Spotify Faces the Music and MeToo Movement

My second column at The Federalist today is, “Why Spotify’s Decision To Censor Artists Opens An Bottomless Rabbit Hole.”  The decision of music streaming services to not only start policing “hate content,” but also to de-promote artists judged by them to have engaged in “especially harmful or hateful” conduct is going to turn into a chronic headache for these companies.  In particular, I suspect they will conclude that the statutory rape of minors is acceptable, based mostly on how many major rock and roll artists can plausibly accused of it.

Not too long ago, I had to leave out a discussion of the way we have let institutions decline and be replaced with platforms, and yet there is popular demand for platforms to act like institutions.  That discussion gets surfaced in today’s column.

What gets left out due to length this time is a discussion of the activist groups Spotify has recruited to help them implement their policy.  This is a moment of crisis management, so the impulse to bring in brands like the SPLC and GLAAD as an exercise in trust-building and branding is vaguely understandable, particularly if the execs at these companies lean left.  But I suspect Spotify will discover these groups make their living on expanding the scope of controversies, not quelling them.  And at least some of these groups will have no compunction about stabbing Spotify in the back the moment their political agenda diverges from Spotify’s desire to make a profit.  Unless these groups get to wet their beaks, of course.

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Andrew Sullivan Almost Seems Sane: Liner Notes

I have two new columns up at The Federalist today, the first of which is, “When Andrew Sullivan Almost Seems Sane, You Know We’re Crazy.”  The thesis is that Sullivan’s 2015 hiatus from blogging has allowed him to return as a columnist (for New York) who looks much saner in the Trump era than he actually is.  While original thinkers almost inherently will have some odd beliefs, Sullivan’s history as a conspiracy theorist should not be forgotten, even if it is overlooked by an establishment that finds most conservatives “too hot to handle” on their own pages.

What got left out for space?  By focusing on the conspiracies, I had to forgo a lot of the Sullivan nuttery that falls outside that category.  For example, while I referred to his theory about “Christianists” trying to take over America, I skipped his corollary view that circumcision is directly akin to female genital mutilation.  There was his effort to rewrite the Catechism of the Catholic Church to claim it views homosexuals as “intrinsically disordered… enemies of our own families and a threat to civilization as a whole,” when the Catechism actually describes the tendencies as disordered, adding the people involved: “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.”

I also skipped Sullivan’s rampant political revisionism.  When he turned against the war, he desperately needed to find ways he could portray John F. Kerry as more conservative in 2004, which led him to focus on George W. Bush’s big spending (a point half-true insofar as Kerry in most every case wanted to spend more).  In 2008, Sullivan gushed over Barack Obama while overlooking his proposed spending (which ballooned even further once elected).

And even now, I am scratching the surface.

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Facebook and Google Police the Irish Abortion Referendum: Liner Notes

I have a new column up at The Federalist, “Google And Facebook Restrict Speech About Ireland’s Abortion Referendum.”  It opens like this:

“In a 1983 referendum, Ireland overwhelmingly voted to enact the Eighth Amendment to its constitution, which protects the lives of the unborn: “The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.”

This month, there will be another vote on whether to repeal the amendment. Global tech giants Facebook and Google have been drawn into the campaign, with different approaches reflecting possibly different politics.”

While both companies likely have pro-choice leanings, Facebook chose to refuse only foreign ads (in line with their current U.S./Russia hangover), while Google is refusing all adds related to the vote.  The former didn’t bother pro-lifers much; the latter very much does.

What got left out for space?  Well, space tended to push me to a conclusion that’s about whether there will ever be bipartisan support for an antitrust investigation of these two companies’ dominance in online advertising.  With more space, it might have been more of a piece about the way we have let institutions decline and be replaced with platforms.  What we are discovering is that some platforms would like to be more active in the public square and conversely, that the elites of withering institutions would like to recruit platforms into more institutional roles.

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Joy Reid’s Bizarre Non-Apology is “All in the Family”: Liner Notes

I have a new column up at The Federalist on MSNBC host Joy Reid’s non-apology for past homophobic blog posts and tweets, which someone on Twitter joked could have been titled “(If) I Blogged It.”  But what it’s really about is reminding people that the progressive left has its share of “alliances” with racists, misogynists and other bigots that are tolerated by the establishment in ways that are never tolerated when found on the right:

The operational rule of American progressivism was explained by Jeffrey Goldberg when he fired Kevin Williamson from The Atlantic for his views on abortion. When Williamson objected to Goldberg that The Atlantic had a history of publishing provocative writers like the late Christopher Hitchens, Goldberg replied, ‘Yes. But Hitchens was in the family. You are not.’

Many have remarked on the tribalism embodied in that response. More significantly, it is tribalism in the service of enforcing the ugliest sort of double-standard. The rules are simply different for those ‘in the family.’

