A social media beheading

foley beheading

Sometime last week, James Foley, an American free-lance journalist, was beheaded by a masked individual who claimed to belong to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).  This was a moral and political atrocity, requiring frank talk about the appropriate response.  But it was also an attempt at visual persuasion:  ISIL communicated the killing in a carefully produced YouTube video that condemned President Obama’s decision to bomb their advancing forces.  The group had a message.  Foley was murdered to ensure that it was heard.

I watched the video on my iPhone – which is to say, I saw little and heard nothing at all.  (I pieced together my description from a transcript as much as from what I saw.)  President Obama was shown saying that US power would be used to contain ISIL in Iraq.  Video followed of a smart bomb blowing up what was presumably an ISIL vehicle.  Foley, in a prison-orange gown, on his knees, was then forced to make an anti-US statement.  “I guess all in all I wish I wasn’t American,” he concluded, tragically, yet from what I could see without much emotion.  His killer stood behind him, dressed in black and waving a knife.  “Any attempt by you, Obama, to deny Muslims their right of living in safety under the Islamic caliphate will result in the bloodshed of your people,” he blustered in a British accent.  Then he put his knife to Foley’s throat.

Beheading videos are a grisly tradition among insurgents in that part of the world.  Al Qaeda in Iraq, a precursor organization to ISIL, delighted in such productions under Abu Musa al Zarqawi.  Because of my work, I viewed some of them at the time.  I wanted to make sense of the message:  what possible political advantage could AQI expect from their displays of savagery?  They instilled fear, certainly.  It gave the group a terrifying, gangster-like reputation.  Mostly, however, the videos seemed to reflect nothing more substantial or strategic than Zarqawi’s bloodlust.  I was not alone in this assessment:  Ayman al Zawahiri, then Al Qaeda’s second in command, admonished Zarqawi in a captured letter that “scenes of slaughtering the hostages” would never be “palatable” to Muslims.

The last AQI video I could stomach showed a massacre of Nepalese workers, men totally innocent of the conflict in Iraq.  One by one, they were in a very literal sense slaughtered by Zarqawi using a small knife.  I was told by a Muslim colleague that this resembled the ritual sacrifice of animals during holy days.  Not only had the Nepalese workers been terrorized and killed, in the process they were denied their humanity.

James Foley died in the same manner.  In this case, the motive for murder was transparent.  The killers, who wished to be considered “an Islamic army, and a state” rather than a gang of violent men, sought to frighten the US public and warn off further US military attacks by snuffing out an American life.  In the dark mind of the ISIL zealot – personified by the ninja-clad, British-sounding assassin – the killing was tit for tat.

Predictably, the video of Foley’s beheading went viral on the information sphere.  Just as predictably, a strong backlash resulted against showing such a repulsive act.  By the time I got to my laptop, YouTube had taken down the video.  The company had every right to do so.  Foley’s family then requested that the public not watch, share, or use any images produced by ISIL.  That was understandable.   With regard to the beheading video, and excluding the usual mindless trolls, the public largely obliged.

But soon a digital frenzy ensued against showing any images of the video, anywhere.  A campaign to “blackout” ISIL media by Twitter user “Hend” garnered immediate support.  Feeling the pressure, Twitter agreed to cancel the accounts of users who posted images from the beheading video.  A great deal of online rage was aimed at those, like the New York Post, that displayed Foley in his last minutes of life.  With typical herd instinct, most of the news media engaged in self-censorship on the matter.

The reasons given were not devoid of merit, but sounded strangely out of tune with our informational reality.  The beheading video was said to be propaganda for a murderous group – true enough, but it was unclear how looking away in horror would defeat or out-persuade the murderers.  The images were out there, in any case.  ISIL supporters were said to revel in them.  The information sphere is irrevocable.

Respect for the feelings of family members was also offered as a reason for blocking images of Foley’s death.  Twitter generalized this into a new policy regarding the removal of images of “deceased individuals” at the request of family members.  It was a kindly meant but somewhat misguided gesture.  The pain of loss, after all, is not in images but in the flesh and the heart.  Death is the ultimate irrevocable.  Murder, I should think, trumps insensitivity.  Reality must be confronted and grappled with.  It would have been a bizarre response to 9/11, if we had decided to ban the images of that horrible day.

In fact, a strange moral and political myopia afflicted the digital chatter about the murder of James Foley.  A violent, disgusting act had been perpetrated, but most of the anger was directed at those who shared images of it.  It was as if social media users cared only about social media – or worse:  as if by blocking out pictures of the crime, we could somehow avoid dealing with a world that contained dangerous criminals.

For the record, I incline to the second explanation.  The reflex to blot out shocking information, particularly of the visual kind, has been a well-documented trait of the elites.

At the time of Egypt’s bloody street revolt, state-owned TV ran footage of happy consumers in shopping malls.  During violent police repression of anti-Erdogan protests in Turkey, CNN – owned by Erdogan allies – showed a documentary about penguins.  A government report on the 2011 London riots concluded that the “single most important reason” for the disorders was “the perception, relayed by television as well as social media,” that police had lost control of the streets.  In every case, the idea was that if the mediated images of unpleasant events were blocked, the reality of the latter would be nullified.  This is not magical thinking, merely a throwback to an era when hierarchical institutions controlled the flow of information.

That era is long gone.  I find myself perplexed to observe so many participants in social media – the unruly public, gifted amateurs who have broken the information monopoly of the institutions – grasping for the illusion of control.

We can’t give James Foley his life back, or wish ISIL out of existence, by closing our eyes to the moral horror of their collision.  Instead, we should ponder the relationship between our current response and the next video:  the next horror.  We should gaze into the heart of darkness of that knife-wielding killer and his kind.  They seem to think Americans can be stampeded by fear.  To the extent that we treat images of their crimes as a reality too unbearably painful for us to behold or discuss or accept – to that extent exactly, I suspect, they will feed us more.

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What Guy Fawkes’ mask can teach us about the turmoil of 2011

v for vendetta blowup[The following is a selection from my new book, The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium, Amazon link below.]

