Associate Professor of English, University of Michigan-Flint. I research and teach rhetoric, technology, and writing.
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A Modest Defense of Political Talk at the Thanksgiving Table

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Earlier this week, I listened to a radio segment that took as its point of departure a recent poll claiming that Americans are more anxious than usual about conversations around the Thanksgiving dinner table. Yesterday, a similar news story was trending on Facebook. Naturally, this anxiety is closely linked to the possibility of heated political debates emerging as relatives from across the political spectrum are forced by convention to gather near one another and possibly even talk to one another. While such anxiety is nothing new, its intensity surely owes something to the increasingly polarized and toxic political climate.

A few thoughts followed for me. First, I thought of the Friendsgiving trend, popular among younger adults. If Thanksgiving dinners revolve around relationships we did not choose, Friendsgiving meals center on relationships of affinity. We can’t choose our family, but we can and do choose our friends.

I then thought about how this seems to reflect a larger trend that extends beyond Thanksgiving: we are increasingly able to arrange our lives around relationships of affinity and escape relationships of necessity or obligation. I am, of course, thinking of relationships outside of the realm of work, wherein many know only relationships of necessity or obligation.

The Internet has played no small role in this. Whatever your niche, you’re likely to find an Internet community with which to connect. However obscure your interests, with a few clicks you’ll find others who share it. This is a fine development in many respects, and I suspect that a great deal of loneliness has been assuaged as a result. But there is a darker side to this as well. Not too long ago, for example, Facebook ran a series of commercials explicitly selling their app as a means of escaping, mentally and emotionally if not physically, from dinners with family members that drone on about matters we care little to nothing about.

Yet, we do not share our world, our country, our cities, or most of our public institutions only with those for whom we have some affinity. How and where, then, do we learn to relate with those we would not choose as our friends but with whom we must nonetheless share the world?

Perhaps there is no better place than a table. “To live together in the world,” Hannah Arendt observed in The Human Condition, “means essentially that a world of things is between those that have it in common, as a table is located between those who sit around it.” The table, she adds, “relates and separates men at the same time.”

The image is instructive. As we gather around a table, we constitute something like a micro-community. We are brought together but retain our separate identities. Perhaps today, around the Thanksgiving Day table, our micro-community will more perfectly reflect the lager, more fractious and contentious community we inhabit as citizens.

Under such circumstances, we ordinarily remember the counsel to avoid talk of religion and politics. Ordinarily, I would think this sound advice. There is something to be said for keeping the peace and for preserving spaces and times untouched by the turmoil of the political, for relating to another person without reducing them to their political opinions.

But today I am wondering if this is not one of the few opportunities we have left to us to practice the art of civil discourse. Social media has become, almost certainly for the worse, our default public sphere, and social media is an awful school of civil discourse: its structures actively undermine the possibility. The table, on the other hand, may be a more humane school, although it becomes so only by putting a great deal at risk.

Maybe the risk is too great. Maybe we do well to preserve the peace at the family table. I don’t know. It is the sort of thing we must each judge for ourselves, guided by wisdom and love. I do know, however, that there is another risk we are running: the risk of never learning how to relate well with those who do not share our own preferences and proclivities, especially on matters of grave and enduring importance.

Relating well with such individuals does not mean, in my view, that we will necessarily come to a point of agreement. It does mean that we never lose sight of our common humanity and that, as far as it is possible, we gain a deeper understanding of one another. It means as well that we learn the art of listening and the art of speaking so as to be heard, remembering that “it’s a curse to speak without some regard for the one I’m talking to.” It means finding grounds for hope rather than despair.

May each of your tables, however the conversation turns, be filled with joy and gratitude. For my part, I’m grateful that my affinities do not structure all of my relationships; I think I’d be poorer for it.




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betajames
4 hours ago
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Agreement on certain issues across party lines is growing

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A "Democracy in America" dispatch by The Economist looks at the bright side of an otherwise bleak Pew Research Center study, and finds that "on some issues, and across party lines, agreement is growing."

Why it matters , from The Economist: "It seems that many dinner tables divided by party politics will still be united by the idea that there is much to give thanks for—even if everyone agrees that America has a lot to worry about."


