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Counterpoint a magazine of politics and culture

DISPATCHES FROM BURMA A look at the crisis along the Thailand-Burma border and what U.S. policymakers should do to help

MAY 2011

ALL SCHOOLS LEFT BEHIND Gavin Bade TAKING IT TO THE STREETS Iris Cohen SPORTS AND POLITICS Interview with Dave Zirin


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IN THE NEWS

VOLUME 1.2, MAY 2011 EDITOR Eric Pilch

DC MAYOR VINCENT GRAY

MANAGING EDITORS Kara Brandeisky Cole Stangler

was arrested on April 11 while protesting the District’s lack of voting rights.

EDITOR-AT-LARGE Kitt Wolfenden CONTRIBUTING EDITORS Gavin Bade Rachel Calvert John Flanagan LITERARY EDITOR Matt Collins DIRECTOR OF MARKETING Ethan Chess DESIGN EDITOR Jessica Ann VISUAL EDITOR Jin-ah Yang DIRECTOR OF TECHNOLOGY Benjy Messner CONTRIBUTORS Sarah Ainsworth, Iris Cohen, Sarah Gardiner, JC Hodges, Ben Johnson, Anton Streznev, Mark Waterman

Photo used under Creative Commons from thisisbossi

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EDITORIAL BOARD Eric Pilch, Kara Brandeisky and Cole Stangler GENERAL INFORMATION

This magazine was made possible with the support of Campus Progress, a project of the Center for American Progress, online at CampusProgress. org. Campus Progress funds, trains, and mentors students running a diverse and growing group of progressive campus media organizations. Grants and assistance can help you build and maintain a web site, expand print runs, and promote your organization on campus. For more, visit CampusProgress. org/publications. Counterpoint is run by undergraduate students at Georgetown University, but Counterpoint is unaffiliated with the University and funded solely by Campus Progress. The content is the responsibility of Counterpoint contributors alone, and does not necessarily reflect the views of University administration, faculty or students. Commentary, “On the Ground” columns about life at Georgetown, features, reviews and blog posts reflect the opinions of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Counterpoint. Editorials reflect the opinions of the editorial board.

CORRECTIONS AND CLARIFICATIONS

If you have comments or questions about the accuracy of a story, email editor Eric Pilch at epilch@counterpointmagazine.org.

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Counterpoint publishes a variety of submissions from a progressive perspective. Both pitches and completed manuscripts are acceptable. Counterpoint also accepts letters to the editor from any perspective. Please limit letters to the editor to 400 words. Counterpoint reserves the right to reject pieces at the editor’s discretion, to edit for length, tone, clarity and accuracy, and to choose accompanying headlines and graphics. Email editor@counterpoint.org with submissions.

SPECIAL FONT CREDITS

Justus (italic, roman, and bold) by Justus Erich Walbaum; Petita (light, medium, bold) by Manfred Klein 2001-2008; Ingleby (italic) by John Engleby

COVER

Cover image courtesy of Maung Maung Tinn. Email: editor@counterpointmagazine.org Online at counterpointmagazine.org

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EDITORIALS

FEATURE

3 | THE PROGRESSIVE PATH STOP THE AFGHAN WAR

ON THE GROUND 4 | THE IMPRACTICAL AND THE POLITICAL What is lost in Georgetown’s education?

8| DISPATCHES FROM BURMA

COMMENTARY

18| UNFINISHED

A look at the crisis along the Thailand-Burma border and what U.S. policymakers should do to

11 | TAKING IT TO THE STREETS

Students and workers rally to oppose budget cuts in the UK

12| A NEW PUBLIC SPHERE?

COMMENTARY 5 | ALL SCHOOLS LEFT BEHIND

INTERVIEW 16| DAVE ZIRIN

The activist, writer, and Nation sports columnist talks about the sociopolitical side of sports

REVIEWS The late David Foster Wallace’s work-in-progress

19| NET LIT GOES MAINSTREAM

An original take on suburbia

The role of digital media in democratic transitions

How progressives can refocus the debate on education reform

7 | NEVER ALONE

Protecting our rights in a digital age

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COUNTERPOINTMAGAZINE.ORG We encourage an open discussion of diverse viewpoints. Give us your opinion and feedback. Comment online at

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Check out our blog for more stories and coverage:

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MAY 2011


EDITORIALS

FROM THE EDITORS

The progressive path

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his month, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan released his “Path to Prosperity,” or proposed federal budget for fiscal year 2012, to much fanfare and media crooning. Largely lost in the partisan shuffle that ensued are three crucial points about the proposal: it does not meaningfully cut the deficit for decades, many factual assertions in the plan are based on a shockingly disingenuous report by the Heritage Foundation, and the Ryan’s budget would all but eliminate the historical guarantee of health care access in old age. Paul Ryan has earned an almost legendary reputation in the American media as a truth-teller and deficit-slayer. However, analysis by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office found the plan’s impact on the deficit to be tepid at best for the next quarter century. Contrary to the way Ryan’s Path has been presented, the plan does not impart substantial deficit reduction until well after 2040. In fact, debt held by the public actually increases under Ryan’s plan from 69 percent of GDP in 2020 to 99 percent in 2040. It is impossible to imagine what challenges America will be facing in 2040, 29 years from now, or what will have transpired in the interim. Equally worrying is a Heritage Foundation report that formed the basis for many factual assertions in the Path to Prosperity. Among them is the claim that the plan “creates nearly 1 million new private sector jobs next year [and will] bring the unemployment rate down to 4 percent in 2015.” Unfortunately, the very same study concluded that unemployment would be reduced to 2.8 percent by 2021. As a point of comparison, the CBO recently chided the Obama administration for a report that placed unemployment in 2015 at 5.3 percent, while the Federal Reserve estimated the long-rununemployment rate at 5-6 percent. It is difficult to take many of the rosy assertions of Ryan’s plan at face value after such intellectually dishonest claims. Setting aside technical peculiarities and distortions, the Ryan budget is frighteningly clear about what it intends for the federal government—near elimination. Currently, the government accounts for about 25 percent of GDP. Ryan’s plan cuts spending to 14.75 percent of GDP by 2050. The last time spending represented 14.75 percent of GDP was 1951, before Medicare and Medicaid even

existed. The Path to Prosperity also cuts discretionary spending in half, from 12 percent of GDP to 6 percent. The Congressional Budget Office reports that “spending in this category has exceeded 8 percent of GDP in every year since World War II.” Ryan is able to make such catastrophic cuts by taking the axe to the programs that help people who need it most: children, the poor, and the elderly. First, the Path to Prosperity essentially dismantles Medicare by turning the program into a voucher system. The vouchers don’t apply until 2022—so that the Path to Prosperity doesn’t become a political liability among today’s seniors, who would strongly oppose any cuts to their Medicare—and would more than double out-of-pocket costs, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Unsurprisingly, the Path to Prosperity also repeals the Affordable Care Act, including even the costsaving measures like the Independent Payment Advisory Board, which is supposed to provide a check against unnecessary and expensive procedures. Additionally, the Path to Prosperity turns the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or federal food stamps, into a block grant, and then cuts funding for the program by 20 percent. Since 86 percent of SNAP recipients are below the poverty line, and 44 percent of recipients make under half of the poverty line, “deep SNAP cuts would likely cause more families and individuals to fall into poverty and deep poverty,” according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The left needs to challenge the bizarre and unfounded notion that Paul’s reactionary proposal is somehow “courageous” and “necessary.” Ryan and his ilk have changed the goalposts of this debate, and President Obama has let them. Nonetheless, in a rare moment of force, Obama said in his debt speech on April 18: “We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, hard times or bad luck, a crippling illness or a layoff, may strike any one of us … And so we contribute to programs like Medicare and Social Security ... unemployment insurance … and Medicaid .... We are a better country because of these commitments.” Obama’s rhetoric was encouraging, but we need to hold the President and his party to these promises. Our political system requires compromise. But when Democrats start from the center and Republicans start firmly and comfortably on the right, we have lost the chance to frame the debate, and we run the risk of conceding our deepest values.

Paul Ryan has earned an almost legendary reputation in the American media as a truthteller and deficit-slayer.

