Saturday, May 17, 2014

Editorial: Keep the Internet Open

The Federal Communications Commission is considering a controversial proposal that would allow major Internet service providers, such as Comcast, Time Warner, AT&T and Verizon, to charge content providers higher rates for faster transmission speeds — effectively ending the government’s commitment to “net neutrality” which offers everybody the same access to the Internet.

The commission should classify broadband as a telecommunications common carrier, which would allow it to continue to prohibit companies from engaging in unjust or unreasonable discrimination. Phone and cable companies as well as their many supporters in Congress oppose that option, and they appear to have moved FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, a former cable TV executive, in that direction.

If the FCC allows ISPs to show preference to favored corporate content providers, effectively creating a fast lane for them and a slow lane for the rest of us [as it started the process on May 15], the commission also should clear the way for community broadband networks that would compete with the private carriers who already too often provide substandard service.

At the prompting of the big cable and phone companies, legislators in 20 states have enacted laws limiting cities and towns from building their own broadband networks that would compete with for-profit Internet service providers, and new restrictions have been proposed in Kansas and Utah. Wheeler has said he intends for the commission to exercise its authority to preempt state laws that ban competition from community broadband networks.

Speaking at the Cable Show industry conference April 30, Wheeler said, “[F]or many parts of the communications sector, there hasn’t been as much competition as consumers and innovation deserve. Given the high fixed costs and consequent scale economies, this isn’t especially surprising. But that makes it all the more important that we knock down public and private barriers to competition and avoid erecting new ones. It is equally important that we encourage competition wherever it is possible.

“One place where it may be possible is municipally owned or authorized broadband systems. I understand that the experience with community broadband is mixed, that there have been both successes and failures. But if municipal governments — the same ones that granted cable franchises — want to pursue it, they shouldn’t be inhibited by state laws. I have said before, that I believe the FCC has the power — and I intend to exercise that power — to preempt state laws that ban competition from community broadband,” Wheeler said, as reported by Jon Brodkin at

A panel of the US Court of Appeals for D.C. in January ruled that the FCC could enforce net neutrality rules under the Telecommunications Act of 1995, but only if the ISPs were classified as common carriers, not information services, as they were designated in 2005 by George W. Bush’s FCC. Judge Laurence Silberman, who dissented from his fellow judges in the 2-1 decision, wrote that the FCC does have authority under the law to take “measures that promote competition in the local telecommunications market or other regulating methods that remove barriers to infrastructure investment.” In a footnote, Silberman wrote that “[a]n example of a paradigmatic barrier to infrastructure investment would be state laws that prohibit municipalities from creating their own broadband infrastructure to compete against private companies.”

Many smaller and mid-sized cities have had difficulty getting their local phone or cable companies to provide broadband service — at least until the communities started building their own community networks. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration reported in May 2013 that almost 100% of urban residents have access to download speeds of at least 6 megabits per second (Mbps), which is suitable for email and other basic Internet service, but only 82% of rural communities can access those speeds. And while almost 88% of urban residents have access to speeds of 25 Mbps, which is more suitable for video streaming and other advanced uses, only 41% of rural residents have the same access. Many Americans lack even basic 3 Mbps broadband.

Edward Wyatt reported in the New York Times Dec. 29, 2013, that the United States is falling dangerously behind other nations in offering high-speed, affordable broadband service to businesses and consumers. The average Internet speed in Riga, Latvia, is at least two and a half times that of San Antonio, Texas, according to Ookla, a research firm that measures broadband speeds around the globe. That means downloading a two-hour movie takes, on average, 35 minutes in San Antonio, and 13 in Riga. And the cost of Riga’s service is about one-fourth that of San Antonio.

Ironically, San Antonio’s city-owned electric utility has installed fiber-optic cable that is used by city officials and could provide low-cost broadband services for the city’s residents, but Texas law prohibits the city from providing the service.

However, Wyatt noted that at least three American cities have such superfast broadband that if they were ranked against foreign countries, Bristol, Va., Chattanooga, Tenn., and Lafayette, La., would rank in the top 10. And those three cities built municipal fiber-optic networks that can operate just as fast as the swiftest connections in Hong Kong, Seoul and Tokyo.

