sexta-feira, 25 de maio de 2012
What your local coyote is doing tonight
Recent highlights from the Ideas blog
By Joshua Rothman
Boston and Chicago are pretty different cities: Other than Sox-themed baseball, about the only thing we have in common is Pizzeria Uno. Here’s one more item for the “difference” column: Chicago is using GPS-enabled coyotes to control rats and mice.
The coyotes are part of The Cook County, Illinois Coyote Project, an effort by zoologists, ecologists, foresters, and the Cook County Animal and Rabies Control agency to understand how coyotes and cities get along. In the Midwest, thousands of coyotes roam from city to city, crossing highways, forming packs, and eating geese, woodchucks, mice, and rats.
Some coyotes live right in the middle of things. The project’s “featured coyote,” Big Mama, lives with her coyote mate, the mysteriously named Coyote 115, within a few miles of Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. Using GPS, the researchers can track their whereabouts on a map of the area. They write that Big Mama and Coyote 115 are like a married couple: “at times they are inseparable, and other times they take short breaks from each other...they have defended the same territory together continuously” since they met in 2004.
While researchers track the coyotes, animal control officers watch them munch on area pests, and explain the program to alarmed and surprised residents. After a coyote was filmed loping through downtown Chicago one night this fall, Brad Block, an animal control supervisor, had to provide reassurances. “He’s not a threat....He’s not going to pick up your children....His job is to deal with all of the nuisance problems, like mice, rats and rabbits.” Block wisely chose not to mention that the coyotes sometimes prey on house cats. The researchers admit that cat owners “view this function of coyotes as strongly negative.”
The optimum level of chill “information wants to be free.” The Internet visionary Stewart Brand first said those words in 1984, and ever since they’ve been an unofficial slogan for the online world. For many people the Internet is defined by freedom, especially freedom of speech: It’s the one place in our society where anyone can say anything. Most of the time, we think of that freedom as a good thing.
Now, though, a distinguished group of philosophers and legal scholars begs to differ. “The Offensive Internet,” a new volume from Harvard University Press, is edited by two eminent professors at the University of Chicago Law School, Saul Levmore (who was until recently the dean) and Martha Nussbaum, and includes essays from scholars who, as the critic Stanley Fish notes, “are by-and-large free speech advocates.”
Levmore’s essay is called “The Internet Anonymity Problem,” and it argues that on the Internet speech is absurdly free — more free, for instance, than the proverbial writing on the bathroom wall. Levmore cites a case in which the owner of a bar was found liable for defamatory graffiti in his bar’s bathroom, which he failed to remove despite knowing about it. And yet his modern-day equivalent, an Internet service provider or website administrator, is explicitly protected from that kind of liability by the Communications Decency Act. At least the bathroom wall, Levmore points out, serves another purpose; many websites, like the now-defunct JuicyCampus, exist solely for the purpose of anonymous libel and rumor-mongering. Today the bathroom wall is permanent, global, and has a search box.
Other essays in the book focus on the way the Internet abets youthful indiscretion, the spread of false information, or the objectification of women. (“Much of the damage done by the spread of gossip and slander on the Internet,” Nussbaum notes, “is damage to women.”) Why is the Internet such a social nightmare? Cass Sunstein, a University of Chicago law professor who’s also head of President Obama’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, explains that in real life, there’s what legal scholars call a “chilling effect” on false or damaging speech. Sometimes laws discourage people from spreading scurrilous rumors or making false claims; just as often, social pressures intervene. On the Internet, though, there is no chilling effect. The goal of the law governing speech, Sunstein writes, must be to ensure an “optimum level of chill,” whether face-to-face or online.
For a long time the Internet was considered a nascent medium, and judges sought to protect it and help it grow. Today, any attempt to regulate Internet speech is still attacked as an assault on the First Amendment. And yet, Nussbaum and Levmore argue, the laws governing speech are nuanced; they respect its power to harm as well as help. “Regulation of speech,” they write, “is uncontroversially constitutional with respect to threats, bribery, defamatory statements, fighting words, fraud, copyright, plagiarism, and more.” The Internet has grown up, and should be subject to grown-up laws.
The American character Does America have a distinctive national character? Up until the 1960s, this was a question of great interest to historians. But then, according to historian David Kennedy, it dropped off the map, to be taken up only sporadically by sociologists and political scientists. Writing in the Boston Review, Kennedy argues that historians need to take the question back.
Kennedy is a professor of history, emeritus at Stanford University, and as he sees it, historians are now in a unique position to write on the subject of the American character. Over the last half century, they’ve put together an extraordinarily diverse set of very specific American histories, bringing once-marginalized groups into historical focus. (In doing this, they stepped away from sweeping questions, becoming “a guild of splitters, not joiners.”) Now, Kennedy argues, it’s time to start drawing on “the large but disarticulated library of social history that has emerged in the last few decades.” We’ve learned just how diverse Americans are — now we can start to ask what they have in common, in a historically informed way.
Kennedy singles out for particular praise Claude Fischer’s “Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character.” Fischer’s conclusion (according to Kennedy) is that voluntarism is at the core of the American character. Voluntarism has two aspects. On the one hand, it means thinking of yourself as an individual equipped with a (voluntary) will, as someone who’s entitled to pursue your own happiness. On the other hand, it means recognizing that, in Fischer’s words, “individuals succeed through fellowship — not in egoistic isolation but in sustaining, voluntary communities.” It’s because of these two aspects of voluntarism that we have an affinity for both the exclusive and the inclusive: for gated communities as well as religious diversity, or for casual manners as well as social climbing. This can’t be the final answer, of course: Kennedy hopes that it’s only the first salvo in an epic exchange of fire among historians.
There are, needless to say, good reasons to distrust any account of an abstraction like “the American character.” But it’s still the case that our politics revolves around exactly these sorts of abstractions. It might be interesting if historians entered the conversation — bearing evidence.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and teaching fellow in the Harvard English department and an instructor in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.
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Posted by Francisco Augusto Vaz Brasil at 06:59