Seeing my country upended from afar, trying to process it at home

Being on the other side of the Atlantic for a presidential election so I could attend and speak at the Web Summit conference in Lisbon seemed like a swell idea. With my absentee ballot long ago cast, at best I could sing the Star-Spangled Banner with other Americans in some bar as Hillary Clinton claimed an early victory over Donald Trump (though if you’ve heard me sing, you might struggle to find the upside of that scenario); worst case, I could tweet “appreciate the congrats” sometime Wednesday.

us-passport-on-lisbon-streetThat didn’t work out. Reality punched me in the gut at 8 a.m. local time Wednesday, when I opened my laptop after four hours of nightmare-grade sleep and saw the Washington Post’s “Trump Triumphs” headline above a map of red and blue states I struggled to recognize.

Before the first talk Wednesday morning, organizer Paddy Cosgrave asked those of us in the audience to introduce ourselves to strangers nearby and say where we’d come from. On another day, I might have said “I’m from the U.S., peace be with you,” as if I were in church, but I had to go with “I’m from the United States, so I’m having a really shitty morning.” The Europeans near me could only offer versions of “I’m sorry,” as if my country had suffered a death in the family.

That day did not get much less bleak for all the people I knew in our globalist-elite bubble. In retrospect, I could have picked a better day to moderate three different panels.

“President Donald Trump” might have been a harmless comedy line in my childhood. Trump seemed a good guy when he put his own cash into an overdue renovation of the Wollman Rink in New York’s Central Park, but that sort of public-spiritedness became increasingly scarce in the decades since. And now Trump is set to become the nation’s CEO after a campaign marked by an embrace of fear, a flight from facts and a refusal of basic transparency. Humor has fled the situation.

On one level, this is like 2004, when American voters picked the wrong guy, and we paid a steep price. But George W. Bush looks like a seasoned statesman compared to Trump. And 12 years ago, we didn’t have a deluge of data points suggesting the Dems had the GOP on the run.

Seeing that running an effective campaign organization when the other side shows little sign of having any doesn’t matter, that a candidate can speak more and worse falsehoods than the other without consequence, that getting caught on tape joking about sexual assault need not hold a guy back, and that so many state poll numbers mean nothing (although Clinton’s popular-vote victory looks to be not far from nationwide polling data)… it’s taken a hammer to my belief in a rational universe. And it forces me to wonder what stories about voters’ concerns I should have read but did not.

I can’t ignore the media’s role in wasting our mental bandwidth with horse-race coverage and breathless and context-starved “reporting” about Hillary Clinton’s unwise but not illegal use of a private e-mail server as Secretary of State. I myself contributed two posts to that genre, one in March of 2015 and another in July; I wrote far more about tech-policy issues in this campaign, but I suspect those other posts drew far less attention.

faded-american-flag-close-upI would now like to think that Trump will grow in office and that he’ll quietly dump the worst of his campaign promises. I certainly wouldn’t mind him delivering on his plans to renew America’s crumbling infrastructure, the subject that led off his gracious victory speech. (The United flight attendant I chatted with during my flight home Friday was also upset about the election, but we agreed that a building binge that replaced the C/D concourse at Dulles would get our support.) I will allow for the possibility of pleasant surprises.

But I’m also 45, and I’ve seen too many elected officials disappoint me to expect that this one’s conduct in office will depart radically from his behavior as candidate. Why do we put up with two years of a presidential campaign if not to take the measure of the people in it?

In the meantime, we have the additional problem that the worst among Trump’s fans now feel more entitled to vomit their bigotry on people who don’t look or sound like me. Not having an ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or primary language on the enemies lists of “white nationalists” does not make me feel any less offended by the hatreds those cretins preach, or the president-elect’s silence about them.

What am I going to do? Work. The chance to call out abuse of power and control-freakery gets me up in the morning. If Trump’s administration puts forth policies that fall into those categories, you’ll read about them from me. If Democrats endorse them or respond with their own tech-policy control-freakery, the same applies. And if President Trump proposes laws or regulations that thwart abuse of power by the government or corporations, I won’t turn them down.

One aspect of my coverage that may very well change: I somehow doubt I’ll get invited to many White House celebrations of science and technology. Trump spent little time during the campaign talking about science and in some cases, like climate change, outright denied it. Also, this post and most of my political tweets this year may leave me in poor standing with his press people. So be it.

 

News flash: There are a lot of white guys in tech

There’s been a contentious and useful conversation this week over the demographic balance of the tech economy, sparked by Jamelle Bouie posting the piece he’d written earlier on that topic for Marco Arment’s subscription-required iPad publication The Magazine. The first two sentences of his story:

Click through to the “about” page of any technology magazine, website, or blog, and you often find individual or group pictures of the staff and regular contributors. What’s noticeable is so in its absence: You find precious few brown people.

Bouie pinned much of the blame for that on tech journalists sticking with their default recruitment settings–as he quoted Anil Dash, “they’ve tended to hire from their familiar circle of connections.”

TC Disrupt crowds

Not all of the tech community appreciated the critique. After some back-and-forth on Twitter, veteran startup founder Jason Calacanis posted an essay defending his ecosystem’s meritocracy and suggesting that ambitious writers of any color follow his example of “hustling in my spare time”:

To fall back to race as the reason why people don’t break out in our wonderful oasis of openness is to do a massive injustice to what we’ve fought so hard to create.

It was interesting to digest that a day or so after reading testimonials by two female tech types, Sarah Parmenter and Leslie Jensen-Inman, about the grotesque sexism they’d encountered while speaking at conferences. Perhaps the tech ecosystem is not a wonderful oasis of openness for everyone?

I know it’s not.

I’ve been to more than enough tech events that didn’t exactly look like America, but I also have my own experience distributing work to journalists. From 1997 to 2005, my job titles at the Washington Post ended in “editor,” and a key part of those jobs was assigning a page or so of reviews each week.

I did okay at finding women writers, but I was not effective at signing up non-white ones. It was not (I think) an error of commission, but one of distraction: I had more than one person’s job on my plate, I was stressed enough figuring out my own–and once I’d located enough freelancers who could file on time, I didn’t look beyond the people I knew and the people they knew.

This is one white guy’s story, and it may not apply to any other editor who looks somewhat like me.

But I do know this much: As the sample size grows, a continued mismatch between your community’s demographics and those of the larger society increasingly suggests an inefficiency in the allocation of talent. You might want to look into why that happens.