State of the Union

Place and the Politics of Slacktivism

Americans have come to stand at quite a distance from their government. The interests of government, as well as those of politics, are a point of indifference to many citizens. A Pew Research Center study conducted before the 2012 election cycle designated 43 percent of the voting-age population in its entirety as “non-voters.”

As a result, our political process has seen the rise of slacktivism, defined by one august Internet institution as “the act of participating in obviously pointless activities as an expedient alternative to actually expending effort to fix a problem.” It manifests itself in many ways: hashtag activism (see also: #WeAreN, #YesAllWomen, and #BringBackOurGirls), social media campaigns for “change,” and clicktivism, to name a few. Laura Seay at The Washington Post‘s Monkey Cage writes that the logic of slacktivist campaigns “are usually based on the logic that increased awareness of a cause is in and of itself a worthy reason to pursue them.”

Why the emphasis on awareness? Today’s political sphere has been atomized. The public has no voice, no agency unless it somehow finds a way to leverage its power in Washington indirectly. This is where slacktivism is so appealing. A click, a share, and you feel that you have influenced something, somewhere. Seay again:

[Slacktivist campaign] logic assumes that the more attention a cause receives, the more likely public officials are to pay attention to a cause, and thus the more tangible benefits (like legislation, a policy change, or money allocated to help victims of a crisis) there will be.

Of course, this is not merely a political matter. Social media activism is a massive commercial industry, as Vice points out:

With each click, Change.org makes a profit, and increases its clientele base. Clients are often organizations with deep pockets; Amnesty InternationalSierra Club, and even the Democratic Party.

Some of the petitions do indeed go “viral” and cause change—the article points to the “pink sludge” and Gatorade campaigns as success stories, with one caveat.

Both petitions were started by regular people, went viral, and resulted in real change. But therein also lies the problem: As research shows, you’re more likely to click on something short, simple, and easy to understand.

Large-scale petition programs often end up being little more than a means to translate widespread but apathetic goodwill into monetary gain. Micah White, in a piece that ostensibly named the “clicktivism” movement, posed the conflict as “a struggle between digital activists, who have adopted the logic of the marketplace, and those organisers who vehemently oppose the marketisation of social change.”

The article is an eloquent jeremiad, declaiming what he sees as a crass by-product of capitalism.

Gone is faith in the power of ideas, or the poetry of deeds, to enact social change. Instead, subject lines are A/B tested and messages vetted for widest appeal…. Exchanging the substance of activism for reformist platitudes that do well in market tests, clicktivists damage every genuine political movement they touch. In expanding their tactics into formerly untrammelled political scenes and niche identities, they unfairly compete with legitimate local organisations who represent an authentic voice of their communities.

But in that last sentence, he hits upon the truth of “clicktivism,” “slacktivism,” etc. Local organizations, formerly the “authentic voice” of the community, have been all but eliminated in modern politics. The problem is not capitalism, but the lack of a meaningful way to act and influence others locally—namely, the absence of the intermediary social institutions of town, church, home; in a word, place.


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What Kind of Conservatives Are the Warhawks?

Official Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Mark Fayloga

U.S. air strikes since Friday have opened a corridor through which tens of thousands of Yazidis, trapped and starving on a mountain in Iraq, have escaped to safety in Kurdistan.

The Kurds, whose peshmerga fighters were sent reeling by the Islamic State last week, bolstered now by the arrival of U.S. air power, recaptured two towns. But the peshmerga have apparently lost the strategically important town of Jalawla, 20 miles from Iran, the furthest east that ISIS forces have penetrated.

Last week’s gains by the Islamic State caused Republican hawks to flock to the Sunday talk shows. ”ISIS is a direct threat to the United States of America,” said Rep. Peter King, John McCain called for bombing ISIS in Syria and Iraq. But using air power to prevent ISIS from seizing the Kurdish capital of Irbil and Baghdad is not enough, said Sen. Lindsey Graham. “We need to go on offense,” he told FOX News, “There is no force within the Mideast that can neutralize or contain or destroy ISIS without at least American air power.”

The Islamic State is “an existential threat” to our homeland, Graham added, asking, “do we really want to let America be attacked?” Came then this warning from Sen. Graham: ”If he [Obama] does not go on the offensive against ISIS, ISIL, whatever you want to call these guys, they’re coming here. This is not just about Baghdad, not just about Syria. It is about our homeland.”

“I think of an American city in flames because of the terrorists’ ability to operate in Syria and Iraq,” said Graham, “Mr. President … what is your strategy to stop these people from attacking the homeland?” This semi-hysterical talk of an “existential threat” to the “homeland,” and the dread specter of “an American city in flames” is vintage war party, designed to panic us into launching a new war.

