Why user-generated content (mine at least) seems to be near a precipice

Recently, Facebook announced it would make various changes to its newsfeed algorithms and policies to encourage people to interact personally more online and engage less in passive news posting and -gathering behavior. We can debate exactly what they want to accomplish and whether this policy change will reduce fake news (there are signs from overseas it might not, and other criticisms), but it is right to stop and wonder how we balance broadcasting our thoughts to others online (or in other vanity efforts like self-published books or vlogs) with real interactions.

Recently, a good friend on Facebook (whom I do see personally and whose professional career has him dealing with some of the national security questions I pose on this blog – and I don’t know any specifics) wrote an in-line post critical of the gratuitous nature of free content on the Internet.  We expect our writers to work for free, he essentially said.  We can’t expect that of plumbers or electricians or people with “real jobs”.  Oh, I can recall debates back in the 1980s as to whether (then mainframe) “data processing” gave us “real jobs”.

My friend’s post begs the question, what is a “writer” anyway?  Is he/she someone who writes what others want so that it will sell (like Joan Didion or Armistead Maupin, both the subjects of indie film biographies last year)?  Or can someone who wants to write a personal manifesto and achieve fame with it a real writer?  Manifestos, however “from on high” they seem, remember, have a bad rap;  a few authors of these screeds have then done some very bad things (like with guns).

So that comes to my own content, which appears to be “free” in the most anti-competitively abusive sense.  I think of Reid Ewing’s 2012 short film “It’s Free” set in a public library (to be followed by “Free Fish”).  Most of my online content appears in four WordPress blogs (set up in 2014 and then 2016) or one of sixteen “Blogger” blogs (starting in 2006).  But there is also a lot of older legacy content on “doaskdotell.com”, all flat html, and this includes all the text of my books.  And, yes, “it’s free”. Like attending my first gay talk group in February 1973.

It’s true that I have Google Adsense on Blogger, but right now my WordPress blogs and flat sites have no advertising, no pop-ups,, no donation jars, no “calls to action”, and no email lists  (The WordPress does invite the user to share on Facebook, Twitter. Or Google-Plus when brought up, with comments, as an individual post).  I don’t run “other people’s” donation (or political candicacy) campaigns on my sites, and I don’t pimp causes from a partisan stance. To a lot of people, it seems, that means I won’t “play ball” with them.

Yet, I’m a fan of Australian blogging guru Ramsay Taplan’s “Blogtyrant” world, and most of his recommendations do apply to small, niche businesses that want to reach consumers, sometimes even some “real” authors (like what Author’s Guild means) and musicians (who sell on Bandcamp as well as Amazon).  Aggression with mailing lists and promotions pays if you have legitimate customers whose needs you can really meet. Otherwise it would fall into spam.

So that brings me to the question, how can I sustain this?  The transparent answer is that I have other money, so it hasn’t had to pay its own way. A lot of it was saved when I was working, because I was able to avoid debt.  (Not having kids means no big mortgage is necessary.)  Some of it is inherited (and that gets into the issue of my own and mom’s trusts, out of scope here).  And I got lucky in 2008.  I probably benefited from it. (Seeing it coming, and some conservative values, helps.)  So call me a rentier, an abusive capitalist, ripe for expropriation by Antifa if you like.

It’s useful for me to go back and recall how I got into self-publishing, long before the Internet became available to newbies.  I probably got my first little article published in 1974, where I argued for gay rights from a libertarian perspective, a “mind your own business” plea to the world.

In the 1980s, I did network with the medical and public health community, the Dallas Gay Alliance, and right wing elements, all by mailed letters, trying to get some sort of political compromise, during a time when Texas (in early 1983) considered passing a very draconian anti-gay law.  I was quite concerned about the shallowness of arguments sometimes put out by traditional “activists” seeming to expect to be viewed as victims merely by belonging to a “class”.  I was particularly attentive to the clinical information as it unfolded.  There was a period when the conventional way of resisting was “don’t take the test” once an HIV test was available.  I did volunteer as a “baby buddy” at the Oak Lawn Counseling Center during that time.

