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(Felix Salmon - The Bitcoin Bubble)

Such people, including Satoshi Nakamoto, are far from unique in their mistrust of all existing financial institutions. What sets Nakamoto apart is that he turned that mistrust into a philosophy, the most important driving force behind the bitcoin project. When he introduced bitcoin to the world in February 2009, Nakamoto boasted that his new currency was "completely decentralized, with no trusted parties". And he explained in some detail what he saw as the problem in need of a solution:

The root problem with conventional currency is all the trust that's required to make it work. The central bank must be trusted not to debase the currency, but the history of fiat currencies is full of breaches of that trust. Banks must be trusted to hold our money and transfer it electronically, but they lend it out in waves of credit bubbles with barely a fraction in reserve. We have to trust them with our privacy, trust them not to let identity thieves drain our accounts.

There are all kinds of amusing ways in which you can poke fun at Bitcoin and the subculture that has grown up around it. But, taken seriously, this is yet another big bet by the privileged techno-libertarian class that those of us who believe in society and a commonwealth and democracy and all that rot are the dumb money in the room. 

You don't fix problems of trust by eliminating trust from the equation. You fix them socially, democratically, empathically. The answer to a failure of trust isn't further atomization (neatly disguised as techno-utopian transcendence). It's justice.

(Which, easier said than done, yeah. People mistrust our institutions because our institutions are profoundly broken. And there has been precious little justice or reckoning with the events of the past decade and more. But the answer sure as hell isn't to run away and hide in the Singularity. Social problems have social solutions. Broken institutions have to be mended, and absent justice has to be created. Put your shoulder to the wheel. Start doing what the online community used to do best: inventing new systems of trust and new ways to connect.)

Library as Common Place

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Well-run libraries are filled with people because what a good library offers cannot be easily found elsewhere: an indoor public space in which you do not have to buy anything in order to stay. In the modern state there are very few sites where this is possible. The only others that come readily to my mind require belief in an omnipotent creator as a condition for membership. It would seem the most obvious thing in the world to say that the reason why the market is not an efficient solution to libraries is because the market has no use for a library. But it seems we need, right now, to keep re-stating the obvious. There aren't many institutions left that fit so precisely Keynes' definition of things that no one else but the state is willing to take on. Nor can the experience of library life be recreated online. It's not just a matter of free books. A library is a different kind of social reality (of the three dimensional kind), which by its very existence teaches a system of values beyond the fiscal.

Zadie Smith, in the New York Review of Books.

I wish the library profession would get this and stop thinking of itself in terms of Neoliberal categories and measures. Every time I heard references to customers or ROI in my classes, I wanted to spit. I know, I know, survival strategies, but what's survival if it means destroying what's best and most vital about yourself? It's the same kind of folly as newspapers responding to their own crisis by degrading the quality of their core mission of newsgathering. And as their example shows, its not even a particularly good survival strategy in the medium to long term.

Tech-Driven Deprofessionalization

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What ultimately has made the criticism of the Chicago strike so odd and irritating is that the critics are so dismissive and arrogant about the chief sticking points in the negotiations, which aren't really about money. There's a seeming inability to understand why poorly designed evaluation systems, particularly those that are tied to test results, threaten the very best and most inspiring teachers as much as anyone. What they threaten is not the loss of job security, but the professional discretion and skill of good teachers. You can't be in favor of clumsy or cookie-cutter evaluations and still claim to be primarily concerned about the quality of teaching in public schools.

What might be happening here is less the rage of privileged elites against anyone they deem to be beneath them, and more the rage of upper middle-class professionals who have found their own lives increasingly hemmed in by forms of deprofessionalizing oversight and dumb operant-conditioning gimmickry sold to organizations by snake-oil consultancies.

The trick in the next decade is going to be: can we get the river to flow the other direction? Rather than give in to every person who insists that whatever outrages and inefficiencies of 21st Century Taylorism have been inflicted on them must be inflicted on everyone else, we should be trying to claw back generative, productive forms of dignity and autonomy to the working lives of every person.

