The 13th

I just watched Ava DuVernay’s documentary, the 13th on Netflix (coincidentally, it is the 13th of October).  After a few students in my Racial Inequality class commented that it was a great documentary (note: when twenty-somethings say a documentary is good…you better watch…it must be remarkable).  The documentary is about the hows and whys of the disproportionate presence of black people in American prisons.

It is one of the best documentaries I have ever seen.

It starts with an historical overview, dating back from Emancipation, describing how black peoples have been stereotyped, surveilled and sentenced.  The obligatory Birth of a Nation scenes are shown and discussed, the Civil Rights Movement is given its due.  But the documentary really shines when it moves to the political and corporate roots of the  post 60’s “Tough on Crime” stance in American society.  No stone is left unturned and no prominent voice is left out.  If one wanted to know who the main voices in the prison reform movement are, one couldn’t do any better than jotting down the people interviewed in this documentary.

As an academic who studies social media, I listened intently to the last 20 minutes or so, where the documentary talks about the  use of media to, as one of the interviewees said, “show the humanity of black peoples”.  The line was drawn from writings and autobiographies to photographs of lynchings to the strategic use of television by the Civil Rights Movement (e.g. dogs sicced on kids, fire hoses trained on weaponless marchers) to finally the use of mobile phones documenting instances of police brutality.

There are quite a few negatives to ripping snapshots from everyday life out of context and posting them online for everyone to see.  But for so many decades the weight of the state on black people has been unseen and overlooked.  But new technologies level the playing field somewhat between individuals and the state.  People have seen police brutality – even though it is decontextualized – close up and personal, and this has made it impossible to be overlooked.  Black peoples (as well as women, sexual minorities, immigrants, and other groups who are not a part of the privileged set) have a means of speaking truth to power.

In any case, The 13th is in my view one of the best documentaries ever produced.  It is a must see.

#MoreThanMean Means More Than Being More Than Mean

I have a younger sister who I am very protective of.  We talk sometimes about her challenges as a math teacher, and how kids can be difficult and hard to handle.  Especially teenage boys.  My wife works in customer service, and after she tells me about how her day went, I have on more than one occasion wanted to go to blows with the customer who disrespected her.  There is something that cannot be articulated, almost primal, that makes me feel that somehow they, as women, should be treated differently.  With more respect.  Moreover, I feel like had they been men, the interactions would have gone down a bit differently.

And so, when I saw the video from Just Not Sports, where guys read real online comments about women sports reporters to those reporters, I immediately got it.  The comments were tasteless and ridiculously out of line.  These are professionals who are doing a job they are more than qualified for.  If they had penises and adams apples, they would not be getting lobbed such vulgar words.



And so my right brain is hoping that the PSA changes hearts and minds.

Meanwhile, my left brain was a little wary of the whole thing.  When I listened to The Trifecta on ESPN this weekend, I understood why.  The Trifecta is a weekend radio show hosted by Sarah Spain, Jane McManus and Kate Fagan.  Bomani Jones, also a host of his own show on ESPN but this time a call-in guest, talked about the PSA with the hosts of The Trifecta.  He suggested that management at Twitter needs to be more mindful of what people post, suggesting that Twitter should censor such comments.

Uh-oh.  I know that Jones is speaking about common decency, but censoring people because we do not like what they are saying bleeds into violations of free speech.  To be sure, as a private company, Twitter is well within their right to tell people what they can and cannot post on their space.  But as a democratic, free society, we have to be brave enough to allow people to say things that are off color or unpopular.  The #MoreThanMean PSA has implications that move beyond simply urging people to not be vulgar and disrespectful towards women.  It is a slippery slope in the direction of chocking off public speech on social media.

We should not censor the public sphere – especially in an age where the public sphere is so accessible and so powerful.  In fact, we need to work extra hard to protect the speech of those who are being so disrespectful to women. That’s right.  I am defending the right of people to call women c—.  Just like I defend the right of whites to call black people n—-.  Just like I defend the right of homophobes to call gays and lesbians p—-.  That’s hard stuff, I know.  But until the comments move into identifiable forms of threat, I feel that it is my duty as an American citizen to defend their right to speak the way they want.

I support the idea that unpopular speech is what a democracy is all about.  In Stalin’s USSR unpopular speech was met with a trip to the Gulag, or death.  Speech – in the form of writing and public protests, is what gave the gay and lesbian movement the free space it needed to articulate its concerns.  Being sympathetic to the social and political concerns of women, racial minorities, and sexual minorities was at one time unpopular speech.  Someone, somewhere, thought it was “more than mean” to say that his or her son was born effeminate and had sexual desires for men.  He or she probably thought it was vulgar, and that person should not be allowed to speak in public forums, write in newspapers, or give lectures on college campuses. 

