was soon defeated. One created playlists to help people with depression as her journalism. 

They serve a grand diversity of communities: black, transgender women; disenfranchised voters; tenants at risk of losing their homes in the pandemic; black women victimized over their natural hair; people going hungry in one American city; Kashmiris under occupation; Syrian refugees; victims of gun violence and advocates for gun safety; teachers; young journalists; people who buy weed; residents of Louisiana’s cancer alley; people with depression; recovering addicts and people who care for them; healthcare workers; caregivers; school social workers; people with intellectual developmental disabilities in group homes suffering abuse; feminists protesting the murders of women in Mexico; the incarcerated and their loved ones; trans sex workers; hair braiders; the Venezuelan diaspora; bicyclists. 

What was particularly gratifying this year was that — given we were on Zoom and not in a too-small room — well more than a hundred people came to hear the graduates present their final project and among them were dozens of alumni of our still-young Social Journalism program. They came to give their support and admiration, which, thanks to Zoom, they could share as chat. 

Our alumni are phenomenal. They are our Trojan horses who are changing newsrooms, where they are quickly employed, with their learned skills — social, data, reporting, investigation, product, entrepreneurship — but more than that, their worldviews, their vision for what journalism can and should be. As the director of our program, my brilliant colleague Dr. Carrie Brown, says, these alums preach the gospel of Social Journalism more eloquently and effectively than we do. 

And what is that gospel? That we start not with content but with communities. That we first listen to communities so they are heard on their terms. We empathize with their needs and reflect our understanding back to assure we have listened well. Then we imagine what journalism we might bring to serve them. We believe in journalism as service, not product. As you can see above, we find and work with an incredible richness of tools to perform that service, beyond publishing stories. We try to build bridges and understanding. And we constantly question our assumptions about journalism, unafraid to challenge the shiboleth of objectivity, recognizing its roots in systemic racism and our field’s damage to communities, and questioning the high heresy of journalism as advocacy for those we serve. 

This is our mission. This is our movement. This is how our students and graduates are reimagining and rebuilding journalism. 

We accepted our first students in January 2015, only nine months after our dean, Sarah Bartlett, challenged me to envision a new degree based on my thinking about a relationship-based strategy for news and we were lucky enough to hire Dr. Brown to build and lead it. Here is the Social Journalism class of 2020

I am prouder of nothing else in my career more than helping to start Social Journalism. May my tombstone carry the hashtag #SocialJ. 

The roots of totalitarianism & Trump: To a new journalism

I do not believe most people espousing QAnon’s agitprop believe it. I believe they want us to believe they believe it. It’s performative: owning the libs, the pollsters, the media, the elites. Our old institutions fall for it and that is why the conspirators continue to play us. The primary weakness here is not in their belief system but in ours.

For us to think that journalism, fact-checking, and appeals to rationality will win this war on truth is itself irrational; we now know better. For the Trumpists to say something could be true —even blood libel—is sufficient for them, for their goal is not to express truth but instead anger, fear, frustration, hatred. They want to shock; so do media.

The other day, I wrote about this situation as the last stand of the old, angry, white man. Today, I want to begin to ask what journalism can do about it, for even if — God willing — Trump were to disappear, his people and their anger, abuse of power, and destruction of norms and institutions will not. We must reinvent journalism to address their shifting power, alienation, and unenlightened self-interest.

At this moment, it is instructive to reread Hannah Arendt. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, she finds in Nazi and Soviet history “such unexpected and unpredicted phenomena as the radical loss of self-interest, the cynical or bored indifference in the face of death or other personal catastrophes, the passionate inclination toward the most abstract notions as guides for life, and the general contempt for even the most obvious rules of common sense.”

Radical loss of self-interest: Voting for a man who has not saved their jobs. 
Cynical or bored indifference in the face of death: Attending superspreader rallies while stubbornly burning masks
Passionate inclination toward the most abstract notions: Do abortion and the Second Amendment really matter uppermost in their daily lives, more than their health and employment? 
And general contempt for common sense: See COVID and QAnon.

