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Smith/Brecht

29 Sep

Adam Smith, The Theory of the Moral Sentiments:

The poor man, on the contrary, is ashamed of his poverty. He feels that it either places him out of the sight of mankind, or, that if they take any notice of him, they have, however, scarce any fellow-feeling with the misery and distress which he suffers. He is mortified upon both accounts. For though to be overlooked, and to be disapproved of, are things entirely different, yet as obscurity covers us from the daylight of honour and approbation, to feel that we are taken no notice of, necessarily damps the most agreeable hope, and disappoints the most ardent desire, of human nature. The poor man goes out and comes in unheeded, and when in the midst of a crowd is in the same obscurity as if shut up in his own hovel….The man of rank and distinction, on the contrary, is observed by all the world. Every body is eager to look at him, and to conceive, at least by sympathy, that joy and exultation with which his circumstances naturally inspire him. His actions are the objects of the public care. Scarce a word, scarce a gesture, can fall from him that is altogether neglected. In a great assembly he is the person upon whom all direct their eyes; it is upon him that their passions seem all to wait with expectation, in order to receive that movement and direction which he shall impress upon them; and if his behaviour is not altogether absurd, he has, every moment, an opportunity of interesting mankind, and of rendering himself the object of the observation and fellow-feeling of every body about him.

Bertolt Brecht, “Mackie Messer” (“Mack the Knife“), Three Penny Opera:

And some are in the darkness
And the others in the light
But you only see those in the light
Those in the darkness you don’t see

But you only see those in the light
Those in the darkness you don’t see

[Und die einen sind im Dunkeln
Und die anderen sind im Licht
Doch man sieht nur die im Lichte
Die im Dunklen sieht man nicht

Doch man sieht nur die im Lichte
Die im Dunklen sieht man nicht]

 

Copyrights and Property Wrongs

26 Sep

Jeffrey Toobin has an interesting piece in this week’s New Yorker on the effort of individuals to get information about themselves or their loved ones deleted from the internet.

Toobin’s set piece is a chilling story of the family of Nikki Catsouras, who was decapitated in a car accident in California. The images of the accident were so terrible that the coroner wouldn’t allow Catsouras’s parents to see the body.

Two employees of the California Highway Patrol, however, circulated photographs of the body to friends. Like oil from a spill, the photos spread across the internet. Aided by Google’s powerful search engine—ghoulish voyeurs could type in terms like “decapitated girl,” and up would pop the links—the ooze could not be contained.

Celebrities who take naked selfies, ex-cons hoping to make a clean start, victims of unfounded accusations, the parents of a woman killed in a gruesome accident: all of us have an interest in not having certain information or images about us or people we care about shared on the internet. Because it provides such a powerful sluice for the spread of that information and those images, Google has become the natural target of those who wish to protect their privacy from the prying or prurient eyes of the public.

In Europe, Toobin reports, the defenders of the right to privacy—really, the right to be forgotten, as he says—have had some success. In the spring, the European Court of Justice upheld the decision of a Spanish agency blocking Google from sharing two short articles about the debts of a lawyer in the newspaper La Vanguardia. While the newspaper could not be ordered to take down the articles, the Court held that Google could be “prohibited from linking to them in any searches relating to” the indebted lawyer’s name. As Toobin writes:

The Court went on to say, in a broadly worded directive, that all individuals in the countries within its jurisdiction had the right to prohibit Google from linking to items that were “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive in relation to the purposes for which they were processed and in the light of the time that has elapsed.”

While the decision has quite a bit of support in Europe, it has been widely criticized in the United States as a violation of the First Amendment, threatening both freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Where the right to privacy is held to be “a fundamental human right” in Europe, claims Stanford scholar Jennifer Granick, Americans are more sensitive to issues of freedom of expression; they prefer to deal with the privacy issues, if they do deal with them at all, in a piecemeal fashion. Europe’s position, as Toobin explains, comes out of the continent’s long experience with state surveillance, with governments making use of personal data in ways that presumably the American state has not.

And yet…

As Toobin goes onto explain, Americans can legally protect themselves from unwanted scrutiny or embarrassment on the internet through a different legal instrument: copyright law.

Because Google is extremely sensitive to the legal claims of those who own specific words or images, it steadfastly refuses to link to copyrighted materials and images (or allow people to post copyrighted videos on YouTube, which it owns.) So if a celebrity were to take a selfy, or if the Catsouras family owned the photographs of their daughter—they tried, unsuccessfully, to get the California Highway Patrol to give them the copyright—Google could be forced, or persuaded, to stop linking to any sites that posted them. That threat of copyright violation can be very effective.

