Joi Ito, director of the MIT Media Lab, is fond of saying that you don’t win a Nobel Prize by following the rules.
Until Joi, Reid Hoffman and I started working to craft the Media Lab’s $250,000 Disobedience Award, I hadn’t realized that Joi was speaking literally as well as figuratively. Joi’s quip refers to Dr. Jerome Friedman, the MIT physicist who shared the 1990 Nobel Prize in physics for discovering that protons had an internal structure, which confirmed the existence of quarks. Friedman defied his advisor’s instructions and continued collecting data from the Stanford Linear Accelerator. As it turns out, the data he’d disobediently collected was what led to his key discovery.
Productive disobedience of the sort that yielded Dr. Friedman’s Nobel is not always easy to find. In Japan, where Joi has lived most of his life, it can be a challenge for people who’ve been taught to comply and obey throughout their academic and professional careers to break away from the expected path. In Silicon Valley, where disruption of existing business models is practiced almost as a religion, it can be difficult to find disobedient minds who consider the deep social consequences of their disruptions.
Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn, encouraged Joi to explore the idea of a Disobedience Award, providing $250,000 to fund an award for responsible, ethical disobedience. Given the opportunity, we knew we’d have a wealth of candidates. What we didn’t realize was how challenging it would be to define responsible and ethical disobedience, and to select a winner for whom the award would be both an appropriate recognition of their work and financial fuel for increased impact.
(Please see Joi and my essay on the Media Lab site about the inaugural Disobedience award winners.)
The Disobedience Award is inspired in part by the MacArthur “genius” grant, which sometimes recognizes a lifetime of achievement, but more often identifies relatively obscure scholars, artists and innovators whose work has the potential to transform the world. We decided to aim in a similar direction: we would accept both expected and unexpected nominees, and one criterion for selection would be whether the recognition our award might confer could transform someone’s life and work. This meant we were looking for people whose disobedience and resistance was ongoing, not purely something in their past.
Unlike the MacArthur grant, where the nomination and selection process is shrouded in secrecy, we wanted to make our process as transparent as possible. In addition to posting a call for nominees, we added a nominator prize, inviting whoever nominated the winner to join us at the Media Lab for the award ceremony. Recognizing the power of networks, our colleague Iyad Rahwan, suggested we use a tactic he’d used to help win DARPA’s Red Balloon challenge — award the nominator of the nominator as well. We encouraged anyone in the world to nominate either a candidate or someone they thought would have great ideas for candidates. We then contacted the nominators and invited them to submit their ideas.
The result? More than 7800 nominations from all over the world, and a major challenge for the selection committee. As the nominations came in, Joi and I recruited a team of twelve judges —
Farai Chideya, George Church, Sasha Costanza-Chock, Jesse Dylan, Jerome Friedman, Marshall Ganz, Andrew “bunnie” Huang, Alaa Murabit, Jamila Raqib, Maria Zuber, and ourselves — all with expertise in areas such as activism, journalism, science and the arts where we expected the most submissions. Our judges are distinguished, smart and very busy; people unlikely to have time to read 7800 applications. So our Disobedience Award team took on the challenge of weeding out duplicates and identifying the strongest 220 candidates.
Joi and I each pledged to read all 220 dossiers the team prepared, but we opened the process to as many of the selection committee as were able to participate. We held each finalist up to our mission to recognize a living person or group who is, or has been, engaged in acts of responsible, principled, ethical disobedience in pursuit of the public good. Not only did this focus the deliberations; it also gave us flexibility and helped us to address concerns in a free and frank way.
Cross-checking our lists, we identified seven finalists who’d been flagged by multiple judges. While there’s a great deal of refinement we hope to do before repeating this process next year, we all agreed we had a very strong set of final nominees for this inaugural award.
Before listing those finalists, it’s worth mentioning who was nominated and didn’t make it to our list. Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning were both nominated dozens of times, and Snowden himself spoke via video link at the conference where we announced the Disobedience Award last year. While no one questioned the impact of their disobedience or the risks each took, none of us felt that the recognition we could add would increase their fame or infamy.
Aaron Swartz was also nominated many times. Joi and I both knew Aaron and hosted a memorial at the Media Lab for him shortly after his death. While an award in Aaron’s memory would have been fitting recognition of Aaron’s principled and disobedient activism, we felt it was important that the award go to a recipient who could leverage both the award and its visibility to advance the issues they work on. While we chose not to award him the award posthumously, I can report that Aaron was very much on my mind as we chose honorees.
Our judges researched and wrote up “cases” for why they believed the seven finalists should receive the award. The best of these cases included arguments both for and against making the award, exploring the question of whose acts best exemplified pro-social disobedience.
Ultimately, we chose two winners of the Disobedience Award — people whose work reflects the hopes that led to the award in the first place: Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician and medical school professor, and Marc Edwards, a civil engineering professor, who first brought attention to the Flint water crisis. Their work combined activist energies with scientific research and made visible a public health crisis involving thousands. Their work has led to criminal involuntary manslaughter charges against Michigan public officials and has placed the issue of urban water quality — and urban infrastructure — at the center of American public debate.
We had not initially intended to offer honorable mention prizes, but our finalists were so strong, we asked Reid to offer additional funding. We were then able to award $10,000 each to James Hansen, an environmental science professor and advocate for intervention to combat climate change; The Water Protectors of Standing Rock, an historic gathering of tribes, allies, and people from all walks of life standing in solidarity to halt the Dakota Access Pipeline; and
Freedom University Georgia, a project to provide free college classes to undocumented students in Georgia who are charged out-of-state tuition to attend state schools.
The debates about who deserved recognition and who the committee did not agree to honor help illustrate how complex the concept of disobedience actually is.
Dr. Hansen’s nomination sparked debate about whether the award was exclusively for those in the midst of their life’s work, or whether it could honor a career well spent. At 76 years old, Hansen is widely recognized as a pioneer of climate change research. But he is less known than non-scholars who’ve worked on raising climate awareness. As well, he embodies disobedience within an institution. Hansen did much of his work while employed by NASA, facing substantial pushback as he made bold, data-backed predictions about climate change. So, to highlight those within powerful institutions standing up for what’s right in defiance of pressure, the committee decided it was important to honor his many contributions.
The Water Protectors of Standing Rock raised a set of issues we simply hadn’t considered: How do you properly honor a movement? This is a collaboration of Native Americans who organized a prayer camp to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline: Phyllis Young, LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, Jasilyn Charger, and Joseph White Eyes. Their efforts, supported by Sioux and Lakota elders, were joined by thousands of veterans, activists, and others. The Standing Rock nominations—as well as dozens for individuals and groups connected to Black Lives Matter and the Movement for Black Lives, and for LGBTQ activists—reminded us that disobedience can be a team sport, that we can stand up as a group to pressure that might crush us as individuals.
Freedom University Georgia, which offers free classes on Sundays, was founded by professors at the University of Georgia who were outraged that undocumented students had to pay out-of-state tuition to attend state schools. Students in the program have gone on to universities in other states where laws are more flexible and just. In honoring Freedom University and its founders—Professors Betina Kaplan, Lorgia García Peña, Pamela Voekel, and Bethany Moreton—we hope to learn from their model and to challenge ourselves about how best to consider similar programs in our communities.
Perhaps most important is understanding the complexities involved in why we chose not to honor the remaining three finalists.
Alexandra Elbakyan is a Kazakhstani graduate student who has deeply challenged the scholarly publishing industry by using academic credentials to “unlock” millions of copyrighted research papers. Depending on who you ask, she is either bravely challenging a model of scientific publishing that leaves millions of researchers in poor countries without access to scholarship, or she’s irresponsibly destroying a critical component of academic research without considering the consequences. Our debate opened questions about why defiance is appropriate. Most of the committee was sympathetic to the aims of SciHub, but less so to the Library Genesis (LibGen), a subsequent project that has sought to open up a wider range of books as part of a broader attempt to make information free. Many committee members felt that Elbakyan had identified a situation worthy of defiance in the world of making research papers available to international scholars, but weren’t willing to accept the idea that making all books free was a worthy goal.
While we tried to build a diverse, international group of judges, our finalists were primarily people who work on issues well known and understood within the US. We had many nominees who, like Rafael Marques de Morais, do risky and important work in closed societies around the globe. I consider it a shortcoming of our process that we didn’t work harder to honor nominees working on issues our committee didn’t understand as well as issues like climate change or undocumented people. On the other hand, we had a rich discussion of the dangers of recognizing that some disobedience is more “comfortable” for the committee than others — one committee member made the argument that we wouldn’t want to honor Ai Wei Wei, because it’s easy and popular for a mostly American committee to show opposition to censorship and control of speech in China. Understanding how to honor and showcase disobedience in countries we know less about than the US or China will be an ongoing question for us as we revise and improve our process.
No issue challenged our committee as much as the question of honoring Omar Barghouti and the BDS movement. Those who favored recognizing his activism noted that BDS is the main non-violent movement to end Israeli occupation of Palestine, with the goal of creating a democratic Palestinian state, and is having great success putting pressure on the Israeli government. Given the apparent intractability of the Israel/Palestine situation, BDS offers hope that an international campaign like the one that challenged apartheid in South Africa could lead to change in Israel. Those who opposed honoring BDS pointed primarily to one of the most controversial aspects of the campaign: a cultural and academic boycott of Israeli artists, writers and scholars. For many members of the committee, an academic boycott was simply a non-starter — the free flow of ideas across borders is a fundamental principle of academia, and the idea of excluding Israeli academics instead of interacting with them was unacceptable.
Our award winners reflect the hopes that led to the award in the first place. Doctors Hanna-Attisha and Edwards are scientists who became activists, using rigorous research to investigate the concerns of citizens in Flint, Michigan and unravel a mystery that many in positions of power would have preferred to keep under wraps. Both faced harassment and ridicule for their work and risked academic sanction for defying conventions of peer review, as they sought to bring attention to Flint’s water crisis before more people were affected. Their work shows that science and scholarship are as powerful tools for social change as art and protest.
