Sunday, February 26, 2017

Nationalize Facebook and Twitter

Ross Douthat has admirably announced that he will be outlining a set of ambitious policy proposals. As I remarked (in full seriousness) on Twitter, I hope Douthat's forthcoming series will include discussions of worker cooperatives (or at least profit sharing) and a full-throated defense of ludditry (burn the machine!)

Inspired by Douthat's example, I would like to outline a radical idea of my own: The federal government should take control of Facebook, Twitter, and (possibly) Google. I of course do not fully agree with that proposition. But it is worth serious consideration.

Social media companies have come to constitute the American public sphere. All political, moral, economic, and social debate in this country is now mediated through a handful of privately-run online platforms. It isn't just that Facebook and Twitter contribute to public discourse, they define it. Given that reality of contemporary mass society, it has become painfully clear that social media exerts disproportionate control over our politics. The power of Facebook and Twitter to ban certain voices and ideas and to promote others is tantamount to the power of adjudicating what views are and are not acceptable in American social life.

The more power these companies come to command, the more our first amendment right of free speech will be reduced to nothing more than a mere parchment guarantee. As social media platforms become not merely participants in social discourse, but the foundation of civil society itself, they will need to be made accountable to political oversight and control. Of course mass exit could undermine that monopolistic power. But the degree to which Facebook and Twitter have ingrained themselves in social life makes that possibility rather remote.

Following the Citizens United decision, much of the political Left in this country insisted that democracy as we knew it was dead. That hysterical reaction was, it seems to me, entirely overblown. But you need not believe that a corporation's ability to purchase a 30 second political commercial on TV constitutes an illicit form of corporate corruption to agree with me that the ability to control who may or may not speak in the nation's de facto public sphere is nothing short of totalitarian plutocracy.

As I said at the top, I am of course not entirely serious about this proposal. I'm not sure if it would be legally possible, and I worry it would be altogether unwise. I certainly do not put much faith in the federal government as a guarantor of free speech. But I put substantially less faith in the judgment of a cadre of barely post-pubescent, trans-humanist, "militantly open-minded," rootless, innovation-worshiping, technocratic tech junkies in Silicon Valley. (Some, I assume, are good people). Put another way, the federal government seems far less likely than Mark Zuckerberg to take teacher-of-princes Mark Tushnet's advice to heart.

Some degree of federal involvement and accountability, then, may be necessary. But I am open to other proposals. A former professor of mine, for example, has suggested that Facebook be democratized from within. Another possibility would be to regulate social media platforms as public utilities with respect to speech issues. There are difficulties with these views as well, but that the prescription may be imperfect does not mean that the malignancy isn't there.

So that's the second radical idea I have proposed on this blog. The first, I suppose, was banning usury. I take this one somewhat more seriously. A related soon-to-be mainstream view of mine is that aspiring tyrant Mark Zuckerberg should be immediately ostracized. But that's a topic for a later post.

Patriotism, Nationalism, and Loyalty

Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru's recent defense of nationalism in the cover story for National Review launched a bit of a debate among conservative commentators. Lowry and Ponnuru's qualified defense of nationalism was critiqued by Jonah Goldberg, who drew a line between nationalism--a cultural loyalty to one's tribe--and patriotism--a commitment to the political ideals of one's country.

It's not at all clear to me if Goldberg's conceptual distinctions here can apply outside of America. As Goldberg observes:

Our shrines are to patriots who upheld very specific American ideals. Our statues of soldiers commemorate heroes who died for something very different from what other warriors have fought and died for for millennia. Every one of them — immigrants included — took an oath to defend not just some soil but our Constitution and by extension the ideals of the Founding. Walk around any European hamlet or capital and you will find statues of men who fell in battle to protect their tribe from another tribe.
But does this distinction mean, therefore, that Europeans are incapable of exercising patriotism? Or does it mean that the only true European patriots are those who honor the new European constitution? Perhaps that's what Goldberg means. But patriotism is not a new word or a new concept. And the fine distinctions Goldberg tries to draw here don't strike me as all that impressive. Of course the American project is distinguished by its creedal character. Only a fool could deny that. But faith in the Declaration of Independence or an appreciation of James Madison's genius clearly does not a patriot make. Our founding documents are admired by Belgians and Bengalis. And quite a few American patriots (including me every once in a while) have little patience for the extravagant liberalism of "America the Idea."

