Is my own skin in the game?

So, why am I so paranoid that some new era of censorship or regulation or some sort of national calamity could force me to give up my own ungated soap box (mostly Internet and self-published books)?

“Why don’t you just volunteer or work for a non-profit or for gay or trans rights?”  (I’m cis.)  It’s true, that in more recent months people have come knocking and sometimes border on becoming confrontational.

I think anyone would resent an outside party’s walking in the door and bargaining with him about his own self-determined goals in life.  There’s a parallel to how we felt in the workplace in the 80s and 90s when we thought our jobs could be bargained away for someone else’s shareholder value (call it rentier capitalism).

So here I am, on the other side, as the “capitalist” in a sense, partially (and perhaps unhealthfully) dependent on inherited wealth (the “heiristocracy” of Heather Boushey’s “After Piketty”). I get chased about actually making my hardcopy books sell so that people in stores have jobs (and people at publishing companies), or about ideas like running my own personalized “gofundme” for some group or cause.  Or perhaps hounded for donations by some online publication, usually Leftist, that claims only they can be my voice.

It seems that if you speak out for yourself and don’t have a specific challenge to deal with or a specific dependent needing you and then remain neutral, you’re seen as an aggressor.  I get the point about the (Confederate) statues now, but removing them would never be “my” mission.  But that doesn’t seem to be good enough for some of the angrier activists.

I’ve always viewed morality as an individualized issue:  what a person does, regardless of external circumstances, is of moral concern, and yet a person can bear personal accountability for what a (privileged) group that she depends on does (the “Scarlet O’Hara” problem).  I’ve never viewed personal morality as relative to belonging to an oppressed group.  So (at least since the early post-Stonewall days) I’ve paid little attention to group-oppression-centered activism, which can anger some people. Yet, I may sound snarky to say “shouting in a demonstration is beneath me”.  But that is how I fee;.  It’s the “watcher” problem of the movie “Rebirth”.  Indeed, activists on “both” sides often hate “journalists” including citizen journalists who don’t join up.

There does seem to be an informal expectation in social media that you’re open to personally assisting others whom you didn’t already know.  This kind of moral ecology seems to have accelerated since the second Obama term started.  And it’s often linked to identity politics: someone should be assisted specifically because he/she/”they” belongs to a marginalized group.   There’s also a willingness to display a disadvantaged person as a dependent or best friend.  That isn’t something I would do.  Until maybe five years ago, it wouldn’t have been expected.

There seems to be a break in the moral continuity of my thought.  If I comment critically on what politicians want to do about the various issues, do I really “care” personally about the people affected?  I could certainly say that I did when I got publicly involved with some of the more controversial aspects of the HIV crisis in the 1980s.  I did become a “buddy” (although a “baby buddy”) at the Oak Lawn Counseling Center in Dallas where I lived.  Likewise, there is some integrity to that when I dealt with the gays in the military issue as I started by books in the 1990s.  It does seem much less true today.  I don’t automatically “care” about someone just because “they” claim to be in a marginalized group.  So, an activist or “privilege challenger” can ask, why are you even talking about this on your own if you don’t have your own skin in the game?  You have no kids, you have no standing, you have no stake.  Join up or else.  I can retort, “you” know some of your own history, but only for your own narrow interest.  I’ve commented about military conscription a lot because I went through it (1968-1970), but today’s protesters seem to have no idea that it even happened. Nor do they care – it’s only about the particular oppression of the moment.

Furthermore, my tendency to cherry pick and use upward affiliation in approaching more intimate personal relationships would make some people wonder if I “can care about people” (Ninth Street Center talk indeed).  Would I stay in a relationship if something “happened” to a partner to make him less attractive?  I’ve never been tested in that way directly, but I’ve moved away from situations where I sense this could happen in the future (in a way prescient, in the late 1970s, of the coming AIDS crisis).

This is all very sobering. I can say that I am open to personal involvement when it comes out of something I am doing.  I’ve written about the asylum seeker issue for the past year, and I did consider hosting.  But it always seem to break down when I asked for more detailed discussions about the legal liability risks I was taking.  I would remain “Outside Man”, like in the Army on KP.  I say, let’s have more transparency on the risks we expect the more “privileged” people to take.  (Remember the student deferment issue?)