I agree with the underlying sentiment behind the #MoreThanMean PSA.  But unfortunately, if a listener feels so aggrieved that they wish to send an off color, vulgar tweet to Sarah Spain or any other host that is female (black, Christian fundamentalist, or Muslim as well) it is my responsibility as a lover of liberty to defend that scumbag’s right to tweet it.




Everybody a Social Movement

A few decades ago, back when the Internet was a cherubic baby and the words “you’ve got mail” made people smile with glee, people were predicting that the Internet would forever change the relationship between government and individuals. Because information could be shared more easily, government could be more transparent and citizens would have more power over their elected officials, they said. Individuals, now able to dip their hands into flows of information no longer controlled by the levees of large media corporations, had more freedom to develop their own opinions about the world, they said. All this would lead to a level of individual freedom never before seen in recorded human history. The biggest changes, they said, would be in societies with authoritarian governments. These regimes would no longer be able to control their citizens.

These prophecies, to some degree, came to pass with the Arab Spring. Scholars were giddy over the people power presented in those social movements, and were quick to point out the role social media played in challenging, and sometimes removing, authoritarian regimes in countries like Egypt, Tunisia, and Djibouti.

I believe that these events were momentous. And like many scholars, I believe that the Internet has the potential to help bring democracy to authoritarian countries.

But I think that the biggest sea change will occur not in authoritarian countries, but in democratic societies. It is in democracies that the Internet and social media may affect the most lasting changes in the relationship between government and individual. It may not seem so, because every four or eight years we meet the new boss who is the same as the old boss. But a social media enabled “revolution”, as it were, may be occurring right now in the United States.

Over the past several weeks, three distally related events suggest to me that this is the case:

  • Two people who have never held public office are the frontrunners for the Republican nomination. There is a general feeling of mistrust in America towards its government officials. So much so that conservatives are willing to throw their support behind anyone who is not seen as a part of the establishment. Conservatives want “citizen statesman” as opposed to career politicians. As a result, two rather odd characters are the frontrunners. One is a once-bankrupt blowhard with perpetually puckered lips. The other is a mild-mannered surgeon who looks to me to be always squinting.
  • Law enforcement is suggesting there is a “Ferguson Effect”. FBI director James Comey said in a recent speech that law enforcement is afraid to be proactive because of social media: “In today’s YouTube world, are officers reluctant to get out of their cars and do the work that controls violent crime? Are officers answering 911 calls but avoiding the informal contact that keeps bad guys from standing around, especially with guns? I don’t know whether this explains it entirely, but I do have a strong sense that some part of the explanation is a chill wind blowing through American law enforcement over the last year. And that wind is surely changing behavior.” Comey made these remarks at a time when the violent crime rate in the United States has increased. Some have linked the “Ferguson Effect” to this spike, while others have said there is no evidence to support the claim. What is important here for the argument I am trying to make is that police officers feel like they are under more scrutiny.
  • The President and Chancellor of the University of Missouri step down. A coalition of black students, faculty and graduate assistants, and football players (most importantly, the football players) formed a movement that ousted the president of that university. As is often the case, protest begets more protest. Protests were seen within a matter of days of the president’s ousting at over twenty campuses – including Yale and Smith colleges.

All three of these phenomena are examples of a loss of authority. Individuals simply don’t believe in the people and institutions that have been charged to lead them.


People have been talking about the decline of trust in government for some time now as it relates specifically to government officials. But I think it goes deeper than that. There is a sea change in the cultural expectations individuals have for all authority figures of a certain type. The German sociologist Max Weber identified three types of authority:

  • Legal-rational – based on abstract legal principles. A person or institution’s ability to exercise power over another is grounded in the rule of law. Weber saw bureaucracy as the epitome of legal-rational authority. Think about the guy who holds your fate in the palm of his hands at the DMV.
  • Traditional – this is authority that is passed down or based on custom. Unlike legal-rational authority, there is no rational basis upon which a person or institution is given the authority to make decisions.  He could be an idiot, but he has authority simply because it was always that way.
  • Charismatic – this type of authority is based on an individual person’s ability to inspire others. Religious prophets and leaders of social movements have charismatic authority. No law or tradition gives them the right to tell people what to do.  People follow because they have the chutzpah to thumb their nose at traditional authorities.

Modern Western societies are dominated by figures vested with legal-rational authority. Local and federal governments have power over many aspects of people’s lives. Indeed, Weber was writing at a time when Western societies were becoming more rational and less traditional, with a growing importance of the state making decisions. This has, with some exceptions, only increased. Ronald Reagan famously said in a 1986 speech that “the nine most terrifying words in the English language were ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help you’”. Reagan, as were (are) many conservatives, railing against government bureaucracy encroaching over aspects of their lives that were traditionally the purview of the family.