In the 1990s the issue of gays in the military came onto center stage.  The components of the debate at the time (such as “privacy” in the barracks, as well as “unit cohesion”, not quite the same thing) cut across many other issues in an unusual way. I began getting published in some LGBT and libertarian journals (list).  I wanted to get the arguments right at an individual level, without appeals to morally dubious claims of group oppression. Because of my own situation and personal history, I entered the debate, and in August 1994 I decided firmly, while on vacation in Colorado, to write my first DADT book, which I finally issued in July 1997.  Partly to avoid a public conflict of interest which I have explained elsewhere (as in the DADT III book), I took a convoluted corporate transfer to Minneapolis at about the same time. I actually did sell copies of the book reasonably well for the first 18 months or so, but by the middle of 1998 I had discovered I could draw a lot more attention to my work by simply placing the book text online and letting the search engines find it, which they did.  (I paid nothing to do this, other than the nominal fees for a domain – the guy operating the service was a personal friend through work – and I did not need to code metatags or secure SEO to get it found.  It seemed use of free content online for self-promotion was rather novel at the time;  during the dot-com boom, not that many people really did it this way.)   The search engines proved to be effective.  On a few occasions, when I made a controversial addition to material on the site, I got email feed back the next day.  My use of the “It’s free” technique seemed very effective but came under threat from the 1998 “Child Online Protection Act” for which I would become a sub-litigant under the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s sponsorship.

Over time, my commentary would cross over many other issues, particularly with regard to libertarianism for most social and economic issues, and expand out after 9/11 into how you protect personal liberty in a world with external threats, sometimes borne out of populist “politics of resentment” as well as religious fundamentalism (by no means limited to radical Islam) and possibly resurgence of communism (North Korea now). After 9/11, one or the proponents of Bill Clinton’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Pursue”, Charles Moskos, argued publicly for resuming the military draft (to include women), and dropping the military ban altogether.  That fit into my arguments perfectly.  As personal and job circumstances changed over the years (DADT III again) I kept my material online, and my staying out there so long played a significant repeal in the eventual repeal of DADT in 2011 with Obama in office.

I have contemplated ideas like “opposing viewpoints” automation (book series), which sites like Kialo and Better Angels take on, and I well look into these. Hubpages could provide another opportunity.

Over the years, there have been various threats to the sustainability of the way I work.  These include the undoing of network neutrality and the weakening of Section 230 (the Backpage controversy) as well as various efforts by established media to tighten copyright and trademark laws, not only to combat real piracy (a legitimate concern) but to undermine competition from people (like me) who could compete with them with much lower costs by staying outside the union and guild world.  Another issue, less important in the US than in Europe, is the supposed “right to be forgotten”, which my own use of search engines confounds. As this gets back to libertarian issues (right to work) and to the SOPA debate in 2011.  A critical concept behind all of this is that social media companies and hosting companies not share undo downstream responsibility or liability exposure for the actions of their users, otherwise they could not let us create user-created content without gatekeepers.

Another possibly grave threat could be personal targeting from (foreign) enemies, or causing others (family members) associated with a speaker like me to be targeted.  I actually was concerned about this while my mother was alive.  This has not happened to me as I don’t seem to be as visible a target as, say, Milo Yiannopoulos (or Pam Geller or Mary Norris), even though I share and communicate some similar beliefs.  But, if you think about this with a Tom Clancy-type novelist’s mind, you can imagine this as another way an enemy could subvert American democracy.  That’s the Sony hack issue at the end of 2014 from North Korea.  Instead, Russia, in particular, noticed that speakers like me tended to be noticed by the “choir” (other academics and policy makers) but not by the “average joe’s”, whose everyday needs we seemed oblivious to.  So the Russians pumped Facebook and Twitter with fake news which gullible people would believe and such a way that Asperger-like people like me (not quite the same as schizoid), trying to influence policy with passive search engine strategy, wouldn’t even notice or care.  For them it worked, and Trump won.

I think a fair criticism of me would be that I don’t actually have anything to sell to customers that meet their needs, so no “Blogtyrant” strategy of playing ball could work. Do I have content that people would “want” and would pay for?  Well, that’s the novel (and to some extent the fiction in DADT-III, which could make a nice two-part indie film), and the music.  In fact, I have worked on my own composed music (finishing what I had started in high school and the early college years, at about the time of the William and Mary expulsion) and, because it is post-romantic, it may actually be capable of “crowd pleasing” in a way that a lot of the manipulative music from established young composers today (under 40) does not.

I do need to “stay on point” with my own work, so it is very difficult for me to respond to pleas from other parties to join their efforts, in activism and resistance.  It is also difficult to give away time in “service” unless I find niche-like service opportunities that are closer to my own skill set.   A good example could be directing chess tournaments which invite underprivileged youth, or arranging concerts for other musicians.