As the first Disobedience Award, this year’s committee recognizes that we must refine our process, but we are proud of the results. Our discussions sparked deep conversation and — at times — disagreement on how best to organize and award such a public prize. But seldom are we given the opportunity at this scale to witness and congratulate such selflessness and dedication. It was a hopeful experience, one that challenges us, especially those in academia, to use our powers for good.
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That’s Haiti. You wouldn’t wish that string of bad luck on Donald Trump. (Pick your own worst enemy if that doesn’t work for you.)
Now let’s imagine an impoverished neighborhood wracked by gang violence, where gunfire is a common, if not daily event. In the middle of the neighborhood, surrounded on all sides by high-density housing, is a quiet park. It includes a brightly painted truck filled with newspapers and books, a mobile library that can bring reading to communities where few books are found. An elegant waterfall runs down the steps of a garden path past plots of medicinal herbs and community gardens, resplendent in colorfully painted tires. At the base of the garden is an architecturally ambitious library, carefully constructed of geometric bamboo pods, every seat packed with uniformed schoolchildren devouring books in Kreyol, French and English.
That’s Haiti, too. Specifically, that’s Parc de Martissant, the project of FOKAL (The Fondation Connaissance et Liberté), a Haitian foundation that’s part of the Open Society Foundations. Its founder Michèle Pierre Louise (Prime Minister during President Preval’s term) and executive director Lorraine Mangones have offered an unconventional solution to Haiti’s many ills. While they work on combatting cholera, rebuilding the legal system, strengthening agriculture and protecting human rights, they do something most of our foundations don’t do. They build and restore beautiful public spaces, creating sources of neighborhood and national pride. While many international organizations are focused on helping Haitians access the bare minimum of healthcare and education, FOKAL dares to imagine what Haiti could be. And then they go ahead and build it.
Don’t get too comfortable. Because just above the library is a concrete path lined with shards of tile from a factory destroyed in the earthquake. Dark outlines represent the bodies of the fallen. The path leads to a broad, spreading tree. Below neon pink flowers, it bears fruit – heavy, mirrored skulls turning slowly in the breeze. The skulls are cast from the faces of the people in the neighborhood and made of concrete and rebar, the materials that killed tens of thousands of city residents when buildings collapsed in the earthquake of January 2010.
And that’s Haiti as well. Because there’s darkness in the beauty, and beauty in the darkness.
A week in Haiti, spent almost entirely in Port au Prince (and too much of it in the back seat of a bulletproof SUV), is not long enough to get meaningful impression of a nation. What I have are glimpses and fragments, some hopeful, some haunting.
I’m honored to serve on the Global Board of Open Society Foundations, and with our Vice President, Haitian-American Patrick Gaspard (former US ambassador to South Africa) and three fellow board members, I spent a week in Haiti touring FOKAL projects in Port au Prince and in Les Cayes, an agricultural community hit hard by Hurricane Matthew. On my last day in the city, I toured the downtown with a brilliant FOKAL architect, Farah Hyppolite, who has dedicated herself to restoring Port au Prince’s “gingerbread houses”, elegant hybrids of European and tropical architecture built for the city’s wealthy merchants at the beginning of Haiti’s dismal century.
Farah tells me that she had wanted to build the future of Haiti, ambitious structures that reflected the nation’s aspirations. But the earthquake destroyed her landmarks: the small gingerbread house she grew up in, the school she attended, the landmark buildings downtown that oriented her on the Rue Grand. “What will I show my children of where I grew up? Without my city, where is my past?”
For almost two decades, all I knew of Haiti was its art, in a watered-down and derivative form, paintings hawked on the streets of Santo Domingo and hanging in endless airport gift shops throughout the Caribbean. Too bright for New England, the paintings I found beautiful in the tropical sun looked gaudy on my white walls.
That explosion of color is everywhere in Haiti, from the paint on the side of goat-skinned drums, to the fruits in the market and most of all, the tap taps, elaborately painted pickup trucks that make up the capitol’s mass transit system. The ironwork, the cut, painted plywood, the explosive paint job and loud slogans compete to be heard over a visual environment that buzzes and pops at deafening volume.
I wasn’t expecting the color in vodou. In the Bureau D’Ethnologie, Erol Josué, a celebrated dancer and musician who serves as the museum’s curator, shows us bright, elegant dresses donned for rituals, embodying the colors and characteristics of the different spirits. Over lunch, I learn that during a ceremony, men may be taken over by female spirits, and vice versa, a fact that’s helped make vodou a welcoming place for the gay and lesbian community at a moment when charismatic churches are condemning and ostracizing queer Hatians.
I find the darkness I’d anticipated in a different sort of museum downtown. Lodged between a tire shop and an iron fabricator on Rue Dessalines is “Atis Rezistans”, the workshop and gallery of Andre Eugene, an internationally celebrated sculptor. Through a rusted arch and down an alleyway is a warren of courtyards and buildings, packed to the gills with wooden idols, ordained with nails, the guts of discarded computers, auto parts and tin cans. One wall is covered with the dark shapes of animals, serpents and spirits, cut from tires by the students in the neighborhood who Eugene teaches.
Vodou is a syncretic faith, build by slaves who combined elements of worship from Fon, Yoruba and other traditions in west Africa with Catholic rituals learned from the colonizers in the Caribbean: Ogun, orisha of war and metal in Nigera, meets St. George, patron saint of soldiers, and they become a loa. Eugene’s work syncretizes the detritus of post-Aristede Haiti with these ancient spirits into a new pantheon.
Eugene leads me through a curtain of bottle caps into his office, and I nearly trip over a human skull. I ask the artist where he obtained these dark materials. “Oh, skulls were easy after the earthquake. You could find them everywhere.” I ask him why his art is so morbid, expecting reflections on Haiti’s recent slew of tragedies. “It’s good to be different,” he tells me. “I like the dark.”
Indeed, Eugene’s art was dark before the earthquake and the hurricane. One of my companions grew up in the neighborhood and tells me that he always thought Eugene was crazy, a strange man who roamed the streets picking through garbage. Now that strange man shows art around the world and sells pieces for thousands of dollars. Eugene leads me to the unfinished second floor of his gallery and shows me the neighborhoods. He points out the workshops of fellow artists in the neighborhood, but my eye is drawn to the rooftops where scrap metal weighs down roofing sheets, rusting metal that holds the neighborhood together.
The shock of some of Eugene’s pieces wears off as I spent time with them. The gaping skulls with marble eyes begin to remind me of Eddie, Iron Maiden’s macabre, smiling, icon. Other pieces give me a deep sense of dread the longer I spend with them, in particular, those that feature baby dolls, disfigured, in bondage and crucified.
The Centre d’Art, a leafy and green space up the hill from Rue Dessalines, feels like it’s miles away from Atiz Rezistanse, but Haiti’s recent past is present here as well. On the site of a former gingerbread house, collapsed in the 2010 earthquake, are a set of shipping containers and pavillions, now the site for Haiti’s most important art collection. One 40′ box contains the archives of the Centre’s 70 year history. Another is filled with metal sculpture, a third with shelves of paintings and drawings, ornamental boxes and painted screens.
In a shady corner of the garden, a long wall serves as a blackboard, covered with elegant illustrations of the human form, the remnants of a workshop by Lionel St. Eloi, a sculptor and painter whose work includes richly colored canvasses and life-sized figures assembled from scrap metal. I fall in love with his owls, and St. Eloi has to be coaxed down from a nearby rooftop, where he’s wielding a power saw and working on carnival preparations, to sell me the piece.
I’m home from Haiti now, St. Eloi’s owl sits on my kitchen table, as lovely and wise in my snowbound New England home as in its tropical home. This afternoon, I plan to put it on the mantle over my fireplace where it can watch over myself and my guests, and perhaps scare the mice that enjoy the heat from the chimney.
A mask from Eugene’s studio came home with me as well. It’s by one of Eugene’s students, and while it’s as twisted and gruesome as the master’s work, it reminds me of something more comfortable, the unfamiliarity of the shapes of west African masks when I first came to Ghana two decades ago. I’m not sure what corner of the house I want it peering at me from, but I want it near me, to become part of my space over the years, the way things that are dark or broken can become comfortable and familiar.
Haiti is beautiful. Haiti is broken. Haiti is hopeful. Haiti is darkness. Haiti is color. You don’t always get to choose.
Love and respect to my friends at FOKAL, and to everyone who is working to share Haiti’s beauty and hope with the world, and more importantly, with all Haitian people.
All text and images are creative commons licensed, attribution only – please feel free to share, remix and reuse them, but please credit me. Profound thanks to Michèle, Lorraine, Farah, Dmitri and all the staff at FOKAL and OSF who made this visit possible.
One bit of good news for those thoroughly freaked out by the Trump presidency: there’s anger, passion and drive on the left that’s unprecedented in recent memory. Two weekends ago, my girlfriend, a veteran of Occupy Houston, warned me that it was difficult to mobilize people in that car-centric city and thought we might find a few hundred marchers for the post-inauguration march. The crowd we joined was 22,000 strong, and as we assembled in front of Houston city hall, the chief of police told us that we were the largest protest in the city’s history. And the Houston protest was a small one compared to massive protests in Boston, New York, Seattle, Denver, Chicago, LA and DC.
This weekend featured a wave of demonstrations at airports around the US against the racist and unconstitutional Muslim ban. The ACLU, leaders in fighting the ban, raised more than $24 million over the weekend, demonstrating that activists are willing to put money where their hearts are. And an army of lawyers is occupying airport food courts, offering legal representation to anyone prevented from entering the US. The outpouring of progressive efforts has been so massive that journalists are beginning to refer to it as “the surge”.
