Five Best Monday Columns
Bill Keller on online piracy, James Carroll on television, Hendrik Hertzberg on debates, Lisa Levenstein and Jennifer Mittelstadt on food stamps, and Albert Hunt on Obama.
Bill Keller in The New York Times on combating piracy As other tech companies think increasingly corporate, Wikipedia has maintained "the public-service spirit of the wide-open Web." "So as I followed the latest battle in the great sectarian war over the governing of the Internet — the attempt to curtail online piracy — I was startled to see that Wikipedia's founder and philosopher, Jimmy Wales, who generally stays out of the political limelight, had assumed a higher profile as a combatant for the tech industry," writes Keller. He recounts the political fight over bills he says had the noble purpose of applying copyright laws to overseas pirate sites, but had muddled and overreaching applications. He argues that the tech world showed its political muscles, but now leaders like Wales must use them to support copyright law in a way that doesn't unneccessarily burden or punish non-law breakers. "[O]nline companies would be crazy to let piracy kill off the commerce that supplies quality material upon which even free sites like Wikipedia depend."
James Carroll in The Boston Globe on television and public debate On the surface, modern politics seems to prevent serious or complex weighing of issues. "The entertainment we choose provides a better window into our real anxieties than our public dialogue does, even - or maybe especially - when the stakes are high," writes Carroll. He focuses on three of the most popular PBS programs in the past few decades, and describes the way each of them spoke to a political movement. Ken Burns' The Civil War, he says, romanticized the conflict as we considered Desert Storm. Brideshead Revisited reckoned with "moral dislocation" post-Vietnam and prefigured a new acceptance for gay men in the AIDS crisis. Today, as the upper class in Downton Abbey struggles, probably futilely, to keep their legacy intact for future generations, they speak to a recessionary America concerned with the country it will leave its children. "The beginning of the solution to an apparently insoluble problem is to feel the pain of it, and Downton Abbey is helping us do that."
Hendrik Hertzberg in The New Yorker on debate overload John McCain and others have complained that the number of Republican debates, which will perhaps set a record for a primary contest, is hurting all of the candidates. "Is  too many? So many that we should all just say no? Well, let's see," write Hertzberg. He looks at the other forms of television media where the campaign plays out, paid advertising and news coverage, and he argues the debates might provide the most honest look at the candidates. He recounts problems with the debates, that they overly reward certain qualities and that the format doesn't always promote real debate, but they allow Americans to see candidates without their spin machines. Why, he wonders, if we need 19 primary debates, have we settled for just three in the general election? If Obama and a Republican agreed to several more it "would make it a little harder for either side to conduct a parallel campaign of Super PAC slanders[.] No more debates? No. More debates."
Lisa Levenstein and Jennifer Mittelstadt in the Los Angeles Times on food stamps America's food stamp program currently serves 46 million Americans. "The nation's food stamp program is an essential part of the American safety net ... But if Republicans have their way, they will turn food stamp recipients into the new 'welfare queens.'" Republican candidates have suggested cutbacks to the program, and the writers argue proponents should study the program's history to better advocate for its maintenance. The grocery industry originally proposed the program as a sort of economic priming tool and a replacement for the government's in-house food welfare, which required people to line up for food. The program now involves food distributors and sellers and pumps money into the economy. "History suggests that the pernicious anti-welfare rhetoric that has recently been attached to the program will prove powerful and could threaten to discredit it," but Obama should "embrace it, positioning himself as a defender of American retailers."
Albert Hunt in Bloomberg View on Obama's hubris Obama has had some "political chest thumping" after a well-received State of the Union and strong employment numbers. "National political campaigns are cyclical, and after an especially good cycle, the Democratic president is due for some downtime." He recounts other examples of "political hubris" in recent weeks. Obama's confrontation with the Arizona governor, and his decision to make a speech and leave a political event before Jeb Bush spoke in the presence of former President George H.W. Bush. Obama's been given a free pass on some of these instances, because Republicans are busy criticizing each other. But it won't last long, just as it didn't when his hubris from a 2008 Iowa caucus win led to missteps in New Hampshire. Things have been going well for him, but "Obama should take note that even with all that, he enjoys only a slight edge over Romney in polls."