Since it is election season, when I ran out of library books last week I decided to re-read Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72, as I do every four years or so. Surprisingly, I don't appear to have written about it here, even though it's one of my favorite books, and the reason I got into journalism in the first place.
On the Campaign Trail is always a relevant text, but it feels particularly so apt this year. In the middle of the Trump presidential run, the book's passage on the original populist rabble-rouser, George Wallace, could have been written yesterday if you just swap some names — not to mention the whirlwind chaos of the primaries and a convention battle. On the other hand, with writing this good, there's really no wrong time to bring it up.
Even before his death in 2005, when most people thought about Thompson, what usually came to mind was wild indulgence: drugs, guns, and "bat country." Ironically, On the Campaign Trail makes the strong case that his best writing was powerfully controlled and focused, not loose and hedonistic: the first two-thirds of the book (or even the first third) contain his finest work. After the Democratic national convention, and the resulting breakdowns in Thompson's health, the analysis remains sharp but the writing never reaches those heights again.
That's not to say that the book is without moments of depravity — his account of accidentally unleashing a drunken yahoo on the Muskie whistlestop tour is still a classic, not to mention the extended threat to chop the big toes off the McGovern political director — but it's never random or undirected. For Thompson, wild fabrication is the only way to bring readers into the surreal world of a political race. His genius is that it actually works.
Despite all that, if On the Campaign Trail has a legacy, it's not the craziness, the drugs, or even the politics. The core of the book is two warring impulses that drive Thompson at every turn: sympathy for the voters who pull the levers of democracy, and simultaneously a deep distrust of the kind of people that they reliably elect. The union of the two is the fuel behind his best writing. Or, as he puts it:
The highways are full of good mottos. But T.S. Eliot put them all in a sack when he coughed up that line about... what was it? Have these Dangerous Drugs fucked my memory? Maybe so. But I think it went something like this:
"Between the Idea and the Reality... Falls the Shadow."
The Shadow? I could almost smell the bastard behind me when I made the last turn into Manchester. It was late Tuesday night, and tomorrow's schedule was calm. All the candidates had zipped off to Florida — except for Sam Yorty, and I didn't feel ready for that.
The next day, around noon, I drove down to Boston. The only hitchhiker I saw was an eighteen-year-old kid with long black hair who was going to Reading — or "Redding," as he said it &mdsash; but when I asked him who he planned to vote for in the election he looked at me like I'd said something crazy.
"What election?" he asked.
"Never mind," I said. "I was only kidding."
John: Hey, Bush is now at 37% approval. I feel much less like Kevin McCarthy screaming in traffic. But I wonder what his base is --
John: ... you said that immmediately, and with some authority.
Tyrone: Obama vs. Alan Keyes. Keyes was from out of state, so you can eliminate any established political base; both candidates were black, so you can factor out racism; and Keyes was plainly, obviously, completely crazy. Batshit crazy. Head-trauma crazy. But 27% of the population of Illinois voted for him. They put party identification, personal prejudice, whatever ahead of rational judgement. Hell, even like 5% of Democrats voted for him. That's crazy behaviour. I think you have to assume a 27% Crazification Factor in any population.
John: Objectively crazy or crazy vis-a-vis my own inertial reference frame for rational behaviour? I mean, are you creating the Theory of Special Crazification or General Crazification?
Tyrone: Hadn't thought about it. Let's split the difference. Half just have worldviews which lead them to disagree with what you consider rationality even though they arrive at their positions through rational means, and the other half are the core of the Crazification -- either genuinely crazy; or so woefully misinformed about how the world works, the bases for their decision making is so flawed they may as well be crazy.
John: You realize this leads to there being over 30 million crazy people in the US?
Tyrone: Does that seem wrong?
John: ... a bit low, actually.
I saw a CBS poll this morning stating that 25% of the public favors the shutdown of the federal government. 80 representatives (that's 18.3%, one third of the Republican caucus in the House and representing roughly 18% of the total population) signed the original manifesto leading to the shutdown. Even if the numbers are a little low, is there any remaining doubt that John Rogers' Crazification Factor remains more accurate and revealing than most of Politico on any given day?
This is what you get when you elect people who don't believe in government to political office. You cannot deal with the Suicide Caucus, because they don't recognize the legitimacy of the rules that the Congress is supposed to operate under (thus the endless parade of funding delays and filibusters over the last seven years). Besides, they don't want to negotiate. They've gotten what they wanted: the government is basically closed for business, and they couldn't be more thrilled about it.
This week, Internet law commentary site Groklaw shut down, citing the lack of privacy in a world where the government is (maybe, possibly) reading all your e-mail. On the one hand, you can argue that this is evidence of dangerous chilling effects from surveillance on the fourth estate. On the other hand, shutting down a public blog (one that's focused on publicly-available legal filings) because the NSA can read your correspondence seems... ill-considered, but sadly not atypical.