David Morris, co-founder of the Institute for Local Self Reliance, said publicly owned telecommunications networks offer lower prices and higher speeds than such giants as Comcast, AT&T and Time Warner. “It is instructive that the first gigabit network was built not by a private company but by Chattanooga, a muni network. Today 40 cities in 13 states have locally owned gigabit networks.”

According to the Institute, more than 400 towns and cities across America have installed or are planning broadband networks.

Among the states that have imposed significant obstacles to communities owning their broadband networks, Morris noted that Nebraska, Nevada, Texas and Missouri have enacted outright bans. Virginia prohibits a city from offering TV unless it can cash flow the first year. Utah prohibits public broadband networks from selling any retail services.

To persuade legislators to inhibit or prohibit muni networks, Morris noted, telecom lobbyists offer two arguments. First they contend that government cannot effectively run a telecom network. When it becomes impossible to ignore the growing empirical evidence to the contrary, they shift gears and pitch without shame an entirely contradictory argument: Cities have an unfair advantage.

“That was the argument Time Warner used in North Carolina after the cities of Wilson and Salisbury successfully demonstrated their telecom competences. It was a bizarre thesis. Time Warner had 15 million subscribers and revenues of $18 billion at the time. Salisbury had 1,000 subscribers and a total municipal budget of $34 million. Nevertheless, North Carolina legislators dutifully voted to effectively prohibit other cities from replicating Salisbury and Wilson’s successful ventures.”

Susan Crawford, a visiting professor at Harvard Law School and author of Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age, in an op-ed for the New York Times (April 28) noted that her hometown, Santa Monica, Calif., has shifted from paying expensive leases on private communications lines to using its own fiber network, called City Net. Businesses in Santa Monica pay City Net a third of what a private operator would charge and the city government has made millions leasing out its fiber resources at reasonable rates to other providers.

“American cities need fast, cheap, ubiquitous, open fiber networks, and every city has the tools at its disposal to get these networks built. But there are powerful and well-funded incumbents who will fight any mayor brave enough to consider the idea. If you’re furious about your cable bill and worried about net neutrality, go tell city hall,” she wrote.

Legislators should get out of the way of communities that want to provide affordable broadband service and the FCC should encourage competition and keep the Internet open to all. — JMC

(See also "Don't Let Net Neutrality Become Another Broken Promise" by Bill Moyers and Michael Winship.)

From The Progressive Populist, June 1, 2014
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Selections from the June 1, 2014 issue

Friday, May 16, 2014

NH town should fire police commissioner who called the President the N-word

By Marc Jampole

Everyone has the right to exercise free speech, except when they are serving as a representative of an organization. As an organizational representative, what you say should hew to the standards and beliefs of the organization.

It’s amazing how many times public language controversies hinge on whether the individual who made the statement was representing him or herself or an organization.  At essence, representing the organization was at the heart of the “Duck Dynasty” and Donald Sterling controversies.  AMC thought Phil Robertson, star of reality show “Duck Dynasty,” was representing the network when he made sexist and then racist statements. If Donald Sterling didn’t represent a professional basketball team, his vilely racist comments would not have made such news.  The National Basketball Association recognized that as an owner Sterling always represented the league and therefore fined him and is trying to force him to sell his team.

For at least the last 150 years, virtually everyone who speaks English has regarded “nigger” as a term of disparagement, similar to “kike,” “dago” or “frog.”

Some defenders of the use of the term “nigger” point out that calling a white from the rural south a “cracker” is the same thing.  Since one is supposedly “allowed,” why not the other?

This view neglects the historical fact of slavery and the legal and institutional racism that poisoned much of the United States for more than a century after the demise of slavery and still affects the country in negative ways. “Niggers” were chattel that could be sold.  “Niggers” had no control over their own lives.  “Niggers” suffered the physical pains and humiliation of whippings, forced separation of families and rape. “Niggers” were considered genetically and morally inferior creatures who couldn’t take care of themselves, who shunned work and didn’t know how to handle money. “Niggers” were less than human. “Niggers” could be easily fooled since they had the emotions of children. “Niggers” deserve to live in poverty since they don’t know how to work hard. 
That’s what most whites meant when they used the N-word from about 1800 onwards.

Everyone knows that the word “nigger” reflects all these meanings, which makes it a more scurrilous and damaging phrase than other ethnic insults, at least in the United States.  

