State of the Union

What Ferguson Has Revealed

“Whatever happened to Michael Brown in the moments before he died has become secondary to what the response to his death has revealed,” Jelani Cobb wrote in The New Yorker. Since a police officer shot and killed the unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9, the shooting—and the vigils, looting, volunteer cleanup, peaceful protests, and overwhelmingly disproportionate police response—has become a national microcosm of urban racial injustice and what is being called the “militarization” of police forces.

Deadspin’Greg Howard summarized the tensions at play:

If officers are soldiers, it follows that the neighborhoods they patrol are battlefields. And if they’re working battlefields, it follows that the population is the enemy. And because of correlations, rooted in historical injustice, between crime and income and income and race, the enemy population will consist largely of people of color, and especially of black men. Throughout the country, police officers are capturing, imprisoning, and killing black males at a ridiculous clip, waging a very literal war on people like Michael Brown.

That war is enabled by military-grade weaponry available to police since the 1990s under the Department of Defense’s Defense Logistics Agency and the “section 1033” program over which it presides. In Rise of the Warrior CopJohn Payne explained earlier this year, journalist Radley Balko makes the case that the Founders would have seen that kind of militarized police as an unconstitutional standing army. Balko wrote, “Just before the American Revolution, it wasn’t the stationing of British troops in the colonies that irked patriots in Boston and Virginia; it was the England’s decision to use the troops for everyday law enforcement.”

Indeed, to many, the scenes of tear gas seemed more like images from Iraq and Afghanistan than suburban St. Louis (even though tear gas is illegal in warfare, if legal domestically). Jamelle Bouie, writing for Slate, was among them:

This would be one thing if Ferguson were in a war zone, or if protesters were violent—although, it’s hard to imagine a situation in which American police would need a mine-resistant vehicle. But an episode of looting aside, Ferguson police aren’t dealing with any particular danger. Nonetheless, they’re treating demonstrators—and Ferguson residents writ large—as a population to occupy, not citizens to protect.

Veterans spoke out against “militarized” police action in Ferguson on TwitterJason Fritz observed, “As someone who studies policing in conflict, what’s going on Ferguson isn’t just immoral and probably unconstitutional, it’s ineffective.”

Adam Weinstein put it more bluntly at Gawker. “The U.S. armed forces exercise more discipline and compassion than these cops.” He cites the first page of the Army’s field manual on civil disturbances, which emphasizes proportional, nuanced responses. “Inciting a crowd to violence or a greater intensity of violence by using severe enforcement tactics must be avoided.” The manual also notes that “highly emotional social and economic issues” inform such disturbances, and that “it takes a small (seemingly minor) incident” to set off violence “if community relations with authorities are strained.”

Unlike the military, who are trained in nonviolent options for conflict resolution, the police often lack such knowledge. Bonnie Kristian expounded this failure and reasons behind systematic police brutality earlier this summer, noting also that cops are rarely held accountable for abuse. “Only one out of every three accused cops are convicted nationwide, while the conviction rate for civilians is literally double that.”

The entrenched racial injustice behind Michael Brown’s death will be difficult to root out, as it has been over centuries of American history. But the decades of policy that allowed for police abuse of Brown, and his town’s peaceful protesters, could be reversed—and if the public outcry over Ferguson is anything to judge by, Americans will be keeping a closer eye on the police in the coming years.

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Iraqi-American Christians Pray, and Protest, for Peace

As the Islamic State forces northern Iraq’s religious minorities—Christians, Shia Muslims, and Yazidis—to flee, convert, or die, the United States has begun dropping humanitarian aid as well as bombs in an effort to stave off genocide, despite many Americans’ trepidation at getting involved in Iraq again. But many Iraqi-Americans, especially members of the Chaldean Catholic community, have long been protesting and praying for some kind of action.

Chaldean Catholics have a long history in the United States, but their numbers have been growing in past decades as they have fled from aggressors in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and the Islamic State alike. The American Spectator’s Lucy Schouten recalled their exodus:

Most [U.S. refugees] joined the Chaldean Christian community in Michigan, which began in the 1870s. They had helped build the automobile industry, saving factory wages to bring family members to the land of opportunity. The Detroit community of Chaldeans now numbers 200,000 and has associations for every profession from pharmaceutics to CPAs.