Arendt argues that loneliness is the root of totalitarianism, of the mob, of the mass (though I disagree with the use of that term as it should represent the group, not the whole). Today we call them the “base.” “The chief characteristic of mass man is not brutality and backwardness,” she writes, “but his isolation and lack of normal social relationships.” There is the essence of the problem to address.

Totalitarian and fascist movements are made up of “atomized, isolated individuals.” How many of us know friends and family members who would sooner give up those ties than their allegiance to Trump? “Such loyalty,” says Arendt, “can be expected only from the completely isolated human being who, without any other social ties to family, friends, comrades, or even mere acquaintances, derives his sense of having a place in the world only from his belonging to a movement.”

But a movement to what end? Hitler took over the NSDAP and “unburdened the movement of its party’s earlier platform, not only by changing or officially abolishing it but simply by refusing to talk about it or discuss its points.” Trump took over the Republican Party and could not be bothered to articulate a cause or a platform. In the void, he forced the GOP to abandon every idea it once stood for — free trade, small government, less debt, more freedom. Thus when we believe this is a fight over beliefs, we are chasing ghosts. Beliefs matter even less than facts.

The only ideology at work seems to be one of destruction qua destruction, which I also wrote about: burning the fields so as not to share the crops with those who follow; destroying institutions before losing control of them. In Germany, says Arendt, not only the mob but also the elites “went to war with an exultant hope that everything they knew, the whole culture and texture of life, might go down in its ‘storms of steel.’” The same can be said of the GOP’s elites: senators, justices, and titans of various industries.

It is said by many sociologists, mass theorists, and mass psychiatrists — some insisting on a Freudian analysis — that members of these movements want to follow a father- or führer-figure. Hitler said to his SA: “All that you are, you are through me; all that I am, I am through you alone.” Remember, too: “I alone can fix it.” But Arendt cautions that leaders are easily replaced, even forgotten. Yet the roots that breed them do not disappear.

That root is rootlessness: atomization, alienation, a lack of identity and thus of individualism. I can begin to understand a lack of identity, for the paradox of growing up a white man in a white-dominated, male culture is that I came to think I had no cultural identity because mine was melted into and synonymous with the whole. I had to learn that to understand my cultural identity was to see it as white, cis, and male and built on privilege and racism.

Many don’t want to venture there. Instead, they fight: against criticism, against sharing society’s bounty and power, against losing in an economy that will be built on new skills, against phantom enemies: immigrants, the deep state, George Soros, rioters, Antifa, Others. So their identity becomes enmeshed with their fear and anger and the unspoken knowledge that they have squandered the privilege of whiteness. Outrage becomes their movement. Joining it, says Arendt, “seemed to provide new answers to the old and troublesome question, ‘Who am I?’ which always appears with redoubled persistence in times of crisis…. The point was to do something, heroic or criminal, which was unpredictable and undetermined by anybody else.” Or as sociologist William Kornhauser puts it: “The mass man substitutes an undifferentiated image of himself for an individualized one; he answers the perennial question of ‘Who am I?’ with the formula ‘I am like everyone else.’” That is, one loses one’s identity in the mob; one becomes lonely in the crowd.

Arendt scholar Samantha Rose Hill writes in Aeon that for Arendt, loneliness and isolation are distinct: creativity, even reading, requires isolation. “All thinking, strictly speaking, is done in solitude,” says Arendt. Hill says the word for loneliness in Arendt’s mother tongue — Verlassenheit — implies abandonment, thus being cut off from not only human connection but also from reality. She quotes Arendt: “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (ie, the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (ie, the standards of thought) no longer exist.” There could be no more accurate statement of where many stand today than that.

Arendt, who writes brilliantly about the importance of publicness and the deprivation that privacy and alienation can bring, adds this in The Human Condition: “To live together in the world means essentially that a world of things is between those who have it in common, as a table is located between those who sit around it; the world, like every in-between, relates and separates men at the same time.”