Do Liberals and Elites Hate Teachers? | Easily Distracted

I took a super-interesting Information History class with Dan Schiller my last semester at GSLIS, and one of the main themes of the course was how IT allows capital and management to deprofessionalize and regiment work. This starts at least from the invention of the modern clock, and goes up through the early management techniques of the industrial revolution, to office technology like the typewriter and the adding machine which replaced a whole middling professional class of clerks with pooled labor. Then you get the full monty with Taylorism and all the dehumanizing results that followed from that, which was thankfully somewhat offset by the rise of organized labor by midcentury.

So, then modern computer IT comes along, which of course was initially clearly centralized and controlling (think mainframes and men in gray flannel suits.) But, since I didn't know my history or recognize my privilege I'd always thought of the emergence of the networked personal computer as different somehow, liberatory instead of controlling. And, of course, it can be, for those with the power to control it rather than be controlled. 

What we're seeing now is the rapid shrinking of the proportion of people and professions who have that power. It's happening to teachers, lawyers, writers (think of the methods of HuffPo and Nick Denton and the rise of pageviews as the measure of cultural worth if you don't think that cultural work can be regimented and automated) and lots of other previously autonomous professional occupations.

That call center worker whose every second and every move is monitored and timed and dictated? Well, that may be your future too, unless we fight tooth and nail for power over our working conditions. That's what teachers in Chicago are doing now. It's time for professional classes to realize that they have a lot more in common with those below them on the economic ladder than with the people running things. We're in a place now where solidarity isn't just sentiment, it's survival.

The technology I like is the American paperback edition of Freedom. I can spill water on it and it would still work! So it's pretty good technology. And what's more, it will work great 10 years from now. So no wonder the capitalists hate it. It's a bad business model," said Franzen, who famously cuts off all connection to the internet when he is writing.

"I think, for serious readers, a sense of permanence has always been part of the experience. Everything else in your life is fluid, but here is this text that doesn't change.

"Will there still be readers 50 years from now who feel that way? Who have that hunger for something permanent and unalterable? I don't have a crystal ball.

"But I do fear that it's going to be very hard to make the world work if there's no permanence like that. That kind of radical contingency is not compatible with a system of justice or responsible self-government."

(The Telegraph | Jonathan Franzen: e-books are damaging society)

What absolute piffle. He starts out heading in a fruitful direction when he talks about the economics of ebooks. They're definitely a threat to the commons and especially to libraries, because they're a remote-controllable and license-able medium. When you buy a paper book, you own it free and clear and the law is clear on your rights for lending, reselling and reuse. Not so with e-books, and if we don't get it in hand, public libraries will be renting their whole collection on onerous and restrictive terms, the same way academic libraries have to now with journals.

So, that's a big advantage to paper, but that's not really what he's on about, because he's not really worried about democracy or civil society or the commons. Just like with Stanley Fish awhile back, what he's really concerned about is authorial identity and authority. Funny how the "radical contingency" of electronic media tends to freak out privileged white dudes sitting at the top of their fields more than anyone else.

This ain't about democracy. Democracy will be just fine, except for the whole rapacious global capitalism issue, but more authority and stability for the current crop of elites sure won't help us on that front either.

Radical contingency, mutability, fluid and collaborative notions of authorship, and an interactive and fiercely contested intellectual and public sphere were all hallmarks of the print culture that spawned and nurtured early democratic polities. Electronic media are bringing back those conditions, albeit with the complicating issues of surveillance, control at a distance, and I.P. What he's really lamenting is the loss of broadcast culture, which privileges a few fortunate voices and denies the rest a chance to talk back or participate in culture creation.

Which, if this is the best those voices can come up with, good riddance.

This fascinating examination of Neoliberalism through the lens of the sanitization of European soccer supporter culture stirred up a lot of conflicts with me.

The piece is really long, and you should read it if you have any interest in European soccer or the cultural and economic state of things in France, but I'll sum it up for you for our purposes here. Basically, the deal here is that Paris Saint-Germain were a historically underperforming (both economically and results-wise) team in a huge market. Think, I dunno, the LA Clippers, but if they didn't have the excuse of the Lakers, since PSG are the only game in town for professional soccer in Paris.

