Economy & Business

Repressive Cosmopolitanism

Netflix co-founder and CEO Reed Hastings (left) and chief content officer Ted Sarandos at a news conference in Seoul, South Korea, in 2016. (Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters)
Global technology companies are bureaucracies that prefer uniformity. They’re tempted to make China, or Saudi Arabia, the arbiter of free-speech standards.

In Thank You for Smoking, Christopher Buckley offers a hilarious description of a useful concept: The “Yuppie Nuremberg Defense.” The lobbyists at the center of the story are engaged in the business of deploying dishonesty in the service of their unholy corporate masters in the tobacco, firearms, and liquor businesses, and they justify their moral compromises to themselves by saying, “I’m only paying the mortgage.”

It’s a funny conceit, but one that is related to real-world political thinking. It is part of the broader tendency toward an enabling “realism” — never mind that these “realists” often aren’t — about which all of us have heard a good deal in the past couple of years, especially from conservatives in search of a moral justification for their recent abandonment of long-cherished principles in the pursuit of immediate political power. “You don’t know how to fight, how to win,” they say, sneering with contempt at those inside-the-Beltway policy dweebs and their principles. (I get that a lot from people who apparently do not know that the Beltway does not surround Texas. A Beltway of the soul, I suppose they mean.) They take the posture of Men of the World. The business world is particularly full of this type of man, who can be most readily identified by his tendency to speak with great authority about things he knows nothing about. No matter how difficult the problem or how complex the issue, the solution is always the same: “Get tough!” If only Dwight Eisenhower had thought of that simple solution before putting all that effort into Operation Overlord!

This is part of the cult of “hardness” described by Julien Benda in The Treason of the Intellectuals. In extolling harshness and maintaining “scorn for human love — pity, character, benevolence,” these purported pragmatists become “the moralists of realism,” who “proclaim the moral nobility of harshness and the ignominy of charity.” They are barstool Nietzscheans, but often those barstools are situated in front of the cameras of cable-news programs.

Another mutation of this tendency is to excuse the abuses of businessmen and their firms on essentially fiduciary grounds, i.e. proclaiming that deviousness and dishonesty are just part of “good business.” Many examples abound, some of them involving what George Sorel might very well have described as “the superb blond beast wandering in search of prey and carnage,” had he lived in our time.

That this is a pretext rather than a principle can be seen by comparing reactions to the goring of oxen of varying colors. For example, it may very well be good business for YouTube to suppress certain conservative commentators, or for Twitter to kick them off the service. One supposes that the men in charge of these companies have calculated that it is. But the moralists of realism on the right suddenly rediscover their liberalism in these cases.

Netflix is at the moment being criticized for suppressing an episode of Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj, which was critical of Saudi crown prince and de facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman. The decision came after complaints from the Saudi government, a monarchy that proposes to continue taking itself seriously. Netflix took the usual corporate weasel route, issuing a statement reading: “We strongly support artistic freedom and removed this episode only in Saudi Arabia after we had received a valid legal request — and to comply with local law.” The statement is false on its face: A company that “strongly supports artistic freedom” would have done something in defense of that freedom.

Netflix here is engaged in what we might call the “Corporate Nuremberg Defense.” (I trust my fellow Daily Texan alumnus Mike Godwin will not dispute the implied comparison.) They are just following local law. Facebook makes a point of advertising this fact and works diligently to comply with European laws that fly in the face of U.S. free-speech principles. In Austria, for example, giving someone a copy of Mein Kampf is a criminal offense that could, in theory, be punished with 20 years in prison. (The Austrians are not so severe in actual practice.) Germany and other European countries ban certain kinds of political speech and engage in other illiberal and antidemocratic actions such as prohibiting certain political parties.

That puts globe-bestriding U.S.-based technology companies in a cosmopolitan pickle. They want to do business abroad, of course, and it is customary for them to comply with local law in other matters from taxes to labor laws. It is difficult to imagine a corporate case for complying with the violation of free speech in broadly liberal and democratic European countries but declining to do so in repressive ones such as Saudi Arabia and China.

The problem is that corporations are bureaucracies, and like all bureaucracies they prefer the standard, the regular, and the consistent. The New York Times offers an unintentionally hilarious assessment of Facebook’s efforts to police speech in accord with the internal corporate mandate for uniformity: “The company’s goal is ambitious: to reduce context-heavy questions that even legal experts might struggle with — when is an idea hateful, when is a rumor dangerous — to one-size-fits-all rules. By telling moderators to follow the rules blindly, Facebook hopes to guard against bias and to enforce consistency.”

It took a remarkably short time for the ethic of the Internet to devolve from “Information wants to be free!” to “Follow the rules blindly!” The danger is the California-emissions dynamic, i.e. the tendency of the most demanding and restrictive standard among a group of competing standards to become the de facto universal standard in that it allows a single consistent mode of production. In the United States, 16 states follow California’s auto-emissons standards rather than the national standard, which has made the California standard the effective national standard for many manufacturers. In a similar way, it will be tempting — it already is tempting — to make China the worldwide arbiter of free-speech standards for global technology companies and other international carriers. If you think that a commitment to “artistic freedom” is going to prevent that, go to the movies: The remake of Red Dawn originally was about a Chinese invasion of the United States; after protests from Beijing, it became the story of a ludicrous North Korean invasion. The New York Times submits to censorship abroad.

I am generally in favor of an open, liberal cosmopolitanism. But the virtue of that cosmopolitanism is that it enables the free movement of people and capital — and, most important, ideas. A repressive cosmopolitanism that defers to the judgment of Riyadh or Beijing is of no intellectual value at all. In that instance, call me a nationalist: I am happy for Netflix to export the work of Hasan Minhaj, but I would be more happy to see it flex some of its considerable corporate muscle to export the First Amendment, too.

Of course Netflix is only doing what’s best for its business. So was IG Farben, and its directors were tried — and 13 of them convicted — at Nuremberg.

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