In August, racy private photographs of Jennifer Lawrence, Kate Upton, and other celebrities were leaked to several Web sites….Several of the leaked photographs were selfies, so the women themselves owned the copyrights; friends had taken the other pictures. Lawyers for one of the women established copyrights for all the photographs they could, and then went to sites that had posted the pictures, and to Google, and insisted that the material be removed. Google complied, as did many of the sites, and now the photographs are difficult to find on the Internet, though they have not disappeared. “For the most part, the world goes through search engines,” one lawyer involved in the effort to limit the distribution of the photographs told me. “Now it’s like a tree falling in the forest. There may be links out there, but if you can’t find them through a search engine they might as well not exist.”

I don’t have much of an opinion about the fundamental issue in the article: the battle between the right to privacy and freedom of speech. Toobin presents the various arguments on all sides of the question, and it’s pretty clear that the European approach, favoring the right to privacy, raises many difficult legal and institutional issues.

What I’m more struck by is how little traction the right to privacy has in the United States, as compared to the claims of copyright.

I don’t know much about copyright law, either in the US or in Europe, but I can’t help wondering if one of the reasons its claims are so potent here, trumping those of privacy, is that copyright is  a property right.

The right to privacy, of course, is historically intertwined with property rights: in the Griswold decision, for example, which struck down Connecticut’s ban on contraception, Justice Douglas cited the Third Amendment, which forbids the quartering of soldiers in private homes, as the basis for a broad constitutional right to privacy. Even so, the right to privacy is not nearly as dependent on the claims of property as is copyright, which is a variant of intellectual property (patents and so forth).

Where copyright is designed to protect a person’s ownership over a text or image on the theory that that ownership benefits the public—if an author can reap the full monetary benefits from the production or sale of a text or image, she will be encouraged to produce those texts and images—the right to privacy is designed to protect a person’s claims against the public. Copyright protects a person’s property by conscripting it on behalf of the public (at least in theory); privacy shields a person from the public.

It’s interesting that an allegedly individualistic US is less sensitive to these issues of privacy than an allegedly collectivistic Europe, but the rights of privacy in the cases Toobin cites don’t involve any property rights. Save the damage to one’s reputation, which might gain some traction from the law if a person were powerful, but gets virtually none when a person is not.

The whole discussion reminds me of another Justice Douglas opinion: his concurrence in Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States. In that case, the Supreme Court upheld Title II of the Civil Rights Act. That provision made it illegal for restaurants, inns, and public accommodations to discriminate on the basis of race. The Court claimed that Title II was a legitimate exercise of Congress’s power under the Commerce Clause. The majority held that Congress had the power to regulate interstate commerce, that the travel of African Americans to and from the South involved interstate commerce, and that ending segregation in these public accommodations would facilitate such travel.

In his concurring opinion, Douglas conceded that Congress had the right to use its interstate commerce powers in these ways, but he was discomfited by the Court’s resting Title II on that basis. He would have preferred to rest it on Congress’s power under the 14th Amendment.

Though I join the Court’s opinions, I am somewhat reluctant here, as I was in Edwards v. California, 314 U.S. 160, 177, to rest solely on the Commerce Clause. My reluctance is not due to any conviction that Congress lacks power to regulate commerce in the interests of human rights. It is, rather, my belief that the right of people to be free of state action that discriminates against them because of race, like the “right of persons to move freely from State to State” (Edwards v. California, supra, at 177), “occupies a more protected position in our constitutional system than does the movement of cattle, fruit, steel and coal across state lines.” Ibid. Moreover, when we come to the problem of abatement in Hamm v. City of Rock Hill, post, p. 306, decided this day, the result reached by the Court is, for me, much more obvious as a protective measure under the Fourteenth Amendment than under the Commerce Clause. For the former deals with the constitutional status of the individual, not with the impact on commerce of local activities or vice versa.

But American being America, commerce ruled. And rules. Like property.

What was it those two dudes said? “In bourgeois society capital is independent and has individuality, while the living person is dependent and has no individuality.”

A UI Trustee Breaks Ranks! We Have an Opening!

5 Sep

In another bombshell, UI trustee James D. Montgomery tells Ali Abunimah, well, I’ll just quote from Ali’s piece:

A trustee of the University of Illinois has added to public criticism over the decision to fire Palestinian American professor and Israel critic Steven Salaita.