I can understand, for example, the stake of a filmmaker who has filmed the story of a disabled person in in special Olympics.  But would I choose to make such a person the hero of my own narrative?  Probably not.  Indeed, there’s something disturbing about some of my own fiction projects that center around a hero character more or less like Smallville’s teen Clark Kent, without any real attempt at diversity.  If my “angels” make their Earth evacuation and leave everyone else behind (“The Leftovers”) what message does that send?  Five years ago that would have seemed mainstream sci-fi.  Now I wonder if it would be perceived as “hate speech”.

I’ll note a story in the Washington Post today , on p. A12, “From conservatives: a call for regulation of Internet firms: These Silicon Valley players are seeking government insistence on free-speech rights at tech-giants, which they say are ‘enforcers’ or a liberal point of view”.  Online the title is “In Silicon Valley, the Right sounds a surprising battle cry: Regulate tech giants”.

Well, conservatives particularly want tech giants to put more of their own skin (downstream liability) into fighting sex trafficking (at least the way they would fight child pornography), in kicking off terrorist recruiters, in stopping piracy, and in stopping cyberbullying and in  protecting children with filters (remember COPA?  VidAngel has taken this on and its own troubles).

And tech giants, in return, have shown they have a much greater awareness of fake news and “hate speech” on their platforms than they have previously admitted.

(Posted: Friday, Aug. 25, 2017 at 2:45 PM EDT)

Activism, watcherism, and subtle vigilantism: those just outside the “systematic oppression” zones

CNN has run an op-ed by John Blake, “White Supremacists by Default: How ordinary people made Charlottesville possible.”

Yes, to some extent, this piece is an “I am my brother’s keeper” viewpoint familiar from Sunday School. But at another level the piece has major moral implications regarding the everyday personal choices we make, and particularly the way we speak out or remain silent.

I grew up in a way in which I did not become conscious of class or race or belonging to a tribe, or people. I was not exposed to the idea of “systematic oppression” against people who belong to some recognizable group. My self-concept was pretty separated from group identity.

I gradually became aware that I would grow up “different” especially with respect to sexuality. But I believed it was incumbent on me to learn to perform in a manner commensurate with my gender, because the welfare of others in the family or community or country could depend on that capacity. My sense of inferiority was driven first by lack of that performance, which then morphed into other ideas about appearance and what makes a male (or then female) look desirable.

I remember, back in the mid 1990s, about the time I was starting to work on my first DADT book, an African-American co-worker (another mainframe computer programmer) where I worked in northern Virginia said that he was teaching his young son to grow up to deal with discrimination. Another African-American coworker who had attended West Point said I had no idea what real discrimination was like, because I could just pass. (That person thought I lived “at home” with my Mother since I was never married.)  I would subsequently be a witness in litigation by a former black employee whom I replaced with an internal transfer, and the “libertarianism” in my own deposition seemed to be noticed by the judge dismissing the case.

Indeed, the activism in the gay community always had to deal with the “conduct” vs. “group identity” problem, particularly during the AIDS crisis of the 1990s. Libertarians and moderate conservatives like me (I didn’t formally belong to Log Cabin Republicans but tended to like a lot of things about Reagan and personally fared well when he was in office) were focused on privacy (in the day when double lives were common) and personal responsibility, whereas more radical activists saw systematic oppression as related to definable gender-related class. Since I was well within the upper middle class and earned a good income with few debts and could pay my bills, both conservatives with large families and radical activists born out of disadvantage saw me as a problem.

The more radical commentators today are insisting that White Nationalists have an agenda of re-imposing or augmenting systematic oppression by race, even to be ultimate end of overthrowing normal civil liberties, reintroducing racial subjugation and other forms of authoritarian order. The groups on the extreme right are enemies (of people of color) as much as radical Islam has made itself an enemy of all civilization. Radicals insist that those who normally want to maintain some objectivity and personal distance must be recruited to actively fighting with them to eliminate this one specific enemy.  This could lead to vigilantism (especially online) to those who speak out on their own but who will not join in with them. Ii do get the idea of systemic oppression, but I think that meeting has a lot more to do with the integrity of individual conduct. But this goes quite deep. Refusing to date a member of a different race could be viewed as active racism (June 26).