Even the Afro-American men who use the term with each other as a kind of endearment know that it’s a horrible insult.  Male-bonding often devolves to gentle competitive sparring. I don’t know how many times I have called my male cousins “assholes” or “bozos” to their face, and none got mad, because they knew that my diminishment of them was a form of affection—or perhaps a replacement of the affection that American men are not supposed to display to other men.  The very fact that the word “nigger” is especially harmful and disgusting makes it an ideal choice for male-bonding between Afro-American men.  It doesn’t make the word acceptable in any other context, and certainly not acceptable for whites to use because when whites say “nigger,” it carries all its historical baggage.

Barack Obama is a smooth-talking city slicker who had an outstanding career as a scholar and elected official, and has excelled at everything he ever tried (except being a progressive president).  He shares not a trait with the composite “nigger” that people evoke when they use that word. To call Obama a “nigger” can only be understood as an insult. When Copeland refused to apologize, he said that the President “meets and exceeds my criteria for such.”  He could not have possibly meant anything other than the vilest of insults.

Now Copeland is entitled to his opinion about the President and African-Americans in general, and he has the right to express it.

But he doesn’t have the right to express it as a representative of Wolfeboro.

The simple fact of the matter is that when you are an elected or an appointed official, you pretty much sign on to representing your jurisdiction on a 24/7 basis. Once you become a mayor, Congressperson, police commissioner or judge, you de facto give up some right of speech. So whereas you might be entitled to your opinion and to use language that is inherently insulting, exercising that right will conflict with your public duties and with the image that your jurisdiction wants to maintain. 

Executives of corporations face a similar constraint: if the news media discovered that a chief executive officer of a Fortune 500 company said “nigger” during a private dinner party, he would be unable to hide behind his right to free speech. The board of directors would summarily fire her/him. And they would be right to do it.

While no decision has been made yet, I’m guessing that the Wolfeboro township commissioners are going to end up firing Copeland or asking him to resign. They will have no choice. Otherwise, they will be tarred with the same racist brush that has rightfully dirtied their police commissioner. Now that kind of institutional racism might fly in the rural south, but probably not in New England. 

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Colleges across the country show that two wrongs don’t make it right

By Marc Jampole

Across the country, colleges are holding graduation ceremonies for hundreds of thousands of graduates. But what used to be called the graduation season is rapidly gaining a new name: commencement speaker cancellation season.

This year in particular there seems to be a large number of high profile commencement speakers who have backed out or have been disinvited after campus protests. Former Bush II Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was forced out as Rutgers’ commencement speaker. International Monetary Fund (IMF) chief Christine Lagarde withdrew from speaking at Smith College after protests.  Former University of California-Berkeley Chancellor, Robert J. Birgeneau, withdrew from speaking at Haverford after protesters wanted him to apologize for having campus police use batons against Occupy protesters. Brandeis University reversed its decision to award Islamic feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali an honorary degree, after previously announcing it would do so, after protests by right-wing Moslems over her criticism of their religion.  Even Michelle Obama changed her mind about going to a Kansas high school graduation after right-wingers protested.

In three of these cases, progressive protesters forced out conservative speakers. In the two other examples, religious radicals forced out moderates who they mistakenly labeled as extremists.

Taken together, these commencement speaker cancellations involve a series of laudable and not-so-laudable actions.  In all examples, we should admire the protesters for exercising their right to make their opinions known. 

But we should be disappointed in and ashamed of the institutions and the prominent individuals who backed down. Protests would have made for messy commencements, which are usually drawn out affairs that involve a lot of sophisticated choreography to move thousands of graduates on to and off the stage in a short amount of time. But so what, life is messy and democracy is messy.  By backing down or backing out, the individuals and institutions demonstrated a lack of respect for public discourse. 

While we can admire organizations such as the New York Public Library that back down when it turns out their plans are not in the public’s best interests, giving a speaker a platform is never an occasion for backing down. Instead, the institutions could expand the venue—for example, getting another speaker to balance the controversial speaker or creating a special forum to discuss the controversies during commencement week.  The colleges could even give the protesters 10 minutes at the ceremonies to make their points. 

To the degree that the speakers themselves made the decision to withdraw, they should be ashamed of themselves. They took the actions that made them controversial. They should own what they did or repudiate it. They should not run away from a spotlight that they themselves created.

For some of the educational institutions in question, backing down from the original plan marks their second mistake. Their first was to invite the speaker in the first place.

