you should worry about soft censorship more than North Korea

North Korea is an invaluable nation for America’s cultural and political industries. A genuinely brutal dictatorship with a genuinely crackpot dictator, the site of almost unthinkable human rights abuses which can be used to distract our broken, destructive nation from its brokenness and destruction. Like all good Big Bads, North Korea’s capabilities shift back and forth depending on the particular rhetorical need. So the country is a pathetic backwater run by a pack of incompetent clowns, whose rockets splash down harmlessly and hilariously into the Pacific… up until it becomes ideologically convenient for the country to represent an existential threat to all of us, a violent and powerful military dictatorship bent on nuclear power and in possession of a vast army. North Korea is by turns pathetic and terrifying, as befits the given need of a given gasbag. Like I said: it’s an invaluable nation for those who professionally beat the drum.

You will notice that the recent outrage over the (outrageous) hacking and threats against Sony Pictures has a rare cross-ideological and partisan unity to it. I was skeptical of the idea that North Korea was behind it at first, and I continue to think there’s some shoe left to drop; saying “we know the North Koreans did it because the US government says they did” is pretty weak tea, given how regularly and unashamedly this  government lies to its people. But sure: I wouldn’t put it past them. Like I say, it’s a horrific regime, with genuine instability at the top. Anyway, we’ve got ourselves a moment of unusual unanimity. You could throw some cold water on it all; despite the incredible evil of the North Korean regime, it’s a pure, non-ideological and objective fact that since the Korean war, the United States has caused vastly more devastation and loss of innocent life than the regime in NK. More to the point, there’s t he simple fact that these rituals are always at least partially about ignoring our own problems, using other country’s problems as a way to avoid talking about our own. “LOL Russia, how’s the ruble doing” is what a failed society says when it wants to ignore that it has imprisoned, harassed, and murdered generations of its most vulnerable racial groups, tortured and sexually assaulted its enemies and some who were mistaken for its enemies, done nothing to meaningfully address a massive ecological catastrophe that its own scientists are warning about, subjects its people to mass surveillance, spent $2.5 trillion combined on two failed recent wars, and developed an economy that functions as a machine for putting more and more money in the hands of the tiny few. 

For the moment, I’d prefer to focus a little more closely on the issue of movie theaters and studios censoring films out of fear of the regime. Like most people, I find this both chilling and absurd; North Korea has no more ability to cause great violence in the United States than your average terrorist group, which means that it  could inflict an emotional and human toll but on a very limited scale. The dominant lesson of post-9/11 terrorism is that it’s really hard to actually cause widespread damage via terrorism. What’s especially weird about all this is that North Korea threatens things all the time, but nobody pays attention or cares, because they have neither the ability to pull off most of what they threaten nor the intention of actually going through with it. So while the bad behavior here is certainly the fault of North Korea (and/or whoever else is behind it), there’s plenty of shame for those companies, too. But everybody’s unified: North Korea’s regime is bad. Hacking is bad. Blackmail is bad. Terrorist threats are bad. As Fred Durst would say, we are all in aggreance.

What I wonder is why people aren’t a little more put off by a form of censorship that is more insidious, and will likely affect far more movies in the long run: the soft censorship of appealing to the Chinese government in order to reap the Chinese box office. There have been widespread claims that recent blockbuster movies like the latest Transformers have been written so as to appease Chinese censors. There’s nothing wrong with writing movies to reach out to a particularly huge foreign box office– why wouldn’t you want your movie to play to Chinese moviegoers?– but appealing to the Chinese government is a whole other ball of wax. That’s where you  can see genuine self-censorship coming in. And while I imagine that this whole thing will blow over before long, without a great deal of long-term damage, I think the urge to play in China -and for the Chinese government —  will only grow over time.

There is a recent movie that features North Korea as an enemy: the remake of Red Dawn. That movie, however, was originally scripted and shot with a Chinese enemy. Only in post-production was the enemy changed to North Korea. Why? Certainly not for the plot; the notion that North Korea is equipped to invade the United States is even more absurd than the notion, as in the original, that the USSR was so equipped in the 1980s. And not because of the fear of terrorism. Instead, it was the soft censorship of the profit motive. Fear of offending China was effective at changing a central plot point of that movie, and received a fraction of the discussion.

