Double Plus Orwellian

I resist the urge to dismiss any public figure as an idiot, because it’s too easy, too tempting for me, anonymous nobody; also, holding a high perch in the scrum of American public life, however stupid that life has become, must be the product of at the least uncommon cunning. In all honesty, the Right Stuff for success in today’s world, much like yesterday’s, appears to me like technology appears to a primitive. It might as well be magic. So I resist opining on it. But it gets hard.

The old saw never attribute to malice what which is adequately explained by stupidity feels not so wise now and a little subversive, letting the malicious bastards off the hook. Let us turn that bit of folk wisdom from a more innocent time on its head, because of all the malice we abound in, if nothing else.

Still, condescension, malice’s unctuous representative, is inherently stupid, and here’s Robert Reich being condescending in The Guardian, explaining how Elon Musk threatening to establish free speech on Twitter is actually a threat to free speech:

The Russian people know little about Putin’s war on Ukraine because Putin has blocked their access to the truth, substituting propaganda and lies.

This is line one, and we see how Putin has been made into an avatar for virtue-seeking malice just like Trump, and the war in Ukraine a proxy in the war on populism.

But one idiocy at a time. Even taking for granted effective state censorship in the post-Soviet Union, one has to wonder if the average Russian gets a more or less distorted view of the war than we do. For one thing, Russian media is blocked here, so how would we, or Reich, who would never deign read it, know? It’s an open question as to whether Russian state censorship is more effective than our very effective private sector version.

It’s no longer obvious the average citizen in the US lives in a more open society, and clearly in many ways he lives in a society that is less open. And who is censoring, private or public, is far less important than what is being censored. In Russia you can’t criticize the government too much. In America you can’t criticize Drag Queen Story Hour, at all.

Russia doesn’t have classes of citizens acting as social media minutemen, always scanning the field and ready to mobilize–no need to summon them–to chase off wrong-speak; Russia doesn’t have the equivalent of the woke cadres within social media companies forcing censorship; Russia, presumably, doesn’t have mobs in its best law schools shutting down panels on free speech. Russia has state-controlled media and we have media controlled by a vaster power, superseding the state; its apologists invoke plausible deniability of its control by virtue of it being more complex, decentralized and disordered–and “private”. Most importantly, Russian propaganda–ironically enough–is not revolutionary, deliberately upending society in fundamental and disastrous ways.

That strange sound you heard when news of Musk’s Twitter stake hit was the “it’s a private company” excuse for censorship choking in the collective throat of woke America.

Here we censor thought, explicitly to prevent future dissent as if to pull it out by the root, explicitly to prevent further thought. The relative freedom of Russian and Western internet is meaningless to us of course–people who want you angry about Russian censorship, like Reich, don’t give a damn really about Russian censorship, and neither should you.

From Freedom House:

In March 2021, the [Russian government] communications regulator throttled access to Twitter after the company refused to block “prohibited content,” with the government claiming that the content in question included material related to drug use and suicide. This marked the first time that deep packet inspection (DPI) equipment installed under the scope of the 2019 Sovereign Runet Law was applied to block a global online platform.

The government issued fines and passed several laws in an attempt to exercise control over the content moderation policies of popular online platforms, culminating in the introduction of a law on local representatives. The law, adopted after the coverage period in July 2021, will require these companies to establish in-country offices that liaise with the federal agency responsible for censoring content.

During the mass protests in support of Navalny that began in late January 2021, the authorities limited the space for online mobilization, arresting individuals who promoted the protests and raiding the office of a student-run online media outlet.

In a departure from their strategy in previous years, Russian authorities did not shut down internet service during protests (see A3).

Cue the Soviet-era Russian accent: in Russia, government throttles Twitter; in America Twitter throttles you.

Freedom House says its 2016 ranking of Russia’s internet as “not free” came after five years of Putin ratcheting down on dissent–coinciding with the period of our ratcheting up the pressure on Putin with Maidan and Navalny.

Here’s Robert sounding like Kamala Harris explaining Ukraine to black people:

Years ago, pundits assumed the internet would open a new era of democracy, giving everyone access to the truth. But dictators like Putin and demagogues like Trump have demonstrated how naive that assumption was.

Pundits like Reich assume above all their right to control the public’s access to information, and their naïveté was only in thinking the internet wouldn’t get in the way of that. But note how Reich argues the internet must be controlled–by his tribe–because it’s threatened by dictators at one end and populists at the other.

At least the US responded to Trump’s lies. Trump had 88 million Twitter followers before Twitter took him off its platform – just two days after the attack on the Capitol, which he provoked, in part, with his tweets. (Trump’s social media accounts were also suspended on Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitch and TikTok.)

These moves were necessary to protect American democracy. But Elon Musk – the richest man in the world, with 80 million Twitter followers – wasn’t pleased. Musk tweeted that US tech companies shouldn’t be acting “as the de facto arbiter of free speech”.

It’s astounding to me the January 6 riot at the Capitol isn’t understood in its proper context, as the culmination of the season of anarchist rioting kicked off by the George Floyd protests. The far less organized and politically sophisticated right wingers were adopting the methods and mayhem they’d been watching antifa and BLM get away with for months.

But then we get to the real offense:

Musk continues to tell his 80 million followers all sorts of things. I disagree with many of his positions, but ever since I posted a tweet two years ago criticizing him for how he treated his Tesla workers he has blocked me – so I can’t view or post criticisms of his tweets to his followers.

Seems like an odd move for someone who describes himself as a “free speech absolutist”. Musk advocates free speech but in reality it’s just about power.

Is it about power? Vanity, certainly. If Musk wants to white night on behalf of freedom of speech I approve. But power? Jeff Bezos buying the Washington Post and making it his mouthpiece is about power. Does anyone think Musk intends that for Twitter? That Twitter is the best vehicle for that? That he’s going to go in there and re-jigger the algorithms so they censor on his behalf?

Must we block Musk to avenge Reich? Seriously, I think a Reich so misunderstands a Musk, so misunderstands anyone who hasn’t spent their life in the orbit of state power, that he cannot fathom Musk’s move other than as a power play. He cannot fathom a man engaged in an honest crusade: he must want more, he must want to take over control, not end it. But it doesn’t matter; the honest crusade is enough:

Power compelled Musk to buy $2.64bn of Twitter stock, making him the largest individual shareholder. Last week, Twitter announced that Musk would be joining Twitter’s board of directors, prompting Musk to promise “significant improvements” in the platform.

Sunday evening, though, it was announced that Musk would not be joining Twitter’s board. No reason was given but it’s probably part of a bargaining kabuki dance.

Musk wouldn’t have plopped down $2.64bn for nothing. If he is not on Twitter’s board, he’s not bound by a “standstill” agreement in which he pledged to buy no more than 14.9% of Twitter’s stock. Musk now faces no limit on how much of Twitter’s stock he can buy. He’ll buy as much as he needs to gain total control.

What “improvements” does Musk have in mind for Twitter? Will he use his clout over Twitter to prevent users with tens of millions of followers from blocking people who criticize them? I doubt it.

Will Musk use his clout to let Trump back on? I fear he will.

Keeping Trump off Twitter is very important to people like Reich right now.

Musk has long advocated a libertarian vision of an “uncontrolled” internet. That vision is dangerous rubbish. There’s no such animal, and there never will be.

Not if little Robert Reich has anything to do with it.

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