Stop the Afghan war As Democrats and Republicans battle it out over the budget in the coming months, they are likely to divert their attention from the massive elephant in the room—the $1.2 trillion expenditure associated with occupying Afghanistan since October 2001. Considering the enormous social cost of the looming spending cuts, in addition to the indisputable failure of the January 2010 surge, it is now clearer than ever that the only reasonable option is the immediate withdrawal of US-NATO troops and personnel. Despite continued efforts from the Pentagon and the White House to sell the war, it is becoming as unpopular in Kansas City as it is in Kandahar or Kabul. In March, nearly two-thirds of Americans (64 percent) said the war is no longer worth fighting, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll. There is something deeply disturbing about the President’s call for $2.5 billion in cuts to a low-income heating assistance program in the name of “shared sacrifice” while arguing in favor of a war that will cost $170 billion this year. Both in the U.S. and Afghanistan, it is becoming more apparent that the war is profoundly irrational and morally bankrupt. While the Department of Defense and the Obama administration continue to make the case that withdrawal will create instability, the facts on the ground don’t lie—the primary cause of instability is the occupation itself. Ironically, after almost ten years of foreign occupation and development aid, Afghanistan ranks abysmally low on the UN Human Development Index. Moreover, the resurgence of the Taliban—in the form of fragmented groups of Pashtun

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rebels calling for the defense of their ancestral homeland—is intimately tied to the presence of foreign troops. As Kandaharbased researchers Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn pointed out in a report issued by NYU’s Center for International Cooperation, today’s Taliban resistance, which earns support from Pashtun fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan, is distinct from the one that was toppled in the months following the US invasion in 2001. Given US and NATO failures to impart lasting political, social, and economic changes, it’s difficult for the foreign forces to suddenly start winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan population. Quite simply, after ten years of war and occupation, the Americans’ disappointing track record speaks for itself. Malalai Joya, an Afghan woman who formerly served in the Parliament, succinctly summed up the situation her country faces today during an appearance at Harvard University this March. “The United States invaded my country under the banner of human rights, women’s rights, and democracy, but today we are far from those goals as we were in 2001,” Joya said. “The Afghan people are squashed between three enemies: the Taliban, warlords, and occupation forces.” It’s time for the United States to claim responsibility for its failures in Afghanistan by withdrawing forces. No matter what generals at the Pentagon might say about protecting our national security interests, the U.S. has a far greater obligation to both the war-tired Afghan populace and its economically depressed population at home. We’ve been down this road before. Let’s end the disastrous war, bring the troops home now, and use the money where it’s actually needed.

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ON THE GROUND BY J.C. HODGES

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The impractical and the political What is lost in Georgetown’s education?

any on the left reacted with surprise to the recent Planned Parenthood-abortion-budget fiasco, not because of the sheer zaniness of the Republicans (old news), but even more because we were supposed to be over feminism. Women have legal equality and formal anti-discrimination protection. You might say gender has been taken care of, and it’s time to move on. While the reason why this particular issue came back with a vengeance can be debated, I would like to suggest a major one: an excessively narrow understanding of politics. Under a rather simplistic and legalistic conceptualization of politics (the classic liberal idea of the public sphere), assuring the legal right to abortion should have been the end of debate. However, since this approach largely ignored the underlying culture on which the legal framework rests, the larger societal shifts that needed to occur did not take place, at least not to the extent that was necessary. Changing laws only scratched the surface, and the veneer of legal inclusion has shown how truly thin this approach is. The general structural problem has frustrated the efforts of many progressive—feminist, race-based, queer—groups, as laws change but the lived experience

tic approach to politics, including cultural theorists among their faculty. The causes and driving forces behind this limited idea of “politics” are a combination of wider trends in American society and factors unique to this campus. The American higher education system as a whole is moving away from the liberal arts model. As Assistant Professor of Sociology Leslie Hinkson explained, “Being at university is no longer about thinking deeply, it’s about training to transition to a career.” This is not necessarily negative, she added, since the older model was reserved primarily for the idle rich. You might say the democratization of higher education has meant such a model is no longer sustainable. At the same time, this transition can lead to a debasing of thought and, more broadly, of public culture. Professor Dana Luciano pointed out that, in recent decades, the compression of the “time-space continuum”—to use geographer David Harvey’s term—has placed even further pressure on practical, goaloriented skills and knowledge. As the pressures of the job market increasingly drive students toward more “practical” courses of study, students encourage the development of more technical and policy-oriented programs. The ever-increasing pressure to

Fr. Kemp of the Theology department explained that an ignorance of history has caused many former students who have gone into public careers to be surprised by problems that have occurred repeatedly in the past. does not. Furthermore, the incessant focus on changing legal statutes or passing some piece of legislation diverts energy and intellectual resources from thinking more broadly and more profoundly, about society, culture, and our shared community. This distraction actually makes it more difficult to address underlying issues because far too many people, even within these various groups, see full legal access as the end goal. Because people only define a limited set of issues (such as civil rights, economic issues, and state services) as political, entire realms of societal experience are dismissed as secondary, ephemeral, or matters of personal morality. This firm division between the political and everything else has made its effects known at Georgetown. The Women’s and Gender Studies Program has two (nontenure-track) full-time positions. Culture and Politics has only one one such position, and despite years of student effort, there is still no Ethnic Studies department. Even Georgetown’s Government department, one of the campus’ behemoths, has a fairly limited idea of what politics encompasses. Dana Luciano, Associate Professor of English, pointed out Cornell, Johns Hopkins, and Berkeley as examples of political science departments who take a more holis-

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become globally-competitive has squeezed out space and time for anything that does not directly contribute to the bottom line. The job market and the focus on specialization has also valued narrowness over wider understanding. Jack Harrison, a graduate student in the Communication, Culture and Technology program (itself rather isolated and independent) and activist in the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force said that he has had to do the bridging of policy work and theory himself, because both institutions focus on one or the other. There is little institutional space for deeper, slower reflection. But Luciano also pointed out that institutionalization can be part of the problem. Professors are rewarded for things they can put on their resumes—fellowships, conferences, and appointments at research centers—but not for the sitting around and pondering deeply, even if that is what is fueling their work. As a soon-to-be graduate, I can attest that practical skills and resumebuilders are far more valued (and easily quantified and conveyed) than quality or depth of thought. Georgetown, in many ways, takes this phenomenon to its extreme. Being located in Washington means that a certain type of student is attracted here—often one that is

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aggressively attracted to a career in politics or global business. Georgetown fully plays up this image and markets itself a place where people can come to fulfill their dreams of being in politician or jet-setting financier, with college being seen largely as a stepping stone to such a career. This becomes a self-reinforcing loop as students come here to fulfill the dreams they formulated from reading the news or watching CNN and then select classes based on those experiences. Because there are so many opportunities to merely reinforce one’s own ideas, students are less likely to take a class or pursue an experience that actually broadens their perspective. This phenomenon is also well-illustrated by the horrendous “professor-of-practice” phenomenon. These individuals have many interesting anecdotes, but little theoretical understanding or teaching ability. Such a paradigm is not a problem not only because it penalizes groups that are left out of the currently “hot” topics in Congress and the media circuit, but it also negatively affects overtly political students by leaving no “space for critical intervention in political discourse,” according to Prof. Luciano. Shallow and trite learning, caused by an over-eager emphasis on policy recommendations and practical solutions, means that more and more bad policy is being crafted. Fr. Raymond Kemp of the Theology department explained that an ignorance of history has caused many former students who have gone into public careers to be surprised by problems that have recurred repeatedly in the past. For example, Kemp suggested that students underestimate how deeply rooted ruralurban problems in the Midwest are. I’ll end with an illustration that will hopefully help convey my point: a recent lecture at Georgetown by a prominent theorist of sexuality (and professor of English at Cornell) challenged popular notions of consent and adolescence. The professor argued that a false cultural idea has taken hold that sees children as an asexual repository of innocence, lacking the ability to rationally consent. This leads to absurdities like 13-yearolds being placed on sex offender registries. At the end of his presentation, multiple undergraduate students immediately asked various questions about changing the age of consent laws and other policy recommendations. These were questions for which the professor was clearly unprepared. In many ways, they missed the point, which is that the complexity of human eroticism exists far beyond what can be captured in a policy or legal statute. An overly-anxious and immediate jump to legislation crowds out the true depth and complexity of any issue. So what is to be done about all this? You’re asking the wrong question.

ON THE GROUND is a regular column about life at Georgetown. Email editor@ counterpointmagazine.org to submit your own, or comment on J.C.’s piece at COUNTERPOINTMAGAZINE.ORG.

MAY 2011


COMMENTARY BY GAVIN BADE

All schools left behind

How progressives can refocus the debate on education reform

NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND

has threatened the nation’s committment to public education and needs reform.

