Posted on September 12th, 2009 No comments
Huffpo was in a huff over the barbaric Texans’ response to Obama’s speech to school children, but Byron York provided some useful historical context. You see, Bush gave a similar speech, resulting in rather a different flavor of virtuous indignation. To wit:
Unlike the Obama speech, in 1991 most of the controversy came after, not before, the president’s school appearance. The day after Bush spoke, the Washington Post published a front-page story suggesting the speech was carefully staged for the president’s political benefit. “The White House turned a Northwest Washington junior high classroom into a television studio and its students into props,” the Post reported.
With the Post article in hand, Democrats pounced. “The Department of Education should not be producing paid political advertising for the president, it should be helping us to produce smarter students,” said Richard Gephardt, then the House Majority Leader. “And the president should be doing more about education than saying, ‘Lights, camera, action.’”
Democrats did not stop with words. Rep. William Ford, then chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, ordered the General Accounting Office to investigate the cost and legality of Bush’s appearance. On October 17, 1991, Ford summoned then-Education Secretary Lamar Alexander and other top Bush administration officials to testify at a hearing devoted to the speech. “The hearing this morning is to really examine the expenditure of $26,750 of the Department of Education funds to produce and televise an appearance by President Bush at Alice Deal Junior High School in Washington, DC,” Ford began. “As the chairman of the committee charged with the authorization and implementation of education programs, I am very much interested in the justification, rationale for giving the White House scarce education funds to produce a media event.”
Unfortunately for Ford, the General Accounting Office concluded that the Bush administration had not acted improperly. “The speech itself and the use of the department’s funds to support it, including the cost of the production contract, appear to be legal,” the GAO wrote in a letter to Chairman Ford. “The speech also does not appear to have violated the restrictions on the use of appropriations for publicity and propaganda.”
That didn’t stop Democratic allies from taking their own shots at Bush. The National Education Association denounced the speech, saying it “cannot endorse a president who spends $26,000 of taxpayers’ money on a staged media event at Alice Deal Junior High School in Washington, D.C. — while cutting school lunch funds for our neediest youngsters.”
Thanks, Byron. History is always a useful guide in deciding when virtuous indignation is or is not appropriate.
Posted on September 12th, 2009 3 comments
The Christian right is fond of associating itself with our Founding Fathers. In fact, had they lived at the time, they would have found themselves in the very opposite camp. That camp had a name that should be familiar to every American schoolchild: Tories.
Then, as now, they had a penchant for considering themselves just a little more “equal” than their fellow citizens. Then, as now, they also had a penchant for stuffing their religion down other people’s throats. They were a lot better at it then, though, because they had a lot more power. They continued to have that power for many years after our Revolution. The following excerpt from the London “Quarterly Review,” organ of the Tories in 1839, will give you an idea of the consideration they showed their fellow citizens when they had the upper hand. Referring to the perceived immorality of the lower classes in Austria at the time, it draws some “lessons” for English society:
In such a state of things, who can deny the absolute necessity for religious education? Teach the lower orders in England to read and write, and unless they are very narrowly watched, the first use they will make of their accomplishments will be to spell over the pages of a newspaper. Talk to them of the value of intellectual acquirements, and the odds are that you will only make them discontented with the lot in which Providence has placed them, and prone to listen to the first itinerant demagogue who may think fit to rail against the unequal distribution of wealth or the recognised distinctions of society. It has been said that they will learn it time to understand the advantages of these distinctions, and perceive that the welfare of the community, themselves inclusive, is bound up with the institution of property; but our firm conviction is, that the time they are able to set apart for reading is utterly inadequate to such a result, and that, whilst man is man, those who earn their bread by the sweat of ther brow must be content to take political conclusions upon trust. In the case of monarchy, for example, you may always teach them to shake off the prejudice, you will never teach them the value of the principle. It were well, therefore, if such topics of inquiry cound be altogether excluded, but they cannot: all we can do is to make moral training go hand in hand with intellectual cultivation, and give the general superintendence to the body most interested in the preservation of order and best qualified to instil a proper sense of religious duty – the Church.
