The comedian and activist Dick Gregory has died at the age of 84. Talk about a career that's virtually impossible to categorize. From avant-garde joke teller to civil-rights figure to diet guru to conspiracy mongerer, he lived a full life that in many ways mirrors all the twists and turns of American life over the past 50 or 60 years. He was relentlessly pessimistic about the state of the country even as he inspired his audience to work for change. I found him interesting because he was always out there on the horizon, lighting a path?albeit often one not particularly grounded in facts?that many of us would be following down soon after.
Born in St. Louis in 1932, Gregory ran track for Southern Illinois University in Carbondale on a scholarship, got drafted, and eventually ended up in Chicago, where he became one of the hottest entertainers of the early 1960s. Hugh Hefner of Playboy, which was still headquartered in the Windy City, was a huge fan and helped to massively increase Gregory's audience. Like Lenny Bruce and other cutting-edge comics of the time, Gregory played with social conventions in a way that was both thrilling and nervous-making. "Segregation is not all bad," went a characteristic one-liner. "Have you ever heard of a collision where the people in the back of the bus got hurt?" He was a regular presence at civil rights events during the '60s, ran for president, authored a popular natural-foods cookbook in 1974, Dick Gregory's Natural Diet for Folks Who Eat: Cookin' with Mother Nature and helped popularize the idea of healthy fasting. "When I look at the obituaries," he once quipped, "I don't see no one but all you eaters."
He was a fixture on the college tour circuit by the 1980s, when I saw him perform at Rutgers, and his monologues were shot through with frankly insane conspiracy theories (I vaguely recall him claiming that the victims of the Atlanta child murders had been mutilated in a way that suggested a government cover-up). An immediate critic of the Warren Report on the JFK assassination, he dismissed official accounts of 9/11 as well, even declaring a liquid fast until the "true story" was made available. Unsurprisingly, he taped a long appearance with Alex Jones about 9/11.
In 1964 he published a memoir, co-authored by famed sportswriter and novelist Robert Lipsyte (Reason interview here), controversially titled Nigger. Gregory later said that he wished he'd chosen a different title, but he dedicated the volume to his mother with the note,
Wherever your are, if you ever hear the word "nigger" again, remember they are advertising my book.
The opening chapter of Nigger, in which Gregory chronicles a Christmas when his absent father ("a real Capone with the whores and the bitches") comes home and beats his wife, son, and mistress, is one of the most painful accounts of black rage that America has sadly produced. It stands with passages from Frederick Douglass, Richard Wright, and James Baldwin in its anger, empathy, and pain. For anyone interested in the black family and the way in which mother-son dynamics get forged in a culture of absentee fathers, Gregory's autobiography is invaluable. The book's documentation of segregation and its effects on American culture should be required reading for those of us who didn't live through that period or have forgotten its reality. His turn to conspiracist thinking allows insight into how minorities who have suffered systematically at the hands of a dominant culture search for meaning and understanding in a hostile world. Dave Chapelle's recent Netflix specials explicitly discuss this tendency among blacks, and it's a predilection that extends to other groups of people who feel marginalized. In Donald Trump's America, understanding the complaints (without necessarily endorsing them) of people who feel pushed to the fringe of society is more important than ever.
In 2010, I covered the "One Nation Rally for Jobs, Justice, and Education" that had been organized by Ed Schultz, then at MSNBC. The various luminaries on the main stage included Jesse Jackson, Charles Rangel, Al Sharpton, and Dick Gregory, who said that the United States was not in a better place than in 1968. His comments appear at 50 seconds and at the 4:25 mark.
Farewell, Dick Gregory. You made your country a more thoughtful place and a better one, even if you think we were going downhill your entire life.
Antiglobalism and anticosmopolitanism might flow purely from economic ignorance, but it is hard to believe that's all it is for many people, argues Sheldon Richman. Too often these attitudes suggest what Bryan Caplan calls "anti-foreign bias" combined with "antimarket bias."
While one need not embrace racism or tribalism to be an economic nationalist, an affinity exists between the two dispositions: "I can't trust those people? Why would I want to trade with them?"