Photo used under Wikipedia Commons from Ondrejk

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big deadline for legislative action is looming in American education, and hardly anyone seems to notice. In testimony before Congress, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan warned that if the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—commonly known as No Child Left Behind—was not reformed and signed into law by the fall, as many as 82 percent of the nation’s schools could be labeled as “failing” under the current act’s standards. This would be a catastrophe both for individual school districts and the education system as a whole. When a school receives a failing grade, the ESEA compels school districts to intervene with school restructuring and reform— ranging from the firing of teachers and administrators to the overhaul of teaching strategies and academic calendars. In some cases, this extends to the transformation of schools into charter institutions. While many of these schools do require substantial changes, the mandated onesize-fits-all reforms that would kick into effect are rigid and ineffectual. “States and districts all across America may have to intervene in more and more schools each year, implementing the exact same interventions regardless of the schools’ individual needs,” Secretary Dun-

can explained in testimony to Congress. “And if that happens, the schools with the widest gaps and lowest achievement won’t get the help and attention they need.” OE’s hand-wringing over the law D isn’t new. The Secretary was on Capitol Hill almost exactly a year before his

most recent warning, to announce that his department had created a comprehensive blueprint for the reform of No Child Left Behind. It is that guide that Mr. Duncan would like Congress to follow in the reauthorization of the act. However, his suggestion has several flaws. First, there is no guarantee that the legis-

ready laid out by the DOE. In keeping with the Obama administration’s trend of legislative handling, the plan lays out big ideas and goals but leaves it to Congress to fill in the policy details. For instance, it reads, “school districts may use funds to develop and implement fair and meaningful teacher and principal evaluation systems” but does not give any concrete guidelines for how they should go about such a process. This ambiguity aims to allow greater autonomy for individual school districts and governments to create unique solutions that fit their own situations. But, this is a dangerous route in a legislative climate, in which hard-line conservatives have pressured for cuts in education funding on both the state and federal levels. Beyond actual policy recommendations, many of these right-wing legislators outright reject the importance of education as a federal issue. Recent actions, such as the House vote to reauthorize educational vouchers in the District of Columbia and attempts to cut Pell Grants and Head Start prove that many Republicans are more concerned with the cost of any educational system than how it serves the most needy children—even as they continue to advocate for tax cuts for the richest Americans. Some legislators seeking to bolster their credentials as

Many Republicans are more concerned with the cost of any educational system than how it serves the most needy children—even as they continue to advocate for tax cuts for the richest Americans.

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lature will even get around to seriously debating the proposal before the school year begins in the fall. The parties in Congress are still deadlocked over the federal budget, with a huge confrontation over Medicare and Medicaid just on the horizon. And even if the reauthorization of the ESEA becomes a hot issue in the coming months, it is difficult to say what reform of the act would look like, despite the plan al-

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COMMENTARY defenders of small government and state rights have even called for the abolition of the Department of Education. For its part, the Education Department would not speculate on the outcome of the congressional deliberations. “We are working with Congress and education stakeholders to reauthorize ESEA as soon as possible … It will ultimately be the responsibility of Congress to make the changes and reauthorize the law, including determining what will be required for proficiency (of teachers and students) and accountability,” Elaine Quinesberry of the DOE’s Office of Communications Outreach explained. It is laudable and appropriate that the Department wants to give more control back to individual school districts, but progressives have much work to do in Congress and in the DOE to make sure that the details of the law fit the ideological foundation of the DOE’s blueprint. Even with this kind of cooperation, there may still be serious problems because disagreements over education reform issues do not simply follow party lines. There are serious disagreements within both parties about the role of charter schools, vouchers, merit pay for teachers and standardized testing, to name a few contentious issues. If our officials hope to reconcile these differences by time the school buses start rolling in the fall, they need to start work on the issue now.

Photo used under Creative Commons from House Committee on Education and Workforce

mproving public education cannot be I done by reforming the education system alone. Although the reauthorization of

the ESEA may avert an educational disaster, the success of American schools relies on the transformation of forces outside the classroom as well as within. Addressing the cycle of urban poverty is crucial to improving the educational performance of the neediest children in society, but this issue has been largely ignored at the federal level. The DOE’s blueprint attempts to address this in its support of “Promise Neighborhoods,” modeled after the impressively successful and widely publicized Harlem Children’s Zone. The HCZ uses what it and the DOE call a “cradle to college” approach to schooling that begins with early childhood programs like nutrition assistance and preschool education. Students are then kept in this system through the college application process and graduation. These programs are often quite effective, but are too limited in

cies that have large positive health impacts for young people. Schools should also reevaluate zero-tolerance punishment in schools that often results in suspension, expulsion and legal troubles for students involved in relatively minor offenses. Reversing these policies may be best addressed by local districts and states, but it is nonetheless a trend that deserves wider national attention. Most importantly, America must renew its commitment to funding public education—especially high quality teaching. In the battle over merit pay and the reduction of union influence on the education system, many people lose track of the ultimate goal of recruiting superior teachers. Without better pay, there is little hope of attracting badly-needed, bright recruits to the profession.

In the battles over merit pay and the reduction of union influence on the education system, many people lose track of the ultimate priority: recruiting superior teachers who are paid a better salary. scope to be considered an absolute solution. Broad reform of drug policies that emphasize rehabilitation over punishment would have similarly far-reaching implications for the education system—keeping more parents in homes and teenagers out of jail. The same can be said for universal health care coverage, which improves student attendance, and for anti-pollution poli-

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History has shown that before and afterschool programs, free and reduced-cost breakfast and lunch programs, and the arts are generally first on the chopping block when states decide to reduce education spending. These critical components of our education system must be properly funded if this new generation is to realize its potential and drive the American economy.

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SECRETARY OF EDUCATION ARNE DUNCAN rightfully recognizes the need for reforms, but the Department of Education’s plans are vague, offering space for the right to renew an assault on public education.

nfortunately the current rhetoU ric in Washington and many state capitals centers on cutting educational

programs rather than augmenting them. Reduced education spending has already been approved in struggling states like Michigan and Ohio, with further cuts planned in legislatures across the country. Reauthorizing the ESEA is necessary, but if it is met with inadequate funding, or if new, higher standards fall on cashstrapped school districts, it will all have been for naught. In the end, while the ESEA is critical, it may be of lesser importance than other measures. Hiring and retaining competent teachers, pursuing sensible law-enforcement and disciplinary policies, and protecting the health of the environment that surrounds the student are arguably of greater significance. In the coming months, the Obama administration has an opportunity to frame educational improvement as a broader struggle for social justice and for the progressive vision of society it claims to advocate. This is not only the right thing to do, but these reforms could also re-energize Obama’s disgruntled liberal supporters come election season. The reauthorization of the ESEA is a perfect chance to ignite a debate about social responsibility and the government’s obligation to provide for the most vulnerable in society. It would be a shame for Obama not to seize such an opportunity.

MAY 2011


COMMENTARY BY BEN JOHNSON

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omewhere out there on the Internet, there is a file on you. It contains all the information you might find on your driver’s license—age, gender, and hometown. But it also contains many more personal details: what kind of job you have, how much money you make every year, and what kind of products you like to shop for. The file can tell if you’re single and looking for a date, if you’re unemployed, or if you’re concerned about your body image and want to lose weight. It even includes guesses about the quality of your health. Without your knowledge, companies have been tracking your online activity, building a picture of who you are and what kind of customer you might be. And, the file has just been sold to another company eager for customers, for less than a cent. This scenario may sound like a paranoid fantasy. But in reality, this information is collected about Web users every time they go online. As you hopscotch across the Web from search pages to shopping and news websites, powerful tracking software installs itself on your computer and stitches together separate tidbits of information to create a profile of your browsing habits. Few websites are safe from this digital surveillance; popular email providers and search engines are some of the most prevalent trackers. Even seemingly benign websites such as Dictionary.com and Photobucket.com install hundreds of tracking programs onto user’s computers after just a single visit. With little corporate transparency and no federal privacy law regulating how such data

Never alone

Protecting our rights in a digital age websites. In recent years, however, companies have turned to highly targeted marketing in an attempt to place more relevant and more profitable ads. Rather than guessing which websites customers visit frequently, companies can place their ads on the screens of users whose browsing profile fits a certain demographic— say, an 18-24 year old female with an interest in beauty products, or a 30-39 year old male with an income between $60,000 and $80,000 a year and an interest in American-brand cars. To compile these details about individual users, online marketing firms use cookies and software known as “beacons” to track what people do on the web and create detailed personal profiles containing information such as age, gender, income, education, shopping interests, religious beliefs and even medical conditions. These profiles are then sold to companies, who use the information to advertise their products to likely customers. This is why, after searching for a pair of running shoes on Google and checking prices in an online store, you may start seeing ads for the same pair of shoes on every website you visit. From the second visitors log on to a website, they are bombarded with intrusive cookies and tracking devices. Last summer, an investigation by the Wall Street Journal found that the 50 most popular websites installed an average of 64 pieces of tracking technology onto user’s computers, and 12 of these sites installed more than a hundred trackers. More often than not, these cookies are placed on users’ computers without their knowledge or consent. Within seconds, their data has been passed along to

