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"I cannot call to mind a single instance where I have ever been irreverent, except toward the things which were sacred to other people." -Mark Twain

Tag: Julian Sanchez

Joel Stein and Literary Snobbery

by Cosmo Houck

Maybe (definitely) because I’m a fan of speculative fiction (read: sci fi), I can be pretty sensitive to how people critique the things I read. My genre of choice has a torturous, conflicted relationship with the literary mainstream, and that can lead to skepticism towards people who wholly disregard certain classes of books. Because of that, I’m going to take this chance to react both to Julian Sanchez (who, alas, I have already written about once today…I swear I read other things) and Joel Stein.

Last week Stein participated in a roundtable at the New York Times covering youth fiction, and suggested (strongly) that adults should stick to adult fiction. The choicest line of the piece: “I’ll read “The Hunger Games” when I finish the previous 3,000 years of fiction written for adults.” I think this is a good point.

Stein has taken some abuse for his position. It’s not hard to imagine why: a lot of people like The Hunger Games, and Harry Potter, and Twilight. He comes across as a bit of a snob.

He is, however, a snob that Mr. Sanchez would like to stick up for. Sanchez is naturally more reasonable about it–like me, he has read Harry Potter and The Hunger Games (apparently we share a distaste for glittering vampires)–but he thinks there is some core truth that Stein is getting at. Basically, it’s probably not a bad idea to put down the youth fiction and read some higher brow stuff–in fact, it’s like going to the gym.

The core of his post boils down to making this point:

…while there’s often a surprising amount of thematic sophistication to mine in literature aimed at kids and teens, let’s not kid ourselves that it’s equivalent to what you’ll find in the best literary fiction. Well-rounded adults  need their share of that too, and some of the most rewarding of it can be hard going.

Needless to say, Sanchez sees the sort of “snobbery” Stein represents as potential motivational fodder.

I’d like to complicate this a little. I’m a huge snob. In middle school I fostered a festering resentment of the Harry Potter books; not because they’re “bad” or I don’t like them or because I’m “above” them, but because I felt like their popularity distracted from youth fiction that was just as entertaining but far more interesting.

Take Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. They may not be as relateable or quite as easy and smooth to read as the Rowling novels, but they’re a hell of a lot more ambitious. At the core is an inversion of Milton’s Paradise Lost, and a scathing critique of Christianity and religion at large. It doesn’t all hang together, all the time, but there’s an aspiration and intellectual core there that doesn’t exist in The Hunger Games or Harry Potter.

Here’s one more: Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game and its sequels. Ender’s Game is a phenomenal, and phenomenally entertaining, book, and contains some interesting reflections on politics and brutality and childhood. All great, and I think more convincing than Collins or Rowling. However, where Orson Scott Card really starts to get interesting is in the trilogy that follows that first book. Gone are all the battles and action, and in their stead reflections on death and being and life take the focus. In seventh grade I couldn’t put down Speaker for the Dead, and I still find it and the two books that follow it compelling reading that is far more than “youth” fiction.

And that gets to the core of my problem. I think that we should strive to read things that challenge ourselves as much as possible. It’s hard to know where that will come from, however, and it’s not always clear how we delineate genres. It can’t be verbal complexity; I don’t think I know a teenager with whom The Sun Also Rises would resonate like it does with me, but it doesn’t get any more straight forward than Hemingway. Likewise, I’m not sure where to draw the line thematically–books like Speaker for the Dead grapple with complex issues with nuance that’s entirely foreign to the Harry Potters of the world. And we sure as hell aren’t going to do it by genre–we sci-fi fans have been relegated to the literary gutter for far too long.

As a snob, but one who tries to keep an open mind, I think I’ll put it this way: I want to read things that demand more out of the reader than passive engagement. Books that do more than “sweep you along”, but force you to take stock and think. It doesn’t much matter who it is written for, so much as what you take out of it. Being a snob, I have no choice but to consider myself the ultimate arbiter of this arbitrary measurement. I judge if something is “worth” (beyond being pleasurable) reading using the simple maxim passed down from Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart: I know it when I see it.