So, they were underperforming, but had fervently loyal and organized working class supporter bases who kept them in business. But those supporter bases were problematic in a lot of ways, in that they were all-male, organized along racial lines, had issues with constant low-level violence inside the stadium, with occasional outbreaks outside the stadium and a few serious injuries and deaths, etc.

This is pretty standard stuff for supporter groups of soccer clubs in large European cities, but there are a lot of things about 20th-century style soccer supporter culture that give me hives. Part of it is that I'm an American, and just really can't grok intensely class-based organization and group identity like this. I may be a good social solidarity leftist, but this kind of thing sorta horrifies me in an Orwellian way:

The casuals and ultras of the earlier era had been able, in maintaining their anonymity, to suspend their individuality within the flow of the group, which became larger than the sum of its parts; in the concourses it was only in death that your personal, unique name was "spoken" by either being carved on a plaque or spraypainted on a wall. In Auteuil especially, individuality was intentionally sacrificed for the sake of the tifo, the show of spirit: to chant in unison, to hold the right card at the right time, to cover yourself with the giant banner stretching over the entire stand, to be a node forever preparing a response to stimulus from the capo.

Another part of it is that I'm a sheltered, effete upper-middle-class liberal who has never even been in a fight and just can't contemplate dealing with this sort of ugliness and danger in person. Finally, American sports, at least in the modern era, have been about individual, largely apolitical support from the start. I can't imagine dealing with organized violence, territoriality and chaos in the stands and on the streets, racist chants, an atmosphere overtly hostile to women and kids, and so on just to go to a Cubs game, or why anyone would want to.

Then again, I've certainly chafed a lot at the ever-increasing prices, and especially the ever-increasing security presence at American sporting events, a presence that often seems to be much more about enforcing the team's economic prerogatives (e.g., searching you to keep you from bringing in your own food) and even enforcing mass participation in officially sanctioned jingoistic exercises than about preventing violence.

Still, even if I deplore the methods used to suppress them (and those methods are a lot more harsh than the stuff that bugs me about American sporting events), I have a hard time mourning the loss or neutering of these racist / patriarchal / violent / etc. supporter cultures at first glance. I'm ok at the end of the day with using state and institutional violence to suppress organized racism and homophobia. I don't think we would have accomplished even what little we have on those fronts in America without the application or threat of organized violence by the state.

However, if you look into it a little more carefully, that's not quite what is going on here, which is why this piece is so interesting. That "enforcing of economic prerogatives" part is the key here. Basically, after tolerating this stuff for years and not really caring about it, PSG finally decided they wanted to spend big, attract an upper middle class crowd, and be the French Chelsea. They then used the excuse of a supporter who was killed in fighting between two fan groups (and a key tell here was that it was black-on-white violence, whereas the vast majority of the violence was historically going in the other direction) to clean house in a draconian way, and kick their working class support to the curb to make way for more well-heeled customers.

I've always had somewhat of a "give the devil his due" attitude about Neoliberalism on issues of tolerance and multiculturalism. I figure that the success of the women's rights and gay rights movements, among many other social advances over the past few decades, has a whole lot to do with the fact that multiculturalism and tolerance are good business, and that that fact probably guarantees more than anything that these changes will stick. If Neoliberalism and this round of globalization leave any good legacy to stand on, that will probably be it.

However, even this gets really problematic when you scratch the surface, and the case presented here shows exactly why. I always knew Neoliberals in power weren't supporting social liberalization out of the goodness of their hearts. But this lays bare the true cynicism at the bottom of their multiculturalism. They're using anti-racism and social liberalism as a way to divide people along class lines, and as a cudgel to force through their economic agenda. And they're not really even dealing with these race/gender/homophobia issues so much as dispersing them and pushing them out of sight of all the nice upper-middle-class people like me who can't quite bear to face them on a day-to-day basis. They're gentrifying the stadium, and clearing the field for officially sanctioned and more lucrative economic activity. They're also turning what was a contested public space into a fully private and relentlessly commercialized space.

But you only really see that if you stop to think about it, and you have to look past the undeniable local improvements. The experience at Parc de Princes for most everyone who isn't an Ultra was undeniably improved by these steps, and the de-organization of the violent and racist elements of the supporter groups is probably a social improvement, even if it does nothing to address the underlying social and cultural problems that such groups are a symptom of.

