Selective Mass Murder and Historical Lacunae

If you check the websites of any one of the major booksellers, you can get an idea of the kind of books people are reading these days by checking their offerings. Click on the “history” link, for example, and you’ll quickly find quite a few offerings on U.S. history, with emphasis on the Civil War, the Revolution, and the Founding Fathers. There are lots of books about war, an occasional revelation of how this or that class of victims was victimized, or this or that historical villain perpetrated his evil deeds, and a sprinkling of sports histories, but there are gaping lacunae when it comes to coverage of events that really shaped the times we live in, and the ideological and political developments of yesterday that are portents of what we can expect tomorrow.

Perhaps the Internet, wonderful as it is, is part of the problem. The wealth of information it provides tends to be sharply focused on the here and now. We have all the minutiae of the health care debate, troop levels in Afghanistan, and the narratives affirming and rejecting global warming at our fingertips, but little to encourage us to take an occasional step back to see things in their historical perspective. As a result, one finds much ranting about Marxism, socialism, fascism, Communism, and related ideological phenomena, but little understanding of how they arose in the first place, how it is they became so prominent, or why they are still relevant.

Such ideologies appealed to aspects of human nature that haven’t gone anywhere in the meantime. The specific doctrines of Marx, Bakunin, and Hitler are discredited because they didn’t work in practice. That doesn’t mean that new variants with promises of alternate Brave New Worlds won’t arise to take their place. For the time being, Islamism has rushed in to fill the vacuum left by their demise, but I doubt it will satisfy the more secular minded of the chronic zealots among us for very long. The Islamists may have appropriated the political jargon of the “progressive” left, but it’s a stretch to suggest that western leftists are about to become pious Muslims any time soon. Should the economies of the developed nations turn south for an extended period of time, or some other profound social dislocation take place, some new secular faith is likely to arise, promising a way out to the desperate, a new faith for the congenitally fanatical, and a path to power for future would-be Stalins.

To understand the fanaticisms of bygone days, and perhaps foresee the emergence of those of the future, it would be well if we occasionally stepped back from our obsession with the ideological disputes of the present and pondered the nature and outcome of those of the past. One such outcome was the birth of the United States, and the subsequent replacement of monarchical systems by secular democracies in many countries, accompanied by the movement away from societies highly stratified by class to more egalitarian systems. Personally, I am inclined to welcome that development, but it remains to be seen whether the resultant social and political systems are capable of maintaining their integrity and the cultural identity of the people they represent against the onslaught of alien cultures and religions.

Another, less positive, outcome has been the emergence of secular dogmas such as those mentioned above, promising rewards in the here and now instead of the hereafter. These have generated levels of fanaticism akin to those generated by religious faith in the past. In fact, as belief systems, they are entirely akin to religion, as various thinkers have repeatedly pointed out over the past two centuries. They are substantially different from religions only in the absence of belief in supernatural beings. These belief systems have spawned all the mayhem that their religious cousins spawned in the past, but with a substantial difference. I suspect that difference is more a function of general advances in literacy, technology, and social awareness than any distinctions of dogma.

Specifically, for the first time on such a massive scale, the mayhem and slaughter occasioned by fanatical belief in these new secular dogmas has not fallen with more or less equal weight on all the strata of society. Rather, its tendency has been to eliminate the most intelligent, the most productive, and the most creative. Lenin and Stalin were not indiscriminate in their mass murder. They singled out scientists, academics, the most intelligent and productive farmers, the most economically productive, the most politically aware, and the most creative thinkers. Their goal was to eliminate anyone who was likely to oppose them effectively. In general, these were the most intelligent members of society. Similarly, the horrific Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia systematically eliminated anyone with a hint of education or appearance of intellectual superiority. In another example, of which most of us are only dimly aware, although it happened in living memory, the right in the Spanish Civil War ruthlessly sought out and shot anyone on the left prominent for political thought or leadership capacity, and the left, in turn, sought out and shot anyone who had managed to rise above the bare level of subsistence of the proletariat. The Nazis virtually eliminated a minority famous for its creativity, intelligence, and productivity.

Mass murder is hardly a novelty among human beings. It has been one of our enduring characteristics since the dawn of recorded time. However, this new variant, in which the best and brightest are selectively eliminated, really only emerged in all its fury in the 20th century. The French Reign of Terror, similarly selective as it was, was child’s play by comparison, with its mere 20,000 victims. The victims of Communism alone approach 100 million. In two countries, at least, it is difficult to see how this will not have profound effects on the ability of the remaining population to solve the many problems facing modern societies. In effect, those two countries, the former Soviet Union and Cambodia, beheaded themselves. The wanton elimination of so much intellectual potential by their former masters is bound to have a significant effect on the quality of the human capabilities available to rebuild society now that the Communist nightmare is over, at least for them. Perhaps, at some future time when we regain the liberty to speculate about such matters without being shouted down as evildoers by the pathologically politically correct, some nascent Ph.D. in psychology will undertake to measure the actual drop in collective intelligence in those countries resulting from the Communist mass murder.