Thus the genuine intellectual forebears of today’s political Christians. They were defanged in America by men like Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, and Paine, men who had nothing in common with them intellectually. Fortunately, they were eventually defanged in England as well. May they always remain so. It will be better for all of us, including them.
Posted on September 12th, 2009 No comments
In German, that would be “Wild West Züstände.” Translation of the opening graph:
What began as a peaceful protest ended in a riot. Leftist demonstrators threw stones and bottles during protests against a march by the NPD (neo-Nazis). Police officials felt they had been “massively attacked.” The police fired one or two warning shots.
Of course, the level of mayhem wasn’t in the same league with our town hall meetings here in the US, but things do seem to be heating up over there.
Posted on September 11th, 2009 No comments
In remembering 9/11, I will defer to Babalu today. I agree with one of his commenters. It is the best post that I’ve seen on his blog, and that’s saying something.
Posted on September 11th, 2009 No comments
Cass Sunstein has been confirmed as the administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs at the Office of Budget and Management. The right refers to him as another of Obama’s “czars,” although the position has been in existence since 1980. As Katie Connolly of Newsweek informs us, Glenn Beck was among those who were less than thrilled about Sunstein’s appointment. According to Connolly, after taking down Van Jones, “Beck has him in his sights. Recently he urged fans, via his Twitter feed, to collect and save all the information they could find about Sunstein.” Predictably, the stalwarts of the left are frothing at the mouth about all this, striking pious poses as noble defenders of freedom of speech even as they work tirelessly to eliminate it via the “fairness doctrine.”
Glenn’s allergic reaction to Sunstein is justified, to the extent that he is sitting at the opposite end of the political spectrum. On the other hand, Cass Sunstein is no Van Jones. He is a progressive leftist, but he is not a self-blinkered ideologue who is incapable of appreciating points of view that differ from his own.
Some of the right’s objections to Sunstein relate to his attitude concerning freedom of speech. He wrote an interesting essay on the subject back in 2001, excerpts of which appeared in the Boston Review. It’s worth a closer look. The picture of the man that emerges from his own work is a great deal more nuanced than the filtered versions we’ve being seeing from both his detractors on the right and his hagiographers on the left (who, BTW, do not include Kos). In fact, it turns out that some of the reactions to his nomination are good illustrations of a problem he associates with the rise of the Internet:
We can sharpen our understanding of this problem if we attend to the phenomenon of group polarization. The idea is that after deliberating with one another, people are likely to move toward a more extreme point in the direction to which they were previously inclined, as indicated by the median of their predeliberation judgments. With respect to the Internet, the implication is that groups of people, especially if they are like-minded, will end up thinking the same thing that they thought before—but in more extreme form.
The problem of group polarization is certainly real. It is, in fact, a manifestation of the Amity-Enmity Complex I have referred to earlier. Indeed, Sunstein describes the Complex very nicely:
For present purposes, the most important point is that group polarization will significantly increase if people think of themselves, antecedently or otherwise, as part of a group having a shared identity and a degree of solidarity.
According to Sunstein, the problem is exacerbated by the increased ability of individuals to self-filter the news in modern society:
Of course, these developments make life much more convenient and in some ways much better: we all seek to reduce our exposure to uninvited noise. But from the standpoint of democracy, filtering is a mixed blessing. An understanding of the mix will permit us to obtain a better sense of what makes for a well-functioning system of free expression. In a heterogeneous society, such a system requires something other than free, or publicly unrestricted, individual choices. On the contrary, it imposes two distinctive requirements. First, people should be exposed to materials that they would not have chosen in advance. Unanticipated encounters, involving topics and points of view that people have not sought out and perhaps find irritating, are central to democracy and even to freedom itself. Second, many or most citizens should have a range of common experiences. Without shared experiences, a heterogeneous society will have a more difficult time addressing social problems and understanding one another.