The possibility of including ordinary independent speakers or observers (or videographers) among the complicit indirect systematic “oppressors” should not be overlooked. Look at the comments and self-criticism of Cloudfare CEO Matthew Prince, about the dangers of new forms of pro-active censorship by Internet companies. This does bear on the Backpge-Section 230 problem, and we’ll come back to this again. In a world with so many bizarre asymmetric threats, I can imagine that Internet companies could expand the list of certain speech content that they believe they cannot risk allowing to stay up (hint: Sony).

I want to add, I do get the idea that many left-wing activists (not just limited to Antifa) believe that Trump was elected in large part by white supremacists and that there is a more specific danger to everyone else in what he owes this part of his base. I have not taken this idea very seriously before, but now I am starting to wonder.

(Posted: Saturday, August 19, 2017 at 6:15 PM EDT)

How an article on the workplace and automation leads us back to network neutrality and other potential issues for Internet user-generated content

A guest post by 30-year-old Australian blogging (and physical fitness) guru Ramsay Taplin (aka “Blogtyrant“), in “Goins, Writer” about how to deal with the invasion of robots and artificial intelligence in the workplace (when these innovations threaten to replace you) rather accidentally re-ignites the debate over the future of the Internet and ordinary speech on it in the United States.  (Before I go further, I’ve love to meet the huge cat on Ramsay’s Twitter page.)

Ramsay’s post seems to be a bit in the tradition of libertarian George Mason University Professor Tyler Cowen’s book “Average Is Over,” outlining how middling people need to deal with the changing modern workplace.  At a crucial point in his essay, Ramsay, after suggesting that employed people consider starting small businesses on their own time, recommends most business owners (as well as professionals like lawyers, financial planners, agents, and even book authors) stake out their property in “modern real estate” with a professionally hosted blog site.  But then he dismissively adds the caveat, “unless the Internet changes dramatically through removing net neutrality…”

Later, he writes “make sure everything you do on the Internet helps someone,” a very important base concept that I’ll come back to. He gives a link to a compelling essay on personal and workplace ethics in a site called “Dear Design Student”, about how you can’t lead a double life and be believed forever.  You can see my conversation with him in the comments.

Whoa, there.  OK, Ramsay works (“from his couch”) in Australia, part of the British Commonwealth, and, like most western-style democratic countries, the Aussie World maintains statutory network neutrality regulations on its own turf (I presume).  But, as we know, under the new Trump administration and new FCC chair Ajit Pai, the Obama era’s network neutrality protections, largely set in place (in 2015) by maintaining that self-declared “neutral conduit” telecommunications companies are common carriers, will almost certainly be disbanded late this summer in the U.S. after the formal comment period is over.  Pro-neutrality advocates (including most tech companies) plan a “Day of Action” July 12, which Breitbart characterized in rather hyperbolic farce.

That situation puts American companies at odds with the rest of the capitalist democratic world (definitely not including Russia and China).  There are plenty of political advocacy pressure groups with “Chicken Little” “Sky Is Falling” warnings (along with aggressive popups for donations) about how exposed small companies and individual speakers online may be intentionally silenced (as I had outlined here on May 11).  Right away, I rebut by noting that not only is there to be (according to Pai) “voluntary compliance”, but also every major general-purpose telecom company in the US seems to say it has no intention to throttle ordinary sites.  In fact, most consumers, when they sign up for Internet, want full access to everything out there on the indexed web, so doing so would make no business sense.

Even so, some comparison of the world now to what it was a few decades ago, when I came of age, is in order.  Telephone companies were monopolistic but were regulated, so they couldn’t refuse service to consumers they didn’t like.  None of this changed as ATT break-up into the Bell’s happened (something I watched in the 80s-job market for I.T.)  But until the WWW came along in the mid-90s, the regulations only protected consumers getting content (phone calls), not wanting to upload it with no gatekeepers for pre-approval.  Back then, in a somewhat regulated environment, companies did make technological innovations for big paying customers (like DOD).  Pai would seem to be wrong in asserting that all regulation will stop innovation.

It’s also noteworthy that the FCC regulated broadcast networks, especially the number of television stations they could own (I remember this while working for NBC in the 1970s).  Likewise, movie studios were not allowed to own theater chains (that has somewhat changed more recently).