The Iraqi Christians were an enterprising group and established smaller communities in San Diego, Chicago, Arizona, and Las Vegas, while maintaining ties to faith, family, and their home country community.

That community continued to grow and flourish even after the war ended, although, as Schouten put it, “most Americans would not now call Detroit a land of opportunity.”

Now, the community has come together to support family and friends across the ocean. The federal building in downtown Detroit has seen several rallies over the past two weeks. An August 1 procession saw a thousand Iraqi-Americans pray for peace while carrying a large cross around Mother of God Chaldean Church in Southfield. The Detroit Chaldean community has raised tens of thousands of dollars for humanitarian aid in Iraq through parish collections and a new online diocesan initiative, HelpIraq.org.

Detroit Chaldeans have partnered with their smaller, but just as active, brethren in California to raise awareness. San Diego’s “Little Baghdad” neighborhood in El Cajón is home to the second largest Iraqi-American community, including vibrant activists from protest rappers to visiting Iraq-based nuns. Many members of the community have family and friends suffering back in Iraq, and local doctor John Kasawa has noted an uptick in anxiety and depression in the neighborhood as the violence takes a toll “on the collective conscious.”

Little Baghdad’s most visible leader is local entrepreneur and Ending Genocide in Iraq spokesman Mark Arabo, who had been working with Congress and the administration on anti-genocide action and humanitarian aid for months before news of the airstrikes came last week. He now plans to go to the United Nations, where he hopes to convince leaders to give asylum to the nearly half-million newly displaced Iraqi Christians. Meanwhile, some are already preparing for new arrivals in San Diego.

Arabo has described the decision the U.S. faces in Iraq as “an honorable predicament.” In considering the extent of military intervention, the U.S. is “specially positioned to be viewed as a failure for foreign inaction, and ‘imperialist’ for our willingness to act,” he said. “I tend to view our foreign role as a nation of great power, blessed with a moral obligation to enact change on a global scale. This, I must stress, is a blessing.”

Not all members of the Chaldean community agree. “We do not want to see American [sic] involved in a third war in Iraq, Gulf War 3.0. We don’t want that,” Bishop Bawai Soro of the San Diego Chaldean diocese told local news. “At the same time, we want ISIS to be stopped.”

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Google Tries to Conquer the Typography of a Non-English Internet

Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Noto Sans (English, simplified Chinese, Russian). via Catherine Addington
Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Noto Sans (English, simplified Chinese, Russian). via Catherine Addington

The Internet is no longer in English, even if the coding on its back end still largely is. That’s what MIT’s Ethan Zuckerman has concluded as online language diversity has increased over the past decade, from Facebook posts in Afrikaans to tweets in Zulu. But the typographical design world that brings online text to life has lagged behind, producing endless variations on the Latin script used in English (like the documentary-inspiring Helvetica and the font you’re reading right now, Georgia) but far fewer for other languages.

The result is an increasingly bilingual, but visually clunky, Internet that looks like this:

Google is looking to streamline that with its Noto project (so named for its goal, “no tofu,” a reference to the tiny squares that pop up for unsupported scripts). A new, free font family that “aims to support all the world’s languages” for use in web pages and URLs, Noto already supports over 100 scripts (and the 600 written languages they facilitate) from Cherokee to cuneiform. Some of the project’s efforts have been applauded, such as their rejection of Han unification, which detrimentally conflates chunks of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean scripts.

Noto’s inclusion of endangered languages like Inuktitut (an indigenous Canadian languages which has under 40,000 speakers) and Tlingit (an Alaska Native language with just about 1,000 speakers) has also won praise. But since Noto has thus far failed to tackle far more widely-used languages, some are questioning Google’s priorities. For instance, Noto cannot yet be used to type in Oriya, an Indian language with over 30 million speakers, or the nastaliq script used by Urdu speakers.

Ali Eteraz, a Pakistani-American writer campaigning for the online inclusion of nastaliq, has summarized concerns with Noto by saying, “Language is the building block of people’s identities all around the world, and Google is basically saying that, ‘We got this.’ …Whether that strikes you as hubris or whether it’s noble depends on whether they pull it off.”