Sounds harmless enough. However, Sunstein’s version of how these “shared experiences” were acquired in the past will have his detractors on the right rolling with laughter:
To be sure, the Internet greatly increases people’s ability to expand their horizons, as millions of people are now doing; but many people are using it to produce narrowness, not breadth… What is different is a dramatic increase in individual control over content, and a corresponding decrease in the power of general interest intermediaries, including newspapers, magazines, and broadcasters. For all their problems, and their unmistakable limitations and biases, these intermediaries have performed some important democratic functions.
Here, of course, Sunstein is referring to what is often referred to as the “legacy media.” Supposedly these “intermediaries” performed the invaluable service of bringing individuals into contact with stories and ideas that they would, given the choice, have ignored, familiarizing them with other points of view and providing balance to their own.
Here, I must join the right rolling in the aisles. The idea that the legacy media, which, by the time the Internet appeared on the scene, had long been feeding us an utterly one-sided and slanted narrative, grossly abusing their great power in the process, were somehow performing a “valuable service” by exposing us to “diverse points of view” doesn’t pass the “ho-ho” test. Their stony silence during the Van Jones affair was a stark reminder of just how effective these “intermediaries” used to be in making sure that inconvenient truths never saw the light of day. Returning to the essay:
People who rely on such intermediaries have a range of chance encounters, involving shared experience with diverse others and exposure to material that they did not specifically choose.
They have a range of encounters “to material that they did not specifically choose,” all right. However, it is hardly “chance” material, and, instead of choosing it themselves, others do them the honor of choosing it for them.
A system in which you lack control over the particular content that you see has a great deal in common with a public street, where you might encounter not only friends, but a heterogeneous variety of people engaged in a wide array of activities (including, perhaps, political protests and begging).
This comparison of the legacy media with the “public street” is one of Sunstein’s favorite hobbies. In fact, their street led in only one direction, and it was certainly not public. Now, however, we run across some of the nuance that doesn’t appear in the diatribes of the right:
None of these claims depends on a judgment that general interest intermediaries are unbiased, or always do an excellent job, or deserve a monopoly over the world of communications. The Internet is a boon partly because it breaks that monopoly. So too for the proliferation of television and radio shows, and even channels, that have some specialized identity. (Consider the rise of Fox News, which appeals to a more conservative audience.) All that I am claiming is that general interest intermediaries expose people to a wide range of topics and views and at the same time provide shared experiences for a heterogeneous public. Indeed, intermediaries of this sort have large advantages over streets and parks precisely because they tend to be national, even international. Typically they expose people to questions and problems in other areas, even other countries.
However, after these hopeful remarks, Sunstein quickly returns to his obsession with polarization:
Consider discussions among hate groups on the Internet and elsewhere. If the underlying views are unreasonable, it makes sense to fear that these discussions may fuel increasing hatred and a socially corrosive form of extremism.
One wonders who will get to decide what is “reasonable,” “hateful,” and “socially corrosive.” Is Sunstein unaware that there is a difference of opinion on the subject?
How does this bear on the Internet? An increasingly fragmented communications universe will reduce the level of shared experiences having salience to a diverse group of Americans. This is a simple matter of numbers. When there were three television networks, much of what appeared would have the quality of a genuinely common experience. The lead story on the evening news, for example, would provide a common reference point for many millions of people. To the extent that choices proliferate, it is inevitable that diverse individuals, and diverse groups, will have fewer shared experiences and fewer common reference points. It is possible, for example, that some events that are highly salient to some people will barely register on others’ viewscreens. And it is possible that some views and perspectives that seem obvious for many people will, for others, seem barely intelligible.
In fact, these stories were chosen and reported in a way that conformed to a political narrative. It’s odd that the very modes of communication that freed Americans from the heavy handed slant of the legacy media are now the reason Sunstein is worried about “balance.” Obviously, he never felt threatened by the gross bias of the legacy media because he agreed with it. The perceptions of other people who aren’t quite as in tune with that media as Sunstein regarding the nature of this “common, shared experience” are entirely different. In reality, an elite had the power to choose what our “common shared experience” would be, and then interpreted it for us. The Internet and talk radio demolished that power. The very real danger that government could hand it right back to them on a silver platter with the “fairness doctrine,” restoring the “diversity” their propaganda machine used to dish out, is a far greater cause for concern than Sunstein’s worries about polarization.
