“Dante was a sectarian and a mystic but he was right to reserve one of the fieriest corners of his inferno for those who, in a time of moral crisis, try to stay neutral.”

I return to Christopher Hitchens’ ‘Letters to a Young Contrarian’ often. His was a truthful and scorching writing style, and his perspectives were vital stepping stones for my education in college and ever since. Hitchens died on this day in 2011.


Regulatory capture

The FCC right now is exhibiting a textbook case of regulatory capture, which is the scenario where a government regulatory body begins to internalize the logic and value systems of the industries it purportedly regulates. Over time it begins to harmonize its actions with the commercial imperatives of the corporations it’s meant to oversee.

We keep hearing about what Ajit Pai at the FCC is doing as a deregulatory project, but deregulation is a gross misnomer. It’s really re-regulation. It’s about restructuring our communications systems in line with corporate interests.

This interview with Victor Pickard, associate professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, is one of the best things I’ve read on the net neutrality debate.

Highly recommended reading material.


Updated with an additional comment from Pickard:

Good riddance, again and again

To hell with Matt Lauer — and all of these boring, creepy assholes who have shaped American mass media into the rotting landfill it is today. They are predators — and good riddance. They’ve interfered with far too many young journalists’ career aspirations.

I’ve argued that the U.S. is confronting this sexual harassment reckoning perhaps a bit too swiftly, and that a bit of nuance might be needed as workplace dynamics shift tectonically this winter. But, as far as media “names” go, I don’t think the world of journalism has lost anyone worth a damn.

In other news today: The Supreme Court began hearing the biggest privacy rights case in decades. Might want to tune in.

A brief reading list for the introspective hunter

My friend Andrew posted this piece on Facebook the other day, asking others to: “Read this and agree or disagree below.” The conversation was pretty robust. I advocated that we start leaving hard copies of The Discourses of Epictetus in public places around the world.


Today, I read this blog post by Seth Godin.

The two go hand in hand.

“If it’s not helping you achieve your goals,” Godin writes, “ignore it.”

You normalized it long ago

Another spasm of internet outrage flopped across the web this weekend, when the New York Times published a profile of avowed Nazi sympathizer and white nationalist Tony Hovater, an Ohio guy who was present at the Charlottesville protests. The story describes Hovater as an everyman who has honed his bigotry and swastika fandom into a fairly vocal stance. He is, by all accounts, hateful. Then: “He’s a big ‘Seinfeld’ fan,” the reporter writes.

The backlash was swift and widespread. For a time, it was all you could find on Twitter: Harsh criticism of the paper for even thinking about running this piece — tweets often framed as though Sulzberger himself had draped 620 Eighth Ave. in a tumbling white sheet.

Readers’ word of choice was “normalize” this weekend, with many people insisting that this sort of “normalization” cannot be tolerated. “As Trump trashes journalists domestically and internationally, you choose to normalize Nazi hatred. WWII soldiers are barely cold in their graves and I see history repeating itself. Disgusting,” according to “Meg.”

It’s not, like, a great piece, but it can’t honestly be argued that the New York Times is “normalizing” Nazi viewpoints and culture.

The NYT national editor rightfully points to reporter Shane Bauer’s tweet, in which he wrote: “People mad about this article want to believe that Nazis are monsters we cannot relate to. White supremacists are normal ass white people and it’s been that way in America since 1776. We will continue to be in trouble till we understand that.”

Indeed,the New York Times didn’t “normalize” anything here; Nazis and white supremacists were “normalized” as a subculture of American society long ago. It’s baked into the country’s popular mass media channels; it’s tolerated in untold moments throughout every American’s day, in fleeting conversations that dance around the reality of white privilege; it’s a fundamental part of our moral fabric’s stitching.

“The point of the story,” Marc Lacey writes, “was not to normalize anything but to describe the degree to which hate and extremism have become far more normal in American life than many of us want to think.”

It would be a real delight to see readers responding en masse with solutions to this cultural cancer, with opportunities for intelligent social criticism and political development and public accountability. The newspaper aired a hateful man’s words — and that hateful man might as well be your next-door neighbor, spouting vicious beliefs without reproach. The newspaper showed you what’s happening in America.

Now what of it?

The new monopoly feasts

“There are two modes of invading private property; the first, by which the poor plunder the rich … sudden and violent; the second, by which the rich plunder the poor, slow and legal.”