Why aren’t we seeing similar fretting about the soft censorship of Chinese dollars? Because there’s no simplistic morality play where America and its values are the victims, of course. Because there’s no way in which that story appeals to a simple narrative of American superiority. Rather, it asks us to self-implicate, and to consider the inherent censoriousness of the profit motive. That’s a complex set of issues, and it doesn’t leave us smelling like a rose, and it might lead us into an uncomfortable discussion. So it doesn’t get discussed.

Happy birthday, Chelsea

We know, beyond all doubt, that this country engaged in the routine torture, sexual abuse, and murder of prisoners, and for years. We know for a fact that we tortured. We know for a fact that some of those we  tortured were innocent. We know for a fact that some of those we tortured, we tortured to death. We know  for a fact that some of those we tortured, we tortured through sexual assault. We know all that, for a fact. And the people who physically performed it, the people who ordered it, and the people who built a practical and legal infrastructure to make it happen walk among us, free and unthreatened.

Meanwhile, today Chelsea Manning, whose crime was helping us to know the kind of country we live in, spends her 27th birthday in prison.

Happy birthday, Chelsea. I hope that someday you can live the life of freedom and security now enjoyed by the very worst among us. I hope some part of you feels forever free.

there’s nothing democratic about ed reform

Will Wilkinson has long labored to square the circle and advocate “liberaltarianism.” I’m more amenable to conditional alliances on particular issues with libertarians than your average lefty, but often these efforts amount to using progressive language to advocate for boilerplate libertarian ends. You can see that urge in this post of his guest-blogging at the Dish, where he surveys an American populace inflamed against racism and inequality and uses it as fodder to attack collective bargaining.

Now, looking at the tendency of the state to murder its most economically and socially disadvantaged people and declaring “you know what the problem is? Unions” is inherently self-parodic for libertarian types, to the point that I’m almost content to let Wilkinson’s post undermine itself. And saying that “Democrats reflexively defend unions” in a world of Rahm Emmanuels and Andrew Cuomos is so flatly wrong that I hope most people will dismiss it out of hand. It’s not 1975. Democrats have been bashing unions with vigor for as long as I’ve been old enough to be politically conscious. But when he says, “teachers’ unions block almost every conceivable democratic reform to the public school system,” he’s endorsing a much more widespread falsehood.

What is it about the preference  for crushing labor, making teaching a less attractive profession, and shifting public funds to private corporations a matter of increasing democracy? Wilkinson doesn’t say. It’s likely that Wilkinson knows that typical ed reforms represent a litany of failure– private charters, vouchers, merit pay, one failed idea after another. But democratic? How? The Gates Foundation and the textbook companies don’t, actually, represent the popular will. If anything, the ed reform movement has been an effort to pull more and more local control away from the people and hand it to institutions, corporations, and people who are not democratically elected at all. The Common Core, for example, is a straightforward attempt by the Arne Duncan types to undercut the local authority of public school boards and state governments. The only reason that the Common Core push has run aground, despite overwhelming elite consensus in its favor, is because of bipartisan, grassroots opposition. Local people refusing a vast takeover of learning goals is democratic. Bill Gates spending his millions to effect that takeover is not.

Or look at the Chicago Public School teachers strikes and attendant protests. Were these examples of people calling for ed reform as a way to take democratic control of their own communities? The opposite. They were local communities resisting Rahm Emmanuel, a prototypical reform-spouting antidemocratic political elite. An even better example is the efforts of Facebook billionaire Mark Zuckerberg and celebrity politician Corey Booker to wrest control of Newark’s schools from Newark’s people. After a series of heavy-handed privatization efforts, enforced from above by Booker’s political power and Zuckerberg’s money, the parents and students of Newark rose up to defend their teachers and their schools. That’s people power. That’s democracy.

What makes “Mark Zuckerberg, Dictator of Newark Schools” democratic? Well, if you’re a libertarian, the fact that he’s bringing private money to bear to take control of public schools; the fact that these efforts inevitably involve union-bashing; and the fact that they transfer money from taxpayers to private corporations. That’s what makes them democratic. When you call corporations people and you act as though democracy grows out of wallets, privatization and shrinking government are synonymous with democracy. Myself, I prefer the traditional definition: when the people take community control over what belongs to them.


Here are a few things I have done this morning.

