Olga Tokarczuk's Nobel Lecture: The Tender Narrator, Dec 2019, edited for brevity:
…I’m often troubled by the feeling that there is something missing in the world―that by experiencing it through glass screens, and through apps, somehow it becomes unreal, distant, two-dimensional, and strangely non-descript, even though finding any particular piece of information is astoundingly easy…
The flood of stupidity, cruelty, hate speech and images of violence are desperately counterbalanced by all sorts of “good news,” but it hasn’t the capacity to rein in the painful impression, which I find hard to verbalize, that there is something wrong with the world. Nowadays this feeling, once the sole preserve of neurotic poets, is like an epidemic of lack of definition, a form of anxiety oozing from all directions.
…Greed, failure to respect nature, selfishness, lack of imagination, endless rivalry and lack of responsibility have reduced the world to the status of an object that can be cut into pieces, used up and destroyed.
That is why I believe I must tell stories as if the world were a living, single entity, constantly forming before our eyes, and as if we were a small and at the same time powerful part of it.
I want to talk to you today about the level of angry noise in our current politics, because I hear from a lot of readers that this has made it increasingly unbearable to stay tuned to the news.
It’s something that not only instigated my own desire to write to counter the screeching I heard on cable news in 2009, but it’s why I’m doing these podcasts in a way that I hope makes the unpalatable bearable, digestible, and informative while also if possible uplifting and uniting those who see value in our species getting over ourselves to be a part of the solution.
The crisis in news was brought about by a number of factors, but it can be traced back to when news became profit-driven instead of a loss-leader.
Neiman Reports delved into the history:
“Twenty years ago, there was no network news “business.” The Big Three broadcast television networks—ABC, CBS and NBC—all covered news, but none generally made money doing so. Nor did they expect to turn a profit from news programming. They presented news programming for the prestige it would bring to their network, to satisfy the public-service requirements of Congress and the Federal Communications Commission, and more broadly so that they would be seen as good corporate citizens.
Back then, the networks earned enough money from entertainment programming that they could afford to run their news operations at a loss. And so they did.”
But for my work it started under President Obama, when cable news and even C-Span became unbearable with the hyena-styled screeching of mostly Republicans, with a smattering of equally indignant Democrats. But it really came to fruition when a D-list reality TV show lead threw his hat into the presidential ring. The following seven years became increasingly intolerable to my ears.
The era of the bloviating, narcissistic billionaire is heavy upon us. From social media to politics to news media, we are surrounded by raging egos for clicks. Deliberate division being stoked for power.
I’ve often struggled as an editor of PoliticusUSA with questions like: How to report what’s happening accurately without furthering division? How to report what is happening without scaring readers? Because the truth is ugly right now, and we have one side fully embracing racism, bigotry, misogyny and anti-Semitism. It’s natural to be angry in response.
But, it’s also exhausting. And eventually the brain gets fatigued from the outrage and it has to tune out, which only helps the oligarchs using that noise to further enrich themselves and empower people whose policies will help the very rich avoid any responsibility for our society via taxes and even any personal responsibility to be a role model, to contribute something of value and give back.
Those values no longer plague the wealthy. It’s now celebrated to cheer on Neo-Nazi beliefs, as we see happening on Twitter under Elon Musk and a former president having Mar-a-Lago dinners with a white supremacist and an anti-Semite.
(I’m not going to repeat the language used by them here, as I trust you know what anti-Semitic white supremacy sounds like and don’t need more of it in your life, but a link is in the show notes for evidentiary purposes.)
The triumvirate of toxicity that comprises Trump, Elon and Kanye now owns social media apps Truth Social (which Trump started after he was kicked off of Twitter and Facebook for inciting violence on January 6th, 2021 in an attempt to hold power via violence, a coup attempt), Twitter, and Parler (which Kanye West agreed to buy after other platforms suspended him over his ongoing antisemitic speech). Trump has announced his 2024 run, Kanye has hinted at a run and claimed he asked Trump to be his VP, and Musk has massive governmental contracts.