Political Labels and Polaritzation

by Cosmo Houck

It’s easy for many people to forget that political bifurcation in the U.S. is an artifact of our electoral system, and not an insoluble fact of nature. This came up last week when two of my favorite bloggers, Julian Sanchez and Matt Steinglass, both felt compelled to address a piece by Chris Mooney based on his forthcoming book, The Republican Brain.

Mr. Mooney wants to say that certain character types correspond to either a “liberal” or “conservative” political affiliation. As Mr. Steinglass points out, there’s some sense in which this is a reasonable claim: of course our personalities affect our political persuasions. However, that doesn’t mean–at all–that our personalities predispose us toward political beliefs. That’s a problem for Mr. Mooney, because he wants to say that Republicans live in a fantasy world with policy positions that defy evidence. Certainly this may be true for some Republicans, but a Republican in the 1860s didn’t believe the same things that a Republican does today, and the same obviously goes for a Democrat (we’ll leave the Constitutional Union Party out of this). With that the case, it becomes harder to see personality as the totalizing force Mooney thinks it is. Steinglass lays this out while drawing from a post written by Kevin Drum.

What this means for Chris Mooney is that while character type may tell us something about political persuasion within a specific polity, it doesn’t tell us anything deterministic about policy positions. We can fiddle with this; Steinglass takes small issue with Mr. Drum’s claim that European conservatives aren’t anti-science–instead, he seems to say that they’re less anti-science.

Still, I think this is a sufficient reason to dismiss an argument that conflates personality type with policy positions you dislike, and I’m more interested in Mr. Sanchez’s line of attack.

His position is simple: there’s more than two political persuasions for you to be attracted to! Liberals and Conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, are not, absolutely not homogenous groups with universal beliefs. They’re loosely cobbled together coalitions that share diverse and often contradictory policy positions. The reason we think about our polity as bifurcated in this country is because it is systemically. Our electoral system–reliant on plurality voting–essentially ensures two dominant parties. In terms of policy or persuasion there’s no reason why that has to–or does– hold true on a personal level. Read the rest of this entry »

SOPA and the disingenuous MPAA

by Cosmo Houck

I haven’t written about SOPA yet, primarily because there are a lot of people who are more qualified than I am, and they’ve been pretty clear about what a bad bill it is. However, on the 10th the MPAA published a blog post in reaction to a Julian Sanchez piece for Cato that I find offensive enough that I have to say something.

Before that though, how about some background for the people out there who have no idea what I’m talking about.

SOPA stands for the Stop Online Privacy Act. Sounds pretty innocuous right?

It’s not.

There are a lot of problems with the bill. For a more complete rundown, check out this post over on Lifehacker, or this FAQ from Cnet. For a letter berating Congress for not knowing how the internet works, go here.

A brief synopsis: SOPA allows the possibility that courts can censor lots of websites you use everyday (things like Wikipedia and YouTube), but will almost certainly be very bad at stopping online piracy. Additionally, it could undermine DNSSEC, which provides end-to-end encryption of domain names.

You’d think with all of that collateral damage, the bill would at least hold out the promise of seriously clamping down on online piracy. You’d be wrong. The consensus is that it would fail abysmally. Websites blocked under SOPA would still be accessible through their numeric internet address (Cnet’s is

So to summarize: it wouldn’t adequately address the problem it’s trying to fix, due to vague language it could potentially be used to censor sites like Facebook and YouTube, and it undermines a key internet security standard. If you think that sounds objectionable you’re not alone.

So who’s pushing for this? Well, it’s primarily the big content creation organizations: the MPAA, the RIAA, and the Chamber of Commerce at the forefront. Those organizations also happen to have outspent tech companies in lobbying efforts over the past half decade. They (understandably) want people to stop pirating their content.

That’s fine. Most people willingly acknowledge that piracy is a problem. However, in pressuring Congress to help address that problem, the cadre behind SOPA has continually made up statistics and information. That’s not ok.

Here’s an example Julian Sanchez debunked three years ago. Over and over again, people were told that online piracy costs 750,000 jobs per year and between $200 and $250 billion dollars. The sources? The dollar figure came from a 1991 Forbes sidebar declaring that “’counterfeit merchandise’ is ‘a $200 billion enterprise worldwide and growing faster than many of the industries it’s preying on“’”. Never mind the age, if you’re thinking that “counterfeit merchandise” includes a lot more than online piracy, you’d be right.