Similarly, the gentrification of the urban core of many American cities over the past couple of decades has certainly had many positive effects on them as places and spaces, and as someone who loves city life and is too much of a wuss to deal with the violence, chaos, and overt racism of the mid-century American city, I really have a hard time discounting those effects. 

But in the end, if you're going to be honest, you have to admit that both kinds of gentrification are mostly about pushing "problem" populations and behaviors to the margins and clearing safe spaces for privileged people to enjoy themselves and make money. You can still love and enjoy those spaces, but you can't in good conscience ignore their cost, and you especially can't take the easy way out by using them as a refuge and a cocoon from your complicity in socioeconomic problems, or an excuse to declare those problems as solved or on the mend.

These processes often aren't quite so overt in America, but we don't talk about any of these issues as overtly here to begin with, and class even less so than race. I've always had a problem with political correctness on these grounds. I think it works in much the same way as the processes described above. Just as PSG, the Premier League, and creative class gentrifiers have pushed aside the unsavory elements in their environments, so have we in our intellectual and cultural spheres. And again, there are undeniable local and atmospheric improvements as a result of this, but at the cost of class-based marginalization and stratification, based on the signifiers of the very injustices we claim to be fighting. We avoid immediate discomfort in this way, but more importantly and tragically, we avoid the hard and nasty generational work of grappling with the social and economic problems that underly that discomfort.

I don't have answers here. I'm just as complicit in this crap as anyone else. But it's important to notice once in awhile, and this made me notice, and make some important connections between my own pursuits and enjoyments, Neoliberalism, gentrification, and political correctness, all things that I'm deeply conflicted about and looking for answers to and ways forward from.

(link originally via dayan)

Wikipedia's Missing Women

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The whole thing is a mess and sad in general, but this bit in particular leaped out at me.

"It is ironic," he said, "because I like these things -- freedom, openness, egalitarian ideas -- but I think to some extent they are compounding and hiding problems you might find in the real world."

Adopting openness means being "open to very difficult, high-conflict people, even misogynists," he said, "so you have to have a huge argument about whether there is the problem." Mr. Reagle is also the author of "Good Faith Collaboration: The Culture of Wikipedia."

Generously, this is the Geek Social Fallacy at its worst. Less generously, it gives away the game on any nominal lip service we give to gender equality in online culture, and has little to distinguish it from pathetic wingnut tu quoque "arguments" that oh-so-cleverly point out that our precious tolerance doesn't extend to the very sort of intolerant and antisocial behavior that negates it, so of course it's no tolerance at all.

That Wikipedia could get this far along without examining those sorts of undergrad maladroit geekboy assumptions is troubling to say the least.

If this life be not a real fight, in which something is eternally gained for the universe by success, it is no better than a game of private theatricals... But it feels like a real fight--as if there was something really wild in the universe which we are needed to redeem - Wm. James

Writing up that last post reminded me of another useful consequence of a Pragmatic worldview. The admission that are all of our ideals and institutions are of human origin, and thus mutable, also implies that we can take nothing for granted. I think taking the accomplishments of the New Deal and the 60's for granted is a big part of what allowed our civil society to deteriorate to the level of the current political situation.

After 1968, or 1972 at the latest, the American Left in many ways declared victory and went home, ceding the field to the forces of the radical Right, who were willing and increasingly able to move heaven and Earth in attempt to roll back those gains. They needed to be fought tooth and nail the whole way, but really we only began to see some real fight and commitment return to the Left with the Clinton impeachment, and we didn't have anything like what was called for until very recently.

A lot was accomplished in the era from FDR to LBJ, and American liberals could be justifiably proud of that legacy, but to make good on it they needed to stay in the trenches and fight for it. No social or political ideal or arrangement can endure unless there are many people who continue to actively value and embody it, and who are willing to make a lifelong commitment to defend it. Positive social change, though plenty difficult in its own right, may well be the easy part of the equation in comparison to the long slog of consolidating the change and vigilantly defending it from reactionary forces.

