Looking forward to Lucifer returning. It's too much to hope that it will be like that one J2 story where SPN got moved to HBO and everything got very hot and heavy, isn't it?
Michael Pollan, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence: Psychedelics, particularly psilocybin and LSD, may hold the potential for helping lots of people with depression, addiction, or just opening their minds to the vastness of the world. The effects are real but also really powerfully shaped by expectations and surroundings—“[mind]set” and “setting.” So you can’t just send someone off with a dose and expect them to be cured of addiction. I realized that reading about others’ psychedelic experiences is much more boring to me than reading about others’ adorable children; there’s a certain sameness. But I did appreciate Pollan’s point that these experiences can make faith in a larger power superfluous, because they provide what is to the perceiver direct knowledge—when the ego dissolves and the “I” disintegrates, “it becomes impossible to distinguish between what is subjectively and objectively true. What’s left to do the doubting if not your I?”
Anand Giridharas, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World: Powerful condemnation of TED-talk activism that promises salvation for the poor without requiring the rich to do anything other than open their pocketbooks. Neoliberal reformers comfort the afflicted but don’t afflict the comforted; they tell the rich to give back, not to take less; to do more good, but not to do less harm. These failed chiasmuses have real consequences, because it turns out you can’t actually do a lot of big things without government and laws as tools in the progressive arsenal. For products, for example, this ideology means certifying good instead of regulating bad, but if you don’t regulate bad, it may stay cheaper (because it is effectively subsidized by the regulatory system) and its proponents may be better at advertising. Thought leaders may have progressive ideals but present them softly, and the listeners don’t pick up on the subtle message of critique because they don’t have reason to do so. Depressing but convincing.
Pete Buttigieg, Shortest Way Home: I sure like what Buttigieg says in interviews (as a FB friend said, I want him as press secretary). Buttigieg is a smart guy who’s checked a lot of neoliberal boxes—he was a McKinsey consultant! He’s clearly a hardworking mayor; one of the most interesting parts is his growing understanding of the symbolic importance of showing up and talking to his constituents. He walks a fine line discussing his coming out, when he was already mayor, without revealing intimate details beyond that he used dating apps. But judged by the book, he doesn’t show the thoughtfulness of Obama, the intellectual firepower and passion of Warren, or the moral focus of Harris, which keeps him from rising for me right now.
Bradley Hope & Tom Wright, Billion Dollar Whale: The Man Who Fooled Wall Street, Hollywood, and the World: An ambitious young Malaysian, Jho Low, graduated from Penn with connections to other members of the global elites now sending their children to Ivies, including a contact with access to Gulf money. After a few false starts, he managed to convince Malaysia’s prime minister to start a sovereign wealth fund, and promptly stole hundreds of millions of dollars from it. Notable bits: (1) Just how pointless and dumb the resulting spending was—millions on champagne, on gambling, on paying models to hang out at his party, on gifts to Paris Hilton and other celebrities including Leonardo DiCaprio. (2) Low helped disguise his money laundering by giving his fake entities names reminiscent of well-known financial institutions like the Saudi sovereign wealth fund. (3) The discussion at the end that assumes, without explaining, that there is no alternative for Malaysia but to pay this money back. This may well be true because of the way that the debt instruments were written, but that fact itself deserved more discussion.
Jeff Kosseff, The Twenty-Six Words That Created the Internet: A history of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects website owners from liability from stuff that their users post. (Intellectual property claims, child porn, and violations of federal criminal laws are not covered by 230.) Kosseff traces the legal background in the US that produced the perceived need for 230—courts had started to suggest that websites could be liable for user-supplied content if they enforced content policies but missed a particular bad post, but not if they didn’t check content at all, giving them an incentive to be completely hands-off. Congress wanted to encourage sites to monitor instead of having a free-for-all. 230 passed as part of an overall attempt to get porn offline, and Kosseff points out that 230 only made it in as a compromise with the porn-regulators; after the porn regulations in the CDA were struck down, only 230 remained, and it made American companies unstoppable in terms of what they were willing to experiment with, for good and ill.
Kosseff tracks the early breadth of 230 cases, protecting site operators against liability for user-supplied defamation and also blocking causes of action that tried to dodge 230 by pleading that the legal violation at issue wasn’t based on users’ content. (It usually was.) Over time, however, litigants have figured out some paths that occasionally work, based on theories such as a breach of a promise from the site operator or the operator’s involvement in developing or enhancing specifically illegal content. It’s a good overview.
