Paul Waldman

Paul Waldman is the Prospect's daily blogger and senior writer. He also blogs for the Plum Line at the Washington Post, and is the author of Being Right is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn From Conservative Success.

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Google Glass Is Dead, But It's Also the Future

Flickr/Karlis Dambrans

Google announced today that it is ceasing production of smartphone-on-your-face Google Glass, and although they are characterizing it as just an end to the beta version, everyone else seems to be calling it a failure. There were certainly some reactions the company didn't anticipate, like the fact that most people thought they look ridiculous, the coining of the term "Glasshole," and the sometimes violent reactions people had to being recorded by someone else's glasses. Jake Swearingen says the camera was the problem: "it turns out very few people are willing to be viewed as walking, talking invasions of privacy."

But I promise you, wearable augmented reality will return before long. I looked back at what I wrote when the device was first announced two years ago, and I still hold to what I said then: of the consequences of this being a technology we've all expected for a while is that its first iteration inevitably looks like a clunky preliminary version of what it will eventually be. We're spoiled by how small electronics have gotten, so the fact that the glasses need to have a rectangular hunk of plastic on one arm that houses the components is a little disappointing. In 2013 we aren't able to make it all fit into the frame of a regular pair of glasses, though we will be eventually. And at some point, it will all fit into a contact lens, so no one even knows you're augmenting.

If that sounds like this incredibly disturbing episode of the terrific British series "Black Mirror," that's not because I'm some kind of genius futurist, it's because it's the almost inevitable endpoint of this technology, the convergence of electronics miniaturization and immediate access to large quantities of information. As the "Black Mirror" episode demonstrates, when you can put a camera and the entire Internet in a contact lens, there are going to be enormous and profound social consequences. And someday, we will.

But between now and then, I'm guessing this technology in its next widely-used form could be specialized versions of Glass-like devices for certain professionals with much more specialized needs, like firefighters, police, and the military (they're already working on it). Once that becomes common, it'll start to spread to other professions, and eventually it'll make its way back to consumers. And once you can put an Oculus Rift in a pair of contacts, watch out.

The Entire Conservative World Has Turned On Mitt Romney

Flickr/Gage Skidmore

Well that sure was fast. At the beginning of this week, Mitt Romney 3.0 was the talk of the political world, and while it's certainly unusual for a candidate to lose a general election and then come right back and run again, it didn't seem absurd. I myself wrote a column titled "Why Not Mitt?", arguing in part that from where Romney sits, the idea seems perfectly reasonable. He never went away like most presidential losers do, but kept going around the country endorsing and stumping for candidates, and he was well-received. Republicans kept telling him what a great president he would have been. The field of potential opponents doesn't look intimidating at all. And so on.

But within just a few days, the entire Republican world, from conservatives to moderates, from office-holders to pundits, from strategists to hangers-on, has turned on Romney with a spectacular fury. Five days ago it was, "Huh, another Romney run—interesting." By today it's "Depart this land and never return, accursed one." Right now it seems like the only people left who want Mitt to run are his family members and people who he's employed in the past (and not even all of them).

The floodgates may have been opened by this editorial on Wednesday from the Wall Street Journal editorial page, which is as close to an official voice of American conservatism as there is. The Journal laid into Romney for being a bad candidate in 2012 and not showing much reason why he'd be better in 2016, and that may have made other conservatives feel like they had permission to speak out, to reporters and on their own, in opposition to him. There has been a wave of articles quoting Republicans both on and off the record against Romney, with headlines like "Republican activists widely say Romney should sit out White House run," "Mitt Romney faces skepticism, frustration as he looks to 2016," and "Mitt Romney backlash intensifies." As conservative reporter Byron York wrote last night, "In the last day or so, [conservatives have] all gotten their boots on and publicly reacted to Romney 2016, and their preliminary verdict is not at all favorable." Even Peggy Noonan, relentless chronicler of Americans' gut feelings and secret longings—who on the eve of the 2012 election assured readers that Romney would win despite what the polls said because "All the vibrations are right"—has today turned rather viciously on the man she used to hold in such high esteem:

There is no such thing as Romneyism and there never will be. Mr. Romney has never encompassed a philosophical world. He has never become the symbol of an attitude toward government, or an approach to freedom or fairness. "Romneyism" is just "Mitt should be president." That is not enough.

He is a smart, nice and accomplished man who thinks himself clever and politically insightful. He is not and will not become so. He should devote himself to supporting and not attempting to lead the party that has raised him so high.

Hard to argue with that. On the other hand, are there any potential GOP candidates about whom one could say they "encompass a philosophical world"? Is there a Jebism or a Christieism or a Walkerism or a Jindalism or a Rubioism? There may be a Cruzism, but as philosophies go it's repugnant.

So what happens to Mitt now? He could say, "Well, the trial balloon didn't float, so nevermind," and find something else to do with his time (keeping in mind that it's been eight years since he last held a job, and that entire time was spent running for president). Or he could decide that this is just another hurdle to climb over on the way to his ultimate goal, no more daunting than all those behind him. He could just persevere like he always has, not letting the skeptics get him down, keeping his chin up and his eyes forward, heading with strength and optimism toward that brighter day that he knows deep in his heart is coming.

That's what I'm guessing he'll do, because that's who he is. 