The 2011 protesters connected with political violence only in a Hollywood version, through their fantasy lives.  At virtually every protest described in this book, you found people wearing the Guy Fawkes mask popularized by the 2006 movie, V for Vendetta.  This was unique for would-be revolutionaries.  I can’t imagine Lenin or Mao or Castro allowing their comrades to impersonate a fictional character.

Fascination with a revenge melodrama offered a hint about how the young transgressors of 2011 viewed themselves – and what they imagined they were doing.

Guy Fawkes was executed in 1606 for his part in the Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament.  The mask was traditionally worn in “Guy Fawkes Night,” which celebrated with bonfires the discovery of the plot.  Hollywood turned this story on its head.  The film depicted a future Britain ruled by a fanatically religious authoritarian government, whose persecutions sounded like a catalogue of victims from Occupy Wall Street:  “Immigrants, Muslims, homosexuals, terrorists, disease-ridden degenerates…”  “V,” a mysterious figure in a Fawkes mask, perpetrates an orgy of violence to bring down the government.  The movie ends with an immense crowd in V masks overwhelming the security forces, while Parliament building and Big Ben explode musically in the background.

In his disgust with his place and time, V sometimes sounded like an indignado.  “The truth is, there is something terribly wrong with this country,” he brooded.  But mostly he was an action hero who, in the 132 minutes of the film, personally slaughtered a significant portion of the ruling class.  The lust for righteous mayhem, in good movie fashion, was untroubled by doubt.

V at Occupy Wall Street

V at Occupy Wall Street

While this was hardly the political model in 2011, there can be no denying the influence of V for Vendetta on the participants.  Wael Ghonim turned to the Guy Fawkes mask to underline his anonymity as administrator of the “We Are All Khaled Said” Facebook page:

In 2006 I had seen the movie V for Vendetta and fallen in love with the idea of the mysterious warrior fighting against evil.  I was still influenced by this idea when I created the Facebook page:  the notion of an anonymous sentinel who tries to wake up the people around him and spur them to revolt against the government’s injustice.  For my article “Who Are You, Mr. Admin?” I used the distinctive mask worn by the movie’s protagonist as the main image.

“I identified with V’s desire for change,” explained the mild-mannered Ghonim, “although in no way did I approve of his violent means.”  To anyone who has watched the film, this was an extraordinary statement.

The mask was originally introduced to protest politics by the hacker group “Anonymous,” which claimed for itself prodigious powers not unlike those of the protagonist in V for Vendetta.  Anonymous can only be described as a mutant offspring of the Fifth Wave, spawned from the most nihilistic elements of the web, and it has played an uncertain part in the struggle between the public and authority.  Its members sometimes talked like revolutionaries but often behaved like the London rioters, stealing data and vandalizing sites just because they could.  None of them, when finally identified, turned out to be engaged in radical politics of any kind.  They had meant it when they boasted, “We do it for the lulz.”

Anonymous’ endorsement of the Occupy Wall Street movement generated a great deal of buzz.  In a series of bombastic YouTube videos featuring the mask, the hackers made many threats – for example, to “flood into lower Manhattan” with their supporters, declare “war on the NYPD,” and “erase” the New York Stock Exchange using their hacking prowess.  This proved to be more drama than reality.  One video disseminated the name and personal data of the cop who had pepper-sprayed protesters.  Denial of service attacks slowed down the NYSE, and pushed it offline for a few minutes.  Other than that, the one lasting contribution of the hacker community to the turmoil of 2011 was to re-connect it with the V mask.

Self-dramatizing with Anonymous

Self-dramatizing with Anonymous

I don’t want to make too much of this.  Like dueling naming conventions, the infatuation with V for Vendetta was a symptom, not a cause, of the larger conflict.  It revealed an emotional orientation among the protesters:   they were self-dramatizers to an extreme degree.  The disconnection between their words and their actions, between their understanding of effects and their indifference to causes, can be explained by this trait.

As with V, their self-dramatizing was manifested in gestures of negation – of repudiation, accusation, destruction, erasing history and leaving the future blank.  The movie ended with the demolition of the old regime.  The rest would take care of itself.  “With enough people, blowing up a building can change the world,” V had proclaimed.  But that was true only in fiction.

Wael Ghonim got the chance to play the role of V almost to perfection.  As an anonymous political force, he tormented the Mubarak regime, assembled its opponents, and helped engineer its overthrow.  At the moment of victory, however, more than negation was needed.  The movie had ended, but the drama in Egypt moved on.  Ghonim, the real-life V, lacked a script to follow once the oppositional gesture lost its potency.

Because political conditions were much less dangerous in democratic countries, self-dramatization there seemed proportionately more extravagant.

Political rebels in Europe, Israel, and the US felt betrayed by the failure of the structures of authority, particularly the government and the economic elites.  The feeling wasn’t entirely unreasonable.  The masters and regulators of finance had placed large foolish bets, but when the bottom fell out in 2008 it was the public, not them, who paid the losses.  There was ample room for criticism, even for cynicism.

In the end, however, a term like “failure” can only be applied relative to some expectation – and we have seen that the rebels’ expectations of modern government were at once fantastical in their scope and vaporous in definition.  They ascribed magical or, I venture to say, divine qualities to cumbersome, all-too-human bureaucracies.   They believed government could work miracles:  it could give meaning to their personal lives.  This faith was most evident in Israel, a country that quickly overcame the effects of the crisis.  Protesters there were affluent and employed, but expected the government to deliver personal fulfillment within a context of social justice.  What that meant was never explained.  Most of the American Occupiers also held down jobs.  Conversely, those nearest to poverty never participated in any of the 2011 street revolts.

Even in the rhetoric of the protests, the connection to the economic crisis was, at best, indirect.  Manuel Castells had it right when he wrote that “the movement” was about “everything and nothing at the same time.”  2011 never fixated on 2008:  the impulse was to abolish history entirely, and open up a future purified of cause and effect.

In their eagerness to play a part in some world-historical drama, the rebels often gave the impression that they were searching for causes.  They disdained specifics – ideology, policy – but excelled at lengthy menus of accusations.  Stephane Hessel, French prophet of outrage, understood this process of self-aggravation.

