Statolatry and Illiberal Politics

Our modern world tries extremely hard to protect us from the sort of existential moments experienced by Mill and Russell. Netflix, air-conditioning, sex apps, Alexa, kale, Pilates, Spotify, Twitter … they’re all designed to create a world in which we rarely get a second to confront ultimate meaning — until a tragedy occurs, a death happens, or a diagnosis strikes. Unlike any humans before us, we take those who are much closer to death than we are and sequester them in nursing homes, where they cannot remind us of our own fate in our daily lives. And if you pressed, say, the liberal elites to explain what they really believe in — and you have to look at what they do most fervently — you discover, in John Gray’s mordant view of Mill, that they do, in fact, have “an orthodoxy — the belief in improvement that is the unthinking faith of people who think they have no religion.”

But the banality of the god of progress, the idea that the best life is writing explainers for Vox in order to make the world a better place, never quite slakes the thirst for something deeper. Liberalism is a set of procedures, with an empty center, not a manifestation of truth, let alone a reconciliation to mortality. But, critically, it has long been complemented and supported in America by a religion distinctly separate from politics, a tamed Christianity that rests, in Jesus’ formulation, on a distinction between God and Caesar. And this separation is vital for liberalism, because if your ultimate meaning is derived from religion, you have less need of deriving it from politics or ideology or trusting entirely in a single, secular leader. It’s only when your meaning has been secured that you can allow politics to be merely procedural.

So what happens when this religious rampart of the entire system is removed? I think what happens is illiberal politics. The need for meaning hasn’t gone away, but without Christianity, this yearning looks to politics for satisfaction. And religious impulses, once anchored in and tamed by Christianity, find expression in various political cults. These political manifestations of religion are new and crude, as all new cults have to be. They haven’t been experienced and refined and modeled by millennia of practice and thought. They are evolving in real time. And like almost all new cultish impulses, they demand a total and immediate commitment to save the world.

America’s New Religions

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The Idiot by Stan Rogers

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Amazon, Den of Thieves, part 12380139813987631

An Amazon revolt could be brewing as the tech giant exerts more control over brands,” by Jason Del Rey, ReCode, November 29, 2018

New Parents Complain Amazon Baby-Registry Ads Are Deceptive,” by By Rolfe Winkler and Laura Stevens, WSJ, Nov. 28, 2018

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THIS is Performance Art

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MORE Amazon corruption

Just type in “Gulliver’s Travels,” and the first page will not show any editions you actually ought to buy. And there are so many sponsored ads for mediocre, copyright-less editions. If you type in “Gulliver’s Travels Penguin” you eventually will get to this, a plausible buy for the casual educated reader. And wouldn’t it be nice if someone told you the $156.31 Cambridge University Press edition is by far the best choice? — full of marginal annotations!

Amazon search is getting worse, especially for classic books

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Self-government

Self-government requires that the self be governed. Any pagan philosopher could tell you that. All the American founders agreed: liberty without virtue is but license, and license enslaves. You can hope to run away from a vicious master. You can never run away from yourself.

Anthony Esolen

 


Restoring Christian Culture—Dr. Anthony Esolen

 

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More Amazon corruption

Amazon.com Inc. cracked down on fake reviews two years ago by prohibiting shoppers from getting free products directly from merchants in exchange for writing reviews. It was a major turning point for the world’s largest online retailer, which had previously seen “incentivized reviews” as a key way for consumers to discover new products. Amazon changed course because it realized some merchants were using such reviews to game its search algorithm, undermining faith in the customer feedback that helps drive e-commerce.

Amazon instead used its “Vine” program, in which Amazon serves as a middleman between prolific Amazon reviewers and vendors eager for exposure. Amazon would still allow freebies in exchange for feedback so long as there was no direct contact between its retail partners and reviewers, theoretically lessening the chance of quid-pro-quo. Amazon would select shoppers eligible for the program, and Amazon vendors would pay a fee and provide free products to participate. But there was an important group excluded from the Vine program: independent merchants who supply about half the goods sold on the site.

Now those excluded merchants and review watchdogs are alleging Amazon is guilty of the review manipulation the company said it was trying to prevent. Amazon uses Vine extensively to promote a fast-growing assortment of its own private-label products, distributing free samples to quickly accumulate the reviews needed to rise in search results and boost shopper faith in making a purchase. It gives Amazon a big advantage when introducing its own brands over third-party merchants who are more vulnerable to Amazon’s private-label competition than prominent brands already in stores.

