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  • “Net Neutrality” Pro and Con

    Posted on December 21st, 2010 Helian No comments

    Here’s the pro:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/timothy-karr/obama-fcc-caves-on-net-ne_b_799435.html

    and here’s the con:

    http://www.nationalreview.com/articles/255734/fcc-regulators-turn-their-eyes-internet-randolph-j-may

    Both articles are useful if you happen to be a knee-jerk liberal or conservative looking for another board to nail onto the ideological box you live in.  They’re not so useful if you’re actually interested in understanding the issue of Internet regulation.  Both share a common feature of most of the articles that turn up on the Internet about topics that hit people’s ideological hot buttons.  Their authors talk right past each other. 

    I used to like the New Republic back in the day when Andrew Sullivan was editor because its authors had the endearing trait of identifying and taking issue with their opponents’ most important arguments head on.  Meanwhile, Sullivan has drifted off into the la-la land of Palin Derangement Syndrome, the New Republic has morphed into a dull version of the Nation, and that kind of writing has become increasingly difficult to find. 

    Meanwhile, I haven’t found any “Net Neutrality for Dummies” articles that are worth reading.  If you’re really interested in developing an informed opinion, I hope you like reading thick drafts of official documents.

  • Censorship in Philadelphia

    Posted on August 24th, 2010 Helian No comments

    The Internet has no equal as an enabler of Freedom of Speech. It provides access to public media to rich and poor alike, regardless of whether some publisher thinks he can make a profit from their work or not. Or at least it does outside of Philadelphia. The benevolent government there has decided to tax Freedom of Speech out of existence, or at least the Freedom of Speech of the little people who can’t afford it. You see, if you have any of those little display ads on your site, you’re in a “business for profit.” No matter that it costs money to maintain a website, and not one in a thousand of the sites that hosts the ads rakes in more than a fraction of that cost as “profit.” You still have to pay a “business privilege license” fee of $300. And, oh, by the way, you also have to bear the cost of documenting every penny of your income and expenses, because otherwise the city will just assume your income is pure profit, and tax that, too. It’s kind of like the “Fairness Doctrine,” but on a smaller scale and without the charade.

  • David Weigel and the Journalistic Fish

    Posted on June 28th, 2010 Helian No comments

    If you bother to read the dead tree media at all anymore, you’re aware of how quickly and uniformly the latest talking points and memes of the left make the rounds.   Sometimes it seems as if the same hand had written all the stories, merely changing a few words here and there for the sake of appearances.  Like a school of fish, they move in unison, acting for all the world as if they were guided by some hidden mastermind.  But there is no mastermind, nor is there any “conspiracy” to fix the daily slant.  Like the individuals in our school of fish, the editors don’t obey a single will.  They just act according to a common algorithm.  Whoever hacked David Weigel’s e-mail has now just given us an excellent opportunity to peak at the lines of source code in that algorithm.  We get to see, up close and personal, how the message is coordinated, or, to adopt the much more expressive term once used in Germany, “Gleichgeschaltet.”

    For those of you who haven’t been following this story, it revolves around the “Journolist,” described by its creator, Ezra Klein, as ” An insulated space where the lure of a smart, ongoing conversation would encourage journalists, policy experts and assorted other observers to share their insights with one another.”  It was recently hacked by someone yet unknown, revealing the details of the “smart, ongoing conversation” to the rest of us.  Among other things, David Weigel, assigned to blog the conservative beat by the Washington Post, contributed such gems as,

    There’s also the fact that neither the pundits, nor possibly the Republicans, will be punished for their crazy outbursts of racism. Newt Gingrich is an amoral blowhard who resigned in disgrace, and Pat Buchanan is an anti-Semite who was drummed out of the movement by William F. Buckley. Both are now polluting my inbox and TV with their bellowing and minority-bashing. They’re never going to go away or be deprived of their soapboxes.

    It’s really a disgrace that an amoral shut-in like Drudge maintains the influence he does on the news cycle while gay-baiting, lying, and flubbing facts to this degree.

    …this need to give equal/extra time to ‘real American’ views, no matter how fucking moronic, which just so happen to be the views of the conglomerates that run the media and/or buy up ads.

