Sunday, February 25, 2024

Pondering Platforming

 A controversy broke out on social media this weekend: Taylor Lorenz interviewed the (or one of the) truly horrible people behind the far right Libs of Tiktok account.  It raised questions of whether one should platform the truly awful.  I have been thinking of platforming such for awhile  now, so I am using this as an opportunity to think through my stance (which is not at all based on a strong standing of the legalities of all of this).

Let's start with the basics that people get so very confused about:

  1. No one is entitled to a platform, everyone is entitled to free speech.
  2. To be clear, when we talk about free speech, we need to be clear that the 1st amendment in the US (and probably the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in Canada) only restricts governments from restricting people's right to engage in free speech.  Clubs and, yes, businesses can restrict the speech of their members/employees in ways that the state cannot. 
  3. Free speech does have some restrictions--the classic is you can't yell fire as a prank in a crowded theater as that is dangerous.  Inciting violence is also not so free, although your mileage may vary on what counts as incitement.  Is "Free Palestine" incitement? I don't think so. 

Now, that whole platform is not the same thing as free speech thing. One is not obligated to give time/space/bandwidth/whatever to anyone (in ye olde days, US tv stations had to give equal time, and when it went away, that gave room for Fox and its ilk).  Universities, for example, don't have to provide stages and fora and audiences to far right speakers or even not so far right speakers.  Or far left ones. 

In an op-ed, I argued that the Conservative Party of Canada should not provide a prominent speaking position to a far-right retired general as that would politicize the Canadian armed forces.*  Of course, the supposedly cancelled retired general then used his perch at the National Post, a right wing newspaper, to argue that I was trying to deny him free speech.  Nope, I didn't say he couldn't rant in public, I was just arguing it was a bad idea for the CPC to amplify him.  He is entitled to say what he wants, he is not entitled to having his speech amplified.  There is a distinction here, and he is smart enough to get it, even if wants to play coy about how a dual citizen might dare to question him.

So, the question is rarely whether to deny someone free expression (although when it comes to jury tampering or inciting violence, gag orders on the Trump family seem to be not only fair but wise), but rather who to platform and under what conditions.  Obviously, the starting point is the intention of the potential actor that might be platforming someone.  The example of the CPC: they wanted to attack the government and found a handy tool that might make it look like they presenting mainstream military views that contradict the government.  Yeah, tis bad faith bullshit, but they had that intent so they didn't care what the downstream effects will be on the military.

The example of this weekend is a lot different: it is not just giving space for a hater to speak at length, but providing a critical interview where the interviewer pushes back and gets the hater to be revealed as shallow, incoherent, virulently racist and xenophobic.  To be honest, I haven't watched the entire thing because, well, yuck.  I am online enough (understatement) to know what Libs of Tiktok have been doing--inciting violence against Black Americans first and now LGBTQ+ folks. That the account deliberately names individuals so that its followers can then threaten those people.  Truly, truly awful.  But folks who are not so online may not be aware of this, so a WashPo reporter doing an extended interview with the source of all this hate is a good way to expose what's going on.  People can disagree about whether we need to hear from the source directly, but this is not platforming in the sense of giving someone a megaphone and letting them spread their views.  Recently, the governor of Oklahoma gave this far right white nationalist a position on the state's library advisory council.  That is giving someone a platform.  And then a non-binary kid gets killed, and the governor then acts all shocked.  

Anyhow, sometimes these decisions are tricky because we want to expose awful people, but we don't want to provide awful people with greater audiences.  Folks might argue that we need the marketplace of ideas to sort this out, but like most markets and most invocations of the market metaphor, it really doesn't work like the metaphor. Ideas do not win or lose based on the quality of their debaters or the quality of the ideas themselves.  They win or lose based on what people do and who has the power.  That a far right white supremacist owns and controls twitter is a real problem that cannot be sorted out by everyone sharing their competing ideas online.  Musk is platforming far right racist and xenophobic stuff, and he is blocking stuff that is critical.  Suspending Navalny's wife a day or two after his death is a real tell.  