  • Bought shuttle tickets to get me to and from Chicago for my flight home to Connecticut for Christmas.
  • Paid the gas bill.
  • Paid my cellphone bill.
  • Salted down my credit card.
  • Bought Christmas presents for my nieces.
  • Enjoyed a nice seasonal IPA.

I also have set aside the exorbitant fee for boarding my dog for a week. (Seriously: I adore my dog; I can’t imagine my life without my dog; don’t get a dog.) I also am just in far better financial shape, and feeling much less stressed and more secure, than I was a week ago. All thanks to you. The response to my Christmas funding drive has been overwhelming, in both the practical and emotional sense. My awkward attempts to express that gratitude would be lame for us both so please take my word for it that I am incredibly grateful and deeply moved. I have a lot of individual thanks to give out in the near future.

In the meantime — after a great deal of negative reaction, I have unpinned two posts that previously were stickied to the top of the blog. Pinning those there was my small attempt to highlight particular kinds of intellectual work that I do here to prospective employers and job search committees, but the response from regular readers has been so negative that I’ve gone ahead and removed them. And yes, I’m still contemplating going back to allowing comments, at least some of the time, in the new year.

Thanks, so much, to all of you.

grown up

Tonight, as I have often before in my life, I got into a stupid, pointless, wearying argument about digital piracy. I read this post by Darren Orf of Gizmodo, and I criticized it. I did so knowing full well that the typical throng of piracy apologist tech-head commenters would descend on me with the typical worn-out cliches. And lo, it  came to pass.

Why do I let something like that depress me so much? I’m not 100% sure. I guess it’s just the litany of excuses that the commenters always have for why, in fact, there is no moral consequences to their behavior at all. It’s the typical laundry list of bad faith and evasion. “We only pirate because it’s so inconvenient to get these legally!” You could literally download thousands of movies, books, games, and albums from a moving plane. “It’s so expensive legally!” There’s thousands of movies to rent, albums to buy, and games to play for $5 or less, all delivered, in seconds, to objects you hold in your hands, in your own home, or anywhere else you prefer to be. “People only pirate things that aren’t available to pay for!” Torrents for movies and albums you can instantly download for less than $10 get downloaded by the millions. “It’s only taking money from millionaires!” In fact many of the people hurt most by piracy are independent and experimental artists who have are already just scraping by, or the creative middle classes that perform essential services for artists. “VHS and the 8-track went away too!” Those are mediums, not art forms. VHS giving way to DVD didn’t mean there were no more movies being sold. People refusing to pay for movies and music makes it less likely that some movies and albums will get made. “Piracy is a triumph for the little guy!” Literally the opposite. Giant tech firms make billions. Artists who can trade on their celebrity and sell Vitamin Water make millions. Independent artists and the middle class that works in the arts get hamstrung. “It’s not really hurting their bottom line!” That is entirely untrue, no matter how many times you insist it isn’t. “These companies have to evolve!” How? In what way? Saying that industries have to change is not an argument. You have to say in what way they have to change. Because they’ve changed in precisely the same way piracy advocates have always said they should, and yet people keep pirating anyway. “Music is bad these days!” Not true and totally irrelevant. “Some people in other countries can’t legally download things!” I’m talking about the people who can. I’m not talking about the guy who just wants to see an obscure silent film that he can’t get anywhere else and I’m not talking about the guy living under an oppressive regime who can’t get access to Amazon. I’m talking about the millions of people who every day could pay a pittance to get digital media and instead choose to pirate it so that no money at all goes to the people who created it. (But money still goes to Comcast, and Apple, and Google….)

So that bums me out, the impregnable nature of the little philosophical fortress they build for themselves, the way they’ve simply precluded the question: am I hurting others in this behavior, and if I am, do I have any obligation to stop?

But look at Orf’s piece. He may not offer all of these excuses. It’s what’s missing, instead, that depresses me. His post is totally lacking not only any kind of moral consideration of the behavior that he’s talking about, but any suggestion that it’s occurred to him that there is such a thing as a moral obligation to others on this issue. The notion that content creators are, like him, trapped in capitalism and should thus receive money for their work either doesn’t occur to him or he doesn’t see fit to reflect on that fact. If anything it’s defiant in not even acknowledging that there’s any moral concern here. It’s pure Borg Complex: this thing is inevitable because it comes from technology, and because it is inevitable I have no moral relationship to it. I’m in the clear. I don’t even have to ask.

