Brand Luther

Brand Luther; How an Unheralded Monk Turned His Small Town into a Center of Publishing, Made Himself the Most Famous Man in Europe – and Started the Protestant Reformation by Andrew Pettegree. Penguin, 2016, paper.

Andrew Pettegree argues that Martin Luther was Europe’s first mass-media figure, and its first ‘brand,’ Lutheranism. This’ brand’ began in October 1517 when Luther nailed his track, Ninety-Five Theses, to the door of the parish church where he was pastor. This year is its five-hundredth anniversary.

Luther’s bold act is often singled out to be the beginning of the Protestant Reformation in Germany. Luther was then a monk associated with an Augustinian monastery in the small Saxon town of Wittenberg. He also taught theology at the University of Wittenberg.

Pettegree has, however, limited his discussion of Luther’s theology to making sense of his publication history. Brand Luther is an opportunity to look at Luther’s attitude toward the selling of indulgences. You could purchase forgiveness (indulgences) for past transgressions and hence shorten your time in purgatory. As a critic mocked “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” Acquiring indulgences was an important part of popular devotion and peace of mind.

Both the religious and political leadership in early sixteenth-century Saxony disliked the fact that a considerable revenue stream in the form of indulgences was leaving Saxony.  This current ‘campaign’ were organized by the Church to raise money to redecorate St. Peter’s in Rome. But for the most part the German nobility stood apart from the controversy that quickly developed around Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses. It had, they noted, the appearance of a theological argument amongst monks.

Neither were church officials in Saxony – or in Rome – thought it fit to have church doctrine on indulgences and forgiveness aired before the laity. Nor were Saxon churchmen happy with the Papacy’s involving itself in Saxony’s ecclesiastical politics. Luther’s objections would eventually become a full-throated argument about a ‘state church’ and its integration into the political structure of the Holy Roman Empire.

Pettegree suggests a number of factors that contributed to the success of Luther’s marketing and communication methods. How his literary output, his Brand, competed successfully with Catholic apologists and rival evangelicals.

The printing press with moveable type had been engineered by Johannes Gutenberg in the mid-fourteenth century and by 1517 a printing industry was already well-established in a half-dozen German cities. There was a wealthy urban population in Germany and the nearby Netherlands, and hence a market for Luther’s tracks. This moderately inexpensive production and sale of tracks in large numbers allowed Luther to disseminate his writings, both those in German intended for the literate German public and those in Latin intended for the conversation within the clerical class. With Luther’s huge output of writing, Wittenberg became a major publishing center.

The title pages of most of these booklets were framed by woodblock prints and engravings by the resident artist at the Saxon court, Lucas Cranach.

Luther had the protection of the Elector of Saxony, Frederick the Wise. Frederick remained a devout Catholic, but welcomed the public discussion of indulgences. When Luther was called to appear before the Diet of Worms in 1521 to answer charges of heresy, he was guaranteed safe conduct by Frederick to and from Worms. On the return trip to Wittenberg, Frederick arranged to have Luther bushwhacked and hidden away in the Wartburg Castle, until matters cooled down. Being judged a heretic was a capital offense.

Soon enough Frederick the Wise and the new Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, turned to a greater threat to Christianity, the Turkish threat to Hungary. Any settlement about Luther and his Ninety-Five Theses would have to await their dealing with that threat.

In 1524-1525 the Holy Roman Empire was convulsed by what historians have called the Peasants’ War. Its leadership borrowed their language from the evangelical movement and Luther had to answer to the reproach “See what you have stirred up?” Even though Luther was quick to condemn any resistance to properly ordained government. He thundered Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants. He was no advocate of class warfare. While that response to peasant demands may have been understandable given Luther’s continued reliance on the political elite for support and also for his safety, it has left a blot on his reputation.

That is also the case with his position on German Jewry. He sounds Anti-Sematic. What else would you make of the booklet from 1543 entitled On the Jews and Their Lies?  It is easy for historians to append the German Anti-Semitism of the twentieth century onto this and several other of Luther’s publications. The Jewish presence in Germany was a plague and should be eradicated. He suggested that synagogues should be destroyed and Jewish books burned. It could be argued, however, that Luther was thinking about a war between texts, Protestant and Jewish.