Ultimately, journalists and organizations have to be prudent about who they give platforms and who they do not.  Again, no one is entitled to the front page or the editorial page or the university's biggest stage. Every decision to give someone a platform is just that a decision, which should be based on the benefits and the costs.  Academic freedom suggests giving space to a wide range of views, but there is no need to bring back that which has been thoroughly discredited--like flat earthers or those who buy into eugenic stuff or bell curves and IQ tests or antivaxxers.

And, yes, we live in a time where Democracy is under threat. Which is a bigger danger: giving anti-democratic forces the megaphone or denying them platforms and then having those forces try to make those institutions feel bad for being hypocritical?  The bad faith actors want to use our values against ourselves.  It can be tricky about how to respond but respond we must.  

So, that's my incoherent rambling on this topic.  You are required to read it, to respond, or to share it via social media.

* I realize that folks can argue whether Maisonneuve is right wing or far right, but my coding rule these days if one uses "woke" disparagingly and essentially slurs those who are not cis straight folks, they are far right. If right wing folks want to say that is not fair, that those are mainstream views of the right, well, they are telling on themselves about where they are. 

Saturday, February 24, 2024

Berlin 2024: Report Eins!

Yes, I went back to the East Side Gallery my first
weekend, as it was not closed on Sunday
most shopping is closed)
 I have been in Berlin for one week thus far, with nearly three months to go.  It has been a very busy week, and it did not just involve getting situated.  But, yes, that took some effort and time as well.  So, what have been up to in the shadow of the TV tower that is featured in any movie that wants to depict Berlin as a destination?



First, yes, getting situated.  I am staying near the Hertie School's Center for International Security, which is just off of Alexanderplatz.  The apartment has much of what I need, but I had to go out and get a pillow (made in Canada!), a printer, groceries, and a residence permit.  Yes, the country of Max Weber is very bureaucratic.  Because there is much demand these days for all kinds of paperwork, I was lucky to snare an appointment on the farthest southern edge of Berlin.   I got my paperwork stamped, so I can reside in Berlin officially.  woot!  






President of Hertie, the Chinese former VM,
and Tobias Bunde
Second, it turns out that my timing is good and the Hertie School is a happening place.  Tobias Bunde, one of the researchers here, is also a/the organizer of the Munich Security Conference which happened the weekend I arrived.  So, he brought a former Chinese Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs to a packed room (the Hertie students are from all over and they are keeners) where she presented her take on what happened at Munich and what are the major trends in international relations.  I found her to be the best representative of the Chinese government: her English was great, she was not overly polemical, she knew her audience, and so forth.  She definitely presented a biased point of view, but a clear one that was well asserted.  She noted for instance that only four panels out of a hundred at the conference were on Gaza. She pointed that the discussions on that and on Ukraine were focused on problems, not solutions.  But she was not pressed to offer any solutions. She contrasted the threat to freedom of the seas--that it is a problem for commercial shipping in the Red Seas but only a threat to American warships in the South China Sea.  Hmmmm.  She talked about Asia's long peace, she seems to be omitting the occasional Indo-Pakistan conflict.  Speaking of omissions, she argued that occupation never works, and that this something the Americans should have known in 2003 and the Russians should have known two years ago.  I was tempted to ask about Tibet or perhaps Chinese intentions towards Taiwan, but the event was for students.  It was a great way to jump into things and meet a bunch of folks.

No pics of Peter K,
but of other
important thinkers
Another event was a session with Peter Katztenstein--one of the most important scholars in both International Relations and Comparative Politics for the past fifty years.  Required reading, indeed.  He was presented his latest book project (no retirement yet) that is pretty complex, raising meta questions about our thinking and about our need to think about uncertainty.  It was similar to Debbi Avant's presidential address at the ISA a couple of years ago.  He gave us a few chapters, the crowded room had read it, and so it was mostly Q&A.  After the talk, he sat near me and we chatted a bit.  That he has written books comparing Germany and Japan was not lost on me given my latest projects.  

