February 19, 2011

(More) Cranial Rectitis

So, here I am, reading the NYTBR for Feb. 6, a review of the book Hot, by Mark Hertsgaard. This author apparently deflates the notion that saving ourselves from global warming is a matter of some combination of cash and technology. No, the real issue, he says, is "social context." Politics and culture, he argues, may trump wealth and tech. Example: Louisiana. Efforts to prepare for future hurricanes have been crippled by the state's "continuing reluctance--even after Katrina--to acknowledge the reality of global warming for fear that might harm oil and gas production, and an abhorrence of taxes and public planning as somehow socialistic."

There really is no end to Cranial Rectitis in America; it seems to be infinite. Wen Stephenson, who wrote the review, says that Hertsgaard's book "makes me wonder if there isn't more hope for the Sahel than for the vulnerable South and Southwest of the United States. After all, why prepare for something--much less try to halt it--if you refuse to believe it's happening?"

But Hertsgaard's "solution" is the usual type of voluntarist nonsolution: what we need, apparently, is "an honest, urgent, grown-up national conversation--beginning in Washington." Um...duh?! When was the last time we had a "grown-up national conversation" in Washington? Every time I check the newspapers, it seems more like the antics of children than anything else. Mr. Obama, deluded in the extreme, thinks technology will save us, so he wastes his time talking to Steve Jobs and (that great human being) Mark Zuckerberg. Gosh, I can't wait to learn what exciting new plan they have in store for us. Meanwhile Hillary, as we've seen, flies off to Mexico to trumpet a nonsolution for the drug wars that everyone in Mexico knows won't work (because it hasn't now for years), then returns to DC to give an absurd "in this country we protect freedom of dissent" speech as her security team hauls off and beats up a silent protester in the audience (a guy who worked for the CIA for 27 yrs, but what the heck). (An event that went unreported in the major newspapers, BTW.) And the GOP is trying to get the economy to fail so they can blame national misery on Obama come November of next year. Why act like adults and try to help Americans when you can just act out like cranky children? Oh I tell you, I can't wait for the upcoming grown-up national conversation that will be held in DC on global warming and eco-disaster! I just have to get a ticket for that (non)event, so I can sit in the front row and take notes, absorb all the wisdom and hard-hitting plans for change that will swing into action as soon as the grown-up conversation is over.

Not to be too cynical (ha!), but I think that a massive study conducted by the NIH on the average amount of chicken fat located in the heads of these "grown-ups" in DC would be a much more worthwhile enterprise.

But let's move on. So much excitement recently over how Facebook recently precipitated the "revolution" (what revolution?) in Egypt. A thesis easily rebutted, as Malcolm Gladwell has done, but never mind. A few pages after the Hertsgaard review we find a review of The Net Delusion, by Evgeny Morozov. "What if the liberating potential of the Internet also contains the seeds of depoliticization and thus dedemocratization?," he asks. Morozov shows that more often than not, the Internet constricts or abolishes freedom. He points out how confused Hillary Clinton is, who, in a speech in 2005, called the Internet "an instrument of enormous danger"; but then last year, glorified it as a way "to advance democracy and human rights." (What a whack job this woman is. You, the reader, could do a better job as secretary of state than this clown in pants suits.) This belief, that the Net can be a force only for positive political change in repressive societies, Morozov calls "digital Orientalism."

Street protests in the wake of the last Iranian election is a good example of this, he points out. Oh the excitement, that "the revolution will be Twittered," as political blogger Andrew Sullivan proclaimed. Lee Siegel, author of the review of Morozov's book, cites this as a classic example of "Two decades of inane patter about the magical powers of a technology of mere convenience" ("inane," BTW, is a code word for Cranial Rectitis). He goes on:

"The Iranian protests against what the protesters believed was a corrupt election were brutally crushed because, as Morozov unsentimentally says, 'many Iranians found the elections to be fair.' The elements of a successful revolution--the complicity of the military, of a powerful political class, of an almost universally discontented population--simply weren't there. But the Internet boosters [people who typically know shit about history, in short], from journalists to officials in the State Department, succumbed, Morozov says, to 'the pressure to forget the context and start with what the Internet allows.' These people think only in terms of the Internet and are 'deaf to the social, cultural, and political subtleties and indeterminacies' of a given situation.

"What was broadcast on Twitter and elsewhere was repression of the revolution. The Iranian regime used the Web to identify photographs of protesters; to find out their personal information and whereabouts (through Facebook, naturally [nota bene]); to distribute propagandistic videos; and to text the population into counterrevolutionary paranoia." In 2007, a State Department official named Jared Cohen waxed eloquently as to how the Net was a place where Iranian youth could "say anything they want as they operate free from the grips of the police-state apparatus." Siegel comments: "Thanks to the exciting new technology, many of those freely texting Iranian youths are in prison or dead." As for Cohen, he is now working for Google as director of "Google Ideas." (How glorious.)

Morozov also documents how Mexican drug lords use social networking sites to gather info about their victims, and how Russian neofascist groups use the Net to fix the positions of minorities so as to organize pogroms. Meanwhile, both Twitter and Facebook have refused to join the Global Network Initiative, which is a pledge (writes Morozov) "to behave in accordance with the laws and standards covering the right to freedom of expression and privacy embedded in internationally recognized documents like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights." Siegel concludes: "The Internet is creating an egalitarian antidemocracy in which the strongest inhumanity tramples on the most eloquent rationality and decency."

It's so great, then, that the president regards a "faster Internet" as a key to solving our social and economic problems. What insight, what maturity. Clearly, the "grown-up national conversation" has already begun.

(c) Morris Berman, 2011