But before allowing these “Cassandras” to stampede us back into the civil-sectarian Middle East wars that resulted from our previous interventions, let us inspect more closely what they are saying. If ISIS’ gains are truly an “existential threat” to the republic and our cities are about to “go up in flames,” why did these Republican hawks not demand that President Obama call back Congress from its five-week vacation to vote to authorize a new war on ISIS in Syria and Iraq?

After all, King, McCain, and Graham belong to a party that is suing the president for usurping Congressional powers. Yet, they are also demanding that Obama start bombing nations he has no authority to bomb, as ISIS has not attacked us. King, McCain and Graham want Obama to play imperial president and launch a preemptive war that their own Congress has not authorized. What kind of constitutionalists, what kind of conservatives are these? Read More…

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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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The Tocquevillian Farmer’s Market

Photo by Yetta Olmstead
Photo by Yetta Olmstead

Every Saturday morning at the crack of dawn, my mother-in-law wakes up and begins her preparations. She gathers garden-fresh vegetables, eggs, and peppers, packs them all into coolers and bins. Her husband and children pile everything into the car, and they set off, bright and early, for the farmer’s market.

It only takes an hour or so for them to set up their tent and homemade blackboard signs, only a few minutes for the smell of cooking sausage and frying apple doughnuts to permeate the air. Once those smells are wafting about, it takes mere seconds for a string of farmer’s market customers to start lining up for their breakfast.

It’s been a pile of sacrifices for Mark, Becky, and their crew—an early-rising, hardworking family, they formerly used their Saturdays to rest. Morning breakfasts were a relaxed, private, at-home affair. But now, the entire crew is up by 5 or 6 a.m. every Saturday, and spends the whole morning selling breakfasts to their small-town community—and then they spend most of the afternoon re-packing and cleaning everything.

But this Saturday morning venture is more than a business for Becky and the family: as I’ve talked to them about their market breakfasts, what they’re most enthusiastic about is the community they have cultivated. Over the course of the last several months, they have garnered an enthusiastic and loyal customer base. The other vendors at the farmer’s market have become their friends: they promote each others’ work, buy each others’ produce. They build camaraderie with customers, watch for them every week, slowly learn their life stories. The Saturday breakfasts have become more than a business: they are a weekend community ritual.

We often consider ourselves (perhaps appropriately) the most isolated generation in American history—a people whose individualism has been significantly perpetuated by technology and urban detachment. But this isn’t necessarily a modern problem—Alexis de Tocqueville, brilliant 19th-century thinker and author of Democracy in America, believed Americans’ isolated and individualistic demeanor was largely cultivated by democracy itself:

Amongst democratic nations new families are constantly springing up, others are constantly falling away, and all that remain change their condition; the woof of time is every instant broken, and the track of generations effaced. … Aristocracy had made a chain of all the members of the community, from the peasant to the king: democracy breaks that chain, and severs every link of it. As social conditions become more equal, the number of persons increases who, although they are neither rich enough nor powerful enough to exercise any great influence over their fellow-creatures, have nevertheless acquired or retained sufficient education and fortune to satisfy their own wants. They owe nothing to any man, they expect nothing from any man; they acquire the habit of always considering themselves as standing alone, and they are apt to imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands. Thus not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants, and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back forever upon himself alone, and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart.

What solution did Tocqueville propose to this isolation? “The Americans have combated by free institutions the tendency of equality to keep men asunder, and they have subdued it,” he wrote. It was the free institutions—the “little platoons”—that encouraged people to congregate, serve, and steward. They kept community alive. “…To earn the love and respect of the population which surrounds you, a long succession of little services rendered and of obscure good deeds—a constant habit of kindness, and an established reputation for disinterestedness—will be required,” Tocqueville said. “Local freedom, then, which leads a great number of citizens to value the affection of their neighbors and of their kindred, perpetually brings men together, and forces them to help one another, in spite of the propensities which sever them.”

Today’s traditional private associations are not as strong as they once were. Read More…

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U.S. Foreign Policy on Trial, With Daniel McCarthy & Dinesh D’Souza

CSPAN
CSPAN

TAC editor Daniel McCarthy recently debated filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza at the annual FreedomFest gathering in Las Vegas. CSPAN was there to broadcast the trial-format debate, with witnesses including Grover Norquist, Steve Forbes, Brig. Gen. Michael Meese, and Doug Casey. Fox Business Channel’s Kennedy served as presiding judge.

Watch the debate here.