Next week, there will be a conference I am crashing at Hertie on the state of Zeitenwende and whether other countries are experiencing it as well.  Huh?  Oh, this refers to a speech by Germany's Chancellor  Olaf Scholz shortly after Russia's 2022 invasion of Ukraine, that we live in a watershed moment, that we need to have a revolution in foreign and defense policy.  He committed to a lot more defense spending and ending German dependence on Russian energy.  The big questions are: how much of this has and is happening and whether other countries are rethinking their place in the world. I hope to find out next week.

Third, I have been getting some work done.  I have started arranging interviews for the German case, finalizing the details for a trip to Finland in April to do that case study, doing the same for a research presentation at Central European University in Vienna in a few weeks (and, yes, nailing down the details for an Alps ski trip).  I also revised three chapters of the Steve/Dave/Phil book before Dave tries to find some interest at the ISA in April.  I hope to do my turn on the rest of the book in the next week.  

Fourth, I have, of course, been touristing.  I spent last weekend and today walking around this part of Berlin.  I am far more familiar with west Berlin, as I have been largely based at hotels in west Berlin.  My first walks were more targeted as I was looking for grocery stores (and google maps kept lying about where they were).  

 Some observations, which may be due to change over time or may be due to East Berlin being a bit different than West Berlin:

  • Less adherence to the guidance of the little green/red Ampelmännchen, as I saw more people walking despite the red signs.  Is this a sign that German society is breaking down?
  • Or is that the walk signals in East Berlin are too damned short?  I can't tell you on how many streets I have been stuck in the middle (mostly where the trams go) as the light turns red very quickly.
  • I don't remember this much graffiti all over the place last time.  On the bright side, when a store or something has nice wall art, the vandals or artists paint elsewhere.
  • Lots of reconstruction and renovations going on.
  • Lots more Five Guys burger places than I can recall.  I haven't tried them yet, as I am mostly doing my own modest cooking (this apartment's kitchen is not well equipped, so no baking and only basic dinners).  I did start off my time here with currywurst and chips, but I think my go-to cheap food will be kebabs/shawarma stuff.  I did happen to walk past an Indonesian place, so I will be returning to that neighborhood when I am tired of my own cooking.

Today's walk was more random, as I would head in one direction and then find something interesting on the map.  Which took me to a memorial for those who the East German government killed at the Berlin Wall, which, yes, has been down longer than it has been up.  I learned a great deal:

  • I should have realized how dynamic the interplay between Communist government and those seeking to escape would be.  The wall such as it was kept evolving as the government learned via the escapes and attempts.
  • Part of the memorial showing
    where the house got built over by
    the wall
    Including tunneling!  57 people got out through one tunnel--amazing.
  • The wall itself caused more people to want to leave as it signaled more repression.
  • The evolution of the barrier included destruction of a church (one dedicated to Reconciliation!) and the movement of dead bodies from a graveyard, it involved boarding up and then destroying houses.




  • There were a fair amount of German tour groups going through this area, so yes, still much interest even as it recedes in our memories.

The other new experience for me is a 21st century gym.  I have mostly exercised on ultimate fields, bike rides through neighborhoods, the treadmill in our basement, and the occasional hotel fitness center.  There is a spiffy, reasonable place near me that has the stuff I need (treadmills, space to stretch to try to fix my balky knee) and far more stuff.  The denizens are in much, much better shape than I am, doing all kinds of exercises that I would not attempt, so that has been a funky distraction while I sweat out the pastries I have been buying.  The bakeries here are good, and, yes, they like their donuts.  I have resisted mightily but not entirely.  

Next week, I will report what I learned at zeintenwende-fest.   

 Some random pics from my walks: 

Vegetarian butcher? 

Funky signs, not sure there is an actual cafe here.

Friday, February 16, 2024

Thanks For Your Service, Peter Feaver

 I just finished reading Peter Feaver's excellent "Thanks for Your Service: the Causes and Consequences of Public Confidence in the US Military." Between Feaver and Michael Robinson, the bar has been set on exhaustive, diligent, and creative deployments of surveys and survey experiments to tease out how publics feel about the US military.  Robinson sought to understand the politicization of the armed forces, whereas Feaver seeks to understand many dimensions of what it means for the US military to be the institution that has the most public confidence.  

