China has constructed an elaborate public/private infrastructure that blocks, filters, and directs all internet traffic through “a vast, multi-agency bureaucracy of censorship and propaganda,” which a major Harvard University study called “unprecedented in recorded world history.” In 2011, an extraordinary 13 percent of social media was censored. Estimates of the number of employees in the various agencies of internet control range from 20,000 to 50,000. A 2013 internal Party document contemptuously exhorted party members to beware of seven dangerous concepts, including “promoting the West’s idea of journalism, challenging China’s principle that the media and publishing system should be subject to Party discipline” and “promoting ‘universal values’ in an attempt to weaken the theoretical foundations of the Party’s leadership.”
But, before the rest of us get too smug, much of Garton Ash’s book also raises serious questions over how free speech is treated — mistreated — in Western democracies. Every society — including every democratic society — engages in censorship. For example, justified by “national security,” the Obama administration has prosecuted more whistle-blowers under the 1917 Espionage Act than all former US presidents combined, and is threatening to add NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden to that ignominious roster.
“Why do Fulani people not have their own writing system?” Abdoulaye Barry remembers asking his father one day in elementary school. The variety of writing styles made it difficult for families and friends who lived in different countries to communicate easily. Abdoulaye’s father, who learned Arabic in Koranic schools, often helped friends and family in Nzérékoré—Guinea’s second-largest city—decipher letters they received, reading aloud the idiosyncratically modified Arabic scripts. As they grew older, Abdoulaye and his brother Ibrahima began to translate letters, too.
“Those letters were very difficult to read even if you were educated in Arabic,” Abdoulaye said. “You could hardly make out what was written.”
So, in 1990, the brothers started coming up with an alternative. Abdoulaye was 10 years old; Ibrahima was 14.
The poem’s lines stretch past the limit of the page, unbounded, like Whitman’s optimism for the unbounded nature of his young country. A “kelson” is the spine of a ship. It holds things together, like the love Whitman sees uniting all of creation, from the lowliest brown ant to the President, the black ploughman, the “clean-hair’d Yankee girl,” the prostitute, and the poet himself.
Five minutes before I stepped to the lectern to read those lines, my computer chimed with an email notification from the office of the university president, warning that one of the dorms had been vandalized with racist “hate speech.” The same message vibrated across the phones of all 150 students gathered in the lecture hall. It did not feel like we were living in Whitman’s America, and as I started reading his lines, the word “love” caught in my throat.
Born in the decade from 1965 to 1975, Wood, Scott, and Greif all began to write and think about culture in a period when the ideological conflicts of the Cold War no longer gave criticism its sense of urgency. While earlier generations of critics could speak with some confidence about their historical moments, all three spent much of their early years worrying about whether there was a clear public to address or a recognized authority that could license their right to speak. From this equivocal situation, it has been their fate to look back fondly at earlier critical models while taking up the tools of what they feared was a debased trade.
Bianculli’s new study explains how the “cool medium” morphed from a piece of hearthside furniture into a ubiquitous handheld device. The decisive DNA in this evolution is programming, and Bianculli’s main thrust is to map television’s rise from fixed network scheduling to on-demand selection — a survival of the fittest that, with today’s gazillion channels, offers something for everyone.