But by analogy, it doesn’t seem logical that reasonable rules preventing ordinary content throttling would stymie innovation where there are real benefits to consumers (like higher speeds for high definition movies, or for emergency medical services, and the like), or, for that matter, better service in rural areas.

There are also claims that new telecom technologies could enter the market, and that Obama-like net neutrality rules would stifle newcomer telecom companies.  Maybe this could bear on super-high-speed FIOS, for example, that Google has tried in a few cities.

Then, some of the punditry get speculative.  For example, a faith-based ISP might want to set up a very restricted service for religious families. It sounds rather improbable, but maybe that needs to be OK.  Or maybe a Comcast or Verizon wants to offer a low-end Internet service that doesn’t offer all websites, just an approved whitelist.  Maybe that appeals to locally socialized families with little interest in “globalism”.  That sounds a little more serious in its possible impact on other small businesses trying to reach them.

Another idea that cannot be dismissed out of hand, is that telecom companies could be prodded to deny connection access to illegal content, such as terror promotion or child pornography, or even sex trafficking (as with the Backpage controversy).

If we did have an environment where websites had to pay every telecom company to be hooked up to them, it’s likely that hosting companies like Bluehost would have to build this into their fees to take care of it.  I actually have four separate hosted WordPress blog domains.  It’s significant that Bluehost (and probably other companies) allow a user just one hosting account with a primary domain name.  Add-on domains are internally made subdomains of the primary and converted internally.  So, the user would probably only he “charged” for one hookup, regardless of the number of blogs.  (It’s also possible to put separate blogs in separate installations of WordPress in separate directories, I believe, but I see no reason now to try it.)   But one mystery to me is, that if Bluehost does have a “primary domain” concept with subdomains, why can’t it make the entire network https (SSL) instead of just one “real” domain?  I expect this will change.  SSL is still pretty expensive for small businesses to offer (they can generally outsource their credit card operations and consumer security, but there is more pressure, from groups like Electronic Frontier Foundation, to implement “https everywhere” for all content).

It’s also worthy of note that “free blogs” on services like Blogger and WordPress use a subdomain concept, so there is only one domain name hookup per user to any ISP.  That’s why Blogger can offer https to its own hosted blogs but not to blogs that default to user-owned domain names.

We can note that search engines like Google and Bing aren’t held to a “neutrality” policy and in fact often change their algorithms to prevent unfair (“link farming”) practices by some sites.

So, here we are, having examined net neutrality and its supposed importance to small site owners (nobody really worried about this until around 2008 it seems).  But there are a lot of other issues that could threaten the Internet as we know it.  Many of the proposals revolve around the issue of “downstream liability”:  web hosting companies and social media companies don’t have to review user posts before self-publication for legal problems;  if they had to, users simply could not be allowed to self-publish.  (That’s how things were until the mid 1990s.)  But, as I’ve noted, there are proposals to water down “Section 230” provisions in the US because of issues like terrorism recruiting (especially by ISIS), cyberbulling, revenge porn, and especially sex trafficking (the Backpage scandal).  Hosts and social media companies do have to remove (and report) child pornography now when they find it or when it is flagged by users, but even that content cannot be screened before the fact.  And Facebook and Twitter are getting better at detecting terror recruiting, gratuitous violence, fake news, and trafficking.  But widescale abuse by combative and relatively less educated users starts to raise the ethical question about whether user-generated content needs to pay its own way, rather than become a gratuitous privilege for those who really don’t like to interact with others whom they want to criticize.

In Europe and British Commonwealth countries there is apparently less protection from downstream liability allowed service providers than in the U.S., which would be the reverse of the legal climate when compared to the network neutrality issue.  And Europe has a “right to be forgotten” concept. Yet, user-generated content still seems to flourish in western countries besides the U.S.

