Politics & Media
Apr 19, 2023, 05:59AM

Meet the New Boss

Having a choice between evils is better than actually picking one.

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I‘m delighted to learn that the classic “double slit” experiment from quantum mechanics has been redone to show that not only location but time is a slightly fuzzy, indeterminate thing. I don’t know if this will one day (or perhaps the next day, depending on the observer?) lead to us mastering time travel, but at least it makes the most memorable simultaneity-evoking line in literature more plausible: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

Dickens was referring to the dream and the nightmare of France just before the Revolution, which he depicts as just as bloody and psychotic as anything that went before it. Anyone like me who distrusts both the left and the right can sympathize with his ambivalence in that novel. Such people should also sympathize with my nostalgia for the protracted indecision of the 2000 election and my unfashionable willingness to accept the ambiguity surrounding the 2020 one.

So often, the people who insist you must pick a side are the real enemy, no matter who they’re backing. Libertarians should know this well after decades of refusing to endorse either the Republicans or the Democrats, though in practice many these days are insistent you must sign on to something: weightlifting, hating Trump, willingness to persecute anyone on the left, always growing your own vegetables, one fanatical thing or another.

But moments of indecision, suspended in the air between possibilities, are often the best moments, no matter what the pseudo-certain, hyper-confident, decisive partisans tell you. Often, all it takes to prove those moments are best is experiencing the hell that awaits you once you’ve picked some new partisan project to replace the failed old one. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss, as the song says. Best, then, to avoid ever settling on a boss.

It was much easier to describe Elon Musk as a hero, as I did in the New York Post a year and a half ago, when he was mainly a living reminder to Twitter that there might be an alternative to their old mismanagement. It’s harder to do after seeing some of his actual Twitter management decisions such as waging a petty war (now ended) against links to rival site Substack, a war that led to even Matt Taibbi, one of Musk’s most natural allies as a critic of the pre-Musk Twitter management regime, quitting Twitter.

Musk redirecting searches on Twitter for the word “Substack” to the word “newsletter” is the kind of skewing, biased, stealthy, thumb-on-the-scale abuse of algorithmic authority that pro-Musk types feared for years might be going on at Google and elsewhere, and then along comes Musk to do it in broad daylight, as it were. No sooner do we escape the old Twitter regime’s chicanery, such as letting government call the censorship shots, than we’re subjected to ordinary capitalist fraud—of a kind surely warranting a big class action suit in a saner world where more of these legal issues were already worked out.

Cutesy Musk moves like using the Dogecoin symbol for a day don’t make up for it, either. We should not say, “Dog is bird—all is permitted!”

And yet, no matter how hard he screws up in the future, he’s done the world a service already just by reminding people that a service recently talked about as if it were as necessary to public discourse as is oxygen can in fact change, be abandoned, get improved, find itself under new management, face innovative rivals. It’s the kaleidoscope of options that matters, not the precise intensity of one temporarily-leading light.

Really, we should cheer every time someone gives up and exits a bad situation, since a better one potentially awaits. It’s good that NPR is exiting Twitter (with PBS following them shortly thereafter) regardless of whether you agree with Musk-era Twitter (accurately) labeling NPR’s account government-supported media. May they find a better arrangement. They might also want to consider seizing this occasion to detach from the government teat in order to really chart their own destiny for the first time, allowing the taxpayer to do the same. I love some of NPR and PBS’ stuff, but they shouldn’t get one dime from involuntary supporters.

If you really want to support an overlooked bit of media, though—one that helps teach the same core lesson as this column, that the people demanding you choose sides are not to be trusted—maybe you should rent Ishtar.

I avoided it for over three decades because of all the critics hating it and it doing notoriously poorly at the box office, but a girlfriend who loved writer/director Elaine May’s other best-known movie, A New Leaf, inspired me to check out this unjustly derided comedy artifact. It turns out it’s understated, sometimes mumbly political satire perfect for our current era of shaky-cam faux-documentary downbeat comedy realism such as The Office—which is to say, Ishtar was ahead of its time. Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty play terrible singer/songwriters who become pawns of the CIA, leftist insurgents, and Muslim fanatics all at the same time, without much understanding what they’re doing.

One can’t help wondering whether the notoriously media-manipulating intelligence agency somehow nudged critics toward their condemnations of the film back in the late-1980s. I’ll probably never be able to confirm that paranoid-sounding theory, but like a lot of American media consumers, I’m getting a lot more comfortable leaving some ideas up in the air. Call me agnostic. And wish Elaine May a happy 91st birthday on April 21. She might appreciate knowing Ishtar has fans after all this time.

When in doubt, try maintaining some balance instead of picking one side in a false dichotomy. It’s a complex world.

You can enjoy hippie-era artist Steven Heller, recently interviewed by libertarian Nick Gillespie, divulging further secrets to his fellow lefty Frank Silverstein (himself, like me, a veteran of libertarian John Stossel’s old unit at ABC News) on Frank’s new podcast Authortopia.

Then, to further complicate things, no one can stop you from turning around and reading Rainer Zitelmann’s thorough and eternally necessary new book In Defense of Capitalism, chock full of the charts and facts (remember those?) needed to show that markets still beat government control for making people prosperous and happy. One of the most inspiring of Zitelmann’s factoids is the revelation that in surveys he helped conduct all over the planet, the youth of nearly every nation are now more capitalist than their elders—except in the U.S., which he fears may be in for some very tough economic times as a result of the rising econ ignorance here.

The pro-labor-union leftists used to sing “Which Side Are You On?”—but I recommend you buy a copy of that song, then turn around and abolish the government instead of markets. Don’t let anyone tell you you can’t have it both ways on something like that.

—Todd Seavey is the author of Libertarianism for Beginners and is on Twitter at @ToddSeavey


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