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Punk Rock and Poultry With a Kick

punkrocker

Johnny Rotten would probably be horrified to be grouped with the likes of today’s foodie counterculture—and, true to character, the odds are good that he would unabashedly vocalize his distaste—but the fact remains that his sneering anarchy is, in some ways, as much of a political statement as the choice to eat and cook locally.

Punk came about as a form of critique. In the beginning, it managed to create a now-iconic counterculture where (often subversive) political commentary could flourish. The anti-establishment attitude resulted in a remarkably hardy group: early punk rockers largely embraced self-promotion, preferring informal and community-based means of production to systematized or formalized industry structures. (Not to mention hard drugs.)

Today, the genteel locavore movement is forming its own, more subtly subversive, counterculture. The strengths of the punk movement—as with any truly sustainable anti-establishment culture—are to be found within those who choose to grow their own food, eat and cook locally, and focus on re-establishing local communities in the face of an ever-growing industry structure. And the movement is anything but a partisan project.

Joel Salatin, a hero among many who hope to return food production and consumption to its local roots, wrote a book titled “Everything I Want To Do Is Illegal,” addressing the difficulties that independent farmers face. He is a champion for local and sustainable agriculture, and a charismatic one at that. Andrea Gabor from The Atlantic wrote about her visit to the “mecca of sustainable agriculture,” Salatin’s Polyface Farms, in 2011. She observed that his appeals to the listener are not only rooted in his trade, but political and moral sentiments as well. Salatin is fulfilling a vocation, creating a counterculture.

As he does frequently during the tour, Salatin digresses to matters more spiritual and political than agricultural: “The pig is not just pork chops and bacon and ham to us. … Our culture doesn’t ask about preserving the essence of pig, it just asks how can we grow them faster, fatter, bigger, and cheaper.”

Salatin is far from alone in his rejection of factory farming and industrialized food. Though Salatin’s rhetoric tends to appeal to the Right, John Schwenkler wrote in 2008 of an unexpected ally on the Left: Alice Waters, the leader of what she calls “the Delicious Revolution.” In a 1997 speech, she seems to echo—though in very different vernacular—what Salatin is saying.

[Schoolyard gardens] “teach redemption through a deep appreciation for the real, the authentic, and the lasting—for the things that money can’t buy: the very things that matter most of all if we are going to lead sane, healthy, and sustainable lives.

Salatin strives to preserve the existence of what Waters calls “the real, the authentic, and the lasting;” sustainability is, like all sound countercultures (punk included) a principled critique.

But the ethical case is not the only one to be made. The factory farming industry is corrupt in precisely the same way that other sprawling industries are: Schwenkler writes that “Official dietary guidelines inevitably became the product of collaboration between government agencies and representatives of the industries that stand to benefit.” (Sid, are you listening?)

The punk movement, in the end, was not particularly conducive to law and order—or sustainable community of any kind, for that matter. It was the earnest, if misguided, rebellion of disenfranchised youth, rejecting legitimate and illegitimate social obligations without scruple.

The essence of the locavore movement on both Left and Right is its unique anti-authoritarian aims: not anarchy for its own sake, but the rejection of what they see to be a corrupted system. Alice Waters’ rebellion seeks to combat corporate and governmental sprawl by cultivating local community; Salatin’s, by rousing it.

Perhaps there’s a little punk in all of us—even while tending the hens.


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Why the Democratic West Dreads Diversity

At the end of the Cold War, Francis Fukuyama famously wrote that our world may be at the “end of history” where “Western liberal democracy” becomes “the final form of human government.” A quarter century on, such optimism seems naive.

Consider the United States, the paragon of liberal democracy. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll finds that only 14 percent of the people approve of Congress and only 19 percent approve of the GOP. Seventy-one percent believe America is headed in the wrong direction. Nor is this the exceptional crisis of a particular presidency.

JFK was assassinated. LBJ was broken by race riots and anti-war demonstrations. Richard Nixon, facing impeachment, resigned. Gerald Ford was rejected by the electorate. Ronald Reagan was highly successful—like Nixon, he won in a 49-state landslide after his first term—but during the Iran-Contra scandal of 1987 there was a real threat of a second impeachment. And Bill Clinton was impeached.

Our democracy seems to be at war with itself. Now there is talk of impeaching Obama. It will become a clamor should he grant executive amnesty to 5 million illegal immigrants. Political science has long described what seems to be happening.

From the tribal leader comes the monarch, whose reign gives way to an aristocracy that produces a middle class that creates a republic, the degenerative form of which is that pure democracy of which John Adams wrote: ”Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There is never a democracy that did not commit suicide.” Then comes the strong man again.

Is that our future? Is Western democracy approaching the end of its tether, with the seeming success of authoritarian capitalism in China and Russia? Recent history provides us with examples.