Feaver used both previous surveys and more recent ones that he conducted to assess what causes Americans to have confidence in the military, why confidence varies among the public, how confidence then shapes attitudes about all kinds of things, and whether such confidence is, as Feaver puts it, hollow.  

The book is itself a great primer on the state of public opinion and civil-military relations, which is no surprise since Feaver has been one of the leaders of surveys in this area (his other hat is as a very influential theorist of civil-military relations).  The end of the intro summarizes the state of the art.

The fundamental challenge of this work is that there are all kinds of conflicting dynamics.  The US has been at war, so popularity of it should be high as a rally around the flag effect.  The US lost one war, and the other war dragged on with less than satisfying results, so public confidence should be low.  As Robinson documents, there has been a greater effort to politicize the armed forces, which should ultimately drag down public support as the military becomes identified with one party or the other (Feaver finds that public confidence wobbles a bit when the party in power changes with Democrats gaining more confidence when a Democrat is in the White House, and the same dynamic works for the Republicans).

I am not going to go through the whole book. I just want to identify a few key findings:

  • Those norms that civil-military relations scholars care about?  Yeah, the public is not so concerned or aware of these norms.
  • I was not aware of the pithy four p's: performance, professional ethics, partisanship, and pressure.  These are supposed to shape confidence as the military is seen as working better than other institutions and is more ethical, that institutions associated with parties have less support, and people support the military because they are supposed to do so and think others do so.  Feaver explores each in depth.
  • The good news is that the military should be deterred from putting its thumb on the scales during public debates about military stuff as it does not work and may drive down public trust in the military.
  • The bad news is that most stuff is read through a partisan lens.  So, if the military does stuff that aligns with one party's position, those partisans will be fine with that crossing of the line, while the opposing party will be offended by the violation.  And if the military goes in the opposite direction, then the reaction flips as well.
  • A sharp chapter focuses on social desirability bias--do people answer surveys by giving answers that they think are the right ones?  The ones that are popular?  Feaver's survey work here is impressive (I am not a survey person although I am now involved multiple surveys!), suggesting that there is some hollowness to public confidence as a significant hunk of its public confidence is due to people giving the "right" answer.  What happens if the military gets sufficient blemishes that it is no longer hip to be so positive?  Confidence might drop quickly and sharply.
  • Why does public confidence matter?  It affects the ability to recruit and fund the armed forces.  And, yes, JC Boucher, Charlotte Duval-Lantoine, Lynne Gouliquer, and I have a paper on exactly this in Canada--do stories of discrimination reduce support for friends/family to join the CAF (hint:yes!).  
  • Yes, the greater the confidence in the military, the more likely folks will support greater military roles in the world--that the military is more useful as a tool of policy.
  • The military gets "ideational" benefits from higher confidence--deference but not that much influence on public support for policies.  Key findings are that politicians will pay a price for going against military advice and the blame for failure will focus more on the civilian side.  This limits how much accountability the military faces.

I was really glad that Feaver addressed the big question that could not be tested through surveys--is it a good thing to have a lot of confidence in the armed forces?  I have always been uncomfortable with what Feaver calls as pedestalizing the military, making it superior to society.  I tend to regret when sports events embrace the military too much, and I worry when police forces imitate the military's special forces.  And, yes, I worry that a military that has heaps of confidence will look down on the civilian world.  Feaver does not feel quite as uncomfy as me, but does suggest there is a need to valorize other forms of public service, such as health care providers.  He also argues that the confidence, if it is high, should be based on performance--as he puts it, "trustworthy, not simply trusted."  He also suggests that partisanship may be getting in the way of accountability more than high confidence, and that is something Dave, Phil, and I find in our forthcoming book on legislative oversight and the armed forces.

He concludes with a call for more comparative work, which I will be citing in the next round of grant applications.  Thanks, Peter!

