Cass Sunstein, Glenn Beck, and Diversity of Opinion

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.

Rathergate Revisited: Mary Mapes Knew

This news brings back fond memories of watching Dan Rather dangle in the breeze after the blogosphere handed him his rear end on a platter. I still chuckle when I think of his earnest mien as he told us, “If the documents are not what we were led to believe, I’d like to break that story,” days after bloggers like Charles Johnson at LGF had utterly demolished any shred of doubt that his memo was anything but a crude fake. It will come as no surprise to those who were following the story at the time that Rather’s producer, Mary Mapes, was not an innocent victim of his latest bit of flimflam. The pecker tracks were pretty obvious. Now, as Johnson points out, we have the smoking gun.

Release the Hounds! Glenn Beck and the Left’s Latest Witch Hunt

It is noteworthy that the response of the left to the release of the CIA Inspector General’s report on torture has been remarkably subdued. If the responses of Huffpo, Kos, TPM, and the rest of the usual suspects are any guide, the left is still as facile as ever in turning its virtuous indignation on or off as political expedience would demand. At the moment, their overriding concern is, apparently, health care, so they are reducing the usual moralistic posing on other issues to a minimum to avoid rocking the boat.

However, when it comes to the matter of Glenn Beck calling the president a “racist” the left’s familiar ostentatious public “outrage” is, once again, on full display. The professionally pious guardians of the nation’s virtue never seem to raise an eyebrow when charges of racism are thrown about recklessly by the likes of Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton. When Glenn Beck does it, however, it’s a different matter. First of all, you see, Beck has white skin, which disqualifies him from using the term “racism” in the first place. More importantly, Beck is smart, articulate, and an effective advocate of conservative causes. That’s the real reason for this latest display of contrived “indignation” on the left. You see, citizens who disagree with these “progressives” cannot simply have a different opinion about what’s best for the country. They must necessarily be evil. For today’s left, it isn’t a matter of debating opposing points of view. It’s a matter of demonizing and silencing them.

As noted here and there in the blogosphere, this time their campaign of vilification includes an attempt to muscle corporate sponsors into pulling their advertising from Glenn’s show on FOX. Those craven enough to cave to the bullying and collaborate in the suppression of freedom of speech include Geico, Proctor & Gamble, Sargento, and CVS, among others. Apparently Geico has already lost thousands of customers as a result. One hopes that is only the tip of the iceberg.

The Blogosphere Rediscovers Tarzan

Fausta, Katie Baker, wander off the reservation after discovering they’re not really “new Soviet woman” after all. As Karol at Alarming News puts it:

And yet, the fact is that “me Tarzan, you Jane” is ultimately what makes us hot. That’s what these feminists, who are trained to really, truly believe they want a man who is mostly like a woman, admit in these posts “tee hee, I know I’m not supposed like this, but I kinda do.” You know why? Evo-freaking-lution. Women like the men who take care of them. Whether it’s put food on the table or beat back the saber-tooth tiger. We’re programmed to crave the man who behaves…like a man.

I know, for you connoisseurs of “pop ethology,” this is a bit down in the weeds, but still, the paradigm shift continues. May the day come soon when the neuroscientists can explain this “programming” at a molecular level. What fun it will be to confront the world’s last, hoary behaviorists with the facts about who and what we really are.


The Amity-Enmity Complex: Does This Ring a Bell?

Every habitué of Internet forums and blogs should be very familiar with the kind of behavior Phil Bowermaster refers to in this comment left in response to a post on transhumanism at Accelerating Future:

But that’s not to say that technology has played no role in the recent evolution of political discourse. The rise of the blogosphere and sites like Daily Kos and Free Republic have established a new “accelerated” rhetorical framework for politics which now seems to be more or less universally applied. The basic assumption behind the framework is that there is Our Group and then there is the Other. Any ideas from the Other are subjected to a three-step analysis and response:

1. Hysteria / overreaction

2. Vilification

3. Condemnation

This process has worked great for the political blogs in drawing in huge masses of eager readers, mostly the same people who think they’re up to date on current events because they watch The Colbert Report or listen to Rush Limbaugh.

Does it ring a bell?

Update: Iran and Twitter

Here’s something from Debka that adds point to my earlier reservations about Twittered revolutions. Some excerpts:

Part of the reason (the Iranian demonstrations petered out) was their organizers’ heavy reliance on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and other social sites to orchestrate their protest movement. They did not at first appreciate that Iranian intelligence Internet experts, operating from secret headquarters established months ago, were using their communications to shoot them down…

The high-end apparatus, installed in late 2008 by the German Siemens AG and Finnish Nokia Corp. cell phone giant, gave Iranian intelligence the most advanced tools anywhere for controlling, inspecting, censoring and altering Internet and cell phone messaging. Those tools were being used weeks before the poll to identify penetrations by alien spy services, their local agents and dissident activists…

Within a few days of their protest, Mir Hossein Mousavi and the bulk of his supporters, realizing their electronic campaign had been taken over by the regime to hunt them down, disappeared from the streets of Tehran.