Moreover, Richman argues, the distrust of foreigners and markets could readily carry over to subgroups in the domestic population that seem foreign?that is, groups which don't quite seem to embrace the "nation's culture" with sufficient enthusiasm.
View this article.
Most business executives fumed and groused for the eight years Barack Obama was in the White House. He was a former community organizer who had never met a payroll, and those in the corporate boardrooms thought he was no friend of free enterprise.
Now, instead of a liberal lawyer in the White House, CEOs have one of their own. And they're finding it's not everything they hoped. At this point, President Trump's recurring message is that any executive who doesn't do as Trump wishes can expect retribution from the most powerful man on earth.
Obama was not the friend CEOs think the president of the United States should be, writes Steve Chapman. But in Trump, they're finding out what it's like to have a real enemy.
View this article.
Food policy expert Baylen Linnekin examines a new study by Sports Illustrated analyzing and ranking public safety habits in food handling at your favorite baseball stadium. Maybe watch what you eat in Tampa:
Among its conclusions, the report found "almost a third of the league's stadiums had over 100 total violations, including both Los Angeles clubs. One Chicago stadium failed its routine inspection for the second summer in a row. Eighteen ballparks had critical violations in at least a quarter of their concession stands."
Some of the violations reported are objectively gross: "Camden Yards had evidence of rodent infestation at eight different food entities and Yankee Stadium had 14 stands overrun with filth flies."
The SI report updates the first such study, published by ESPN in 2009.
View this article.
Another questionable college sexual assault investigation winds up in court.
Lindsay Marchello writes:
Augustana University and a former student expelled in the wake of a Title IX sexual assault investigation in 2015 have agreed to a dismissal of the student's lawsuit against the university.
Koh Tsuruta, of Lake Mills, Iowa, and Augustana agreed in a motion made in federal district court earlier this month, The College Fix reported. Neither party nor their lawyers have discussed the reasons for the agreement or whether or not there were settlement terms.
"It was resolved to the satisfaction of the parties," Vince Roche, the lawyer for the private school in South Dakota, said in Sioux Falls (S.D.) Argus Leader article. "That is all I can say."
The dismissal also leaves unanswered a trail of questions about the alleged assault, the handling of the Title IX investigation and Tsuruta's expulsion. The case points up once again the flaws in the Title IX process, the low standard of proof needed to find the accused guilty, the due process violations, and the lack of preparedness for the complexities of sexual assault cases on the part of universities.
View this article.
As the Twitter kids say, #ItBegins. First came news that controversial nationalist Steve Bannon was finally being shown the White House door. Next came widespread follow-up musing on how dangerous Bannon might become to President Donald Trump from the outside (including juicy quotes like, "If he leaves, it's the French Revolution"). Then came this ominous tweet from Joel B. Pollak, senior editor at large at the organization Bannon once headed and may soon return to, Breitbart News:
#WAR? Joel B. Pollak (@joelpollak) August 18, 2017
Arriveth the first salvo:
In the article, Pollak arguest that Bannon's exit "may turn out to be the beginning of the end for the Trump administration, the moment Donald Trump became Arnold Schwarzenegger." More:
When he took office in 2003 as Governor of California, "The Terminator" carried the hopes of conservatives in the Golden State, who saw him as a vehicle for their ideas, even if he was not a doctrinaire conservative himself. The faltering California Republican Party looked to Schwarzenegger to reverse its long-term decline, and Republicans elsewhere saw his success as a model from which they could learn as they courted moderate, swing-state voters.
But after struggling with intense media criticism, and after losing a key referendum on reforms to state government, Schwarzenegger gave up on his agenda, and abandoned the political base that had brought him into office. He re-invented himself as a liberal, embracing policies such as California's controversial cap-and-trade program, which had zero effect on climate change but has chased businesses, jobs, and middle-class families out of the state.
Politically, Schwarzenegger's gambit was a success. He won re-election in 2006. But his second term was a disaster. When he left office in 2010, the state was in a financial shambles and the California Republican Party had begun a decline from which it still has not recovered.