And that, ultimately, is what just depresses the hell out of me. I mean Gizmodo specializes in a kind of aggressive moral childishness, but the tech culture is full of this stuff: I’m going to take what I want whenever I want it because I want it and I won’t ask or care what the costs of that behavior are.  It’s not the issue of piracy in and of itself, although I think a lot of people simply have no idea how massively threatened so many of the arts are, how truly beleaguered music and movies are as professional enterprises, or how much declining profit margins for blockbuster properties make it harder on the smaller projects and producers…. But it’s really just my sense that so many people allow these digital divides to blind them to the consequences of their own actions.

I try always to distrust my own feelings that things are getting worse, because we have such a powerful bias that way as human beings. Certainly I’m not making some lame generational complaint, “argle bargle Millenials” whatever. And I guess I lack data to say that people are getting more myopic in their sense of responsibility to others. I just worry. So many new technologies and services seem to operate from the premise that interacting with people who aren’t already your friends or family members is just the worst. And as we put more and more digital intermediaries between us and other people, I don’t know how the responsibility to think of the ways in which your own action impacts others survives.

Adulthood gets a really bad rap. To me the basic insight of adulthood is pretty simple: my actions affect others, and sometimes hurt others, and it’s my responsibility to be hard on myself when it comes to figuring out if I’m doing harm. But advertising tells you that you’re the only human being that has ever mattered, and technology makes it easier and easier for you to avoid human beings that you don’t already have some extrinsic interest in, and we have this whole bankrupt philosophy that tells us that resistance is futile because technology supposedly “wants” things to happen. I’m a pretty emo guy, granted. But it wears me out.

people are amazing

I wanted to see how people were responding to my piece for the Week, on how the presumption of the truth of all sexual assault accusations actually makes it harder for us to fight rape. I was particularly interested because the topic is so controversial. So as I often do, I plugged the link into the Twitter search bar. I found that there were several people from the #tcot crew sharing it, and yelling about it in an odd way. Getting conservatives mad about something I write is not at all uncommon for me, but there was something off about this particular instance. I also found that the automated Twitter feed that tweets out links to this blog had dozens of notifications. This is odd because, as a robot Twitter, it rarely gets a lot of mentions. Investigating these tweets made me more confused; a lot of people seemed to be yelling at me for saying things that they themselves were saying. I got a bunch of tweets saying stuff like “the FACTS matter,” “people who rely on evidence are Part of the Problem, right, progs?,” etc. This was weird; that’s precisely what my piece was arguing, that facts and evidence matter when it comes to rape allegations and acting otherwise does us no favors in the fight against rape. Why did so many people believe they were disagreeing with my piece when they weren’t?

I finally figured it out. Here’s the subhead of the piece, which crucially pops up in the Twitter preview for it: “A presumption of truth in every rape accusation is an impossible standard. And it’s doing real damage to the cause of fighting sexual assaults.”

That first sentence means “presuming every rape allegation to be true is an impossible standard.” But you could potentially misread it as saying “it doesn’t matter whether rape accusations are true or not.” Luckily, you could just, you know, read the actual piece and be corrected. But clearly, dozens of people got mad about it without bothering to read the piece at all. And not only did they get all worked up about a piece when they read nothing else but the headline and subhead, they felt so confident in their outrage that they commented on it on Twitter! Dozens of people!

What a world.

why automatically believing all rape accusations actually makes it harder to fight rape

Here’s a piece I wrote for The Week on this topic. The simple version is that when we adopt a blanket policy of believing all sexual assault accusations, as Zerlina Maxwell and others have advocated, we actually make it harder to publicly work against rape, as we tie our credibility to allegations that are eventually rebutted. That in turn makes us less likely to be listened to in the future. In a strange sense, this presumption creates an impossibly high standard where the credibility of all rape allegations is tied to the credibility of any individual rape allegation. Once again, we see that due process and avoiding a rush to judgment helps victims as well as the accused.

