Archive | Media RSS feed for this section

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.”

An Archive For Buckley, Kristol, and Podhoretz Interviews?

16 Jul

In the summer and fall of 2000, I interviewed William F. Buckley, Irving Kristol, and Norman Podhoretz for an article I was writing for Lingua Franca. The article where Buckley compared capitalism to sex (both boring), Kristol complained that there was no one on the right with the political imagination of Marx, and Podhoretz (who I never quoted) cited a list of resentments so long it would make the Underground Man blush.

I have four cassette tapes from those interviews that I would like to have transcribed and also converted to audio files that could be posted on the web. I’m hoping there’s an archive somewhere that might be interested, so I don’t have to pay for this. But I’m also prepared to pay someone if necessary.

Anyone have any suggestions?

Feel free to email me at corey.robin@gmail.com.

 

The Disappointment of Hannah Arendt (the film)

28 Jun

So I finally saw Hannah Arendt this weekend.

As entertainment, it was fine. I enjoyed the tender portrayal of Arendt’s marriage to Heinrich Blücher (though the rendition of her relationship to Mary McCarthy was painful to watch). I loved the  scenes in their apartment. Even though the depiction of its style and decor was more Mad Men than Morningside Heights, and the roominess, airiness, and light of the apartment gave little suggestion of the thick and heavy German hospitality for which Arendt and Blücher were famous. And, yes, a lot of the dialogue was painfully wooden and transparently devoted to narrative exposition, but I didn’t mind that so much.

My real problem with the film is that I can’t, for the life of me, figure out why it was made. As my wife pointed out to me, it doesn’t shed any new light on the Eichmann controversy or Arendt. There’s nothing in it you wouldn’t know from Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s biography or those drive-by summations of the Eichmann controversy that you get in standard intellectual histories of the period. So why make the film?

Films of this nature are supposed to dramatize something you can’t see in—or understand from—other genres. But does Hannah Arendt do that? I know there was much talk when it came out of the way that it captures on screen the process of thinking, but frankly I found those to be some of the more embarrassing scenes in the film. It’s a Hollywood producer’s idea of thinking: resting on the sofa, eyes closed, smoking, an idea crosses the thinker’s mind, eyes open. That that may have been how Arendt in fact did think—parts of it fit with Arendt’s own descriptions (not the cheesy eyes opening bits)—doesn’t quite redeem it, for the simple reason that seeing it on the screen doesn’t add anything to reading about it on the page.

I suppose one could argue that the film brings this story of Arendt and the Eichmann controversy to viewers who didn’t know anything about it. And that’s not nothing. But Hannah Arendt—who managed not only to bring stories to readers who didn’t know anything about them, but to tell those stories in a new and distinctive way, in part by the pioneering nature of her genre-bending writing—deserves better than that.

My Dirty Little Secret: I Ride the Rails to Read

14 Jun

Like most academics, I read articles and books. Unlike most academics (maybe, I don’t really know), reading has become harder and harder for me. Not simply because of the distractions that come with department politics, administrative duties (come July 1, I’m chair of my department), advising grad students, and teaching. I wish it were as noble as that. No, the reason I find it so difficult to read these days, now years, is the internet.

Which is why I was so relieved to read this wonderful post by Tim Parks about how difficult it is now to read.

Every reader will have his or her own sense of how reading conditions have changed, but here is my own experience. Arriving in the small village of Quinzano, just outside Verona, Italy, thirty-three years ago, aged twenty-six, leaving friends and family behind in the UK, unpublished and unemployed, always anxious to know how the next London publisher would respond to the work I was writing, I was constantly eager for news of one kind or another. International phone-calls were prohibitively expensive. There was no fax, only snail mail, as we called it then. Each morning the postino would, or might, drop something into the mailbox at the end of the garden. I listened for the sound of his scooter coming up the hairpins from the village. Sometimes when the box was empty I would hope I’d heard wrong, and that it hadn’t been the postino’s scooter, and go out and check again an hour later, just in case. And then again. For an hour or so I would find it hard to concentrate or work well. You are obsessed, I would tell myself, heading off to check the empty mailbox for a fourth time.