If that argument sounds familiar, it might be because I made one similar to it not long after Trump took his oath of office, albeit without the paeans to Bannon ("a self-made man, and not a Washington climber?master strategist, the man who turned a failing campaign around in August 2016 and led one of the most remarkable come-from-behind victories in political history," etc.). Sample from my column:
Trump and Schwarzenegger have even more in common than hosting the same television show, taking the same unusual career path from celebrity to executive office, and surviving the same type of sexual allegations.
Each man was a rank outsider in the field he would come to dominate: the bodybuilder with a thick accent in Hollywood, the Queens hustler in Manhattan real estate and high society. Each would live their lives surrounded by liberal Democrats, including sometimes at home. And each exceeded skeptics' expectations at nearly every step, in large part due to a conscious cultivation of consumer fan bases.
I might also add, each is a Grade-A narcissist and competitive monster (I say the latter as a compliment), which means that they just can't pass up an opportunity to lash out at one another. Including Arnold, this week:
Where does the Trump-Schwarzenegger feud and comparison go from here? Who knows! But here are three preliminary observations:
1) Trump doesn't do humility. In order to execute the kind of heel-turn Schwarzenegger managed after 2004, it helps to be able to convincingly say, as Arnold essentially did, "The people have spoken, and I have listened to them. I was wrong." Whether it's his training as an actor, or just a West Coast/East Coast thing, Schwarzenegger can pull it off.
Trump, on the very few occasions during his political career which he as even hinted at any error, has looked like the protagonist in a hostage video.
2) Trumpism is a movement; Arnoldism never was. Schwarzenegger was a popular celebrity who was fluent in politics at a time when incumbent California governor Gray Davis was widely reviled, and the rest of the Golden State's political class (including the GOP, which, contra Pollak, was already moribund before Arnold went to Sacramento) was serially coughing up duds. But he didn't represent some new or reformulated bloc of voters finding their collective voice at the same time.
Trump, on the other hand, has been at the center of something new and large since long before Steve Bannon joined his team. Politicians, even experienced ones, who get caught up in movements larger than themselves (see Howard Dean in 2003-04, or Ron Paul's two rEVOLutions, or Bernie Sanders last election), get changed by the experience, including in directions the candidates themselves didn't intend to go. (Look at the way Trump's views on Syrian refugees evolved last fall over the course of just one month.) Such movements become life-altering experiences for the personalities at the center, making it harder for them to capriciously abandon core tenets.
Donald Trump has always been a mercantilist, nationalist, law-and-order type; even if his full-throated immigration-restrictionism is of more recent vintage, the leaked transcript of his phone conversation with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto revealed a man almost pathetically scared of his own riled-up base.
The biggest issue I could see Trump selling out on?and it's a big one?is foreign policy interventionism. With Bannon out the door, after butting heads with the various military brass within the administration, the chances of Trump being a reliable intervention-skeptic seems even more remote than before.
3) Bannon and Trump still need each other. Most Trumpworld pugilists who've been bounced from his inner orbit?Corey Lewandowski, Roger Stone, etc.?have remained valuable allies off the government payroll. Bannon may harbor dreams of a new anti-Trump nationalistic populism, but the United States is in thrall to the cult of the presidency, and it's precisely in the nationalist/populist base that the president locates his most passionate support. A war of words between the two men and their respective organizations would most likely just factionalize and shrink the existing bloc of America-Firsters.
UPDATE: Looks like I might have been onto something with #3 here:
Steve Bannon just went on the record with me about his next move (story breaking now on @TheTerminal and @bw): pic.twitter.com/EDPULg25VR? Joshua Green (@JoshuaGreen) August 18, 2017
Last week's boogeyman, North Korea, didn't get much attention this week, as neo-Nazi marchers and Confederate statues captured the news cycle. But Washington and Pyongyang are taking slow but hopefully steady steps toward a diplomatic resolution.