Brand Luther has its limits as a study of the early Protestant Reformation in Germany. It is, however, an interesting effort to position Martin Luther in that milieu.

 

 

The Tide; The Science and Stories Behind the Greatest Force on Earth

The Tide; The Science and Stories Behind the Greatest Force on Earth by Hugh Aldersey-Williams. W.W. Norton, 2017, paper.

Half the world’s population live on coasts subject to tides. Hugh Aldersey-Williams is one of them; he lives in Norfolk, England. A great portion of Floridians live within an hour’s drive of tidal coasts, the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. It was a surprise to know that most coasts either aren’t tidal or that the tide is measured in centimeters.

Yet tides figure large in English idiomatic expressions. We are cautioned to “go with the tide.” Avoid “swimming against the tide.” Lovers of history are told that “there is a tide in the affairs of men.” A snack around 4:00 pm will hopefully “tide me over” until dinner, “Time and tide wait for no man.” Ever so many battles in history are said to be the “turning of the tide.” Fortunately for our humor, we do not know what will “betide” us.

Tides consist of an ebb and flow, the rise and fall of sea levels caused by the gravitational forces exerted by the Moon and the Sun and by the rotation of the Earth on its axis. Most often coastlines subject to tides experience them twice a day, some only once a day. Tides can vary according to the strength of wind and changes in barometric pressure. On occasion they can cause destructive surges.

Ancient Greek scientists are strangely silent about the tides. The Mediterranean Sea has little in the way of tides, with exceptions along the coast Tunisia, the upper reaches of the Adriatic (Venice), and the Pillars of Hercules (Gibraltar). Alexander the Great was dumbfounded by the tides that his army experienced in the Indus Valley. Tides are a concern of any military commander wishing to transport an armed force across the English Channel. Caesar studied about its tides carefully. As did General Eisenhower several millennia later in the other direction during the Normandy Landing in June 1944. Tides have long been a factor in battles at sea.

The Venerable Bede (673? – 735 a.d.) kept records of tides, and noticed that the tide had something to do with the stages of the moon. Tidal vocabulary is largely taken from Middle English (tiden) and before that Old English (tôdan).  Aldersey-Williams notes, however, how few records were kept of tides. That is particularly surprising in view of the Biblical tradition of the Flood in the Book of Genesis.

 The author travels around Europe and elsewhere to experience tides. From Norfolk, he could easily view the tides in the North Sea and on the major rivers that pour into the North Sea, including the Thames. A story-teller, he cannot pass up the opportunity to talk about the lore of that tidal river, including its “mud-larks” or “river finders.” They sorted through the flotsam (floating wreckage of a ship and its cargo), or jetsam (material that has been thrown overboard by ships’ crews). or lagan (goods abandoned at sea).  All were pure gold for the mud-larks, most often orphans or unemployed old people. Think of the rubbish piles of our time that are now the opportunity for the poor in Africa and Asia.

Tides generally aren’t spectacular. At least they are not from the vantage point of the throngs that gather to observe the tidal bore which races up the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia. This is said to be the most spectacular tidal bore in the world. During one tidal period, 115 billion tons of water flow in and out of the Bay. It can, however, be easily missed. The tides of the Bay of Fundy are semidiurnal, meaning that they happen twice a day. Should you fail to have been impressed, you can wait another six hours and thirteen minutes for the next tide.

There are animals that have learned to take advantage of the tides as a source of food or as an opportunity to breed. The horseshoe crab uses the tides on Florida’s coasts to reach the loose sands of the previous tide to plant its eggs in time for the next high tide. And there is a gathering of birds that then feed on those eggs. Aldersey-Williams describes a similar behavior involving the grunion, a fish species.

Humans have been attempting to capture the energy involved in ocean and river tides. But the infrastructure is expensive and easily damaged. Tidal mills are too dependent on the erratic running of the tides. Perhaps best to leave the tide to the tourists. 

To Hell and Back; Europe 1914-1949

To Hell and Back; Europe 1914-1949 by Ian Kershaw. Viking 2015.