Imagine a mind like this exposed to the seductions of email and messaging and Skype and news websites constantly updating on the very instrument you use for work. In the past, having satisfied myself that the postman really had come and gone, the day then presented itself as an undisturbed ocean of potential—for writing (by hand), reading (on paper), and, to pay the bills, translating (on a manual typewriter). It was even possible in those days to see reading as a resource to fill time that hung heavy when rain or asphyxiating heat forced one to stay indoors.

Now, on the contrary, every moment of serious reading has to be fought for, planned for.

I, too, remember when reading was an effortless way to pass the time. And what my work routine looked like as a result. Writing in the morning, reading in the afternoon, writing in the evening. Reading was easy. It required less concentration and stamina, so I did it during the lazy hours after lunch. My most alert times—just after my morning coffee and during my insomniac hours—were reserved for writing.

Nowadays, it’s the reverse. Writing absorbs me, so I do it in the afternoons, maybe the evenings. But reading, as Parks writes, has to be planned for. I have to wrest my reading time from the come-hither arms of the internet, so I do it in the morning.

Here’s how I do it. After I drop off my daughter at school or summer camp, I jump on the subway. I ride the rails for three to four hours. Maybe the F train: out to Coney Island, back through Brooklyn, into Manhattan, out to Forest Hills, and then back. Or if I’m pressed for time, just the Q train: again out to Coney, back through Brooklyn, into Manhattan, out to Astoria, and back. Or if I’m in the mood for a change, the B or the D trains: they ultimately take me to the Bronx and back.

I take nothing with me but my book and a pen. I take notes on the front and back pages of the book. If I run out of pages, I carry a little notebook with me. I never get off the train (except, occasionally, to meet my wife for lunch in Manhattan.) I have an ancient phone, so there’s no internet or desire to text, and I’m mostly underground, so there are no phone calls.

When I get back, I sometimes post about my little rides and what I’m reading on Facebook: Schumpeter in Queens, The Theory of Moral Sentiments in the Bronx, Hayek in Brooklyn. The more incongruous, the better, though sometimes I find some funny or interesting parallels between what I’m reading and where I’m riding and what I’m seeing.

But the joking on Facebook covers up my dirty little secret: I ride the rails to read because if I’m at home, and not writing, I’m on the internet. “It is not simply that one is interrupted,” as Park writes; “it is that one is actually inclined to interruption.”

I’m not sure why it’s reading that requires these Odysseus-like acts of self-denial (sometimes I also use the Freedom program to read), while writing does not. I suspect it has something to do with what Parks says: “The mind, or at least my mind, is overwhelmingly inclined toward communication or, if that is too grand a word, to the back and forth of contact with others.” When I write, I feel like I’m in communication with others: not only my imagined readers, but also my imagined interlocutors—the people I’m arguing with, the theorists I’m arguing about, that professor in grad school whose comments still spark my imagination. It’s nothing as grand as what Machiavelli described in his letter to Vettori:

On the coming of evening, I return to my house and enter my study; and at the door I take off the day’s clothing, covered with mud and dust, and put on garments regal and courtly; and reclothed appropriately, I enter the ancient courts of ancient men, where, received by them with affection, I feed on that food which only is mine and which I was born for, where I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason for their actions; and they in their kindness answer me; and for four hours of time I do not feel boredom, I forget every trouble, I do not dread poverty, I am not frightened by death; entirely I give myself over to them.

But it’s definitely company.

Reading feels much more solitary. It can be boring and passive, and when it’s not, when I find something interesting that excites me, I want to share it with everyone. If I’m reading at home, I rush to the computer, and post about it on Facebook or here on my blog. And then I don’t get off. For hours. When I’m on the train, there’s nothing to do, but note it on the back page, and stay on. For hours.

And now, for another view of Hitler

22 May

Back in 1982, Harper’s ran a hilarious piece by Alexander Cockburn, “The Tedium Twins,” on the silly obsession with balance that was the MacNeil/Lehrer Report. With pitch-perfect dialogue, Cockburn imagined a segment on the question of slavery.

robert macneil (voice over): Should one man own another?

