The Evolution of Politics
A conversation with Rachel Bovard on reevaluating priorities on the right side of the aisle
After so much All-COVID-All-The-Time, I’m taking a small break to investigate a political movement that I’m sympathetic to and curious about. I’ve followed Rachel Bovard for some time and watched quietly as she’s made the case for a Republican policy response to the increasingly monopolistic practices with Big Tech. I’ve always seen her as a fairly even-keel person, so it was strange to see David Brooks write, in a piece entitled “The Terrifying Future of the American Right” about how afraid she makes him.
(Bovard) is giving the best synopsis of national conservatism I've heard at the conference we're attending--and with flair! Progressives pretend to be the oppressed ones, she tells the crowd, "but in reality, it's just an old boys' club, another frat house for entitled rich kids contrived to perpetuate their unearned privilege. It's Skull and Bones for gender-studies majors!" She finishes to a rousing ovation. People leap to their feet.
I have the sinking sensation that the thunderous sound I'm hearing is the future of the Republican Party.
So I decided to talk to Rachel about how scary she is and see what things it is that we have to be so terrified about.
We talk a lot about tech companies, internet infrastructure and free speech. The question of if tech companies have too much power has seemed like a really easy “yes” to me.
I hold a deep-seated admiration of the leftist writer Quinn Norton, who was fired from the New York Times because she was once friendly with an awful online personality even though she clearly did not condone them or agree with them. Quinn held a strong defense and paid a heavy price for it. I admired her greatly for that, for standing up for what she believed in, and for refusing to apologize for it.
But the loss of a position at the New York Times was tough, but the real kick in the teeth came when Twitter completely nuked her account. She had used Twitter’s OAuth access tokens to connect her online professional life and, when her account was destroyed, she was exiled not only from the platform, but from her own writing. She wrote a heartbreaking piece about her digital exile.
I wasn't exiled from social media for my beliefs, my activism, or reputation; I was exiled for making a kill all men joke to my husband. My hopes to use services linked to Twitter, like Medium, have been fucked up with OAuth in what I can only imagine is a chain of unintended consequences no one cares about for those outside of the loving light of tech culture. After my public denouncement, and now my algorithmic loneliness, I can tell you it's cold and sad out here in the hinterlands of the internet. I would like to come back to the bright lights and big cities. Of course, I can to some degree, I just have to comply with Twitter's strong arm data collection tactics, just like if I want to keep talking to my friends and family on Whatsapp, I have to agree to let Facebook abuse not just my privacy, but my community and those I am close to. They have me over a barrel on that one; I am trying to get people onto Signal, but for those I haven't gotten over yet, I'm not sure that's a level of exile I can take right now. Sure, I can bully my kid onto Signal, but my French teacher, my old friends who just don't know or don't care about data privacy, my new friends in Luxembourg, or the people who are contributing to my software project? I don't know about that.
It's not so hard to slip through the cracks, you don't have to be The Internet's Most Hated Person, 2013 and 2018. You can just make an off-hand comment, taken out of context by an algorithm, or a nasty-minded or confused passerby, and find yourself cut off from society.
Exile is very cold and very distant, and mean people still suck, even when they don't mean to be mean.
We own almost nothing that we produce on digital platforms and the tech companies mean to keep it that way. I don’t own my Twitter. I don’t own my Google account. Google could destroy my account, burn years of my work, lock me out of my phone, and make it nearly impossible to do my job and they could do this for just about any reason or for no reason at all. There are very few laws protecting consumers from these practices.
Rachel Bovard is at least talking about this, recognizing this is a problem. She notes that we haven’t even started building the policy tools that are necessary to ensure freedom in a digital age. Brooks’ sidesteps these questions entirely, implying that even recognizing this problem and wanting to solve it is to veer into unhinged populism.
I disagree. I think it is essential to grapple with the question of digital freedom in a world where the vast majority of corporations are turning explicitly political and not afraid to control the flow of information and human connection in favor of their political and ideological preferences. It is one of the most important policy discussions we need to have and everyone who isn’t willing to have it is going to be left out in the cold.
I ultimately think this is what terrifies David Brooks: The worry that he doesn’t have much to contribute to the biggest political questions of our time.
Disney Shorts: Mickey’s Circus (1936)
This is part of the “Mickey Mouse Puts on a Show” genre of Disney shorts. These can be hit and miss, but the inclusion of Donald Duck is always a good sign. The very best Donald Duck is when he’s massively talented and competent but he lets his temper get the better of him.
This short shows Mickey giving a charity circus show to a set of ne'er-do-well orphans. In the end, this is hardly Mickey’s circus, probably because Donald the seal trainer provides so much good entertainment. The seals are adorable (especially the baby seal) and it all predictably goes off the rails when the orphans take over the show.