The Dream Café

Steven Brust: “A masterful storyteller of contagious glee and self-deprecating badassery” —Skyler White

13 July 2018
by skzb

Free Speech, Censorship, Hate Speech, Twitter

I’ve been seeing more and more calls for twitter to ban hate speech. Hate speech is an ill-defined term, but I think in this case it includes racial slurs, sexual slurs, and in general remarks intended to silence someone, or make someone afraid, and to inspire those backward elements that thrive on the sort of ignorance expressed by racist, sexist, transphobic, or homophobic comments.

Asking twitter to ban users who say such things is a result, in my opinion, of a failure to think things through. It is the result of observing the harm these kinds of comments can do, and stopping there. I do not believe it is that simple.

I saw someone make the analogy that this was like being at Mark’s house and using language that offends Mark. Mark certainly has the right (moral right; I’m not discussing legal rights) to ask you not to use that language, and ask you to leave if you persist. The analogy, however, falls apart if Mark has bought up half the houses in town and wants to lay down the law in each of them.

We’re talking about twitter. We’re talking about a multi-billion dollar corporation (15.7 billion according to Forbes) that has tremendous power over information. Facebook and Google—the other two giants in terms of controlling a lot of the information most of us receive—have already demonstrated a willingness to censor left-wing and anti-war sites. And now you are attempting to put pressure on Twitter to assert more control over what we can and cannot say, over what we can and cannot hear. You do not see this as a problem? It is not, in my opinion, a possibility that, were this to happen, many left wing groups and people be accused of “hate speech” and shut down—it is a virtual certainty.

“You are not obligated to provide a platform to anyone who feels like talking,” I hear.  That is a very seductive argument, but it fails to hold up.  We’re not talking about my blog, or your Facebook page, or that person’s twitter feed.  Quantity, as it does, has transformed into quality.  Twitter is a fundamentally different thing than my blog.  It has hundreds of millions of users and incalculable influence. We’re talking about what is, in effect,  a public utility (and one that, in my opinion, should be in fact a public utility, but that’s a subject for another time).

Here’s the thing: every defense, every analogy I’ve seen to justify asking twitter to shut down hate speech, has come down, in the last analysis, to a defense of property rights.  And yet, the most casual observation ought to tell you that we are now locked in a battle between property rights and human rights.  If you must resort to a defense of property rights to bolster your argument, I beg to submit that you should either take another look at what you’re defending, or stop calling yourself a progressive.

The answer to hate speech is to strike at its roots: inequality and its bastard offspring, ignorance. This fight requires organizing—organizing in mass ways. In Boston, they did not have the city—ie, the police, the repressive arm of the capitalist state—shut down the Nazis, the people there, to their everlasting credit, did it themselves. Much of the organizing work in the moment happened on twitter. By demanding twitter act against hate speech, you are asking twitter to take a greater role in deciding what content is permitted; can you really believe that will not be turned against us? Against the next effort to organize against Nazis? Can you doubt that the state, and, yes, the Nazis, will ultimately benefit from that?

Free Speech (by which I mean the moral right, of which the First Amendment is a limited reflection) is neither some supra-historical principle that must be worshiped as sacred and placed above any other aspect of struggle, nor is it that set of nice silverware that we take out when certain guests are over and leave in a drawer the rest of the time. It is the product of long struggle by the oppressed to create a tool that will permit a platform for organizing.

Are there occasions for the suppression of speech? In my opinion, yes. But the question is less, “what speech is being suppressed” than “who is doing the suppression?” If it is the masses of the people, shutting down efforts by white supremacists, Nazis, and other filth to organize, then yes. Drown them out, shut them down! If they want to try the same thing with us, let them; we do not fear a test of strength, because the masses of the oppressed are on our side—or will be, if we do our job, and are able to communicate with them.

But if you are asking a multi-billion dollar corporation that already has immense control over communication to assert more control over content, you are, in my opinion, working against the interests of those you are hoping to protect.