(Titles)

macneil: Good evening. The problem is as old as man himself. Do property rights extend to the absolute ownership of one man by another? Tonight, the slavery problem. Jim?

lehrer: Robin, advocates of the continuing system of slavery argue that the practice has brought unparalleled benefits to the economy. They fear that new regulations being urged by reformers would undercut America’s economic effectiveness abroad. Reformers, on the other hand, call for legally binding standards and even for a phased reduction in the slave force to something like 75 percent of its present size. Charlayne Hunter-Gault is in Charleston. Charlayne?

hunter-gault: Robin and Jim, I have here in Charleston Mr. Ginn, head of the Cottongrowers Association. Robin?

macneil: Mr. Ginn, what are the arguments for unregulated slavery?

ginn: Robin, our economic data show that attempts at regulation of working hours, slave quarters, and so forth would reduce productivity and indeed would be widely resented by the slaves themselves.

macneil: You mean, the slaves would not like new regulations? They would resent them?

ginn: Exactly. Any curbing of the slave trade would offer the Tsar dangerous political opportunities in western Africa, and menace the strategic slave-ship routes.

lehrer: Thank you, Mr. Ginn. Robin?

macneil: Thank you, Mr. Ginn and Jim. The secretary of the Committee for Regulatory Reform in Slavery is Eric Halfmeasure. Mr. Halfmeasure, give us the other side of the story.

And on it went. Reaching for the ne plus ultra of MacNeil/Lehrerism, Cockburn offered this up as the tagline of the show’s almost comical quest for objectivity: “And now, for another view of Hitler…”

Now comes Ari Shapiro, reporting on NPR about a Ukrainian fascist who slaughtered Jews and other undesirables during World War II. “The question is,” says Shapiro, “whether a person who’s involved in the death of tens of thousands of people can also be a political hero.”

Let’s start with the basics: Stepan Bandera was born in 1909 in what is now western Ukraine. In 1959, the Soviet Union’s KGB poisoned Bandera with cyanide and he died in Munich, West Germany.

Between those two dates, black and white quickly fades to gray.

In western Ukraine, many see him as a freedom fighter who battled domination by the Soviet Union and other European powers before and during World War II. They see themselves as the heirs to Bandera’s struggle.

In eastern Ukraine, Bandera has entirely different connotations. Pro-Russian separatists see him as an ally of Hitler, a fascist who was responsible for killing tens of thousands.

So which was he: Freedom fighter or fascist? Hero or villain?

Bandera’s Order of Ukrainian Nationalists also did some violent things in pursuit of sovereignty. Jews and Polish people were massacred.

“The fight was violent. It was killing, gruesome killings, against all the perceived enemies,” says political scientist Gulnaz Sharafutdinova of King’s College London. “There were strong powers around that little part of Ukraine, western Ukraine, so it was a really hard fight.”

Many of these details have only come out recently, since the KGB, the CIA and others have declassified records. The question is whether a person who’s involved in the death of tens of thousands of people can also be a political hero.

In 2010, Ukraine’s government officially recognized Bandera as a national hero, a move that was condemned by the European Parliament among others. The next year, a new government annulled that award after a domestic and international outcry.

Meanwhile, Russia’s propaganda machine has worked for the past half-century to portray Bandera as an unvarnished villain.

Jim? Robin?

All the News That Was Fit to Print Ten Years Ago

21 May

New York Times:

For instance, while much has been written about the F.B.I.’s first and most influential director, J. Edgar Hoover, and his hunt for communists and his suspicion of the civil rights movement, little attention has been paid to his effort to unmask gays in government and academia.

Ahem:

According to John Cheever, 1948 was ‘the year everybody in the United States was worried about homosexuality’. And nobody was more worried than the federal government, which was rumoured to be teeming with gays and lesbians. One might think that Washington’s attentions would have been focused elsewhere – on the Soviet Union, for example, or on Communist spies – but in 1950, President Truman’s advisers warned him that ‘the country is more concerned about the charges of homosexuals in the government than about Communists.’ The executive branch responded immediately. That year, the State Department fired ‘perverts’ at the rate of one a day, more than twice the figure for suspected Communists. Charges of homosexuality ultimately accounted for a quarter to a half of all dismissals in the State and Commerce Departments, and in the CIA. Only 25 per cent of Joseph McCarthy’s fan letters complained of ‘red infiltration’; the rest fretted about ‘sex depravity’.