“I think it would have been far better had it been dealt with differently and had it been done with more consultation with faculty,” James D. Montgomery told The Electronic Intifada today.

He also acknowledged the “adverse” impact that a growing boycott was having on the university’s ability to function.

Montgomery, a prominent Chicago attorney, echoed the regrets expressed by Chancellor Phyllis Wise over her own role in the affair.

Montgomery was careful, however, to say that he was undecided about the merits of the case, but he sounded far less certain and more circumspect than a public statement he signed last month along with other trustees forcefully backing Wise’s decision.

Montgomery laid out some of the issues that the board would be faced with at its upcoming 11 September meeting.

“Obviously there’s a lot of uproar on both sides of the issue from the perspective of students and alums who are offended by the manner in which Salaita spoke,” Montgomery said.

“And there are folks who are claiming that is a violation of the right to academic freedom. It’s a difficult decision in terms of what is right and what is wrong,” he continued.

“I know we’re going into executive session and obviously there are people who are seeking to pressure the university to reverse its decision. It’s coming from very significant places. It’s had an adverse impact because people are declining to participate in university activities and there have been a number of events canceled.”

“How it will turn out is anybody’s guess and I would not hazard one at this point,” Montgomery now says, adding he personally has not made up his mind about the issues the board would have to decide.

Here’s the take home:

First, and most important, this is not a done deal. Montgomery very clearly says that he has no idea how or what the Trustees will decide, and how he will vote. So keep up the pressure (more below).

Second, a member of the BoT has now admitted that the faculty should have been involved in this decision.

Third, that a trustee would be willing to go on the record like this, again, it shows a university that is not in control of itself.

Fourth, as Bonnie Honig pointed out to me, the UI Board of Trustees is very small. There are twelve members, and two of them (students) can’t vote. That means at least one out of ten of the trustees is undecided. Believe it or not, that’s huge.

Fifth, when we went through a similar battle over BDS at Brooklyn College, this is how it happened. One cracked, and then they all fell down. No predictions, no guarantees. But this could be the beginning of the end.

Sixth, and again most important, email the Board of Trustees. We have an opening, so let’s take it. Be polite, be firm, reach out to them as people. All of you have gotten us to this point. Now take us all the way there.

Again here are the emails:

Christopher G. Kennedy, Chair, University of Illinois Board of Trustees: chris@northbankandwells.com

Robert A. Easter, President: reaster@uillinois.edu

Hannah Cave, Trustee: hcave2@illinois.edu

Ricardo Estrada, Trustee: estradar@metrofamily.org

Patrick J. Fitzgerald, Trustee: patrick.fitzgerald@skadden.com

Lucas N. Frye, Trustee: lnfrye2@illinois.edu

Karen Hasara, Trustee: hasgot28@aol.com

Patricia Brown Holmes, Trustee: pholmes@schiffhardin.com

Timothy N. Koritz, Trustee: timothy.koritz@gmail.com or tkoritz@gmail.com

Danielle M. Leibowitz, Trustee: dleibo2@uic.edu

Edward L. McMillan, Trustee: mcmillaned@sbcglobal.net or mcmillaned@msn.com

James D. Montgomery, Trustee: james@jdmlaw.com

Pamela B. Strobel, Trustee: pbstrobel@comcast.net

Thomas R. Bearrows, University Counsel: bearrows@uillinois.edu

Susan M. Kies, Secretary of the Board of Trustees and the University: kies@uillinois.edu

Lester H. McKeever, Jr., Treasurer, Board of Trustees: lmckeever@wpmck.com

Capitalism and Slavery

1 Aug

I’ve mentioned Greg Grandin’s book Empire of Necessity on this blog before. It’s basically the true story—and more!—behind Melville’s Benito Cereno, which if you haven’t read, you should read right away. And then read Greg’s book. In any event, Alex Gourevitch has a wonderful interview with Greg up today at Jacobin. It’s got all sorts of gems in it, but I thought readers here would be especially interested in this:

Scholars have long examined the ways in which slavery underwrites capitalism. I thought this story, though, allowed attention to slavery’s role in shaping not so much the social or financial dimensions of capitalism but its psychic and imaginative ones.

