Sunday, February 26, 2017

Nationalize Facebook, Twitter, and Google

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 (especially) 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 these corporations 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 et al. 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. Likewise, Google has amassed more information on the American citizenry than any secret police in history could ever dream of collecting. As its extraordinary economic, cultural, and political power continue to expand, Google has plainly emerged as the quasi-sovereign East India Company of our day.

The more power these companies come to command, the more our political rights of speech and participation will be reduced to nothing more than mere parchment guarantees. 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 et al. 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 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.