I never thought I'd get chance to put Reagan in one of my blog posts! In this Dec. 29, 1988, file photo President Ronald Reagan waves to onlookers as he arrived in Palm Springs, Calif. Reagan's line “the nine most terrifying words in the English language were 'I’m from the government and I’m here to help you'” is in essence a critique of the encroachment of legal-rational authority.

I never thought I’d ever be putting this man in one of my blog posts! In this Dec. 29, 1988, file photo President Ronald Reagan waves to onlookers as he arrived in Palm Springs, Calif. Reagan’s line “the nine most terrifying words in the English language were ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help you’” is in essence a critique of the encroachment of legal-rational authority.

Everybody a Social Movement

The rise of outsider candidates, the purported Ferguson Effect, and the removal of University of Missouri’s president, suggest to me that we are at a critical juncture in American society. I think charismatic authority is rapidly gaining legitimacy at the expense of legal-rational authority. Scholars prophesied that it was in less developed countries, dominated by traditional authority, where the Internet would have its greatest impact on governments. But this is not the case. The Internet, and more specifically social media, has had and will continue to have its greatest impact within democratic countries whose leaders possess power through legal-rational authority.

The growth of charismatic authority is not about a few exceptional human beings leading moral crusades against unjust legal-rational and traditional authorities in the style of Mahatma Gandhi. Imagine Gandhi  – tiny, with walking stick in hand, blinking placidly behind thick glasses.  British soldiers with stiff upper lips are pointing rifles down at him, waiting on orders from their commanding officers.  Behind Gandhi are multitudes of Indians, ready to forge ahead. It was, in some ways, a hierarchical assembly led by a charismatic authority figure standing up to another, more powerful hierarchical assembly led by legal-rational authority figures. But the days of transcendent figures being able to command and a group of people in this way seem to be over.  Indeed, the people who try to organize people to walk down main street are ineffectual at best, and tired  jokes at worst.  Think Al Sharpton.

The type of charismatic authority that is eating away at legal-rational authority has a different form. In an age of social media and networked individualism we have hundreds of thousands of people who are busy collecting “likes”, “followers”, and “retweets”. They have their own view of things and their own narratives about the world. They do not need a Cesar Chavez or Martin Luther King to speak truth to power. They can do it themselves.

It is not readily apparent that the desire to gain followers is something akin to the desire to lead a social movement.  But if we think about it, they are very similar in function.  The idea is to be witty or provocative enough with 140 character quips to get people to pay attention to you, to repeat what you said, and regurgitate your ideas to others.  The goal is to influence others to take your views – to follow you based solely on your charisma.

Everybody is a social movement these days.

Unforeseen Consequences

The consequences of this new form of charismatic authority encroaching on legal-rational authority are hard to predict. But I can venture some ideas that flow along political lines.

For progressives, movements like Black Lives Matter are not as focused and directed at specific policy changes. You’ve got too many cooks in the pot, so to speak. Everybody has their own version of what Black Lives Matter means, and they tweet their versions to their thousands of followers. There is no seminal charismatic figure as the focal point of the movement, given the authority to define goals and set strategy. If you ask five people what is the end game of the Black Lives Matter movement, you will get six different answers. Interestingly, it has been through legal-rational channels that progressive movements have ultimately entrenched their victories. Martin Luther King may have changed hearts and minds with charisma, but concrete changes were only got through changes in law. And so ironically, as people with an interest in progressive causes invest more of their energies in social media and following the multitude of charismatic networked individuals, they may be siphoning energy away from the type of authority that can create lasting change.

For conservatives, I think that their party may be gutted from the inside. Indeed, it already has. Although they like to see themselves as the party of self-sufficient families and small businesses, in reality the Republican party is just as much beholden to government (see: military-industrial complex, see: Trans-Pacific Partnership) as Democrats. True Republicans know this, and thus you see people supporting the Tea Party, a growth in the presence of Libertarians, and yes Donald Trump and Ben Carson.

Takeaways from a Talk by Steve Wozniak: The Mount Rushmore of the Digital Environment

If we had to create a Mount Rushmore* for the digital environment, who would be on it?  Who would be the four people that should be immortalized in granite?

Last week I listened to a talk given by Steve Wozniak (co-founder of Apple).  He is a very engaging guy.  Full of life, brilliant, and from a distance at least, he seemed quite warm.  Today as I sit in my office wasting time, I think back to that talk and I realize just how important Steve Wozniak is to the digital environment.  I think he – not his more famous counterpart at Apple Steve Jobs, or even Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg – would deserve to be on the “Mount Rushmore of the Digital Environment”.


