Politics: From Eulogy To War

Imagine the unexpected death of the owner of a privately held company. His heirs take a moment to express their sorrow at his passing. And then, moments later, they turn on each other and initiate a vicious fight to take his place at the helm of the family firm.

That’s quite unseemly, eh? Any decent human being would expect the heirs to pause for a respectful mourning period before pivoting from eulogy to war. But America’s leading politicians are a unique breed. How long would they wait under such circumstances?

We now know the answer to that question. At 2:20 pm yesterday, CNN’s Breaking News Twitter account announced the death of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. And then what happened?

Republican Senator Ted Cruz tweeted a link to his Facebook eulogy at 2:18 pm, and followed with a tweeted call for the Republican Senate of the United States to deny Democratic President Barack Obama his constitutional right to propose a successor at 2:27 pm.

That’s not a typo. Senator Cruz actually scooped CNN’s Breaking News Twitter feed by two minutes when posting his eulogy. So how long did he then wait to launch into the rancorous political debate about Scalia’s successor?

9 minutes. Literally, 9 minutes, from 2:18 pm to 2:27 pm.

Senate Democratic minority leader Harry Reid was a bit slower to the punch. He tweeted a condolence message at 3:21 pm, and then waited a full minute to tweet his political support of President Obama’s right to name a successor at 3:22 pm.

Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell, often portrayed as a turtle by comics, was less hurried than either colleague. He tweeted a link to his official government eulogy statement at 3:41 pm. And then he pivoted to tweet his support of Cruz’s political sentiments at 4:35 pm.

Let’s calculate the mourning periods of these three politicians. How long did each pause before leaping into the vicious debate over Justice Scalia’s successor? Senator Cruz waited for 9 minutes. Senator Reid did so for 1 minute. And Senator McConnell for 54 minutes.

So whom do you most admire? Cruz for being first to the punch? Reid for being the quickest to pivot from condolences to political in-fighting? Or McConnell for managing to wait almost a full hour before tossing away his grief and engaging in political warfare?

It’s possible that most Americans are so disgusted by the penchant of their politicians to turn every possible event (even a man’s death) into a political Twitter war, they no longer care to ponder such questions.

But by becoming inured to the indecent squabbling of their political leaders, they perpetuate their behavior. And so each politician, like a jealous and ungrateful heir of a deceased business owner, will continue to bicker endlessly about any issue that can help him seize the mantle of power.

Via Twitter, of course.

Creative Mashups

Have you ever heard of the word mashup? It’s a term that is often utilized by professionals in the web page design and music industries, one that refers to a site or song that incorporates (or “borrows”) disparate elements from existing works or styles. The composer mashes the elements together, producing a new creation that is startlingly new and yet clearly familiar.

Last weekend, for instance, the New Haven Symphony closed its holiday concert with a song called Jingle Bells Forever. Blending Stars and Stripes Forever, the traditional closing song of Memorial Day concerts, with Jingle Bells, which occupies a similar position at Christmas season events, it represents an oddly fascinating mashup of diverse musical pieces.

In a broader sense, we’ve also been witnessing mashups in many other sectors of our society, haven’t we? In politics, for instance, we see Donald Trump, with his blended persona of politician, real estate tycoon, and reality television personality. And in business, we observe Airbnb and Uber, firms that represent mashups of the emerging social media industry with the traditional hotel and taxi industries.

And who can forget the Apple iPhone? The mother of all mashups now dominates the mobile device industry with its aggregation of book reader, camera, computer, GPS device, music player, and (of course) telephone. Entire industries have fallen under the competitive onslaught of its myriad of diverse features.

It’s important to keep in mind, though, that mashups simply present newly combined and integrated packages of existing products and services. In other words, there is usually nothing new under the sun about their individual functions.

In fact, even the phrase “nothing is new under the sun” is not new at all. It’s a sentence that originally appeared in Ecclesiastes 1:9 of the Old Testament of the Judeo-Christian bible. Likewise, the elements of contemporary mashups are derived from elements that have long existed in our society.

