Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Notes on the SOPAcalaypse

What a bizarre political moment SOPA has produced. I cannot remember a more loathed piece of legislation. George W. Bush's social security privatization push was cause for widespread anguish, but it never had much of a chance of getting passed, and didn't make it nearly as far through the legislative process as SOPA and PIPA have. The PATRIOT act is so hated in some quarters that's it's seen as a harbinger of our declining democratic values--but it also has scores of willing defenders, and at least serves the abstractly altruistic purpose of preventing us from getting blown up by terrorists. The fight over Obamacare dragged out for over a year, but with a solid majority of Americans in support of overhauling this country's dysfunctional healthcare system, it's hard to group it with SOPA, which seemingly nobody supports.

Like really, have you read any op/eds, essays, tweets--like, individual tweets even--in favor of this thing? Even the usual channels of dipshittery--your O'Riellys, your George Wills, your New York Times editorial pages--are silent on this one, with actual intelligent people who know a little something about the Internet--your Julian Sanchez, your Reddit, your Electronic Frontier Foundation-- dominating the public discourse. Admittedly I'm somewhat of a casual observer here, but it seems like the SOPA debate is pretty much down to "every smart person who writes about tech policy for a living, along with randos from across the political spectrum (Eric Erickson?!?!)" vs. Lamar Hunt. And God bless the good Texas congressman, because without him, and his trusty sidekick, the reptilian (and ethically-challenged!) Chris Dodd, there would be no debate of which to speak. Hunt and Dodd are seemingly the only two people in existence who are willing to offer a quote or a public statement in support of SOPA, and in a weird sense, they deserve our gratitude. If the lead villains were any less transparent, any less flippant or contemptuous, the anti-SOPA movement would be a somehow less satisfying to witness.

On the other hand: take a look at the list of lawmakers who support this thing. More instructively, look at the Democrats who support it. SOPA has won the support of both conservative democrats (Gillibrand, Wasserman) and very liberal ones (Conyers, Reid). In fact, it's even supported by Rachel Maddow's former lead-in on Air America, a man whose mere presence in the U.S. senate was once offered as proof that shameless, fearless progressives still had a constituency in this country. For reasons I can't even begin to fathom, Al Franken, a man who like, wrote a bestselling book about the culture of dishonesty and hypocrisy in American political discourse, is a SOPA supporter, and a PIPA co-sponsor. But just to begin to fathom them: let's recall that Franken is the Senate's most outspoken supporter of net neutrality, so he already believes that the government should adopt an aggressively interventionist policy towards both the uses and overall architecture of the internet. Likely the net neutrality debate convinced him that he has both an expertise and a level of clout on web policy that he obviously doesn't possess--but this reasoning only explains why Franken trusts himself and people like him to determine what the internet should look like and do. It doesn't explain the underlying principles that would actually convince him to support SOPA, since backing the regulation of internet service providers doesn't necessarily require you to back the regulation of the internet's content.

SOPA has produced one of those depressingly familiar (but also quite bizarre!) political moments in which our valiant leadership is acting contrary to the public's actual wishes and interests, and in accordance with an occluded and probably corrupt jumble of motivations known only to themselves, to the extent that they are even known at all. Last night, I had the awe-inspiring experience of seeing Kevin Spacey play Richard III at BAM; possibly the most chilling moment of his performance (which was an embarrassment of chilling moments) was the Act I soliloquy in which Richard tells the audience or himself or whoever that he's realized what a corrupted and hateful person he is, that he has no friends, no family, no one who trusts him, no one who he can trust or depend on; that he's alone with his ambitions, succored only by a toxic insecurity and an insatiable desire for control. "I am crept in favor with myself," he says, in one of Shakespeare's more profound reflections on political psychology. It's like he's saying that power is a lonely and dangerous prospect, and those who seek it drift blindly towards a kind of Glochesterian event horizon where ambition shapes the self even as the self shapes ambition; where your motives become cluttered and hidden even from yourself, and where the self is overwhelmed by a mad, self-justifying lust. How many SOPA supporters are "with themselves?" How many have no understanding of what they're doing or why they're doing it? How many have become unmoored within the deadly, tumbling seas of their own disordered minds?

But I digress. My point in all this is that it is bad for democracy when laws this reviled are supported for reasons that no one can really explain or justify. SOPA deserves to die on its merits. But it deserves to die because I don't want to be the subject of a political system that can blacken even Al Franken's heart. A system that passes SOPA in light of this loud of a public outcry is a system that cynicism has finally conquered. Along with the now-totally inexplicable continuation of the drug war, SOPA's success would be yet another depressing indicator that our leaders are crept in favor with themselves alone...

...And what of our most powerful leader? For me, the most fascinating aspect of the SOPA debate is President Obama's relative absence from it. Obama could have single-handedly stopped SOPA weeks ago simply by promising to veto the bill if it's passed--I doubt that there are that many Democratic legislators who want to kick off an election year by both defying a sitting president and voting for SOPA twice; moreover, I doubt that these legislators and their Republican allies would constitute the 2/3rds majority needed to override a presidential veto.

Such a promise would have been politically savvy, and perhaps even politically essential. Not sure if you've noticed this, but the cool kids in the Republican conference are pretty much lined up against this thing: Bachmann, Issa, Scott Brown, Marco Rubio, as of this morning. Ron Paul. All opposed. SOPA opposition is one of those rare libertarian causes that isn't offensive to some large percentage of the Republican base, and that isn't offenseive to some even larger percentage of the general electorate. Surely some Republican strategist is going to figure out how to marry the Paulite civil-libertarian surge to the apparently quite-popular idea that the government should keep its fucking hands off of the internet. My guess is that this strategist will also figure out how to turn the SOPA narrative against the Democrats, what with the president being a Democrat and a PIPA co-sponsor basically being the lefty version of Jim DeMint.

More importantly: Obama carried the youth vote the last time around. It's part of why he won swing states like Pennsylvania, Virginia and Ohio. He convinced young people that the 2008 election was a historic moment, and that his was a historic campaign. He built a movement on the hopes and on the backs of 18-30 year olds who truly believed in him. How many are gonna believe in him if he actually signs SOPA? How many will even vote for him? I know I won't. Just by letting SOPA fester for this long, Obama is signaling that the entertainment industry's support might actually be more vital to his reelection chances than the kind of movementarian, grassroots youth mobilization that propelled him to the presidency. This alone is kind of a "fuck you."

Mashable has a pretty interesting primer on Obama's SOPA position. On the one hand, Obama believes that the Justice Department should have the ability to go after websites that pirate American intellectual property. On the other hand, he's against a bill that would threaten freedom of expression online. Whatever; Franken and company probably don't think that the current incarnation of SOPA threatens freedom of expression online, and Lamar Hunt is greedily welcoming any opportunity to keep SOPA on the legislative agenda. Obama could put an end to SOPA in a single press release, given the unpopularity of the bill. He could send a clear message to Congress that they badly fucked up and should now be forced to start this process over again. So why hasn't he?

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