That experience with IP watchdogs’ fallacious numbers is what led Mr. Sanchez to weigh in over at Cato on Jan 3, where he does a rock solid job debunking some of the current numbers floating around—for instance, an estimated cost of piracy in the U.S. from the MPAA is $58 billion annually. That, it turns out, is the product of some shady mathematics—it’s more like $6.1 billion. And of that $6.1 billion, SOPA would only address the $446 million of it that occurs in the United States—which Sanchez pithily points out is approximately the amount grossed by Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel.

Furthermore, Sanchez goes on to make the point that the missing $446 million is not actually being taken out of the U.S. economy; as the GAO notes:

(1) in the case that the counterfeit good has similar quality to the original, consumers have extra disposable income from purchasing a less expensive good, and (2) the extra disposable income goes back to the U.S. economy, as consumers can spend it on other goods and services.

Furthermore, for consumers who would have bought the good if they hadn’t pirated it, it does not represent money taken out of the economy so much as money redistributed within the economy; they’re going to take that disposable income and spend it on something else. This is not a good thing, but arguments about how much pirating is hurting the overall economy tend to overstate the situation. Of course, most people who pirate stuff wouldn’t ever purchase it legitimately. As Mr. Sanchez nicely states, that represents a scenario in which “The downloader enjoys the benefit, and the producer loses nothing.” This becomes the crux of the issue.

I’ve gotten a bit carried away; if you recall I want to talk about the MPAA response to Mr. Sanchez. They begin with obviously inflammatory language that deliberately misrepresents the point:

Julian Sanchez, a research fellow at CATO and former Washington editor for Ars Technica, a tech blog with a long history of challenging efforts to curb content theft, recently wrote a post on Cato@Liberty, which once again offers tired arguments about why the theft of intellectual property is not such a bad thing.

Of course, that is not at all what Mr. Sanchez was doing—unless using accurate figures and contextualizing internet piracy constitute arguing that “it is not such a bad thing”. Thinking about reasonable ways to prevent piracy, and avoid overreaction, is not advocating piracy. I suppose that language is to be expected, however, from a rabid organization uninterested in dialogue.

More egregious is the false equivalence the post draws between theft and online piracy. Reprehensibly the post suggests that piracy equates to credit card fraud or shoplifting. This is patent nonsense—especially within the context of the MPAA.

Let’s focus on Alvin and the Chipmunks again; the approximate production budget was $75 million (I’ve seen lower estimates, but let’s go with the high one). The cost to digitize the movie and make it available online is essentially negligible. This is the beauty of the internet: it drives costs down to essentially zero.

This is among the many reasons that piracy is not “theft”. When someone shoplifts a product, they both a) deprive another shopper of that product and b) deprive the producer of the money it costs to make/distribute/market that product. When someone pirates a movie, there are still an effectively infinite number of copies of that movie for the movie company to distribute. This is a point that Matthew Yglesias made much more clearly than I can:

If I steal your car then you don’t have a car anymore, whereas if I duplicate a digital media file we both end up with it. The harm in the duplicating is supposed to be that by duplicating content that Fox Filmed Entertainment owns the copyright to, I’m depriving Tom Rothman of some revenue that he might have gotten had I instead gone out and bought a copy of the content for myself. That’s fair enough for Rothman to feel sad about, but it’s a totally different kind of thing. I didn’t buy DC’s animated film of Batman: Year One, and I didn’t pirate a copy either; I watched it at a friend’s house. The difference between watching a movie with your friend and copying your friend’s Blu-ray is that one is legal and one is illegal. But in both cases you watch the movie without paying the copyright owner, and in neither case have you stolen anything from anyone.

This is an important distinction, and a wholly necessary one to understand the sort of extraordinary claims the MPAA post makes against Julian Sanchez. It is not true that “Extending [his] argument, shoplifting has no economic impact since shoplifters can spend the money they “saved” on other products, a perspective which runs counter to treatment of crime in other “costs of crime” studies” for reasons sane people can readily understand: copyright infringement does not equate to theft.