Yuval Levin's contribution to the debate (which generously referenced my own musings on this topic) is far more balanced:

The ideas aren’t what matters most. The people are. And forgetting that, as we on the Right sometimes do, is a very great failing. An overly abstract idealistic Americanism has contributed a lot to the failure of our politics in recent years. You can see it in particular in the immigration debates, and more generally in the unrequited desire for solidarity that drives a lot of the populism we now see. I’ve taken up that point around here before in recent years, most recently after the Brexit vote.   
But the ideas and ideals are nonetheless also crucial to what makes American nationalism a force for good. And they are also what unites American nationalism with American exceptionalism. We cannot truly respect ourselves as a people without a story rooted in what has made us distinct. Ross Douthat wrote insightfully about this challenge this past weekend.
Reading through these exchanges, I was reminded of a challenging lecture Alasdair MacIntyre delivered on the topic of patriotism some years ago. MacIntyre is never easy to interpret, but he in part seems to agree with Goldberg's conceptual account of nationalism, while rejecting Goldberg's normative conclusion. Patriotism for MacIntyre is either a pre-liberal loyalty to one's fellows or it is nothing at all. Corrupting that loyalty with Levin's "ideals" only serves to corrupt the virtue.

MacIntyre's challenge is an important one. But it must be observed that there is something radically modern about his stringent dichotomy. Pericles Funeral Oration is one of our tradition's quintessential statements of love of patria. But it is of course a celebration of an Athens dedicated to a set of propositions. Are we to insist that Pericles is guilty of a creeping proto-liberalism? Perhaps we could, but that does not strike me as all too productive a use of our time.


There are important tensions that the American conservative must grapple with in understanding his patriotism. After all, this creedal country's practice has often been at odds with (and at times far better than) her ideals. For the conservative, then, nationalism and patriotism (for I draw no distinction between the two) are born from a loyalty to and gratitude for our political inheritance, but are perfected when we build on and celebrate the best of our tradition. Loyalty commits us not only to love that which is our own, but to treasure the good we find in it.


Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Civic Nationalism and President Trump's Inaugural Address

There wasn’t much to be excited about in President Trump’s inaugural address last week. The speech’s language itself was, of course, more demotic and crude than that of any inaugural in American history. And there is no doubt Trump neglected to provide the invocations of our national civic religion one expects at such occasions. These developments aren’t necessarily all bad. While the decline of oratory is lamentable, Trump’s plain-spokenness really just makes stark the rhetorical emptiness that has characterized American political speeches for decades. And while our civic religion does periodically need reinvigoration, perhaps it is appropriate to take a break from tired (and increasingly implausible) paeans to this great land of opportunity.

Yet while certainly a disappointment, many of the conservative critiques of the speech (exemplified by this Bill Kristol tweet) proved rather helpful in making me see the bright side of Trump’s rhetorical pivot. After all, it is a very good thing indeed that our President has retired the utopian clichés of late-stage neoconservatism. President Bush’s Second Inaugural gave us enough of those shibboleths to last several lifetimes

In fact, I am thrilled to see a rhetorical and philosophical transition toward a civic nationalist conservatism. But I remain worried that Trump’s nationalism won’t really move beyond the dogmas of the recent past. As someone pointed out to me over lunch a couple days ago, in many ways Trump is simply assembling all the nation’s worst clichés, left and right, since World War II. The GOP’s new civic nationalism accordingly threatens to combine the very worst of social democratic statism with the very worst of Reaganite supply-side economics, adding a new contribution of caesarist, rule-by-command.

Trump’s rhetoric of national greatness in many respects recalls the progressive “New Nationalism” of Teddy Roosevelt. Fixated with an illusory “national community,” such nationalism demands war against corrupt elites (the swamp Trump so desperately wishes to drain) to advance the public good. In Roosevelt’s words:
The American people are right in demanding that New Nationalism, without which we cannot hope to deal with new problems. The New Nationalism puts the national need before sectional or personal advantage. It is impatient of the utter confusion that results from local legislatures attempting to treat national issues as local issues. It is still more impatient of the impotence which springs from overdivision of governmental powers, the impotence which makes it possible for local selfishness or for legal cunning, hired by wealthy special interests, to bring national activities to a deadlock. This New Nationalism regards the executive power as the steward of the public welfare.
I certainly agree that many of our elites represent a grave threat to the health of our national culture and civic institutions. But I fear that Trump’s authoritarian pragmatic impulse may well be a cure as deadly as our disease. Calvin Coolidge wisely observed that when any man “begins to feel that he is the only one who can lead in this republic, he is guilty of treason to the spirit of our institutions.” And if there is anything at all we can be sure Trump actually believes, it is that he is the indispensable man.

