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The Past Won’t Save You and Neither Will Political Institutions

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Ever since Trump was elected, liberals have been holding on to the ideas that something will save us from this. The nadir of this was people begging the Electoral College to not allow Trump to be elected. C’mon.

Anyway, as this hell has continued, the obvious comparison to the present has been the Watergate era. People continually compare Trump’s corruption to that of Nixon and note how Watergate forced him out the door. We don’t know what will become of Trump and the Mueller investigation. But as Will Bunch usefully states, the comparisons aren’t very valuable because the nation is a very different place in 2018 than in 1974, and not in a good way.

The emotional pull of seeing the aging lions who brought down Nixon night after night, the thrill of seeing a Carl Bernstein byline taking on a modern president, the swelling drama of a movie like “All the President’s Men” all carries a subliminal message, that the system that worked in 1974 is going to work again — maybe not this week, but soon.

Isn’t it pretty to think so? The reality, of course, is that while some of the giants of the Watergate era still roam the earth, the planet that they inhabit is nothing like the world that existed two score and four years ago — mainly because the powerful institutions that supported the Nick Ackermans and the Jill Wine-Bankses and the Woodwards and Bernsteins have collapsed.

Go back and watch “All the President’s Men” as I did the other night, and one of the most striking things about the film (aside from the clever, grown-up dialogue and the brilliant direction by Alan J. Pakula) is how many people were trusting and would readily divulge key information to two journalists they’d never met before — even (not always, but sometimes) when they knocked on the doors of strangers’ homes late at night. That level of public trust — or naivete, perhaps — is long gone. After Watergate we paid lip service to journalism with moves like the Freedom of Information Act but the reality is that FOIA laws are honored mostly in the breach, and where journalists can go and whom they can talk to is greatly restricted, as evidenced most famously by the holding pens for reporters at Trump rallies.

Sure, Nixon and his chief hatchet man, vice president Spiro Agnew, waged war on the “nattering nabobs of negativism” in the media, but Trump has taken that to 1930s-Europe levels with his “enemies of the people” shtick, and the 45th president also has something that the 37th president would have killed for — a network that includes the top-rated cable news channel, a ring of talk-radio stations and online news sites that can present “alternative facts” for his rabid base.

In 1974, idealistic young prosecutors like Ackerman and Wine-Banks were able to take on an imperial president because the political system — especially Congress — was still committed to fundamental notions of democracy. Some of that was ideology — you actually had such as thing as “liberal Republicans” like Connecticut Sen. Lowell Weicker who could be a thorn in Nixon’s side — but some of that was real accountability; the Senate voted 77-0 in February 1973, when the president was at the peak of his power, to investigate Watergate. That simply would not happened today, not with Republicans answering to voters who claim they’d prefer Vladimir Putin over Hillary Clinton.

The other difference, though, is the man in the Oval Office. Nixon — for all his paranoia and the illegality of his campaign dirty tricks — still respected the guard rails of constitutional democracy enough that didn’t destroy the White House tapes, didn’t defy the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court when he was ordered to turn them over, and even voluntarily released that “smoking gun” tape with an acknowledgement that he would be impeached. (Instead, he resigned after a delegation of GOP senators urged him to do so; could you imagine Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — after shredding the Constitution to get Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court — doing the same?)

Trump, on the other hand, is a graduate of the despicable “fixer” Roy Cohn’s school of political diplomacy — deny everything, admit nothing, lie profusely, and when those don’t work, sue everybody in sight. There’s little doubt that had Trump been president in 1974, he would not think twice about doing the things that even Richard Nixon would not do — ripping America apart and maybe even threatening a civil war, all for the sole purpose of saving his own narcissistic hide.

Watergate remains a hell of a story, but when you plop it down in a new millennium — where the bitter seeds of an American strain of fascism have already been planted — it should be read more as a myth. The fatal flaw in the storyline is the idea that a few heroes — ink-stained wretches and wide-eyed kids straight out of law school or a wise judge like John J. Sirica or a jowly senator like Sam Ervin — can take down the excesses of the Trump presidency.

The only answer to defeating Trump is organizing. And it might not work. No political heroes are going to come save us. Democrats winning the House would be huge because even if Trump fired Mueller, the House could start its own investigations, and certainly would. But we need to erase the idea that anything like what brought down Nixon will bring down Trump. It almost certainly will not. If anything does, it’s us.