The issues:

  • " Only 3% of Democrats and 8% of Republicans believe that increasing number of people from different races, ethnic groups and nationalities in America makes the country a worse place to live."
  • "The proportion of Republican supporters who see immigrants as a burden on the country has fallen from 64% in 1994 to 44% today."
  • Another Pew report found that "86% of Republicans believe they are on the way to achieving the 'American Dream' or have achieved it, along with 80% of Democrats."
  • Pew: "Only about one-in-five (17%) say the American dream is 'out of reach' for their family."
  • According to Gallup , " the proportion of Americans who reported they were satisfied with the way their life was going reached 87%, up from 78% in 2011 and only one percentage point below the highest number reported since the poll question was first asked by Gallup in 1979."

A sign of our times: "The percentage of Republicans who think homosexuality should be accepted, at 54%, now matches the percentage of Democrats who favored tolerance in 1994," 23 years ago.



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betajames
5 hours ago
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Every Argument Against Commonsense Gun Control Broken Down to Its Idiotic Nonsense

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Baby-killing is bad.

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betajames
20 hours ago
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Network Neutrality Can't Fix the Internet

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In a new video advocating for network neutrality—a name for regulating internet providers like public utilities—the American Civil Liberties Union declares that “giant internet companies shouldn’t have the power to mess with what we read, watch, and explore online.” The ACLU is referring to broadband and wireless carriers like Comcast and AT&T, who would have the power to throttle, charge for, or even block access to services, websites, or other online resources if the Obama-era rules are rolled back.

Yesterday, Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai announced the agency’s plans to do precisely that. The plan will likely pass along party lines at the next FCC meeting December 14.

It makes sense to construe broadband and wireless providers as common carriers, like telephone companies and utilities. And a majority of Americans, no matter their affiliation, support regulating internet providers in this manner. But advocates must also acknowledge that the internet is hardly a healthy environment for competition, consumer protection, and equity of use even with net-neutrality guidelines in place.

* * *

There’s reason to believe that internet providers will abuse their power absent net-neutrality oversight: They have a history of doing so.

In 2007, Comcast throttled traffic to BitTorrent, a popular peer-to-peer service used (both legally and illegally) to distribute entertainment content in competition with Comcast’s cable business. The FCC ruled the practice illegal in 2008, but its complaint against Comcast was ultimately dismissed due to a lack of regulatory authority to intervene in such cases. In 2012, AT&T blocked FaceTime, Apple’s video-chat service, because it competed with AT&T’s telephony offerings. The company reversed course after the threat of an FCC complaint on net-neutrality grounds. In 2014, Netflix filed an extensive opposition to the Comcast–Time Warner Cable merger, revealing that it had paid for direct access to Comcast broadband customers in consideration for delivery of its bandwidth-intensive streaming service. And in 2016, the FCC flagged AT&T for excluding DirecTV—a unit AT&T owns—from its customers’ data allocation.

To prevent such blocking, throttling, and pay for play in internet content delivery, the FCC published the Open Internet Report and Order in 2015, declaring internet service providers common carriers under Title II of the Communications Act. It is these protections that Ajit Pai—who previously worked for Verizon, a company that could benefit from the change—hopes to withdraw.

Co-opting language common to net-neutrality proponents, Pai claims that reversing net neutrality will “restore internet freedom.” Republican commissioner Brendan Carr adds that the plan will remedy “the Obama-era FCC’s regulatory overreach.” But Democratic commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel called the plan “ridiculous and offensive.”

If the commission gives the new rules a nod next month, consumer groups will likely challenge them in court. But if the policy takes effect, broadband and wireless providers could resume blocking or throttling content, and they could establish “fast lanes” for content providers who pay fees for special access to online consumers. In theory, internet providers could also slice up internet service into paid tiers, charging consumers more for popular services. Even so, under the FCC’s proposed rules, the carriers must disclose any restrictions or preferential payments.

* * *

Net-neutrality proponents often call the regulated internet “free and open,” ideals that trace back to the libertarian origins of personal computing and cyberculture. Under this precept, computing and the internet are meant for everyone, and anyone should be able to use them to take a swing at personal or professional success. It’s because of this supposed freedom and openness that successful companies like Google and Facebook were viable in the first place—access to customers absent gatekeepers. Indeed, net-neutrality proponents often cite start-ups as a first or primary justification for the policy. Netflix can afford to pay off Comcast at any price. But what about “the next Netflix?”