It is true, the reasons to get angry may seem less clear today, and the world may seem more complex.  Who is in charge; who are the decision makers?  It’s not always easy to discern.  We’re not dealing with a small elite anymore, whose actions we can clearly identify.  We are dealing with a vast, interdependent world that is interconnected in unprecedented ways.  But there are unbearable things all around us.  You have to look for them; search carefully.

A life spent in search of unbearable things will be necessarily destructive of the legitimacy of most standing institutions and social arrangements, including those which created and sustained the destroyers.

Unlike the fictional character V, the actual protesters of 2011 were unable to wipe clean the slate of power and society.  Mubarak fell, the Spanish socialists were voted to near extinction, Netanyahu compromised, Obama borrowed the slogans of OWS – but the consequences, three years down the road, nowhere have matched the glittering expectations of participants.  The old systems still stand.  The hierarchies of the industrial age, with their top-down myopia, stumble on.  The behavior of these structures obeys an inner logic:  despite Itzhik Shmuli’s utopian proclamation, government never became a servant to the forces of revolt.

But the hypothesis I presented in this chapter was not that the public in 2011 had the interest or the capacity to replace current institutions of authority.  It had neither.  Sectarian to the core, the public would have felt corrupted by the thought of assuming the functions of the Center.  The phase change concerned, at the most obvious level, a new capacity to mobilize large numbers of the public and so to command the attention of all political players, from government leaders to the media to ordinary voters.  This was a new thing under the sun, and it became possible only in the altered landscape of the Fifth Wave.  Digital platforms allowed even rioters who wished to loot London stores to organize and act more intelligently, for their purposes, than the authorities.

The consequence wasn’t revolution but the threat of perpetual turbulence.  The authorities felt, and still feel, their incapacity keenly.  Governments are aware that the public could swarm into the political arena at any moment, organizing at the speed of light, hurling anathemas of repudiation.  Political elites in democratic countries have become thoroughly demoralized.  Whether this was deserved or not is a separate question, to be examined in the next two chapters.  But the crisis of confidence among established politicians has precluded the possibility of bold action, of democratic reform.

The phase change began in 2011, but the end is not in sight.  In the Italian general elections of February 2013, a new party, the “Five Star” movement, won 25 percent of the vote for the lower house of parliament and became the second-largest entity there.  The party was the creation of a comedian-blogger who called himself Beppe Grillo, after the Jiminy Cricket character in Pinocchio.  In every feature other than its willingness to stand for elections, Five Star reproduced perfectly the confused ideals and negations of the 2011 protests.  Despite receiving more than eight million votes, it lacked a coherent program.  The single unifying principle was a deep loathing of the Italian political establishment.  The rise of Beppe Grillo had nothing to do with reform or radical change, but meant the humiliation and demoralization of the established order.

That was the most profound consequence of 2011:  sowing the seeds of distrust in the democratic process.  You can condemn politicians only for so long before you must reject the legitimacy of the system that produced them.  The protests of 2011 openly took that step, and a considerable segment of the electorate applauded.  Like money and marriage, legitimacy exists objectively because vast numbers of the public agree, subjectively, that it does exist.  If enough people change their minds, the authorizing magic is lost.  The process is slow and invisible to analysts, but, as I have noted, the tipping point comes suddenly – a matter of weeks for the Ben Ali and Mubarak regimes.  How far down this road existing liberal democracies have proceeded is a matter of guesswork.  We still have time to discover that the street revolts of 2011, in V’s words, did “change the world,” and not in a good way.

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Portrait of the nihilist as the sum of our negations

Olso bombing: July 2011

Olso bombing: July 2011

[The following is a selection from my new book, The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium, Amazon link below.]

What is this uncanny beast, born of the Fifth Wave and now stalking into the uncertain future?  After all the talk of public and authority, of network and hierarchy, where – you ask – does he fit in?

Above all, he is seized and animated by a very particular feeling.  I will characterize this feeling more explicitly later:  here, let me begin by saying that it partakes of alienation.  The world of the nihilist does not belong to the nihilist.  It belongs to the forces of selfishness and to repulsive people.

He considers his elected government to be a thing apart, and beneath contempt.  That is the view from below.  George W. Bush told him that the invasion of Iraq was about weapons of mass destruction, but none were found there.  Barack Obama explained to him that the stimulus would cap unemployment, but millions more lost their jobs.  Jose Luis Zapatero refused even to mention the word “crisis” to him, while economic disaster ravaged Spain.  I called these episodes failures of government, but that is not how the nihilist sees them.  He thinks his rulers are liars and cheats, and he fills the web with angry rants on the subject.

He can do that because he’s extremely well connected, in the current sense of that word.  He’s Homo informaticus run amok.  At the high end of his communications skills, he might be a hacker in Anonymous, vandalizing Sony’s corporate database.  At the low end, he could be a young rioter coordinating a looting expedition on his messaging service.  The nihilist comes to life through his digital devices.  Without them he would sink to a condition identical to nothingness:  he would be silent.  Instead, he is fantastically well informed about those few odd topics that obsess him, and he produces a torrent of hard-core negations posted about the world around him.

Being connected, the nihilist is networked.  He can link to others just as destructive as him, and bring them together in a flash of real-time mayhem.  And there are always others:  the nihilist isn’t one but many.  He belongs with the public when he’s interested in an affair, as sometimes he is, but his predilections are sectarian to an absolute extreme.  He is morbidly, monstrously, against.  He imagines he would be happy, if the society in which he lives were wiped out tomorrow.

In politics, this impulse pushes him way beyond rejection or revolt.  The nihilist is a political black hole, allowing no light or mass to escape his violent embrace.  Yet he’s not a professional agitator, as he surely would have been in the last century.  He’s a private person, an amateur in politics moving among other amateurs.  Nihilism, in him, isn’t a full-time job – it’s a latent condition.  It erupts on a case by case basis.  The fuse might be lit by some news on his Twitter stream about the war in Afghanistan or the flood of immigrants into his country.  Or he might just reach a tipping point in that all-consuming feeling that partakes so much of alienation.  Then he becomes what he is:  an agent of annihilation.