To Hell and Back by the British historian, Ian Kershaw, suggests that World War I, World War II, and the intervening years can be viewed as a single period of European warfare, another Thirty Years War. Both Wars have some of the same protagonists, but different characteristics and outcomes.

Both were deadly wars, World War I for battlefield participants. World War II saw huge non-combatant casualties when cities were devastated by aerial bombardment. In WWI (the Great War) both sides settled into defensive trench warfare not unlike the last years of the American Civil War. WWII was more of a war of movement, of offenses. The Great War introduced to European warfare new weaponry: poison gases, tanks, submarines, and the beginnings of bombardment by aircraft. WWII was the opportunity for improvements in this new weaponry. Plus the use of atom bombs.

The Great War destroyed most of the European empires established in the last half of the nineteenth century: the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, German, and the Russian Empires. The inter-war years were dominated by republics: in France, Germany, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), and the United States of American (USA).

WWI ended with an armistice in November 1918. After four years of warfare both sides had lost confidence in their ability to “win” the War, but it had been so deadly that both sides also needed a victory to justify their expenditure of lives.  Moreover, the leadership, particularly the German military command, worried about revolution spreading from Russia to central Europe.

The fact that Germany had not been defeated on the battlefield gave rise to a “stab in the back” legend. Soldiers and their commanders had been betrayed by socialist politicians on the German home front. The military and the several right-wing parties including the Nazis considered the Versailles peace agreement in 1918 to be a Diktat, a victor’s peace. Germans were not invited to participate. They were particularly bothered by the “war guilt clause” – having to accept full responsibility for the War. An international mechanism, the League of Nations, was created to mediate conflicts among the successor states created out of the dismantled empires.

Kershaw notes that the boundaries of the successor states mapped at Versailles were based on dominant ethnic groups. Hence minorities found themselves ‘under the thumb’ of nationalist regimes often dominated by military strongmen or fascist parties.

He argues that the American contribution to inner-war instability was to export our Depression to a generally successful European economic recovery from the Great War. History, Kershaw contends, is open ended. Had the Depression not struck Europe in the early 1930s, the continent might have avoided another war.

Great Britain had been left with a leadership position it could not perform. Hence the interwar governments, mostly Conservative, pursued an “appeasement” of Adolf Hitler’s Germany. The Munich agreement in 1938 seceded a valuable asset in Central Europe. Czechoslovakia’s security depended upon retaining the Sudetenlands inhabited largely by Germans.

Poland, with even less secure borders and also housing substantial German populations, was given a guarantee from Britain and France in March 1939. Taking no notice of that guarantee, Poland was invaded and occupied by Germany and Russia in June 1941.

Much has been written about the Ribbentrop/Molotov Pact of August 1939. A non-aggression pact between the two major European powers, but included the secret protocol that divided up Poland.

Stalin had no illusions about German plans. Was he hoping that the Pack would turn German aggression in a westerly direction? The Pact provided him with time to move war plants eastward and marshal his military resources to confront the well-equipped German armies. While the British Conservatives and the French were thinking in terms of various “peaceful solutions,” Stalin was organizing the eventual defeat of the German military machine.

Kershaw has included the well-known story of the Jewish holocaust that followed the German invasion of Russia in June 1941. He has added the role of the Papacy in Germany’s immense criminal act.  Hitler had negotiated a Concordat with the Papacy that was intended to protect German and other European Catholics from Nazi persecution. In return Pius XI largely maintained a public silence on the “Jewish question.” Fearing Bolshevism, there was some sympathy within Papal circles for the Italian and German fascism.

The European states were badly damaged and could not so easily bounce back after 1945, as they had following the Great War. They lacked capital to reinvest in their infrastructure and crippled industries. They had millions of housing units to rebuild. The US fashioned recovery programs such as the Marshall Plan (June 1947), named after General George Marshall then our Secretary of State. The Soviet Union blocked Eastern European participation. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) established militarized borders to protect that recovery.

The alliance that had fought the War and obtained an unconditional German surrender began to squabble. By 1949 two hostile blocs had emerged.  A “Cold War” it is called and an “iron curtain” divided the former allies.