As usual, I had to leave various points out due to length.  For example, when noting MSNBC would be hard-pressed to fire Reid while retaining Brian Williams and defending Tom Brokaw, I cut a bit noting it’s the funhouse mirror version of the Boston Globe firing Mike Barnicle in part because they decided they had to fire Patricia Smith.  That the calculus now points against firing people may indicate the growing imperative of maintaining “alliances.”

(When I sarcastically noted that “dozens of women at NBC spontaneously decided to defend” Brokaw, I did not know that they reportedly “they felt under huge pressure to sign” the letter.)

Also, while  focused mostly on the institutional question, I wish I could have included a bit on rank-and-file lefties on social media.  Conservatives who happen to be women, or persons of color, or Jewish, or LGBTQ, etc. are pretty routinely the focus of bigoted attacks from progressives.  They also get attacked by the alt-right, but the alt-right slime does not purport to exercise absolute moral authority as the progressive left does.

Had I been able to get into that, I could have gone further into the degree to which this dynamic reflects a deeper, more basic difference between left and right.  The latter tend to assume human nature does not change much, recognizes that this is why we need “civilization,” and argue with the left primarily about how quick or coercive we can be in civilizing others.  The further identity politics drives the left into thinking humanity can be remade and remade quickly and coercively, the more the Joy Reid stories they will be forced to overlook.

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Real Fake News: Liner Notes

I have a column up today at The Federalist, “The Boston Globe’s News Fabrication Scandal Is Nothing New For Journalism,” about a case of alleged fabulism that did not get a lot of attention in our nine-news-cycles-daily environment:

In the latest episode of alleged “fake news” in high places, the Boston Globe’s Kevin Cullen was placed on leave after hosts on WEEI claimed the columnist—part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for breaking news during the Boston Marathon bombings—falsely inserted himself at the scene of the terror attack.”

Most of my piece is an aggregation of various cases of outright journalistic fraud, which seem to erupt every few years, with the discovery of one fabulist often bringing heat on others.

For reasons of space, I didn’t get to dive more into the case of fmr Globe columnist Mike Barnicle.  But if you read Kenneth Tomlinson’s TWS piece (also linked in my column), there is more about how even a case that was not overtly political, some subtle forms of politics — and pressure from an advertiser — helped Barnicle survive longer than he probably should have.  Length also precluded me from discussing Jonah Lerner, whose downfall was due primarily to plagiarism, but who also fabricated Bob Dylan quotes for a book and bizarrely went out of his way to push the false story that Steve Jobs demanded Pixar’s headquarters have only two bathrooms.

I have written for various outlets for roughly a dozen years or so, and I’m a big fan of hyperlinks.  I used to be rather obsessive about it, as in the days of the old school blogosphere, I thought it was important to “show my work,” establish authority, or discuss things from a common factual basis.  I have become a bit less obsessive about it because — as anyone who uses social media now recognizes — the percentage of people who click on hyperlinks is fairly low.  Nevertheless, I find that including links imposes a discipline that helps assure people that I am not making things up, and that my source materials are properly identified with a link as one might do with a footnote in other types of writing.

Of course, that’s far more difficult to do with original reporting than with punditry or analysis — but recording technologies should go a long way to help (and perhaps recordings should be vetted more often by editors than I suspect they are).

The rule of “too good to be true” should always be a guide, but in an age where journalism is increasingly devoted to confirming the audience’s biases and hostile to ideological diversity, the rule of “too good to be true” often gives way to the glee of “too good to check.”

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Should Conservatism Take The Benedict Option?

After Kevin Williamson got cashiered from The Atlantic for having extreme views about the proper legal punishment for abortion, Ben Domenech writes at The Federalist:

For those with views placing them on the right, the only way to win is not to play this game anymore. The only way to win is to build up our own platforms and institutions – our own Hillsdales, our own TV shows, our own Atlantics. And that’s why The Federalist exists.”

Is it too much to call this the “Benedict Option” for conservatism generally?  Maybe.  Having taken a few days to consider it, I guess I’d say that Williamson’s firing demonstrates the necessity of conservative institutions, but it may not demonstrate that seeking to mainstream conservatism into establishment institutions is a lost cause.

Last month, in writing about the successes and failures of the “conservative movement,” however defined, I noted:

[T]he history of the past few decades is one of conservatism being far more a movement of an elite — writers, scholars, activists and officials — than one of the masses.  Voters have gravitated to the GOP as much by an opposition to the steady leftward march of the Democratic Party as any intellectual or ideological commitment.

Some may look at this as a failure of conservative elites (e.g., Tucker Carlson‘s dismissal of the conservative nonprofit establishment).   In fact, conservative elites are responsible for hundreds of policy innovations people like Carlson apparently take for granted now.