This is NOT to say that copyright infringement should be condoned, but rather that we should orient it properly—because without that, we’ll end up with shitty legislation that unnecessarily curbs speech in an attempt to protect an industry that has proven almost willfully resistant to adaptation.

#OWS and Governing

by Cosmo Houck

Since the very beginning, people have been wondering if and how OWS will assimilate into the political mainstream. From Democrats hoping to co-opt populist outrage, to Republicans sneering at a protest movement that appears to have little desire to pursue political success through elections, a continuing theme has been: what’s next?

Two weeks ago Julian Sanchez and W.W. broached that topic once again, something I started to get into last Monday. I wanted to bring up their blog posts because I found them to be both thoughtful and misguided, as well as indicative of a particular common strain in criticism of the OWS protesters.

Both writers take issue (justifiably) in what they see as a false dichotomy: that of the 99% vs. the 1%. Sanchez sets this up by fairly assessing what many people have a problem with about the protests–far from representing everyone, they appear to be a pretty select group of generally liberal activists who are monopolizing public space for their own select usage. In my post last Monday, I talked a bit about why I think that’s ok, but it’s still a relevant point. When protesters chant that they are the 99%, they aren’t really–plenty of people outside of the top 1% in this country disagree with them.

Allow me a brief digression: I mainly think this is a relevant point because of the curious sort of life the slogan has taken on.

It has its roots in this Vanity Fair article from awhile ago, which simply makes the point that there is an enormous inequality gap between the top 1% of Americans and everyone else. When protesters chant “we are the 99%”, presumably they mean “we are part of the 99% of Americans who have considerably less than the top 1% of Americans and we think that is unfair”. While more accurate and less confusing, the second statement makes for a considerably less catchy chant.

I suspect, however, that somewhere in shouting “we are the 99%” over and over, and making that the primary message, many protesters have begun to feel as if they accurately represent the opinions of most Americans–or what those opinions would be, if it weren’t for the nefarious 1% misleading everybody. It’s this sentiment that Sanchez and W.W. take issue with, but I thought it would be worth pointing out the factual content of the slogan as well. Digression over.

Anyway, the reason this is important is because Sanchez and W.W. think the 99% framing device encourages the perception amongst protesters that 99% of us really are in accord, and if it weren’t for the 1% we’d be able to solve our problems and everything would be great and there’d be rainbows everywhere and whatever. Here’s Sanchez on this problem:

Against that background, it’s instructive that so many OWS organizers have cited Tahrir Square as an inspiration. In much of the Arab world, after all, the problem isn’t so much resolving democratic disagreement as getting to the point where there are regular, free elections whose results are respected. However broken our system might be, we’ve at least gotten that far. In that context, though, once protest has successfully drawn public attention to an issue, it seems like the next step should be to get on with the messy and prosaic business of debating and deliberating on concrete reforms with those who have different views. If the people all (or nearly all) want the same thing, but an oppressive authority refuses to act on that shared desire, debate and deliberation are beside the point: There’s nothing to do but throw your bodies on the gears until the rulers have no choice but to comply.  My sense is that many of the OWS folks think that’s more or less the situation we are in. Spend a few weeks in a self-selected community, and perhaps it becomes possible to believe that 99% of us really are all on the same page—or at least, would be if we weren’t brainwashed by the 1%. This has long been a major strain in conservative thinking: Everyone would see that our views are just simple common sense—obviously correct!—if not for a liberal media cabal systematically lying to people all day. Dark as this sounds, it’s utopian in one sense: It implies we’d all agree but for the malign influence of this or that small but powerful group.

I think Sanchez’s analysis is perfectly fair, in many ways. And yet, in his narrative, the possibility that those crazy utopian extremes on either the left or right could possibly be correct is dismissed. Now look, I don’t think everyone’s being brainwashed by the 1%. But I do think it’s telling that Sanchez, in concluding his post, writes “I’m neither cynical enough to believe that our deeply flawed democracy is a complete sham, nor optimistic enough to hope the appearance of fundamental political conflict is a stage production masking an underlying harmony.” It’s telling that to him, those two things–a sham democracy, and one in which politicians secretly agree–are oppositional, whereas in my mind, I’m deathly afraid that we have both of them, right now. Indeed, that’s the dark crazy case many protesters have been making: politicians, while they may disagree on some social issues, largely agree on the fundamental structural policies that privilege the most powerful Americans; in turn, those powerful Americans support the existing political class. This doesn’t seem so crazy to me, and while 99% of Americans may not agree verbatim with OWS, it is telling that in the last two major protest movements we’ve seen, we’ve seen elements of that dichotomy attacked: with the Tea Party going after government power, and OWS going after the private interests that pour money into maintaining the political and economic status quo.