 

Stamped from the Beginning; The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America

Stamped from the Beginning; The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi. Nations Books, 2016.

Ibram Kendi won the 2016 National Book Award for his Stamped from the Beginning, a history of “long and lingering” racism in America. He is a member of the Department of History, University of Florida. Congratulations Professor Kendi.

Kendi has recreated the conversation between segregationists – those who believed that the races should be kept separate as much as possible, and assimilationists – those who believe that African-Americans should be absorbed into white America. His distinction between antiracist and racist is not so clear-cut, however. Both segregationists and assimilationists, he contends, can hold racist views. Kendi identifies five American intellectuals who have shaped our on-going discourse about race: Cotton Mather (1663-1728), Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879), W.E.B. DuBois (1868-1963), and Angela Davis (1944 – ).

Segregationists vs. assimilationists. Segregationists would argue that blacks are inherently different, though this is not a justification for their unequal treatment. Perhaps different but equal. Assimilationists argue that existing inequalities are the result of black misbehavior, which could change and black people could assimilate into white middle-class America. And white Americans should welcome that integration.

Racists vs. antiracists. Racists argue that African-Americans are a biologically distinct species. They take a polygenesist position. In contrast, antiracists are  monogenesists;   they believe in one creation. Differences are only ‘skin deep’ and explained by arguments such as the Biblical curse pronounced on Ham by God in the book of Genesis. Or black racial characteristics may be environmental, for example due to the greater sunlight in the earlier African environment. Monogenesists’ arguments get silly. For example they have attributed the light-skinned African-Americans to a prolonged association with white skins. Proof! Household slaves in the pre-emancipation South tended to be lighter skinned than field slaves. Polygenesists, on the other hand, run into their own wall: genetics!

Did the “all men are created equal” as stated in the Declaration of Independence include Thomas Jefferson’s slaves? In truth, underlying Jefferson’s racist views and those of most of our founding fathers was the fact that the Southern colonies needed the labor of slaves to harvest their cash crops. Kendi describes how important slavery was to Southern agriculture, tobacco and sugar cultivation and after Eli Whitney improved the gin, raw cotton.

William Lloyd Garrison’s advocacy for the cause of abolition is exemplary of the drift of attitudes toward black emancipation. In the 1830s he was a strong advocate of the relocation of slaves to Africa, adhering to anti-assimilationist arguments. He then went on to adopt the assimilationist position, mingled with his fight for women’s political rights. Toward the end of his life, he was an assimilationist, part of the fight for the political rights of freedmen.

Why were slaves so passive in the face of often brutal exploitation? Kendi argues with that premise. Slaves, when given the opportunity, abandoned their masters. During the Civil War, thousands fled to Union lines where they were treated as Contraband.

How might the history of racism been different had Abraham Lincoln presided over Southern Reconstruction? The Fifteenth Amendment as administered by President Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s successor, did not bring about the end of servitude. Kendi explains that under Reconstruction, the Southern economic elite created an effective system for controlling black labor and conduct. There were three classes in the post-war South, an economic/political elite, a class of “poor white trash,” and freedmen now eking out an existence with a mule and forty acres. The latter two groups, he argues, were successfully pitted against each other by the Southern elite. Class hatred was fanned by the Black Codes and by violent night riders, the Ku Klux Klan that used terror – lynching – to “keep the niggers in their place.”

In May 1896, much to the despair of assimilationist like W.E.B. Du Bois, the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, enshrining the different but equal doctrine. DuBois was also challenged by another prominent African-American spokesman, Booker T. Washington. An assimilationist of a different stripe, Washington argued that blacks should settle for jobs in the lower rungs of the service sector. Steady employment, he argued, was the best opportunity for blacks to participate in American society.

Angela Davis, the last of Kendi’s five intellectuals, has been many things to many causes. She was an author and political activist, interested in feminist issues, in prison reform, economic justice, and an Afro style-setter. But her placement in the talented five is the most tenuous.

Ibram Kendi has used fresh perspectives to discuss the many complexities of American racism. And that appealed to those who awarded him the prestigious National Book Award.