Here’s the bad news: thus far, we’re not very good at channeling that energy. There’s so much to react to, from fundamental questions about the legitimacy of the election to concern about concrete steps Trump is taking in office that it’s hard to know what to proactively work on. And there’s a danger in reactive activism: your opponent gets to choose and frame the issues for you. For all its weaknesses, the Trump administration is masterful at framing issues to its advantage, as the left is just now beginning to understand how powerful a tool this can be.
Immediately after the US election, “fake news” emerged as a major story, a partial explanation for Trump’s surprise electoral victory. Within a week, I’d been invited to four different conferences, brainstorms or hackathons to combat fake news, done a dozen media interviews and briefed the heads of two major progressive foundations on the issue. Fake news was a problem for American democracy and progressive leaders were on it!
Unfortunately, so was the Trump administration. On January 11th, Trump offered his first press conference since the election, and refused a question from CNN’s Jim Acosta, criticizing the network and declaring “You are fake news.” This week, the President expanded the fake news camp to include the nation’s “paper of record”.
The failing @nytimes has been wrong about me from the very beginning. Said I would lose the primaries, then the general election. FAKE NEWS!
Media Cloud, the tool we developed at the MIT Media Lab and Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center to track the spread of ideas in news media, shows that “fake news” was associated primarily with Facebook in the months of November and December. Coverage of fake news focused on Buzzfeed’s excellent reporting on for-profit news sites in Macedonia that created “news” out of whole cloth in hopes of attracting US right-wing eyeballs and ad dollars by designing news stories likely to be spread on Facebook. In January, the fake news narrative has shifted to CNN as a result of the President’s adoption of the term, wielded against CNN in revenge for their decision to cover (though not reproduce) the Steele dossier.
Mentions of “fake news”, November and December 2016
Mentions of “fake news”, January 2017
The President’s embrace of the term “fake news” should be reason enough for the left to stop organizing conferences and projects on the topic. It’s a vague and ambiguous term that spans everything from false balance (actual news that doesn’t deserve our attention), propaganda (weaponized speech designed to support one party over another) and disinformatzya (information designed to sow doubt and increase mistrust in institutions) – I wrote at length about the complexities of the term for Deutsche Welle last week.
But that’s not the real problem. The problem is that the very concept of fake news helps the Trump administration.
Many pundits complained that Trump campaigned without a platform, just a set of audience-tested applause lines. While that may be true, the campaign was not without a strategy. Trump and his advisors realized that the dominant political mood of the moment is one of mistrust. The primary locus of this mistrust is the government in Washington – in 1964, 77% of Americans trusted the government in Washington to do the right thing all or most of the time. By 2011, that number was down to 19%. But this collapse in trust affects all large, bureaucratic systems, from universities and hospitals to the military and churches. And people really mistrust media: in 1979, 51% of people trusted newspapers all or most of the time. By 2013, only 24% of people trusted newspapers, and 21% trusted television news.
It’s deeply uncomfortable when the President refers to the media, a constitutionally-protected institution critical to monitoring a representative democracy, as the “opposition party”.
Where was all the outrage from Democrats and the opposition party (the media) when our jobs were fleeing our country?
But it shouldn’t be that surprising – in many ways, Trump ran against the media as much as he ran against Hillary Clinton. The chant of “CNN Sucks!” was a common feature of his rallies, one he encouraged by railing against the unfairness of the coverage he was receiving.
Elected as a revolutionary, Trump is governing as an insurrectionist, moving to sideline or disable much of the federal government. For those of us uncertain as to whether Trump was a conventional Republican with inflammatory rhetoric or a genuine rebel, his cabinet choices made things very clear. The nominees he has proposed are a wrecking crew, in many cases explicitly dedicated to the destruction of the agencies they oversee. This is strategy, specifically Steve Bannon’s strategy. As Ronald Radosh reported last summer, Bannon identifies as a Leninist, dedicated to the destruction of establishment institutions through Tea Party populism.
Some of the mainstream Republicans who supported Trump because it was a way to defeat Clinton are feeling very uncomfortable about how the President is governing. But many in Trump’s base are pleased to see that he genuinely wants to overturn and abolish institutions they feel have not served them well. (Uncomfortably, they have a point. Rising inequality means that the economic recovery under Obama hasn’t reached many households. Not that voting in a plutocracy is an especially good way to combat this.)
The best way to defeat insurrectionism is with strong institutions. We’ve got to celebrate the ones that are working well and reform the ones that are broken. We may even need to tear some down and replace them with something better. And we have to humanize all of them, identifying and celebrating the people who are working hard to make these institutions function, and to fix them when they decay. It’s easy to hate an institution – it’s harder to hate the people within it. That’s the power of Twitter accounts like @RogueNASA and @AltUSNatParkService. They remind us that real people work within government institutions, that they’re proud of what they do, and that we need to get beyond our understandable mistrust of agencies, bureaucracies and hierarchies, and celebrate the things they do well.
That’s the problem with a focus on fake news. By adopting the frame, we remind people of the difficulty of reporting in a digital age, the real problems of verifying information and the times our journalistic institutions have failed. We should fix our failures, we should get better at stopping misinformation before it starts to spread, but we can’t do this in a way that supports a Trump attack on the very notion of independent media institutions.
There’s another thing, too. Fake news is not the problem. My colleagues at Harvard are releasing a study of news during the 2016 election next month. They looked at how influential thousands of different news outlets had been during the cycle. They found dozens of news outlets that have been flagged by academics as purveyors of fake news, publishers that create stories from whole cloth for profit. While those sites exist, they were not very influential in the 2016 election – the most influential don’t even rank in the top 100 sites in the analysis. Far more people have been influenced by talk about fake news than by fake news itself.
Why? Because progressives love the idea of fake news. Most progressives – myself included – find it hard to understand how fellow Americans can view the world so differently. By blaming the results of the election on fake news, we have an easy explanation for an incomprehensible situation. If we could just eliminate misinformation, everyone would agree with us!
As Michael Schudson points out in his brilliant The Good Citizen, central to the progressive movement was the idea of the informed citizen. Crusading newspapers reported on malfeasance, and citizens were expected to spend hours informing themselves on candidates and propositions. The net result? The voting rate dropped by 50%. Unfortunately, political decisions are seldom rational, fact-based ones as much as we’d like them to be.
The uncomfortable truth is that support for Trump’s insurrectionist agenda is real, and that there’s a ferocious appetite for news that confirms our existing biases – on both sides of the aisle. Yes, we should find a way to battle deceptive misinformation. But we need to work harder on building media that pushes us to see different perspectives and helps us understand the complex political reality we live in. The answer is not to fight fake news – it’s to build wide news, media that helps us understand people we disagree with and people we seldom hear from.
My speech followed one by Alan Rusbridger, former editor of The Guardian, who talked about his decision to engage his newspaper in the “Keep It In the Ground” campaign, partnering with 350.org to advocate divestment from fossil fuel companies. My talk intersected inasmuch as I’m also deeply interested in how different organizations can make social change, and what news organization might choose to do at this surprising and scary moment in time.
This is a near-verbatim transcript of my talk, made using rev.com (which I highly recommend.) I’ve touched it up a bit so I sound slightly less stupid. If you want to see me give the talk, or ogle my exciting slides, the video of the talk is available here. (This was fascinating to edit, by the way. I like to think that I write the way I talk – I don’t. I suspect very few of us do…)
Even before I got here and discovered that the theme for this conference is “What nu?” I had titled my talk “What Now?” It’s a sincere question – I really don’t know what we do now. This is a very strange moment in time. Many people have been surprised by what’s happened in 2016, starting with Brexit, but unfolding outside the Anglophone world as well.
I’ve been spending a lot of time these days in Colombia. We just watched a country have a referendum on whether to end a 52-year civil war that completely transformed and destroyed a beautiful nation. People voted “no”, which doesn’t make much sense on its surface until you realize that my country just elected as president a man who has absolutely no interest in governing, no interest in politics, no interest in really anything other than ego and his own power.
What I want to suggest is that this is a moment that is shocking, but it’s not actually surprising for anyone who’s been paying attention. What’s actually going on is the continuation of a number of trends that have been happening for at least a decade now or perhaps significantly longer. The person that I found most useful in trying to navigate this moment in time is, weirdly enough, a television commentator. His name is Chris Hayes, who is on MSNBC in the U.S. He wrote a very good book a couple of years ago called “Twilight of the Elites”.
In the first chapter of this book, he says, “Look, let’s forget about this whole notion of left and right. It’s not actually very helpful at this moment in understanding the world. What’s much more helpful is thinking about institutionalists and insurrectionists.” Institutionalists are people who say, “Look, these big structures of society that we’ve built, whether they’re governments, corporations, or universities, they mostly work. They mostly get the job done. We need new, smart people involved with them. We need to make them stronger. We need to make them more modern, but the basic structures work.”
I would say the institutionalists have been winning for a very long time. Perhaps since World War II, the institutionalists have been firmly in control. Now there’s a new camp of people who are insurrectionists. The insurrectionists basically say, “You’ve got to be kidding me. Have you looked around lately? Do you really think these structures are working? Do you really think government is doing what we want it to do as people? Do you really think unfettered capitalism the way that we have it in the world right now is working especially well? You must be nuts. It is time to knock these things down.”
That’s the tension. More than the tension between left and right is the tension between people who want to make improvements and tweaks to existing systems, and people who largely believe it’s time to pull those systems down, and try something else. I want to make the argument that over the last couple of decades, the institutionalists have gotten quite weak, and the insurrectionists have gotten quite strong.
This is a graph of responses to a question that the Gallup Polling Organization asks American roughly every six months. The question is very simple: “Do you trust the government in Washington to do the right thing all or most of the time?” This graph peaks in 1964 at 77%. If we go back to ’64, the enormous majority of Americans felt like the government is doing the right thing all or most of the time. The most recent version of this poll was at 19%. Now, I would point out that’s a moment of very high popularity in the Obama presidency. It’s actually been down to 9% or 10% over the course of his time in office.