I mentioned earlier the idea that a small business or even personal website should help the reader in a real-world sense.  Now Ramsay’s ideas on Blogtyrant seem most applicable to niche marketing.  That is, a business meeting a narrow and specific consumer need will tend to attract followers (hence Blogtyrant’s recommendations for e-mail lists that go beyond the fear of spam and malware).  It’s noteworthy that most niche markets probably would require only one blog site (despite my discussion above of how hosting and service providers handle multiple blogs from one user.) It’s pretty easy to imagine what niche blogs would be like:  those of lawyers (advising clients), financial planners, real estate agents, insurance agents, tax preparers, beauty products, fashion, and games and sports (especially chess).  It would seem that gaming would create its own niche areas.  And there are the famous mommy blogs (“dooce” by Heather Armstrong, who added a new verb to English – note her site has https –, although many later “mommy” imitations have not done nearly so well).  I can imagine how a well-selling fiction author could set up a niche blog, to discuss fiction writing (but not give away her own novels).

Another area would be political activism, where my own sense of ethics makes some of this problematical, although Ii won’t get into that here.

In fact, my whole history has been the opposite, to play “Devil’s advocate” and provide “objective commentary” and “connect the dots” among almost everything, although how I got into this is a topic for another day (it had started with gays in the military and “don’t ask don’t tell” in the US in the 1990s, and everything else grew around it).   One could say that my entering the debate this way meant I could never become anyone else’s mouth piece for “professional activism” or conventional salesmanship (“Always Be Closing”).  I guess that at age 54 I traded queens into my own (chess) endgame early, and am getting to the king-and-pawn stage, looking for “the opposition”.

There’s a good question about what “helps people”.  “The Asylumist” is a good example; it is written by an immigration lawyer Jason Dzubow specifically to help asylum seekers.  Jason doesn’t debate the wisdom of immigration policy as an intellectual exercise, although he has a practical problem of communicating what asylum seekers can expect during the age of Trump – and some of it is unpredictable. On this (my) blog, I’ve tried to explore what other civilians who consider helping asylum seekers (especially housing them personally) could expect.  Is that “helping people” when what I publish is so analytical, tracing the paths of speculation?  I certainly have warned a lot of people about things that could get people into trouble, for example, allowing someone else (even an Airbnb renter!) to use your home Internet router connection, for which you could be personally liable (sorry, no personalized Section 230).  Is the end result (of my own blog postings) to make people hesitant to offer a helping hand to immigrants out of social capital (and play into Donald Trump’s hands)?  I think I’m making certain problems a matter of record so policy makers consider them, and I have some ample evidence that they do.  But does that “help people” the way a normal small business does?

Getting back to how a blog helps a small business, the underlying concept (which does not work with my operation) is that the business pays for itself, by meeting real needs that consumers pay for (let’s hope they’re legitimate, not porn).  Legitimate business use of the Internet should come from “liking people.”  If blogging were undermined by a combination of policy changes in the US under Trump, it might not affect people everywhere else (although Theresa May wants it to), and it would be especially bad for me with my free-content model based on wealth accumulated elsewhere (some of it inherited but by no means all of it); but legitimate for-profit businesses will always have some basic way to reach their customers.

There has been talk of threats to blogging before.  One of the most serious perils occurred around 2005, in connection with campaign finance reform in the U.S., which I had explained here.

(Posted: Monday, June 12, 2017 at 12 noon EDT USA)

“Nobody’s Tool”

In Terry Gilliam’s artsy futurist film “The Zero Theorem” (2013), precocious and charismatic teen Bob (Lucas Hedges) tells the besieged computer operator Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz), “I’m nobody’s tool”.  (Hedges would play a similar role in “Manchester by the Sea”.)

It’s true, I “went public” with a controversial persona narrative with my first “Do Ask, Do Tell” book in the 1990s – specifically striking a nexus between the past history of conscription with the debate over gays in the military (as it had evolved then under Bill Clinton).  I would wrap every other issue, mapped onto the tension between individualism and the need to belong to the group, around it and become a commentator, a pundit, someone who, however, needed to keep a certain objectivity and distance (even emotional aloofness) expected of journalists.

As President Trump complains, it’s too easy to criticize when you sit on the bench ad don’t play.

So, in the “aftermath” of the book(s), websites, blogs and now social media accounts, I have made it absolutely impossible for me to earn money (in “retirement”) by selling somebody else’s message, or being someone else’s spokesperson.  No, I can’t have Sean Spicer’s job.