Consumers have a right to know what information is being collected about them. Websites often hide their data-gathering activities. can be collected and distributed, these intrusive tracking technologies are making privacy in the digital age a myth. “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know,” Google CEO Eric Schmidt once said about Internet privacy, “maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” Over the past decade Internet-based companies like Facebook and Google have experienced an unprecedented growth in popularity as more and more of our lives make the shift to the web. We now use the Internet for shopping, for taxes, and for routine communications. The result is that our web activity reveals an incredible amount of data about personal tastes and consumer habits—profitable information that can be bought and sold. Yet most consumers would be surprised to learn that there’s no single, general law protecting online privacy. Internet-based services have expanded far too quickly for privacy laws to keep pace with innovation, the result being that companies can collect massive amounts of information about their users with few legal restrictions on how that data can be used. Most of the information companies collect online is used to sell advertising. Initially, online advertising was based on web content and not the user’s browsing history. For example, car companies would advertise on car-themed

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advertisers and auctioned off by online marketing firms. The same Wall Street Journal investigation reported that each day companies such as Lotame, Rapleaf, and BlueKai sell 50 million pieces of information about the browsing habits of individual users. Advertisers argue that online tracking allows them to provide Web users a service by giving consumers information through more relevant adds. They also claim that none of the information is personally identifiable, since no names are matched with individual data files. The problem is, no information is ever truly anonymous. Even if names are withheld from a data file, it’s fairly easy to identify an individual through seemingly benign bits of information. Innocuous facts such as age, zip code, and income may appear anonymous on paper, but coupled with a search history and web browsing habits, this information can be used to identify specific people. Such was the case in 2006 when AOL released the search histories of more than 600,000 web users. Although each web user was assigned a random number to protect the searcher’s anonymity, the New York Times easily managed to match names with the allegedly “non-personally identifiable information.” And even if the date remained anonymous, consumers have a right to know what

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information is being collected about them. Websites often hide their data-gathering activities behind the fine print of complex privacy policies. As a result, consumers are unaware of what information is being collected and how it is being used. The abstract nature of the Internet also makes it easy to forget how intrusive this data collection really is; if an employee followed shoppers around a mall, making note of which stores they shopped in, what products they bought, and what prescriptions they picked up in a pharmacy, the public would be outraged. Yet because this intrusion happens in the recesses of cyberspace, online consumer privacy consistently fails to register on the public’s radar. The lack of attention to this issue has meant that online services dealing in personal information have largely been left to regulate themselves. With the exception of three laws that restrict the sharing of information relating to medical health records, finances, or children under the age of 18, there are no federal regulations detailing what information companies can collect or how they can use that data. Left to their own devices, companies have come up with boilerplate privacy policies that say less about the consumer’s right to privacy than they do about the lack thereof. Thankfully, most corporations do use and store this personal data in a responsible way. However, while self-regulation may be effective 95 percent of the time, the profits to be gained from the ever-expanding uses for this information are always a tempting influence. It also remains to be seen how companies will use this information outside online advertising. Our nation needs a comprehensive privacy law that would allow consumers to have control over their information and that would limit the proliferation of online tracking. In early April, Senators John Kerry (DMass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) introduced a bill that would do just that. The Commercial Privacy Bill of Rights, which is also backed by the Obama Administration, would implement new guidelines for the collection, use, and distribution of personally identifiable information. In addition to requiring websites to notify their visitors of the scope and purpose of their data collection, the bill would also put consumers in charge of their own online presence by offering access to stored data and allowing consumers to block companies from collecting and sharing information about them. Although many online marketing firms are likely to oppose the bill, companies like Microsoft, HP, eBay, and Intel have surprisingly come out in favor of the bipartisan legislation. The Kerry-McCain bill isn’t perfect—many privacy advocates have criticized the legislation for its lack of a “Do Not Track” feature that, like the National Do Not Call Registry, would provide consumers with a one-stop means of opting out of online data tracking. Nonetheless, the bill is a sign that Washington is finally catching up to the realities of a digital world. Consumers can’t rely on the effectiveness of industry-regulated privacy policies, and as we turn to the Internet for more of our daily needs, we need to ensure that our right to privacy isn’t lost in the transition.

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FEATURE

Cour tesy of Reuben Steains

Dispatches from Burma

A look at the crisis along the Thailand-Burma border and what U.S. policymakers should do to help BY ROB BYRNE

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rudging through Burma’s troubled Karen state, Cho Ma faced malarial jungles, landmine-laden fields, and the realities of the world’s longest-running civil war in search of a safe place to deliver her child. After four days, she arrived at the Mae Tao Clinic in Mae Sot, Thailand. Sitting on a bench near the Outpatient Department, Cho Ma said, “I was scared to come here because of the gunfire and fighting. I hid in a friend’s basement for two days to avoid soldiers. But [my] pregnancy was not going well. I knew I had to keep going to get help at the clinic.” As she breastfeeds her newborn baby, a banner that reads, “From the American People: A Gift of USAID” dangles overhead. When Burma’s military junta began cracking down on the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, Dr. Cynthia Maung—universally known as “Dr. Cynthia”—stuffed a few medical instruments into her shoulder bag and, along with thousands of other student activists, fled to Thailand to avoid government retribution. “At first, we hoped to regroup in the jungle and continue the protests,” Dr. Cynthia explained. “It soon

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became clear the revolutionary moment had passed, and we had to keep moving.” Many of the exiled students required medical attention, so Dr. Cynthia and a dozen volunteers began treating patients informally. “Gradually,” she said, “we found out that there were many others, especially women and children, who could not [obtain] access to health services in Burma or Thailand.” Starting with just a few instruments from her bag, Dr. Cynthia’s operations have mushroomed into a renowned, multipurpose operation. Originally occupying a rickety house on the outskirts of Mae Sot, the clinic has evolved into a small village of humble buildings, covered outdoor waiting rooms, and numerous medical, psychological, and educational departments. In 1989, the clinic treated 2,000 patients—by 2010, that figure soared to 140,000, despite Dr. Cynthia’s undocumented status and limited resources. land with a rich ancient history and A abundant natural resources, Burma has yet to reach its full potential. Today, half

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of the population drops out of elementary school, primarily due to financial constraints; the World Health Organization ranks its health care system second to last (just above Sierra Leone); and, according to Human Rights Watch, “Burma has the largest number of child soldiers in the world.” These crises, coupled with longstanding internal conflict, contribute to the porous nature of the Thailand-Burma border. Roughly 150,000 stateless Burmese nationals live in Thailand under the auspices of the United Nations, although they do so without official refugee status. Approximately two million more work in Thailand as undocumented workers, often in squalid conditions. “Sweatshops in Thailand offer a comparative advantage since there’s no way to improve conditions back home, [thus keeping the workers in Thailand] ... Since Burmese people can be deported anytime, bribing Thai authorities has become routine,” explained Saw Aung Than Wai, director of research at Mae Tao Clinic. “But it still beats life in Burma.” With an estimated budget of $2.9 million,

MAY 2011


FEATURE the clinic sees over 100,000 patients annually; operates weekly cross-border jungle clinics; runs over a dozen migrant schools; and feeds 2,000 school children, patients, staff, and their families every day. There is a constant bustle to the whole place, but also a system to manage the flow of patients. Just over half of the treated come from the local Burmese communit,y while the rest travel from inside Burma via secret routes. With the country’s deteriorating economic and political conditions, the clinic’s caseload increases by about 20 percent every year. Today, the Mae Tao Clinic and its community partners are grappling with two major challenges, one political, the other, financial. While international headlines regularly pay attention to Burma’s pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, they rarely mention the ongoing conflict in Burma’s Karen State. In the immediate aftermath of Burma’s first election in twenty years, armed conflict between the Burmese Army and the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army in Eastern Burma led to the largest single influx of displaced people into Thailand since 1988. After heavy fighting broke out in Myawaddy—a Burmese town just a few miles from Mae Sot— more than 25,000 civilians fled to Mae Sot and the surrounding area. Others have gone underground in 31 hiding sites across Karen State. These internally displaced persons rely on Mae Tao Clinic and its partner, Backpack Health Worker Teams, for social services. “We go to the hiding sites to check up on people and record how they’re doing,” said Mahn Mahn, director of BHWT. “We bring in medical supplies, toys for the kids, educational materials, and food. This work is important since no one at the hiding sites can leave until the fighting stops.” “Really, their work is what the U.N. should be doing,” a Mae Tao Clinic staff member

added. “With the crisis, we need more advocacy but hardly anyone is reaching people on the ground.” Apart from the surge in conflict and displacement, the Mae Tao Clinic has also been hit hard by the global recession. With existing donors unable to maintain funding levels and the rising costs of food, medicine, and other basic commodities worldwide, the clinic is in financial crisis. “This year we estimate a shortfall of about $650,000,” Dr. Cynthia said. “Staff members have suffered financially and we are relying on donations from the local community—but it won’t be enough. It is likely we will have to scale back many of our services during our greatest time of need.” Michelle Katics, fundraising and advocacy advisor at the Mae Tao Clinic, said internation-

community-based groups for both political and cultural reasons. “INGOs have inherent advantages we can’t compete with, like infrastructure and knowledge of the auditing process that community-based groups won’t ever have,” she said. “There’s a real tension between [international organization’s] approach to the issue and how they fund initiatives on the border.” nlike other donors, USAID has not yet U cut funding to Thailand-Burma border. Here, it is common knowledge that Mae Tao Clinic, the Backpack Health Worker Team, and other community partners rely heavily on USAID to serve a population of over 100,000 people. However, given the political climate in Washington, it remains to be seen how much longer this support will last.