 

 

 

Divine Pleasures: Painting from India’s Rajput Courts

Divine Pleasures: Painting from India’s Rajput Courts; The Kronos Collections by Terence McInerney, et al. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2016.

Divine Pleasures was published in conjunction with an exhibit of Indian miniature paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The paintings are mostly from the Kronos Collection, mostly water colors on paper. They are inspired by the painting traditions preserved in the Indian royal courts in Rajasthan and the Punjab Hills.

This Rajput princely class had allied itself with the Mughals, a warrior tribe from Central Asia, who ruled over the northern plain of India from the imperial cities of Delhi and Agra during the sixteenth to mid-nineteenth centuries. The Mughals also sponsored their own painting traditions based partly on Persian poetry and inspired by Central Asian artistry.

By the mid-nineteenth century, these small states in Rajasthan and Punjab were gradually being annexed by the East India Company. The East India Company (later the Indian Civil Service) took over the administration of their land revenue and court systems, claiming, with considerable truth, that they were poorly administered by their native rulers.

In 1857 there was a serious revolt amongst the sepoys (Indian soldiers in the East India Company army) which caused the British to reverse the policy of annexation and preserve most of the remaining princely states. It made good political sense to keep these ‘native states’ around and to encourage their patronage of Indian arts and crafts. Indian mythology was a rich, but also an innocuous source of inspiration that artists drew upon for their themes. The curators of Divine Pleasures have skillfully created an exhibition that illustrates these various artistic traditions, Rajput and Mughal.

The essays about the art in Divine Pleasures point out that the great temple-building, which culminated in the complexes at Khajuraho and Konarak, was over. Indian miniatures became the most celebrated surviving artistic tradition. Many of the paintings have entered world markets for South Asian art and are now dispersed. Fortunately Steven Kossack has been a major collector and his collection has been donated to the Kronos Collection at the Met.

This painterly tradition on paper was a continuation of the practice of painting the stone statuary that adorned the Khajuraho and Konarak temples and particularly the enormous entry gates to the temple complexes in the same bright colors.

Why are these Indian miniatures so appealing? Certainly it is in large measure due to the use of color. Bright reds and yellows dominate. Each painting was framed by a colorful border carefully chosen to augment the paint. Sometimes a silver band is included.

The artists are good story-tellers. The paintings are commonly divided into several ‘scenes.’ Most involve a young woman pining away for a missing beloved. She has numerous ladies-in-waiting who participate in the anguish of unrequited young love. Most commonly the lover involved is either Vishnu or Krishna, one of the avatars of Vishnu. Caste is not mentioned in Divine Pleasures, but these tales are drawn mostly from the traditions of the Kshatriya or warrior caste and from their embrace of the bhakti movement, involving personal devotion to a god. Though a warrior caste, the males are rarely pictured fighting.

The authors believe that we are more likely to enjoy these Indian miniatures because we have been introduced to abstraction through western art. At times both these Rajput and Punjab art traditions do adopt a playful abstraction in their landscapes. For example their “lollipop trees.” But the landscapes are more often realistic. Most trees look like trees, and their leaves are carefully drawn and colored.

It is obvious that the Indian royalty enjoying this art were also fond of fabrics, and particularly fine cottons and silks. Rajasthani women wear long skirts rather than saris, mostly of beautiful cottons. They are often augmented by translucent scarves. The young women are commonly engaged in making music, on sitars, sarods, vima (all stringed instruments), and tubla (drums.) The men are youthful, handsome, and usually have trimmed facial hair. They wear colorful turbans and cummerbunds. Both men and women wear jewelry. Both frequently are smoking tobacco through a hookah or water pipe.

When the women are not lamenting an absent lover, they are actively engaged in the early stages of coitus with that lover. Lots of groping. Onlookers seem not to bother them.

I am particularly enthralled by of the representation of towns and large country villas located in the middle-ground or back-ground of a painting and mostly simple shapes and colors. They are definitely ‘abstractions’ of the reality of Indian urban life.

Gainesville is fortunate to have had a collection of Indian art, including Indian miniatures, given to the Harn Museum of Art by various collectors.