In my eyes, it isn’t too hard to imagine a world in which money and privilege begets more money and privilege, and that over time that process could accelerate. At the same time, I’m certainly sympathetic to Sanchez’s point that not everyone shares that view. The problem with a more rigorous, honest debate is that while there are plenty of people (Paul Krugman and Glenn Greenwald spring to mind) who espouse my point of view, there aren’t really any politicians who embody those ideas.  This is also my problem with W.W.’s piece. Here’s his view:

There is something profoundly satisfying about believing that one’s own team alone has seen through the fog of disinformation and propaganda to the real truth about the treacherous interests that stand between our condition and the reign of justice. And there is something terrifically exciting about the sense, often engendered by visible protest movements, that one’s own team is growing, that its narrative is catching on. Conversely, there is something profoundly dissatisfying, and a little bit demoralising, in acknowledging that most people will never accept many of ones’ most ardently-held convictions, and that, therefore, none of us will ever get to live in a society that closely matches, or even roughly approximates, our beloved ideals. But it’s true all the same. And it’s true all the same that our actual democracy, for all its problems, does about as well as democracy can be realistically expected to do, given the size and diversity of this country. Frankly, we’re pretty lucky our democracy works as well as it does. There’s a great deal we can do to make it a little better, but there’s very little we can do to make it a lot better, because we’ll almost never agree enough about the really big stuff.

Banding together with a bunch of like-minded citizens to make a big noise is a great way to get noticed, to rally similarly-outraged others to a cause, and to shift the terms of the public debate. OWS has done all that. Now they’ve got to get some sympathetic folks elected to public office, because that’s how this democracy thing works, when it does. Anyway, if our democracy really is irredeemably broken, the polls would seem to suggest that further camping is unlikely to turns things around. (Emphasis added)

While this may not be utopian, it does represent a certain idealized strain that often gets vocalized about our political process that drives me nuts. The idea that our democracy works pretty well and that now protesters should set about governing is, I think, a fantasy in much the same way that a conspiracy of the 1% is a fantasy, or a pernicious media bias is a fantasy–small truths mixed with large doses of delusion.

First off, calling our state a “democracy”, while accurate, isn’t especially precise. There are all sorts of ways you can build a democracy, and our breed of republican government is dissimilar from a lot of other “democracies”. We rely heavily on first past the post voting, and our political system heavily privileges our two main parties. We share that reliance with the UK and a lot of other UK colonies. Continental Europe largely does things differently, with an emphasis on proportional representation. Proportional representation awards seats in the legislature based upon the percentage of the vote a party obtains; for instance, if the Green party won 8% of the votes here in the states, they would receive 8% of the seats in Congress. That’s it, on a simple level.

I don’t want to romanticize proportional representation, and in light of ongoing events it deserves noting that Europeans are no strangers to government inefficiency. But our particular breed of “democracy” essentially assures that either a Republican or Democrat will be elected to any given national office. Since Democrats, on the left, and Republicans, on the right, both know that they face no real threat of being outflanked from either the left, or right, respectively, from another party, they largely concentrate on moving centrist voters. Because of that, voters who feel strongly about either the left, or the right, are largely reduced to a simple choice: vote for a Democrat or Republican who is more moderate than you’d like, or don’t vote. This is to say nothing of voters who’s political beliefs are not easily captured on a left-right spectrum.

So when W.W. writes about OWS that “Now they’ve got to get some sympathetic folks elected to public office, because that’s how this democracy thing works” I’d like to reply, well, that’s not really how it goes in this country. OWS represents, in my mind, a populist push against both government and corporate overreach fundamentally antithetical to either of the major parties, Democrats included. In Europe they’d doubtless have their own political party; here, that’s not possible. If the OWS protesters are right, and they not only have to fight fundamental systemic limitations on “extreme” viewpoints but also an entrenched elite with an interest in preserving the status quo? It becomes a lot harder to imagine OWS congressional candidates. Now, the cleverer among you might retort that that’s actually exactly what the Tea Party succeeded in doing last election cycle. And that’s true.