I was born in 1973, and the only time that the majority of Americans have said that they had great confidence in the government in Washington during my entire 43-year lifetime was shortly before we invaded Iraq… which just shows what the American people know. The point is we have had massive decay in confidence in our government. We’ve also had massive decay in confidence in all sorts of other institutions. Asking similar questions about the police, organized religion, the medical systems, public schools, banks, organized labor, and of course newspapers and television news, we’ve seen collapses in confidence, particularly over the last 20 years.
This is not just not happening in the United States. The Netherlands, as it turns out, shows up as a fairly trusting country in Edelman’s Eurobarometer Trust Index. They’ve gone out and asked very similar questions about confidence in government, in NGOs, and all sorts of different sectors. The Netherlands is at the very high end of trusting countries. Trust seems to be increasing in the Netherlands, but it’s worth noting that the Netherlands and Scandinavia are quite rare within democracies. Within most mature democracies, trust is low and it’s going down.
Oddly enough, Northern Europe is in the same bin as autocracies. China, United Arab Emirates, Singapore, those for the most part are the only countries that seem to have very high trust in government. But even in the Netherlands, faith in democracy seems to be waning. Here’s a set of graphs from a forthcoming paper by Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa. This graph shows people’s answers to the question, “Is it essential to live in a democracy?”
These graphs are pulled apart by birth decade. Of people in the Netherlands born in the 1930’s, more than 50% said it was utterly essential to live in a democracy. You get down to people born in the 1980’s, it’s much closer to about 35%. You haven’t had the staggering fall that we’ve had in the United States, where we’ve gone from 75% down to the students that I teach, where fewer than 25% tell you that it is essential to live in a democracy.
Something has happened. Our confidence in these institutions has been badly shaken. You could make the argument that it’s been badly shaken, because frankly, these institutions are not doing a very good job right now. In my country at least, our democracy is highly dysfunctional. For the most part, we are not managing to come together and compromise. For the most part, we have oppositions between two parties who will absolutely not see eye to eye, and they end up spending an enormous amount of time and energy blocking each other and not getting very much done.
If you’ve been watching this for the last 20 or 25 years, it’s very easy to understand why people would become frustrated and alienated with this situation. If that’s bad news, I have worse news for us, because we are in the media field and people really don’t like us.
This actually became a common thing at Trump rallies. I’d like to remind you one more time: the person who we somehow have elected as the president of the United States, a common feature of his public appearances are his supporters standing up and chanting specifically about a fairly neutral to conservative media network, and their utter distaste for it. There is incredibly low confidence in our institution, that institution of journalism, very low confidence that we are doing our jobs without fear or favor, without agenda, that somehow what we are saying can be trusted. Instead what ends up happening is in an environment where it’s very, very easy for people to publish almost anything, we start seeing news that looks like this:
I wouldn’t expect you to be following the intricacies of U.S. politics, but about five days before the presidential election, the well known and highly celebrated Denver Guardian published the story stating that an FBI agent who had been investigating Hillary Clinton had committed suicide and burned his house under the incredible pressure that he had come under from Hillary’s sinister forces. This turned into people putting forward memes about Hillary Clinton being responsible for the deaths of dozens of people in her long and sordid career.
As it turns out, this story is entirely fake. There is no Denver Guardian. There has never been a Denver Guardian. The Denver Guardian is a website that someone put up because this was a way to get attention, and frankly a way to make money. Many of the most popular websites in the United States leading up to the election are run out of Macedonia. They are not run out of Macedonia as a giant Macedonian conspiracy to take over the U.S. government. They’re run out of Macedonia because it is a great way to make money.
It turns out that one of the best ways to make money as a Macedonian teenager right now is to aggregate links to pro-Trump, anti-Clinton content. It doesn’t matter whether they are true or false, so long as you put them together in a believable form. Run some Facebook ads on them and watch the money roll in. There are more than a hundred of these websites that are turning out to be a very robust media environment that people are paying an enormous amount of attention to.
My colleague Yochai Benkler over at Harvard is going to release some research in the next couple of weeks. He graphed links within the media environment in the United States leading up to the 2016 election. There are two major clusters to his map. We’re used to thinking of there being a left-wing cluster and a right-wing cluster. In one of these clusters in 2016, there are those noted left-wing sources like the Nation, the Guardian, The New York Times, also those noted left-wing sources like the Wall Street Journal, the National Review, the Independent. Actually, all mainstream media ends up in one cluster.
In the other cluster is Breitbart and all of this stuff being run out of Macedonia, all this stuff that’s basically been made up for internet consumption. We’ve ended up in a moment where there’s very low trust in media, and frankly, there’s a lot of media that we would need to be very worried about trusting. Now, if you feel like this young woman here feels, you’re probably not alone. This is what happens with mistrust. Mistrust is designed to breed helplessness.
If you’re looking for some of the political systems that have tried the hardest to create mistrust, you can look to the media environment in Russia, which is trying very hard to build up a culture of conspiracy theory which makes it very difficult to figure out how to organize and mobilize. In the wake of high mistrust, the natural instinct is to look towards charismatic individuals, anyone who can stand up and say, “I will find you a way through this,” because when you have very low trust in institutions, it’s very hard to mobilize people to participate within those institutions.
If, as in my country, you have a 9% approval rating for Congress, trying to get excited about electing new Congresspeople is not a very easy thing to do. Those Congresspeople will tell you that if they get elected, there’s almost nothing they’re going to be able to do since so little legislation gets passed. In high mistrust societies, you see falling participation rates. You see falling voting rates. You see falling number of people running for political office, because they don’t feel like they can make change that way.
Weirdly enough, you may also lose the ability for protest to have change, because when you protest, you are almost always trying to influence someone who is in power. When you go on a march, when you go to the Capitol, you are marching in the hopes that your leaders will listen to your demands, will listen to your concerns, will take you seriously. Once you lose trust in those institutions, you may even lose some of the most popular avenues for dissent.
I want to suggest that we can understand these strange moments: this decision of our friends in the UK that the EU is not something they were particularly excited about anymore, the decision of my fellow citizens that we wanted a radical change in who is leading our country. You can understand this in terms of efficacy. If people don’t feel like they can be effective, if they don’t feel like they can make change through existing institutions, they will look for ways that they feel like their actions matter. If you look at Brexit, people who were very angry, very frustrated and concerned about directions in which their country was going managed to have an effect.
Will it be the effect that they were looking for? Probably not. It’s probably not going to magically save the UK healthcare system. It’s probably not going to change some of the demographic transformations that the UK is going through. Is the US magically going to become great again because we elected Trump? Almost certainly not. It’s almost certainly going to become more racist. It’s almost certainly going to become very difficult to compete in the global economy, but people felt so alienated, so pissed off at these institutions that being able to make this change felt powerful.
This idea of helping people feel power, helping people feel that they can make an effect on the world, this is the essence of what we try to talk about when we talk about this field of Constructive Journalism.
I’ve been showing this slide for almost 10 years now, before Cathrine was even really building up this idea of Constructive Journalism, but this has been my fear about how media works most of the time. We are very good at documenting things that people should care about. We get them riled up. We get them informed. We get them interested. We get them invested, and then we don’t tell them what to do, because frankly, most people are not as brave as Alan Rusbridger is. Most people are not willing to say, “We’re going to go a step further, and not just tell you what’s going on in the world, but we’re going to tell you ways that you could be effective as a citizen in doing something about it.” The best journalism thinkers out there have been urging us to do this for a while.
If you read one essay coming out of this conference, let me urge you to read this wonderful essay by Michael Schudson, “Six or Seven Things the News can Do for Democracy”. Schudsonbasically says, “Look, some of these are very familiar to us. We know we’re supposed to inform each other. We know we have to do these deep investigations and analysis. We know deep in our hearts, we forget it every time we look at a comment thread, but we know deep in our hearts that we have to provide public fora for people to discuss difficult issues.”
Many of us know that media at its best is about social empathy. It’s about helping us understand what people are thinking and feeling, but these last two get really radical. Most of us are not used to thinking of journalism as a tool for mobilization, but sometimes when an issue is as big as climate change, then we actually have to step up and say, “You know, there isn’t a meaningful debate about this. What there is is a failure of efficacy, and we have to help people figure out how to be effective in the action that they’re taking.” We have to help readers figure out how they would divest, how they would avoid these companies that stand to profit on an unsustainable way of moving into the future.
Then perhaps the most radical thing that Michael says is that we have to help people understand the value of participatory democracy. This is the place where I want to suggest that Michael doesn’t have it entirely right. That’s because I think we no longer know what we’re talking about when we talk about civics.
When we talk about public participation, we encourage people to participate in the ways we know are “right”. We urge people to inform themselves on issues. We urge people to go out and vote. Sometimes, we urge people to think about issues and potentially go out and protest. Remember, I’m making the argument that at a moment of very low trust in institutions, these things may be valid things to say to the institutionalists, but they do not help you with the insurrectionists.
As for the people who have already concluded these structures just don’t work, when you urge them to participate this way, they lose what little faith they had in you. They end up saying, “You’re part of the system that clearly isn’t helping and clearly isn’t going anywhere. You’re urging us to waste our time, waste our energy on these efforts that we know aren’t going to do anything.”
Here is how I want to suggest the world works these days. This guy is Larry Lessig. When he is not running for the U.S. presidency, he is a pretty good legal scholar. He wrote a book in 2000 called “Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace”. For people like me who study online media, this became something of an almost prophetic text for us. A lot of us read this and said, “Finally, someone actually understands that technology can control our behavior as much as laws do.”
Larry made this case that while we’re used to thinking about passing laws that determine what we can and can’t do, any number of technologies – which he refers to as “code”- can constrain us or enable us to do certain things.
You have all sorts of codes in the Netherlands that enable certain behaviors. You seem to have a fetish for bicycles. They’re rather well supported in your infrastructure. You have lanes for them all over the place. You have parking lots for them all at the train stations. You have a set of social norms that seem to prevent people from stealing them, but it’s a combination of norms and code that make these behaviors possible. Laws help create this environment, but a lot of Holland’s bike-friendliness has to do with the actual technical architectures.