Sunday, February 11, 2024

The State of Canadian Civil-Military Relations in Early 2024

 One of the things that I had claimed since 2021's general crisis--Vance, McDonald, and other senior officers being outed for sexual misconduct and abuse of power--is that efforts to change the military would not face as much resistance as in normal times.  These folks had so thoroughly disgraced the military that any resistors would have weak arguments and few allies--who would stand up for rapists and abuses of power?  It took a few years, but we now have an answer: the far right and the Conservative Party of Canada.

Aping the far right in the US, the right wing folks in Canada started accusing the military of being too woke.  It is not just one random retired general with poor reading comprehension.  This weekend, a different person, Jamie Sarkonak, wrote a piece at the same outlet--the National Post--arguing that the military is hostile to white men (providing no evidence), that the military should not change (although it is better than the retired general's by recognizing past abuses), and that women who join should just embrace being in a male-dominated/male-defined organization, and Indigenous recruits/officers and people of colour should just accept the military has it has always been.

What this person gets wrong and what those who want to keep the military the same is basic math: she wants the military to rely on the traditional pool of recruits: "fit, aged 17 to 20, high-school educated, rural or small-city in origin and Caucasian in background."  The problem is that this pool is shrinking.  So, we need to expand the pool of recruits beyond this group--folks living in cities, non-Caucasians, and women. If you think you can do that while keeping the old culture that was/is hostile to these folks, then you not only suck at math but sociology.

The piece is on target when focusing on the consequences of budget cuts--resolving the personnel crisis requires more money, not less.  But culture change is also required.

This Tuesday, I am presenting along with several sharp scholars--JC Boucher, Lynne Gouliquer, and Charlotte Duval-Lantoine--some data that shows that scandals about discrimination in the military cause people to lose trust in the CAF and become less supportive of their friends and family joining the CAF.  So, the numbers cited in the op-ed piece about the decline in recruiting and the problem of retention may be more related to the abuses of general and flag officers than to the effort to change the culture.

Of course, correlation is not causation.  But the antiwoke forces don't really have much data, and they have weak arguments based on bad math and bad sociology.  On the bright side, I am getting cited, which is what academics want, and I keep getting alerted to these publications by the hate email I get. 

Thursday, February 8, 2024

Customer Disservice: Oy!

 I find it hard to believe I have not dedicated a post here to whining about shitty customer service, but I couldn't find such a post.  Yea! A chance to write something new!

I subscribed to the web version Toronto Star to get access to their coverage of the various Canadian military controversies.  But I found that I was not reading much over there anymore.  So, I tried to cancel my subscription.  Funny how they make it easy to subscribe but very difficult to unsubscribe:

  • there is nothing on the website to change one's account settings.  The page for managing one's account is mis-titled since I could not manage my account.  No hint of how to unsubscribe.
  • No phone number for managing one's subscriptions on the webpage.  The only phone number is the general one.
  • What happens when you call the general number?  I kept getting disconnected.
  • I emailed a while back to the electronic support to ask to be cancelled and they gave me a phone number that is only staffed in the mornings.  Oh, and it is not an 800 number.  Luckily it was staffed today.
  • So, the guy (from far, far away) on the phone first couldn't find my info as I assumed he could spell Steve... my bad.  
  • Then he kept wanting to know how he could fix the situation other than unsubscribing.  I was losing my temper... so nope, no fix.  You make it hard to unsubscribe, that just hardens my need to unsubscribe.
  • Then he wanted to know why I wanted to unsubscribe to fill in the boxes on his form: your paper sucks.  Sure, the coverage can be ok, but I have let this bad experience with customer disservice color my view.

In between, I tried to get my credit card company to stop the automatic payment, and they refused.  They said the only option they had was to cancel the card, which is pretty damned inconvenient.  Why can't they just enter into their computers not to accept charges from a specific company?  They can enter autopayments so why can't they stop specific autopayments?  

It should not be this hard.

 So, that is my rant du jour.  That the move to online has made things easier to sign up but not to sign out, that they resist, hoping that you give up, and that credit card companies sure make it hard to change who I am paying.