In the assembly of protesters, his is the loud, irreconcilable voice.  In the peaceful demonstration, his is the hand heaving a Molotov cocktail through the shop window.  In confrontation with police, he is eager to shed blood.  In online forums, he is fertile with ideas to hack, expose, paralyze the institutions that run the world.  He is the bomber, the random shooter:  a terrorist without a cause.

I could go on.  He is possessed by a fuzzy but apocalyptic sense of doom, for example.  The world, he holds, is going to wreck and ruin.  To push it along is the best thing.  The government could fix everything and solve our problems if it tried – for all his alienation, the nihilist is convinced of that, and the most persuasive evidence he has of government corruption is that life keeps getting worse.

But enough:  I want to get to the heart of the matter.  I am arguing here that the nihilist haunts democratic politics like a specter portending disaster, but I don’t believe the most significant factor pertains to what he is, or what he thinks, or even what he has done.  The disquieting truth about his emergence is where he comes from.  The threat to the future, if there is such, originates in his past.

The nihilist benefits prodigiously from the system he would like to smash.  He’s not marginalized – not a street person, not a forsaken soul, not a persecuted minority.  He stands in a very different relation to the established order than did, say, an industrial worker in Victorian England or a Catholic in Communist Poland.  He’s not a sufferer in any sense, whether relative to historical standards or to the world today.  On meeting him, you would not recognize him as someone alien to you.  Talking to him, I would not necessarily think that he’s a different type of person from me.  In the way such things get reckoned today – statistically, in the gross – he is you and me.

The mortal riddle posed by the nihilist is that he’s a child of privilege.  He’s healthy, fit, long-lived, university-educated, articulate, fashionably attired, widely traveled, well-informed.  He lives in his own place or at worst in his parents’ home, never in a cave.  He probably has a good job and he certainly has money in his pocket.  In sum, he’s the pampered poster boy of a system that labors desperately to make him happy, yet his feelings about his life, his country, democracy – the system – seethe with a virulent unhappiness.

Feelings of this sort compelled Daphni Leef to pitch her tent on Rothschild Boulevard to demand the destruction of “swinish capitalism.”  She came from an affluent family.  She was a film school graduate and held a job as a video editor.  Compared to most people anywhere or anytime, hers was a privileged life.  Yet she seethed with a sense of injustice because he couldn’t afford her old apartment.  She felt the system was fundamentally rapacious, and she would bring it down to shorten her commute.  “We all deserve more,” was her one commandment.  In the clouded mind of the nihilist, that “more” stretched infinitely toward utopia.

Similar feelings drove the “neither-nor” indignados to turn their backs on representative democracy.  Historically, Spain had recently emerged from poverty and military dictatorship, and the current generation, even after the crash of 2008, was the wealthiest, best educated, and socially and politically freest the country had known.  Yet those who raised the banner of “neither-nor” seethed with an irreconcilable feeling of grievance:  like Leef, they felt they deserved infinitely more, and were willing to tear down a system that had failed to give it to them.

“Our parents are grateful because they’re voting,” said Marta Solanas, 27, referring to older Spaniards’ decades spent under the Franco dictatorship.  “We’re the first generation to say that voting is worthless.”

So here we have a privileged class in revolt against itself.  Here we have the beneficiaries of democracy loathing democracy and clamoring for its demise, even without an alternative in sight.  Like the character in the cartoon, the nihilist hates the knotty branch on which he sits, and conceives the idea that it should be sawed off.  Does he know he will plunge to earth and break his neck?  Maybe he does know:  nihilism is a suicide pact.  Or, possibly, does he think he will levitate on the air, defying the laws of gravity?  Maybe he does think this way:  nihilism is a call for the obliteration of history, and, at its most obdurate, a declaration of war on cause and effect.

I ask you to ponder the words of the young indignada I just cited.  She said her parents were grateful for electoral democracy.  Her generation was the first to make a virtue of ingratitude.  José Ortega y Gasset, a fellow Spaniard, once discerned a “radical ingratitude” in the type of modern person he called “mass man” and portrayed as the spoiled child of history.  Mass man is heir to a long and brilliant past.  The good things in life in the world he was born into – security, freedom, wealth, vacations to warm places – are in fact the outcome of a specific historical process, but mass man doesn’t see it that way.  Newly risen to education and prosperity, he imagines himself liberated from the past, and has grown hostile to it as to any limiting factor.  The good things in life have always been there.  They seem detached from human effort, including his own, so he takes them as given, part of the natural order, like the air he breathes.  Gratitude would be nonsensical.  Mass man accepts the gifts of the system as his due, but will tear up that system root and branch, present and past, if the least of his desires is left unfulfilled.

The nihilist is by no means identical to Ortega’s mass man, but both share certain family traits.  More accurately than alienation, a radical ingratitude describes the feeling that makes the nihilist tick.  His political and economic expectations are commensurate with his personal fantasies and desires, and the latter are boundless.  He expects perfection.  He insists on utopia.  He has, in Ortega’s words, “no experience of his own limits,” at least not as something he should accept in good grace.  Every encounter with the human condition, every social imperfection and government failure, triggers the urge to demolish.  Fortified by the conviction that he deserves more, he feels unconquerably righteous in his ingratitude – a feeling sometimes validated by late modernist governments bent on the promotion of universal happiness.

All this matters only diagnostically:  as a symptom of a sickness of the system.  The way I have characterized him, the nihilist looks to be a blurry figure, a part-timer lacking a program or an organization.  He might be networked but he is also nameless.  The riddle he poses is whether, in any sense, under any combination of events, he could gain enough momentum to damage or wreck the democratic process.

The answer shouldn’t be difficult to arrive at.  Follow the thread of this book to one possible conclusion, and you will be there.

The nihilist, it seems to me, isn’t necessarily an alienated individual, a clever “V” figure behind a Guy Fawkes mask, bent on blowing up the status quo.  A lone-wolf attacker like Anders Breivik, who killed 77 random persons in Norway because he hated immigrants, is only a glimpse, a warning, of more horrific possibilities.  From the evidence of the preceding chapters, it should be clear that the bundle of destructive impulses I have called the nihilist represents a latent tendency in the public in revolt.  Potentially, he is a multitude.  Under certain conditions, he could be you.