Lessig makes this case that we actually use four different levers to make behaviors happen. We pass laws to make certain things legal and illegal. We use markets to make things expensive or cheap. In my country, gasoline is a whole lot cheaper than it is over here, which is probably why you guys end up riding bicycles.
We have social norms, where in the U.S., we get pissed off with people in bicycles because they’re taking my damn lane, and we take a swipe at them and so on and so forth. That’s not a particularly good thing if you’re a bicyclist. Social norms have a lot to do with how we govern behavior. Then we havetechnological architectures, codes that enable certain behaviors.
Here’s something I call “the inverted Lessig”. All of these ways that we control society turn out to be paths to social change. If we want to make the world a different place, we can pass laws, yes, but that’s really hard these days. At least in the U.S., trying to make change through laws has become highly professionalized and it’s become incredibly difficult. For many people, their chance to be effective, their chance to make social change happens through these three other levers.
Here is what it looks like: Most people note that the people in the US are not actually interested in the rest of world. We are in fact deeply interested in the rest of the world. We’re just interested in the secrets that you’re sending to one another, and because of our deep interest, we’ve been reading your mail, listening to your phone calls, and generally paying quite a bit of attention to the rest of the world, because it’s possible that you’re all terrorists. You may not even know it.
Our National Security Agency provides the helpful service of reading an enormous number of your communications to keep you safe. I as an American are not particularly thrilled about this. I’m rather deeply embarrassed by it. I’m pretty unthrilled that my allegedly progressive president Barack Obama has done very little to change this situation, and there’s not a lot that I’m going to be able to do in a Trump administration to try to provide privacy to all the digital communications that flow through the United States.
However, there are some awfully good hackers out there who are building things like Tor. They’re building things like Signal, which I use every day, a very good encrypted voice and SMS platform. There’s lots of people looking at technological structures that may be able to protect privacy even if we can’t make those protections through law. This is a way to try to make change when you can’t make it in one fashion. If you can’t somehow put surveillance back in the box under U.S. law, is there a way that hackers and coders can come out and make change through other different means?
It turns out there absolutely is. Then the question becomes, “How did people adopt it? How did people pick it up?” Allen [Rusbridger, of the Guardian] has been looking for change through markets. How do we get a group like Gates, like the Wellcome Trust to essentially say, “These large companies cannot to burn the fossil fuels that they’re pulling out of the ground?” There’s other ways to make massive change through markets. Consider a company like Tesla, which is trying to make electric vehicles, not only practical but dead sexy, and trying to figure out how to make solar power, something that everyone is using with power walls in their houses.
This is a way to make change even if governments aren’t willing at this point to pass laws, aren’t willing to sign on to international treaties, aren’t willing to set carbon goals that would help keep us at two centigrade degrees of global warming. A lot of my work centers on this idea that some of the most powerful change that we make is through social norms.
One of the things that’s happening in the United States is that unfortunately, our police shoot a lot of people. In particular, they shoot a disproportionate number of Black people. This is not a matter of law. It has been illegal to shoot people for a whole long time in the United States. It’s been illegal to shoot Black people for at least 100 years or so. We don’t need particularly new laws around this. What we do need is a set of social norms. What ends up happening is that people in the United States have a strong tendency to see people of color, particularly young men, as a threat, and this gets reinforced by the media.
When Michael Brown – a young man in Ferguson, Missouri – got killed by police, the media ended up using a particular mug shot for him. They took this image over to your left off of his Facebook page. Now, what does Mike Brown look like in this image? Just shout something out. What do you see about Mike Brown? How does he look?
Audience member: “A thug.”
Yes, he looks like a thug. He looks tough. Why does he look like a thug? What in that photo is making him look so tough? He shot from below, which makes him look taller. It makes him look bigger. This is a Facebook photo. This is an 18-year-old kid. Of course, he wants to look tough. I want to look tough. He’s put this photo up there to make himself look as badass as possible, and this is the photo the media has grabbed to discuss Michael Brown.
This is another picture of Michael Brown taken around the same time. What does Michael Brown look like in this photo? He’s sweet. He’s a baby. He’s got these baby cheeks. He’s a cute kid. He’s a nice kid. That’s a very different image of who this young man is. Activists looked at this disparity and said, “Let’s go into our Facebook feeds. Let’s find the photo that makes us look at our worst, and the photo that makes us look at our best.”
You look at this young man here, and in one of those photos, he looks like a guy you don’t want to mess with. In the other photo, this looks like a man who you very much want to celebrate about what’s best about America. Over the course of three days, this turned into a national campaign of people taking this on, writing essays about it, writing about why they want to participate in it. Within three days, this was on the front page of the New York Times, and more importantly, it’s very hard to find that first photo of Mike Brown anymore. You simply don’t see it.
Media got the point. They got the point that the way that we portray these victims of police violence has a lot to do with our norms about whether we see Black men and boys as dangerous or not. What’s our role in all of this? As practicing journalists, what should we be doing about this? The first thing I want to say is that if you buy my theory that these are the ways that we make change now, very different people have power than we’re used to thinking about.
Yes, politicians are powerful. They’re really important as far as making change through law, and they have a lot of power in terms of force of norms, but they’re probably not the most powerful actors in terms of norms. Celebrities are much more powerful, but not necessarily just the Angelina Jolie-type celebrities. Celebrities in terms of people who have lots of followers, whether it’s on YouTube or whether it’s on Facebook, people who are able to mobilize large networks of people to work together on an issue or to help people change their thinking have great sway over norms.
Who’s powerful in markets? People who already have money. It’s easier to be Elon Musk when you have millions of dollar to go and start a company. But also powerful are people who are able to raise money through different means, people through crowdfunding, people who are able to get different amounts of money together.
We as journalists need to understand how power is working, who is powerful, and try to figure out how we tell and celebrate those stories. We also need to try to figure out how we get critical and careful about how power works in this news space. The project I’ve been working on for the last decade or so tries to figure out this question of how much influence media really has.
Alan [Rusbridger] told a brilliant story that involves running a campaign, getting it seen by millions of people, and at the end of it, the guy that he was targeting did the thing that he wanted him to do. That’s the best type of story that we can tell about the impact of media, but most stories aren’t that simple. Most stories don’t go from, “I wanted A, I ran a campaign, and I accomplished A.” Most are much more complicated.
Here is one of those complicated stories, and I’ve been trying to figure them out with a tool that we build in my lab called Media Cloud. Media Cloud looks at about half a million media sources, grabs every story that comes out of them, and then allows us to search them and analyze them.
What we wanted to search and analyze is how does English language media talk about people of color in the United States who were unarmed and killed by police. Like I said, there’s a lot of these people. We ended up looking at everyone from 2013 to 2016 to figure out what sort of media coverage they got after they were killed by police. We put a marker in this graph of Mike Brown’s death, because shortly after Mike Brown’s death, we’ve seen the emergence of the social movement called Black Lives Matter.
One of the big foci of Black Lives Matter has been paying attention to police violence against people of color. Before Black Lives Matter, if you are an unarmed person of color shot by the police, the most likely thing that happens is nothing. No one reports it. There are zero media stories. That’s that thick bit at the bottom of the curve. There is a small number of people who get a small number of stories. They basically get a small amount of regional coverage. There’s almost no one who makes it up to the top and becomes the object of national debate.
After Mike Brown, that curve’s very different. There are a lot fewer people who are invisible. Basically, if you get shot by the police as an unarmed person of color, there is going to be a story about it, whether or not it makes it up to the national level, that invisibility starts going away. In fact, that invisibility goes away in such a big way, or to quote my new political leader, “So bigly, so hugely,” that you have 10 times as much coverage shortly after Mike Brown’s death for the average person of color killed by police than you did before.
We see an even bigger effect on Facebook, when we looked at how these stories got shared on Facebook. These stories get shared. They get propagated. They get talked about. Unlike with the media, where frankly we’ve gone back down to ignoring unarmed people of color, on Facebook, we’re still at about four times as much attention as we were before Mike Brown. Audiences are telling journalists, “We still want to see these stories. We still care about this.”
What’s come out of it? Well, we’ve actually seen in most police departments in the United States a willingness to adopt body cameras. We’re up to the point where 95% of police departments are actively working on a program to put body cameras on all of their police. Now, is this as easy saying we had a movement around Mike Brown’s death, and then we paid attention, and then journalism changed, and we got body cameras? No. It’s really complicated. It’s really messy, but if you are working on a movement like Black Lives Matter, and your goal is to change the social norm, this is some pretty good evidence that those sorts of campaigns can work, and that they can work by modifying media and changing what we pay attention to.
I want to ask us to think about these things. Think about can we communicate how power works now, not just in terms of politics and law, but in terms of markets, in terms of technologies, in terms of social norms? Celebrate the successes of people who are doing this work well. Then finally, as Alan made the case, figure out how we link these stories to meaningful action.
So many of us have written stories where we’ve ended up saying, “Now that you know about this, please take action. Write to your senator or congressman. Sign this petition.” Stop doing that. For the insurrectionists, that doesn’t work. That’s a signal that you’re not serious.
Think about the other changes people are trying to make. Think about things that people are trying to do in markets with code, with norms. Think about how we link people to those actions as well as to legal actions.
One final thing: we have this tendency in journalism right now to feel very sorry for ourselves. This is a field that we are all enormously proud to be part of. This is a field that is harder and harder to make a living in, and I see more and more news organizations essentially saying, “You’re going to miss us. We’re going away. I just want to warn you.”
I’m not saying this isn’t true. I think this probably is true, but I also think it’s a lousy way to market ourselves. I think it’s happening in part because people are looking at what we’re doing, and saying, “You’re not helping me. If you were helping me, if you were helping me get over that moment of hopelessness, if you were helping me figure out how to be effective and how to make a change, I would find a way to be there for you.” I want to end with this idea. I don’t think it’s the public’s job to save journalism, but I do think it’s journalism’s job to help save civics.
