The Real Labor Revival
Re John Nichols’s interview with Vice President Kamala Harris [“Q&A,” October 3/10]: Kamala Harris may be part of the most pro-labor Democratic administration since at least the 1960s, but this is barely a beginning. The expulsion during the McCarthy era of leftist unions from the Congress of Industrial Organizations removed many of the most activist, energetic, and committed leaders from the American labor movement. Under George Meany, the AFL-CIO became a passive arm of the Democratic Party, supporting the Vietnam War; even supposedly liberal unions such as the United Auto Workers refused to back protests against the war. To this day, the AFL-CIO barely utters a word against national Democratic policies, whatever they are. Why hasn’t it organized massive demonstrations in support of the PRO Act and a $15 minimum wage? The answer is that it is embedded in the neoliberal Democratic web, and institutional Democratic victories mean more to its leaders than labor progress. The real revival of the American labor movement that is occurring now is taking place at the grassroots level: on the streets, in Amazon warehouses, and among Starbucks baristas.
The Platform Is the Message
The problems that Patricia J. Williams describes in her important analysis of social media—lack of privacy, decontextualization, narcissism, data mining and exploitation, harassment, and political polarization—are features, not bugs, of cyberspace [“The Public Eye,” October 3/10]. Social media platforms exist solely to attract and keep human eyeballs. Their algorithms are designed to emphasize and disseminate outrage, disinformation, and conspiracy theories.
The discipline of media ecology, which grew largely out of the work of Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman, shows us that every communication technology creates its own environment. In their book The Paradox of Democracy, authors Sean Illing and Zac Gershberg bring this idea into the political arena, noting that the communication environment we inhabit often determines how we conduct our politics. Policy arguments and factual analysis fall by the wayside of what was once called the “information highway,” while even the most innocent posts trigger torrents of vitriol and abuse. As Williams puts it, we are ensnared in “an eternal reality show that rewrites the notion of an open society into a tyranny of voyeurs and pornographers.” The more toxic the content, especially if it’s related to race, the more likely it is to be shared.