I hope we've learned that lesson in the wake of what happened from Nixon through Dubya, but I wish that our country and our world didn't have to be put through all of this hell in the first place. If a large portion of the people who made up the mass social and political movements of the 60's had committed themselves to the long and messy political process of defending what they just had worked so hard to accomplish, instead of moving to the suburbs to have kids, or taking up disco and cocaine, or becoming high-rolling investment bankers, or whatever the hell they did after they disappeared from the public stage and let the Silent Majority wreck everything they had just built, we wouldn't be in this mess.

And yes, I'm a little bitter. I've got another post brewing about how the 60's and many of the Boomers went wrong. I think a lot of the problems that led to the dissolution of those movements were inherent to their structure, ideology, and culture from the beginning. If things are indeed turning again, I hope we will do better and be wiser and more committed and practical this time around.

Philosophy and Social Hope

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To realise the relative validity of one's convictions and yet stand for them unflinchingly is what distinguishes a civilised man from a barbarian. - Joseph Schumpeter

I had meant to write something about Richard Rorty when he died last month, but I wanted to re-read some things and really think about it first, and then other stuff came up, and suddenly weeks had gone by and it was no longer current. Yet another example of why I'm just not quite cut out for the pace of this medium. But, timely or no, it's still worth writing about, so I'll put this out there and see what happens.

It's fitting that when Richard Rorty died, I happened to be reading a book about William James. After all, it was Rorty who turned me on to James, and a host of other thinkers and ideas which ultimately helped to reconcile a lot of contradictions for me. Like him, I was an eager studen of philosophy, who, as time went on, became more and more suspicious of the validity and importance of many of the problems that philosophy concerns itself with. It all comes down to questions of aims: is the purpose of philosophy to attempt to solve a lot of interesting, but abstract and likely insoluble problems, or to figure out what the Good Life is and how to live it? Is philosophy (or knowledge in general) an end in itself, or a tool to help human beings to attain their own ends? He and I both fell firmly in the latter camps on those questions, and, well, that's just not what academic philosophy does for the most part these days.

Rorty's ideas came into my life at a pivotal time for me, in my last year of college. A friend in the political science department (naturally) loaned me her copy of Philosophy and Social Hope. At that time, I was trying to reconcile problems of disillusionment with the realities of both academic science (I had similar problems with it... an inability on the part of practicioners to put the work in a larger context and think ethically and practically about it, an at-times blindly dogmatic belief in something that is a human practice and thus subject to human failings, etc) and philosophy with a growing practical political urgency. Rorty, and the thinkers he led me to (James, Dewey, Kuhn, Davidson, West, etc, all of whom we certainly weren't reading in my undergrad philosophy dept) allowed me to realign all of those competing impulses in a new, flexible framework, and in many ways to get past the disillusionment and move on. Of course, like with him, moving on meant a self-imposed exile of sorts, because it turned out that philosophy and science weren't actually doing what I had thought they were going in. But, I'm very glad I figured that out when I did, instead of halfway into a Ph. D. somewhere.

My journey through academic philosophy and science taught me that what I was really interested in was politics, in one guise or another. Rorty, Dewey, and James' Pragmatism became the vital link between the two. What it does is is basically blow up a lot of those problems of philosophy that I thought were pointless:

It is astonishing to see how many philosophical disputes collapse into insignificance the moment you subject them to this simple test of tracing a concrete consequence. There can be no difference anywhere that doesn't make a difference elsewhere - no difference in abstract truth that doesn't express itself in a difference in concrete fact and in conduct consequent upon that fact  - Wm. James

What does it matter if we are brains in vats or if reality is truly "real?" Would either answer to the question change the way we live in practice? Either way we still have to interact with the reality we encounter, and if it's perceptually the same for a human or a brain in a vat, what possible difference can it make? It may be an interesting exercise, but it's meaningless.

Now, there has always been this current throughout the history of philosophy, away from abstraction and towards the human and the living of life. But it has always been sort of a black sheep faction, and lots of people who fall within this tradition, and who I consider to be important philosophers... the ethicists, eclecticists, humanists, romantics, doubters... thinkers like Aurelius, Montaigne, Emerson, Kierkegaard, Tolstoy, Camus, Berlin, and Niebuhr, are pretty much dismissed by modern academic philosophy as lacking rigor and systematicness. Some of the Pre-Socratics and Hellenistic philosophers seem to get a pass on this, likely because they are Greek and old, and anything Greek and old has to be taken seriously, but they are still largely sidelined in favor the Platonic and Aristotelian dualities that have dominated Western philosophy since the beginning.