President Trump's "fire and fury" comment came and went, making waves in domestic and foreign media but ultimately not changing much about the reality on the ground. As the North Korean regime gradually increases its nuclear capabilities, it is still far from an existential threat. Trump's off-the-cuff threat was, at its most basic level, a reiteration of the mutually assured destruction policy, albeit without the mutuality.
Kim Jong-un responded to Trump last week by announcing his regime was contemplating a strike on Guam. The governor of Guam, Eddie Calvo, dismissed the threat, and residents of the territory seemed to be staying calm. This week North Korea backed down, saying it was no longer considering an attack on Guam but would strike if the "Yankees persist." Trump praised Kim for chainging course, tweeting that it was a "very wise and well-informed decision."
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reiterated this week that the door to negotiations remains open but that it is up to Kim to act. An achievable short-term goal would be the resumption of the six-party talks between North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan, Russia, and the U.S, which began in 2003 but ceased in 2009 after North Korea launched a launched a satellite and was slapped by increased sanctions.
Yesterday, Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis welcomed their counterparts from Japan to Washington for a security summit, where Mattis re-iterated the American, and Japanese, promise of an "effective and overwhelming response" to any hostilities from North Korea. Tillerson, Mattis, and their Japanese counterparts also said they would urge China to take "specific measures to make North Korea change its behavior." Tillerson warned of a bleak isolation if North Korea did not reengage the international community.
In short, the U.S. and North Korea remain as far from war, or as close to war, as at any time in the last decade. Diplomatic efforts could still bear fruit.
The ISIS and Afghan wars, on the other hand, continue apace. Two U.S. soldiers were killed during combat operations this week in Iraq, where American troops withdrew in 2011 before returning a few years later to battle the Islamic State. Iraq, meanwhile, admitted that its soldiers "abused" civilians and tortured ISIS militants during the campaign to re-take Mosul from ISIS. And Trump casually commented last friday that he might start a war with Venezuela too. That has only emboldened the regime of Nicolas Maduro, providing him with a useful scapegoat to invoke when demonizing the democratic opposition.
Television critic Glenn Garvin, who also happened to be responsible for Fidel Castro's obituary for the Miami Herald, takes a look at a CNN documentary about the custody fight over one famous Cuban boy by the name of Elian Gonzalez:
Elian offers, in painful detail, the whole saga of 5-year-old Elian's 1999 voyage from Cuba to Miami on a boat that broke up and sank somewhere in the Florida Straits. His mother managed to get Elian into an inner tube before slipping beneath the waves with 10 others. The inner tube drifted to Miami, where Elian became the center of an epic tug of war with Havana that ended with federal agents kicking in the door of the home where he was staying, and snatching him at gunpoint so he could be shipped back to Havana.
The Elian story triggered much journalism that ranged from uncomprehending to obscene. Be my guest at choosing which label Eleanor Clift, then of Newsweek, should get for cheerleading the Clinton administration's decision to send Elian back to Cuba, where "he doesn't have to worry about going to school and being shot at, where drugs are not a big problem, where he has access to free medical care and where the literacy rate I believe is higher than this country's." (And no, she didn't send her own kids there.)
View this article.
Good intentions often lead to bad policy. Consider a new Seattle law that bars landlords from screening prospective tenants for any criminal history.
Passed Monday, the Fair Chance Housing ordinance prohibits landlords from excluding prospective tenants because of their criminal history, from requiring or conducting criminal background checks of those prospective tenants, or from charging them higher rents and security deposits.
"You've paid your debt to society if you've served your time," wrote the bill's sponsor, Councilmember Lisa Herbold, in an August 11 blog post. "Blocking formerly incarcerated people from accessing stable housing is an extrajudicial punishment not consistent with the rule of law."
It's true that our current criminal justice system unnecessarily tars citizens with arrest records and criminal histories, and that those criminal histories make it more difficult to find jobs and housing. But attempting to mitigate the effects of a broken criminal justice system by foisting extra costs onto landlords?who have quite understandable reasons to wants to know about tenants' criminal histories?is not the answer.