    In a word, Weigel didn’t exactly sympathize with the people he was supposed to be “objectively” covering.  Having been caught in flagrantihe resigned, releasing a string of groveling apologies in the process, such as,

    I was cocky, and I got worse. I treated the list like a dive bar, swaggering in and popping off about what was ‘really’ happening out there, and snarking at conservatives. Why did I want these people to like me so much? Why did I assume that I needed to crack wise and rant about people who, usually for no more than five minutes were getting on my nerves? Because I was stupid and arrogant, and needlessly mean.

    We are alarmed to learn that some of Weigel’s collaborators on the left are “outraged” by what has happened.  Striking the familiar pious poses, they are rediscovering their inner H. L. Mencken, wondering how anyone can be so lacking in common decency as to leak private e-mail conversations.  Like the Paris fashions, they shrug off ridicule.  For example, from Mark Shapiro,

    I do not know Weigel (and actually do not remember most of his postings on JournoList), but I am outraged over what happened to him. It is one thing to castigate a reporter for the accuracy of his journalism or to deride a blogger for the rigor of his arguments. But it is morally repugnant to heist someone’s e-mail comments — and to leak them in a way designed to embarrass him with the people whom he is covering. The obvious and odious parallel would be to secretly place a tape recorder on a table at a dinner party and then to turn the most inflammatory sound bites into a podcast.

    It’s enough to bring you to tears, isn’t it?  And, yes, in case you’re wondering, Shapiro’s remarks did include the de rigueur suggestion that the remarks were “taken out of context.”  I am not aware of Shapiro’s reaction to the hacking of Sarah Palin’s e-mail, or to the citizens who have recently assumed the right to reveal National Security Information as they see fit by virtue of their superior moral authority, but I rather suspect it was somewhat lacking in the bathos he managed to work up on behalf of Weigel.

    Well, none of this can be too surprising to media connoisseurs.  We could have had more fun with the story ten years ago, when a handfull of journalists still had the chutzpah to claim that they were purely objective with a straight face, but I fear the breed has died out in the interim.  Meanwhile, in his post announcing the demise of Journolist, Ezra Klein predicts,

    I’m proud of having started it, grateful to have participated in it, and I have no doubt that someone else will re-form it, with many of the same members, and keep it going.

    And, sure enough, Son of Journolist has already made its appearance.  What can you say?  Chalk it up as one more data point, and leave it at that.

  • The LGF Pot Calls the Geller Kettle Black

    Posted on June 16th, 2010 Helian 1 comment

    Charles Johnson at Little Green Footballs adds his two cents worth to the Pam Geller/PayPal kerfluffle:

    The fact is that there are plenty of good reasons to make the judgment that Pamela Geller promotes crazy hate speech, racist groups, and conspiracy theories; her main targets are Muslims, but many of these reasons have nothing to do with Islam, radical or otherwise.

    Far be it for him to promote “crazy hate speech” on his own blog. Some recent examples of his philosophical detachment and spirit of moderation:

    Congratulations, Glenn (Beck). You’ve now succeeded in being even more of a gratuitous race-baiter than Rush Limbaugh.

    Some days it seems as if the right wing blogosphere has become possessed by the Demons of Utter Stupidity.

    In his feverish rush to smear LGF by any means possible, wingnut hateblogger Ace of Spades makes an accusation. (Amid a whole bunch of outright lies.)

    This is the kind of person who represents the right wing blogosphere: a rank hypocrite, who accuses others of the unethical acts he performs himself.

    World Net Daily’s source for their latest insane Birther article is James Edwards — an open white supremacist who runs the vile “Political Cesspool” radio show in Tennessee: Hawaii elections clerk: Obama not born here.

    I haven’t been paying much attention to raving Birther kook Orly Taitz’s campaign for the GOP nomination for secretary of state, but amazingly, there’s actually a chance she might win today

    Fox News Hitler pimp Glenn Beck has a new favorite author:

    Nothing new about any of this, Blair, you freaking brain-dead right wing moron. Try harder next time.

    Today’s disgusting right wing racist is South Carolina Republican Senator Jake Knotts.

    It’s a good thing he doesn’t, you know, hate anybody. That could really get ugly.

  • Don’t Like People who Threaten Bloggers?

    Posted on June 2nd, 2010 Helian No comments

    Then consider hitting Little Miss Attila’s tip jar. She’s being threatened by a religious nut case, is not independently wealthy, and could use your help. Insty and Eric at Classical Values have noticed, and I hope some of the other big dogs will pick up on the story as well. This cockroach needs to be dragged into the light.