When it comes to hubris, Google can learn from its own past exploits, as Kevin Roose recounts Google’s struggle to design a suitable universal font for its Android products. The main challenge, Roose notes, is that “unlike most innovations in computing, typeface design doesn’t succeed by grabbing your eye.” Writing all the world’s languages in one style is challenging enough, but doing it in a way that looks good across the Internet—no matter what size screen, or with what resolution, it is accessed—compounds the design challenge.

Noto won’t turn the web’s words uniform overnight. But it is a sign of a permanently multilingual Internet, and the challenges of creating a truly global product.

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What Argentina’s Default Means for the Rest of Us

Argentina has defaulted eight times in its 200-year history, the latest coming on Thursday after a bizarre legal saga that left Argentine sovereign debt in the hands of a Manhattan federal district judge.

Judge Thomas Griesa ruled that Argentina could not make its next payment on restructured debt from its 2001 default—money that is already sitting in the New York bank in charge of mediating the payments—until including another set of bondholders in that exchange. That second set of bondholders, representing only seven percent of Argentina’s creditors, consists of hedge funds represented by Elliott Management’s NML Capital. The funds bought Argentine bonds as the country’s economy spiraled downwards, and they rejected the restructuring, holding out for the bonds’ full original value.

The Supreme Court refused to review Griesa’s decision, while also permitting bondholders to issue subpoenas in order to locate Argentine assets abroad. Argentina refused to pay, as negotiations failed and the country defaulted on its debt last Thursday at midnight. Argentina’s standing in international debt markets, not to mention its domestic economy, is so bad that very little has actually happened as a consequence.

Since its 2001 default, Argentina has been experiencing inflation, recession, and exclusion from international capital markets. None of that has changed, though it is slightly accelerating. Argentines, many of whom lost their savings 13 years ago, have long turned to the U.S. dollar as the under-the-table currency of choice, as Argentina’s own peso is worth less and less every year. Last week’s default is practically a laughing matter in the Argentine papers, perennially full of bad economic news. The ever-opportunistic administration of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has railed against American injustice rather than making any attempt to minimize the harm.

The case’s international ramifications are even less dramatic, despite concerns over the future of creditors’ rights in debt markets. Peter Eavis and Alexandra Stevenson suggested that “the Argentine dispute will make it much harder for indebted countries to cut their obligations to manageable levels,” since investors now have a greater incentive to demand better deals from countries in crisis. But Hung Tran suggests such worries may be overblown due to the very limited and particular nature of this dispute. In fact, the likeliest outcome is mainly an international study session. After seeing such a small economic problem threatened to cause such a large one in Argentina, countries will likely look to clean up and clarify pari passu clauses, the legal mandate for “equal treatment” in debt repayments that caused the Argentine problem in the first place.

To that end, Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz called for a global system of debt restructuring. Calling the hedge funds “vultures”—as the Argentine press has—Stiglitz said that the investors had no interests in the country other than to profit from its demise, and that should have consequences. Read More…

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Selfies for Uncle Sam

If you use social media or have a smartphone, chances are you’ve encountered facial recognition technology. FRT allows computers to recognize pixel patterns that suggest human faces, allowing selfie-taking cameras to mugshot-filled databases alike to distinguish when they are looking at human faces. Even though it is fairly commonplace, some would rather avoid it, leading to one journalist’s experiment with clownish black-and-white makeup on the streets of D.C.

Robinson Meyer, an associate editor at The Atlantic, tried a camouflage technique called computer-vision dazzle, or “CV dazzle,” which uses face paint and hairstyling to stymie FRT. The makeup deceives FRT by obscuring the eyes, symmetry, and the nose bridge, among other features that characterize the face. “Here was a technology that confounded computers with light and color,” Meyer reflected. But as he learned, CV dazzle is far from a guarantor of privacy. “The very thing that makes you invisible to computers makes you glaringly obvious to other humans.”