"I think landlords will still want to know if someone has been convicted of arson or drug manufacturing," said Sean Martin, external affairs director of the Rental Housing Association of Washington, in a recent debate on the law. Yet under this ordinance a landlord can take virtually no criminal offense into account when choosing whether to rent to someone, no matter how serious or how recent the violation is. The only exception is for registered sex offenders.
As Martin points out, this will make the business of renting out apartment units more risky, and landlords will respond to that risk by toughening the screening requirements they are still allowed to use.
"They are going to raise the other criteria that you can have in place, credit scores and things like that," Martin said on the local radio station KIRO. He also noted that some landlords are planning to sell their properties instead, because "they don't want to be out there with the risk involved."
Martin agreed that there "is a problem of mass incarceration." But he added, "We don't feel it should be landlords' obligation to solve a societal problem."
Ironically for a law that seeks to mitigate the harms of a punitive criminal justice system, Seattle's new ordinance calls for a mix invasive enforcement and heavy punishments.
The Seattle Office of Civil Rights is empowered to investigate any claims of "adverse action" by landlords, which include not just denying tenancy or charging higher security deposits, but also more minor offences like refusing to add a current occupant to a lease. A landlord could then be required to pay damages, provide rent credits, or mitigate their discriminatory actions through targeted advertising to affected communities.
Any participation in this "conciliation" process also mandates landlords attend anti-bias training courses. Should a landlord not opt for re-education, they can be fined $11,000 for a first offense, $27,500 for two within a five-year period, and $55,000 for more than two violations within seven years.
Seattle has already hit landlords with a raft of regulations on how they can use their property, including caps on move-in fees, strict limits on no-cause evictions for month-to-month leases, and requirements to accept tenants on a first-come, first-serve basis. Despite (or perhaps because of) all this, Seattle has one of the priciest rental markets in the country and a worsening homelessness problem.
Making the rental business more risky, and therefore more expensive, will only add to the problem.
James Damore, the author of the Google memo, has become a hero for the right, because as conservatives see it he spoke truth to corporate power when he said that sexual differences would doom the company's diversity efforts to close the gender gap. He has become a villain for the left because as liberals see it he is downplaying the role sexism plays in the gender gap.
Both sides are half right and half wrong, notes Reason Foundation Senior Analyst Shikha Dalmia.
View this article.
In the wake of last weekend's violence in Charlottesville, the American Civil Liberties Union is facing a backlash from people dismayed that an organization dedicated to defending freedom of speech thinks that mission includes defending the right of white supremacists to hold a rally in a public park. Some of the ACLU's critics mistakenly claim that "hate speech" is not protected by the First Amendment. K-Sue Park, a critical race studies fellow at UCLA, takes a more nuanced (or maybe just more confusing) position, arguing that the ACLU's reading of the First Amendment is too "narrow," by which she means it is too broad.
Writing in The New York Times, Park argues that the ACLU gives short shrift to barriers that prevent people of color from participating in democratic debate even if they theoretically have the right to do so. "The hope is that by successfully defending hate groups, [the ACLU's] legal victories will fortify free-speech rights across the board," writes Park, who worked for the organization as a law student. "While admirable in theory, this approach implies that the country is on a level playing field, that at some point it overcame its history of racial discrimination to achieve a real democracy, the cornerstone of which is freedom of expression."
Not so, says Park, since "the power of speech remains proportional to wealth," while "police intimidation of African-Americans and Latinos" persists. Because of "structural discrimination and violence," she says, "the legal gains on which the A.C.L.U. rests its colorblind logic have never secured real freedom or even safety for all." Instead of defending the First Amendment rights of racists and corporations, Park argues, the ACLU should "imagine a holistic picture of how speech rights are under attack right now" and "research how new threats to speech are connected to one another and to right-wing power."
