Tag Archives: revolution

America’s decline, and how to prevent it

Internet serendipity strikes again! Hot on the heels of my questions about the political fragmentation and polarisation of the United States comes a long but lucid article from one James Fallows at The Atlantic, in which he discusses the nation’s seemingly perpetual worries about its own decline, and the reasons he believes that the US is still the envy of the world in most respects. [via MetaFilter; image by Henry Brett]

It really is quite lengthy, but well worth the time. There’s too much to attempt a succinct summary, so I’ll skip through to Fallows’ main point of concern – namely that the thing that most needs fixing is the US system of governance. But how could that be achieved without a coup or a complete constitutional rewrite?

That is the American tragedy of the early 21st century: a vital and self-renewing culture that attracts the world’s talent, and a governing system that increasingly looks like a joke. One thing I’ve never heard in my time overseas is “I wish we had a Senate like yours.” When Jimmy Carter was running for president in 1976, he said again and again that America needed “a government as good as its people.” Knowing Carter’s sometimes acid views on human nature, I thought that was actually a sly barb—and that the imperfect American public had generally ended up with the government we deserve. But now I take his plea at face value. American culture is better than our government. And if we can’t fix what’s broken, we face a replay of what made the months after the 9/11 attacks so painful: realizing that it was possible to change course and address problems long neglected, and then watching that chance slip away.

[…]

I started out this process uncertain; I ended up convinced. America the society is in fine shape! America the polity most certainly is not. Over the past half century, both parties have helped cause this predicament—Democrats by unintentionally giving governmental efforts a bad name in the 1960s and ’70s, Republicans by deliberately doing so from the Reagan era onward. At the moment, Republicans are objectively the more nihilistic, equating public anger with the sentiment that “their” America has been taken away and defining both political and substantive success as stopping the administration’s plans. As a partisan tactic, this could make sense; for the country, it’s one more sign of dysfunction, and of the near-impossibility of addressing problems that require truly public efforts to solve. Part of the mind-set of pre-Communist China was the rage and frustration of a great people let down by feckless rulers. Whatever is wrong with today’s Communist leadership, it is widely seen as pulling the country nearer to its full potential rather than pushing it away. America is not going to have a Communist revolution nor endure “100 Years of Humiliation,” as Imperial China did. But we could use more anger about the fact that the gap between our potential and our reality is opening up, not closing.

Lots of food for thought in there… not to mention enough starting points for a dozen Harry Turtledove novels (albeit minus the lizards). How do you think the US might rescue itself from this political cul de sac?

Red Faction: Guerilla

Political theatre and sock-puppet ideologies take centre stage on the dusty red plains of Mars, as Blasphemous Geometries examines the latest instalment in the Red Faction franchise.

Blasphemous Geometries by Jonathan McCalmont

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Somewhere, out in the mists of possibility that exist between universes and states of being, there is a game that begins in this fashion :

Your character is sitting in a cramped bedroom in front of a computer. Behind him, on the wall, is the green flag of Hamas (provided by someone down at the mosque, it serves both as a political statement and as a way of covering up an old poster of Ronaldinho. Your character clicks the mouse button and the webcam starts recording.  He reads a prepared speech about Gaza and the West Bank and concentrates upon keeping any signs of emotion from his voice. Martyrs, he has been told, must be proud. He has to stop and start again when his voice cracks into an embarrassing squeak on the word ‘Jihad’. He rides his bike to a lock up on the other side of town.  A van has been packed with explosives and a primitive trigger that appears to be a wiimote.  You snort your amusement at the in-joke. Continue reading Red Faction: Guerilla

China, Green Dam and peer pressure

Chinese soldierThe Chinese government is backpedalling with all the terse dignity it can muster; its controversial Green Dam end-user censorware has received so much political criticism (and vendor footdragging) that its launch has been delayed:

Xinhua, the state news agency, reported the change of plan four hours before the software launch was due.

“China will delay the mandatory installation of the ‘Green Dam-Youth Escort’ filtering software on new computers,” it said in a terse statement attributed to the ministry of industry and information technology.

The authorities looked likely to miss their deadline for the rollout of the software that blocks pornographic, violent and politically sensitive content.

The Guardian struggled to find a single retailer who had Green Dam either installed or bundled with computers.

Adding to the mystery, Lenovo, Sony, Dell and Hewlett Packard refused to comment on whether their PCs are now being shipped with the software, as the government ordered them to do last month.

The government says the software is necessary to clear the Chinese web of “harmful content”. But critics say it is a misguided attempt to put the internet genie back in the bottle by a Communist party that now has to answer to about 300 million web users.

The appropriately-named Isaac Mao sees this as an epochal moment for the Chinese:

I think this is the tipping point between the people rising up and those in power trying to suppress them. The great firewall is overloaded and that is why the authorities are trying to move the focus of control to the desktop. But it has annoyed a lot of people. Not just liberals who want free speech but the young who see it as an intrusion into their personal lives.”

I rather suspect that commercial resistance has had as much of a part to play as political. Whether the Communist Party has shot itself in the foot by trying to control something inherently uncontrollable remains to be seen, but this is another example of the web appearing to break down geography and erode the power of nation-states. Revolution seems to be a popular pastime at the moment – maybe we’ll see the Red Dragon try to slip its chains soon? [image by Ed-meister]

Jeff Jarvis takes the opportunity to point out that big companies like Google and Siemens who have been known to collaborate with repressive governments actually have the clout to bring them to the bargaining table… and that as such, it behooves us as their paying customers to keep the pressure on them to play nice:

Technology companies from Cisco to Nokia to Siemens that have provided technology to enable censorship and tracking, and companies from Yahoo to Google that have handed over information about users to governments that use it to oppress citizens should be ashamed. And we need to shame them. We need to give them cover by demanding behavior that is not and does not support evil.