Nancy Szokan alarmingly theorized that Meyer’s camouflage experiment is “something a terrorist might want to do”: escaping government surveillance. But in reality, Meyer’s experiment mainly resulted in evading Facebook auto-tagging, a seemingly tame privacy threat. FRT is routinely employed in the private sector beyond social media, from catching cheating gamblers to providing security at large sporting events like the Super Bowl. Now, its capacity to foretell age has stirred interest in insurance companies, while its real-time entrepreneurial applications are being explored by advertisers.

But when it comes to FRT falling into the wrong hands, concerns are generally directed at the authorities rather than vice versa. Though FRT has existed in its most basic form since the 1960s, it has blossomed under the biometrics industry fueled by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the need to identify local populations induced the military development of portable biometrics systems. The government has enthusiastically inserted FRT into more routine use with increasing success: it shows up alongside other biometrics at airports and is now being introduced into police detective use. As Sameer Padania noted at Witness.org, “Law enforcement and security services particularly like FRT, as it does not require consent or knowledge of the subject being processed – unlike finger-printing, iris-scanning or similar biometric technologies, this can be done at a distance.”

It’s not the technology that is a major concern, Padania went on.

What’s new is this: this technology, which used to be accessible only to a few agencies, is now being used voluntarily, and unwittingly by millions of us through our use of social media. Our willingness to tag people in photos, and rapid advances in computer vision and object recognition have accelerated the use of FRT. We share so many images now that Facebook has, as this chart shows, the largest photo collection in history.

This voluntary engagement with FRT, which facilitates its intersection of cloud computing, is where change is beginning to occur. Jared Keller explained that the public’s increasing tech savviness opens the doors to “criminal, fraudulent, or extralegal ends” that are “as alarming as the potential for government abuse.” When private citizens organized a Google group to combine FRT with public records in search of identifying London rioters, they illustrated a new model of digital vigilantism.

The question, Keller says, is not how to escape FRT, whether donning masks or makeup. The question is how to live with it. “No matter what you choose to do or not to do, your life exists in the cloud. …Your digital life is becoming inseparable from your analog one. You may be able to change your name or scrub your social networking profiles to throw off the trail of digital footprints you’ve inadvertently scattered across the Internet, but you can’t change your face. And the cloud never forgets a face.”

CV dazzle may not become haute couture overnight. But surrendering selfies to Uncle Sam might, without anyone noticing.


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Derek Khanna Talks Cellphone Unlocking Victory, Copyright

After a popular online campaign to legalize cellphone unlocking, which allows a consumer to change the settings on a phone in order to use it on a different wireless network, the president is about to sign the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act into law. It will legalize unlocking until the Librarian of Congress, who administers the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, reviews exemptions again next year.

The law is a significant victory for copyright reform activists like Derek Khanna, whose 2012 memo for the Republican Study Committee on how current copyright law stifles the free market set the tone for reform (after it got him fired). Khanna has called the ban on cellphone unlocking a denial of “a fundamental tenet of property rights; which is the ability to modify your own property.”

I spoke to Khanna to learn more about where the copyright reform movement will go from here.

A Democratic president standing up for consumer choice certainly represents a sort of conversational victory, but the law itself is something of a temporary fix. Are you happy with how the bill turned out?

Yes. It’s a short-term bill—this needed to be addressed urgently—but at the same time, Congress is considering other long-term fixes. To that end, there are ongoing copyright hearings in the House Judiciary Committee.

The tech field is fast-paced, while American government is purposefully slow-moving by design and by politics. How can Congress ensure the laws are keeping pace with the technologies they regulate?

The particular problem is that Washington hears only one narrow perspective on these issues. A lot of what I call “the forces of the status quo” have lobbyists that make their voices heard. Entrepreneurs and smaller business owners aren’t really being represented, so in Washington they almost don’t know what their regulations are preventing.

As you noted in your cover story for TAC earlier this summer, Republicans only took action on this legislation after the White Houses endorsement, which in turn followed a public outpouring of support. Will it always take that kind of massive push to get congressional Republicans to move forward on regulatory reform?

I hope not. I hope Republicans take the initiative. Our whole campaign here was based on the free market, which Republicans run on across the country. But they’re one step behind on technology, which is a shame, because that’s where the modern economy is.