In the initial wake of the NSA wiretapping stories, David Simon, author of The Wire, wrote a series of essays saying, effectively, "Welcome to the security state, white people."
Those arguing about scope are saying, in a backhanded way, that thousands of Baltimoreans, predominantly black, can have their data collected for weeks or months on end because they happened to use a string of North Avenue payphones, because they have the geographic misfortune to live where they do. And it’s the same thing when it’s tens of thousands of Baltimoreans, predominantly black, using a westside cell tower and having their phone data captured. That’s cool, too. That’s law and order, and constitutionally sound law and order, at that. But wait: Now, for the sake of another common societal goal — in this case, counter-terror operations — when it’s time for all Americans to ante in with the same, exact legal intrusion, the white folks, the middle-class, the affluent go righteously, batshit, Patrick-Henry quoting crazy? Really?
Whether you find these situations comparable will probably indicate how credible you find Simon's argument in general. It's important to note that he's not trying to say we should just roll over for the NSA. The question he raises is one of social justice: when we talk about fixing these problems, are we worried about strengthening protections for everyone? Or just in ways that will preserve privacy for people who can afford it? What Simon doesn't say is that technological solutions are mutually exclusive with social justice — without fail, they always fall into the latter category.
By this point, there's been a lot of ink spilled on how to "protect yourself" from the NSA. People write long how-to guides on setting up a secure mail server (like hilariously long "two hour" guide) or using PGP encryption. None of this is manageable by normal human beings: speaking as someone who has actually set up a private, unencrypted mail server, it's completely out of reach for all but the most devoted shut-ins. You could not pay me enough to edit my Postfix config again, much less try to add encryption to it.
Okay, so the open-source situation is rough at best. That scratching sound you hear is a million start-ups raiding their trust funds to create the new Shiny, User-Friendly Crypto Solution. None of them will answer the following questions:
I am increasingly uncomfortable with all of this technocratic rhetoric — "the solution to our political problem is more software" — because it sounds an awful lot like "the solution to a dangerous government is more guns (and particularly more guns for white people)" from the NRA. Both arguments are misguided, but more importantly they both invoke a siege mentality. They assume that nothing can be done as a community, or even at all. Instead, their response is to hole up in a bunker and look out for number one.
Personally, I think the great thing about our system of government is that it is designed to be rebuilt on a regular basis. There is no law in the USA that can't be changed. Everything up to and including the Constitution is under debate, if you can convince enough people. Granted, activism requires participation and cooperation, and both of those (especially compared to buying a firearm or coding a protocol) are hard. But they are robust solutions that address the wider problem for everyone, instead of merely fulfilling someone's resistance fighter fantasy.
It's easier to look for loopholes and clever fixes. It's easier to write manifestos for (just to pick on a single random example that popped up while I was writing this) "a better web" through framework improvements or decentralized software. But neither of those actually changes anything. At best, they're workarounds. At worst, they're snake oil. Take whatever actions you want online--write new code, sign petitions, or unpublish your blog. Until that energy is matched offline, with old-fashioned, inefficient politics, you're just wasting your time.
One of my pet peeves are those big, intricately-designed infographic "posters," partly because I think they tend toward smugness, but also because they're very good at setting up a simplistic narrative from a series of loosely-related statistics. They lead the reader from one isolate number to another, often without establishing a clear connection between them--and because they're just giant JPG images, they don't lend themselves to easy fact-checking via links to source data. If there's one thing I've learned at CQ, it's that the policy situation is rarely that simple.
It was probably inevitable that politicians would jump on the visualization bandwagon at some point, and given Congress's penchant for signs that would look underdesigned at a Lyndon LaRouche campaign table, it had to come from the executive branch. It isn't surprising that this administration--with its affection for social media as a political tool--would be the one to take action. But somehow I didn't expect it so soon, or to look so polished--several of these wouldn't be out of place in the New York Times.
I am not so much concerned that the government is creating slicker graphics--in these troubled economic times, I'm happy to see any jobs being created, even for designers!--as much as I think this is a good chance to consider "ethical" information design. What the White House is doing is different from data that comes from the CBO or the GAO, because it's rhetoric, not research. And while I don't necessarily think that the administration is lying to us with each graphic, even my hackles are raised by the matter-of-fact presentation of political data through flat, opaque graphics. Here are some measures I'd like to see the White House, and other political actors considering data visualization, take in the future:
I admit, these suggestions aren't necessarily good for the White House from a political perspective. But then, as a citizen I'm not really interested in what's good for the White House from a political perspective. I'm interested in national policy and a more informed debate--which shouldn't be mutually exclusive with political influence. You can still make shiny graphics for a rhetorical goal without sacrificing transparency and honesty. The question is whether politicians will do so, or if they'll use the public's general cluelessness about data visualization to their own advantage.