However, Sunstein’s suggestions for curing the problems he alludes to are hardly as heavy-handed as his detractors would have us believe. Returning to the essay:
I do not intend to offer a comprehensive set of policy reforms or any kind of blueprint for the future. In fact, this may be one domain in which a problem exists for which there is no useful cure: the genie might simply be out of the bottle. But it will be useful to offer a few ideas, if only by way of introduction to questions that are likely to engage public attention in coming years.
Drawing on recent developments in regulation generally, we can see the potential appeal of five simple alternatives. Of course, different proposals would work better for some communications outlets than others. I will speak here of both private and public responses, but the former should be favored: they are less intrusive, and in general they are likely to be more effective as well.
Nevertheless, I suspect the cures Sunstein suggest are worse than the disease. They include:
Disclosure: Producers of communications might disclose important information on their own, about the extent to which they are promoting democratic goals… Television broadcasters might, for example, be asked to disclose their public interest activities. On a quarterly basis, they might say whether and to what extent they have provided educational programming for children, free air time for candidates, and closed captioning for the hearing impaired. They might also be asked whether they have covered issues of concern to the local community and allowed opposing views a chance to speak. The Federal Communications Commission has already taken steps in this direction; it could do a lot more. Of course, disclosure is unlikely to be a full solution to the problems that I have discussed here. But modest steps in this direction are likely to do little harm and at least some good.
Here one might ask what happens when TV stations insist they are perfectly objective, and entirely fair? The real effect of the type of “disclosure” favored by Sunstein will be exactly what conservatives are worried about when they criticize the fairness doctrine; the exclusion of all but a single narrative. There is, in fact, no such thing as objective reporting. I can think of one type of disclosure that would really be helpful. Anyone who reports the news on public media, whether they claim to be unbiased or not, should disclose their opinions on 15 or 20 of the “hot button” issues of the day, regularly updated. Ones that might serve at the moment include abortion, the public option in health care, the war in Afghanistan, talk radio, etc. If we know what their opinions on such issues are, we will also know how they will filter the news.
Self-Regulation: Producers of communications might engage in voluntary self-regulation… Any such code could, for example, call for an opportunity for opposing views to speak, or for avoiding unnecessary sensationalism, or for offering arguments rather than quick soundbites whenever feasible.
NPR and the BBC are perfect examples of why this idea would never work. Their editors are likely convinced that they are paragons of this type of “self-regulation,” yet they are invariably and persistently slanted. Here, I must agree with Rush Limbaugh. He is an opposing point of view, and one that, for all practical purposes, never existed before he came on the scene. I disagree with him on much. However, he may well be the single greatest promoter of freedom of speech and diversity of opinion this country has ever produced. Talk radio and the Internet provide Americans with far greater access to diverse and alternative opinions on just about any subject one could name than exists anywhere else in the world. Neutering them because they are “polarizing” would be a fatal mistake.
Subsidy: The government might subsidize speech, as, for example, through publicly subsidized programming or publicly subsidized websites.
The effect of subsidy will be what it has always been; the cultivation of points of view preferred by those in power.
Links: Websites might use links and hyperlinks to ensure that viewers learn about sites containing opposing views.
Again, notice that, contrary to what some conservative websites have been suggesting, Sunstein is not proposing these links be mandatory. However, his idea raises other issues. Would he include the views of Nazis, Communists, cults, creationists, etc., among those to be linked? Who would decide which of these to exclude?
Public Sidewalk: If the problem consists in the failure to attend to public issues, the most popular websites in any given period might offer links and hyperlinks, designed to ensure more exposure to substantive questions… But to the extent that they weaken the power of general interest intermediaries and increase people’s ability to wall themselves off from topics and opinions that they would prefer to avoid, they create serious dangers.
