Thiel and Speech

Yesterday, I was a bit flippant about Peter Thiel funding lawsuits against Gawker, mostly because, while I love a lot of the sites like Deadspin and Gizmodo and IO9, Nick Denton is distasteful and outing private citizens for clicks means that the end is pretty deserved. But as Thiel revealed his long game to destroy a media company he (justifiably, since it outed him in 2007) hated, it became clear that this was more than a billionaire vendetta, which is terrifying enough. It’s the blueprint for the destruction of an independent press.

Felix Salmon smartly lays out the dangers in an essay for Fusion.

It gets worse. If Thiel’s strategy works against Gawker, it could be used by any billionaire against any media organization. Sheldon Adelson, Donald Trump, the list goes on and on. Up until now, they’ve mostly been content suing news organizations as plaintiffs, over stories which name them. But Thiel has shown them how to go thermonuclear: bankroll other lawsuits, as many as it takes, and bankrupt the news organization that way. Very few companies have the legal wherewithal to withstand such a barrage.

This is scary because there is no recourse. We all like to laugh when idiots say that their 1st Amendment rights are being stolen because a private company takes down their racist comment on a message board. At this point, on the internet, there are more jackasses ready to pounce on the misconception of what “Freedom of Speech” means than there are people doing the misconcepting. And in a way, that’s what is brilliant about Thiel’s plot. It’s perfectly legal and constitutional, so long as he can find enough cases.

That’s what makes it so terrifying. If a billionaire can come up with enough cases that are plausible enough to not get thrown out, any media company can be bankrupted defending themselves. Unlike with 1st Amendment cases, there is no legal or constitutional recourse. And so what will most likely happen is that media companies won’t want to pay for these lawsuits, so the choice is to fold, or to self-censor.

In every authoritarian country, self-censorship is the more insidious form of silencing. It’s not like totalitarian countries, where there were clear lines. In these semi-states, it isn’t always clear what will get you in trouble. You fear for your life or livelihood, and so don’t go near issues that skirt the danger zone. Then the skirt gets pushed back further and further, and eventually, you don’t even think twice about your silence. It becomes second nature. We have that for national security, here, which is bad and dangerous enough, but not for much else.

Well, Thiel has shown how the monied will be able to impose self-censorship on anyone who wants to continue making money producing content. And if that sounds sterile, it is. If it gets to the point where journalism that offends anyone rich and powerful becomes financially impossible, all we’ll have is content, a set of listicles stomping on the human throat, forever. That this comes against Gawker makes it seem like just desserts. It isn’t. It is, in fact, part and parcel of the Rule of Money, and if we elect a billionaire who has made silencing the press an open part of his platform, the transformation could be complete.

(Update: initial version said “in every totalitarian country” in first sentence of penultimate paragraph, but that wasn’t accurate. Clarifications added)

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Yemen and the Big War

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Rubble in the beautiful Old City. Image from timesofisrael.

A couple of weeks ago, we talked about the war in Syria as being part of the long arc of Ottoman dissolution, impacted as it was by colonialism, Arab nationalism, the rise of extremism, and other factors. This wasn’t meant to be teleological, or to say that anything was inevitable. Decisions made after the modern fall of ancient empire could have diverted the course of history in any number of ways. But I think it is true that certain conditions are set by the past, whether these are the scars of cultural memory, institutional norms, geographical displacement, environmental relocations, and any number of factors that impact how we live. People act under these conditions, and can change them incrementally, but even “great men” are bound by time and place.

That’s the problem with looking at current events (or history) entirely as decisions made by elites in elegant offices. Those do matter, of course. But we have a tendency to look at those without understanding how those decisions are the outcome of the constraints and the possibilites presented.

That brings us to Yemen, where this is- or should have been- more clear than in most places. Yemen, especially in the north, was shaped by tribal customs developed over centuries. This isn’t a matter of “they were living in the past”; it’s just that government was set by cultural norms. (It’s the same thing in America; our devotion to the cult of states, as if these arbitrary riverine borders mean something, is what allows the weird chaos of the nomination process to seem somewhat normal).  These norms meant wheedling and dealing with tribal leaders and other small groups. It was a very personal and transactional style of politics, based on intricate negotiations. Even a 30-yr autocrat like Ali Abdullah Salih spent most of his time personally placating and playing tribal leaders, depending on what the situation called for.

That’s why this recent report by Peter Salisbury for Chatam House is at once so correct, and so infuriating. (Link is the pdf, here’s the summary.) Salisbury outlines how the post-Salih transition process from 2012-2014 focused entirely on elites, the Hadis and the Houthis, especially in the context of the Middle East “cold war” between the Saudis and the Iranians. These are important factors of course, but in doing so, the rifts on the ground were ignored. What was really ignored were the conditions in which Yemeni politics were played. And because that was ignored, Salisbury argues, the end of the “big war” is just the stage for many little wars, or in his evocative phrase “a chaos state.” Local grievances, the maintenance of which was always the key to Yemeni politics, were ignored, and thus can fire up again.

Salisbury argues that we need to focus on ground-up approaches to nation building, and he is absolutely correct. It makes no sense to focus on what will appease the Sauds and the Iranians equally, and divide the country once again among the elites. What makes sense on the ground is the only way to establish even a rough kind of peace, and to try to staunch a bitter humanitarian disaster. It’s a lesson we fail to learn time and time again. Otherwise, it’s just epauletted men shaking hands on an empty stage while the theater burns down around them.