One way speech rights are under attack right now (as always) is the argument that they should not apply to disfavored speakers, who from Park's perspective include right-wing racists and people organized as corporations. By asking the ACLU to think about freedom of speech "in a broader context," she is actually asking the ACLU to abandon the principle altogether. The whole point of the principle is that it applies regardless of who you are or what you are saying. If the ACLU gave up its "colorblind logic" and started using racial and ideological filters to pick First Amendment cases, it would no longer be defending freedom of speech; it would be defending the interests of particular social and political groups.
Freedom of speech does not require the "level playing field" of Park's dreams. It is obviously true that wealth helps people get their messages across. So do fame, good looks, and verbal felicity. But those advantages do not render freedom of speech a nullity, any more than applying the Fourth Amendment to mansions as well as shacks or guaranteeing due process to rich as well as poor defendants makes those protections meaningless. To the contrary, legally guaranteed rights matter most to people without the social and political connections that might provide protection from official harassment.
The right to speak your mind without fear of punishment may not translate into the "real freedom" or "safety for all" that Park wants, but it is still instrinsically and instrumentally valuable, and the strength of that right depends on its consistent application. That is why the ACLU's First Amendment victories do in fact "fortify free-speech rights across the board."
A financial dragnet that ensnared porn stars, gun dealers, payday lenders, and other politically disfavored small businesses has been shut down.
Operation Choke Point launched in 2012 as a joint effort between the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. (The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau would later get involved too.) It was supposed to be a crackdown on online payday lenders making loans into states where high-interest lending is illegal. It quickly morphed into a questionably constitutional attack on a wide range of entrepreneurs who found their assets frozen or their bank accounts closed because they were considered "high-risk" for fraud.
In a letter to Rep. Robert Goodlatte (R-Va.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd called Operation Choke Point "a misguided initiative" and confirmed that DOJ was closing those investigations, Politico reported late Thursday night.
"Law abiding businesses should not be targeted simply for operating in an industry that a particular administration might disfavor," Boyd wrote. "All of the Department's bank investigations conducted as part of Operation Chokepoint are now over, the initiative is no longer in effect, and it will not be undertaken again."
If anything, Boyd is understating the degree to which Operation Choke Point was unlawful and just plain creepy.
The repudiation of Operation Choke Point is a welcome development, says Walter Olson, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute.
"It should serve as a warning that the government doesn't get to flag for banks?or businesses generally?which legal-but-suspect domestic customers it would like them to ostracize," Olson told Reason on Friday. "Those in power must refrain from signaling that they'd be pleased if certain categories of otherwise legal customer get cut off from their access to economic life."
Operation Choke Point began as an extension of the Obama administration's Financial Fraud Task Force, but the dragnet investigation was never given proper statutory authority by either the administration or Congress. In fact, details about Operation Choke Point were deliberately withheld from Congress at first, a fact The Wall Street Journal uncovered in 2013.
By labeling certain industries as being at a high risk for fraud, the feds were able to increase oversight requirements for some accounts to such a high level that it became unprofitable for banks to work with certain clients, explained Iain Murray, the Competitive Enterprise Institute's vice president of strategy, in a 2014 post at National Review Online.
As Murray pointed out, the Obama administration's own guidance document for the program included a list of industries targeted with greater scrutiny, including payday loans, credit repair services, fireworks, firearms, ammunition, "As Seen on TV" products, gambling, home-based charities, pornography, online pharmaceuticals, and sweepstakes. Targets of Operation Choke Point?such as porn star Teagan Presley, who was profiled by Vice News in 2014?often didn't have any idea why their bank accounts were being frozen or closed.
"The very premise is clearly chilling?the DOJ is coercing private businesses in an attempt to centrally engineer the American marketplace based on it's own politically biased moral judgment," wrote Reason's Elizabeth Nolan Brown in 2014.
Republicans have criticized Operation Choke Point for years. An ongoing congressional effort to reform the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau included a provision that would have reined in the operation.
There's no compelling reason for the government to stop individuals from engaging in the free exchange of goods and services based on nothing more concrete than the suspicion that some of those exchanges could be tainted by fraud. Operation Choke Point was a wide-ranging, illegal investigation that chose its targets for reasons grounded in little more than than officials' own sense of morality, and it's closure is a clear win for liberty.