This story made some sense in 2005, when the FCC first offered positive policy guidance on net neutrality. The dot-com crash was a recent memory, Google had just gone public, and News Corp had just acquired the big social-network company of the time—Myspace. It made some sense in 2008, too, when the FCC pursued Comcast over BitTorrent, and in 2012 when AT&T blocked FaceTime. It even made some sense in 2015, when common carriage for ISPs was formally established. Net neutrality’s popularity has always relied on the public’s satisfaction with life online, and the business practices that facilitated it. Otherwise, there would be no reason to protect it from supposed destruction.

Until recently, that satisfaction was almost universal. Companies like Google and Facebook enjoyed widespread public trust and support. They often appeared to share the same “free and open” values that net-neutrality proponents celebrate. By contrast, everyone loves to hate telcos like AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon, old-economy oligopolies with terrible customer service that charge high prices for mediocre services.

But that’s changed over the last year, as security breaches, privacy violations, election meddling, wealth inequality, and a host of other concerns have sullied the tech sector’s reputation. The examples are so numerous it’s impossible to list them anymore. Here’s an ironic example: Hundreds of thousands of stolen and fraudulent identities reportedly corrupted the FCC’s own net-neutrality comment process. Or consider two cases that came to light just yesterday, the same day Pai announced the FCC’s plans to gut net neutrality: Android devices apparently have been sending their users’ locations back to Google, even with location services disabled; and Uber reportedly paid hackers $100,000 to cover up a personal-data breach of 57 million of its customers. A public darling during the Obama years, when net neutrality won out, the tech industry has effectively become Big Tech, an aggressor industry along the lines of pharmaceuticals, oil, or tobacco.

* * *

It’s true that one set of giant internet companies, like Comcast and Verizon, can’t currently mess with what people read, watch, and explore online. But another faction of giant internet companies can and do exert that power and control. Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and others manage access to most of the content created and delivered via broadband and wireless networks. Google appears to handle over 63 percent of searches, and it is projected to control 80 percent of the search ad market by 2019. Facebook exerts enormous control over access to news online, and its unmanaged ad network appears to have torn democracy asunder.

Net-neutrality telecommunications policy might benefit the public by providing impartial access to online services. But even so, Big Tech’s stranglehold on those services puts the lie to the underlying freedom and openness those services ultimately offer. When it comes to ISPs, a more effective solution would involve local-loop unbundling—requiring telcos to lease last-mile connections to competitors. Even if that worked and a thousand broadband providers bloomed, the internet would still operate in fundamentally the same way. All the internet Davids might not have to pay for placement with the telco giants, but they must do so to the tech Goliaths.

Local retailers have to manage their searchability on Google, or pay for ads to compete with big companies like Amazon. Restaurants must make sure they’re listed on Google Maps and Yelp and OpenTable. Creating a mobile app requires payment of registration fees for listing products on the Google or Apple app stores, and a substantial commission on every sale or subscription. AT&T shouldn’t block FaceTime, but Apple has also disallowed the publication of apps that compete with its services. And as for the “next Netflix,” so much capital is now required to acquire customers for a successful start-up, the very idea of a bootstrapped one might romanticize an ecosystem long gone. It’s absurd to think individual people or small businesses could bend Google or Facebook or the like to their will.

That’s just old-fashioned capitalist competition, of course, not a violation of common carriage under the FCC’s purview. But the Commission’s desire to shift responsibility for internet-provider regulation to the FTC suggests an overdue need to bolster net neutrality with other regulatory oversight—including antitrust, an area the last administration ignored while Obama killed it on social media.

Removing ISPs’ common-carriage designation would open the door to antitrust regulation of telcos by the Federal Trade Commission. That’s where Pai thinks anticompetitiveness should be adjudicated, which is cold comfort for internet advocates.

So is Trump’s chaotic interest in antitrust. Over the last year, the White House has suggested that Amazon in particular should be investigated for antitrust violations. Admittedly, Trump’s distaste for the company might be motivated by personal rather than policy interests—Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos also owns The Washington Post, which has published reporting critical of the administration.

In another move that seems contrary to the FCC’s support of telcos via a net-neutrality rollback, on Monday the Justice Department sued to block a merger of AT&T and Time Warner, a deal that the DOJ claims would unfairly benefit DirecTV. In this case, too, some have speculated that the administration really hopes to punish Time Warner–owned CNN, a network Trump famously despises. The Obama administration might have given tech too much freedom, but Trump’s disorganized maelstrom hardly counts as policy, either.