I think we have to figure out how these changes are taking place, and whether we reach out to the institutionalists and say, “It’s time to make those institutions stronger and better than they ever were before,” or whether, and this is what I’m urging you, we reach out to those insurrectionists, and say, “We hear you. We know why you feel powerless. We want to help you become powerful.” If we can figure out how to save civics, how to get more people who are alienated deeply engaged with this, that’s the first step towards saving journalism. If we help the citizens who rely on us become more powerful and more effective, they’re going to step in, and then try to find a way to be there for us. Thank you.
I spoke this afternoon at a rally in Pittsfield, Massachusetts my (almost) hometown (I live one town north, in Lanesboro.) The rally honored the four freedoms, articulated in his 1941 state of the union address by FDR: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. Along with a range of Massachusetts politicians – Senator Ed Market, Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer – I was part of a group of community leaders invited to reflect on the four freedoms and our particular moment in time.
James Roosevelt, grandson of FDR, speaking at Four Freedoms rally in Pittsfield, MA, January 7, 2017
We had a remarkable turnout for the event. The Reverend who hosted us told me the church held 1400, and it was filled to capacity, with people sitting in the aisles, and 300 in an overflow seating room. The population of Berkshire county is only 129,000, so the folks who came out to march and listen to speeches total more than 1% of our total citizenry.
When Franklin Delano Roosevelt invoked the four freedoms in his 1941 state of the union address, the world was at war, and the president wanted Americans to support the government in spreading these freedoms around the world. We’re in a very different world now, where decades of international cooperation and unification are giving way to isolationism, nationalism and the demonizing of migrants and marginalized groups. These scary trends aren’t limited to the US – we see them everywhere from Britain to Hungary, France to Russia, Poland to South Africa.
Roosevelt saw the US government as the guarantor of these freedoms around the world, first through war with Japan and Germany, then through the Marshall Plan and through decades of American hard and soft power. That’s another way in which we’re in a different world. In the 1960s, when you asked Americans if they had trust in the federal government to do the right thing, more than 75% said that they did. These days, that number is under 20%. The four freedoms matter more than ever, but even despite the hard work of our representatives here on the stage, many of us don’t believe the government can bring them about. Instead, it’s up to us, individually and collectively.
When Norman Rockwell painted Freedom of Speech, he depicted an Arlington, VT man standing up to dissent at a local town meeting. That’s about as public as most speech could be in the 1940s. But now, every one of us has the power to speak, potentially to a global audience, using nothing more than the phones in our pocket. If you don’t like how the media covers this march, film a video, write a blog post, make your own media.
Our challenge now is not just to speak, but also to listen. When everyone is speaking, it’s too easy to listen just to the people we want to hear. We’ve got to listen deeply and widely, to people in other countries and to people in our own who we don’t agree with.
We’ve got to listen, because people are scared: children whose parents brought them to the US who discover they are not citizens when they apply to college, our Muslim brothers and sisters who are unfairly blamed for acts of terror, human rights defenders who are threatened and challenged around the world. The way we achieve freedom from fear is through solidarity, through listening hard to what people have to say, then using our speech to support them, defend them and stand with them.
This is a scary moment, a time where it looks like the progress we’ve made around the world might reverse, where we go from a world that’s gotten much bigger to one that shrinks. The good news is that we get to decide how big a world we want to live in. We get to decide how to speak, how to listen and how to stand together against fear.
In the US, NFL football is more than a sport – it’s a stage on which broader national dramas play out. In the past years, the NFL has brought to national attention conversations about domestic violence, about cheating and fairness and about the ethics of loving a sport that is likely killing its players. With Colin Kapernick’s decision not to stand for the singing of the national anthem during a pre-season football game, starting a wave of similar protests by athletes, a national debate about endemic racism in the US has now become a debate about race, protest, politics and NFL football.
Some years ago, journalist and activist, the late Dori Maynard posed a question to the Media Cloud team: Does sports media use different language to talk about black and white athletes? The question, Dori told us, came from basketball player Isaiah Thomas, who had observed that journalists often described black athletes as physically talented but talked about the intelligence of white athletes. While both descriptions are laudatory, they focus on different aspects of a player’s talents, and enforce long-standing racial stereotypes about intellect and physicality. Could Media Cloud, Dori wondered, put some numbers to these anecdotes?
This isn’t a new research question. Scholars have analyzed the language play-by-play announcers use and have seen the patterns in which white players are praised for intelligence and black players for physical attributes. (See also Rainville and McCormick, 1977 and Rada 1996) Media Cloud gives us the chance to analyze a different corpus, sports stories written after the game, and to examine this possible phenomenon on a different scale. We focused our study on the attention paid to and language used to discuss NFL quarterbacks, the most highly paid and most discussed players on the field.
So do we talk about white quarterbacks as intelligent and black quarterbacks as athletic? Well, like almost everything involving media and race, it’s complicated.
First, we talk a great deal about football in the US media. We analyzed tens of thousands of stories from 478 publications (including US sports websites like NFL.com as well as national and regional sources) over 4 months of NFL regular season coverage in 2015.Despite the prominence of stories like , the vast majority of writing about football discusses this week’s results, next week’s matchup and teams’ strategies for success. As a result, the table of word frequencies when we talk about quarterbacks is heavy on two kinds of words: words that describe gameplay, and words that describe injuries.
We’ve classified each of the 53 quarterbacks who played in NFL games last season as white, black or hispanic (using data from the besttickets unofficial NFL player census, acknowledging that these categories are socially constructed, complex and overlapping.) We then examined what words are associated with coverage of white QBs and QBs of color. In general, white QBs were slightly more associated with action words – ran, threw, leapt – and non-white QBs with words about their health and bodies, their off-field lives and descriptive words, like “dominant” or “judgement”. (Our handcoding of the top 250 words associated with QBs, and synonyms for those words, is here.)
We further examined what words were disproportionately associated with white and non-white QBs. For instance, the words “Heisman” and “trophy” were more than three times as likely to appear in stories about black QBs than about white QBs, likely because Heisman winning black QBs Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston played more last year than white Heisman winner Johnny Manziel. Some of those terms do suggest a focus on the physicality of black QBs:
Word used more with black QBs
(aka: “dual threat” to run or pass)
(may refer to a “balanced offense” as well as to the physical characteristic)
Words disproportionately associated with white quarterbacks tend to characterize specific scandals and controversies. In most cases, these words describe only one or two quarterbacks, whereas the words disproportionately associated with black QBs often describe multiple players:
Word used more with white QBs
only associated with Tom Brady
only associated with Ryan Mallett missing a charter flight
An Al Jazeera story about possible use of human growth hormone in the NFL
Words associated with both white and black quarterbacks, but disproportionately with white QBs also include “domestic” (ie., domestic violence) and partying.
Before concluding that US media is somehow biased against white QBs and their scandals, it’s worth keeping in mind that these terms disproportionately associated with white QBs are highly idiosyncratic – they’re more the portrait of a single player’s struggles than the way a whole group of players are characterized. Moving down in the frequency table to words that appear 1.5x to 5x more with white QBs than black QBs, we find some evidence to support the “white brains, black bodies” hypothesis, but less than we expected.
Word used more with white QBs
If there’s no racial smoking gun in looking at word frequencies, it may be because, as John Caravalho put it, “No broadcaster or sportswriter this side of Rush Limbaugh is so self-destructive as to blatantly muse on the suitability of a black quarterback.” Reporters may be increasingly sensitive to issues of word choice. But the amount of attention paid to white versus black QBs tells a somewhat different story.
We analyzed how much media attention each of the 53 quarterbacks in our study received. To adjust for the fact that some quarterbacks in our set played very few minutes, we calculated words per minute played, a statistic that ranged from 25.5 words/minute for Titans backup Zack Mettenberger, to 471.4 words/minute for the Cowboys Tony Romo, who suffered a shoulder injury and missed most of the season, to the great dismay of the Dallas press. While Romo is the largest outlier in the set, five other quarterbacks – all white – received unusually high words per minute scores: Brandon Weeden, Johnny Manziel, Landry Jones, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. The first three – Weeden, Manziel and Jones – played very few games – Jones was a substitute in a single game, while Weeden and Manziel started fewer than 3 games in a 16 game season – skewing these counts. Manning and Brady are “name-brand” quarterbacks, who received additional attention in 2015, Brady for the ongoing “Deflategate” saga and Manning for winning the Super Bowl and retiring.
Comparing a quarterback’s passer rating to his words of coverage suggests that “name brand” quarterbacks are at a distinct advantage in terms of media attention. Six quarterbacks – five white, one black – appear as outliers in this chart. (Romo, who we code as “Hispanic”, didn’t play enough minutes in 2015-16 to have a QB rating.) Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady are all elite quarterbacks who are also recognizable public figures, endorsing products and commanding media attention. (All receive more than $6m in endorsements per year, and rank #1, #4 and #5 in the list of QBs ranked by endorsement money in 2015.) Manziel’s disproportionate attention springs from notoriety – he was benched after videos surfaced of him partying during a bye week – while Andrew Luck had an injury-plagued season that was both poor and widely discussed. The only black quarterback who is an outlier in this set is Marcus Mariota, who outperformed expectations for the Titans, and generated widespread hand-wringing in Tennessee when he was injured late in the season. Notably, the year’s best-rated quarterback – the Seattle Seahawks’ Russell Wilson – is black, and received significantly less attention than worse-rated “brand name” quarterbacks, though average attention for his rating as predicted by our model. Like Manning, Rodgers and Brady, Wilson makes more than $6m a year in endorsements, but his financial success doesn’t lead to disproportionate coverage. Nor does it lead to overcoverage of Drew Brees and Eli Manning, white QBs who were #2 and #3 on the endorsement list in 2015.