I do get concerned over two big questions.  One is that the permissive environment that has allowed so much user-generated content to reach readers and consumers may not be sustainable for a combination of reasons:  rampant user abuse, security, and the ability of companies to make money legitimately without fake news, bots, intrusive ads, and all kinds of questionable technique.  I don’t know if, for example, Google and WordPress would find it profitable to keep their free platforms forever.  And I can imagine ways it could become much harder in the future to get reasonable hosting than it has been until today.  The recent incidents where alt-right sites (at least one) were banned by most hosts over their content is part of my concern.  You can have a specific objection to, say, neo-Nazism, but then it’s a slippery slope:  radical Islam, communism (Stalinism or gulag-ism, which is where Antifa could find itself headed), all kinds of other complaints based on “intersectionality” or “populism” threaten the whole expectation of legitimacy of free speech.  You could, for example, require that every website, by certain accounting rules, show that it pays its own freight (although that would seem to invite porn back, wouldn’t it).   It’s hard to “pay your own way” without admitting to group preferences and “partisanship”, and showing social “loyalty” and even “community engagement”.  All of this is in tension with my insistence on looking at human rights as an individual’s property, regardless of any membership in a group that claims some sort of systematic oppression (and eventual intersectionality).  But there is no constitutional principle that guarantees that anyone has the right to distribute his own personalized speech without the cooperation of others.

This brings me back (the “second big question”, above) to the whole idea of social contract between the individual and his society.  You can call it “rightsizing”, but that’s a dangerous idea that leads to authoritarianism, either on the far right (or alt-right) or far left.  (Yup, a smaller country like Singapore can get away with this, and China is trying to come up with some way to grade people’s social compatibility by 2020!)  Yet, on a personal level, there’s something wrong when we think of others as “unworthy” of becoming prioritized to enter our lives because they aren’t “good enough” and didn’t “make it”.  That used to be hidden more, but there is an implicit understanding that if too many of us think that way, we invite especially right-wing totalitarianism in the door (consider Logan Paul’s movie “Thinning” as a warning).  That may be one reason why I do see so much “pimping” of “other people’s causes” with appeals for “calls to action” all the time.  On one level, I resist getting involved with all these public “knocks on the door” but I probably can’t avoid them forever.  As Martin Fowler wrote in his 2014 book, everyone belongs “somewhere” in some group, and has to bond with people who are imperfect, far less than teen Clark Kent’s.  Everyone’s karma, and whatever fragmentary after life follows (and I think there is one, however fleeting and combinatorial) is greatly affected by what they depended on – and that means groups.  I resist “joining” resistances (and marching and shouting in demonstrations for specific groups), but I know that eventually there comes a point where it is probably impossible to survive without doing so, even without coming in your shorts.

There is a political point here.  If legal or practical considerations made it impossible for businesses to allow me my own platforms, changing what has has been the case since late 1996, I would be forced to work through groups, and advocate for or personally assist people who individually I did not approve of apart from the group.  But this could be better for a lot of people and could address some of the underlying causes of inequality.  This all relates to the “implicit content” problem with free speech, or the “skin in the game argument”.

Perhaps what I am seeing is something like an attack on introversion, a demand that every endeavor somehow relate to other people’s needs. Yet, as “The Good Doctor” shows us, every introverted people sometimes meet real needs, and save us.

Earlier legacy piece on the “free content” idea.

(Published: Sunday, January 14, 2018 at 6:30 PM EST)

Cato Institute holds forum on “Marxist Origins of Hate Speech Legislation and Political Correctness”

Today, Tuesday November 28, 2017, the Cato Institute held a 90-minute symposium “Marxist Origins of Hate Speech Legislation and Political Correctness”.

The basic link is here.  (Cato will presumably supply the entire video in the live space soon.)

The event was moderate by Marian L. Tupy, and featured Danish author Flemming Rose (author of “The Tyranny of Silence”, now a Cato fellow), and Christina Hoff Sommers. Resident Scholar, American Enterprise Institute.

Rose focused at first on UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1965), Article 20, Paragraph 2, which included a definition of “hate speech” to include “any advocacy or national, religious or racial hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility and violence…”.   That is, incitement is more than incitement for near term lawless action (as in the US); it includes encouraging others to discriminate. The US and most European countries voted against this at first, but most European countries have come around to this notion in their hate speech laws today.  Authoritarian countries favored this approach, because dictators think that they can stay in power if various minority groups are placated.