Mae Tao Clinic, the Backpack Health Worker Team, and other community partners rely heavily on USAID to serve over 100,000 people. al money is available but largely out of reach due to the clinic’s cross-border projects and tenuous legal position. “Many Western governments require registration with the local authorities in order to even be considered for grants. For Mae Tao and our community partners, we can’t get legal status,” Katics said. “Furthermore, many governments are choosing to support projects within Burma rather than cross-border aid. Australia has eliminated cross-border aid altogether, and Canada and the EU have many restrictions.” Ms. Katics explained that international donors are moving towards funding international non-governmental organizations instead of

For over two decades, U.S. lawmakers have denounced Burma’s military regime and demanded the release of pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest. According to Georgetown Government Professor David Steinberg, members of Congress have mentioned the Nobel Peace Laureate’s name over 1,600 times between 1990 and January 2010. “The statistically strongest supporter has been Republican Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Tenn.) who had done so 340 times,” Steinberg said. When Cyclone Nargis tore through Burma in May 2008, Senate Minority Leader McConnell blasted Burma’s military junta for delaying international aid amid the country’s worst

THE CLINIC HELPS PATIENTS WITH SERIOUS ILLNESSES who

travel from Burma in desperate need or who reside in Thailand illegally.

Cour tesy of Reuben Steains

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FEATURE natural disaster in recorded history. “No one can say with certainty what the full toll of death and destruction is from the storm,” McConnell stated. “But we do know the junta greatly compounded matters through inaction and its utter disregard for the Burmese people.” But nearly three years after vilifying the junta for resisting U.S. aid, the Minority Leader’s party has placed similar humanitarian relief on the chopping block. H.R. 1, the Republican budget proposal, aimed to cut $100 billion in non-defense spending, including a 19 percent cut to international programs. Just as partisan impasse over the budget threatened a federal shutdown, President Obama and congressional leaders reached a compromise to cut $38 billion for the remaining fiscal year. International aid, and povertyreduction programs in particular, suffered drastic cutbacks. Compared to the 2010 budget, refugee assistance and international food aid were reduced by 10 and 17 percent, respectively; United Nations contributions were cut by $377 million; disease-prevention programs, by $1 billion; and USAID funding, by $39 million. “This is a huge problem,” said Myra Dah of the U.S. Campaign for Burma. “Honestly, refugee programs on the Thai border might reach the point of closing down since the U.S. gives the most money.” Two days after the United States reduced funding to international programs, Thawil Pliensri, Thailand’s National Security Council chief, announced plans to close the nine camps along the border. Pliensri claimed that plans to repatriate the 140,000 refugees were discussed between the Thai and Burmese governments, but no deadlines had been made. A recent Bangkok Post editorial speculated, “It is unclear why authorities picked this week to [make the announcement],” but some see a connection between the U.S. budget cuts and Pliensri’s statements. “Thailand did not sign the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention and doesn’t legally have to take in people from Burma,” Than Wai said. “Personally, I think Thailand wants to show the world they have a good human rights record, but they’re also thinking economically … not only in terms of labor, but also the Western money financing the camps as well.” Whether or not a causal link exists between

Cour tesy of Reuben Steains

tional aid spending helps explain why so many politicians are quick to volunteer aid programs for the budget axe.” While the public’s misunderstanding of America’s foreign aid budget contributes to the urge to cut, it is not always the direct root of aid skepticism. In some policy circles, aid to poor countries is unpopular because it is poorly used and can, on occasion, do more harm than good. For example, Egypt has been a major recipient of USAID funds since 1975, receiving $1.3 billion annually. According to Isobel Coleman of the Council on Foreign Relations, “[Egypt’s] rising income inequality and a failure to address root poverty have given rise to widespread economic grievance. Gains from structural reforms and increased growth [since 1990] have not trickled down to the population at large.” Furthermore, when Egyptians rose up against social inequality earlier this year, protesters were notoriously met with waves of tear gas manufactured in Jamestown, Pennsylvania. In her book, The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein exposes more skeletons from USAID’s closet, arguing that the agency historically ad-

In some policy circles, aid to poor countries is unpopular because it is poorly used and can, on occasion, do more harm than good. budget cuts in the U.S. and the calls for repatriation in Thailand, it is clear that Western dollars are vital to programs on the ground and have long-term implications. o why is it that international aid is such S a uniquely popular candidate for elimination? Polls by Gallup and CNN have found

this is the only area that a majority of Americans consistently favor cutting. The same polls, however, indicate that Americans drastically overestimate international aid’s status. On average, most people believe it constitutes anywhere from 10 to 25 percent of the overall budget when, in reality, the figure is 0.7 percent. As James Lindsay, director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, recently told PBS, “The public’s inflated sense of interna-

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vances U.S. interests at the expense of democracy and human rights. For example, USAID funded “Los Chicago Boys,” the architects of Chilean dictator Augosto Pinochet’s economic policies. Moreover, Klein contends the program’s politicized nature continues despite USAID’s post-Cold War transition from anti-communism efforts to ostensibly humanitarian aid. “[During the Bush Administration], NGOs had to do a better job of linking their humanitarian assistance to U.S. foreign policy and making it clear that they are an arm of the U.S. government,” Klein writes. “If they didn’t, [USAID Director Andrew] Natsios threatened to personally tear up their contracts and find new partners.” Rick Marshall of USAID Asia countered the criticism that USAID is primarily a mechanism

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THE MAE TAO CLINIC is staffed not only by medical professionals, but also by numerous volunteer workers.

for extending American influence by arguing that the organization is moving away from its traditionally business-oriented approach. The organization is now making an effort to support more community-based organizations like Mae Tao Clinic. Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.) echoed this sentiment on the House Floor last month. “USAID is helping to create strong local capacity so that development assistance is no longer necessary,” Farr said. “Already, USAID has launched efforts to increase efficiency [and has] dramatically reduced contracting ... Budget slashing now cuts these reforms off at the knees.” While the 2011 budget cuts are not as deep as anticipated, international aid will likely face more cuts in the looming 2012 budget debate. The most recent proposal put forward by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) calls for an additional 29 percent reduction in non-defense international aid for 2012 and a 44 percent cut by 2016. At the same time, Ryan proposes a 14 percent increase in military spending. Fiscal conservatives, often the most vocal advocates on behalf of Aung San Suu Kyi, are neglecting America’s commitments to people who are struggling to create meaningful social change in Burma. USAID’s growing collaboration with community-based organizations deserves not only recognition, but also a chance to thrive. Through this approach, the U.S. actively supports the self-empowerment of displaced people in an effective and multilateral way. Projects like the Mae Tao Clinic fill empty stomachs, ensure safe home environments, facilitate basic public health, provide free education and job training, and help build the civil society necessary for a functioning democracy. Unfortunately, future prospects look grim. “With the $40 million loss and more budget cuts to come,” Marshall said. “I don’t see how USAID-funded projects on the border won’t be affected.” ROB BYRNE is a Georgetown junior conducting research for a thesis in Burma. Cover image courtesy of Maung Maung Tinn who can be found at BURMESEPAINTINGS.ORG.