There should be laws against this. Bloomberg’s run was an early warning of this, even though his outlets maintained editorial independence. We can’t rely upon individual ethics. The Trump era demonstrated this beyond a shadow of a doubt.
It’s way past time to question the power of social media apps in service to a power-seeking agenda that involves a role in our government. Why aren’t they regulated more stridently? The answer to that is complicated. There are powerful interests in both parties who do not want to seriously entertain the idea of getting on the wrong side of Big Tech or its enormous lobbying power, even as both parties say they want to regulate Facebook, for example.
Back in October of 2021, when Frances Haugen, a former Facebook employee, presented internal documents to lawmakers demonstrating that Facebook “knew its platforms had negative health effects on children.” Tom Wheeler, the former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission during the Obama administration, suggested a new agency be set up, one that was designed to deal with the speed of information in the digital age. But nothing was done. In part, because the two parties to not agree on what the issue is.
As CNN wrote at the time, “Republicans accuse Facebook of anti-conservative bias, despite a lack of evidence, while Democrats are concerned that the company doesn’t do enough to protect against hate speech, misinformation and other problematic content.”
The irony of that is that Facebook got busted via internal documents actively working to suppress popular liberal news sites. But Democratic lawmakers did not take up that torch, while Republicans continue to claim conservatives are being persecuted, when they are actually barely being held accountable for hate speech and mis- and dis-information.
Before Musk purchased Twitter, it was a public platform. It had to follow rules. It had oversight. It had a board. Now it’s just Musk and his staggeringly incomprehensible self-aggrandizement, coupled with a hyper sensitivity about criticism that led him to ban Kathy Griffin for making fun of his bad policy ideas. He did this in the name of “free speech,” while parroting far Right talking points and actually engaging in public conversations with some of the most malignant personalities on the far Right, where they offer Musk the same worship they gave to Trump and he promises to do their bidding banning people they don’t like and unbanning people who were banned for serious violations of the terms of service.
The result of these men buying social media platforms to echo their egos and elevate themselves is that there is only so much audience share for far-Right ideology (both Trump and Ye were suspended from multiple other platforms) and there are already so many social media platforms tailored specifically to them like - including far right GETTR and white supremacist, neo-Nazi GAB, as well as Facebook having altered its moderation standards to benefit conservatives and punish liberals under Trump (policies continued today, perhaps now unintentionally, because the algorithm rewards division, anger and hate) so now all of these apps are lowering moderation standards to compete and attract the same users.
Anyone who doesn’t want to be in a cesspool of hate, spam bots and fraud will lose interest.
What have these men done to our environment? The way we see the world?
Truth Social and Parler are considered “conservative,” which is to say a place for hate speech and now Twitter is devolving into a venomous cesspool of hate, a platform on which 6 days ago I reported a user cheering the murder of gay people and Twitter has not responded. That’s the world being created by the richest man in the world. He wants to surround Twitter’s 396.5 million global users with hate and chaos.
Elon is already banning Left wing users who annoy the Right, seemingly not for violations of Terms Of Service – but for being activists against fascism. There are global activists on Twitter. The platform has previously played an important role in democracy itself, by organizing and connecting people, and telling their stories. The story of what was happening in Ukraine is a big example of this. Twitter is where journalists hang out to find stories, which then elevates struggles big and small to new audiences who otherwise might not see them.
After Kanye bought Parler, it sent out an email blast to “VIPs” without using blind CC for the email addresses. They shared emails of at least 10 lawmakers and lots of conservative “stars.” This is the kind of chaos these men bring to the world.
Chaos is obviously not good for democracy.
Conservative activists have been calling the banning of accounts pushing hate speech that resulted in violence, like Trump’s did, “censorship” because of their political views.
That’s why Trump, Elon, and Kanye claim to celebrate “free speech,” which they are using incorrectly - and also dangerously - in a way to co-opt the notion that we are allowed to critique our government under the First Amendment as being an excuse to elevate hate speech against people and groups critical of them, of their hate speech, and ultimately, of their power.