Now, if only we could get DOJ to apply such level-headed, clear-eyed analysis to civil asset forfeiture.
When I edited a small-town newspaper, I eventually ended up rejecting letters to the editor from an elderly gentleman who had many interesting things to say about the issues of the day. He was, in some ways, a boon to the op-ed page?online commenting has completely demolished the number letters sent to many news outlets.
But he was also a bigot, and this became obvious and more overt once Barack Obama was elected president. The final straw was a letter explaining how he could tell walking into a house that black people lived there based on the way the house smelled. I would run no more letters from him. I informed my publisher and he agreed.
We deprived him from a platform of communication and we didn't regret it one bit. The impact in this case was small?the growth of the Internet means that there are plenty of other ways to get your message out when the local media tell you no. But that didn't used to be the case. Go back 30 years, and the average American's ability to communicate ideas to the larger public was much more limited. Yet newspaper editors regularly censored or refused to run letters to the editor they felt were in bad taste.
There was never any question that newspapers had the authority to make those calls. The First Amendment is very clear here.
Now that mass communication has moved online, a whole new crop of companies have the power to decide whether to host controversial content. They don't see themselves as "media outlets." They're just hosts and service providers. Traditionally they have not cared what people are saying.
But in the wake of the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, some of these companies are making the same decisions that old-fashioned media outlets have made in the past. They have decided that they do not want to provide their services to neo-Nazi outlets like The Daily Stormer. Earlier in the week GoDaddy and Google booted the white supremacist site as customers. The CEO of CloudFlare, a service that helps protect sites from cyberattacks, subsequently decided abruptly to dump Daily Stormer as a customer.
Now the CEO, Matthew Prince, has some regrets. He's concerned about betraying his neutrality as a service provider, about the potential consequences of taking sides in a highly charged political debate, and about his own power, saying at one point: "Literally, I woke up in a bad mood and decided someone shouldn't be allowed on the Internet. No one should have that power."
Fortunately, Prince doesn't actually have that power. CloudFlare is a major player, but it does have competition, and it's competition that should resolve this fear. Going back to the newspaper example: When enough people in a community felt like their local newspaper didn't serve them well enough, it created the environment for rival newspapers to pop up and thrive. The entire alternative newsweekly industry exists because traditional dailies were not meeting a younger, more liberal readership's needs.
If Prince were to get so drunk on his power that he starts cutting ties with customers willy-nilly, that wouldn't just be bad for the customers. It would be bad for CloudFlare, because it would lose business to its competitors. There's a subtext to Prince's statements, one that suggests that what he really wants is not to be seen as responsible for controversial corporate decisions.
The idea that a handful of companies have complete control over whether or not you can communicate your beliefs online creates a significant tension around the issue of censorship. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is worried that careless censorship by companies will bolster the efforts by governments to turn these decisions into demands.
It is true that we should be very, very concerned about government censorship. Germany, for example, would be happy to force every online service to reject Daily Stormer as a customer. And if these neo-Nazis had been writing in Germany, cops would have been busting down their doors and arresting them.
But a lengthy blog post expressing EFF's concerns hits an odd spot very early on:
Protecting free speech is not something we do because we agree with all of the speech that gets protected. We do it because we believe that no one?not the government and not private commercial enterprises?should decide who gets to speak and who doesn't.
There's a big problem with this argument. There is no outcome to a speech conflict (or really any conflict that involves liberty) that doesn't involve either the government or a private enterprise making a decision. A newspaper (a private commercial enterprise) decides what letters to run, what news stories to run, which quotes to use, and even who writes for them. The government determines when speech crosses over into incitement, libel, or another form of unprotected expression.
There are few decisions about the transmission of speech to a broader audience that are not subject to either private or government participation. Post a note on a bulletin board at a laundromat? The shop's owner gets to decide if it stays. Yell on a public street corner about how we're all going to hell? The government will protect that speech. Probably.
Further into the post, EFF takes a more nuanced position: What they really want is a more transparent process open to appeals before an internet service cuts off a customer's ability to communicate.