Photo by: Nick Harrison

That might be a bit surprising, as many people have not even heard of Wozniak.  Well, let me explain…


Bewildered and Befuddled Masses

In The Pacific War, Saburo Ienaga (1913 – 2002) chronicles the culture and institutions of Imperial Japan during the years 1931 (the year Japan declared war on China) until 1945 (they year they surrendered to the United States to end WWII).  One takeway I got from reading this book was the power of national identity.

From the early 1850’s until the end of WWII, Japan’s institutions monopolized thought and content production.  A national identity – who they were, where they had come from, and where they were going, had been forged for their citizens.  Through government censoring, the Japanese developed  a common understanding of the reasons for Japanese aggression.  Schools taught their young that one of the greatest honors was to fight and die in war for their Emperor.  Ienaga, who experienced this era firsthand, gave examples of school book lessons that taught grammar through stories of bravery on the battlefront.  In these same books, other ethnic groups and races – especially the Chinese – were portrayed as inferior, needing to subdued, and then led by a superior Japanese race.  The books and essays that the government allowed to be printed explained Japan’s colonization of China, Korea, Indonesia, and other countries in Far East Asia as benevolent attempts to wrest them out of white, European hands.  Newspapers told stories of Japanese success on the battlefield, and ignored the failures.  Even as the Japanese Empire shrunk and the US militarily won victory after victory, the citizens, Ienaga writes, believed that Japan, its military, and its Emperor would win the war.

The narrative constructed by the Japanese authorities was cohesive, compelling, and agreed upon by most of the population (they had no choice, dissenters were dealt with harshly).  But the population had little knowledge of what was actually happening.  Japan’s colonization had nothing to do with protecting poor Asian countries from Western domination.  It was all about extracting resources.  The Japanese military was quite good, and punched way above its weight, but attacking the US was foolhardy and the Japanese were bound to be overwhelmed by American materiel.

Digital Age America is the exact opposite of Imperial Era Japan.  Where Japanese shared a national identity built on an information monopoly, Americans are wading through a welter of information with no way of understanding it.


Canaries in Coal Mines

The metaphor of the “canary in the coal mine”, is apparently an overworked one, so says an article by the Wall Street Journal.  But it’s just so darn useful.

I often use it when explaining the causes of many social problems.  Groups with less money, education, social, and cultural resources tend to be “canaries”.  The problems they endure presently often become the problems of wider society in the future.  It was the poor and minorities who first began defaulting during the housing crisis.  We have a heroin epidemic in this country, hitting poor white communities the hardest.

Disadvantaged groups suffer social problems at higher rates than other groups because they don’t have resources to shield themselves from these problems.  When things happen  – the economy tanks, a new narcotic enters the market or bacteria is introduced – they get the worst of it.  Just like the canary in the coal mine gets the worst of a mine filled with toxic gas.

Now let me shift gears…

In the recent European Parliament elections, far right groups made impressive gains.  While many people are surprised by these gains, scholars who study online speech should not have been.  They had seen many online “canaries” pointing to the rise of anti-immigrant, extremism in Europe.  I also like to explore content online, and I’ve seen similar canaries that point to this same phenomenon occurring in the United States.


The Borg Mentality

As everyone knows by now, Donald Sterling, the owner of the Los Angeles Clipper, has been banned from coming to NBA games and team practices.  The league has begun taking steps to force Sterling to sell the team.  These actions were set in motion by an audiotape of him making racist remarks was leaked to TMZ by his then girlfriend.

As I write this, on 5.2.14, the Sterling affair still has legs.  One storyline – the one I am most interested in – is about privacy, and what is the responsible way of reacting to private conversations being made public.  This is a welcome development.  As I said in a prior post, it is troubling that we as a society allow intimate conversations to be made a part of public discourse, and that a person can be prosecuted for those private conversations.

ESPN columnist Jason Whitlock writes “[A]n angry, agenda-fueled mob provoked NBA commissioner Adam Silver into handing Sterling a basketball death sentence.” I heard an interview he did on Colin Cowherd’s radio show, I thought it was excellent, one of the best I’ve heard in a while.   Los Angeles Laker great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has also expressed some concern over society’s reactions to the Sterling tapes.  In an editorial for Time Magazine, Abdul-Jabbar expresses some concern over what the media did to Sterling.  Abdul-Jabbar writes that the media got “caught big game on a slow news day, so they put his head on a pike, dubbed him Lord of the Flies, and danced around him whooping.”