Let’s start with Birgeneau: To invite an obscure university administrator known for one action only is an open endorsement of that action. Haverford officials were stating that they thought it was right to beat up peaceful Occupy protesters. No wonder faculty and staff mobilized against the decision to ask Birgeneau to speak.  

The case of Condoleezza is also easy: Commencement speakers are supposed to send graduates off on the journey that will be the rest of their lives with hopeful advice that spurs their enthusiasms and aspirations. The commencement speaker thus carries a certain moral authority.  How can anyone who was associated with the decision to create a world-wide network of torture facilities be considered a moral authority? Rice, Cheney, Bush II, Rumsfeld, John Yoo, David Addington and anyone else who was involved in deciding to pursue torture as an instrument of war should be American pariahs. No university invited Joseph McCarthy or Roy Cohn to speak after their disgrace and none should invite these international criminals, either.

Some would argue that Christine Lagarde is also a war criminal by virtue of her activities as head of the IMF. I would agree that many IMF actions have hurt people while protecting the interests of banks. It’s a political argument between left and right.  Lagarde’s politics do not in and of themselves forfeit her the moral right to be a commencement speaker, as the actions of Condoleezza Rice and Robert Birgeneau do.

The case of Brandeis University is the trickiest. On the surface, there is nothing morally objectionable in Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s actions and statements. She has fought for years against female genital mutilation and formed an organization, the AHA Foundation, whose mission is to work “to protect and reinforce the basic rights and freedoms of women and girls, including security and control of their own bodies, access to an education, the ability to work outside the home and control their own income, freedom of expression and association, and the myriad other basic civil rights defined under the laws of Western democracies and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” The fact that she is a fellow of the ultra-conservative American Enterprise Institute is troubling, but I can see why any mainstream organization would want to demonstrate its commitment to human rights by awarding Ali an honorary degree.

Except that Brandeis is not any mainstream organization. It is a Jewish organization giving an award to a woman who is disrupting Islam. Yes, we should support her disruptions, just as we support the disruptions that pro-choice and supporters of LGBT marriage make to the Christian and Catholic religious institutions and belief.  But when Brandeis does it, it carries stark and obvious symbolism, because it’s as if a Jewish organization is taunting Islamists, purposely getting their goat.  It plays into the myths that many right-wing Moslems have about Jews. 

Someone—actually a lot of people—at Brandeis must have known that giving an honorary degree to Ali would piss off the Islamic right wing, which makes the withdrawal of the degree particularly obnoxious and cowardly. If you are going to stir the pot, don’t wimp out, which is what Brandeis has done.  

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Monday, May 12, 2014

If comic strips are an indication breakfast in bed is out for moms on Mother’s Day

By Marc Jampole

As in 2012, I thought I would analyze Mother’s Day this year through the lens of the Sunday comics.  And what a difference two years makes! 

For one thing, two years ago I looked at all 20 comics printed in the Sunday edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. This year I looked at a semi-random 30 comics of the total of more than 70 on the Yahoo! Comics web page; those 30 included most of the 20 I remembered from the Post-Gazette.

Judging from the results of the two surveys, Mother’s Day is not as important as it used to be. Two years ago, 50% of all comics had a Mother’s Day theme.  This year, it was down to one-third. Even family-centered comic strips such as “Momma,” “Fox Trot” and “Family Tree” avoided the holiday.

In analyzing the topics of Mother’s Day comics two years ago, I found that half of them—or 25% of all cartoons that day—focused on bringing mother breakfast in bed. I concluded that breakfast in bed had become the standard practice for this manufactured holiday. Perhaps it was just a fad, because this year, not a single strip I saw depicted other family members preparing and serving mother bed in breakfast.

The interesting thing about breakfast in bed is that the act of preparation and serving doesn’t involved extra consumer purchases (since breakfast typically consists of foods always in the frig).  This lack of consumerism made Mother’s Day unlike other holidays, which tend to reduce to buying and giving gifts. 

While the breakfast in bed is missing from this year’s comics, so is consumerism for the most part. True, “Arlo & Janis” creates an emotional competition between the husband giving jewelry and a phone call from a far away son. The “Peanuts” rerun details the act of selecting a card, part of the buying process.