But they’re starting to turn around on this. Congressmen like Thomas Massie and Jason Chaffetz are real leaders on this issue. The Young Guns Network, which represents Kevin McCarthy, Paul Ryan, and Eric Cantor, included a section on regulatory reform in their “Room to Grow” report. It goes out of the way to say we need wholesale copyright reform and makes a very enthusiastic plea for IP reform. It even directly cites my RSC memo. So these things take a long time, but there are real successes.

Tech policy is a straightforward way to win over the youth vote, but Republicans don’t seem to have noticed. Do you think that disconnect is purely generational? Can young conservatives just hope the party grows out of it?

I don’t know if it’s generational, but I know that it’s changing.

According to the College Republicans National Committee, in 2012, “young people simply felt the GOP had nothing to offer.” Kristen Soltis Anderson concluded, “There is a brand. …And it’s that we’re not in the 21st century.” That’s pretty stark. But the thing that polls best among young people is talking about innovation and technology. This isn’t just good policy, it’s good politics.

Those congressional offices never knew what hit them with SOPA/PIPA. For some people that was a seminal experience, the first time they had ever engaged in the political process and were able to make a change. And now with unlocking we have the first time an online campaign was able to actually introduce legislation. There is a whole generation of people who see these policies as really stifling innovation.

What’s next for copyright reformers?

There is a lot of work to be done in copyright reform still. How long should copyright terms be? The founders set it at 14 years and today it can be over 120. That’s kind of ridiculous in a world where every text, every tweet, every Facebook post is copyrighted longer than anyone who writes them will ever live.

The phone unlocking bill is great. But other issues are very closely related and if Congress doesn’t act soon, we’re going to see the ‘Internet of things’ collapse. A great example is that the next Keurig coffee machine is expected to have a digital chip technology built in such that you can’t use any other coffee pod. It would be a felony to use any other coffee pod with it! The technology would be used to stifle competition in the coffee market. This is just the tip of the iceberg because the benefits for existing businesses are overwhelming.

Any final thoughts?

There has been a sea of change in policymaking on copyright on the right since 2012, it’s almost impossible to find any conservatives, other than lobbyists for industry, opposed to substantial reform. The conservative position is we need to restore our founding principles on copyright.


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The Ethics of Disability Metaphors

From the teenage romance between an amputee and an oxygen-tank user in the box-office success The Fault in Our Stars to the conjoined sisters at the circus in the Kennedy Center’s Side Show, representations of disability and difference are prominent as of late. But as Christopher Shinn noted yesterday at The Atlantic, the recent plethora of disabled characters also has another thing in common: they are played by able-bodied actors. Once again, Shinn said, “Pop culture’s more interested in disability as a metaphor than in disability as something that happens to real people.”

Disability is often used as a metaphor for exclusion and subsequent triumph, themes easier to swallow when an actor twitches sensitively across the stage for two hours only to walk back calmly for the curtain call. So it goes exactly in the production of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” at London’s National Theatre, currently showing in cinemas worldwide before it heads to Broadway in the fall.

Based on a popular 2003 novel by Mark Haddon, “Curious Incident” is a family drama packaged as a mystery. It is seen from the perspective of a teenager named Christopher with an autistic spectrum disorder that some reviewers have compared to Asperger’s syndrome. The production uses technical elements, from cool blue lighting to projected numerical graphics to dizzying synthesized sound effects, in order to communicate the experience of sensory overload that accompanies neurological conditions like Christopher’s.

Because this manner of presentation merely informs the audience’s experience of a rather simple plot—the titular incident is a quickly resolved mystery, and most of the second act is a train ride—the play, like the book, seems to run counter to the frequent use of disability as plot obstacle and metaphor for triumph. In fact, Christopher remarks that a metaphor “is when you describe something by using a word for something that it isn’t. … I think it should be called a lie because a pig is not like a day and people do not have skeletons in their cupboards.”

But in the program note for the stage adaptation of “Curious Incident,” Haddon backtracked. Jane Shilling wrote in her review for The Telegraph, “His 15-year-old protagonist, Christopher, exhibits a constellation of quirks that are recognisably on the autistic spectrum, but his behavioural problems are also a metaphor for the solitariness of the human condition. ‘Curious is not really about Christopher,’ Haddon concludes. ‘It’s about us.’”