  • Free Speech and “Tolerance” on the Internet

    Posted on May 17th, 2010 Helian No comments

    French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner had an op-ed in the New York Times on Friday entitled, “The Battle for the Internet.” (hattip Volokh Conspiracy)  Apparently it was conceived as a call for freedom of expression on the Internet, which Kouchner describes as the medium of an unprecedented “revolution in freedom of communication and freedom of expression.”  In fact, Kouchner’s notion of “freedom of expression” is somewhat constrained.  It doesn’t apply to people whose opinions do not bear a sufficient resemblance to his own. 

    Kouchner does not keep us guessing about the type of people whose freedom of expression should be the subject of our particular solicitude.  In his own words,

    For the oppressed peoples of the world, the Internet provides power beyond their wildest hopes. It is increasingly difficult to hide a public protest, an act of repression or a violation of human rights. In authoritarian and repressive countries, mobile telephones and the Internet have given citizens a critical means of expression, despite all the restrictions.

    We should provide support to cyber-dissidents — the same support as other victims of political repression.

    For those not familiar with current French political thought regarding the categories of people one can legitimately view as “victims of political repression,” I note in passing that they do not include Jews living in predominantly Moslem countries, Serbs in Kosovo, or Russians in Latvia.  But I digress.  Let us allow Mr. Kouchner to give a more comprehensive definition of those who, we must assume, are not so victimized.  In his words,

    Extremist, racist and defamatory Web sites and blogs disseminate odious opinions in real time. They have made the Internet a weapon of war and hate. Web sites are attacked. Violent movements spread propaganda and false information.

    I am not talking about absolute freedom, which opens the door to all sorts of abuses. Nobody is promoting that. I’m talking about real freedom, based on the principle of respecting human dignity and rights.

    The battle of ideas has started between the advocates of a universal and open Internet — based on freedom of expression, tolerance and respect for privacy — against those who want to transform the Internet into a multitude of closed-off spaces that serve the purposes of repressive regimes, propaganda and fanaticism.

    In other words, “freedom of expression” should not be extended to propagandists, fanatics, and promoters of “hate.”  That would be to embrace “absolute freedom of expression,” as opposed to “real freedom of expression,” which should only be extended to those who are sufficiently “tolerant” to agree with Mr. Kouchner.  And how does one go about defending “real freedom of expression?”  Why, by invoking the aid of “international instruments,” presumably after the fashion of the UN.  Again, in Mr. Kouchner’s words,

    We should create an international instrument for monitoring such commitments and for calling governments to task when they fail to live up to them.

    No fewer than 180 countries meeting for the World Summit on the Information Society have acknowledged that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights applies fully to the Internet, especially Article 19, which establishes freedom of expression and opinion. And yet, some 50 countries fail to live up to their commitments.

    We should create an international instrument for monitoring such commitments and for calling governments to task when they fail to live up to them.

    In a word, then, we are to leave defense of “freedom of expression” to more or less the same people who entrusted defense of “women’s rights” to the theocratic rulers of Iran.  Good luck with that.

    In response to Mr. Kouchner’s impassioned plea for “real” freedom of expression, I suggest that he take note of the fact that it has already been tried, with rather disheartening results.  Our Canadian neighbors implemented a version of it complete with a national version of his “international instrument for monitoring such commitments,” in the form of what they called the Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC), throwing in a batch of clones at the provincial level for good measure.  It turned out that defense of “human rights” in Canada required the suppression of opinions that diverged from the prevailing “progressive” orthodoxy. 

    Started back in the 1970’s, these organizations long had the good sense to limit their censorship to obscure conservatives, religious groups, unpopular and extreme political groups, and similar “violators of human rights” who lacked the name recognition and the wherewithal to fight back.  The CHRC prided itself on a 100% conviction rate in its vendettas against such malefactors, achieved via such dubious means as debarring truth as a defense, allowing hearsay evidence, and funding accusers but not defendants.  Eventually, however, they became “dizzy with success,” and started launching attacks on people who could actually defend themselves, such as conservative talk show host Mark Steyn, who occasionally sits in for Rush Limbaugh, the editors of Canada’s flagship Maclean’s magazine, and Ezra Levant, editor of the Western Standard.   Defend themselves they did, as can be seen, for example, here, here and here.  The mainstream media in Canada took note, belatedly realizing that their own collective freedom of expression was threatened, and not just that of the nameless small fry whose rights had been a matter of such singular indifference to them for 30 years and more.  They, too, began pushing back, and a host of Internet sites joined the fray, examples of which can be found here, here, here, and here.  Finally, assured that their backs were covered, even Canadian politicians rediscovered the value of freedom of speech.