So if you’re curious about what new and unexpected wonders will emerge during the upcoming year, you might find that the most creative surprises won’t really be new at all. Instead, they might be creative mashups of concepts and ideas that have been around forever.

The Right To Privacy: Win One, Lose One?

Do American citizens possess a legal right to privacy? If they do, then is it guaranteed in the United States Constitution? And if it is, then is it an unalienable human right?

These questions are meaningful because contemporary advances in technology have caused civil advocates to raise concerns about illegal invasions of personal privacy. But these advocates often fail to clarify whether such alleged invasions are administratively illegal, constitutionally illegal, or unalienably illegal.

There are no generally accepted definitions that distinguish between these three levels of illegality. Nevertheless, the differences are conceptually significant. A law that requires the printing of home addresses on driver’s licenses, for instance, may represent a legal breach of personal privacy, but it is hardly a constitutional concern.

On the other hand, a law that prohibits same sex marriage is undoubtedly one that addresses the constitutional rights of American citizens. And a law that legalizes euthanasia or abortion directly addresses the “right to life” that was labeled an “unalienable right” in Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence.

Concerns about privacy rights were raised anew last week, in light of a pair of announcements about: (a) hardware that is designed to protect physical security, and (b) software that is designed to share personal information. From the perspective of privacy advocates, the two announcements could have been scored in a “win one, lose one” manner.

Win One For Airline Passengers

The “win” for privacy advocates involved the full body security scanners that are manufactured by Rapiscan Systems. Two hundred and fifty machines had been installed at airport security areas throughout the United States; over half of these machines currently remain in operation.

The scanners are controversial because they use x-ray technology to “see” through clothing and transmit anatomically accurate images of nude human bodies to security agents. The agents, who are positioned in remote enclosed rooms in the airports, are trained to search for visual evidence of concealed weaponry.

Last week, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) announced that it will remove the scanners from operation because of concerns about violating the personal privacy of airline passengers. Nevertheless, the TSA vowed to continue utilizing alternative scanners that display less graphically vivid images.

The TSA did not cite a legal definition of privacy when it announced its decision. Although some liken the Rapiscan methodology to a virtual strip search, others support what has been characterized by the TSA as a safe and necessary strategy for promoting airline safety.

Lose One For Social Media Users

The “loss” for privacy advocates involved the announcement of a new search feature by Facebook. Its Graph Search function is designed to enable web-based searches on individual users by referring to their personal and social postings.

Facebook, of course, does possess the legal right to utilize all posted information in accordance with its terms and conditions of use. A more controversial issue, though, is whether the social media giant possesses the legal right to assume that all of its users actually read and understood those terms and conditions before opening accounts and posting personal and social content.

Facebook executives would undoubtedly argue that the discontinuation of Graph Search would not represent a victory for privacy advocates; instead, it would impose a loss on advocates of free communication in general and supporters of an open internet in particular. Likewise, Rapiscan executives undoubtedly perceive the discontinuation of its full body scanners as a loss for proponents of transportation security.

Coming Next: Location Tracking

The next great privacy controversy over technology applications may involve the continued development of location tracking systems. Ever since President Bill Clinton authorized the use of the satellite based Global Positioning System for commercial applications, companies from Google to foursquare have developed web based applications to exploit its capabilities.

To be sure, applications such as Mapquest driving directions and Garmin navigation systems have made travel experiences far more safe and efficient for millions of users. But the proverbial “dark side” of location tracking systems was exposed by the web site PleaseRobMe.com, a tongue-in-cheek rogue service for burglars that actually broadcast updates when social media users were traveling away from home.

In the Steven Spielberg film adaption of Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report, Tom Cruise walked through a shopping mall and was besieged by highly personalized advertisements that detected his personal identify and greeted him by name. The film did not clarify whether he possessed the right to “opt out” of such advertising, or whether he had previously “opted in” for it.

If the past week’s events regarding Rapiscan and Facebook are any indication of the future, such issues will likely be debated for quite some time to come. In the meantime, though, we’ll be able to feel a bit less prudish when we check in at the airport, while possibly feeling compelled to be a bit more cautious when we post our location status updates online.