That would certainly be a better business practice than how Prince decided to approach The Daily Stormer. But it is still CloudFlare's decision. Prince and his colleagues can put a new process in place, but it's still their process. They are still deciding who gets a platform. They are not surrendering the right to freedom of association, and they absolutely shouldn't surrender that right.
Embedded within EFF's argument is the idea that if companies involved in domain registering and hosting start making decisions about customers based on politics, then governments will follow suit and invoke the authority to do the same. And indeed, we're seeing that play out in Europe. YouTube and Google announced a crackdown on extremist content in order to satisfy government demands, and we're already seeing the censorship of journalism and research as a consequence.
But that's precisely why organizations like EFF should be defending Prince's right to make these decisions. If the point of free speech is to defend controversial speech, the point of freedom of association is to defend controversial associations. If people with a financial stake in CloudFlare don't like Prince's choices, they are the ones who should make him change them or dump him.
Freedom cannot merely mean that companies must follow a certain process before dumping customers. That's not freedom. I might not have made the same decision Prince made, but he was well within his rights as the CEO of CloudFlare to do so.
Seattle Mayor Ed Murray has called for the removal of the Vladimir Lenin statue in the neighborhood of Fremont. In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio has launched a 90-day review of "all symbols of hate on city property"; his eyes seem to have settled on a plaque commemorating Philippe Pétain, the Nazi-aligned leader of Vichy France.
Both moves come in the wake of a national discussion on Confederate statues, and both moves miss the mark completely. Statues for Confederate generals frequently went up during periods of heightened racial tension. They were sometimes meant specifically to intimidate local black populations, and they often had that effect whether that was the intent or not. If a Lenin statue was put up in, say, a neighborhood where Eastern Europeans were starting to move, it could represent something else. But it wasn't.
The plaque mentioning Philippe Pétain is found at the Canyon of Heroes, a section of Lower Broadway ithat has been the site of more than 200 ticker-tape parades since the late 19th century. Pétain received a parade there in 1931 as a French military hero; he had been named a Marshall of France, a military distinction given to generals for exceptional achievements. This was about a decade before he collaborated with the Nazis. Removing it would represent precisely what the opponents of taking down Confederate monuments say they're afraid of: erasing history. The man really did receive that parade, and the plaque establishes that event.
Taking down Seattle's Lenin statue would make even less sense. It's a statue that had already been taken down?in 1989, in Czechoslovakia after the Velvet Revolution. It was found in a scrap heap by an American English teacher living abroad, who convinced the authorities to sell it to him and who then spent tens of thousands of dollars to ship it to the U.S. He wanted to use it to promote a restaurant he planned to open.
The statue was placed in a retail area in Fremont in 1995, and it has officially been on sale ever since. (It can be yours for $250,000.) It is essentially a surreal joke. It has become a tourist attraction, not for communist sympathizers but for people who enjoy seeing weird things; it is now a symbol of the character of the neighborhood, whose motto is Latin for "the freedom to be peculiar."
State Sen. Reuven Carlyle (D-Seattle), whose family came from Poland in the 1920s, has defended the Lenin statue. "Unlike the Confederacy statues throughout our nation built to formally honor those in that battle of ideas, this statue is distinctly not showcased in Fremont to celebrate the murderous, painful regime," Carlyle wrote on his blog. "The statue was, simply, installed with artistic intent to show that our very ability to install political art is the triumph of democracy over tyranny."
He continued: "Art can be offensive and painful, but it can also bring us alive with curiosity, wonder, knowledge. Installing a political statue of a man and regime that would never allow installation of political statues of opponents is a symbolic representation of the victory of democracy and freedom over oppression. And of the role of art itself."
It is also private property standing on private land, so Seattle's mayor shouldn't have any say about whether it stays or goes. What is he, some kind of communist?
Correction: A previous version of this article implied the Pétain plaque went up before World War 2. Plaques noting the ticker-tape parades in the Canyon of Heroes were installed in 2003. Sorry for the error.