    Finally, confronted by forces it couldn’t intimidate, the CHRC backed down, in the familiar style of bullies whose bluff has been called.  The victory was a pyrrhic one, however.  It and its sub-bullies live on, and their existence will surely continue to have a dampening effect on the public discourse of anyone who might dare to disagree with them.  As Stefan Braun of the Winnipeg Free Press puts it,

    Maclean’s, more mainstream and better-resourced than the niche Western Standard, survived its accusers. But to see any of this as a victory misses the point. If such wrongful accusations can be legally levelled to harass, hound and hurt even established media and renowned authors, can anyone really feel safe from rapacious censors, who may think to challenge popular wisdom or powerful censorship interests defending it?

    What message is sent to malicious, or simply misguided, thought-accusers who think to silence them?

    Thought persecution, not legal vindication, is the point. Legal vindication is evidence not of the absence of public harm from wrongful hate-speech complaints, but proof of its existence.

    Steyn and Levant signify only the visible tip of a much larger chilling iceberg of public self-censorship lurking unspoken and unheard beneath…

    The effects of Mr. Kouchner’s “real” freedom of expression are quite visible in Europe as well.  In the Netherlands, a major political party is threatened with blanket censorship in the trial of its leader, Geert Wilders, for daring to criticize Islam.  In the UK, high-handed bureaucrats banned popular US talk show host Michael Savage from entering the country, citing the now-familiar trumped up charges of “provoking criminal acts” and “inciting hatred.”  Once upon a time the country’s Independent Television Commission (ITC) even considered banning Foxnews for being “too opinionated.”  Apparently the commissioners failed to detect the irony of such a charge in the homeland of the BBC.

    Europeans commonly refer to the First Amendment right to freedom of expression guaranteed to citizens of the United States as “radical” in comparison to their own “real” freedom.  How long we will remain “radical” in this respect is anybody’s guess.  Our latest nominee to the Supreme Court, Elena Kagan, has been quoted as saying, “Whether a given category of speech enjoys First Amendment protection depends upon a categorical balancing of the value of the speech against its societal costs.”  Predictably, one form of freedom of expression she feels bears an unacceptably high “societal cost” is “hate speech.”  Rest assured that “hate speech” will never include the torrent of obscene and violent abuse Sarah Palin has been subjected to since her candidacy for the Vice Presidency was announced.  Nevertheless, it is a highly flexible term, and can easily be construed to include any form of opposition to the prevailing orthodoxies.  Just ask the Canadians.

  • The Heroic Martyrs of Health Care Reform

    Posted on March 27th, 2010 Helian 2 comments

    The allergic response of the “progressive” left, those great self-proclaimed vindicators of “the people,” to the only genuine popular movement most of them have ever seen has been a remarkable spectacle. If their blogs are any indication, every tea partier with a homemade sign is a racist, Nazi,and  potential assassin with overactive saliva glands. They’ve been waving the bloody shirt non-stop since the health care bill passed, regaling us with hair raising tales of gratuitous vandalism and murderous threats. Instapundit was all over the story last week, with lots of good links to related stories. Examples of the usual ostentatious pious posing on the left can be found here, here, here and here, and reactions on the right here, here, here and here. The “violent mobs” meme was ubiquitous in the MSM and, of course, on NPR, where I noticed they were flogging it relentlessly every half hour or so as I drove to work. (I often wonder whether these people actually believe their own cant and think they’re just reporting the news. It’s a scary thought, isn’t it?) Greg Gutfeld has a post about the selective outrage on the left today that hits the nail on the head. His take:

    It goes like this: for the media, anger is only okay if its targets meet their stereotypical, romanticized criteria. Meaning: the corporation, the conservative, the daddy who never loved them.

    Here’s a list of people doing angry things the media is okay with:

    -People calling Bush a Nazi
    -Students and non students rioting on college campuses
    -Animal rights freaks dousing rich folks with paint
    -Actors wishing average folks would get rectal cancer
    -Bureaucrats labeling military vets as potential violent right wing extremists
    -Radical environmentalists advocating violence against loggers
    -Pranksters throwing pies at conservative commentators (you know, somehow they never pie Michael Moore, which makes him sad; he likes pie)

    But this health care bill anger is different from all that – not just because it’s right, but because it involves Obama. And being angry at Obama is like being mad at Santa Claus. How can you be mad at Santa, when he brings us so many gifts?