However, there are some substantive differences between the Tea Party and OWS that I think are highly relevant. I’m only going to list them briefly, here, because this post is already overly long, but I’ll elaborate in the future. The first is that the Tea Party platform is an extension of the basic Republican platform, whereas the OWS demands (inchoate as they may be) appear to be a pretty radical departure from the traditional Democrat platform. The second is that the Tea Party was incredibly well funded, and quickly adopted (co opted?) by the Republican Party elite. People have been trying a similar thing with OWS, but because of point (1) it has proven resistant to that. The third point is that, yes, OWS is less focused and more scattered than the Tea Party. I’ll try and expand on all of this in a future post.

For now, let me just conclude by way of summation. People criticize OWS for a “utopian” or unrealistic view of the world. Well, I counter that the romanticized centrist portrait of a high functioning American polity that succeeds by virtue of vigorous public debate and compromise between our politicians is equally romanticized. The world according to The West Wing is appealing, but it’s not going to happen. Additionally, cries for OWS to turn its attention to governing are misguided not just because of its incompatibility with the major party platforms, or the moneyed and powerful interests that control a corrupt system, but also because of the very structure of our democracy itself. The moment OWS decides that its done camping and wants to govern, it’s going to stop being relevant.

#OWS and Public Space

by Cosmo Houck

I have written a number of posts pertaining to the Occupy Wall Street movement. I’ve even had a friend from New York come in and offer his thoughts. It would not be a mischaracterization to say that I have been broadly supportive of the actions of the protesters; this stems from the fact that I am convinced that this country faces endemic systemic problems with the way our polity functions, the way our society functions, the way our economy functions,  and the way we think about all of those things (I’d also like to note that I don’t think you can really delineate these things).

There have been thoughts I haven’t yet shared, however, and I’d like to bring a few up now in response to this piece over at “Democracy in America” by W.W., but also this one at and by Julian Sanchez, “What Democracy Looks Like”. The second post draws from this one at “Outside the Beltway”.

I worry that this may end up being a bit scattered, so here are a few of the things I’d like to touch on:

This became a bit scattered, so I decided to focus this first post on questions of public space. I’ll probably get the subsequent posts up later today. Sorry for how disjointed this is.

1) Who gets to use public space and how

2) The exaggerations (or myths) political extremes tell themselves to silence opposition

3) How sometimes those exaggerations, instead of being dismissed, should be synthesized

4) How lack of concrete resolution can be tremendously unsatisfying

First, the public space issue. This has been something that has been nagging away at a lot of people, for a variety of different reasons, and for awhile.  Sanchez, quoted by W.W. at D&A and responding to the “Outside the Beltway” post, succinctly notes that “There’s no First Amendment right to camp out in a park”. The First Amendment right to peaceably assemble is, like all of our our rights, qualified. This is the natural byproduct of a country having over 300 million people and a lot of things going on.

In effect, Sanchez argues OWS protests privatize the space they are camping out at. They take space that is intended for the public use of anyone who desires it, and by “occupying it”, privatize it for their own group, that they claim represents everyone. That’s all well and good, but not everyone in the 99% agrees with the principles behind the movement, and are being actively excluded from space that they ostensibly have a right to as well. The protesters don’t have to do anything special for this to be true, and don’t have to be particularly inhospitable for it to be relevant: even if a group of protesters is perfectly friendly, it’s easy to understand why a banker and his kids might not want to go on a stroll through Zuccotti Park.

In  the public space part of the post that is primarily what Sanchez focuses on, and I think he’s right on. I thought it was funny, though, that one of the primary problems (to hear them tell it) that the protests have been having is the fundamentally public nature of the spaces they are occupying. That allows all sorts of riff raff to drift through, that don’t understand “the cause”. It also means that things get attributed to the protesters when they actually have no connection to them, like the crazy guy who last week shot at the White House. Because of some idle speculation by some guys at the police department, suddenly protesters are being smeared as harboring a crazy nut who wanted to kill the President. The protesters haven’t really “privatized” this space: instead it’s somewhere in-between.