* * *

Network neutrality would probably only aid in remedying the tech sector’s ills. It could clear the way for new companies with different commitments to security, privacy, advertising, and social responsibility, for example.

But even if that’s the case, the turning of the tides in tech reveals how imbalanced power online has become, even after several years of legitimate common-carriage protection. During that time, tech’s worst habits have only worsened, and its oligopolistic power has only increased. All those hypothetical “next Netflixes” only hope to be acquired by Netflix, or Google, or Facebook anyway.

It’s hard to square this reality with the simplistic righteousness of net-neutrality supporters. “URGENT,” reads a social-share preview image for one advocacy website, “If you’re not freaking out about net neutrality right now, you’re not paying attention.” Some proponents even compare the twilight of common carriage to the state-sponsored censorship of the internet in China or North Korea. Yes, internet service providers should be regulated as common carriers. But though necessary, that solution isn’t sufficient.

It never has been. Way back in 2014, even before common carriage for ISPs was realized, I floated the same argument here at The Atlantic: “Common carriage is sensical and reasonable,” I wrote. “But there’s also something profoundly terrible about the status quo.” But then as now, even despite the revelation of endless calamity at the hands of the industry that has benefitted from a supposedly free and open internet, questioning the legitimacy and justice of that freedom and openness is still considered obscene.

If the internet is to remain a public utility, it must also become a public utility worth using, and one that doesn’t dismantle the society that would use it through neglect and deceit and malice. It’s time to stop treating the internet as a flawless treasure whose honor must be protected from desecration. It hasn’t been such for a long time, if indeed it ever was.

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betajames
21 hours ago
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It’s “Detroit water” for 30 years: Flint city council approves GLWA contract 5-4

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By Meghan Christian

After a week of marathon-like meetings, the Flint City Council approved Resolution 170354.3, a 30-year contract with the Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA), with a close vote of five to four on Tuesday, Nov. 21.

Those in favor were Eric Mays (First Ward), Maurice Davis (Second Ward), Santino Guerra (Third Ward), Jerri Winfrey-Carter (Fifth Ward), and Herbert Winfrey (Sixth Ward).

Those opposed were Kate Fields (Fourth Ward), Monica Galloway (Seventh Ward), L. Allan Griggs (Eighth Ward), and Eva Worthing (Ninth Ward).

To some residents among the audience of about 60,  the deal with GLWA comes with too many costs and not enough benefits for the people of Flint.

Paul Jordan, 68, said, “First of all, this is a great deal, it’s a wonderful contract. It’s a wonderful contract for Great Lakes Water Authority and it’s a great contract for the State. And it’s a lousy contract for us.”

Council members Jerri Winfrey-Carter, Monica Galloway, L. Allan Griggs, and Eva Worthing listen during public comment (Photo by Jan Worth-Nelson).

Other residents said they do not mind the idea of getting water from GLWA, but they do mind that under this deal, their conclusion is the City loses its ability to be independent and that the contract is for such an extended period of time.

Laura Sullivan, of Flint, an engineering professor at Kettering University and a board member of the Karegnondi Pipeline Authority,  reminded the council that the people of Flint look to the council to protect their best interests. “The people of Flint only have you,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan went on to add that she did not have an issue with getting water from Detroit, but her issues were with the specifics of the contract with GLWA, stating that she believes GLWA does not have the best interests of the residents at heart.

“Who loses? The people who can’t afford water,” Sullivan stated, referring to an aspect of the contract that could mean a four percent per year water rate rise.  

Considering their vote on the GLWA contract as residents speak are (from left) Eric Mays, Maurice Davis, Santino Guerra and Kate Fields (photo by Jan Worth-Nelson).

Several city council members assured residents that while their choice was not easy, they believed they were making the best choice for Flint and its residents.

In voting for the contract, Fifth Ward Councilperson Winfrey-Carter said, “I am going to make the best decision tonight that I think will take care of both my constituents and my city government.”  

Third Ward Councilman Guerra shared this sentiment and later urged the rest of the council to make a vote based on their values. He too chose to vote “yes.”

