Sunday, March 25, 2012

Seizing power in Mali and Russia

Control is no longer as simple as pointing a gun at an uncooperative journalist. Power itself has changed phase and become fluid, leaking around the sites where force is applied:  you can no more take over a country by occupying a handful of buildings than you can compress water by squeezing it with your hands. Recent events in two entirely separate countries beautifully illustrate this point.

Last week, a faction of the army in Mali overthrew one of the oldest democratic governments in West Africa a month before their scheduled elections. Around the same time, Russia's private NTV broadcast a takedown of recent demonstrations in Moscow called "Anatomy of a Protest," for which they've come under widespread criticism.

In Mali, the military coup has for the last week or so been something of a lazy affair: outside of the presidential palace and state TV station, it's not clear that the army controls anything of substance - though the President hasn't been seen since the uprising began and it's not clear who else is in charge. But what has struck me in reading reports out of Mali this week has been the tone - it's no longer simply assumed that taking power in a country is as simple as taking over the presidential headquarters and state broadcaster.

It almost seems as though the coup plotters didn't really have a plan beyond "send a couple guys to the TV station and a couple guys to the palace, put out a press release, and … profit?" The Underpants Gnomes theory of military revolution, perhaps.

What's interesting to me is that this probably would have worked a few years ago. It's not like the army in a West African country has never taken power before, so the playbook may be dusty but it's certainly seen some use. What changed?

Well, probably the same thing that changed in Russia. The demonstrations leading up to Vladimir Putin's re-coronating re-election appeared to have been a bit of a surprise (although Putin is far too sophisticated to have been caught off guard, and the deftness with which the Kremlin has handled the last several weeks is notable). The Russians have a playbook, too, however, and so a week ago, the private national television station NTV (whose director hilariously doesn't even attempt to conceal his collaboration with top officials: "we have very tight personal relations with the power holders, with the president and prime minister, because we have known each other for years") put out a hit job on the protest movement. An ominous voiceover introduced shady surveillance video and accusations of treachery and Western influence.

The tactic was predictable, and in another context, so was the response. But this is a Russia still run from Red Square, and the general hostility NTV engendered, from Twitter hashtags to prominent pro-democracy scolds severing their ties to the station, to threats of resignations and angry talk-radio callers, feels like a new development.

Of course, sardonic comments on Twitter and irate calls to talk radio hardly herald the imminent downfall of one of the craftiest world leaders in power today. The Kremlin has probably decided that allowing people to vent their frustrations publicly, for the moment, is a handy escape valve to prevent the buildup of more dangerous pro-democracy resentments. And even NTV is claiming that, for all the bluster from the commentariat and even their own employees, nobody has resigned since the program aired.

Which is why the Mali example is so interesting: there, too, the levers of power are being manipulated by familiar forces, while commentators bemoan the lack of democratic legitimacy; and yet, the bemoaners seem at least as significant as the lever-operators. Just because the latter group is nominally in charge today certainly doesn't mean they will be tomorrow.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Do the Right Thing, Jon Gruber

It's easy enough to blame Mike Daisey for making stuff up, and you're heroically up to the task in your most recent post, among many others. But now would be a perfect time for you to also listen to the parts of the last This American Life episode that directly, legitimately criticized Apple: if Apple actually cared enough to end these abuses, they could, immediately. They play hardball with suppliers, give them razor-thin margins to profit off of, and then are shocked, shocked! that there are labor problems in Casablanca.

Come on. This is the wealthiest corporation in the world; conditions in their plants are awful (if not at Daisey levels of awfulness, or even if not as bad as practically any other factory in China); they could improve those conditions easily and immediately; and all that it would require is paying out slightly smaller dividends to relatively wealthy shareholders.

