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A park in autumn with fallen yellow leaves, trees, and a sign on a lamp post telling dog owners to clean up their pet's poop

Living together always creates some tensions, like this passive-aggressive but very Austrian message to dog owners in Innsbruck: SEI NICHT GRAUSLIG! Hundekot gehört ins Sackerl und dann in den Mistkübel! DANKE! (“DON’T BE GROSS! Dog waste belongs in a bag and then in the wastebin! THANKS!”)

A few people have recommended Martin Gurri’s The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium (second edition 2018, available on Bookfinder) but I don’t understand the author’s ideas as they are presented on his blog and in interviews. Granted that he writes his blog in a poetic style, where key concepts are never defined because you are supposed to roll them around and absorb the general meaning in terms that make sense to you.  I suspect that some times he says something he knows is not quite right because it will provoke readers or catch their attention. I would like to see how his book defines elite and why (to me, it seems like the period since 1990 has been hard for journalists and experts in bureaucracies, but great for the rich and academics). In 2017 he paraphrased José Ortega y Gasset that “The quality that sets elites apart – that imparts authority to their actions and expressions – isn’t power, or wealth, or education, or even persuasiveness. It’s integrity in life and work” but he also said that elites are those who “run the great institutions of the industrial age,” and I can’t reach from one definition to the other with a barge-pole made up of recycled Margaret Wente columns, Theranos stock certificates, and prospectuses for investors in Dalian, China.

I am confused by his prescription in ‘Has Government Failed?’ because that sounds like the response of the officeholding class, bureaucracy, and old-media commentators to critics in Canada: “you ask us to stop doing some evil thing, and we understand your idealism but that is just not practical for reasons which we can’t quite explain.  Yes, we told you we would do it if you elected us, and its a matter of a few thousand words of legislation or a few phone calls to officials and police departments, but its much too difficult, maybe if you re-elect us we can make time for it then?”  Contrarians in the United States often present climate change as a sinister plot to engineer society by distant intellectuals, and Gurri places such a scheme in the mouth of his ‘elite’, but in Canada it is grasasroots environmental organizations, small parties, and First Nations who push action and large business owners, the Liberal and Conservative party machines, and Old Media commentators who try to diffuse and delay. 

In “Has modern government failed?” Gurri talks about behaviour on social media as an individual, moral problem. 

The collapse of human decency online can’t be bandaged over with algorithms or anti-trust threats.  It must be starved of an audience, one user at a time.  The burden is personal, not technical or political.  It falls on me – not thee.

That was the standard model from archaic Greece until the 16th century when people began to think about systems, structures, and incentives: to think like political scientists, sociologists, and economists not moralists (in classical Greece they were toying with these ideas, but Romans and Christians didn’t like them).  That model lost, the battle is over.  People don’t behave the way they do on smartphones because they are fallen and wicked, they behave that way because that is what these systems reward.  And while nobody knew what they were building, there are fairly simple steps that governments or ad industry organizations could make which would change the systems and reverse their worst aspects.  That they don’t take those steps goes back to those Industrial Age structural problems: large rich companies have people to find reasons to persuade politicians not to pass laws which will take the money away, and are run by people who have always spied on people and can’t imagine doing something else.  And as the Ad Contrarian points out, far more people see a presidential tweet when it is printed in the paper or flashed on prime-time news than ever see it on twitter (20% of Americans have a twitter account, but 96% of American journalists have one and check it at least weekly).

In another place, Gurri says that:

We gesture towards ‘iconic’ moments, good and evil – the beaches of Normandy, Jim Crow – but to an astonishing degree we are devoid of interest in any place or time other than our own.  … Unlike previous radical movements, like Marxism, which were obsessed with history, the public in revolt views the past as worse than an irrelevancy:  it’s the mother of all injustice, to be abolished rather than understood.

And there was a big cultural shift in the late 20th century towards reading and watching and singing things composed during the audience or performer’s lifetime, and away from things composed long ago.  But there are so many appeals to classical Greek history in US and British politics alone that Neville Morley is writing a book on them, while Myke Cole is writing a whole book on the use of a mythical Sparta by the self-help and far right movements in the United States. The parts of the United States where pasty faced men with guns yelp the loudest about immigrants destroying their culture are precisely the parts which had a native and Mexican majority until over a few short decades in the 1800s, Anglo immigrants flooded in and stomped down or exterminated their former hosts.  Just because the men with guns don’t talk about this history in public does not mean that they don’t see it when they look around at what they have and imagine how quickly it could be lost. Gurri says that “tattered old ideas, like socialism and nationalism, are advocated in a vacuum of historical context, as if they were invented yesterday,” and certainly dead ideas like eugenics have tottered out of the grave in tattered frock coats speaking postmodern tongues.  But it seems to me that these ideas are presented without context to hide what they really are: racists chant a cant of new terms “racialist, identitarian, human biodiversity, traditionalist, occidentalist” because almost everyone agrees that racists and nazis are bad.

I think that Gurri has caught on to something when he talks about the lack of mass movements for positive reform in Europe and its settler societies, as opposed to convulsive reactions like Brexit, closing borders or the gilets jaunes movement (my home province failed three times to pass electoral reform which would break up the old game of ping-pong between the party of capital and the party of the public service unions). Old-school social democrats are flailing, and the green movement remains marginalized. And I would like to read the book when I have a more stable income and academic job-application season is done. But I am confused by the latest version of his ideas, as posted online, because the facts his analysis is based on are not the facts I see when I talk to people or read the news.  I wish he would show he understands the views of people like Vi Hart or the Ad Contrarian who analyse how these technologies work and how chance design decisions had big consequences. This is a global phenomenon, and we really need to think carefully about which aspects are general and which are idiosyncratic to the country we know best.

Martin Gurri’s book is available on Bookfinder. If you want more reviews, please support this site

Edit 2020-07-25: corrected the citation about twitter use (the self-reported rate of twitter usage among journalists in the USA in 2017 was even higher than 90%)

Edit 2020-12-23: On the use of the distant past in political speech today, see Amy S. Kaufman and Paul B. Sturtevant, The Devil’s Historians: How Modern Extremists Abuse the Medieval Past (University of Toronto Press: Toronto, 2020) https://www.devilshistorians.com/

Edit 2020-12-30: As the 45th US presidential administration enters the “moving nonexistent divisions on a map” stage of grief, it has taken time from pandemic and pardons to issue a proclamation commemorating the killing of Thomas Becket (“Proclamation on 850th Anniversary of the Martyrdom of Saint Thomas Becket,” 28 December 2020), an executive order restrict the styles of architecture used in federal buildings to a list including Neo-Classical and Art Deco (“Executive Order on Promoting Beautiful Federal Civic Architecture”, 21 December), and promoting eccentric medievalist Rachel Fulton Brown to the Cultural Property Advisory Committee