But it is fair to say that conservatives lost the battle to remain integrated in larger, formerly more transpartisan institutions in (for example) academia and journalism — and the approach of building counter-institutions (an application of O’Sullivan’s Law) has had its failures, even if it succeeded in making Carlson a populist one-percenter.  Now the debate has shifted toward whether ostensibly conservative institutions — like politicians — are primarily in the business of offering considered judgments or merely representing a political constituency.”

The Right’s current predicament is in part a failure to fight to remain integrated into establishment institutions.  Relying on counter-institutions has been tried, and we should learn from that strategy’s failures as well as its successes.  One of those failures has been to sell casual citizens on conservatism /  libertarianism / etc. as a positive direction as opposed to a reaction against the excesses of the Left.  Another is that giving up on integration has contributed to the sort of vicious cycle of marginalization, victimhood and anger that Megan McArdle foresaw back in 2010.

Also — and perhaps this will be a point of disagreement for some — as Jonah Goldberg and Steven Hayward noted on The Remnant, no matter what strengths a Hillsdale brings to the table, it is unlikely that it will ever have the sort of cultural footprint of a Harvard.  And for better or worse, that still matters.  Non-Leftists have the reaction they do to Williamson’s firing precisely because The Atlantic has a particular history and status that National Review or The New Republic lack (and in the latter case, lacked even before an internet billionaire destroyed its reputation).

This seems like the wrong moment for the Right to be retrenching in this manner.  Even a Trump skeptic should be at least open to entertaining the possibility that his election was the sort of shock that led a James Bennet to hire some more conservative voices for the NYT op-ed page — even if they are not as conservative or as bold as Williamson.  It’s the shock that led Jeffrey Goldberg to hire Williamson, even if he lacked the guts to stick by his decision.  It’s the shock that caused ABC to reboot Roseanne.

Williamson getting fired is a loss for this effort, as are the examples in other fields Domenech cites.  But it’s not a breaking point for the push to integrate.  Rather, it’s a moment to keep the James Bennets and Jeffrey Goldbergs, the corporate HR departments, and the college administrators focused on what Ross Douthat calls “the inability of contemporary liberalism to see itself from the outside.”  They need to be constantly pushed to recognize that their power carries certain responsibilities; if they reject tolerance of diverse thought, they will have to shoulder the lion’s share of the blame for the sort of “explosion” to which Domenech refers because they have the cultural privilege.

Moreover, in addition to fortifying conservative institutions (with vigilance against the downsides McArdle mentions), conservatives ought to be looking to other examples.  Given the current kerfuffle over Sinclair Broadcasting’s local news empire, the Right ought to be asking why someone else with subtler execution and better ideas didn’t try this themselves.  Why didn’t someone like the Koch brothers buy the L.A. Times and turn it into the West Coast’s answer to the WSJ?  Why isn’t the Right doing more work on endowing chairs in Western Civ at major universities?  Or sponsoring film competitions (that don’t involve handing out prizes simply to the most didactic political polemic, but reward artistic efforts to portray the human condition from a non-Leftist perspective)?  Etc. Etc.

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A Kevin Williamson Twofer: Liner Notes

I have two new pieces up at The Federalist: “Ta-Nehisi Coates And Jessica Valenti Prove The Atlantic’s Hypocrisy On Kevin Williamson,” and “The Seven Dumbest Defenses Of The Atlantic’s Decision To Fire Kevin Williamson.”  Both were written on a “breaking news’ basis, so I don’t have a ton to add, but I do have a couple of things.

Williamson’s firing is related to a number of themes that have interested me as a writer here.  It is in part about the role media outlets play — or attempt to play — as gatekeepers. As noted in the first column, I note that Williamson’s extreme pro-life view (which I believe to be incorrect and poorly reasoned with respect to capital punishment; Williamson seems to lack a firm grasp on how the criminal justice system treats homicides generally) is considered a career-killer, while Jessica Valenti’s pro-choice extremism is considered unexceptional.

To this I would add that the people enraged at Williamson were pretty quiet when the Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus wrote in support of the eugenic abortion of those who test positive (perhaps inaccurately) for Down Syndrome.  If you think that’s not controversial, how is it different from advocating abortion for sex-selection, as in China.  And if there were a prenatal test for sexual orientation, would it be highly controversial to advocate for the right to abort on that basis?  And yet those wanting Williamson fired said little about Marcus, except perhaps to salute her “courage.”

And the firing is in part about how prior failures of conservatives to fight to remain integrated in mainstream institutions resulted in marginalization, which warps the perspectives of the marginalized and privileged alike.