 

Never Surrender; Winston Churchill and Britain’s Decision to Fight Nazi Germany

Never Surrender; Winston Churchill and Britain’s Decision to Fight Nazi Germany in the Fateful Summer of 1940 by John Kelly. Scribners, 2016 paper.

Never Surrender opens with the victory parade in London in July 1919. Britain and her allies had won the Great War, but the toll on European lives had been huge. It is estimated that thirty-seven million men, women, and children were killed or wounded in World War I. “Never again” was a commitment to peaceful ways of resolving conflicts amongst the European nations to avoid another slaughter. It produced a strong British pacifist movement, one that would have to be overcome twenty years later as the European skies once again darkened.

British military planners recognized that warfare would be different in future wars. Air power would be decisive; naval power could no longer ensure the safety of British cities. Good people on both sides of the English Channel were talking about the necessity to negotiate solutions, and if necessary even make concessions. Appeasement! But it did not have the connotations of weakness that the policy would come to have.

Appeasement is a considered policy associated with Neville Chamberlain, Britain’s Prime Minister from 1937 to 1940. The Munich Agreement that he negotiated with Adolf Hitler in 1938 was intended to solve through negotiations the problems of the Sudeten Germans living as a minority in Czechoslovakia. The author, John Kelly, ‘goes easy’ on Chamberlain. But unfortunately for his reputation with historians, Chamberlain, returned from Munich making the claim that appeasement had brought “peace in our time.”

Chamberlain’s determination to negotiate an amiable settlement was supported by the prominent Conservative statesmen, David Lloyd George who had led Britain to victory in WWI. Winston Churchill, also a Conservative, believed that in future negotiations, Britain must keep to its commitments to its allies, France and Belgium and after 1939 to Poland.

Kelly makes it clear that Churchill believed Britain would ultimately have the support of the United States. But President Roosevelt would also have to overcome pacifist sentiments in America. Among other prominent supporters of American neutrality in European affairs was the U.S. ambassador to Britain, Joseph Kennedy.

It was hoped that Benito Mussolini and Italy would continue to play the role of peacemaker as he had at Munich. Churchill never trusted Mussolini but there were those in Britain who believed that his interests were sufficiently different from Adolf Hitler’s to qualify him as neutral. But in return for his participation in 1940, Mussolini was asking for concessions, even some of Britain’s Mediterranean possessions. Mussolini was waiting to see who was going to win the war. Ultimately he miscalculated.

Churchill became Prime Minister in May 1940 and was immediately confronted with the German invasion of Belgium and France. An expeditionary force sent to France was an attempt to bolster French morale, crumbling under the rapid German advance, the Blitzkrieg.

The French pressured the Brits to send more troops and more aircraft. Churchill, assumed that once Germany had defeated the Allied armies in France, it would invade the British Isles. To defend Britain he would need his army and the British air squadrons that he had sent to France. Much to the outrage of the French high command, he withheld their request for more planes.

Perhaps the single greatest “victory” in Churchill’s first months as Prime Minister was the evacuation from Dunkirk. There is a touching story about the “the little boats” summoned to ferry a substantial army across the English Channel. Kelly reports that most of the evacuees were transported across the Channel on destroyers and troop transports, not fishing boats.

Dunkirk poses a conundrum. Why did Hitler order a halt of his armies as they approached Dunkirk, favoring a bombardment by his Luftwaffe? (The order was given by General Gerd von Rundstedt but validated by Hitler.) Kelly offers no hypotheses.

The miracle of Dunkirk, as Churchill referred to it, saved 340,000 British and French troops from death on the beaches or a long wartime imprisonment. Soldiers’ lives were saved but all of their military equipment and supplies had to be abandoned.

The Battle of Britain, German air bombardment of British cities and military installations, began almost immediately in June 1940 and lasted until the following June. Britain, despite having fewer aircraft, had the advantage of home air bases, had radar which allowed them to use their fighters more effectively and acted and which acted as an early warning system. Kelly points out that German bombers only had enough fuel to remain in the skies over Britain for a half hour. Rarely was that enough time to find their targets, while being chased by British fighters.