In a digital age, censoring the internet, stopping citizens from connecting with each other, and using the internet to spy on and then oppress citizens is evil. We shame companies that helped enable fascist regimes in the ’30s and apartheid in the last century. Is it time for technology boycotts? I’m not sure. But it is time for the discussion.

I’m not sure outright boycotts would work, if only because of the size and ubiquity of many of the companies in question.  But so far it looks like vocal objection and discussion is chipping away at the walls of the more monolithic states; perhaps it’s too much to hope for, but maybe totalitarianism’s time is coming to an end? Even the arch-realist Chairman Bruce suspects we may just not have it in us any more.

Of course, the possibility of sweeping away nation-states only to replace them with equally dictatorial multinational corporations is worth bearing in mind. I think Jarvis is right: we need to keep up the pressure on big businesses so that they don’t start eyeing up empty thrones. Vote with your feet, and with your pocketbook.

That Twitter revolution – is the web inherently democratic?

Chisinau riots, Moldova 2009Until last week you’d probably have been forgiven for thinking that Moldova was the country to which expensive tasks are outsourced in the Dilbert cartoons. Well, forgiven by anyone but a Moldovan, perhaps. [image from Wikimedia Commons]

But now Moldova has joined the ranks of former Soviet Bloc countries who’ve had a revolution or political upheaval that was enabled by modern social media and communications technology… and because a good headline always fits nicely into the Zeitgeist, it’s been billed as “the Twitter revolution”. That’s probably a gross oversimplification, though:

It seems unlikely, though, that Twitter was the key tool in a victory of “technology over tyranny”, if that is, in fact, what happened. For one thing, the Communist party in Moldova doesn’t have much in common with the Communists of old – Moldovan communist favor foreign direct investment and promoting entrepreneurship, though they’d like closer involvement with Russia and less with Romania. But to the extent that this was a technological “triumph”, it may have more to do with other social network tools – including blogs, LiveJournal and Facebook – than with Twitter.

Well, even if Twitter can’t take all the credit, hurrah for the inherently democratic potential of modern communications, right? Nicholas Carr would like you to hold on just a moment, though:

No doubt, the Moldovan protests will be used as an example of how the Net and, in particular, its social-networking and personal-broadcasting functions can be used to support popular uprisings and, more generally, the spread of democracy. And rightfully so. But before anyone gets carried away by the idea that the Net is a purely democratizing force, it would be wise to read a longer essay by Morozov, titled Texting Toward Utopia, in the new issue of Boston Review.

I tend to read things that Carr says are worth reading; he’s usually right. So here’s a snippet from that Morozov essay:

Much of the encouraging reporting may be true, if slightly overblown, but it suffers from several sources of bias. As it turns out, the secular, progressive, and pro–Western bloggers tend to write in English rather than in their native language. Consequently, they are also the ones who speak to Western reporters on a regular basis. Should the media dig a bit deeper, they might find ample material to run articles with headlines like “Iranian bloggers: major challenge to democratic change” and “Saudi Arabia: bloggers hate women’s rights.” The coverage of Egyptian blogging in the Western mainstream media focuses almost exclusively on the struggles of secular writers, with very little mention of the rapidly growing blogging faction within the Muslim Brotherhood. Labeling a Muslim Brotherhood blog as “undemocratic” suggests duplicity.

The point being that the Internet is just a tool; the democratizing force is a result of us expressing ourselves through it (and seeing our own reflection in the mirror).

Even so, it can’t be discounted entirely that the Internet and mobile phones have presented the opportunity for networked action and communication to people who even comparatively recently were unable to use technology to circumvent the controls of their governments. Which political cause is the “good” side of any such equation is, as always, a very subjective question.

Harbingers of revolution: economic crisis or General Consumption Strike?

AdBusters corporate logo mashupA significant factor in the current financial crisis, so the newspapers tell us, is people spending less money in the marketplace. Conventional economic logic describes this as uncoordinated and irrational behaviour, a kind of emergent phenomenon that pushes the system into recession. [image by BdR76]

The culture-jamming movement would like to suggest otherwise, though. To these economic activists, what we’re seeing is a conscious decision by a growing section of the population of the world to drop out of the consumerist lifestyle to a greater or lesser extent. And they see it not just as positive, but as a prerequisite to the revolution:

Ours is not a purely nihilistic campaign, we do not revel in economic collapse out of spite but instead because we believe that only after an economic decline will it be possible to bring about the necessary changes to capitalism that will assure a sustainable future. We are also taking steps to insure that the money we save by decreasing our consumption goes to organizing mutual aid societies that will provide services to our needy compatriots.

To join the General Consumption Strike is easy: spend less, live more. Consider doing without your high-speed internet, cell phone service, beer or wine, restaurants, gasoline, new clothes, fancy electronics and tourism. Think of the money you will save, the fewer hours you’ll need to work, and the more time you’ll have to live. […] Stay strong, this is a once in a hundred year opportunity!

I’ve a fair amount of sympathy with what’s being said here, but the language and rhetoric of revolution always sticks in my throat, no matter how close I am to the philosophy behind it – and imagine there are people with more to lose than myself who will be even more riled by it.

But maybe the culture jammers are right; tough times breed strange behaviours, after all, and rebranding a crisis as an opportunity is just one of many. [link via No Fear Of the Future]

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to dumpster-dive for my lunch.