MAY 2011


COMMENTARY BY IRIS COHEN

Taking it to the streets

Students and workers rally to oppose budget cuts in the UK

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his month we’ve watched politicians argue over how much to cut from the federal budget, and all the news reports reflect is who won—Democrats or Republicans. No one ever mentions who lost. Because the truth is there are people who are losing their jobs, who are being evicted from their homes, who have little or nothing saved for retirement, and who live at or near the poverty line. The budget passed for the rest of the fiscal year does absolutely nothing to help them. Should we care which party came out looking better, when the result is essentially the same for the majority of Americans? I think a status message circulating on Facebook says it all. “Remember when teachers, public employees, Planned Parenthood, NPR and PBS crashed the stock market, wiped out half of our 401Ks, took trillions in TARP money, spilled oil in the Gulf of Mexico, gave themselves billions in bonuses, and paid no taxes? Me neither.” Budget cuts are hitting people hard across the world, especially in my native England. We are all being told to “tighten our belts” and yet, somehow those who got us in this mess get to keep their bonuses, luxury holidays, and tax breaks. In the UK, the coalition government decided to slash public spending more than was ever expected. £72 billion will now be cut over the next 4 years, or over $117 billion. But people have also fought back harder than before. The first signs of resistance were visible in the UK students’ movement, which gained global media attention in the fall. Beginning in November, over 50,000 young people took to the streets of London to oppose the tripling of higher education fees. As the demonstrations went on, both the number of protesters and the militancy of their actions grew. The brutality of the police at every event only ignited further anger, as parents would see their teenage kids return home bruised and battered. An organization called UK Uncut began acting and highlighting alternatives to the cuts while emphasizing the hypocrisy of the idea that “we’re all in this together.” As Mark Bergfeld, a recent nominee for the Presidency of the National Union of Students, put it “400 students can block a road, 400 train drivers can bring a country to a halt.” The student movement had been aligned with the anti-cuts struggle from day one, but students cannot win alone. They can only be the detonator. The radical stance of the student demonstrations has led the way toward further action as people have a new found confidence to defend their jobs, their pensions, and their children’s education. On March

Photo used under Wikipedia Commons from Ondrejk Photo used under Wikipedia Commons from Ondrejk © Tom Wills

26th, the Trades Union Council (TUC) called for a national demonstration and half a million people attended. Not since the World War II has a union rally attracted such numbers, but more powerful than the amount of people that gathered was the clear indication that the spirit of student struggles had rubbed off. “Most poignantly it wasn’t a passive crowd at all—the masses had really be won over by arguments for direct action mobilised on the day by UK Uncut,” Rachel Harger, a graduate law student from London, explained with zeal. “This was evident when ordinary trade unionists were walking past banks, [the luxury store] Fortnum and Mason and cheering loud as they were

THE MARCH 27 RALLY IN LONDON showed

the power of the emerging anti-cuts movement in the UK, with students and workers leading the way.

“kettled,” or forced into tight spaces by police while beaten and arrested. Trade unionists protest in numbers unseen in living memory and proudly support the direct action. So what comes next? Bob Crow, the General Secretary of the Rail and Maritime Union, took to the stage on March 26 to praise the rally but also to make the call for further action. “Today’s demonstration against the cuts was the biggest labour movement protest in a generation and lays the foundation for coordinated strike action,” Crow said. “This show of strength is just the beginning.” Industrial action is the next logical step to be taken by the protest movement in the UK. Inspiration can be found in the Arab revolutions as we now know that the protesters in Egypt needed the support of this activity to finally kick Mubarak out of power. If we want to get rid of David Cameron and the coalition government, similar measures must be taken. Members of the University and College Union have already gone on strike to oppose the attack on higher education. Now, a plan is in the works for a national day of strike action on June 30th, which has been endorsed by a number of union executives. As it stands, ATL, NUT, PCS and UCU are balloting for industrial action on that date—representing a combined 800,000 workers. We can only wait and see what where the workers and students of the UK decide to take this next, but one thing is sure—nobody’s going home without a fight.

Not since World War II has a union rally attracted such sheer numbers. But more powerful than the amount of people that gathered was the clear indication that the spirit of student struggles had rubbed off.

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smashed up by a visibly younger generation of people.” Sonja Coquellin, a student from Brighton, added, “The big society was taking the streets and [to show] Cameron we were prepared to fight. All knew that this march was only the beginning of a long period of struggle.” This speaks to the real anger these governmental attacks have set off, a sentiment that officials have tried endlessly to divert away from those who really caused the economic mess. Now students are demonstrating in the streets, occupying their universities, and even smashing windows. They are being

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COMMENTARY BY ANTON STREZHNEV

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A new public sphere?

The role of digital media in democratic transitions

he Egyptian government’s imprisonment of noted blogger Maikel Nabil Sanad for posts “insulting the military” is one of the recent flashpoints between the protest movement and the transition government over the direction of the nascent democracy in Egypt. That a blogger’s imprisonment would garner such widespread attention speaks to how intimately connected the democratic transition is to the revolution’s roots in the digital public sphere. While much has been written about digital media’s ability to connect and amplify the Egyptian protest movement, little has touched on the role of communication technology in facilitating the actual transition to a democratic system. It is during this tenuous period of transition that information technology’s role within society becomes even more essential. As aspects of the recent post-Soviet experience illustrate, stagnation and reversal haunt every wave of democratization. The spread of communication technology, while not a universal panacea, can strengthen democracy not only by providing a non-governmental “check” on overreach, but also by fostering a space for debate and political engagement. Social media goes beyond the capabilities of traditional outlets and makes both detection and response to governmental misdeeds easier and faster. Increased transparency tends to be technology’s primary effect on democracy and stability. In a 2008 Foreign Affairs article titled “The Democratic Rollback,” noted political scientist Larry Diamond argued that failures of governance are one of the main reasons why democratic transitions fail. Elite corruption fuels cynical and clientelistic politics where elections effectively become games for wealth and power. Such systems hollow-out democratic institutions from within, leading to “predatory” politics. The public media, enhanced by new innovations in information technology, performs one of the essential roles of civil society in providing accountability. But such a function is neither new nor unique to the information age. The watchdog role has been the purview of the “fourth estate” since the inception of modern democratic society. What makes digital media so distinct is that, in addition to increasing the speed of information dissemination, it has increased the speed of information deliberation. While older communication technology breakthroughs like the television massively expanded the quantity of information, their effect was mono-directional. Advances in new information technologies are bidirectional: insofar as they make it easier for individuals to receive information, their ubiquity also makes it easier for those individuals to broadcast back into the media sphere. What does this mean for emerging democracies? As conservative political commentator David Horowitz has noted, “[d]emocracy is about inclusion and exclusion.” The system determines how power will be negotiated and divided among competing groups. In democratic states with deeply divided polities, this process of inclusion and exclusion can undermine the democratic system itself. If groups are left out of the political process, they may resort to non-democratic and potentially vio-

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lent means of “claiming” power. Horowitz notes that it is difficult to build democratic institutions where groups can engage in “conflicts” over power without violence. Recovering from its autocratic past, Egypt is likely to see many sectarian grievances gain momentum. Flashpoints could include tension between Egyptian liberals and Islamists, along with the desire for historically marginalized Coptic Christians to play a more prominent role in the political process. As the demands of the protest movement begin to clash with hard-liners and remnants of the autocratic regime, discontent and conflict will develop. If this conflict is the nature of democracy, the nascent Egyptian democracy must find some means of allowing it to develop peacefully. Egypt’s democratic institutions may not be enough to meet this challenge alone. Years of single-party rule under Mubarak’s NDP have created an electoral system designed to rubber stamp autocracy. While the introduction of contested (albeit rigged) parliamentary elections near the end of Mubarak’s rule saw the emergence of parties in opposition to the NDP, these parties remain fragmented. This is where the public sphere, enabled by the expansive reach of digital media in Egypt, can help avert violence. New York University’s Clay Shirky noted in a recent Foreign Affairs piece that the Internet’s promotion of “media production” strengthens civil society by allowing “people to privately and publicly articulate and debate a welter of conflicting views.” It is here that the important political debates are to be had and new opinions are to be formed. That digital media allows individuals to expand their

groups, and Internet media can be co-opted to promote the government’s ideological interests. In extreme cases, the very existence of digital media can be left in the hands of the state, a fact poignantly illustrated by the massive ISP shutdown initiated by the Egyptian government during the Tahir Square protests. Two factors help mitigate the risk of these worst-case scenarios. The first is what Clay Shirky terms the “conservative dilemma.” The problem facing any drastic crackdown on digital media is that its pervasiveness ensures a substantial likelihood of societal spillover. While authoritarian regimes may accomplish the short-term objective of stifling an opposition group by shutting down communication networks, they do so at the risk of angering the broader population using media for more mundane media usage. The case of the ISP blackout in Egypt perfectly illustrates the problem with such drastic measures—digital networks are so inextricably tied into modern economies that interference can turn the whole public against an autocrat. In transitioning democracies, this dilemma becomes more pronounced as potential autocrats risk losing any “democratic legitimacy” that they have built up with the public. The second factor is the self-regulating function of digital media. By facilitating media creation at the same time as it facilitates media consumption, the Internet democratizes content. When faced with offensive or violent content, individuals are not forced to remain passive, but can actively mobilize to create “counter-content.” Noted Cameroonian blogger Dibussi Tande has argued that political

The public sphere, enabled by the expansive reach of digital media in Egypt, can help avert violence. sphere of discussion to almost the entire world makes social media a truly “public” sphere. Yet the goal of this “debate” and “discussion” is not necessarily agreement. While digital media can amplify the reach of a persuasive argument, most social tensions are unlikely to be resolved through perfect consensus between groups. But it is not the end result that matters here, but rather the process by which arguments are advanced. Digital media is unique because it is a form of power that is abundant rather than scarce. The Arab Spring protests themselves illustrate that digital media, like any form of mass communication, is a source of political power because it enables opinions and ideas to be transmitted globally. This means that digital social media makes argumentation a more viable means of contesting power than violence—which is essentially the goal of democratic institutions. Yet some critics contend that there may be dangers lurking within the realm of digital media. Evgeny Morozov, a visiting scholar at Stanford University, charges that new technologies can bolster rather than subvert authoritarian governments. Information flows are easily monitored by state surveillance of opposition

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social networks can self-regulate to contain violence and hate speech by developing a “meta-consensus” on what rhetoric will and will not be permitted by the community. Citing the example of the political and social upheavals after the 2008 elections in Kenya, Tande notes that although the Kenyan blogosphere became temporarily a forum for hate speech, ethnic baiting and inciting violence, the community was able to rally against the violent discourse. Ultimately, one cannot simply replace effective institutional design with digital media. The two serve fundamentally different purposes during a democratic transition. Where institutions provide the official operating structure of democratic governance, non-institutional mechanisms like the digital public sphere provide a “backstop” against institutional failure. As the recent tragedy in the Ivory Coast illustrates, formal elections in a new democracy can easily be derailed, even by a single individual. Where institutions are fragile, societal mechanisms must emphasize alternatives to violence, that may trigger a reversion to autocracy. By enabling the public to take an active role in non-violent political activities, new digital media becomes a crucial element of effective democratic transitions.