The scare lasted from 1947 to the 1970s, and in The Lavender Scare David Johnson estimates that thousands lost their jobs. The men and women charged with rinsing the pink from the Potomac were astonishingly ignorant about their quarry. Senator Clyde Hoey, head of the first congressional inquiry into the threat, had to ask an aide: ‘Can you please tell me, what can two women possibly do?’ Senator Margaret Chase Smith asked one Hoey Committee witness whether there wasn’t a ‘quick test like an X-ray that discloses these things’.

The official justification for the purge was that homosexuals were vulnerable to blackmail and could be turned into Soviet spies. But as Johnson points out, investigators never found a single instance of this kind of blackmail during the Cold War. The best they could come up with was a dubious case from before the First World War, when the Russians allegedly used the homosexuality of Austria’s top spy to force him to work for them.

The real justification was even more suspect: gays were social misfits whose pathology made them susceptible to Communist indoctrination. Many conservatives also believed that the Communist Party was a movement of and for libertines, and the Soviet Union a haven of free love and open marriage. Gays, they concluded, couldn’t resist this freedom from bourgeois constraint. Drawing parallels with the decline of the Roman Empire, McCarthy regarded homosexuality as a cultural degeneracy that could only weaken the United States. It was, as one tabloid put it, ‘Stalin’s Atom Bomb’.

How could a nation confronting so many foreign threats allow itself to be sidetracked like this? (This is not just a question for historians: in recent months, Congress has devoted considerable energy to debating gay marriage, while in the last 13 years the US military has fired 55 of its Arabic speakers for being gay; the most recent was uncovered after investigators asked him if he had ever participated in community theatre.) With the Soviets in possession of the bomb and Korea on the march, why was Dean Acheson, the secretary of state, dispatched to Congress to defend his heterosexuality and that of his ‘powder puff diplomats’? Didn’t he have more important things to do than host rowdy gatherings of politicians and journalists that were

reminiscent of ‘stag parties’, featuring copious amounts of Scotch and bourbon, and smiling women ‘whose identity remained undisclosed’. As one senator remarked, ‘It reminded me somewhat of the fraternity rushing season at college.’ Dean Acheson tried to appear as ‘one of the boys’, slapping senators on the back. A journalist reported that ‘his hair was rumpled, his tie awry. The stiff and precise manner and speech which have antagonised many of us had disappeared. He even seemed to have removed the wax from his moustache.’

Johnson’s book is one of the most instructive histories of the domestic Cold War to have appeared in years…

 The rest of the Times piece is actually quite interesting, so make sure to check it out. Just wanting to correct the record a bit.

How We Do Intellectual History at the New York Times

25 Apr

You see, says Sam Tanenhaus, it’s not just that Thomas Piketty may be right, or that he’s been doing this research for years, or even that he’s tapping into widespread concerns about inequality. No, it’s that every decade, America needs an icon of ideas, who embodies in her person (rather than her arguments), the dream life of the nation. In the 1960s, it was Susan Sontag. In the 1970s, it was Christopher Lasch. In the 1980s, it was Allan Bloom. In the 1990s, it was Francis Fukuyama (who wrote his essay in 1989, but decades will be decades). In the 2000s, it was Samantha Power. Yes, Robert Putnam was a “gifted thinker,” but remember the Rule of Decades: you can only have one every ten years. And, sure, Tanenhaus says you can have two or three, but you definitely can’t have two whose last names start with P. And Power has a “flowing red mane”—like Sontag had a flowing black mane, and then a flowing black mane with a silver streak—so she was the better choice. And now there’s Piketty. And he’s French, you see, which means he’s kind of like Sontag. And he’s good-looking like Sontag and Power. And he has hair too. And on Twitter they’re debating whether he’s hot or not. Which they would have done with Sontag back in the Sixties, but there was no Twitter then. And, oh shucks, let the man speak for himself:

All of which is to say that however original Mr. Piketty’s economic argument may be, he is the newest version of a familiar, if not exactly common specimen: the overnight intellectual sensation whose stardom reflects the fashions and feelings of the moment.

And that, my friends, is how we do intellectual history—no, sorry, “cultural studies” (they really use that phrase, right above the headline, which is “Hey, Big Thinker”; where is Dwight Macdonald when you need him?)—at the New York Times.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 6,252 other followers