Though Hume was in many ways a prescient precursor, Utilitarianism and then Pragmatism were the first really concerted and enduring movements that attempted to get beyond the questions of Plato and Aristotle, to find a way to live without appealing to abstract absolutes or replacing God with some other idea as a surrogate-God. To me Pragmatism is postmodernism without all of the gobbledegook and despair. It is a humble admission of the complexity of our reality, the human origin of values and morals and ideas, and the contingency of truth.

In place of capital-T truth and eternal, nonhuman certainties, it offers hope, social hope embodied in human empathy and solidarity, the democratic process, and the possibility for change and a better future (in this emphasis, it differs from and improves upon Utilitarianism for me.)

In place of the fruitless quest for unity, it offers a celebration of the many, and an attempt to find tools to cope with and thrive among many-ness and complexity. In place of end states, it offers process. It admits that we are on our own in the universe, and that whatever becomes of the human experiment is wholly up to us and what we invent and how we choose. This is both terrifying and liberating. James again:

I find myself willing to take the universe to be really dangerous and adventurous, without therefore backing out and crying 'no play! ... I am willing that there should be real losses and real losers, and no total preservation of all that is. I can believe in the ideal as an ultimate, not as an origin, and as an extract, not the whole. When the cup is poured off, the dregs are left behind for ever, but the possibility of what is poured off is sweet enough to accept.

It is a very American philosophy, in many of the ways that I think America is or was unique and revolutionary and dynamic.

As for Rorty himself, aside from his major role as a gateway to all of those other ideas, I admired him for the unique space he carved out as an American public intellectual in the latter half of the 20th century. He was one of few current intellectual role models I could find who managed to combine the sort of sophisticated and skeptical understanding of truth, ideas, contingency, context, sociocultural phenomena, and so on, that makes the most sense to me philosophically with an old-fashioned and stubborn commitment to progressivism, solidarity, meliorism, democracy, and a solid, moderate, possibly achievable social democratic political vision. He admitted the relative validity of his convictions, and yet stood for them unflinchingly. He was able to be in uncertainty and complexity and yet refuse to be paralyzed or unmanned by it, or to take an easy out to avoid confronting it.

He feels like a rather sad example of a road-not-taken, both in American politics and academics. There aren't many classic old liberal/humanist public intellectuals like him left, and at least from within the academy, I don't see many more on the way. I wish he had won the argument instead of the rejectionist and puritanical Chomsky types politically, and the inwardly focused and disciplinarily narrow types academically, but it was a losing fight from the start, for reasons structural and institutional as much as ideological. I'm very glad and grateful he was still willing to fight it though, and I have great hopes that we on the American left may just be coming back around to his sort of practical, hopeful, incrementalist, and progressive vision of ourselves and our country after all.

On Selling Out

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[This is in response to a debate started here, and continued here, here, here, and likely lots of other places.]

As a child of the punk rock and "alternative" era, I do have some mixed feelings about this. I don't think authenticity is the sine qua non for good art, but it does matter sometimes. Perhaps in many cases it is necessary, but not sufficient? You can be as authentic as you like and make terrible art (just go to an open mic night anywhere for ample and excruciating evidence), but even very good art that either springs from an openly crass desire to cash in, or even from an authentic political or social worldview that I abhor, leaves me a bit squicked out. I can never quite get past the fact that Ezra Pound was a fascist. And then of course there is Leni Riefenstahl, but that's a more blatant and understandable case, but both are cases of factors beyond the just aesthetic and entertainment aspects.

In a case that's closer to the current debate, the Ramones have been brought up, but well, I admire them a lot less because they weren't satisfied with making great and very influential music and being able to put food on the table doing it... they had to be big fucking rock stars, and felt like they were failures in some way because they never made it to that level. I find that kind of sad and pathetic. It doesn't make me like Blitzkrieg Bop any less, but there are multiple levels on which you can appreciate art and artists, and on the level beyond pure pop bliss, it does diminish them a bit for me.