In fact, weakening the power of “general interest intermediaries,” i.e., the legacy media, has been one of the greatest boons of the Internet. It was precisely those “general interest intermediaries” that walled people off from opinions the editors of those former gatekeepers preferred they not hear. As for the authors of the “popular websites” Sunstein is concerned about, they are very well aware of their opponents’ points of view, and must address them or immediately be exposed among their peers. This is a significant break on extremism. So are the comment sections that appear after many blogs on both the left and the right, and typically include both “pro” and “con” points of view. In fact, the legacy media were far more effective at barring our access to opposing points of view than the Internet could ever be.
Well, be that as it may, Cass Sunstein is a highly intelligent man who is willing to listen to opposing points of view. His opponents on the right who are crying for his removal would be well advised to consider those facts and be careful what they wish for.
Posted on September 9th, 2009 No comments
Bloomberg reports on an interview with the President of Japan Steel Works that China will build more than double previous estimates. 132 units will take China way past the US (at 104 units and probably smaller average size) in total nuclear reactor capacity.
The country may build about 22 reactors in the five years ending 2010 and 132 units thereafter, compared with a company estimate last year for a total 60 reactors, President Ikuo Sato said in an interview. Japan Steel Works has the only plant that makes the central part of a large-size nuclear reactor’s containment vessel in a single piece, reducing radiation risk.
More nukes means a slower growth rate in coal electric power plant construction. The total amount of CO2 emissions from Chinese plants will continue to rise. But it would rise as fast and as far as previously projected. That high build rate should bring down costs and make China the low cost leader in nuclear power plant construction.
Low cost leader indeed! Perhaps we should help our Chinese friends out by sending over Michael Grunwald to explain to them that nuclear power is “really, really expensive.”
Posted on September 9th, 2009 No comments
Thump-thump, THUMP-THUMP! That’s the now familiar sound of another of Obama’s intimates being thrown under the bus. Van Jones has gone to join Reverend Wright and Father Pfleger in the happy hunting grounds of the politically congenial but overly loquacious. Some of Obama’s stalwarts on the left are getting restive. Apparently no one ever told them that the Illinois Democratic machine doesn’t exist to crank out noble idealists. Alas, poor Jones was caught on video committing the unpardonable political faux pas of acting like himself, or, to put it in the vernacular of the left, he was “smeared.”
Posted on September 9th, 2009 1 comment
Harry’s Place takes the trouble to point out the obvious about Noam Chomsky; he never got over the 60′s, including the hatred of the United States that went along with the leftist narrative in those days. As a result, he has ended up with some strange bedfellows over the years. Pol Pot was one of the most egregious. Chomsky relativized the crimes of the Khmer Rouge, although his culpability was not as great as his enemies on the right would suggest. His apologists have done their best to sweep the affair under the rug.
Lately he’s been carrying water for another dictator; Hugo Chavez. Harry’s Place quotes a pro-Chavez blog on the occasion of his recent visit to Venezuela:
Chomsky… addressed the media and freedom of expression in the U.S. “In the United States the socio-economic system is designed so that the control over the media is in the hands of a minority who own large corporations… and the result is that the financial interests of those groups are always behind the so-called freedom of expression,” he said.
As Marc Cooper responded: “Yawn.” This is tired stuff, especially in the age of the Internet, which I assume Chomsky has heard of. Isn’t it time to update his “corporate media control your (but not my) mind” spiel in light of the past decade or so?
As for “so-called freedom of expression” in the US: as David points out, it is so restricted that, um, er, Chomsky was invited to address a class of philosophy students at the US Military Academy in West Point during the Bush administration, to critique the “just war” theory and the invasion of Iraq. But I suppose that was just a charade to make people think there is real freedom of expression. Or something.
Speaking of strange bedfellows, I was amused to see Chomsky’s smiling face on the front page of the neo-Nazi “Deutsche National Zeitung” a few years back during a trip to Germany. Of course, they were bitching about the United States like everyone else in Germany except a few brave bloggers at the time, and duly transmogrified him into a patriotic hero of the first water. I suspect they would have perceived him in a rather different light had he been a German.
Well, a lot has changed since the 60′s. The Soviet Union has fallen, Communism has collapsed, and Islamism, of all things, has rushed in to fill the vacuum. I won’t get too worried about Chomsky unless he starts wearing a turban. For that matter, I’ll always have a tiny soft spot in my heart for him. After all, at least he had enough common sense to give the behaviorists a parting kick on their way out the door.