And so we arrive at the challenge for journalism: to build a table. Given the lessons we should have learned from history and Arendt, I am building my own growing list of needs and opportunities, which begins here:

First, we need to pay less attention to the angry, white, male Trump base who have monopolized and manipulated the news. Then we may pay more attention to the the true majority of the nation, not as a mass but as a constellation of communities that for too long have been ignored, under-represented, and ill-served in mass media. By portraying the circumstances, interests, needs, and humanity of these communities as America’s normal — not as minorities or Others — we make it harder for the old power structure in media and politics to ignore and treat them as the aberrant.

Second, we need to remind the Trumpists of their own more enlightened self-interest: that they surely do care about the health and safety of their families — not against immigrants but against viruses and guns — and about their employment and the economic futures of their children. We should not be empathetic to their racism. But we should understand and reflect their true circumstances. We should show them how they share these concerns with the people they had considered Others, not in competition but in collaboration: These are the concerns of the nation. This is the table we must set.

Third, we need to tell the stories of lives ruined in loneliness and in allegiance to false messiahs. Tell the stories of Trump’s lies and exploitation not from his perspective or from the journalist’s — “we fact-checked ’im!”— but from that of his victims, not to shame them but to understand them, even when they share in blame.

Fourth, we need to build the next generation of the internet that does more than enable talking (though hurrah for that) but enables listening — and then finding that which is worth hearing. Then we can begin to hold a respectful, informed, and productive public conversation. Facebook and Twitter do not yet do that, for they are the first generation of a very young net; there are many more generations to come. Rather than complaining about the Facebook we have, build the next one.

Fifth, we need to create the means for people to hold informed, productive debate over the issues of their everyday lives. See, for example, Spaceship Media and its new book on the conversation about guns, and also The New York Times’ story about an experiment in deliberative democracy. We need spaces to collaborate on solutions to our problems, sharing lessons, holding our leaders to the standards we set, demonstrating that we can make progress together.

Sixth, we need to foster connections among people, in communities. Sociologist Emil Lederer — who called fascism “an effort to melt society down into a crowd” — emphasizes the value of community: “Freedom resides in the structure of society as long as society is composed of groups. In groups man pursues his interests, and in groups he shapes his life. Since society is composed of many groups it is pluralistic in nature and necessarily involves a division of social power.” Kornhauser argues that one regains one’s identity as and “autonomous man” through participation in communities in a pluralistic (not mass) society. Facebook is a first-generation tool for sharing things with people we know. We need means to connect with and appreciate strangers and to build meaningful and productive collaboration in our communities; that is a next generation of the social net.

Seventh, we must change the measurements we use to run media, away from attention and its cynical exploitation, and toward metrics of value in people’s lives and communities, expectations set by the public, not by media.

Eighth, we must rely on science and do a better job of reporting on it, understanding and explaining it as a process of learning through experimentation, not a room filled with (white) men shouting “Eureka!” Thus we set a different expectation for what science can and cannot answer in a crisis such as a novel pandemic.

Ninth, we need to call upon history. How good it would be for journalism students and technology students — for editors in newspapers and executives in Silicon Valley — to reread Arendt and understand the dangers she warned against. How necessary it is for them to study the humanities.

Tenth — and you will hear this from me often — we need to call on other disciplines to identify society’s problems and then reimagine a journalism that can address them. What do cognitive scientists and psychologists have to tell us about how people who reject masks cognize facts so we can create new ways to transmit and explain information? What do anthropologists and sociologists have to tell us about how communities interact so we can help them build both communities and bridges among them? What do ethicists and philosophers have to teach us in journalism, media, and technology about our missions, how we should create and be held accountable for them? What can researchers in African-American and Latino-American and Women’s and Queer studies tell us about the damage journalism has done to communities? This — the tenth — is where I hope to concentrate my work from now on.