World War I, begun 100 years ago, brought down many of the reigning monarchs of Europe. The caliph of the Ottoman Empire was sent packing by Kemal Ataturk. Czar Nicholas II was murdered on the orders of the usurper Vladimir Lenin.

Fighting off a Bolshevik invasion, Marshal Pilsudski rose to power in Poland. Admiral Miklos Horthy ran the communists out of Budapest and took the helm. Mussolini led the 1922 March on Rome. Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch in 1923 failed, but his party utilized democracy’s institutions to seize power and murder democracy. Out of the Spanish Civil War came the dictatorship of Gen. Franco. And so it went.

Vladimir Putin may be the most reviled European leader among Western elites today, but he is more popular in his own country than any other Western ruler, with 80 percent approval, for standing up for Russia and Russians everywhere. Polls in France say that, were elections held today, Marine Le Pen would replace Francois Hollande in the Elysee Palace.

Eurocrats bewail what is happening, but, inhibited by secularist ideology, fail to understand it. They believe in economism, rule by scholarly global elites, and recoil at the resurgence of nationalism and populism. They do not understand people of the heart because they do not understand human nature. Read More…

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Can Equations Predict Happiness?

Want to be happy? There’s an equation for that, according to British neuroscientists. In a study just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciencesthe scientists found an equation that correctly predicted the happiness of more than 18,000 people. The Atlantic‘s Cari Romm reports:

In the first leg of the study, the researchers developed the equation by having a group of volunteers play decision-making games, rewarding certain choices with small amounts of money. Every few rounds, participants were asked to rate their happiness on a sliding scale, while their neurological responses to the rewards were measured with MRI scans.

In the second leg, the team tested the equation on a larger audience by turning the decision-making task into a smartphone game, drawing players by the thousands. The results were as their model had predicted: When players expected a reward, they were less happy to receive it than if they hadn’t expected anything at all.

After compiling their research, the neuroscientists came up with this equation as an accurate predictor of happiness:

 

However, there’s an important catch to this equation that we must consider. As The Atlantic puts it, the neuroscientists’ research “measures only immediate reward, not long-term satisfaction.” The above equation specifically measures your response to expectations and rewards (or disappointments)—not your overall metaphysical state of being. How could one measure and quantify the sort of deep, value-based happiness that truly motivates humans long-term? Maybe there’s an equation for that; but it seems unlikely.

The equation above seems to be describing something a bit different from real “happiness.” It identifies something our society constantly identifies with happiness, but is in actuality quite different: namely, “pleasure.” It can contribute to happiness, but pleasure is neither necessary nor sufficient for real happiness. It’s defined most often as a feeling or sensation of happiness, synonymous with satisfaction, enjoyment, gratification—all the more temporary facets of “happiness.” It describes how you feel in a current moment.

But Aristotle put “pleasure” and “happiness” into very different boxes. Happiness in his conception is the highest good, the end to which we all aspire. But happiness, in his mind, requires ethical living: pursuing the supreme good necessitates that we fulfill our vocation as human beings, with virtue and integrity. Moral virtue is an integral part of happiness—and virtue helps us cultivate a proper response to “pain” and “pleasure” in life. Thus, “pleasure” is not seen as a good in and of itself—it is a facet of life that must be navigated, considered, and rightly responded to, in the larger pursuit of true happiness.

To Aristotle, happiness is an activity: a pursuit, not a passive response to life circumstances or expectations. The word eudaimonia (happiness) carries with it the idea of “flourishing” or “success.” This is something we do, not something we merely feel. In contrast, “pleasure” is exactly that: a feeling. And whereas we may be able to quantify cognitive responses to pleasure and pain, we cannot automatically turn such things into real “happiness.”

Our lost understanding of eudaimonia has turned us into the sort of people who seek out happiness in circumstantial or experiential mediums. And this seeking implies that we have already lost something—something that would enable us to grasp and retain happiness, no matter the pleasures or pains that plague our lives.

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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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Youngest Son Adds Laments to the Indie Hymnal

Youngest Son, photo by Daniel Saunders
Youngest Son, photo by Daniel Saunders

We’ve tussled here about the possible merits of Mumford & Sons, and discussed other albums from the Christ-haunted section of the indie music world. There may be enough of these artists now to constitute a tradition or subgenre: heartfelt guys with sincere guitars, aching and unslaked souls whose faith is found in silhouette, in the negative space which remains despite everything they’ve lost. Youngest Son, a project of heartfelt/sincere Chicagoan Steve Slagg, has two new albums which describe Christian mourning—the doubt of grieving Christians as well as their faith—with emotional honesty and a tuneful, memorable pop sensibility.

Read More…

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