In navigating the ethical implications of work like Haddon’s, blogger Mary Maxfield suggested that the problem is not using disability as a metaphor, but using disability as a metaphor for the wrong thing. Christopher, a beloved son integrated into his family and school structures, does not fit Shilling’s metaphor for solitariness. Likewise, Haddon’s editorial “us,” unambiguously separated from people with physical and neurological differences, would have the value of certain lived experiences dependent on their contribution to a grander “human experience.”

As Shinn asserts, the inclusion of disabled actors and artists can bring lived experience rather than distant research to the table and facilitate the kind of responsible art Maxfield imagines. But a willingness to tell stories that are about disabled people for their own sake, rather than about disability per se, would be an even more welcome change.


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Autonomy and Automation in Old Age

The world’s fast-growing elderly population faces more age-related disease, higher health costs, and fewer children to care for them than ever, while the resulting caregiver shortage puts them at an increased risk of abuse and neglect. Some medical professionals, like geriatrics professor Louise Aronson, are proposing robots as a solution to both assist overwhelmed human caregivers and replace those guilty of mistreatment, as “most of us do not live in an ideal world, and a reliable robot may be better than an unreliable or abusive person, or than no one at all.”

Aronson’s robotic geriatrics are no fantasy but an existing solution in places like Japan, which has the world’s grayest population and the economic resources available for $100K, yard-tall robots to be feasible. Yet Japan’s relationship with robots shows that making robot caregivers cheaper might not make them any more successful. Japan’s elderly have rejected the robots, asking instead for humans. The only robots with modest success among Japanese elderly have imitated pets, providing limited social engagement rather than medical care and companionship—tasks still preferably assigned to human caregivers.

As Japan shows, the robot caregiver solution does not fail on economic or technological grounds, where boundaries are largely surmountable with time. Rather, turning an intimate job like geriatrics into an automated service sector is a misunderstanding of the profession at hand, which requires both emotional and ethical investment in patients.

Caitrin Nicol Keiper, countering David Levy’s Love and Sex with Robots, explained that such encouragement of human-robot intimacy stems from a misunderstanding of the human as mere biochemical machine. The caregiver shortage does not merely stem from a lack of medical aides to perform mechanical tasks, but also an absence of loving companions who ensure the experience of disability and old age is not a solitary one. These robots, after all, are often explicitly designed to counter the negative health effects of loneliness.

But that loneliness has been cemented in a medical and legal culture that is guided above all else by the principle of individual bodily autonomy. Advance directives and living wills allow patients to lay out their medical decisions ahead of time, discouraging the real-time participation of family members or other caregivers in the medical lives of the elderly. As Leon Kass, then chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics, reflected in a 2005 report on geriatrics, “Living wills make autonomy and self-determination the primary values at a time of life when one is no longer autonomous or self-determining, and when what one needs is loyal and loving care.”

This cultural reluctance to participate communally in the care of the elderly often expresses itself as avoiding the “burdening” of loved ones. But as Gilbert Meilaender asked in 1991, “Is this not in large measure what it means to belong to a family: to burden each other and to find, almost miraculously, that others are willing, even happy, to carry such burdens?” He continued, “I have tried, subject to my limits and weaknesses, to teach that lesson to my children. Perhaps I will teach it best when I am a burden to them in my dying.”

As Meilaender and Kass suggest, the central problem is not medical incompetence, or even moral indifference, but a break in generational relationships. Neither the elderly nor their medical professionals want them to be dependent on robots rather than people, but, especially among the childless or otherwise socially disconnected, the aged may have little choice. As such, the inhumanity of Aronson’s geriatrics may not be a particularly medical problem, but a social problem. As long as we culturally insist on autonomy, we will technologically insist on automation.


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Congressional Quirkiness on Display @CongressEdits

Twitter has revolutionized the way constituents interact with their representatives in Congress. Will Wikipedia be the next interactive legislative platform?