MAY 2011


INTERVIEW

INTERVIEW WITH

Dave Zirin Sports writer and activist

Dave Zirin is a sports writer, activist, and author. He currently serves as Sports Editor for The Nation magazine and hosts Sirius XM Radio’s weekly show, Edge of Sports Radio. Zirin has most recently authored Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games We Love and A People’s History of Sports in the United States, part of Howard Zinn’s People’s History series for the New Press. He is also co-author, along with John Carlos, of the forthcoming book The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment That Changed The World about John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s iconic black power salute on the 1968 Olympic podium. You’re a resident of the District. Does anybody still care about Georgetown basketball in D.C. like they used to? If not, why do you think that’s the case? Is it just the teams aren’t as good anymore? One reason is, of course, there are just more African-American coaches. That’s just sort of one basic fact. But the second thing is, this is a huge basketball town. So even while culturally Georgetown doesn’t have the same impact that it once did, which was kind of at the cutting edge, it’s certainly true that if Georgetown took off again in the same kind of way—and I thought they were going to take off a couple years ago when they had Jeff Green and Roy Hibbert on the same team. But if they take off, it will electrify the city in the same kind of way, because this is a town that loves hoops. This is the town of Elgin Baylor. This is the town of Steve Francis. This is a town where if you include the suburbs, [there’s] everybody from Kevin Durant to Jarrett Jack, and, down by Baltimore, Carmelo Anthony. I mean, people love hoops around here. I was living here when the University of Maryland won the national championship back in 2002 and the entire area was electric with College Park. And I think you would see something similar. Now it would be great if people could get as hyped over women’s hoops, because of the Georgetown Hoyas women’s team led by Monica McNutt, who just graduated from the program. I mean, she led, during her four years, an absolute renaissance in the program. And they almost beat UConn in this past year’s tournament. I actually do think if they had gotten over that hump, and had just beaten UConn, I think we would have seen something really interesting happening where people were confronted with the renaissance of Georgetown basketball—except it would’ve been the women of Georgetown leading that renaissance, and people would have to confront maybe their own sexism over whether or not women’s hoops is worth the equal amount of attention as men’s hoops. The sports sections and local sports cable shows would’ve had to confront the same thing. Speaking more generally about the NCAA, I wanted to get your opinion about Ralph Nader and the League of Fans’ recent call for the elimination of all collegiate athletic scholarships in order to “de-professionalize” college athletes. Do you agree with Nader?

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No, I don’t agree with Nader. And I have agreed with a lot of what Ralph and a lot of what League of Fans has tried to do over the years. I’m on the board of a group called the Support Stands coalition, which has similar aims in terms of trying to democratize sports. I think what Nader proposes, what it does at the end of the day, is it punishes the student athlete. I think the answer is much more rooted in the idea of athletes getting some sort of stipend so they get some kind of compensation for the labors they put in to a university. It’s appalling to me that the NCAA television contract for basketball is almost $12 billion, it’s appalling that coaches get seven figure contracts from shoe companies, and that the players don’t see a single solitary dime for that. People say well they get the scholarship, and it’s like do people even know that scholarships are renewed on an annual basis? So if you don’t even get a four-year scholarship— and your scholarship is subject to review by your coach and the athletic department, not by any of your professors—you can be a 4.0 student, but if you’re not fitting into the scheme of the basketball coach or the football coach, you’re gone. And of course the last point about that, which is the most critical to me, is that college education is crazy expensive right now. Let’s say tuition is sixty grand a year. If you are a top athlete at the school, you’re not getting sixty grand worth of an education because you need to choose your classes based around the basketball schedule. That takes away from the value of the sixty grand. You can’t do the extracurricular activities that your classmates do because you have to focus on basketball, you can’t take advantage of all the little perks that come with being a Georgetown student in terms of on campus events, or shows, or things like that. All of what that sixty grand goes toward, you don’t get to actually use all that money. It’s really a bad deal for the student athlete. It would be good to see them actually get some compensation based on the funds they produce. So you’re a sports fan and writer, but also an activist. How does one reconcile being an activist with being a sports fan and buying tickets for or supporting, in any capacity, these massive professional sports franchises, which are essentially concerned first and foremost with turning a profit? I’m not sure of a business that doesn’t have as its first concern turning a profit. Now

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Photo cour tesy of Michele Bollinger

that’d be true whether I went to the movies, whether I ate at a restaurant, or whether I did anything that didn’t involve sitting in the dark eating organic celery. The main reason though is that sports shouldn’t be rejected, they should be reclaimed. Sports are exciting, sports are beautiful, sports are part of the human experience. The idea that sports have become so corporatized, so top-down and so segmented off from the majority of the increasingly out-ofshape population—to me that’s something to fight against. You can’t fight against it if you’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and rejecting sports from top to bottom, from head to toe. My next question is in a similar vein. Terry Eagleton, the great Marxist literary critic wrote a polemic in The Guardian before last year’s World Cup called “Football: a dear friend to capitalism.” I don’t know if you saw this piece when it came out, but what do you think about this assertion? Is football, or really just any sport, the opium of the masses? Yeah, I wrote a response to it. I said at the time I thought it was profoundly elitist. I think he completely misunderstands the relationship between sports and modern society. And it’s just this musty old trope from the left [arguing] that those of us who love sports are being bamboozled, and [we’re] just addicts permanently distracted from what really matters. I wrote, this is elitist hogwash because sports are exciting, interesting, and at their best can rise to the level of art. They’re part of human experience. Of course [sports] are deeply, deeply contradictory. All art is contradictory. But you would never hear Eagleton say we should reject painting or reject theater. It seems to me that this only applies to sports by cultural critics and academics. And this is where the elitism comes in—you get this idea that because the masses, a.k.a. working people, like sports and not theater and not opera, the contradictions of sports are signs of its irredeemable idiocy.

READ THE FULL INTERVIEW with Dave Zirin at COUNTERPOINTMAGAZINE.ORG.

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REVIEW BY LEIGH FINNEGAN

Unfinished

The late David Foster Wallace’s work-in-progress

THE PALE KING By David Foster Wallace (Little Brown & Co. $27.99)

T

he Pale King is unfinished. This is obvious long before the reader gets into its disjointed chapters, some of which feature nameless characters who are never revisited. Long before the reader becomes certain, that some seemingly unconnected plot lines are fused together, while others remain freestanding or frayed at their ends. It becomes evident even before the reader gets past the book’s run-on, verb-less, creatively punctuated first sentence. In fact, what makes The Pale King’s unfinished quality so blatant is its diminutive length—a scanty 547 pages. This length should raise an eyebrow for anyone already familiar with David Foster Wallace’s writing style. His magnum opus, 1996’s Infinite Jest, was a 1000-page marathon of a novel, where dozens of plot lines and hundreds of sometimes chapter-length endnotes enveloped into a masterful commentary on the role of entertainment in America. Wallace had a similar vision in mind for his next, heavily labored-over work. The Pale King’s relatively short length is the vestige of a life tragically cut short by suicide – just a third of what the author had envisioned when he hanged himself in 2008. What we have of The Pale King was born out of a pile of manuscripts that Wallace’s longtime editor Michael Pietsch waded through and translated into a somewhat sensical fraction of a book. The product serves as hard evidence that Wallace had no such intention of changing his formula. The book is very much in the same style as Infinite Jest, with the occasional multiple-page-long sentence, entire chapters with no seeming relevance until hundreds of pages later, and a good deal of footnotes. And while The Pale King has the complete opposite central theme—examining boredom while Jest explores entertainment— the two works are strikingly similar in their content. Both contain painstakingly detailed, often fantastical background stories for even