Posted on September 7th, 2009 2 comments
Commenting on the 70th anniversary of the start of World War II, Lexington Green at Chicago Boyz complains about the prevalence of historical distortion and revision:
American children whom I talk to are apparently taught two things and two things only about our participation in World War II: (1) The Japanese Americans were imprisoned, and that was racist and wrong, and (2) we dropped atomic bombs on Japan, and that was racist and wrong. Some know about the Holocaust. College age youth are taught that the war was an exercise in American imperialism, meant to spread expoitative capitalism across the world, and that it is a myth that the GIs went to Europe to liberate the conquered countries or to bring democracy and freedom. Even depictions that are not entirely negative, such as Saving Private Ryan, depict the war solely as a personal tragedy and pointless death and destruction, and not about anything, and certainly not about anything good or admirable. Fed exclusively on this diet for over a generation, we now have a population that sees the war in this way.
That pretty much agrees with my observations. Historical awareness, to the extent that it exists at all, is at the level of a superficial morality play. It brings to mind a comment John Stuart Mill made in his essay “On Liberty,” regarding what has now become the ruling paradigm in education:
That the whole or any large part of the education of the people should be in State hands, I go as far as any one in deprecating. All that has been said of the importance of individuality of character, and diversity in opinions and modes of conduct, involves, as of the same unspeakable importance, diversity of education. A general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another: and as the mould in which it casts them is that which pleases the predominant power in the government, whether this be a monarch, a priesthood, an aristocracy, or the majority of the existing generation in proportion as it is efficient and successful, it establishes a despotism over the mind, leading by natural tendency to one over the body. An education established and controlled by the State should only exist, if it exist at all, as one among many competing experiments, carried on for the purpose of example and stimulus, to keep the others up to a certain standard of excellence.
Well, we did not take Mill’s advice, and now we have in practice what he inveighed against in theory. Green gives us his take on the result:
Reagan was right. I have gone beyond being distressed about all this to being fatalistically resigned. With historical memory either non-existent or actively corrupted, those of us who care about these things will have to preserve the record as best we can.
I concur. The best advice I can think of for anyone who really wants to approach historical truth is, go back to the source material.
Posted on September 7th, 2009 No comments
The Associate Press informs us that, “Obama advisor Van Jones resigns amid controversy.” According to their article,
Van Jones, an administration official specializing in environmentally friendly “green jobs” with the White House Council on Environmental Quality was linked to efforts suggesting a government role in the 2001 terror attacks and to derogatory comments about Republicans.
The matter surfaced after news reports of a derogatory comment Jones made in the past about Republicans, and separately, of Jones’ name appearing on a petition connected to the events surrounding the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks. That 2004 petition had asked for congressional hearings and other investigations into whether high-level government officers had allowed the attacks to occur.
The fact that Obama threw Jones under the bus, and that with alacrity, must come as rather a rude shock to those who rely exclusively on the legacy media for their news. When he was appointed the President’s “Green Czar,” their “Ministry of Truth” apparently concluded that all citizens needed to know about Jones was that he was Mr. Sunshine.
However, as readers who follow Glenn Beck’s program on FOX News are aware, the “derogatory comment” so coyly referred to by AP was “assholes,” and, as can be seen in the Youtube pull below, Jones actually had a few other issues in addition to making “derogatory comments” and suffering from a rare nervous disorder that causes him to sign 9/11 “truther” petitions while he’s asleep.
AP informs us that, in Jones’ resignation statement, he said,
On the eve of historic fights for health care and clean energy, opponents of reform have mounted a vicious smear campaign agains me. They are using lies and distortions to distract and divide.
Judging from Beck’s video clips, that’s a bit of a stretch unless Glenn somehow managed to turn up the most convincing Doppelgänger of all time. Presumably the “vicious smears” Jones refers to are similar to the “vicious smears” John Kerry complained about when the Swift Boat veterans told us the truth about him.