The reader is left with the Battle of Britain not over and its outcome uncertain. “Britain’s decision?” Kelly would have us believe that it was a series of small decisions that extended back to the botched peace after WWI and forward to the decision to continue the good fight after the fall of France and the Battle of Britain. Never Again became Never Surrender.

 

 

 

 

 

The People’s Platform; Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age

The People’s Platform; Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age by Astra Taylor.  Henry Holt, 2016.

Astra Taylor poses a question early on in her book, The People’s Platform. Is the internet a democratizing force where all voices can be heard and can participate equally? A cultural leveler? Or rather, is the internet now reflecting real-world inequalities? She argues for the latter.

Taylor has an axe to grind; she is an author and documentary filmmaker; and it is not clear how those professions will fare in our digital future. The internet, she argues, straddles two economies: a “gift economy” and a “market economy.” Those who are creating the cultural content for the internet are not bringing home big paychecks; they are expected to do their jobs without a fair compensation: the gift economy.

The companies and platforms which dominate the distribution of that cultural content on the internet – Google, YouTube, etc. – are making the big bucks. And many of those technology companies are, in turn, being acquired by the ‘legacy media’, companies such as Disney, Time Warner, CBS, Comcast, and AT & T. And there are even bigger bucks to be made through an old capitalist phenomena, mergers and acquisitions.

This mixture of the two different economies is not unlike the much older issue of copyrighted material. How long does a person own his or her work and receive the benefits of that ownership? Cultural content is constructed on the work of other scholars, artists, etc. who have been the creators of earlier cultural content. And none of them are compensated.

Taylor talks about “search engine success.” The internet is a contest for attention. But the rewards from internet users are clicks rather than dollars. The result, sadly, is a race to the bottom; celebrity affairs, fake news, and the trials and tribulations of ordinary folks “gone viral.” Few web sites have succeeded well enough to be sold for large figures. But don’t forget the Huffington Post. It was launched in 2005 and after six years was acquired by AOL for $315 million.

The “people’s platform” is being constructed just as we are experiencing another new phenomenon. Our smartphones and the internet have made us into citizen journalists. We have become the documentarians of this new media. Crime scenes, for example, are being recorded by witnesses and posted to a network of internet users.  Anything can be posted on a web site and there are no challenges. Where are the “gate keepers” of old? Fact checkers we have but with little of the authority that editors have had over what gets said in the print media.

The recent presidential election has demonstrated that the internet – and specifically Twitter – can be an effective means of political communication. Is the press conference with its constraints and safeguards being replaced by short communications on Twitter (140 characters)?  These factoids are now passed around without the usual questioning by professionals.

The internet creates echo chambers and reflecting mirrors from the choices we make in the sites we visit. We cooperate with these invisible filter bubbles to sort through the voluminous internet traffic to provide us with “the daily me.” We marvel at the freedom the internet holds out to us; yet we retreat mostly to our comfort zones.

Yes, the Internet is free but not without costs. Those are born by users, and more-and-more by those who advertise on the sites that we visit. Taylor argues, however, that the revenue generated is considerably less than the advertising revenue enjoyed by the broadcast and print media in their heydays. We have begun to replace them and their traditional advertising sources with a medium that is far less able to finance its programing. This pattern of compensation, Taylor contends, is not a sustainable arrangement for the future of the internet.

There is a related phenomenon of inadequate compensation in the recording industry. As music fans chose to copy files rather than buying CDs, musicians saw the revenue stream on which they had counted shrivel. They were forced to take to the road again and earn their money through performances. That parallel situation will require those creating cultural content on the internet to seek other sources of reimbursement.

Taylor is apparently less concerned with two additional threats to a viable future for the internet that have surfaced in recent years. Europeans, at least, were shocked to find out about the extent of international surveillance. Spying on German politicians! While we Americans are told that the internet of both the Democratic and Republican National Committees were hacked by Russian cyber-specialists, and that the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, may have used information gained from that hacking to assist Donald Trump in his run for the Presidency. We can’t respond in kind because Russia has nothing like our American electoral cycle and the attendant partisan politics.