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TJMan
123 days ago
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UK regulators ban lies in ISP ads, advertised speeds drop by 41%

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The UK Committees of Advertising Practice changed the rules for ISP advertising: where once the ISPs could advertise speeds of "Up to" some incredibly high number so long as 10% of customers ever achieved that speed, now ISPs can only advertise a speed promise if 51% of their customers attain that speed at all times. (more…)

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TJMan
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Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change

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In 1998, author and media critic Neil Postman gave a talk he called Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change. Here are the five ideas Postman shared that day, which are all still highly relevant today:

1. All technological change is a trade-off. For every advantage a new technology offers, there is always a corresponding disadvantage.

2. The advantages and disadvantages of new technologies are never distributed evenly among the population. This means that every new technology benefits some and harms others.

3. Embedded in every technology there is a powerful idea, sometimes two or three powerful ideas. Every technology has a philosophy which is given expression in how the technology makes people use their minds, in what it makes us do with our bodies, in how it codifies the world, in which of our senses it amplifies, in which of our emotional and intellectual tendencies it disregards.

4. Technological change is not additive; it is ecological. The consequences of technological change are always vast, often unpredictable and largely irreversible.

5. Media tend to become mythic. Cars, planes, TV, movies, newspapers — they have achieved mythic status because they are perceived as gifts of nature, not as artifacts produced in a specific political and historical context.

His first idea about technology is perhaps the most apropos to the current moment:

The first idea is that all technological change is a trade-off. I like to call it a Faustian bargain. Technology giveth and technology taketh away. This means that for every advantage a new technology offers, there is always a corresponding disadvantage. The disadvantage may exceed in importance the advantage, or the advantage may well be worth the cost. Now, this may seem to be a rather obvious idea, but you would be surprised at how many people believe that new technologies are unmixed blessings. You need only think of the enthusiasms with which most people approach their understanding of computers. Ask anyone who knows something about computers to talk about them, and you will find that they will, unabashedly and relentlessly, extol the wonders of computers. You will also find that in most cases they will completely neglect to mention any of the liabilities of computers. This is a dangerous imbalance, since the greater the wonders of a technology, the greater will be its negative consequences.

Think of the automobile, which for all of its obvious advantages, has poisoned our air, choked our cities, and degraded the beauty of our natural landscape. Or you might reflect on the paradox of medical technology which brings wondrous cures but is, at the same time, a demonstrable cause of certain diseases and disabilities, and has played a significant role in reducing the diagnostic skills of physicians. It is also well to recall that for all of the intellectual and social benefits provided by the printing press, its costs were equally monumental. The printing press gave the Western world prose, but it made poetry into an exotic and elitist form of communication. It gave us inductive science, but it reduced religious sensibility to a form of fanciful superstition. Printing gave us the modern conception of nationhood, but in so doing turned patriotism into a sordid if not lethal emotion. We might even say that the printing of the Bible in vernacular languages introduced the impression that God was an Englishman or a German or a Frenchman — that is to say, printing reduced God to the dimensions of a local potentate.

Perhaps the best way I can express this idea is to say that the question, “What will a new technology do?” is no more important than the question, “What will a new technology undo?” Indeed, the latter question is more important, precisely because it is asked so infrequently. One might say, then, that a sophisticated perspective on technological change includes one’s being skeptical of Utopian and Messianic visions drawn by those who have no sense of history or of the precarious balances on which culture depends. In fact, if it were up to me, I would forbid anyone from talking about the new information technologies unless the person can demonstrate that he or she knows something about the social and psychic effects of the alphabet, the mechanical clock, the printing press, and telegraphy. In other words, knows something about the costs of great technologies.

Idea Number One, then, is that culture always pays a price for technology.

It is nearly impossible to read these paragraphs and not think about how social media (and the internet more generally) has shaped our culture in both good and bad ways…and those who still believe that services like Facebook or Twitter are “unmixed blessings”. The rest of the talk is equally thought-provoking and enlightening.

P.S. Postman made these remarks about 2 weeks after I started publishing kottke.org 20 years ago. At that time, very few people I knew or interacted with online saw anything but the positive aspects of the internet and personal publishing online. Should we have seen the weaponization of the internet coming? Perhaps. But then again, not a lot of people who enjoyed the simple pleasures of Howdy Doody, I Love Lucy, and Lassie could have anticipated the government-shaping toxicity of Fox News and cable news in general.

Tags: internet   lists   Neil Postman   technology   TV   WWW
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TJMan
123 days ago
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dnorman
125 days ago
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“…culture always pays a price for technology.”
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