Every public in the story I have told mobilized from a privileged position.  That was true materially, politically, morally.  None were paupers.  None were pariahs.  The public was constituted in this condition:  it did nothing to achieve it other than appear on the scene.  The protesters in Tahrir Square were the sons and daughters of the well-off Egyptian middle class.  They were born to privilege.  The indignados, offspring of the first generation in Spain to rise out poverty and tyranny, cherished the ambitious expectations of a privileged class.  Tea Partiers, Occupiers, protesters in Turkey, Iran, Venezuela, Ukraine – all wielded negation as a birthright.  Command of the information sphere, distinguishing feature of our moment, was bestowed on the public by companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter.

Born to privilege, the public must maintain some relationship to the institutions and individuals that raised it out of necessity and bondage.  If the past is acknowledged, that relationship must be one of indebtedness.  The Romans littered their homes with carved images of illustrious ancestors.  But when, as is the case today, the public rejects history and longs to start again from zero, its relationship to the institutions that sustain it will be one of radical ingratitude.  Once privilege is felt to be natural, a matter of birth rather than previous effort, the phantom that is the nihilist becomes flesh in the rebellious public – and any failure, any fall from perfection, will ignite a firestorm of discontent.

I called this a latent condition.  Latency has been sometimes actualized – this book can be read as a series of variations on that theme.  From above, governments have failed habitually, and are doomed to fail while they continue to promise the impossible.  The public, from below, has seized on each failure to batter the ruling institutions, on occasion with a nihilistic contempt for the consequences.  In between, attempting to mediate the conflict, stand the clumsy mechanisms of representative democracy.  The answer to the riddle of the nihilist, I said, wasn’t particularly difficult to arrive at.  Those who worry about the future of democracy – and I count myself in that number – have good reason to do so.

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The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority

I have just published a book dealing with many of the themes that are discussed in this blog.  The title is The Revolt of the Public, the subtitle is The Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium, and the link to Amazon is below.

I expect readers of Fifth Wave will find it down their alley…


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The fall of the house of Graham

wapo cover 2

The Washington Post is my hometown newspaper.  I read it for many years as part of my daily routine, and until the paywall came down I continued to read the sports pages in search of tidbits about my beloved Washington Nationals.  The Post’s self-image is that of a feisty challenger to the New York Times – and like all number twos, it loves to think that it tries harder.

The paper was always a rich man’s plaything.  It was owned by a wealthy family whose name changed several times in four generations, but which, for some reason, is always referred to as “the Grahams.”  They owned other, more valuable properties, but it was the Post that bought them a walk on the red carpet.  In the capital city of the world’s greatest democracy, the Grahams were treated like royalty.  And no wonder:  they controlled the image of the invertebrate political population.

On 2 August, 2013, the Grahams sold the Washington Post to an even wealthier individual – Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon.  They kept their more profitable possessions:  only the newspaper was dumped.  In a hilarious journalistic moment, the Post itself reported the sale as “sudden and stunning,” and cited Donald Graham, the paper’s ex-CEO, as expressing “shock.”  It was as if the family had woken up in a strange bed with a $250 million check on the night table.  Not even the paper’s crusty beat reporters, whose gimlet-like eyes missed nothing, could account for this abrupt fall from grace.

The sale has stirred up the customary uproar about the future of newspapers and the merits of new media, as opposed to the more antiquated kind.  I will get back to that in a moment – briefly, which is all the subject deserves.  But first, a word about the Post’s place in the mythology of news

Newspapers like to tell a particular story about themselves.  In this tale, the public is helpless and ignorant, elected officials are cunning Machiavellians, and journalists serve as watchdogs to power while telling truth, like it or not, to the unwashed masses.  That this is false on all counts has never stopped people in the newspaper business from believing, on moral and political grounds, that the world will tumble into barbarism if they should ever lose their jobs.

The Post features in the only scrap of evidence ever produced in support of the story:  the paper’s role in the Watergate scandal that drove Richard Nixon from the presidency.  This is really a fable within a fable, one in which two cub reporters on the city beat, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, stumbled into a film noir of government conspiracies and, by following the money, saved the republic from an unspeakably Nixonian fate.  Woodward and Bernstein’s book, All the President’s Men, became a popular movie starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman.

That was the worst of it.  Nobody in the city of Washington DC is now or has ever been as handsome as Robert Redford or as good at acting as Dustin Hoffman.  Nobody here has ever said “follow the money” – people in government speak in pungent paragraphs, not punchy phrases.  As it happened, the Post’s part in Watergate was minor, and the movie, like most Hollywood concoctions, bore little relation to reality.  Yet to this day newspaper types confuse themselves with movie stars, and young people get lured in large numbers to journalism schools hoping to land a leading role in a Washington scandal.

Instead, those who actually seek employment with newspapers will land among the ruins, in the informational equivalent of the city of Detroit.  Let’s get real:  for all the talk of new media, the problem with newspapers isn’t that they are old or pretentious, but that they can’t make money in the marketplace.  Donald Graham admitted as much, stating that, under his family, the Post “could have survived” but not exactly thrived.  He was shedding risk – bolting out the back door while Robert Redford look-alikes lined up for jobs in the HR office.

Two days before the sale of the Post, the New York Times Company had engaged in the kind of cold-hearted business calculation it usually criticizes in the opinion pages, unloading the Boston Globe at a loss of over $1 billion.  And yes:  that’s “billion.”  The buyer was the owner of the Red Sox, who holds several ballplayers under bigger contracts than the $70 million price tag for the Globe.

The usual suspects offered up for the near-fatal mugging of the daily newspaper are the loss of advertisement to websites like Craigslist, and the unbundling of content in the age of Google and Facebook.  Both are guilty as charged.  Newspapers operated within local monopolies, and the digital invasion of this marketplace wrecked their business model beyond the possibility of repair.

Not that repairs haven’t been tried.  In June of this year, the Post swallowed hard and imitated Number One, the New York Times, by getting itself a paywall.  Here we have the answer to the digital revolution by America’s two great dailies:  build a wall.  It places them in the same class with China, Iran, and other despotic governments worried about too much free stuff confusing the rudimentary mind of the public.