Given the messy relationship between performance and attention, we asked whether a naive hypothesis – that sportswriting coverage tracked actual performance – might help answer Dori and Isiah’s question. If black quarterbacks tend to be described as “athletic”, might it be in part because their athleticism is more impressive than that of white quarterbacks?
We looked at two statistics to try to calculate “athleticism”: the 40 yard dash and rushing yards gained by the quarterback. White quarterbacks averaged a little over 4.8 seconds on the 40 yard dash, while black quarterbacks averaged a little below 4.6 seconds. In the NFL, that .25 second gap is an eternity – black quarterbacks, on average, run nearly as fast as receivers, the fastest players on the field, while white quarterbacks are closer to linebackers. That speed apparently matters, as black quarterbacks averaged a little over 200 rushing yards in a season, while white quarterbacks generally had fewer than 50.
This finding about differences in athletic ability by race is obviously heavily loaded, given the long history of racist speech that portrays blacks as fundamentally physically different than whites. We note that the system that results in the presence of more athletic black quarterbacks than white quarterbacks in the NFL is a highly complex one that is deeply embedded in the racial mores of our society. This piece on how modern NFL quarterbacks are made finds that the top 15 quarterback prospects in the 2016 draft overwhelmingly: started playing quarterback by age 9, came from stable families in homes worth at least the median home value, had outside coaching starting in high school, and participated in year round formal 7v7 programs. This kind of intense, adult driven athletic experience is much more common in suburban communities than urban communities. For one example, his piece on the “Hidden Demographics of Youth Sports” lists the five states with the lowest rate of high school sports participation, and four of those five are among the states with the most black households. All of this is to say that this data on the athletic advantage of black over white quarterbacks may or may not say anything about inherent athleticism of black people but almost certainly says something about the deeply racially infused cultural systems that produce modern professional athletes.
Given all of the above, there’s an argument that black quarterbacks are genuinely more athletic – at least in terms of foot speed – than white quarterbacks, and the differences we see in language about quarterbacks may correlate to their performance. That may run counter to suspicions that led Dori to ask her question. But we did find a way in which there’s an apparent racial disparity in coverage: sheer attention.
Only eight quarterbacks broke the 40,000 word barrier in our set, two black, one hispanic, five white. Set the bar at 50,000 and we’re down to four white QBs and Tony Romo. At the highest levels of attention, four “name-brand” quarterbacks (Rodgers, Brady, Manning, Romo) and one screw-up (Manziel) dominate discussion of football in 2015-6. Elite black QBs – Russell Wilson, Marcus Mariotta, Cam Newton – received more attention than mediocre quarterbacks, but less than name brand, endorsement laden white QBs, despite in Wilson’s case, significantly superior performance.
Is there a racial bias in sportswriting about the NFL? Probably.That bias may be related to which NFL players gain endorsement contracts and widespread celebrity, and which ones fall short of expectations to reach that elite level. It’s difficult to entangle causality, though – all but one of these “name brand” QBs are white, and we may pay attention to them because of their celebrity, which correlates only partially to their superior athletic performance, and may correlate more closely to their race.
We will be updating our study at the close of the 2016-7 NFL season, and are looking forward to seeing whether Kapernick’s protest challenged the attention patterns we saw in the previous season.
This post was written by Ethan Zuckerman in collaboration with Allan Ko, Rahul Bhargava, and Hal Roberts. Allan Ko produced the graphics and conducted the quantitative research.
The most interesting response I received came from an alum of Williams College, the small college in western Massachusetts I graduated from. My op-ed raised questions for him, and he wanted to buy me lunch to talk about them if I was willing to dine with a Trump supporter.
I was. Not only was he paying, but I’m acutely aware that I’m ideologically isolated and that I have almost no Trump supporters – or, perhaps, no _out_ Trump supporters – in my work and personal circles.
We had lunch earlier this week, and we spent an hour getting to know each other – our families, our paths to the jobs we hold today, our feelings about our alma mater. Basically, we spent an hour becoming friends. I like the guy. I’m going to have lunch with him again, and I’m going to pay the next time.
All of which made it harder to ask the question I needed to ask: Why Trump?
My friend acknowledged that Trump is thin-skinned, erratic, blustery, abusive, that he’s said and done things that were lewd, boorish and abusive, that he has grave doubts about his judgement. But Trump gives him hope on the one issue he cares about: immigration.
The US has approximately 42 million immigrants, or 13.3% of the population, with roughly 1.2 million arriving per year. My friend would prefer we move to a much more restrictive set of immigration policies taking us towards net zero immigration. His reasons surprised me. “What happens to the wages of the average waiter in this restaurant if we end immigration. Labor is more scarce. Wages rise.” If we ended immigration, we’d take steps towards improving the lives of the underemployed and reducing inequality in the US, he argues.
Good progressive that I am, I can think of a lot of other ways to reduce inequality and improve waiters’ lives: a livable wage law, single-payer healthcare, redistribution of wealth via a progressive income tax. I expected a fight over regulated and unregulated markets with my friend, but we ended up in a different place: a fundamental disagreement over who matters.
My friend identifies as a “citizenist”, someone who believes our goal as Americans should be to better the lives of other American citizens. “I don’t care who they are, where they’re from, what they believe – if they’re here and they’re citizens, they’re the ones we should help.” I identify as a globalist. I consider it an accident of birth that I’m an American rather than Nigerian, and I don’t see a strong reason to privilege the economic success of someone who happened to be born here over that of someone who wants to come here. I have great sympathy for Lant Prichett’s argument that eliminating national boundaries would be the best possible step for global economic development.
During my first year of college, I roomed with a devout Christian from a small town in Pennsylvania. We were both philosophy majors, we both loved to argue, and we became dear friends despite the fact that our worldviews diverged radically on many subjects. A few months into our friendship, we learned that certain of our arguments simply reduced to a fundamental moral disagreement that neither of us would budge from. Finding the roots of these disagreements was surprisingly satisfying – it allows you to look at someone you respect and say, “Oh, THAT’s why you believe that apparently absurd thing.” When my Trump-supporting friend and I reached the citizenist/globalist split, I feel like we’d found bottom in that way. I believe he’s fundamentally wrong, but I can see how he got from his underlying principles to his otherwise incomprehensible conclusion.
My friend’s question for me was far more specific than why I opposed Trump. He quoted the final line of my CNN op-ed: “If we can’t agree that Richard Spencer and Steve Bannon are beyond the pale, what can we agree on?” Was it fair to put white supremacist Spencer and activist publisher Bannon in the same category?, my friend probed.
The question mattered to him because he finds himself siding with Bannon on many issues. More critically, he saw Breitbart, the site Bannon published, as one of the few that gave voice to his perspectives on immigration. “If Bannon is beyond the pale, and Breitbart’s beyond the pale, does it mean that my views on immigration are beyond the pale? And what about the millions of Americans who agree with me?”
And so, here it gets complicated. My friend and I agree that political dialog in the US is often too narrow. He’d like the sphere of legitimate controversy to include discussion of net-zero immigration. I’d like to see the dialog expand to include elimination of national borders. The rise of the internet as the dominant public sphere has led to an expansion of opinions we can encounter online, giving voice to perspectives that are still in the sphere of deviance for most media. For the most part, I think this is a good thing.
But here’s the catch. When Breitbart comes on the scene and pushes the sphere of legitimate controversy to the right, we start hearing points of view that probably should remain in the sphere of deviance. Bannon gives voice to the net-zero immigration point of view, but also to the ethnonationalist point of view. I’d argue that’s a point of view that should remain in the sphere of deviance due to the damage it’s caused over the years. (There’s clearly points of view on the left that I’d put in the sphere of deviance as well. For me, black bloc protests that focus on property destruction as a way of challenging global capitalism probably push into the deviant sphere. And I’m happy putting the anti-vaxxers there.)
My friend is with me… sort of. We both agree there’s points of view that we’re best not giving airtime to. But we’d draw the line differently. He wants to exclude “the guys in the sheets”. I propose a line that excludes Milo Yiannopoulos, who has promoted misogynistic bullying online during Gamergate, but my friend is a reader and fan of Milo. And the more I talk about the issue with him, the more I realize I’m uncomfortable both with where that line should be placed and, more broadly, with placing lines.
Over the years, the women became deeply fond of one another. But rather than coming to agreement on issues of abortion, they became more polarized over time. Through years of explaining their positions respectfully to someone who deeply disagreed with them, the women became stronger and clearer in their convictions.
Is this a success or a failure? If you’re in the camp that believes that careful, fact-based deliberation leads to compromise and new solutions, it’s disappointing. But for Dr. Coleman, this is as good as we could hope for. The vitriol and anger that characterized the dialog between these two groups evaporated as these core activists began to know each other as people. And this may be the best we can hope for with controversies that reduce to fundamental conflicts of values.
Sitting down with my friend was made easier by the fact that we have a lot in common. We’re both hyper-privileged white males, we had enough time and flexibility to schedule the conversation, we both felt comfortable in the setting he’d chosen for the conversation. We had a great deal of common experience through our time at the same college. Neither of us felt personally threatened by recent political events in the way an undocumented immigrant or a Muslim American might. And even with all this going for us, it wasn’t an easy conversation – we circled around it for an hour before diving into it.
At this point, my friend isn’t comfortable revealing his identity, for fear that being identified as a Trump supporter will hurt his chances at working in academia. That, too, is an obstacle to these conversations, and some of that blame goes to me and friends on the left who are working to ensure that no one believes that President Trump has the approval of a citizenry united behind him. But I’m looking for ways to fight the excesses candidate Trump has promised while finding a way to keep open dialog with the people who supported him.
Postscript: I talked through the diagram I offered above with my friend and colleague Nathan Matias. He noted that, while helpful, the diagram does little to shed light on the current question d’jour: fake news. He’s right. The diagram above presumes good faith, and much of the media that’s created around the 2016 presidential election was not disseminated in good faith.