Rose traced legal sanctions against both hate speech and fake news distribution to the early days of Communism, back with the Bolshevik revolution (like the 1981 movie “Reds”) where news distribution was viewed in terms of propaganda.  Fake news manipulation (as a propaganda exercise) by foreign enemies is more likely when those who view themselves as educated and elite (“Hillary-like”) have little personal contact with those who are not;  in 2016 the Russians seem to have taken advantage of unawareness of “populism” by more conventional policy pundits.  But it should be obvious that fake news runs the legal risks of libel and defamation litigation, which may be a little easier to parry in the US than in Europe.

Rose also made the point that minorities need free speech to advance themselves, rather than regard free speech as an incitement or invitation to others to continue discrimination.

Authoritarian and leftist interpretation of hate speech law tends to give very little credit to the individual to be able to think and learn from himself, but assumes people will vote in terms of tribal interests, which often is true (as we found out with the election of Trump and Russian meddling). Rose included some panels of modern European fake news law, from Germany and Italy.

Sommers talked about the rapid expansion of campus speech codes, with ideas like trigger warnings and microaggressions and safe spaces, since about 2010.  This seems to have developed rather suddenly. Sommers attributed the rise of these campus speech codes to an ideology of “intersectionality”, a theory of multidimensional group oppression.

At least two questions from the audience came from undergraduate college students, one at GWU, who said that influence of “intersectional” thinking had been quite shocking to him. Milo Yiannopoulos had spent a good part of his “Dangerous” book explaining the perils of this idea.  But other writers, as in the transgender community recently, have tried to make a lot of it.  Again, there seems to be a loss of the idea that self-concept should come from the self (a tautology) and not inherited group identification.

Several thoughts need reinforcement. One is that “hate speech” codes don’t draw a clear line between actual commission of acts and becoming connected to others doing bad things (like “watching” and journaling but not intervening — the “no spectators” idea).  Another is that these collectivist behavior norms regard “systematic” discrimination against identifiable groups (or “intersections” of groups) as akin to actual violence and aggression against the constituent individuals.  Still another idea is that “meta-speech”, where commentators or journalists speak about the discriminatory value systems of the past in order to impart a sense of history, sometimes may come across as an invitation or gratuitous reminder for aggressive politicians to try the same behaviors again;  speakers should be expected to put their own skin in the game.  Finally, there is a loss of interest in individualism itself, partly because “hyper-individualism” tends to leave a lot of people behind as less “valuable”. There is more emphasis on belonging to the tribe or group, or at least in meeting standards of supervised community engagement.

Many attendees had seen the breaking news of (Communist) North Korea’s missile test today on their smartphone just before the session started.

(Posted: Tuesday, November 28, 2017 at 10:30 PM EST)

“Identity politics” is not for me, and it doesn’t solve problems

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I’m not particularly a fan of identity politics – or of abstract equality, or liberation politics either (they are all different things).

At its worst, “identity politics” leads to group combativeness, joining mass movements, and a belief that violent confrontation with the establishment and overthrow is necessary.  That’s happened a lot in history.

But more often, the process means disciplining the members of the group to become loyal to its own internal leadership and social structure, and not to distract it by allowing concerns from the outside world to seem “legitimate”.

The most obvious example right now would invoke race – the Black Lives Matter movement, which demands recognition for specific redress for past grievances, which are quite real.  It feels the counter statement “all lives matter” to be an insult (although the latter statement would invoke concerns like right to life, service, willingness to bond with others in challenging circumstances – resilience).  Identity politics would justify unrest, as in Milwaukee (maybe in Ferguson) even when the facts suggest (although maybe don’t conclusively prove) that officers had some justification for the action they took against a specific suspect.

In another worst case implementation, if you flip identity politics – you get an “Us v. them” mentality that Donald Trump seems to be exploiting.

Most often, identity politics involves a trait (like race) or behavior pattern (like religious practice) that you were born into (as part of a “natural family”), and did not choose.  Sometimes it is a kind of ethnic identity (like the Basque people in Spain). Yes, such characteristics do tend to become the targets for bigotry for its own sake.  But the underlying motive for such bigotry is usually preservation of an unearned economic or political advantage.  That’s the “Gone with the Wind” narrative of the Old South *and of Margaret Mitchell’s literary masterpiece, as well as 1939 epic film).  Nationality functions somewhat this way, as we see with the immigration debate, where race and religion obviously play in (particularly in the mind of Donald Trump).