Insofar as the "punk ethic" matters, I think it does because it was a leap of imagination that created a space and a community where you could make your art and have an audience for it, without having to contend with a need to be a big fucking rockstar or to otherwise succeed in the larger capitalist system. It opened up a closed system to dedicated amateurism, in much the same way as blogging has opened up journalism and opinion. Abandoning the idea that the measure of good work was fame or money or a corporate imprimatur was important, and it allowed a lot of voices that would have never seen the light of day otherwise to be heard and in some cases to have a broad influence.

There are a lot of people who can make great art who don't have an aptitude for or desire for selling it and themselves, and the system of popular art at that time just didn't have a space for them. I think that context had more to do with Kurt Cobain's demise than anything. He just wasn't prepared to be famous, and really had no desire for fame, but he happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when a small scene small blew up into a global phenomenon.

Others handled it far better and more pragmatically. Sonic Youth and the Flaming Lips have used their status very well to explore opportunities that they might not have been able to without the resources of a major label. Pearl Jam, though at this point their music bores the heck out of me, are really great about remembering where they came from and helping smaller bands to get heard and get paid, and of course their doomed battle against Ticketmaster was one well worth fighting. Bands like Bad Religion, Jawbox, and the Poster Children who went into the major label world with their eyes wide open and with a plan came out very well, ploughing the money from their major deal right back into their own label or studio to assure their future artistic independence and their ability to help other worthy voices to be heard.

Just like with the political tension between radicalism with purity/integrity and messy, pragmatic progressivism that works within the system, the latter is a tough balance to maintain, and the temptations of money and power can easily lead you astray if you start viewing them as ends instead of means, but the upside of the attempt is much greater than the ascetic and lonely way of the radical.

Now, I love a lot of popular art, and indeed a big motivation for a lot of popular art is making money, so there is a tension there. I think much depends on what kind of art you make. If a significant element of it is politically or socially conscious, then selling out is a relevant concept. It's hard for say, the Shins to sell out, because their music doesn't mean anything (aside: This is a big part of why Garden State is so cringeworthy. "The Shins changed my life?" Puhleeze.) aside from the personal meaning and the emotional resonance that individual people find in it.

So, selling out is relevant for Fugazi, but not so much for the Shins. Authenticity and independence is really important for socially and politically relevant or critical art. I'm not saying it's totally impossible to critique the system from inside it, but there is a reason beyond just aesthetics why Fugazi are relevant and Rage Against the Machine are laughable. I don't care if I hear Mogwai or the Shins backing a commercial, because it has no real bearing on the meaning of their music. However, when I hear the first two lines of "Fortunate Son" ripped out of context to sell all-American blue jeans, well, that's a bit more problematic, because that song meant something, and could still mean something in a larger cultural and political sense, and that use of it is a total distortion of said meaning.

However, perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind is that the punk/DIY movement and ethic and associated worries about selling out were a product of a specific cultural time and place, defined by a certain corporate media structure. Insofar as those values seem less relevant to this generation of artists, it may be a result of the changing media landscape. Post WWII, a corporate-owned, broadcast-based monoculture dominated American life. As I went into above, punk rock was so revolutionary because it was one of the first revivals of amateurism and folk culture in the face of that, and one of the first significant post-broadcast movements that reminded ordinary people that they could make art on their own terms in a way that was integral to the rest of their lives.

Now that the net has come along and communities for creation and channels for distribution of those things are ascendant and ubiquitous, the oppositional stance of punk as a throughgoing artistic ethic doesn't quite make as much sense anymore. I think some of it does still make sense somewhat as a political and social ethic, and I'm a bit disappointed to see very little in the way of political and social consciousness or questioning of corporate/capitalist values on the part this new generation of indie musicians and artistsand on the part of digital creatives more generally, but that's probably an issue for another post entirely.

I'll start this out by saying that I come from the position of a pretty strong free speech zealot. I'm a card-carrying ACLU member, and so on. But, there's a lot of confusion going on out there lately about what freedom of speech really is and means.