Capitalism is, among other things, a massive process of ego formation, the creation of modern selves, the illusion of individual autonomy, the cultivation of distinction and preference, the idea that individuals had their own moral conscience, based on individual reason and virtue. The wealth created by slavery generalized these ideals, allowing more and more people, mostly men, to imagine themselves as autonomous and integral beings, with inherent rights and self-interests not subject to the jurisdiction of others. Slavery was central to this process not just for the wealth the system created but because slaves were physical and emotional examples of what free men were not.

But there is more. That process of individuation creates a schism between inner and outer, in which self-interest, self-cultivation, and personal moral authority drive a wedge between seeming and being. Hence you have the emergence of metaphysicians like Melville, Emerson, and of course Marx, along with others, trying to figure out the relationship between depth and surface.

What I try to do in the book is demonstrate the centrality of slavery to this process, the way “free trade in blacks” takes slavery’s foundational deception, its original deceit as captured in the con the West Africans were able to play on Amasa Delano, and acts as a force multiplier. Capitalism disperses that deception into every aspect of modern life.

There’s many ways this happens. Deceit, through contraband, is absolutely key to the expansion of slavery in South America. When historians talk about the Atlantic market revolution, they are talking about capitalism. And when they are talking about capitalism, they are talking about slavery. And when they are talking about slavery, they are talking about corruption and crime. Not in a moral sense, in that the slave system was a crime against humanity. That it was. But it was also a crime in a technical sense: probably as many enslaved Africans came into South America as contraband, to avoid taxes and other lingering restrictions, as legally.

Sometimes slaves were the contraband. At other times, they were cover for the real contraband, luxury items being smuggled in from France or Great Britain, which helped cultivate the personal taste of South America’s expanding gentry class. And since one of the things capitalism is at its essence is an ongoing process to define the arbitrary line that separates “self-interest” from “corruption,” slavery was essential in creating the normative categories associated with modern society.

Why Aren’t the Poor More Responsible?

16 Jun

MIT economist Esther Duflo:

We tend to be patronizing about the poor in a very specific sense, which is that we tend to think, “Why don’t they take more responsibility for their lives?” And what we are forgetting is that the richer you are the less responsibility you need to take for your own life because everything is taken care for you. And the poorer you are the more you have to be responsible for everything about your life….Stop berating people for not being responsible and start to think of ways instead of providing the poor with the luxury that we all have, which is that a lot of decisions are taken for us. If we do nothing, we are on the right track. For most of the poor, if they do nothing, they are on the wrong track.

I’m not sure that “we” is as big as Duflo thinks, but her point is a good one. Reminds me of this post I did three summers ago.

The Calculus of Their Consent: Gary Becker, Pinochet, and the Chicago Boys

5 May

The economist Gary Becker has died. Kieran Healy has a great write-up on Foucault’s engagement with Becker; Kathy Geier has a very smart treatment of, among other things, feminist critiques of Becker’s theory of the family. And some more personal reminiscences of taking a class with Becker.

Kathy mentions this article that Becker wrote in 1997 about the Chicago Boys who worked with the Pinochet regime. Becker’s conclusion about that episode?

In retrospect, their willingness to work for a cruel dictator and start a different economic approach was one of the best things that happened to Chile.

No real surprise there. Many free-marketeers, including Hayek, either defended the Pinochet regime or defended those who worked with it.

But the Becker piece reminded me of that infamous Mont Pelerin Society (MPS) conference in Viña del Mar in 1981, about which I wrote at length two summers ago. The MPS is an organization of economists, philosophers, and assorted action intellectuals and businessmen dedicated to spreading the free market gospel across the globe. In the late 1970s, at the height of Pinochet’s repression, Hayek and a few grandees from Chile began discussions  about holding the MPS’s annual conference in the seaside city where the coup against Allende had been planned. The purpose in meeting there would prove avowedly propagandist. As the organization’s own newsletter later acknowledged, the conference provided participants with an opportunity

for becoming better acquainted with the land which has had such consistently bad and misrepresenting press coverage (and, perhaps for that reason, it was appropriate to have Reed Irvine, head of Accuracy in Media as one of the first speakers in the first session).

Becker was originally targeted or slated to speak on a conference panel titled “Education, Government or Individual Responsibility?” His name appears on an early agenda with a “T” next to it. For “tentative.” But Becker either never confirmed or pulled out. No matter: Milton and Rose Friedman, along with James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock, were there to show the flag—and the calculus of their consent.

Has There Ever Been a Better Patron of the Arts Than the CIA?