    And so, this anger is scary! It’s a mark of incivility! It’s deadly!

    In case you’re an NPR reporter and therefore have no clue what Greg is talking about, I suggest you follow some of Instapundit’s links to accounts of threats and violence directed against people you don’t happen to agree with.  You can find examples here, here, here and here.  Now check your archives and find out how obsessive you were about reporting on those stories.  Any questions?  If you want to see what real political intimidation looks like, take a gander at what your pals in Canada have been up to.

    Of course, when it comes to the health care bill, the ranting on the right has been at least as loud as that on the left.  Sean Hannity has been making Nathan Hale speeches for months about how the “Louisiana Purchase,” the “Cornhusker Kickback,” and all the related traditional wheeling and dealing in Congress make the health care bill the “most corrupt” ever.  I can only suggest that Sean get a grip and Google Teapot Dome and Credit Mobilier, or perhaps read a little about the history of the big railroads and their penchant for political manipulation in their heyday. 

    Indeed, when it comes to pious posing from the moral high ground, the right seems to have achieved parity with the left.  We’ve become a mutual demonization society.  In some sense that’s a good thing, because it demonstrates that in the US, unlike, for example, in Europe, the right has regained a public voice in the form of talk radio, influential bloggers, and Foxnews.  The days when the left had such a monopoly over the public media that they could simply destroy people who criticized them the way they did Richard Nixon are long gone.  Now the right can answer tit for tat, and they are in no mood to be intimidated with the “violent demonstrators” gambit.  Who knows, perhaps cooler heads on both sides will eventually become bored with mutual villification and we will see a gradual easing of the current polarization between left and right.  I’m not holding my breath, though.

    Meanwhile, we must grin and bear the burden of another massive government entitlement program.  Obama assures us that it will “cut the deficit.”  If it does, it will certainly be a historical first.  I’m not holding my breath for that, either.  On the other hand, it’s unlikely to cause the collapse of the economy the right seems so worried about any time soon.  Other countries have dealt with and continue to deal with much heavier public debts than ours, although we certainly appear to be catching up with them.  A more likely outcome than the “train wreck” expected on the right is economic malaise similar to that in Japan accompanied by gradually increasing taxation in one form or another and an increasingly discouraging outlook for anyone contemplating any kind of private economic venture.  I can’t rule out one of Nassim Taleb’s “black swans,” but I suspect that the American people will simply accept the continuing metastasization of big government and adapt to the resultant loss of liberty as best they can, just as they have accepted the gradual and continued morphing of our so-called “system of justice” into an abomination in which the only “winners” of legal battles in the courts can be the lawyers.  The train wreck may be coming, but it’s still a long way off.

  • The Copenhagen Climate Summit: Narratives to Suit Any Taste

    Posted on December 19th, 2009 Helian 1 comment

    Look! It’s a rainbow of spin! Today’s Copenhagen headlines are a snapshot of political narratives worldwide. Want to find out who’s still carrying water for Barack Obama and who’s not? Let’s have a look.

    First the bad news: Germany’s honeymoon with the President is kaputt. The Teutonic brethren at Spiegel magazine discovered long ago that there’s big dough in Amerika bashing. Sure, the US President is ein netter Kerl, but these are hard times for journalists, and one can’t afford to be too finicky. You only need to learn three German words to get the gist of their coverage of all things American: Fiasko, Debakel, and Desaster. Need I translate? Here’s Spiegel’s take on the latest out of Copenhagen:

    Full Speed Ahead into the Greenhouse

    Failed Summit

    What a fiasco: The Copenhagen climate summit has failed thanks to the politics of unyielding self interest of the USA, China, and many other states. We are likely to soon find out just how catastrophic climate change will really be – in a global greenhouse experiment.

    Our British friends, whom Spiegel was fond of referring to as “vassals” and “poodles” of the US back in the days of Tony Blair, are taking a rather more charitable view of the affair. Apparently they’re still not quite ready to throw the President under the bus. According to the BBC,

    The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has welcomed a US-backed climate deal in Copenhagen as an “essential beginning”.

    He was speaking after delegates passed a motion recognizing the agreement, which the US reached with key nations including China.