After my layoff and forced retirement from old-style mainframe I.T. as a post 9/11 sequel at the end of 2001, at age 58 (73 now), I learned “the truth” about what the world seemed to expect of retirees: Sell! One of the earlier interviews (while I was still in Minnesota) as with PrimeVest   The interviewer became defensive about my questions over his presentation, even though I agree that for some consumers, converting whole life to term is a reasonable strategy. But a $40 trillion market?  The interview was concerned over how “analytical” I seemed. I checked and investigated everything.  “We give you the words,” he said.  To a writer who has followed his own direction, that phrase sounded very insulting, like throwing an inadequate tip at a bartender (which I once did).

There would other attempted offers to throw husckerism at me. True, life insurance agent or financial planner sounds legitimate enough. But I don’t want to troll people’s Internet ad hits in order to cold call them.

I also find myself resisting attempts to get me to “join a resistance”.  HRC is on my regular donation list, but I felt a little taken back by a recent email inviting me to be trained to become a grassroots activist or part of a resistance.  I know that Barack Obama was a “community organizer” in Chicago at one time, I have my own message set.  I don’t need to have an organization tell me what to say.

Even worse was a similar ploy from the political right. GOP candidate for a runoff in a Georgia House race, Karen Handel, writes, addressing me personally (by an automated plugin – again insulting) “This is the email I didn’t want to have to write. But after seeing the latest public polls – I have no choice.” She whines that bigwing Democrats have raised so much money for her opponent, so “Will you help me fight back?”

No, I like to think of myself as better than that (including any public participation in overtly partisan politics).  But of course I know the argument.  I saved well when I was working.  But I also have some of what the left-wing considers a poison pill, inherited wealth.  I don’t have to make everything I do pay for itself.  I don’t have to sell other people’s messages for a living. But I can imagine people thinking, if there weren’t people like me around to dilute them, they could make a living by “selling” because everyone else would have to.

I’ve railed about identity politics here before, but the way I argue policy issues is relevant here.  Of course, I agree that current GOP plans for health care (variations of the Americam Healthcare Act) could, as structured now, throw millions off affordable health insurance, while solving problems of premium hikes for unneeded coverages for some people adversely affected by Obamacare’s implementation (and probably exacerbated by some states). I agree that the changes could affect racial minorities adversely.  They could also affect gay men (depending on what happens with PrEP and protease inhibitors).  But I don’t argue something because it hurts “me” or anyone as a “member of a group” (even though “belonging to groups” has become, unfortunately, the legal cornerstone of the way equal protection of the laws works).  One of the reasons AHCA would affect people in certain groups is the way it would shift the responsibility for Medicaid back to the states.  So it becomes a federalism problem.  States should do the right things, but we know from the history of Civil Rights through the 1960s that sometimes they didn’t (and we lost young men like Goodman, Schwerner and Cheney as a result in what was the moral equivalent of crucifixion).

I don’t respond personally to “Leftist” appeals for “resistance” because this policy hurts members of their particular client groups (even if I belong to one of them, and everyone belongs to something). I think you have to solve the problem analytically.  Some countries, like Switzerland, have kept an effective private health care sector in a way that works, and we could do that. I think you can have assigned risk pools again, so that rich people with pre-existing conditions can pay their own way (an inherent advantage of the GOP setup) but you have to subsidize the premiums of people in the middle class and below (tax cuts alone aren’t enough, you need subsidies, but you don’t need to use Medicaid as the vehicle for subsidies), or use reinsurance for excess claims.  You have to be determined to make it work, and you have to pay for it.  So maybe you can’t give the rich all their tax cuts.

Likewise, I reject group-oriented resistance politics on an issue like police profiling.  I understand Rudy Giuliani’s claims about how “broken windows” policing in the 1990s made New York City much safer than it had been in the 1970s when I lived there. But I have so say, that particularly a couple of independent films (“Whose Streets?” and “The Prison in Twelve Landscapes” and well as “I A Not Your Negro”) have pointed out that in some communities, police departments have regularly extorted fines from black residents with the “garbage jail” approach. This is illegal and even criminal and not acceptable.  Why won’t the usual system of litigation put a stop to this?

I’m left to ponder the mentality of the doomsday preppers, who think that civilization cannot be depended on, and that it is morally imperative for everyone to learn to become self-sufficient locally and within the family.

(Posted: Monday, May 22, 2017 at 11:30 AM EDT)