14

THE PALE KING

Photo used under Creative Commons from Steve Rhodes

the most marginal of characters, written in prose that keeps the reader from getting too tied up in emotional attachment. It’s that emotional detachment that accounts for Wallace’s success as an author. Besides his massive vocabulary and his gift for presenting deep insight in easy terms, he has an ability to expose the horrifying, disturbing, or otherwise upsetting experiences that shape his characters. But he does so in a way that shields readers from feeling the effects themselves. He uses this tactic in Jest, where the plot is in many places overshadowed by vivid descriptions of drug addiction, meticulously detailed flashbacks to childhood sexual abuse, and surprisingly relatable ramblings of the mentally unstable. The Pale King recycles this method to the point that entire paragraphs—sometimes entire chapters—could be interchanged between the two books. But that’s not to call The Pale King unoriginal. Despite its structural similarity to his last novel, this book has an entirely new, fauxmemoir element to it, which Wallace introduces in his “Author’s Foreword.” Oddly enough, this appears about 100 pages in. He insists that the book’s main storyline—which follows the workers at the Peoria, Illinois branch of the IRS—is entirely true. Each of these ridiculous characters, some of whom possess supernatural skills like the ability to levitate, are purportedly relics from the year he found himself working for “the Service.” Thereafter, the character of David Wallace pops up in various scenes inside the IRS building, the shape and setup of which the author spends an unnecessary several pages detailing. It’s hard to say why Wallace decided to employ this meta approach. Although he’s certainly not the first author to insert himself directly into his work—Vonnegut interacts with a self-aware Kilgore Trout for good chunks of Breakfast of Champions and Timequake, for instance—Wallace never gives the audience any indication that the premise is fabricated. It does a good job of adding some humanity to a novel which is, after all, essentially a book about taxes. And while Jest is a relentlessly

Counterpoint

has touched off renewed interest in the work of acclaimed writer David Foster Wallace.

entertaining study of entertainment, this picture of boredom is, at many points, painfully dull. In this way, Wallace’s gift for rhetorically replicating the mental state of someone suffering from OCD or tripping on the fictitious drug Obetrol becomes a disadvantage. He is able to, for better or for worse, stick his reader right into the bleak tedium of an IRS cubicle – body growing numb, poring over tax forms, and worrying about who’s falsifying their Line 40s. As usual, his description is the result of painstaking research and examination. His detailed first-person explanations of exactly how and why he came to work at the IRS are so deftly executed that many an uninformed reader would probably believe him, if it weren’t for the help of the “biography” section of Wikipedia. But the uninformed reader is not the target audience of this book. It’s confusing, unfinished, and, at many points, almost unreadably boring. Even so, someone put a lot of effort into dissecting the manuscripts and stringing together a fraction of a novel, and that’s for one main reason—it’s David Foster Wallace. What gained him a seat among the rare few who deserve to be posthumously published wasn’t easily-followed, neatly tied plot lines; it was linguistic contortions, mammoth tangents, and intensely-creative and surprisingly laugh-out-loud situations. The reader gets all of those in The Pale King, even if the plots are left frayed at their ends. Frequently, when a work is published posthumously, someone goes back and ties up the story’s plot in the writer’s style. No one would have considered doing this with The Pale King, and for good reason. Even with a few marginal notes offering vague delineations of where certain plots were headed, nobody could predict what David Foster Wallace had planned for his motley gang of IRS workers. And with Wallace, as opposed to virtually any other author, that’s not a problem. You may not have learned how the seventeen-year-old mental patient wound up in the IRS’s Problem Resolution department, but at least you got his picture of how it felt to be institutionalized.

MAY 2011


REVIEW BY MATTHEW COLLINS

Net lit goes mainstream An original take on suburbia

B

lake Butler loves gangster rap. He regularly cites the work of Young Jeezy and Gucci Mane as influences on his style, along with the more traditional high-brow sorts: author Brian Evenson, filmmaker David Lynch. Considering his background—white, thirty-something, in love with Infinite Jest—Butler’s proclivity for the heaviest of hip-hop may draw some raised eyebrows. But pick up There Is No Year, and it begins to make sense – his work is as assertive, cold, and real as the rappers he discusses on his blog. That blog—HTMLGIANT: The Internet Literature Magazine Blog of the Future—has Blake doing more than writing; he curates the literary commentary of twenty-odd authors, many of whom have published works themselves. Those associated with the blog include buzzed-about young writers Justin Taylor and Tao Lin. And with most of the contributors under 40 years old, it’s increasingly cited as fertile ground for up-and-comers. The site’s casual take on heady subject matter, surprisingly inviting for all of its hyperliterate jargon, embodies the spirit carried by many of these writers. From Taylor’s vaguely magical take on American youth (Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever) to Lin’s irony-laden explorations of urban ennui (Shoplifting from American Apparel), the works are both wide-eyed and very, very serious. Butler’s There Is No Year—his third published work, the first printed through a major publishing house—clearly comes from the same school of thought. Butler’s approach to language is playful and simply structured. But his sojourn into suburban malaise is eerie and deftly-presented, the product of an incredibly perceptive eye twisting the notion of “mainstream America” into something foreign and deeply unsettling. That Butler is able to make “suburban malaise” fresh again might be his strongest accomplishment here. For all the praise lobbed towards Franzen last year, hearing rural expats pat themselves on the back for moving to

the city gets old after a while (and it’s not as though cosmopolitans don’t have their share of personal problems). Butler subverts this trend, though. His keen self-awareness sets him up as someone more content to show the absurdity of everyday life than to stand on a soapbox and preach. His exposition of this absurdity lies in the pop-surrealist tradition of David Lynch and fellow Atlantans Matt Maiellaro and Dave Willis. The book’s three main characters—referred to simply as the mother, the father, and the son —go through a series of undeniably bizarre trials. These range from journeys through their house’s endless ventilation system to uncomfortable run-ins with potential homebuyers to battles with millions of caterpillars taking up residence in their mailbox. Each of these vignettes is horrifying—presented with a chilling sense of distance and a fever pitch tempo—and puts the mundane in a radical new light. Most interested homebuyers might not respond to your comments with a stony silence and later break and stomp upon your bathroom mirror, as in the novel. But by taking situations to their disconcerting extremes, Butler makes the banal alien and forces his audience to see the world with a new perspective. This conceit is acknowledged repeatedly throughout the book. In a novel full of strong, recurring imagery, “copies” are perhaps the strongest theme: a copy family, a copy house, even copies of Butler’s thematic objects. These copies are never quite right – their unusualness recognized in a novel otherwise full of unrecognized surrealism—but they nonetheless exert themselves in powerful ways upon Butler’s characters. In true HTMLGIANT fashion, Butler manages to examine not only the power of art in one of his works but also the power of that very work within itself— all in highly readable prose. That prose sits at the core of There Is No Year’s success. Butler’s style is punchy and only half-sensical, equal parts Carver and Vonnegut.

THE STANDARD VIEW OF SUBURBIA is

subverted in Blake Butler’s There is No Year.

Photo used under Creative Commons from Shazam791

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Counterpoint

THERE IS NO YEAR By Blake Butler (Harper Perennial, $15.99)

He has a delightful knack for stiltedly poetic lines which, when paired with his preference for descriptors that make more sense intuitively than logically, rests perfectly alongside the novel’s surreal content. That said, the novel occasionally relies too heavily on repetition-as-description, especially when tackling larger ideas. In these instances, Butler’s prose goes from strangely vivacious and smooth (“He had dark meat around his eyes”) to harsh and pounding. His gift for deliciously affected lines disappears in the face of such descriptive piling. Considering how strongly Butler’s approach ties in with the novel’s story, it makes sense that when one lags, so does the other. The novel’s second half sees Butler moving away from his strongest asset, and similarly the novel’s plot begins to loosen at the seams. There Is No Year is indeed a series of vignettes, largely experienced by each of the three characters alone. When establishing the conceit, this works fantastically well. We learn of the characters as placeholders, we’re introduced to the haunting world in which they live, and we come to terms with Butler’s surreal wordplay. But once this is established—through some of his strongest language and most powerful imagery—we go nowhere. The reader is left treading water in the (admittedly well-developed) conceit. Opportunities to develop relationships or offer a critical eye are bypassed in favor of repetition. This is not inherently bad. The characters do live in relation to one another—the mother unhappy with her marriage and concerned about her son’s recent recovery from illness; the son, rebellious and angsty; the father, battling the balance of work and home. The lack of criticism throughout keeps There Is No Year from delving into cosmopolitan chest-beating. Butler challenges his audience from the start, succeeding in changing our perception of the world well before the novel’s close. An impressive feat, it nevertheless leaves plenty of time to come at us with emotion or commentary. Even Tupac had the sensitive “Hey Mama.”

15


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