I have some serious disagreements with how Kosseff approaches the recent modification of 230 to create more liability for involvement in sex trafficking—begun under Obama but signed into law by Trump. The problem was Backpage, and Kosseff highlights horrible stories of girls who were coerced and raped and whose profiles appeared on Backpage. “Viewing the reports in the most charitable light, it is clear that Backpage knew that its users were posting sex trafficking ads, yet it failed to take all possible steps to stop them.” But litigation against Backpage seemed stalled, in part because the litigants used bad theories/didn’t have the strongest evidence that came out later. Kosseff criticizes the major internet companies for testifying that these stories were bad, but that modifying 230 would “create a new wave of frivolous and unpredictable actions against legitimate companies rather than addressing underlying criminal behavior.” He says: “Such a statement might be appropriate for, say, data security legislation. But this is about children being raped and murdered.” I find this response close to immoral itself: when Trump talks about immigrants being rapists, or when homophobes do the same with bathroom bills, we do not say “you can’t trivialize rape by saying our solution is wrong!” Targeting internet services is not discriminatory, but it’s also not a good idea, and I think we should get to point that out.
Indeed, Kosseff himself says “[e]ven if public sites such as Backpage were shut down, I have no doubt that the pimps would continue to shift to the darker corners of the web.” But he’s still “appalled by the technology companies’ general approach to the issue” because they didn’t “provide viable alternative solutions that would allow states to prosecute and victims to sue the websites that knew about, encouraged, or even participated in the sale of children for sex.” This is so even though he believed that Backpage’s specific actions deprived it of 230 immunity because it participated in the development of trafficking posts specifically; he just thought “we can’t wait for the courts to get it right.”
But… he doesn’t like the law that was ultimately adopted, because it’s overbroad and threatens services with liability even if they didn’t specifically know about particular instances of trafficking. Which is exactly what the services were saying. Worse, as he points out, the law had no impact on Backpage itself, because it was promptly shut down for violating federal criminal law based on pre-amendment law. The change was thus unnecessary to get Backpage, but it did succeed in shutting down Craigslist personals and making it incredibly risky to operate any service for voluntary sex workers. There’s not a word in the book about sex workers’ concerns about losing the ability to screen clients and avoid unsafe situations on the street if online venues shuttered—even though those predictions do seem to have come true.
So by Kosseff’s own account, (1) changing 230 wasn’t necessary, (2) changing 230 won’t work against dedicated traffickers, and (3) the change “is ambiguous and overbroad and leaves well-intentioned platforms with the choice of censoring legitimate speech or risking lawsuits and criminal prosecution,” but it’s still (4) it’s services’ own fault because they didn’t take victims seriously enough. As we’ve seen with other disputes over content regulation online, if you’re not perfect, you can’t escape criticism, and at internet scale it’s impossible to be perfect. American free speech exceptionalism is not always a good thing, but it often looks a lot better than the alternatives, especially with a litigation culture that leads us to sue more—and ask for and get bigger damage awards than are available in other countries, which is an underappreciated part of the stakes in the US—than people do in other countries.
Jared Diamond, Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis: Starting with an analogy to individual crisis, Diamond argues that 12 factors determine how a nation responds to a crisis (mostly successfully; even the authoritarian coups he covers have their good sides, he thinks, especially since it’s unknowable whether you could’ve gotten the good—market-based economic reforms—without the bad, which does not seem like a reason to read history). The book did not cohere very well, but if you want capsule histories of big events in Chile, Japan, Indonesia, Finland, Germany, and Australia, and an overview of global warming and other challenges facing the US/the world, then I guess you could read this.
Larrie D. Ferreiro, Brothers at Arms: American Independence and the Men of France and Spain Who Saved It: The American Revolution as battlefront in a global war of France and Spain against Britain. The Declaration of Independence, in this view, was directed not at the Crown nor at Americans but at foreign nations who might agree to help but only if they weren’t just helping the colonies get a better deal within the colonial system, which would preserve and even strengthen British power. Lots of intrigue and lots of extended supply/communication lines leading to trouble.
David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory: A history of just how fast white Americans decided that they’d fixed slavery and that everybody on the battlefield was noble. I was amazed all over again by how fast even high Confederate officials began insisting that they hadn’t seceded over slavery, but over mumble mumble federal overreach—it took only a few years, though it was deliberately cultivated and alternative accounts erased in organized fashion by Southern history leagues, often led by white women. African-Americans and some allies held out for a different view, but the Southern white insistence a mere twenty years later that they’d actually won the peace has a depressing truth absent from the rest of the white supremacist story. Also, white southerners insisted that they hadn’t really lost the war as a matter of soldiering; they’d just been overwhelmed by Northern resources. Nice to get to redefine what it means to lose, I guess.