Hiding behind a wall has never been the best strategy, under any circumstances.  Hiding behind a wall in the age of Google and Facebook, when the currency is attention, starts to resemble an early symptom of senile dementia.

Much has been made of Bezos’ official standing as a conquistador in the mysterious domains of the web – whether he’ll seek to ravage the dowdy Post, whether such excitement would be the work of the devil or just what the old girl needs.  This may matter to politicians who love to see their names in genuine dead-tree newsprint, but for the rest of us it’s a discussion empty of content.  Newspapers today are small potatoes.  The Washington Post is small potatoes.  So, for that matter, is the New York Times.  Those who think otherwise are persons of a certain age who view the world through layers of memory, as if from the wrong end of a telescope.

Bezos is a billionaire who bought himself a plaything from a family of multi-millionaires.  That is the future of the daily newspaper:  the sugar daddy, and all the metered intimacies such a relationship entails.  Bezos’ new toy, I expect, will bring him much personal gratification, and maybe an invitation or two to the White House, but it will be of little consequence to the future of truth, justice, and the American way.

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President Obama and the joy of negation

angry obama

President Obama has been mocked for having “community organizer” on his resume, but that particular job experience aligns him with the self-image of a rebellious public.  As can be seen from this application, the community organizer is expected to denounce, accuse, and demand change.  The change itself is pushed off to some other responsible party – usually a government agency.  The organizer deals in negation.  And negation – from the online rant and the Hollywood blockbuster to the Occupy and Tea Party movements – sums up the spirit of the digital age.  We are all against.

Recent mobilizations by the public have exploited a new strategic advantage:  control of the information sphere provided by digital platforms.  But the public on the march has also faced a strategic problem:  having originated in a political vacuum, it lacked a unifying organization, ideology, program, or plan.  The solution has been an unrelenting focus on the particular wrong or injustice under assault at the moment.  Negation, digitally amplified, has been the glue holding together a multifarious public.

Thus the protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square comprised many ideals and opinions, all united in hostility to the Mubarak regime.  The Tea Partiers opposed big government, exemplified by the stimulus and health care laws.  The Occupiers were against an economic system which favored the “one percent.”  Advocating a positive program would have shattered these groups:  participants felt energized by what they opposed, but were murky and divided about what they stood for.  Indeed, when circumstances demanded that they spell out an alternative to the status quo, all three faltered and splintered.

* * *

Barack Obama earned his political spurs as an opponent of the Iraq war, and was first elected to the presidency by running against the legacy of the Bush administration.  The moral vehemence of his condemnation, combined with his self-portrayal as a non-ideological, data-driven decider – rather than, say, the embodiment of a concrete program or philosophy – fit perfectly with the digital zeitgeist.  The 2008 Obama campaign enjoyed unparalleled success raising money and recruiting volunteers online.

The president ran as an insurgent from the Border, but it was clear that, initially, he wished to govern from the Center by implementing big programs in the tradition of FDR and LBJ.  This was a tricky pivot, and the president never managed to pull it off.  The programs he espoused became a drag on his popularity.  Those that were implemented into law, like the stimulus, sparked an uprising by the public which dismantled his ruling coalition in the 2010 midterm elections.

After the Democrat’s midterm disaster, President Obama reverted to form.  Whether by instinct or by plan, he resumed the posture of a righteous outsider calling out a corrupt establishment.  Few observers, then or now, grasped how deeply against the grain of history this approach was.  American presidents are expected to be doers and achievers – masters of legislation, policy, and politics.  President Obama seemed uninterested in fitting into that mold.  He had risen on a tidal wave of hostility against authority, and he had been smashed down when he, in turn, was perceived to be the authority.  The public was angry and disgusted with government.  He decided to be the voice of that anger and disgust – to embrace and reinforce the public’s distrust of the established order.

The president became chief accuser to the nation.  Liberated by the partisan divisions in Congress from the need to pursue a positive legislative program, he could wrap himself in the warm blanket of combative rhetoric, while ignoring the policy and political storms blowing outside the White House door.

The broad features of the Obama style can be identified in a recent address to Planned Parenthood.  The president first selects a divisive issue – in this case, abortion and birth control.  He then frames the question in terms of vague but powerful forces which wish to trample on the rights of ordinary citizens.  “Forty-two states,” he warns, “have introduced laws that would ban or severely restrict a woman’s right to choose.”  A new law in North Dakota he characterizes as “wrong, absurd… an assault on women’s rights.”  One would expect the president to argue at some length the case against this egregious injustice, name the culprits, and propose a fix.  But this is precisely where President Obama differs from his predecessors.  Despite the apparent severity of the assault on women’s rights, few specifics and no solutions are mentioned.

Here is how he concludes his remarks:  “I want you to know that you’ve also got a president who’s going to be right there with you fighting every step of the way.”  The battle and even the battleground appear to be rhetorical, but the implication seems to be that, without his accusatory voice, the anti-women forces would conspire in the shadows and triumph.

Between 2010 and the presidential elections in 2012, an astonishing number of circumstances earned President Obama’s condemnation.  I won’t dwell on them here, but all fit the same divisive “wedge” profile – the murder of Trayvon Martin, the inequities of the market system, the putative oppression of women, gays, illegal aliens.  In a remarkable maneuver, the president’s re-election campaign once again portrayed him as an insurgent battling the status quo.  His opponent, Mitt Romney, found that a successful career in business now condemned him to the sinister club which really ran the country.  The president, as accuser, could shrug off the burdens of incumbency.  He won re-election with relative ease.

* * *

That difficult time has now come for President Obama which many previous presidents endured in their second terms – what the news media loves to call “scandal.”  The Internal Revenue Service has admitted targeting, before the 2012 elections, the Tea Party groups which so tormented the Democrats in 2010.  The Department of Justice, in the pursuit of leaks, has been caught issuing subpoenas of unprecedented scope against journalists at AP and Fox News.  The killing of four American foreign service officers in our consulate in Benghazi, Libya, perpetrated under confused circumstances by Islamist attackers, still hovers like an uncertain rain cloud over the political landscape.