The merchants’ complaints have taken on heightened importance amid a European Union antitrust probe into whether Amazon advantages its own merchandise over rival products on the site. The explosion of Amazon’s private-label brands is a key focus of inquiry, according to questionnaires regulators sent to Amazon merchants and reviewed by Bloomberg.

. . .

The abundance of Vine reviews makes Amazon motor oil’s 4.5-star ranking meaningless, says Saoud Khalifah, whose Fakespot monitors online reviews. The Amazon oil reviews were written predominately by professional reviewers in it for the freebies who give generic positive feedback and little useful information, while the 108 Valvoline reviews were left by “gear heads that are really into their cars,” he says.

“It’s a night and day difference in content,” Khalifah says. Fakespot, which grades reviews for Amazon products, gave the feedback for Amazon motor oil an F and reviews for Valvoline an A.

Amazon Doles Out Freebies to Juice Sales of Its Own Brands

Fakespot

Amazon, Den of Thieves

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Take things at the pace of prayer.

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Amazon corruption, continued

Employees, through intermediaries, are offering internal data to help merchants increase their sales on the website

Employees of Amazon, primarily with the aid of intermediaries, are offering internal data and other confidential information that can give an edge to independent merchants selling their products on the site, according to sellers who have been offered and purchased the data, as well as brokers who provide it and people familiar with internal investigations.

Amazon Investigates Employees Leaking Data for Bribes, WSJ, September 16, 2018

Employees have reportedly turned over proprietary sales information, deleted negative reviews, turned over reviewer e-mail addresses, or unbanned banned accounts
. . .
On Sunday, The Wall Street Journal published a report that revealed that sellers have bribed Amazon employees to get access to internal sales data or to delete negative reviews, and that the company has launched an investigation into the practice.

According to the report, middlemen use social media sites like WeChat to track down Amazon employees, offering them cash to turn over internal information or to delete negative reviews. The WSJ also reports that it costs roughly $300 to take down a bad review, with brokers “[demanding] a five-review minimum” per transaction. Amazon employees have also been asked to provide e-mail addresses of customers who left negative reviews, or to provide sales information to give sellers an edge against their competitors. To combat the behavior, an Amazon spokesperson told the WSJ that it has implemented “systems to restrict and audit what employees can access.”

Amazon is investigating claims that employees deleted reviews and sold sales data to sellers, The Verge, September 16, 2018

These practices seem to be a particular problem in China, though not only. Here is more from Shannon Bond at the FT. Here is further coverage at Verge: “The WSJ also reports that it costs roughly $300 to take down a bad review, with brokers ‘[demanding] a five-review minimum’ per transaction.”

Markets in everything, Marginal Revolution, September 17, 2018

Amazon’s Antitrust Problem

At the end of the antitrust stacks is a table near the window. “This is my command post,” said Lina Khan.

It’s nothing, really. A few books are piled up haphazardly next to a bottle with water and another with tea. Ms. Khan was in Dallas quite a bit over the last year, refining an argument about monopoly power that takes aim at one of the most admired, secretive and feared companies of our era: Amazon.

The retailer overwhelmingly dominates online commerce, employs more than half a million people and powers much of the internet itself through its cloud computing division. On Tuesday, it briefly became the second company to be worth a trillion dollars.

If competitors tremble at Amazon’s ambitions, consumers are mostly delighted by its speedy delivery and low prices. They stream its Oscar-winning movies and clamor for the company to build a second headquarters in their hometowns. Few of Amazon’s customers, it is safe to say, spend much time thinking they need to be protected from it.

But then, until recently, no one worried about Facebook, Google or Twitter either. Now politicians, the media, academics and regulators are kicking around ideas that would, metaphorically or literally, cut them down to size. Members of Congress grilled social media executives on Wednesday in yet another round of hearings on Capitol Hill. Not since the Department of Justice took on Microsoft in the mid-1990s has Big Tech been scrutinized like this.

Amazon’s Antitrust Antagonist Has a Breakthrough Idea,” by David Streitfeld, NYT, September 7, 2018

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