If, God help us, Trump wins, we in journalism must urgently reexamine our role and responsibility and study Arendt et al to avoid the next, short step into the abyss. We need to stop our precious reluctance to call a liar a liar, a racist a racist, a fascist a fascist and learn from the history Arendt teaches and from what we so hubristically call the first draft of history that we wrote in the last four years.

If Trump loses, we must grab this opportunity to rebuild journalism and, we hope, contribute to rebuilding a better society, knowing what we now know. We should celebrate democracy and support it.

Journalism failed us. It is the institution built to prevent the rise of authoritarians, totalitarians, and Trumps. It did not. It is the institution built to expose inequity and to defend justice. It has not, not well. It is the institution built to hold power to account and prevent its abuses. It did not, not enough. We must do better, else we know what comes next.

Trump’s scorched Earth

What we are witnessing in the Trump times is the last stand of angry, old, white men, who would sooner destroy the institutions of democracy than share them with those who will follow.

Conservatives — whom Robert Nisbet called “prophets of the past” — no longer strive to conserve institutions. Instead they are undermining the presidency, Congress, the courts, the rule of law, the armed forces, the United States Postal Service, standards of human rights, the Census, voting rights, elections, the peaceful transfer of power — in short, democracy itself — not to mention science, medicine, education, and the press.

These old, white men recognize that their hold on power is slipping as the demographics of the nation inevitably progress. Their shrinking but solid base of old and young, angry, white, male voters fear they will be unqualified — uneducated — for a future that threatens them with automation and the internet, robots and self-driving vehicles, and a loss of jobs and security.

But in the rhetoric of the right, the internet is not the enemy; the people using it are. Today, people who were for too long not seen at the tables of power or heard in mass media finally have their press — also known as social media — with which to realize their First Amendment aspirations to speak, assemble, and act together: to claim power. Thus we have #BlackLivesMatter and a movement that brings inequity in every sector of society to the surface, where it can no longer be ignored, catalyzing what I hope may someday be seen as the rise of an American Reformation.

Every institution must respond and adapt or become obsolete and replaced.

After COVID and its reprehensibly disproportionate burden on people of color and the poor, journalism, health care, and public policy must now examine medicine, insurance, and employment through the lens of equity.

Now that witnesses to police killing can share their evidence online, policing as an institution is challenged at last and must be reconsidered in the context of racial justice and of the full offering of social services government should provide. This is what is meant by defunding the police.

Even our most precious American institution, freedom of expression, is threatened as President Trump attacks the press as the enemy of the people and attempts to ban a press of the people: TikTok. Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress, upset when their speech is labeled hate speech, threaten to take away platforms’ protections for everyone’s voice under Section 230.

“It is because our world has been modern only since around the middle of the nineteenth century that we do not have to go far back in time before institutions become foreign to our senses,” writes Douglas W. Allen in his book, “The Institutional Revolution.” “Our local government administrations; systems of taxation; our widespread views on marriage, occupation, and social status; the practice of universal suffrage; our sense of individualism, to name but a few, are all relatively recent innovations.”

No institution is forever. Trump and company are exploiting a vulnerable moment for society’s institutions in the midst of challenge and change. The party in power chooses to burn the fields behind them. It is an act not so much of political desperation but of cynical opportunism, throwing our once-cherished emblems of stability in the flames to fuel anger among the white men of the base. We are told of the need to empathize with their fear and fury but one wonders what they have to be angry about, other than squandering their privilege of whiteness.

As an old, white man myself, I was raised in a time when we were taught the ideal of the melting pot: that a color-blind America would soon come to see all as equal. It took time for me to understand the racism in that myth, which would have us erase the unique identities of individuals and communities in our diverse nation until everyone came to act like us, the white majority.

Thankfully, the opposite has occurred. Those who would not be deleted are speaking loudly to claim their own birthright to righteous anger, to equity, and to power. In response, the angry, uneducated, white men get only louder. It doesn’t much matter what they shout. They can refuse to wear masks or spread conspiracy theories or attack institutions; it is all performance in epistemological warfare that embraces rage over reason and authoritarianism over authority. They believe they have nothing left to lose as they question the institution of institutions: truth.