2 July 2018
by skzb

Criticizing Capitalism: A Thought Experiment

You know, I was just thinking about this thing people do, where you point out something terrible that capitalism does, and they say, “Communism wouldn’t be any better!” Let’s look at that for a minute. Let’s ignore the fact that, sometimes, it doesn’t even make sense in context, and let’s also ignore the fact that it almost always indicates someone whose study of political philosophy hasn’t advanced since high school social studies. Let us, as a thought experiment, pretend that this is literally true.
Okay, now what? Do we stop criticizing capitalism? Do we lie about it and say that it is perfect in all details? Anyone with a shred of decency will realize that even if—especially if—convinced that capitalism is the ultimate answer to how to produce and distribute human wants,  insofar as there are problems, we should try to understand them, in order to, at least, attempt to alleviate them.  Isn’t that, after all, the essence of reformism?  “This will be here forever, so let’s make it as good as we can.”
But this requires study. This requires an understanding of the mechanisms of wage-labor, the generation of surplus value, capital investment, market forces, competition, efficiency of scale, &c &c.  And if, in the course of this study, we were to come across something that is inherent in the very nature of capitalism, or is a natural result of the inevitable domination of finance capital over industrial capital, or the inextricable ties between capital and the state, or of the nation-state system that is so closely tied to commodity production, we ought to point it out. How else can those who see capitalism as permanent hope to improve it?
This, however, we never get from these people. When you make the observation that financial catastrophes, that destroy countless lives, happen with appalling regularity, you do not get anyone saying, “No, that doesn’t happen!” which I admit would be a hard case to make. And you don’t get anyone saying, “That’s because they’ve been doing it wrong for the last five hundred years, but I know how to fix it.” You also don’t get anyone saying, “Yes, that is true, and it is inherent in capitalism, so we should figure out how to alleviate the harm as much as possible.”
No, what you get is, “Communism would have the same problem!”  It is the political equivalent of the schoolboy’s cry, “And you’re another!” and does just as much to advance human knowledge.
Exactly what this says about the defenders of capitalism I will leave as an exercise for the reader.

28 June 2018
by skzb

Bad People or Bad System?

It’s been forever since I’ve posted here.  Sorry, fighting off personal crap.  Anyway, I found myself making a long-ish comment on facebook, and I think I got it more or less right (enough qualifiers there?), so I’m going to copy it to here.  The issue was the claim by another commenter, and I hope I’m summarizing him correctly, that capitalists mistreat workers because they’re morally corrupt, whereas in my opinion the problem is systemic, not personal.  If I’m correct, it brings up the question: why, exactly, must a corporation treat its workers as poorly as possible while still keeping them coming back the next day?  If it isn’t greed, and I contend greed is more of an effect than a cause, then why is it?  Here’s what I said:

I’m going to take on your assertion that capitalists have a choice about how to treat workers, because it’s important. Please bear with me as I try to work through this.

The issue is competition. Not in the simple, straightforward sense (lower wages = lower prices = underselling the competition) because, in fact, the connection between wages and prices doesn’t work like that.

It’s a bit more complex. Lower wages (and the equivalent in reduction of benefits &c) put more money into the pocket of the capitalist. Some of this goes into supporting his life style, but for most of these people, that’s pretty well set. Instead, the extra money becomes capital, much of which, in practice, goes into the financial markets of pure speculation, some of which becomes investments in other companies, often competitors (the degree to which the major capitalists have their hands in each others’ pockets is mind-boggling), and some of which goes back into the business.

It can go into the business in various ways: a greater sales force, more investment in advertising and marketing, even research or new manufacturies. Maybe even a temporary massive “loss leader” (which looks like lowering prices, but the temporary nature makes it a different animal). In any case, all of these translate to the same thing: the fight for market share.

The fight for market share is brutal, constant, vicious, and, in the end, a fight for survival. A two percent loss of market share can send the board of directors into a panic. And, by their standards, it should: market share represents your power, your security, and your freedom to maneuver and take chances.

In short, a major corporation ( smaller companies, niche companies, or those like entertainment in which market share is less dependent on financial might can and sometimes do treat their workers well) that puts a significantly greater percentage of its working capital into labor than its competitors, is putting itself into a very dangerous position.  Thus, the constant drive to put less into things like health care, a comfortable environment, safety precautions, and, of course, wages.

This is one half of the class struggle. The other half, obviously, is the desire of the labor force to have as much as possible of those things. But the point is, that is why I disagree with your position that capitalists are free to treat workers as well as they want. And if you’ve stayed with me for all of this, whether you agree or not, you have my thanks.

3 April 2018
by skzb

A Reading For You

Skyler White and I recently finished a book called The Sword of Happenstance, which, we hope, someone will want to buy.  Just for fun, we then took a chunk of it and turned it into a short story, and then, for even more fun, we turned the short story into a performance piece.  So for those interested, the reading can be found here.

(Also, thanks to Chris Olson who sort of started this project, and Jeff Printy for doing the audio-video work.)