You could consider the “worker class” (and labor union members) as a subject of identity politics.  “Workers” are indeed arguably “exploited” by capitalism – that is, people who did not do the labor with their own hands benefit from it with some degree of unseen sacrifice by workers (sometimes substandard wages overseas, even living in dormitories like pseudo-slaves).  They generally aren’t the targets of emotion-laden bigotry, but they are the subjects of political and economic manipulation by the already wealthy and powerful.  And labor leadership tends to be heavily politicized internally, demanding local loyalty of its members, sometimes with strong-arm tactics.  The Left can the as oppressive as the Right.

That brings us to “LBGTQ” (Donald Trump stumbles over remembering to say “Q” while pointing or raising his pinkie finger, as if Stephen King could serve up a nurse to amputate it (“Misery”, 1990).  Historically (much less so in more recent decades in western countries including the U.S. but still so in many Muslim and sub-Saharan “Christian” countries) there has been a lot of plain hatred and bigotry that defies rationality.  One prosecutor in (Pence’s)  Indiana tells me that he sees it just as another way for some people to feel more powerful in the pecking order (to have people “to feel superior to”).  It seems like common sense that a lot of it has to do with procreation.  “Conservative” parents may believe they are being denied a lineage (especially relevant in my case because I am an only child), or people in communal settings or less mature economies (like Russia) could believe that gay men will make other men feel less secure about having their own kids and families (which is all some people have “to look forward to” and is maybe a religious connection to vicarious immortality).  Then, in the 1980s, there was the way the right wing construed the public health “amplification” argument.

“LGBTQ” is really several communities (rather like saying Spain comprises several autonomous countries)  The cultural and personal values in the Trans community, or in black communities, can be quite different from “conventional” white gay males.   It is also usually a community someone was not born into, but “chose” (so to speak) to join, at least implicitly.  People often do not have the freedom even to make these choices, especially overseas.

But within the more challenged sub-communities, internal discipline is often strong, just as in other movements (like labor).  Leadership likes loyalty of its members.  It welcomes conventional talk of the outside world in terms of that world’s oppression of “us” as a disliked, marginalized or beleaguered group, but resists discussion of issues that would affect the prosperity or sustainability of the larger “democratic” outside world as a whole, as something that it cannot do anything about anyway.

That has sometimes been the attitude against me in the past when I have brought up the way external threats (like energy security) could compromise my life and probably “ours” (or “theirs”).  Sometimes people react as if I were playing “I told you so”, in that I could have a pretext for feeling superior to “them” if anything really happens, and have an excuse for having to share my spare or life with “them” with more  intimacy or emotional connection than I usually have shown “outside my box” in the past.

I also get the impression that I am expected to support people “where they are” when members of a disadvantaged group.  I’m supposed to support the idea that anyone who feels dispossessed by gender circumstances can automatically use any bathroom she chooses without question, as if this were the highest political priority.  I am definitely “different” myself, and grew up with the idea that it was my responsibility to learn to carry my own weight when it comes to participating in common needs (the military draft and deferment issue of my coming age helps form that narrative, but many younger people are largely unaware of it today – which is one reason why feeding historical narrative as I do is important).  But personal responsibility, and karma, would also require giving back if one has been lucky with unearned economic advantages.

If I, as someone who is “different”, am still going to take “penultimate” responsibility for what I make of myself in life, then the “global” outside world matters.  Infrastructure matters, and may have a lot more bearing on how well I turn out that particularized discrimination.  Indeed, one observation is that poor people typically live in less reliable infrastructures, and are more vulnerable to natural disasters and to negligent landlords (which may well turn out to be the case with the recent major apartment explosion in Silver Spring, MD).

Indeed, many of the “threats” that LGBTQ people face as individuals or that African Americans face, can come from the “outside world”.  If we “work smart”, we can reduce these threats.   I realize that I can drive on a city street with less chance of being pulled over by a cop.  Maybe that’s privilege now.  But how many other people understand what it was like to live in a dorm in 1961 when other men feared merely being around me could make them fail with women.  They honestly thought that.

It does seem that there are some external issues that transcend conventional identity politics and tend to draw people together to deal with complexity and moral ambiguity.  Immigration, with all the nuances of refugee and asylee assistance, is one such issue today.

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Update: Oct. 19, 2016

Here’s an essay by Shawn Schossow, motivated by the debate over voting for third party candidates (Jill Stein), which defends the idea of “intersectionality“.

(Published: Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2016, at 12 Noon EDT)