Facebook: Constitution before statutes

Constitution of America, We the People.

The Facebook Oversight Board is now open for cases and I look forward to seeing the results. But I have the same question I’ve had since the planning for its creation began, and I asked that question in a web call today with board leadership:

What higher principles will the Board call upon in making its decisions? It will be ruling on Facebook’s content decisions based on the company’s own statutes — that is, the “community standards” Facebook sets for the community. 

The Board says it will also decide cases on the basis of international human rights standards. This could mean the board might find that Facebook correctly enforced its statute but that the statute violates a principle of human rights, which would result in a policy recommendation to Facebook. Good. 

But there remains a huge gap between community statutes and international human rights law. What is missing, I have argued, is a Constitution for Facebook: a statement of why it exists, what kind of community it wants to serve, what it expects of its community, in short: a north star. That doesn’t exist. 

But the Oversight Board might — whether it and Facebook know it or not — end up writing that Constitution, one in the English model, set by precedent, rather than the American model, set down in a document. That will be primarily in Facebook’s control. Though the Oversight Board can pose policy questions and make recommendations, it is limited by what cases come its way — from users and Facebook — and it does not set policy for the company; it only decides appeals and makes policy recommendations. 

It’s up to Facebook to decide how it treats the larger policy questions raised by the Oversight Board and the cases. In reacting to recommendations, Facebook can begin to build a set of principles that in turn begin to define Facebook’s raison d’être, its higher goals, its north star, its Constitution. That’s what I’ve told people at Facebook I want to see happen. 

The problem is, that’s not how Facebook or any of the technology companies think. Since, as Larry Lessig famously decreed, code is law, what the technologists want is rules — laws — to feed their code — their algorithms — to make consistent decisions at scale. 

The core problem of the technology companies and their relationship with society today is that they do not test that code and the laws behind it against higher principles other than posters on the wall: “Don’t be evil.” “Work fast and break things.” Those do not make for a good Constitution. 

But now is their chance to create one. And now, perhaps, is our chance. I didn’t realize that every Oversight Board case will begin with a public comment period. So we can raise issues with the Board. Indeed, community standards should come from the community, damnit, or they’re not community standards; they’re company standards. So we should speak up. 

And the Board will consult experts. They can raise issues with the Board. And the Board can, in turn, raise issues not just for Facebook but, by example, for all the technology companies. That discussion could be useful. 

Imagine if — as I so wish had been the case — the Board had been in operation when Twitter and Facebook decided what to do about blocking the blatant attempt at election interference by the New York Post and Rupert Murdoch in cahoots with Rudy Giuliani. The Board could have raised, addressed, and proposed policy recommendations based on principles useful to many internet companies and to the media that love to poke them. 

Regulators could also get involved productively more than punitively. I was a member of a Transatlantic Working Group on Content Moderation and Freedom of Expression, which recommended a flexible framework for regulation that would have government hold companies accountable for their own assurances, requiring the companies to share data on usage and impact so researchers and regulators can monitor their performance. This, in my view, would be far better than government trying to tell companies how to operate, especially when it comes to interference in free speech. But government can’t hold companies accountable to keeping promises if there are no promises to keep. A Constitution is a promise, a covenant with users and the public. Every company should have one. Every company should be held accountable for meeting its requirements. And the public discussion should revolve around those principles, not around whether Johnny is allowed to use a bad word. 

I make no predictions here. The Board could end up answering a handful of picayune complaints among tens of thousands of possible cases a week and produce the script of an online soap opera. Facebook could follow the letter of the law set down by the Board and miss the opportunity to set higher goals. Media, experts, and the public could be ignored or worse could just continue to snipe instead of contribute constructively. 

But I can hope. The net is young. We — all of us — are still designing it by how we use it.