    The more erudite among the BBC’s readers who get past the headlines will find some less than rosy details mentioned in passing in the body of the article, such as,

    However, a number of developing nations were angered by the draft proposals.
    BBC environment correspondent Richard Black said the language in this text showed 2C was not a formal target, just that the group “recognises the scientific view that” the temperature increase should be held below this figure.

    but such minutiae don’t spoil the overall positive effect.

    Here in the US one can also find a version of reality to suit any taste. Of course, they’re pulling no punches at Foxnews:

    Has Copenhagen collapsed?

    That seems to be the growing sentiment inside the city’s Bella Conference Center, where officials, environmentalists and even delegates to the international climate conference began streaming out Friday evening. What began with excitement and anticipation two weeks ago ended Friday night with disappointment and anger for thousands.

    Collapse? What collapse! As I write this, it appears they haven’t noticed a thing at CNN. Their world headlines link has no mention of Copenhagen at all. However, more persistent readers who trouble themselves to click down a page or two will find reassuring “news:”

    Obama announces climate change deal with China, other nations

    President Obama announced what he called a “meaningful and unprecedented” climate change deal with China and other key nations that was expected to be sealed before the president headed home from the Copenhagen summit late Friday.

    There, that’s all you need to know, now just move on. Well, all right, if you have a suspicious nature and don’t believe CNN, just check the rest of the mainstream media. True, the guys at MSNBC are a shade less sanguine, but, after all, the Pres did what he could:

    U.S., others broker modest climate deal

    Plan includes way to verify reduction in global warming emissions

    That last blurb is a bit rich, even for MSNBC, but we’ll keep our fingers crossed and hope the editors of Spiegel don’t see it. For that matter, it’s downright sober compared to the take at ABC:

    Obama Hails ‘Significant Breakthrough’ at Climate Talks

    Obama and Three World Leaders Have Agreed to a Political “Accord,” Official Says

    President unites China, India and Brazil on climate agreement in Copenhagen.

    There! See? Whatever were those silly fellows at Spiegel thinking with their hand wringing about a “fiasco?” Still don’t believe me? Apparently you’ll need an even stronger dose. Let’s move on to NPR’s website, where the President, arrayed in shining armor, still rides through cyberspace on his snow white charger:

    The president tells the U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen that America is setting an example of bold action and other nations must follow or see the world suffer catastrophic effects.

    Good old NPR, fighting a never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, German nitpickers.

  • Civility and Political Discourse

    Posted on October 24th, 2009 Helian No comments

    A lot of what passes for political discussion these days amounts to pointing out the moral flaws in one’s opponent, often referred to as demonization. This is typically done by people who would be dumbfounded if asked to explain the rational basis for their claims to superior virtue. Apparently, Jonah Goldberg, has no problem with this, pointing to our long history of political incivility. He reminds me of Cunegunde in Voltaire’s “Candide,” who was ashamed that she resisted being raped and mutilated by the soldiers of an invading army after it was explained to her that it was, after all, a mere matter of tradition.

    All Goldberg is really saying is that we have a long habit of striking Pharisaical poses and expounding on the inferior virtue and moral turpitude of our enemies. That does not make it right or useful. There are good habits and bad habits. This is a bad habit. Perhaps it’s best to look at it from a practical point of view. It’s emotionally satisfying to feel holier than the other guy, but it doesn’t really inform him, or anyone else, for that matter. When I read or hear someone declaiming on someone elses immoralities, I reflect that there are probably very few people in the world who deliberately and consciously go around doing things they know are evil, and, taking one moralistic poseur with another, the chances are vanishingly small that the person doing the ranting has a clue about why what he thinks is good is really good and what he thinks is bad is really bad. I then shrug my shoulders and move on.

    I am far from believing that I will solve such a pervasive and persistent problem with an appeal to our better natures. However, I point out to the happy few who are more interested in approaching the truth than reinforcing the walls of the ideological boxes they live in that it is impossible to do so without listening to and considering opposing points of view. Moreover, ones own point of view is considerably more coherent and persuasive when presented in temperate language. It happens that I am far from perfect in this respect. However, I will make an effort to take my own good advice, and at least respond with civility if I am approached with civility. I hope others will do so as well.

  • Cass Sunstein, Glenn Beck, and Diversity of Opinion

    Posted on September 11th, 2009 Helian 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.