That’s John Taylor in An Inquiry into the Principles and Policy of the Government of the United States in 1814. It’s the epigraph to Robert Reich’s Saving Capitalism, which was published in 2015 and which explores the various ways in which massive corporates have twisted the rule of law to benefit the wealthy and to spurn the customer base — the poor, more often than not.

It’s a worthy read these days (a documentary on the book was released on Netflix just yesterday), as the FCC announces its plan to dismantle net neutrality laws. Reich explains how property, monopoly, contract and bankruptcy laws have been twisted by pro-business legislation in recent decades. Regulations are loosened, generally, in the name of increased competition and investment in innovative technologies — and the subsequent savings are passed along to customers! But, as it turns out so often, that deregulation ends up consolidating ownership of, e.g., media platforms or internet services — leaving no incentive to benefit the customer or improve infrastructure. In the end, there’s no real competition at all. The corporate power structure won the game a long time ago.

I think about this now, because we’re going to see a profound leap in telecom and ISP deregulation once the FCC approves this plan in December. While I’m certainly concerned as, like, a Netflix subscriber, I’m watching more intently for the effects on the poor populations in America — for the effects on the growing wealth and income and education gaps.

If I was worried about how Americans’ access to public education and the information economy is dwindling (and producing the 2016 presidential election vote margin), then I’m really worried about how lower- and middle-class Americans of all ages will fare once the internet is packaged into increasingly expensive private data services. Life will be more difficult on an almost unimaginable scale for so many.

Already in the poorest neighborhoods in Cleveland, AT&T has used deregulation to limit its own infrastructure upgrades. Because the company lobbied for certain state laws that would benefit its market share, AT&T can now pick and choose which customers it will support (the ones with money, of course). This is part and parcel of private companies’ preference for profit, but — bear in mind — AT&T’s own sprawling market share was what gave it the leverage to lobby state legislators in the first place, legislators who went on to declare that the internet would no longer be considered a public utility. The floodgates were opened, by AT&T and for AT&T.

If you can afford their U-Verse upgrades, rolled out during the 2010s, then big whoop. But if you were struggling in the inner city, you never even got a shot at experiencing improved internet access. You were frozen in digital time, stuck in place, like always. Access to public education (social studies .pdf homework), job application materials, local political candidate information, social networking: It all grows more distant, and the wealth gap grows wider.

This is intentional.

“The important question is how such [market share] decisions are made and influence,” Reich writes in his book. “Many of the corporations that have gained dominance over large swaths of the economy in recent years have done so by extending their domains of intellectual property; expanding their ownership of natural monopolies, where economies of scale are critical; merging with or acquiring other companies in the same market; gaining control over networks and platforms that become industry standards; or using licensing agreements to enlarge their dominance and control. Such economic power has simultaneously increased their influence over government decisions about whether such practices should be allowed.”

Which brings us to 2017’s ISP coup.

Go see Aqueous

Aqueous at The King’s Rook in Erie, Pa., in April 2017.

One of my favorite bands is returning to Cleveland this week. It’ll be my 21st show, and I hope to add a few more later in this tour (Columbus and Pittsburgh, if I can swing ’em). They’re a truly exceptional group of musicians, and I’ve been following them since 2012. I wrote my second feature on the band yesterday. My first feature was published by the Relix staff in 2014.

I mention this only to harp briefly on a recurring interest of mine: watching young bands develop and evolve both in the studio and onstage. When I came of age as a music listener, my favorite bands — 311, Phish, Deftones, Tool — had already ascended to the highest heights. They kept climbing and growing, sure, but the grassroots chapter of their stories had been written. I’d missed it! And I could never experience, say, a 1994 Phish show in upstate New York. It’s almost heartbreaking to think about that.

But I’ve been from very nearly the beginning of Aqueous’ grand narrative. I can point to the exact areas of development that I’ve seen from 2012 to 2017, and I write about that in this week’s feature. It’s an absolute thrill!

Their new album will come out next year, and guitarist Mike Gantzer told me that 80 to 90 percent of the material has never been heard outside of the band. (The last album, 2014’s Cycles, comprised songs that had already been road-tested, which is a standard move for jam bands.) The band’s latest single, “Weight of the Word,” hints at a nice change in musical direction from their younger days. It bodes well for next year’s growth.

I wrote in the print edition of Scene this week that Aqueous fans would one day look back at 2017 — and the fall tour in particular — as an early high-water mark, a sign of just how completely these guys meant business as manifest destiny awaited.