I had hoped then for an inaugural less charged with the impulse to remake America anew, and more dedicated to providing a philosophical statement of the meaning of citizenship. In this regard, Teddy Roosevelt is not a bad act to follow. Our politics today is threatened by seemingly intractable cultural divisions, fueled unrelentingly by the academy’s fixation with identity politics. What is needed in response is a restatement of American citizenship without hyphens:
There is no room in this country for hyphenated Americanism. When I refer to hyphenated Americans, I do not refer to naturalized Americans. Some of the very best Americans I have ever known were naturalized Americans, Americans born abroad. But a hyphenated American is not an American at all. This is just as true of the man who puts “native” before the hyphen as of the man who puts German or Irish or English or French before the hyphen. Americanism is a matter of the spirit and of the soul…. 
The one absolutely certain way of bringing this nation to ruin, of preventing all possibility of its continuing to be a nation at all, would be to permit it to become a tangle of squabbling nationalities, an intricate knot of German-Americans, Irish-Americans, English-Americans, French-Americans, Scandinavian-Americans or Italian-Americans, each preserving its separate nationality, each at heart feeling more sympathy with Europeans of that nationality, than with the other citizens of the American Republic.
I was glad to hear in Trump’s inaugural one or two references to a pan-ethnic American solidarity. But the speech did little to provide a clear statement of the meaning of American citizenship. To be a citizen is to be given the real opportunity to lead a decent, flourishing, American life. It entails a thick commitment not only to our people’s material prosperity, but to their ability to assimilate into the cultural mainstream. 

This is the argument from solidarity civic nationalists should advance in favor of immigration restrictionism, for example. Solidarity cannot be sustained in a nation that lacks the ability to integrate immigrants and their children. Our primary priority today should be extending opportunity and social dignity to the millions of Americans who have been forgotten, including, of course, our black racial underclass. But with a foreign-born share of the population at historic highs, and with assimilation rates slowing to a crawl, continued mass migration threatens to further ossify an existing racial caste system.

The nationalist, "America First" philosophy of immigration demands taking in relatively few immigrants, but affording those we do take in a real chance at cultural and economic integration. At the same time, it calls us to prioritize expanding opportunities to the most disadvantaged of our fellow citizens before maximizing global utility and welfare.

Such a renewed ethos of solidarity should be the core of a civic nationalist conservatism. I can't say I am optimistic that this is what President Trump’s promise of “America First” will deliver, but I can say I remain hopeful.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Stanley Hauerwas on the Dangers of Community

I recently came across this excellent interview with Stanley Hauerwas on the limits of the idea of community. The distinction he draws here between two types of community has some useful parallels with an early blog post I wrote on "two concepts of nationalism."
First, community for community’s sake is not a good idea. Sartre is right: hell is other people! Community by itself cannot overwhelm the loneliness of our lives. I think we are a culture that produces extreme loneliness. Loneliness creates a hunger – and hunger is the right word, indicating as it does the physical character of the desire and need to touch another human being.

But such desperate loneliness is very dangerous. Look at NFL football. Suddenly you’re in a stadium with a hundred thousand people and they are jumping up and down. Their bodies are painted red, like the bodies that surround them. They now think their loneliness has been overcome. I used to give a lecture in my basic Christian Ethics class that I called “The Fascism of College Basketball.” You take alienated upper-middle-class kids who are extremely unsure of who they are – and suddenly they are Duke Basketball. I call it Duke Basketball Fascism because fascism has a deep commitment to turning the modern nation-state into a community. But to make the modern state into a kind of community – for the state to become the primary source of identity through loose talk about community – is very dangerous. It is not community for its own sake that we seek. Rather, we should try to be a definite kind of community.