In each case, President Obama and his people have made a show of underlining the vast distance between the president’s chosen identity – Jeremiah chastising sinful Israel – and the dull machinery of government.  He was said to have learned about the IRS investigation on television news.  His senior staff supposedly had been informed earlier, but concluded that it was not a matter worthy of his attention.  A former aide blamed the misbehavior on “some folks down in the bureaucracy,” adding:  “Part of being president is there’s so much underneath you because government is so vast.”  The president himself asserted that he “certainly did not know anything” about the IRS report until it was “leaked to the press.”

In another politician, that would sound like an artful dodge.  With President Obama, if there is a dodge, it’s altogether on a grander scale.  Although the highest political authority in the land, he has won two presidential elections by his rhetorical separation from all authority.  He’s a man of negation:  a prophet in the wilderness.  For the president and his inner circle, the government exists an immense moral distance “underneath” them, and is staffed by grubby little people who often abuse their perquisites and thus deserve the mistrust of the public.

A critic of the president sees in his current predicament a crisis of authority.  But such a crisis preceded and will outlast this administration.  President Obama’s contribution has been an uncanny ability to de-legitimize authority from the top of the political pyramid.

Some of his supporters perceive in all the talk of scandal a crisis of democracy.  That may well be at hand, but for reasons that have nothing to do with the wins and losses scored by one president – and those who blame democracy for political setbacks aren’t exactly working to stave off the crisis.

Most surprising has been the shock President Obama’s detachment from the levers of government has caused among people generally friendly to his administration.  These people had believed the president to be a promoter of big programs and activist government – the Obama of 2008-2010 – and consider his present passivity something of an abdication.  Thus Dana Milbank chided “Obama, the uninterested president” in the Washington Post.  Calling him “President Passerby,” Milbank noted that he “wants no control over the actions of his administration.”  New Yorker made the same point in a brutally funny satire titled “Obama Denies Role in Government.”

President Obama used his weekly radio address on Saturday to reassure the American people that he has “played no role whatsoever” in the US government over the past four years.

“Right now, many of you are angry at the government, and no one is angrier than I am,” he said.  “Quite frankly, I am glad that I have had no involvement in such an organization.” [. . .]

Mr. Obama closed his address by indicating that beginning next week he would enforce what he called a “zero tolerance policy on governing.”

“If I find that any members of my Administration have had any intimate knowledge of, or participation in, the workings of the US government, they will be dealt with accordingly,” he said.

But it is precisely the divide between the accuser, wielding a rhetoric of denunciation, and the office-holder, stuck with decisions and revisions at the center of a paralytic bureaucracy, which has enabled President Obama to survive the public’s relentless assault against authority.  The cost to democracy and to government itself can be debated, but it seems contrived to ask that the president in his hour of trouble become something other than the rhetorical phantom he has so successfully represented for years.

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Henry Farrell and the politics of despair

Henry Farrell

Henry Farrell

The great vectors of change today are technological and cultural rather than political.  Digital platforms give force to a mutinous public, which has trampled with muddy boots into the sacred precincts of authority.  The established order has reacted with fear and confusion.  Politics, ultimate form of authority, is now stuck in the muck.

In democratic countries, among people who believe that the good life can only be attained by means of political change, this has inspired a deep pessimism verging on despair.  In many, contempt for electoral politics has curdled into condemnation of democracy.  These critics come from every point of the ideological compass, though the loudest and most tortured, it seems to me, belong to the traditional left.  All share an obsession with politics and a peculiar blindness to the changes around them.

Exhibit one for the politics of despair is this lamentation in Aeon.  Its author, Irish-born Henry Farrell, is an academic, a blogger, and a man of the left:  and he thinks liberal democracy has failed.

The Public Can Be Up, Even When the Left Is Down

Farrell holds to an old-fashioned, party-mediated notion of how the public relates to power.  Specifically, only the parties of the left can defend the public’s interests against predatory private factions.  Thus the failure of democracy must be a consequence of the left’s defection from its historic mission.

At the heart of the problem is the utter paralysis of government.  Political authority, on which Farrell, as a good social democrat, counts to regulate many aspects of life, appears exhausted, almost brain dead.  The cause is obvious to him and standard to those who share his views.  Cozy relations with “business” and the “private sector,” always prevalent on the right, now supersede loyalty to the public among politicians of the left.  “As left and right grow ever more disconnected from the public and ever closer to one another,” Farrell concludes, “elections have become exercises in branding rather than substantive choices.”

I take the crisis of government to be a fact beyond dispute.  Farrell, however, gets the arrow of causation exactly wrong:  it’s the revolt of the public – its strength rather than its weakness – that is responsible for political paralysis.  This is usually the case with democracies.  “The people have acquired power which they are incapable of exercising,” Walter Lippmann warned long ago, “and the governments they elect have lost powers they must recover if they are to govern.”  Evidence of the public’s muscular application of power can be found everywhere – Farrell even cites some instances of it, like the rise of the “Five Star” movement in Italy.

An antiquated conceptual apparatus can blind an observer to the reality around him.  By squeezing the turmoil of the digital age into an opposition of “left” and “right,” Farrell appears at times to be performing some inscrutable ritual:  to genuflect before a non-explanation.  Do left and right still have meaning today?  Consider the 2011 uprising in Egypt.  Mubarak, authoritarian and supposedly business friendly, might be tagged a ruler of the right.  Does that make the protesters who overthrew him people of the left?  Where, in the binary equation, does the Muslim Brotherhood fit?  What of the Salafi religious parties?  Like the old Latin mass, the rhetoric of the French Revolution may provide a sense of identity for some groups, but it is wholly inadequate to analyze current sociopolitical developments.

Beyond left and right, in democratic and authoritarian countries, the public is alienated, angry, and on the march.  The system of government matters little.  It is modern government as such that is on trial.  The rebellious public has no need for the traditional parties of the left, and in fact considers these, rightly, to be part of the authority structure it despises.  Movements like the Five Star in Italy and the Indignados in Spain have trapped the old left in a room with the walls closing in, Star Wars style.