But most of the strips focus on serving, words of appreciation and things one can make or do to show mother the love:
·         Doing chores for mom (“B.C.”)
·         Giving flowers (“Luann”)
·         Gathering flowers and making a card (“Nancy”)
·         Mom reversing roles and doing everything for the child (“Cathy”)
·         Mom getting drunk at a multi-family barbecue (“Stone Soup”)
·         The magic mirror on the wall calling mother the fairest of them all (“Wizard of Id”)
·         How we love mom’s nagging (“Drabble”)
·         Mother and daughter spending the day together, bicycling on the street (“Jump Start”)

Note that the food service takes place at home—in the kitchen or backyard. No restaurants.

So even as comic strip moms are denied the pleasure of breakfast in bed, their families are nonetheless giving more of themselves in a direct way and depending less on engaging in commercial transactions as the means to celebrate the holiday and express their emotions.

This turn to the virtues of interaction and investment of self that we see in comics may or may not reflect a change in society. Depending on which report you read, Mother’s Day spending will be either up or down this year in the aggregate. Per capita spending will go down by $5. Yet even at the low end, Americans will spend more on Mother’s Day than any other holiday but Christmas. But they spend on very few things: one study reports that people mostly give their moms traditional gifts of a card (81.3 percent), flowers (66.6 percent) or a nice meal out (56.5 percent). The first two predominate in the cartoon world. 

Mother’s Day has thus not been privatized into a holiday that exists only within families. It still finds expression in the economic realm. People still interact with the rest of the world in the planning and implementation of holiday plans, and they interact the way they know best—by making a purchase that represents an emotion. 

News media finally pays attention to problem they helped to create—infantilization of adults

By Marc Jampole

The American news media may finally be starting to cover a trend that they helped to create—the infantilization of American adults.

The infantilized adult continues the pursuits, hobbies, predilections, opinions and thought processes of youth instead of growing into mature, adult pursuits and activities.  Reading Harry Potter and comic books, playing with Legos or My Little Pony dolls, collecting action hero paraphernalia, spending much of their free time playing video games, vacationing at Disney resorts and amusement parks—these are all signs that an adult is wallowing in callow youth instead of growing up.  The mass media has of course glorified each and every one of the trends which together are creating the infantilized American adult. 

For years, American comedy movies in particular have celebrated adults who refuse to grow up. The “Harold & Kumar” movies,  “Old School,” “Big,” “Grandma’s Boy,” “Ted,” “The Wedding Crashers,” “Billy Madison,” “You, Me and Dupree,” “Dodgeball,””Step Brothers,” “The 40-year-old Virgin,” “Knocked Up,” all three “Hangovers,” the “Jackass” movies, “Bridesmaids,” “Hall Pass” and “Identity Thief”—this off the top of my head list doesn’t even scratch the surface of the multitude of movies released over the past 20 years centered on men and women who refuse to grow up.

Now A.O. Scott, a New York Times film critic has realized that staying a child is a major theme of American comedy films. 

Scott announces his discovery in his review of “Neighbors,” which explores the trick-filled feud between a suburban couple who retain an adolescent lifestyle and the unruly fraternity that moves next door.

He really does nail the current state of American comedy, so I want to give an extended quote:
The central problem in American film comedy for the past 15 years or so — let’s say from middle-period Sandler through prime Apatow and late ‘Hangover’ — has been maturity, or, more precisely, its avoidance. In the old days, adulthood was a fact. Now it’s a vague, unproven theory. Adolescence used to represent constraint and frustration, to be left behind as quickly as possible. For the heroes of the New American Comedy, it represents a blissful state of hedonistic freedom, to be held onto for as long as possible.

“How to stay a child when the world expects otherwise — and how to make the world love you anyway — has usually been, in these movies, a male predicament. Women have been sirens or mommies, on hand to inflame the boys’ desires or soothe their fears. This has begun to change recently, although mainly on television, where shows like ‘Girls’ and ‘Broad City’ have extended the privileges of arrested development on a more or less equal-opportunity basis.”

It’s not Scott’s job to put the tide of comedies about adults remaining children into a broader social context, but it’s clear to me that these movies both reflect the cultural shift and help to shape it.  In most of these movies, the immature heroes and heroines grow up a little bit in the end, but these movies are not cautionary tales about arrested development.  No, they all glorify and endorse infantilization—it’s much more fun than behaving as an adult.

When you add the number of these comedies about men and women remaining boys and girls to the number of fantasy superhero movies, the conclusion is clear: Hollywood is dedicated to promoting the perpetual adolescence lifestyle to the American public.