Free speech is a right of individuals and groups in relation to the state, not in relation to each other. This is something that the people who are kneejerking about the proposed or actual moderation of comments on web forums and blogs in response to the recent hateful and scary attacks on feminist bloggers should keep in mind. Allowing unfettered speech might be a good principle to try to uphold personally or as a community, but nobody has a right to be jerk or a bigot with impunity on anyone else's website or in any community's forum, any more than they have a right to spam someone else's site or forum. You delete spam, don't you? That's speech too, albeit often of a rather dadaist and puzzling variety.

And especially now that public outlets for anyone's speech are essentially free and fungible, even the principle of allowing unfettered speech is pretty weak. If someone wants to say hateful or bigoted things in relation to something I write, they can start up a blogspot blog for free and link/rant to their heart's content, and I can't and won't do anything to stop them unless they defame me or threaten me with violence. But I'm sure as hell not going to invite them to do it in my own sandbox that I'm paying for and maintaining and that carries my name and represents my identity to the larger world.

Reading this post at Slacktivist reminded me that these confusions about speech also extend to hate crime laws. The first big problem is a misapprehension of what hate crime laws actually do. Hate crime laws do not ban hateful speech. If they did, I would oppose them. The KKK and the Nazis can still have their marches and hand out their literature and run their websites, and I'll fully support their right to do so, though I'll also support my and everyone else's right to shout them down and/or ignore them. Again, they have the right to appear in the public square and say their piece without government interference, but the community has a right to express their opposition as well. If the community breaks other laws in trying to suppress their speech, such as by threatening or doing violence to them, then they're in the wrong, but vigorous opposition within the law is covered just as much under the 1st Amendment as the hateful speech being opposed.

As for the more nuanced issues regarding speech, thoughts, crime, and punishment: Hate crimes do indeed concern speech and thoughts, but only insofar as they pertain to motive, intent, and culpability for a crime. Consider the varying degrees of culpability involved in different scenarios in which a pedestrian is run down by a car: Someone who has a heart attack and runs down a pedestrian is less culpable than someone who accidentally does so, who is less culpable still than someone who is drunk and does so, who finally is less culpable than someone who makes and executes a plan to do so. As soon as you act on your thoughts to harm others, those thoughts become a part of the context and the evidence by which the nature of your crime and the degree of your guilt is measured, and it's hard to argue that the punishment is for some sort of "thoughtcrime," unless you think that either state of mind, thoughts, and speech should be inadmissable as evidence in any crime, or that everyone who thinks or expresses hateful or bigoted thoughts is inevitably going to act on them and should be preemptively charged.

So how is it any different to add another category to the above scenarios: someone who makes and executes a plan to run down a black man to send a message to others like him that they are not welcome or safe in a neighborhood, or to run down someone in front of an abortion clinic to scare others who might try to get an abortion? The murder is already a crime, and hate crime laws add in the possibility of an additional crime of attempting to terrorize a whole class of people, if said intent can be proven to the jury.

Something I don't quite get about conservatives who oppose hate crime laws is that they are often very much in favor of extra punishment for violence-as-speech when said violence is overtly political, which is called terrorism. Setting off a bomb and killing people is a crime already, so why add an extra punishment for the speech or intent part? That's the same logic as "assault is a crime already, so why add an extra punishment if the violence was intended to send a message to a particular minority?" And of course, it bleeds together at the margins. Was the KKK at the height of their power a domestic terrorist organization? I would say yes. They participated in and fomented violence intended to terrorize everyone else into accepting their preferred political and social arrangement. Their individual acts could be seen as hate crimes today, but when they became pervasive enough, it amounted to terrorism. When hate-motivated violence expands from individual cases to a broader social environment, it thus becomes political and pretty much indistinguishable from terrorism.

Now, there are some scenarios that are a little more exclusive to speech. You can probably be charged with a hate crime under some statutes for, say, burning a cross on a black family's yard. But, not all speech is protected. Credible threats of violence constitute assault under most assault laws (hence the distinction between assault and battery) and in the context of American racial violence, it is not hard to see a burning cross on your lawn as a credible threat of violence. In the very odd but I suppose possible case in which it wouldn't be, well, that's why we have prosecutors with leeway and jurys of our peers who have to be convinced beyond reasonable doubt.

So, to sum it up, speech is free, but not free as in beer, and lots of folks would do well to take that into account.

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