These movements share a willful disregard of programmatic coherence.  Their rhetoric betrays distant socialist (or anarchist, or libertarian) origins, but their motive drive is negation:  anti-structure (government first of all, but also political parties and any form of organization), anti-ideology, anti-program.  The public opposes but will not propose.

Metaphor for the traditional left...

Metaphor for the traditional left…

Inclusion Can Mean Alienation If We Don’t Like Ourselves

In the story he tells about the failure of democratic politics, Farrell follows Colin Crouch, author of Post-Democracy.  I have not read the book, but according to Farrell it traces the history of democracy as an “arc.”  At first, most people were excluded from participation in government.  Over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, popular power grew, reaching a zenith “at some point shortly after the end of the Second World War” – a time when, apparently, “ordinary people” were “able to determine their fate through the electoral process,” and markets “were subordinate to politics, not the other way around.”

Globalization, Crouch claims, destroyed this golden age.  Rather than control the power of corporations, governments now “ape” them, privatizing services.  The state has become dependent on, and ultimately indistinguishable from, the business world.  Individual politicians leverage corporate wealth to disconnect from their own parties and constituents.  Democratic politics bend to selfish interests.  The public is alienated precisely because it has lost control of its political destiny.

Concocting an “imagined past,” Fritz Stern once observed, is a sure manifestation of cultural despair.  Crouch’s arc of inclusion seems to climax during the era of Jim Crow in the US South and the ration card in Britain (not to mention the misery exemplified by The Bicycle Thieves in Italy).  Let me suggest that a far more persuasive trajectory for the history of democracy can be found in Pierre Rosanvallon’s Counter-Democracy.

The process of democratic inclusion didn’t mysteriously abort around 1945 – many notable advances, such as affirmative action and proportional representation, came much later.  Rosanvallon contends that inclusion and alienation have progressed in lockstep.  This is not a paradox, but cause and effect.  Implicit in the long struggle for universal suffrage was the promise that, once all the people were included, something magical would happen:  the good society.  But nothing remotely magical happened.  Nothing changed.  Instead, we were left with our own imperfect selves, muddling through the necessarily procedural and uninspiring machinery of representative government.

I believe with Rosanvallon that the “disenchantment” of self-recognition in the mirror of electoral politics gave rise to an “age of distrust” – the genesis of the public as such.

It is that age, with its ceaseless “vigilance” and “denunciation” of political authority, which we now inhabit.  A host of permanent informal structures, like NGOs, smother the institutions of liberal democracy.  Their message is entirely critical.  More spontaneous eruptions of the public into the political arena are inspired by hostility to specific regimes, policies, or events.  Such protests are fueled by negation and amplified digitally.  New technologies give the public new power over the information sphere, magnifying the din of oppositional voices and greatly increasing their reach.  This strategic reversal has frightened elected officials into a defensive crouch.  The most successful among them have decided, probably correctly, that governing in the age of distrust means avoiding culpability.  Hence the barrenness of politics and the paralysis of government.

The End of Revolution Can Cause Terminal Despair

Farrell saves his profoundest despair for the inability of the left to conceive new programs and policies.  He observes that Europe’s social democrats, when in opposition, “don’t know what to offer voters.  Where they are in power, they don’t know how to use it.”   Closer to home, the Democratic Party also has had “enormous difficulty in spelling out a new agenda.”  The reasons for this curious sterility he never directly addresses – corruption by capitalism, we are to assume, must be behind it.

Again, Rosanvallon has a more interesting thesis.  The ideological silence of the left, he suggests, can be traced to a drastic change in what it means to be “radical.”  A generation ago it meant faith in revolution.  All of the left’s programs and policies aimed at a transcendent purpose:  to make the world anew. The debate was whether revolution should be achieved violently, in “one long night” which transformed human relations, or by means of incremental reforms.

That faith is gone.  Revolution is neither believed in as a possibility nor desired as an outcome:  on this point, Farrell and Rosanvallon agree.  “The people are omnipresent and no longer content with making their voice heard only on election day,” the latter writes.  “Yet no one believes any longer in the idea of an alternative to the status quo.”  While communism’s fall from grace in 1989 is in part responsible for the demise of revolution as a political ideal, a more important reason, Rosanvallon maintains, is the character of the intrusive public.

The public suffers from a sort of attention deficit disorder:  it never perceives a big picture and will only mobilize on a “case by case” basis.  Rather than overthrow the established order, the public in revolt seeks to control the government’s actions toward the specific case which has engaged its energies.  And it does so by force of negation.  Left radicalism, which once aimed to transform society, now more modestly (but also more successfully) labors to browbeat democratic governments into acknowledging an endless string of failures in need of correction.  “To be radical,” Rosavallon affirms, “is to point the finger of blame every day; it is to twist a knife in each of society’s wounds.  It is not to aim a cannon at the citadel of power in preparation for a final assault.”  For the radicals of the new millennium, it would be an embarrassment to be caught advocating positive programs or policies.

Revolution is an ideal grounded in utopian optimism.  Hopelessness drives prophets to the wilderness, to feed on locusts and wild honey and dream of a messiah.  Farrell’s portrayal of the “post-democratic” parties of the left shows them sickened by their own paralysis and self-betrayal, embracing vague messianic dreams.

The problem that the center-left now faces is not that it wants to make difficult or unpopular choices.  It is that no real choices remain.  It is lost in the maze, able neither to reach out to its traditional base (which are largely dying or alienated from it anyway) nor to propose grand new initiatives, the state no longer having the tools to implement them.  When the important decisions are all made outside of democratic politics, the center-left can only keep going through the ritualistic motions of democracy, all the while praying for intercession.

Who or what will do the interceding so devoutly wished for is not a trivial question, particularly for those of us still clinging to a naïve faith in liberal democracy.  Wistfully to fantasize, as Farrell does, about a “collapse” in “the systems of unrule governing the world” and “some great reversal in the order of things,” is unthinking enough.  But longing for a world-historical redeemer – to drag Fritz Stern into this discussion one last time:  a fuehrer who will say to the body politic, “Arise and walk” – was always a symptom of terminal pathology in the politics of cultural despair.

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