Barn-building

A Letter

Rebecca Solnit charges into the new year with a recap on why 2014 was a watershed for feminism. It’s worth reading in its entirety, but I’ll call out one passage:

Sometimes at big political demonstrations—against the war in Iraq in early 2003, for example—the thousands of placards with handwritten statements, jokes, and facts, for all their brevity, constitute a cumulative critique that covers a lot of angles. Social media can do the same, building arguments comment by comment, challenging, testing, reinforcing and circulating the longer arguments in blogs, essays, and reports. It’s like a barn-building for ideas: innumerable people bring their experiences, insights, analysis, new terms and frameworks. These then become part of the fabric of everyday life, and when that happens, the world has changed. Then, down the road, what was once a radical idea becomes so woven into everyday life that people imagine that it is self-evident and what everyone always knew. But it’s not; it’s the result of a struggle—of ideas and voices, not of violence.

As much as I have struggled with Twitter this past year, I also find that participating in and observing this barn-building is something I am loathe to relinquish. Solnit doesn’t solely attribute the changes this year to social media, which anyway has been around for the better part of a decade. But while social media platforms have been a vector for misogynistic abuse, they’ve also enabled a rapid, rigorous, and public conversation that has furthered feminism and grown its tent. In many ways, I think that GamerGate and other escalating efforts to silence women are a direct response to this success. As Solnit notes: “This noisy year is not the end—but perhaps it is the beginning of the end.”

Taking a cue from the Westboro Baptist Church, today many of New York’s finest turned their backs on Mayor De Blasio at the funeral of officer Wenjian Liu, despite requests from police commissioner Bratton and the officer’s widow, Pei Xia Chen, not to protest at the event. Meanwhile, the NYPD have orchestrated a slowdown, refusing to make arrests or issue summons. Some parts of the city have seen a 90% drop in summons from the same period last year. Reportedly, the slowdown is in response to De Blasio’s polite handling of protestors in the wake of the deaths of Eric Garner and others. But the police are also operating without a contract, so another interpretation of the slowdown could be a ham-handed attempt to sway the negotiations in their favor. It’s hard to say which position speaks less of them.

Matt Ford nails the paradox of the slowdown:

But the police union’s phrasing—officers shouldn’t make arrests “unless absolutely necessary”—begs the question: How many unnecessary arrests was the NYPD making before now?

Which, the answer seems, quite a lot. If a 90% reduction in summons shows no corollary increase in crime, that puts the lie to broken windows, doesn’t it? I can think of few things better for my city than less policing. (Well, alright, while I’m at it, I’d also like lower rents, dramatically higher minimum wage, complete decriminalization of drugs, and laws preventing hedge funds from squatting homes. Also a pony.)

Mike Ludwig, writing in Truthout, offers a related new year’s resolution: don’t call the cops.

In other news, “do not track,” the opt-in setting that was supposed to let users prevent advertisers from tracking them, is dying a slow death. This isn’t surprising, of course. The option was poorly understood, and since it was opt-in (rather than a default), unlikely to gain a lot of traction. Like “do not call,” it was a prophylactic measure designed to prevent more muscular assaults on advertisers’ ability to gather and deploy data. It’s hard to imagine any real privacy protections emerging in the current political climate, but that also seems the only way out of this mess. Of the many dangers inherent to the loss of privacy on the net, one has been on my mind lately: the notion that advertisers and platforms, armed with more information about us than we could articulate ourselves, can manipulate our behaviors. That’s the really scary part of the Facebook contagion study. How much of my day-to-day desires are my own, and how much has been planted there by sophisticated advertisers? (And yes, I say this as someone whose current paycheck comes entirely from ads; I think it’s possible—necessary, even—to criticize a system while also being complicit in it. But I leave that to the reader to judge.)

Elsewhere: where Christmas is made. A gorgeous open-air clinic in Haiti. The post-apocalypse is already here.