Debka is occasionally too quick to credit rumors in its zeal to scoop the mainstream news organizations. I suspect they’re right on the money this time, though. The Internet was never designed to be secure. It can be a great mobilizer in a democracy. In a dictatorship, it’s more likely to be a trap.


Physics Flavored with Politics

Here’s a good blog for those of you who like to keep track of what’s going on in the world of physics. The author throws in some interesting and thought-provoking comments on politics and other topics outside the realm of science, from the point of view of someone who is obviously very smart, but not a policy wonk. For example, here’s one of his latest about Obama’s visit to Russia. It includes the following remark about why we may have elected Obama:

“Where does the difference between the reactions come from? Well, I think that the Soviet Union and other socialist countries have done pretty sophisticated things to improve their propaganda methods and to make the citizens join the official bandwagon and to respect the official cults. They had to be increasingly sophisticated because the citizens were increasingly more able to see through the tricks. Today, the citizens themselves are pretty realistic and many of them can see if someone tries to manipulate with them, especially if the methods are too obvious.

“The Americans and many other nations seem completely naive in these respects, like little kids from a kindergarten who see a magician for the first time. Naive child-like people may be cuter and happier but they may also do many more silly things.”

I rather suspect he overestimates the effectiveness of Communist propaganda and the naiveté of my countrymen here. I lived in Germany in the 70’s for over three years, and occasionally listened to East German radio. It wasn’t grossly inept, but seemed rather crude to me. As for us, we may have elected Obama, but his opponent wasn’t exactly charismatic, and, if the election had taken place in most west European countries, they would have elected him by a much greater margin than we did.

As for our “simplicity,” I suspect it’s not quite as extreme as most Europeans think. We’re used to listening to sophisticated spin, and have much better access to alternative viewpoints than the citizens of any European country I’m aware of. Most of them have nothing like our talk radio, or influential blogs with massive audiences on both the left and the right that are a rapid and effective check on the accuracy of stories that appear in the mainstream media.

Be that as it may, Mr. Motl obviously has no anti-American ax to grind, and his comments are a refreshing departure from the vanilla stuff one usually reads on the European left and right.

The Case of Sarah Palin, or Why do the Heathen Rage, and the People Imagine a Vain Thing?

I’ve never been particularly impressed by Sarah Palin. She seems to me a rather commonplace person trying to react to very unnatural, unusual, and, of course, hostile circumstances. The reactions to her one can find at websites such as this, this, and this are irrational but very predictable and typical manifestations of amity-enmity behavior. Sarah Palin was the personification of an out-group for the liberal/progressive in-group from the moment she left the gate. They duly trooped to the boundaries of their intellectual territory and began shrieking at her like so many howler monkeys. The reaction in the “objective” mainstream media was remarkably slanted, even for this day and age. They were so intent on making sure the rest of us were aware she was the “bad guy” that they completely lost their bearings. One felt sorry for her in spite of ones self.

Well, we can expect more of the same until those for whom she has become the manifestation of evil are convinced that they are, after all, beating a dead horse. I rather suspect it will go on much longer than necessary, as good “bad guys” are hard to find.

Whatever Happened to Sully?

Andrew Sullivan
Andrew Sullivan
Once upon a time, Andrew Sullivan was a creative, independent voice in the wilderness. I used to read and appreciate him a lot. He was articulate, and didn’t fit in any ideological boxes. He had the invaluable trait of calling out and answering the most important arguments of his opponents instead of following the prevailing fashion of ignoring them and sticking to a list of talking points. He was editor of The New Republic for a while, and that became it’s style, too. It was a great read.

It seems to me he’s changed a lot, and not for the better. It could be he’s just changed away from my point of view, but I don’t think so. I’m on “his side” when it comes to the torture issue, and several others. The problem isn’t with his point of view. The problem is that the spark of intellect, of originality, just isn’t there anymore.

His slide downhill seemed to start with the Iraq war. As he said later, he supported it “like a teenaged girl supporting the Jonas brothers.” Once we were in the war, he became one of the more strident and hysterical defeatists. As a Vietnam veteran, perhaps I took it too personally that he seemed to be doing his level best to demoralize the troops and the country in a war he did so much to promote, but, regardless, as history has shown, his defeatist attitude was as irrational as his earlier warmongering.

Things haven’t gone uphill in the meantime. Lately, his posts have begun to dwell more and more on the various moral shortcomings of the people with whom he disagrees. In other words, he sounds like everyone else. The most notable example is his recent bout of Palin Derangement Syndrome. One wonders what it is about Palin that sets him off so. Is he really afraid the rest of the media will ignore her faults? Why this fanatical crusade to expose her every deviation from the Sullivan standard of moral rectitude? From a purely practical point of view, it doesn’t hurt Palin, and just supplies ammunition to the people on the right who loathe him.

Reading Sullivan now is like reading the last novels of Sinclair Lewis for someone who loves “Babbitt” and “Main Street.” Perhaps there’s some connection between his physical and intellectual health. Hard to say.

Well, apparently his readership is up, so who am I to complain? After all, he is, at least, still smarter than the editors of the Washington Post.