27 Apr

Countering Thomas Piketty’s critique of inherited wealth, Tyler Cowen suggests that such dynastic accumulations of private wealth may be a precondition of great art:

Piketty fears the stasis and sluggishness of the rentier, but what might appear to be static blocks of wealth have done a great deal to boost dynamic productivity. Piketty’s own book was published by the Belknap Press imprint of Harvard University Press, which received its initial funding in the form of a 1949 bequest from Waldron Phoenix Belknap, Jr., an architect and art historian who inherited a good deal of money from his father, a vice president of Bankers Trust. (The imprint’s funds were later supplemented by a grant from Belknap’s mother.) And consider Piketty’s native France, where the scores of artists who relied on bequests or family support to further their careers included painters such as Corot, Delacroix, Courbet, Manet, Degas, Cézanne, Monet, and Toulouse-Lautrec and writers such as Baudelaire, Flaubert, Verlaine, and Proust, among others.

Notice, too, how many of those names hail from the nineteenth century. Piketty is sympathetically attached to a relatively low capital-to-income ratio. But the nineteenth century, with its high capital-to-income ratios, was in fact one of the most dynamic periods of European history. Stocks of wealth stimulated invention by liberating creators from the immediate demands of the marketplace and allowing them to explore their fancies, enriching generations to come.

But the Belle Époque (and its predecessor) has got nothing on the CIA.

 The Central Intelligence Agency on Friday, April 11th posted to its public website nearly 100 declassified documents that detail the CIA’s role in publishing the first Russian-language edition of Doctor Zhivago after the book had been banned in the Soviet Union.  The 1958 publication of Boris Pasternak’s iconic novel in Russian gave people within the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe the opportunity to read the book for the first time.

The declassified memos, letters, and cables reveal the rationale behind the Zhivago project and the intricacies of the effort to get the book into the hands of those living behind the Iron Curtain.

In a memo dated April 24, 1958 a senior CIA officer wrote: “We have the opportunity to make Soviet citizens wonder what is wrong with their government when a fine literary work by the man acknowledged to be the greatest living Russian writer is not even available in his own country [and] in his own language for his people to read.”

After working secretly to publish the Russian-language edition in the Netherlands, the CIA moved quickly to ensure that copies of Doctor Zhivago were available for distribution to Soviet visitors at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair.  By the end of the Fair, 355 copies of Doctor Zhivago had been surreptitiously handed out, and eventually thousands more were distributed throughout the Communist bloc.

As it happened, Pasternak went on to win the 1958 Nobel Prize for literature, the popularity of his novel  skyrocketed, and the plight of the great Russian author in the Soviet Union received global media attention.

Subsequently, the CIA funded the publication of a miniature, lightweight paperback edition of Doctor Zhivago that could be easily mailed or concealed in a jacket pocket.  Distribution of the miniature version began in April 1959.

These declassified documents about Doctor Zhivago are just the latest in a long line of revelations about how central the CIA was to the cultural and aesthetic life of the twentieth century. Was there a better patron of abstract expressionism—of Pollock, Rothko, De Kooning, at least on the global scale—than the CIA? And while the Saunders thesis of the cultural Cold War (the thesis long predates her, of course, but she helped popularize it after the Cold War) has its problems and its critics, the CIA did fund literary magazines like Encounter, even Partisan Review when it seemed like it was going to go belly up, international tours of symphony orchestras and jazz ensembles, and art exhibits around the world.

And while we’re on the topic of government patronage of the arts, let’s not forget the Bolsheviks, who managed, before the full onset of Stalinism and Socialist Realism, to fund, support, and inspire some pretty damn good avant-garde art. (And some not so good art: Ever since I learned that Ayn Rand developed some of her most enduring aesthetic tastes by attending, with the help of cheap tickets funded by the Bolsheviks, weekly performances of cheesy operettas at the Mikhailovsky state-run theater, I’ve held Lenin responsible for The Fountainhead.)

My most prized print is the poster of a 1971 exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of “Russian Art of the Revolution.” It features El Lissitzky’s Sportsmen, which he did in 1923. (I managed to salvage it from the garbage after the office of a former colleague was cleaned out.) While eclipsed by the later exhibit at the Guggenheim, the Brooklyn Museum show was the first of its kind, I believe, in the States. In any event, it gives a good sense of what Soviet support for the arts achieved.

Russian Art of the Revolution

Cowen’s argument has a long history, but it’s not clear to me why he believes it’s dispositive. When it comes to funding for the arts, there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

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