Tag Archives: Barack Obama

Well Said.

                                   Cory Booker

Sometimes a person comes up with the right words at just the right time: the result of good timing, a sense of irony, and an apparent simplicity that may yield a deeper truth.

Responses to others can be kind or cutting, playful or hurtful.  They are at their worst when one of the parties can hide behind anonymity.  One effect is that our political climate has become coarser and more toxic. It doesn’t help that our President seems to have no sense of humor.

Here are just a few favorites of the whittier kind heard from politicians, past and present, residing on both sides of the Atlantic.

  • Presidential candidate Cory Booker is frequently asked about race as a factor in the current political climate.  One recent response: “I’ve had lots of crazy things said to me, like, ‘Is America ready for another black president?’ And I’m confident it’s never been asked of a white candidate, ‘Is America ready for another white president?’”

  • [Nancy Astor and Winston Churchill had a notoriously rocky relationship in and out of the British House of Commons.  Both were sharp witted and ready for a quick retort.] Churchill once asked her for some advice on how to proceed in the House of Commons.  She responded with a simple “Why don’t you come sober, Prime Minister?” In another exchange that supposedly took place at a party, Lady Astor said to Churchill, “If you were my husband, I’d poison your tea,” to which he responded, “Madam, if you were my wife, I’d drink it.”

  • [In a recent exchange in Parliament the loquacious MP Anna Soubry dressed down government minister Michael Gove over his support of Brexit.  She ended her statement with a pointed question, to which Gove responded,] “The right Honorable lady is a distinguished criminal barrister. Now I know what it is like to be cross-examined by her.  But I also understand why Lawyers are paid by the hour.”

  • [President Obama loved to work with writers to come up with quips for the Annual White House Correspondents Dinner.  He seemed to enjoy sparring with journalists, perhaps because he was a successful writer before assuming the Presidency.  He also relished quips playing off of absurd Republican assertions about his personal history.]  A favorite: ”These days, I look in the mirror and I have to admit, I’m not the strapping young Muslim socialist that I used to be.”

  • And there’s also this: ”The fact is I really do respect the press. I recognize that the press and I have different jobs to do. My job is to be President; your job is to keep me humble. Frankly, I think I’m doing my job better.”

  • John Kennedy won the presidential election in 1960 by a close margin.  Charges during the campaign that his wealthy father was rigging the result led to this observation by Kennedy, delivered in his usual understated style: “I just received the following wire from my generous Daddy: ‘Dear Jack, Don’t buy a single vote more than is necessary. I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay for a landslide.'” 

Can’t be Bothered with Democratic Norms? Why Not Undermine Someone Else’s?

                 Russian Facebook ad

Barack Obama was right.  Russia is a pariah for good reasons, and all the worse for ‘having nothing that other countries want.’

Recent news of extensive Russian infiltration of American social media sites is hardly a surprise. We have known for some time that a country that has retreated from its once-blossoming democracy has been interested in sowing discord in ours. Authoritarian regimes tend to be lazy.  It seems to have been easy to ‘play’ American social media to confuse and divide Americans.  On the available evidence recently released in two Senate Intelligence Committee reports, the Putin government decided it would do its best to use hostile and divisive information to undermine the Clinton campaign in favor of Donald Trump’s. As is increasingly apparent, the President has an indecent soft spot for Russian money and power.  By contrast, the former Secretary of State was always far more critical of Russian ambitions generally, and the annexation of Crimea in particular.

To be sure, it requires a selective memory for any American to criticize others for meddling in the politics of a foreign nation.  We used to make it a habit in Latin America and sometimes the old Soviet Union.  Even so, it’s a stunning act of hubris when the leader of a government that can’t even decide if they will tolerate rap music decides American elections are fair game. Russians exploited our personal and media freedoms to disperse bogus opinions that were ostensibly from Americans, many apparently aimed at alienating African American voters.

It’s an understatement to note that Russia looks desperate and weak to enforce authoritarianism values at home while exploiting the freedoms of other nations.  Barack Obama was right.  Russia is a pariah for good reasons and, to paraphrase him: all the worse for ‘having nothing that other countries want.’

The tech sector has always been slow to see the effects of their technologies on the lives of their users.

Aside from possible complicity for our own President, what makes all of this news of Russian interference worse is compelling evidence that major social media giants suppressed awareness of these planted ads, opinions and news stories. According to the Senate reports, a Kremlin-backed group uploaded over ten million tweets to Americans, 1100 videos and over 30 million Facebook posts.  All appeared to be coming from Americans.

Facebook is an especially egregious case.  Born as the plaything of privileged  kids luxuriating in their own narcissism, the fast-growing company expanded under the thrall of being another tech money machine. It’s leaders failed to notice or did not care that Facebook was fast becoming a new kind of agora: a digital version of the town square cherished long ago by early Greek democracies.  Along with Google, Youtube, Twitter and Instagram, it prospered on the illusion that it was functioning as just a “personal” form of media.  It was meant to make it possible to observe others’ best versions of themselves. Yet the problem with this orientation was that their leaders were slow to notice that their house was on fire. They were abetting a colossal fraud on the American public. Apparently the self-presentation mirror is too alluring to be bothered by bigger ideas like fairness and democracy.

Social media executives tend to see themselves as being in the ‘common carrier’ business, providing channels but not content. Instead, we must begin to insist that they view themselves using the higher standards that apply to content providers.  Perhaps they merit less regulation than broadcasters.  But the days of making connections without noticing the social havoc they can create need to be over.

The tech sector has always been slow to see how the aggregation of people over time and space would have important consequences for the soundness of our Republic. Too many have been neither interested or motivated to function as corporate citizens, in the full sense of that phrase.  As hapless tools of Russian disinformation, they have become a drag on the nation, doing too little too late to protect America’s fragile open society.