If developer and Library of Congress employee Ed Summers’ ideas take off, maybe so. This week, Summers created a bot called @congressedits that tweets out anonymous Wikipedia edits from congressional IP addresses. The account has mainly uncovered the innocuous and the banal, from noting the availability of Choco Tacos in the Rayburn building to correcting grammar in the article for Step Up 3D. However, the account also enables the public to see when staffers vandalize or rewrite politicians’ biographical information, whether updating word choice (Justin Amash is an “attorney,” not a “corporate lawyer”) or casually defaming likely opposition (activist Kesha Rogers is a “Trotskyist”).


Rogue political Wikipedia edits have been controversial before. In 2006, staffers for politicians from Rep. Marty Meehan to Sen. Joe Biden were publicly called out for removing criticism from their bosses’ pages. Wikipedia’s usual crowd of vigilant editors reversed the few problematic edits they found after investigating other congressional activity on the site, but left most edits intact as intended “in good faith.”

But Summers’ project is not a series of overt agendas connected to individual staffers. Its real-time, eerily specific feed of edits streams activity from the entire congressional workforce in what Megan Garber has called a project of “ambient accountability.” Like the earlier controversies, Wikipedia can yet again serve as a proxy for political fights happening elsewhere, but it can also serve as a window into everyday life on the Hill at its most bizarre and inconsequential.

There is a significant online audience for Capitol Hill quirkiness. Buzzfeed’s Benny Johnson more or less makes a living off it, while members of Congress have social media interns delving into the ever more surreal with legislative doge memes. The @congressedits project could appeal to both easily amused political junkies and to accountability advocates who see it as an opportunity to expand access to the people that they say should be the government’s most visible and engaged group. Read More…

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Why World Cup Culture Wars Vindicate American Soccer

As more Americans than ever tuned in to watch the World Cup over the past few weeks, the American media’s quadrennial habit of analyzing soccer’s place in the country raged on. Cranky right-wingers, embodied by Ann Coulter’s now-infamous ramble, put forth common criticisms of soccer: it has an insufficient gender gap, allows scoreless ties, prohibits using hands, is foreign and liberal, prioritizes team effort over individual prowess, and constitutes all-around “moral decay.” In the face of such resistance, soccer fans like Daniel Drezner proposed simply changing the rules of the game to assuage his fellow Americans’ sense of fairness, rather than asking Americans to adapt to the game’s delightful capriciousness like the rest of the world. Meanwhile, Peter Beinart and other commentators on the left celebrated the “soccer coalition” of youth, immigrants, and liberals—the same one that elected President Obama, he recalled—proving that Americanness is not contingent upon the white working-class culture idealized by Coulter. In short, Americans loudly participated in a soccer nation’s rite of passage by reading domestic politics into the sport every chance they could get.

Though the debate largely focused on whether soccer could possibly have a place in accepted American identity, this process of political theorizing and contention mirrors the way soccer has been absorbed into other cultures throughout the sport’s history. Americans who chafe at the sport’s European origins join the long tradition of our southern neighbors who idealized the “creolization” of soccer while forming national identity after the Latin American revolutions of the 19th century. In Argentina, soccer was the manifestation of the “melting pot” where Italian and Spanish immigrants took over British cultural imports, a process crafted in the pages of the magazine El Gráfico. In Brazil, soccer was a place to reconcile racial tensions by highlighting diversity as a source of American ingenuity and creativity, superior to formulaic and homogenous European play. The contemporary American media’s ongoing narratives of soccer are similar not just in their obsessive nature, but in the diverse subcultures they are trying to weld together.

Soccer has always come with class connotations that plague burgeoning sports cultures. The prevailing image of soccer, both in the U.S. now and in Latin America a century ago, is of white urban and suburban elites who use the sport to moralize. Soccer was formalized in British public schools in the 19th century in order to promote Victorian morality and “muscular Christianity”—as well as to simply keep boys busy—but it largely came to the Americas as the pastime of the “gentleman-athletes” among British immigrants to South America. The “amateur era” of early 20th century soccer parallels the American “soccer mom” values that encourage teamwork and cooperation in children before moving on to more individualist sports as adults, and it is just as widespread and pejoratively viewed as its predecessor. As American pundits critique this intrusion of foreign collectivist values, they are echoing, among others, 1920s and 1930s Argentines calling for “our own style” (“la nuestra”) to counter and replace British beliefs. Read More…

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