And I probably should have ditched one of the dumb defenses of the firing in favor of discussing the one which might be titled “The Atlantic Isn’t Obliged to Publish a Nazi, Is It?,” which is also formulated as “National Review Is Right to Exclude White Supremacists, Aren’t They?”  This response involves a version of the”Washington Must ‘Do Something'” fallacy.  The “argument” is: (1) Some political views should disqualify someone from a job at a respectable media outlet; (2) Kevin Williamson has some political views; (3) therefore, Williamson should have been fired.  It avoids the problem of addressing Williamson’s argument on the merits (where they might even be convincing), but more significantly avoids having to make a case that Williamson’s particular views are not merely wrong, but so objectionable that he should be treated differently by major media outlets from a Valenti or a Marcus.

Update: Also consider that the claim that Williamson wants to hang women is based on the premise that he would not make the same arguments regarding a male abortionist.  So what is bothering people here is Williamson’s refusal to deny women moral agency in cases of abortion.  That strikes people because pro-lifers and pro-choicers have politically self-interested reasons to agree that women lack moral agency in this context, which is far from self-evident.  And it’s precisely Williamson’s willingness to challenge that sort of quiet collusion that is at issue here.

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This is The Business We’ve Chosen

Given the current furor over Facebook — and the use of FB data by political campaigns and firms like Cambridge Analytica — I had planned to the topic of regulating tech giants like FB and Google.  But Shoshana Weinstein, critiquing Irwin Stelter’s “There’s No Such Thing as Free Data,” has helpfully tweeted many of the points I would have made, though I’ll have some additional thoughts below.

Outside the points Stelter makes in The Weekly Standard, I would note that there are certain lines of business in which Facebook and Google wield the sort of monopoly power that might be worthy of scrutiny by regulators.

Moreover, Stelter’s suggestion that FB and Google should be made to police content like pre-internet media companies has two significant flaws beyond the practical one Weissman identifies (which would be solved the way Craigslist recently did — by shutting down its entire personals section in response to potential legal liability for sex trafficking).

First, anyone looking at FB’s recent history of trying to police content would notice that it has not been fair or neutral and would inevitably advantage the political preferences of these companies.

Second, the question of content is separable from the question of how companies use customer data.  And — particularly if one accepts Stelter’s description of FB as a media company — it must be noted that FB’s competitors have been in the business of selling advertising space based on their audience’s aggregate data for decades before the internet existed.  It’s what newspapers, magazines, and television networks do.  If you work in media, this is the business model you’ve chosen — unless you try to live on subscriptions alone (good luck with that).

Indeed, the traditional media companies publishing critiques of FB are almost always trying to harvest similar data themselves:

One of the odd things about Stelter’s article is that, while asserting FB is a media company, he bases his case for regulation by comparing the issue to the problems of an unregulated banking system.  Extending that metaphor, we would have to look at the history of banking regulation and note (e.g., Dodd-Frank) that the likely regulatory scheme would favor the already dominant actors while imposing anti-competitive costs and barriers to entry on smaller competitors.  This is generally the history of federal regulation, going back to the regulation of slaughterhouses and meatpackers during Teddy Roosevelt’s administration: the big companies helped write regs that burdened them acceptably while disadvantaging smaller (usually kosher) competitors.

There’s no reason to believe that Big Media — including FB — would not exercise political influence to obtain a similar market advantage in this situation.  That’s why — for now, anyway — I would suggest that those concerned about FB look at a more conventional, carefully targeted, antitrust enforcement-based approach.

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Jennifer Rubin, John Bolton, and Tribalism: Liner Notes

ICYMI, I had a new column post on The Federalist on Friday afternoon, “Jennifer Rubin’s Flip-Flop On John Bolton Is Worthy Of Monty Python.”  The hook is that Rubin is hyping the idea that National Security Advisor appointee John Bolton is rash and unwise, after having touted him as recently as Dec. 2016 for a plum State Department job precisely to position him for the NSA job.  Indeed, for years she treated him as a serious presidential prospect  Whatever one thinks of Bolton, he hasn’t changed; she has — into a reflexive critic of all of Pres. Trump’s decisions.

As regular readers know, I generally try to avoid writing about people as such.  But the mass audience likes those sorts of pieces, so I often will use someone’s faults to make a larger piece about ideas — about which the mass audience sadly tends to be less interested.  (And unsurprisingly to me, the column spent almost all weekend as the most popular item on the site.)

This column adopts that tactic is a particularly meta way.  Ultimately, the larger lesson to be learned from Rubin is about the danger of abandoning one’s long-held positions in favor of tribal opposition to a particular politician — the danger of caring more about a person and his or her faults than about ideas.

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Your Spring Nor’easter Take on the Illinois Primaries

I forgot to do an advance take on my home state’s primaries, so I’ll give the chilliest of all takes:

It all comes down to turnout.  No, realli!

Granted, the reign of Rauner probably makes those numbers even more ruinous for the right.  But what you see here is what you’ve seen in primaries and specials all across the country during the Trump era: Dems are fired up, Republicans are burnt out.  It’s only just turned to Spring, so any wave is still beyond the horizon.  But it might be time to at least price that that surfboard.

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