Photo of the Day, Sports Proletariat Edition


Michael Russell competing in the qualifying rounds of the Australian Open. Qualifying is a tournament-before-the-tournament, where players not highly ranked enough to get automatic berths compete for the last few spots in the main draw. Russell, a 36-year-old American starting his 18th year on the tour, is currently ranked 156th in the world (his career high was 60). While the winner of this year's singles tournament will get $3.1 million Australian ($2.55 million USD), by winning the first match of the qualifying, Russell has guaranteed himself only $8,000 Australian, or $6,568 USD, which is probably barely enough to cover his expenses in making the trip down under. If he makes it through the qualifying rounds, he will likely have to play one of the top-ranked players in the first round of the main draw, and his chances of beating a player like Novak Djokovic or Rafael Nadal are extremely small. A first-round loss, however, would get him a purse of $34,500 ($28,325 USD), which would make the trip more than worthwhile.

Are the French Free Expression Hypocrites?

Last week, I suggested that while the outpouring of support and unity in the wake of the horrific murders of staff members of Charlie Hebdo in France seems to be about free expression in the abstract and not about defending particular kinds of expression, we might be misleading ourselves a bit on that score. Many people said that while they realize that the magazine's work is often offensive to many, you don't have to like all their cartoons to honor the courage of the staff in continuing to publish in the face of very real threats, and to proclaim loudly that no one should be killed for saying what they think.

True as that is, the content does matter. Let's be honest: if you declared "Je suis Charlie" (privately or publicly), then you probably weren't that offended by their work. Maybe it's because people like you weren't among their targets, or because things like blasphemy don't bother you all that much. Even if you didn't approve of some of their cartoons, your reaction to them was more intellectual than visceral.

That doesn't mean you don't believe in the principle of free expression, just that how you react to people paying a terrible price for their expression will depend in large part on what you thought of the expression. It's the difference between saying, "What happened was wrong" and actually going out to participate in a rally or making a public show of solidarity. As I said in that post, if the creators of the white supremacist magazine Stormfront had been murdered, we'd all agree that it was unacceptable, but we wouldn't be putting on "I am Stormfront" t-shirts.

But what's important about the American version of freedom of speech is that even the most abhorrent views get the same First Amendment protection as any other speech. It isn't that our laws and jurisprudence don't set limits on what you can say, but those limits aren't very limiting. You can't directly incite violence, but you can do it indirectly. In America, you can say, "All Zoroastrians should be killed," you just can't tell an angry crowd, "Hey, that guy on the corner looks like a Zoroastrian—go get him." Similarly, you can lie about lots of things—for instance, you're free to publish a tract claiming the Holocaust never happened—you just can't lie intentionally about an individual (if I proclaim that my neighbor killed Kennedy when I know it isn't true, he can sue me).

The looseness of these limits on speech is a pretty recent development in American history. For most of our country's existence, you could get tossed in jail for advocating certain political ideas. In 1920, socialist Eugene Debs ran for president from prison, where he was serving a sentence for sedition because he opposed the draft in World War I. In the 1960s, Lenny Bruce was arrested multiple times and charged with violating obscenity laws, because in a comedy club with only adults in the audience he said dirty words that today you can hear every night on HBO. Today, those prosecutions seem absurd to us. In fact, we've all but stopped prosecuting people for obscenity, when for decades it was a constant topic of debate and legal wrangling.

Although First Amendment jurisprudence is still somewhat complicated, we've essentially come to a place where we allow almost any speech that doesn't do direct and demonstrable harm to specific individuals. But in most countries, even those that you might think share our commitment to free speech, they're much more comfortable outlawing speech that they've decided is harmful in a much broader, more long-term way—not because it injures a specific person, but just because they think it isn't good for society. And one of those countries is France. In the last week they have arrested dozens of people for violating speech laws by doing things like "condoning terrorism." Most notably, the French government is considering charges against the incredibly popular anti-Semitic comedian Dieudonne, who wrote on his Facebook page "je me sens Charlie Coulibaly," (I feel like Charlie Coulibaly) combining the "Je suis Charlie" with the last name of the man who killed four hostages in a Jewish market.

As an American, you probably think, "Wait—how can that be a crime?" But in France, it can be. It's also a crime to deny the Holocaust, as it is in a number of other European countries. Does that make the French hypocrites? They'd probably argue that there are certain classes of harmful speech that they've identified and outlawed, and the Charlie Hebdo cartoons don't fall into those categores, while other kinds of speech do. Like you Americans, they'd say, we draw a line between speech that's allowable and speech that isn't; our line is just a bit different from yours.

To return to where we started, you probably think it would be ridiculous for the French to put Dieudonne in jail for a Facebook post, but if they do, you also probably won't be organizing a march to proclaim "Je suis Dieudonne," because his views are despicable and you don't really want to associate yourself with him. So does intellectual consistency demand that we defend someone like Dieudonne with a vigor and energy equal to that with which we defend Charlie Hebdo? Not really. You can take the position that French speech laws are too restrictive and even someone like him should be able to say whatever he wants, but you don't have an obligation to put those abstract ideals into some kind of political action every time you take a position. We all pick and choose.

Awful Poll Question of the Day, Courtesy of Pew

As a general matter, the Pew Research Center probably produces the best publicly available polls—they're methodologically sound, carefully executed, and often ask better questions than other organizations exploring the same topics. But I have a real problem with this one, which comes from a new report released today.

When you ask, "Do you think Barack Obama is too tough, not tough enough or about right in his approach to foreign policy and national security issues?", you're framing foreign policy and national security as a matter of toughness. While in some instances we use "tough" with a negative connotation"He's too tough on his kids"the vast majority of time, we think of being "tough" as a positive. I wouldn't even describe the foreign policy beliefs of those who fetishize "toughness" as being too tough. Are John McCain's ideas about foreign policy "too tough"? No, they're juvenile and stupid.

So if you're going to ask a question like this, you at least ought to offer an alternative framing as well, like: "Do you think Barack Obama is too thoughtful, not thoughtful enough, or about right in his approach to foreign policy and national security issues?" That's no more a leading question than asking whether he's tough enough.