You have a reputation as being an Apple water-carrier. You seem to think that's not accurate or fair. Giving Apple legit criticism right now, rather than piling on Daisey, would be a great way to prove your independence. Let's see if you do it.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Prediction and suggestion

Prediction: That This American Life will ultimately come out of this Mike Daisey fiasco looking better for having so seriously addressed a problem most media organizations sweep under the rug.

Suggestion: Embracing the same logic that the public wants to support organizations that do the adult thing when confronted with a mistake, President Obama should take direct responsibility for high gas prices in 2012 - even though the responsibility isn't really (or even practically at all) his. By declaring that he's big enough and mature enough to accept responsibility for a bad thing, he'll look so vastly different, better, more elevated than whomever his GOP opponent will be - and especially in comparison to the spineless Mitt Romney. Congress is historically unpopular because of partisanship - this isn't just some Brooksian-centrist fantasy voter we're talking about, but one who, like most adults, thinks the worst of her elected officials these days.

And anyway, if you want to blame Obama for high gas prices, you're going to do it whether or not he accepts responsibility. It's not clear who he'd lose by saying "I take full responsibility for not keeping your gas prices as low as possible, because I believe we have more urgent priorities and we all have to confront challenges like this together." But I think there are people on the fence, part of the original Obama coalition who've been feeling disenchanted lately, who expected him to be the kind of West Wing President this would be typical of.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Let's thank the kids (and maybe pay em)

As March Madness gets ready to begin, let's just take a moment to reflect on two fundamental truths: this is the best month in sports, entirely because it's happening to young people who've done nothing more than work hard for years on something they believe in; and, for that reason, they deserve some compensation.

Maybe it cheapens the proceedings somehow, though I doubt it - but a whole lot of people are about to make a whole lot of money based on the hard work of a handful of hustling, talented teenagers and 20-year-olds in the next month and a half, so why shouldn't the kids get a piece? Isn't to do otherwise the very definition of exploitation (if not harsher terms I don't want to muddy the waters with)?

So thank you, Nation's Young People, for your imminent contribution to national happiness. Not just on the court, of course, but in your quantity of inappropriate celebrations of sporting prowess, however they manifest themselves over the next 40 days! Go forth, drain some 30-footers, be they with a basketball or beer bong, and let's all have a good March!

Friday, March 9, 2012

The 11:10 Larkspur - San Francisco

In a few moments, the commuter ferry will leave the coastal suburban haven of Larkspur and plow out into the cold blue San Francisco Bay. As it leaves Marin County, it passes within a few meters of the infamous San Quentin prison, recently the site of a day of action by local Occupy protesters, and daily the locus of uncountable acts of violence and humiliation. Drifting swiftly and comfortably by the floodlights, high stone walls, barbed wire fencing and barracks housing, how many of the passengers aboard this ferry are thinking about what separates them from their countrymen mere meters to port? How many have tried to connect to the (protected, naturally) SQSP wifi network that comes briefly into range? The few packets their device sends to a router somewhere on the outskirts of the prison are probably the most contact they'll ever have with the inside of one of the country's most notorious correctional facilities.

Like the Alcatraz prison island that our ferry passes to starboard a few minutes later, San Quentin represents both an uncomfortable reminder of the price society exacts for criminal behavior and an object of fascination on the horizon. Most communities keep their prisons far out of sight, the only glimpse of their existence a vaguely ridiculous highway sign encouraging drivers not to pick up hitchhikers. San Francisco, however, has two maximum-security prisons within an easy glance across the Bay; one has even become a tourist attraction, with hundreds of prisoners a day pretending to lock themselves behind bars that once held Al Capone captive.

How many people have ridden this ferry and later in life found themselves watching it through the narrow windows of San Quentin? There must have been at least one such person, but the demographics of Marin being what they are, this is unlikely to have described many people. What are their names? What did they do, or were accused of having done, that got them sent away? When they see the ferry, their regular seat filled by some blissfully-unaware 1%er listening to This American Life on his iPhone 4 headphones, does it inspire anger, sadness, regret, indifference?