However, I don’t really have any problems with Sanchez’s basic point, and the point of the post he draws from: that there are probably reasonable limits, content excepted, that can be imposed on the utilization of different kinds of public space. For instance, the prohibition of camping. W.W. thinks that this is part of what bothers a lot of people about the OWS protesters, and I think there’s probably some truth to that.

There are two things that do very much bother me, however: how limits get decided, and how they get enforced. Most people concede that “fundamental” rights are not, in fact, absolute. We have rules about what kinds of nasty things you can say about other people and to other people. I think many of us would agree that slander and libel laws have a place in our society. As far as peaceable assemblage goes, I think it’s reasonable to expect public spaces to be well maintained, and available for the use of all. So I’m sympathetic to Sanchez, but think that there are other, more important concerns regarding public spaces.

Small restrictions can be easily abused, and ceding to government the power to dictate the time, place, and manner of political expression serves as a particularly insidious method of limiting speech. It doesn’t really matter if the content of political speech remains unchanged if the protesters are limited to doing it safely out of sight. Most ludicrous are government “Free Speech Zones” tightly controlled protest areas surrounded by fences and safely out of sight. That’s not the future of protest I want to see.

As I see it, decisions about how to best utilize public space are, like everything else in a really big country, a matter of trade offs. On the one hand, if protesters are not allowed to camp out and make a mess and all of that, you will probably have a nicer and quieter area in which to walk your dog. This, day to day, has a pretty big value.

On the other hand, OWS represents a variety of problems that many people in the U.S. are pretty frustrated about. It undoubtedly does not actually represent 99% of Americans, but in terms of the people who agree with them, it’s still a pretty sizable chunk. It’s something that resonates with many people. My question is, even if OWS does not resonate with you, is it conceivable that something could happen that would be so outrageous, that you would need the attention of the whole country? That you would want to camp out for, and protest? I’ll bet there is. And you don’t get that in “free speech zones”.

W.W. quotes a post in which 33% of Americans support OWS. That’s about 103 million people. When you erode their ability to express themselves in public space, you erode your own ability to do it in the future. This isn’t a trivial movement (not that that should make a difference). On some level, arguments about whether OWS is privatizing the space boils down to a simple question: is it always important for everyone to have access to public space, even if they aren’t doing anything important (something I would classify most social movements as, regardless of whether I think they are valuable or not) with it, or is it sometimes ok for a portion of the population to temporarily dominate the public space for a cause they believe vital to the community’s interest? It’s about deciding what we want to prioritize. I’ll just conclude that point by observing that the government has made its position very clear.

The second problem that really worries me is enforcement. If we do decide that public space can’t be monopolized by groups, there comes the question of how we prevent that from happening. Camping out at a park, or on a campus, strikes me as a crime slightly worse than jaywalking and decidedly below speeding in a car, which I do all the time. Camping doesn’t jeopardize anyone else’s safety (maybe camping in giant groups does, but we’re a nation of individuals). Not only that, but while we may want to prohibit it most of the time, we probably also want to leave a reasonable amount of flexibility in, just because sometimes civil disobedience is necessary.

It is with that in mind that I would like to point out that the actions of the police in preserving public space for the use of all, of late, has seemed less interested in everyone’s right to use a park and more concerned with deincentivizing political protests. From this:

to this.

I find the actions of Chancellor Linda Katehi at UC Davis repugnant. The same for the police officers. Sitting, arms linked, is not a crime that warrants being shot in the eyes with pepper spray, which is ostensibly issued to police officers for their defense and not, instead, offensive use. To casually walk up to non-violent protesters and inflict that upon them, and then proceed to force them into the ground to arrest them, is only one instance of the growing malignant use of force to suppress political speech in this country. As for Chancello Katehi, I have nothing to add to this.

So in regards to public space, I suppose that is what I have to offer: a) perhaps it is occasionally worth sacrificing public space to vocal causes, simply because we decide that we want to protect vibrant political protest, and b) regardless of what we decide in regards to (a), non-violent political speech should never be met with state violence in a society that claims to value free expression.