Stories in good faith often work to push the boundaries of the sphere of legitimate controversy. As a result, they make some people uncomfortable, since they bring in perspectives and views we’re not comfortable entertaining. But that’s different from two categories of news that are being lumped into the idea of “fake news”.
Some “fake news” is propaganda. It’s weaponized text, designed to make our side look good and the other side look bad. Much propaganda isn’t fake – it’s simply heavily biased, and offers an incomplete view of events to have a persuasive effect. The medium term effect of propaganda is polarization, as we stop seeing our political opponents as reasonable people we disagree with, but as people who are so wrong and misguided that we couldn’t possibly find common ground with them. In the long term, propaganda destroys democracy, because it silences dissent and calcifies the parties currently in power.
A small amount of “fake news” is better described as disinformatzya. Its goal is not to persuade readers of its truth so much as it attempts to raise doubt in the reader that anything is true. We’re not used to disinformatzya in the US, but it’s been quite common not only in Russia but in Turkey, where Erdogan has manufactured fake news designed to reduce Turkish trust in Twitter, trying to disable it as a vehicle for organized opposition to his leadership. The long-term effect of disinformatzya is reduced faith in institutions of all sorts: the press in particular, but government, banks, NGOs, etc. Who benefits from this doubt? People who already have power benefit from a population that’s disempowered, frustrated, confused. And highly charismatic leaders who promise guidance away from failed institutions benefit personally from this mistrust.
My friend and I didn’t directly engage with issues of propaganda and disinformatzya versus boundary-pushing in good faith, but the subject came up more than once by accident. Trying to demonstrate Breitbart’s pushing of subjects beyond the pale, I referenced an article, “Are Jews White?”… which of course proves to be an Atlantic article asking questions about whether Breitbart is raising questions like this, not an actual Breitbart article. Yep, I’m a communications scholar, and I’m still susceptible to confirmation bias.
NB: I asked my friend to review my blog post and offer corrections and clarifications to ensure that I’m portraying him fairly. This post reflects his corrections and amendments.
Hundreds of thousands of articles will be written this week trying to explain what happened in the 2016 US presidential election. One of the best explanations was written four years ago by television host and cultural commentator, Chris Hayes.
In his book, Twilight of the Elites, Hayes explains that left/right divisions in the US are no longer as relevant as the tension between institutionalists and insurrectionists. Institutionalists believe the institutions of our society – government, media, education, healthcare, business – are fundamentally sound, but need the ongoing engagement of good, energized people to keep them healthy and functional. Insurrectionists believe that these same institutions have failed us and need to be torn down and replaced.
We just experienced a presidential election between a consumate institutionalist and a radical insurrectionist. Clinton’s notable qualities – her deep understanding of the way Washington works, her experience in the State department, the respect she receives from powerful people domestically and internationally, her ethic of hard work – are the calling cards of the institutionalist. She understands the system and is ready to make it work better.
Trump, on the other hand, doesn’t understand the systems he’s just been given the keys to. That’s okay, since he’s not promising to steer it well, but instead to crash it into a wall. The people who elected Trump did so not because they thought his business expertise would translate into good governance. They did so because the American system wasn’t working for them, and Clinton promised only fine-tuning of a system that’s failing them. Crashing the bus is a stupid move, but when you believe it’s been driven in the wrong direction for the past few decades, it can feel like progress.
Well before Trump announced his unlikely candidacy, institutionalists were starting to feel the earth shift under their feet. For decades, American trust in government has been shrinking. In 1964, 77% of Americans told pollsters that they believed the government in Washington would do the right thing all or most of the time. Now, that number is under 15%. And who can blame us? Trust started falling with Watergate, accelerated under 8 years of Reagan telling us that government couldn’t do anything right, was reinforced by the failures of the war in Iraq, our national failure to protect the poor after Katrina and the financial crisis of 2008. If you’re not at least a little mistrustful, you’re not paying attention.
When people start to mistrust systems, two things happen. They stop participating within them, and they look for someone – a single person who they can relate to – who promises a way out of or around the system. Mistrust leads both to low political participation, as we saw in this election, and to the rise of authoritarians and demagogues.
Someone always runs as the outsider, the rebel who’ll shake up the political establishment. The Republicans – in spite of themselves – nominated a genuine outsider this year, someone who neither understood or respected the process. When the nation – and the world – is in an insurrectionist mood, the normal rules of politics don’t apply. For his insurrectionist supporters, every time Trump trampled on another norm – threatening to prosecute his rival, banning reporters from his events, encouraging violence in his rallies – it was evidence that he was genuinely outside the system, genuinely willing to challenge the status quo. When we on the left celebrated Clinton’s self-control, leadership, competence and experience, it read as us reassuring our insurrectionist neighbors that we institutionalists were committed to ensuring that nothing major would actually change.
I work with thousands of people on dozens of civic projects, all of whom are asking, “What now?” I don’t know, and I distrust anyone who thinks s/he does. But here’s a start:
This would be a good time to take insurrectionists seriously. When we dismiss all Trump voters are racists or misogynists, we run the risk of ignoring those who hated Trump, hated what he stood for, and voted for him anyway, because they hate their dead-end jobs, they can’t afford health insurance, and they see things getting worse, not better, for their children.
Don’t get be wrong – some genuinely hateful people voted for Trump because they see him as making America Hate Again. Protecting marginalized people – immigrants, Muslims, LGBTQI, people of color – has to be the top priority for the next four years for anyone outraged and dismayed by Trump’s election.
But progressives need a new vision for an economy where workers, not just entrepreneurs, have a bright future. And I’m pretty sure that future isn’t built around the gig economy. Yes, GDP is up, but when inequality is as high as it is, that doesn’t mean a thing for most workers. Yes, unemployment is reasonably low, but the quality of jobs has dropped for many of the workers who are demanding change. Understanding that many people feel their future slipping away, and that people who feel threatened tend to treat those they see as “other” very badly, is an important step anyone who works on social change needs to take.
Not all insurrectionists are conservative. Occupy was a progressive insurrectionist movement, as was Podemos. So is the Pirate Party in Iceland, which came close to capturing power last month. Insurrectionism doesn’t have to mean a return to the political dark ages (though under Trump, it likely will.)
Progressives need to understand an insurrectionist moment as an opportunity to push for structural change. Trump wants to “drain the swamp”, and make fundamental changes to how Washington works. Conveniently, so do I – Washington hasn’t worked very well for many people for a long time now. When Trump’s incoherent and insane ideas don’t pan out, it would be a very good thing for progressive insurrectionists to offer some structural changes we’d like to make. An electoral college bound to the popular vote, larger congressional districts with rank-order voting to lessen tyranny of the majority, bans on dark money? Those are hard for with an institutionalist, who’s been put into place by that system, to fight against, but they could be the platform for a progressive insurrectionist.
If you can’t make change through law, make in another way. For the past couple of years, I’ve been preaching the idea that elections, laws and court decisions aren’t the only path to social change. I’ve done so because I’ve seen many progressive-leaning insurrectionists become frustrated with their inability to pass laws and elect leaders to advance their priorities.
Law is a powerful way to make social change, but it’s far from the only way. Deep changes like the acceptance of gays and lesbians in society is a norms-based change that unfolds in popular culture and social media far before law catches up and protects rights. Changes in technology are leading to a change in how we understand and protect privacy, allowing citizens to respond to government surveillance by hardening their personal privacy. Changes in markets, where social enterprise is emerging as an alternative to conventional enterprise, is an area where disruptive, insurrectionist practices are celebrated. We’re starting to see successful examples of change using levers other than law as the primary lever of change. This challenging moment is a good time to learn to use those non-legal levers better.
Help people feel powerful. Insurrectionism results from the understandable feeling many people have that they are powerless to change the systems that govern their lives. Anything we can do to help more people feel powerful undercuts the insurrectionist argument. Alternatively, anything that helps people make change by combatting and replacing dysfunctional institutions with ones that work better harnesses insurrectionism for positive ends. What doesn’t help is any outcome that leaves people feeling powerless and alienated, as that’s the circumstances that’s led us to this dark moment.
I didn’t want to see a Trump presidency, and the rise of insurrectionism to the highest levels of the American government scares the crap out of me. But scarier is the endless blame game I hear my allies engaged in, figuring out whether we blame the media, the FBI or anyone other than ourselves for this loss. We have a brief opportunity to figure out how to make social change in an age of high mistrust and widespread insurrectionism. It would be a shame if Donald Trump figured out how to harness this power and the progressives lined up against him failed to do so.
As the election results came in, I was out bowling with my students, and as they got more despondent, I told them ways Clinton might still win. When I woke to a Trump presidency, I knew there would be crying people in my office (I didn’t expect some would be faculty!) and I started sharing my sincere, but carefully chosen, feelings that this was a chance to build a new, stronger progressive, anti-racist movement. I spent Friday in a day-long workshop with Marshall Ganz, working on sharpening my skills so I can be a better leader and a better coach to those I work with. Saturday, I marched with friends in the cold, protesting in a town where almost everyone agrees with us because I thought it was important to show my face, to lend my body to a mass of people standing up and resisting.
I didn’t cry until this morning when a friend posted this Kate MnKinnon Saturday Night Live video.
Yep. That did it. So I’ve spent the last hour in bed sobbing, which I really needed. And once I was ready to stop crying, Dave Chapelle’s monologue was a good way to get up and face the morning.
And so, later today I’m off to London to see friends who’ve been trying to find the way forward after Brexit. On stage Tuesday, we’re going to talk about how the US, the UK and much of the world have gotten to a place where people feel so alienated and mistrustful that they’re willing to try anything in the hopes of seeking a change. We’re going to look for ways that progressives can play defense, to protect the rights of the most vulnerable, while looking for ways that massive change could lead to massive growth.
I’m wiping my eyes, packing my bags and getting back to work. However you’re feeling this week, I hope you’re able to do so too.
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