Independent Voices and Mass Media

Is free speech possible in media that are dominated by a few mega-sized organizations? Is objective expression feasible in outlets that are owned and controlled by corporate conglomerates?

Last week, political commentator Andrew Sullivan became the latest entrepreneur to answer these questions with a resounding “no.” Citing the need for financial independence as a necessary predecessor condition for editorial independence, Sullivan announced his plan to withdraw his blog from IAC’s The Daily Beast and establish an independent media voice.

Like Bill O’Reilly of the Fox News Channel, Sullivan is a self-described political conservator who practices the Catholic faith. Yet unlike Mr. O’Reilly, he is an openly HIV positive gay citizen who has forcefully advocated for same sex marriage.

But concerns about free speech are not unique to individuals, like Mr. Sullivan, who fail to fit easily into the conventional categories of our contemporary media industry. Indeed, such concerns predate today’s social media era, and even predate the classic newspaper era.

Lincoln’s “New Oratorical Style”

During the mid 1800s, for instance, the public lecture was a popular form of education and entertainment. Instead of relying on the fledgling newspaper industry to convey their messages to the public, politicians and other commentators would appear in churches and concert halls and deliver speeches directly to their audiences.

In 1860, a second tier Presidential candidate named Abraham Lincoln propelled himself towards the White House with a (now legendary) speaking performance at Cooper Union in New York City. The address was considered to be remarkable for its “… new oratorical style: informed by history, suffused with moral certainty, and marked by lawyerly precision.”

Social gatherings and public lectures? They may have represented the very earliest examples of social media platforms that influenced public discourse. And they served the needs of commentators to express their opinions directly to public crowds; likewise, they served the desires of the crowds for unfettered access to the speakers.

Mad as Hell!

The twentieth century, however, was marked by the corporatizing of various media outlets and the merging of independent outlets into mass market entities. In the newspaper industry, for instance, The Tribune Company evolved from its roots as an eponymous Chicago newspaper to become the conglomerate owner of the Los Angeles Times, the Hartford Courant, the Orlando Sentinel, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Baltimore Sun, and other publications.

Likewise, in the radio industry, Clear Channel Communications evolved from a single San Antonio FM station in 1972 to a national behemoth with more than 830 local stations. And in the television industry, national network control over local independent stations became such a concern that the Federal Communications Commission limited network control over local content with the implementation of the Prime Time Access Rule in 1970.

Controversies about the stifling of free speech and independent expression were epitomized by the 1976 film Network. Inspired by a true incident involving a local reporter who committed suicide on a live local news broadcast after losing an argument with her editors, the film became known for its portrayal of a deranged news man who screams “”I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” about his corporate bosses.

As we entered the 21st century, many social commentators had hoped that the development of the internet would spark a “creative commons” for authors, artists, and educators to distribute their content without corporate editorial filters. But the internet medium itself has followed the industry life cycles of newspapers, radio, and television by coalescing into a small number of dominant organizations.

From Glenn Beck To Al Jazeera

Last year, for instance, the web sites that attracted the most traffic in the United States were Google / YouTube, Facebook, and Amazon. And during the past two weeks, a pair of provocative news “voices” from opposing sides of the ideological spectrum announced plans to abandon their fledgling web based platforms in favor of more traditional corporate models of distribution.

First, libertarian commentator Glenn Beck revealed that he would reposition GBTV as a libertarian themed media network called The Blaze. Then the Arab news organization Al Jazeera announced that it would purchase the liberal cable television news network Current TV, shut down its web streaming service Al Jazeera English, and relaunch its American news operations on the Current platform as a cable network named Al Jazeera America.

Beck is considered one of the founding members of the political Tea Party movement in the United States. Current TV was co-founded by former Vice President and Nobel Prize recipient Al Gore. And Al Jazeera is owned by the government of the nation of Qatar. These diverse individuals and organizations have applied impressive arrays of resources to the challenges of launching innovative independent media entities.

And now Andrew Sullivan has decided to confront the same challenges. Apparently, the quest for editorial independence and objectivity has survived into the internet media era.