I think this issue is a good example of the progressive enclave problem: this presumption might seem like a good idea if you overestimate the universality of this norm. But in truth, though it’s a powerful social stigma that affects some very prominent people in the media and academia, very few people writ large have adopted it. And having that kind of standard only for a small contingent of the like-minded is dangerous in the long term. It can cause us to fail to see the very real unintended consequences of our behaviors.

chipping in

This morning I received a gift, from an anonymous reader, of Dana Goldstein’s The Teacher Wars. I’m super excited to read it over Christmas break, and once again grateful and humbled by the generosity of my readers. I’m afraid I am once again going to test that generosity.

It’s the holidays and I’m broke. There’s several things coming together at once — paying for my plane ticket home to Connecticut to visit my sister, putting my dog up at the kennel which is ludicrously expensive, setting aside money for campus visit plane tickets, a research grant coming to an end this week…. The campus visit costs will eventually be reimbursed, but they’re notoriously slow, and I’m concerned about just not having enough money in my account to buy tickets. I sat down to do the budget for the next couple of months and no matter how I lay it out, the numbers just don’t add up. So I decided that I’m not too proud to beg. I’m asking for you as readers to support me in whatever way you can, if you’re inclined, by kicking in a few bucks to this GoFundMe account. (Full disclosure: GoFundMe will end up taking about 8% from the total for their vig.) I know how tough things are out there and I’m more than grateful just to have you all as readers, and anyone who can’t spare anything is appreciated anyway. I put a $500 goal on there but really that’s just a guideline to fill the space. Any little bit would help.

In the past year, I’ve been attacked by men’s rights activists for saying that traditional masculinity has to die and by those in the Tumblr social justice movement for arguing against the faux politics of social sorting; by libertarians for disputing the notion of meritocracy and by leftists for opposing hate speech laws; by Republicans for criticizing Israel and by Democrats for criticizing Obama. I figure if I’ve made that many people mad, I must have gotten some of it right.

I’m unleashing comments on this post for encouragement and/or derision, so fire away with either. Questions are welcome. I’ve gotten a bunch of requests to turn comments back on full time and I’m going to be experimenting with doing so in the new year. Thanks for the opportunity to lay this out there. You guys are the best.

Update: This is really incredible generosity, you guys. I’m gonna bump up the goal to make room. It’s going to make life so much easier for me in the months to come. I’m so grateful.

turtles all the way down

So the perennial habit of lefties playing protest police has struck again, this time in the form of arguments that white people are too prominent and present at protests inspired by Michael Brown and Eric Garner. I’m not sure how a mass protest movement can emerge in a country that is still 78% white without an outsized presence of white people, but such concerns are gauche. Of course, it’s a bad look for white people to get pushy in protests against our racist police state. You’d just hope the focus stayed on black bodies instead of the 13-dimensional chess of cultural studies, but I’m not the boss. Often, in practice, it all shakes out as “black people aren’t socialists!” which, aside from the fact that I’ve known hundreds of black communists and anarchists in my life, is about as parochial and condescending a sentiment as I can imagine. But it is socially convenient.

Of course, that article and similar sentiments are right now being breathlessly shared on Facebook and Twitter… mostly by white people. And those white people, in turn, exempt themselves from the critique by sharing it. They stack meta-critique on top of meta-critique, building an impossibly tall tower of theoretical structures, designed, ultimately, to exempt the ones who make the most arch, most complex criticism. “Aha! But have you considered this?,” asks the undergraduate. We have less a genre of essays assailing white racism, online, than a genre assailing other people’s white racism. White subjectivity has a voracious appetite; escaping it appears to be, for our progressive elites, like swimming away from the horizon. The next time I read an argument about white racism by a white person that isn’t fundamentally a declaration of personal blamelessness will be the first time. And I read all my own work.

In moments such as these, I always advocate an inversion of Gandhi’s famous maxim. Think of the most privileged person you have ever seen, and ask if your next act will be of any threat. The cops neither know nor care what the word intersectionality means; those with the guns are above such concerns. Remember Occupy. Remember it was strangled in the crib.

keep your classism out of my antiracism


It seems like half my Facebook friends have posted this image. Hey, gang: those swipes at never leaving your hometown and Olive Garden? Like your complaints about gross teeth and the chrome on your Macbook, those are ways to express class disgust without actually coming out and saying it. Not everybody who uses TweetDeck and is up on True Detective has perfect thoughts on race, either. Be better than this, please.