Musk frequently cites the legal limit for hate speech being his only guardrail.
What does that look like in real life? Even under this very strict interpretation, which does not restrict a private company from making civility and decency violations if he or she so chose because it is about the power of the government to limit free speech, there are accounts violating this rule that are still active. He reinstated Trump’s account, and Trump was deemed to have violated the rule enough to cause his even his champions at Facebook to ban him.
The legal limit is called the Brandenburg test. It was established by the Supreme Court in Brandenburg v. Ohio in 1969. This case ultimately came to determine when inflammatory speech intending to advocate illegal action can be restricted by the government. Obviously, private businesses that want to keep customers will often have stricter rules.
The case was brought against a KKK leader, Clarence Brandenburg, who gave a speech at a rally (see if any of this seems familiar to you) to Klan members. Brandenburg made anti-Semitic and anti-Black people comments, and announced a Klan march in Washington, D.C. during which “revengeance” (sic) might happen if the government continued to “suppress the white, Caucasian race.”
Sounds a bit like a typical Fox News segment.
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This case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which overturned the initial conviction and established the Bradenburg test, which is the idea that the government can prohibit speech advocating the use of force or crime, if the speech satisfies both elements of the two part test:
The speech is “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action,” and the speech is “likely to incite or produce such action.”
So, speech advocating illegal conduct is protected speech under the First Amendment, UNLESS it is likely to incite “imminent lawless action,” as we saw on January 6th, 2021 following Trump’s rally.
The Right is trying to suggest they were censored because they’re conservatives, but not only are they are not conservatives in the true meaning of the word, but those who were banned were banned because their comments suggest they see trolling and violence as a necessity to getting their desired political outcome.
So how can we not only survive this assault on decency, but maybe even thrive? How does democracy survive this? If you have ideas or suggestions, please feel free to leave a comment on the newsletter.
The biggest challenge to date seems to be how to we deal with hate speech in a way that doesn’t elevate it and also leaves a door open to de-radicalize the marks of the oligarchical narcissists. Yes, the victims of sociopathic behavior can also be perpetrators. So this gets complicated. We have to always be aware of first and foremost protecting marginalized communities. That is what a decent society does.
One way is to honor the research showing that when you report on a conspiracy or a lie, you need to tell the truth first. Before repeating the lie. Debunk first, insert lie, and repeat the truth. Some call this a truth sandwich.
Another way is to refuse to be drawn into dialogue that reinforces dehumanizing stereotypes of marginalized people and even of the easily manipulated marks of these billionaires. The more we separate and divide, the more we hate, the stronger the poisonous collection of these three oligarchs becomes.
Most importantly, find a way to stay engaged in what’s happening without sacrificing our mental health or peace of mind. Take breaks. The post-Trump now back to Trump era demands that we stop responding every time the narcissist speaks. Curate our incomings to what is manageable. Take time for ourselves. All of this will be here when you want to tune in. We try to stay mindful of all of this in our newsletter and on PoliticusUSA, because healthy people are harder to break.
We can’t control other people, but we can in our own small way, be a ripple of something better. Be people who can’t be used by powerful people with nefarious motives.
We opened with a Nobel speech, so I want to close with one from Toni Morrison on the Power of Language:
The world is a fabric we weave daily on the great looms of information, discussions, films, books, gossip, little anecdotes. Today the purview of these looms is enormous—thanks to the internet, almost everyone can take place in the process, taking responsibility and not, lovingly and hatefully, for better and for worse. When this story changes, so does the world. In this sense, the world is made of words.
How we think about the world and—perhaps even more importantly—how we narrate it have a massive significance, therefore. A thing that happens and is not told ceases to exist and perishes. This is a fact well known to not only historians, but also (and perhaps above all) to every stripe of politician and tyrant. He who has and weaves the story is in charge.
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Thank you for joining me today, I look forward to talking with you next time.