“Today, I encourage all of my colleagues to vote with what you personally believe is right. We hear a lot of things from activists, other politicians, family members, outside sources that always tell you to vote one way or the other… But I will tell you, today when I go home I will be proud of this decision I made,” Guerra said.

He then added that if residents were displeased with the vote, they should continue to voice their concerns.

“If you are unhappy with the individuals that are your representatives, you should let them know, but… be willing to work with them… If this is still bugging you come election time, run against them. You have a voice, you have the opportunity to get involved,” Guerra said.

Roomful of “No’s” on the GLWA contract did not sway enough Flint council members to vote against it Tuesday night. Present here are Seventh Ward residents Sally Kagerer, Sherry Hayden, Mike Keeler, and Heidi Phaneuf. (Photo by Jan Worth-Nelson)

Sherry Hayden, a resident of the Seventh Ward and vice-president of the College Cultural Neighborhood Association,  began her commentary by stating, “GLWA stinks…”

Alleging that state officials, in particular the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, were pressuring the council to vote yes, Hayden declared, “They throw crumbs at you expecting you to take the bait.  You know the amended agreement is a shame.  It’s unenforceable.”

She continued, “The governor will be giddy that he can move on and forget Flint.  GLWA makes out like a fat rat for 30 years…We don’t have a democracy here, so quit pretending we do.”

Present in the front row throughout the public comments and the vote, Mayor Karen Weaver, who recently overcame a recall action against her and had supported the GLWA contract since the recommendation was formulated last spring, stood just before the vote to offer her thoughts.

“I want the state out of here,”  she said, referring to the fact that the council’s delays had led the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to sue city council, essentially forcing a decision that had been in mediation in the courtroom of U.S. District Court Judge David Lawson.  The council, just days after an election that installed five new council members,  had gone to Detroit last Friday for a mediation session with the judge and MDEQ officials.

In part of that wrangling, state officials had suggested that further delays by the council to decide could lead to the state placing the city into receivership, which could mean another emergency financial manager — a much detested possibility to the council, the mayor and many Flint activists who have protested what they regard as a violation of home rule and democracy during the tenure of four emergency managers in the city since 2011.  Two of the city’s EM’s, Darnell Earley and Jerry Ambrose, have been indicted by the state attorney general for their alleged role in the water crisis.

“It is time to prove that we can make our own decisions and we can govern ourselves,”  Weaver declared.  While the emergency managers have been gone from Flint since 2015, many actions by the city council still are subject to a body called the Receivership Transition Advisory Board (RTAB),  a panel selected by the governor to oversee municipal financial matters for the state after the last EM left in 2015.

The GLWA vote comes as one of the culminating events of almost four years of the water crisis.  As detailed in a December East Village Magazine overview here, the City Council had voted to go with the Karegnondi Pipeline, an alternate route to Lake Huron water under construction in 2013, under then Emergency Manager Michael Brown.  Ostensibly to save water in the interim, the city, then under Emergency Manager Darnell Earley, switched away from Detroit water to the Flint River in April, 2014.

Soon after, residents began complaining about brown water and a multitude of physical symptoms.  Water officials failed to use anti-corrosive chemicals for the river water, which is more corrosive than Lake Huron water, causing lead to leach out of the city’s aging pipes and causing the blood lead levels of thousands in the city to climb into toxicity.  The failure to add anti-corrosives, an EPA-required precaution which many have said would have cost less than $200 a day, has been described as the single most direct cause for the lead–in-the-water debacle.”  The city went back on Detroit water in October, 2015 and in 2016, Earley was indicted for his role in the crisis.

Ironically,the now-completed Karegnondi Pipeline was celebrated in a ceremony in Columbiaville on the same day as the council vote. Its raw, untreated water will serve as a backup for the GLWA water source.  An emergency backup water source is required by the EPA.

Seventh Ward Councilperson Galloway, an outspoken opponent of the 30-year contract,  aimed to end on a hopeful note for the City of Flint. “We still are on a long road, and I believe we have a great council and I am looking forward to working with everybody… Now, you can really move forward and see what recovery looks like, so I am excited about that,” Galloway said.

EVM Managing Editor Meghan Christian can be reached at meghan.christian22@gmail.com.  EVM editor Jan Worth-Nelson contributed to this report.

 

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betajames
22 hours ago
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We still don’t know how Google News works

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There is no specific criteria and no full list of publications.
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betajames
1 day ago
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