It behooves us, then, to remember what happened in the 20th century. It is hardly out of the question that new fanatical faiths will emerge, both secular and religious, and that they we be capable of all the social devastation of the Communists and Nazis and then some. Here in America, an earlier generation, even in the darkest days of the Great Depression, rejected the siren song of the fanatics. For that, we owe them much. Let us try to emulate them in the future.

Civility and Political Discourse

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.

On Executive Compensation

As noted in the Wall Street Journal, “The U.S. Treasury and the Federal Reserve unveiled Thursday a set of curbs and rules for executive compensation at banks, marking a watershed moment for government intervention in the private sector.” As one might expect, the right is spinning the pay curbs as an assault on free markets and capitalism, and the left as a long overdue step to end the looting of corporate America by CEO’s in collusion with the Boards of Directors who decide their compensation.

Wikipedia has a pretty good summary of how the system currently works, and a more detailed, albeit somewhat dated, scholarly paper on the subject may be found here. I tend to lean to the left on this one, and am more or less in agreement with Mark Green’s take at Huffpo. In short, I suspect the claim that CEO compensation decisions are comparable to those for other highly paid individuals such as the top tier in major league sports, movie stars, pop singers, etc., is poppycock. I have little faith in the integrity of the system, and suspect that, in effect; CEO’s are not only cutting the cake, but are deciding who will get the first piece. I do not agree that such legitimized thievery is an essential aspect of free market capitalism.

According to the arguments on the right, summarized, for example, here and here, the Administration’s attempt to regulate executive pay won’t work. We are told that the services of these highly talented individuals are in great demand, and, if we refuse to cross their palms with silver, they’ll simply jump ship and move to more lucrative posts, or, according to a rather more fanciful argument, will start successful new private businesses of their own. To all this I can only say, I doubt it. I suspect people are standing in line to take these jobs, and that many of those in the line are not only more capable than the current incumbents, but are also willing to work for a much more reasonable level of compensation. Who is right? We are in the process of conducting an experiment to find out.

The right has made some very specific predictions about what will happen if the Administration follows through on its policies. I propose that we carefully monitor the future careers of the executives affected by the cuts. If they actually do “go Galt,” and no comparable talents can be found to replace them, I will cheerfully eat crow. If, on the other hand, it turns out that the services of these individuals were not really as critical or as indispensible as advertised, and the dire degradations in the performance of management at the affected firms predicted by the right fail to materialize, then perhaps they might consider adjusting their paradigm of what constitutes “free market capitalism” accordingly.

The Silence of the Legacy Media

Today I visited the home pages of CNN, USAToday, ABC, AP, CBS, and MSNBC and, as I have done for the last several days, searched for the word “Fox.” The result hasn’t changed. No such word was found. Apparently the editors have decided that the American people should be kept in ignorance of the fact that the White House has launched an effort to delegitimize one of the nation’s major news organizations. Not long ago they also decided that it was in the interests of the American people to remain unaware of the controversial remarks of the likes of prominent White House appointees Van Jones, Cass Sunstein, and Anita Dunn. One can spin these stories any number of different ways. One cannot, however, claim that they are insignificant, or at least not while claiming to be sane at the same time.

How are we to understand this studied indifference to stories of such significance? To all appearances, the legacy media have gone beyond the organizational bias we have long been familiar with and are now starting to show symptoms of becoming, in effect, organs of the current Administration. Perhaps it is best understood as a transient phenomenon, likely to disappear as soon as the legacy media gets over its infatuation with Obama. It is worrisome nonetheless. I, for one, would prefer to live in a world in which such gatekeepers do not control my access to information. For that reason, I will do what I can to defend the independence and freedom from state coercion of alternative voices such as Fox, not to mention talk radio and those on both the left and the right in the blogosphere who have not yet been “Gleichgeschaltet” to conform to the official narrative.

Who was George Orwell?

The intellectual demolition of Communism was hardly the work of an individual, but even compared to the likes of Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Milovan Djilas, George Orwell was probably its most lethal foe. His “1984” and “Animal Farm” revealed the hideous reality of the beast behind the ideological mask, and it never really recovered from the blow. In the intervening years, Orwell the human being has been transmogrified into Orwell the intellectual icon. In the same way that the reality of Thomas Jefferson the deist has been “modified” to reveal Thomas Jefferson, defender of Christianity, so too has the reality of Orwell the democratic socialist been “modified” to reveal Orwell the defender of capitalism. He was anything but that.

To those interested in seeing the real man through the intellectual fog, I recommend “Homage to Catalonia,” Orwell’s account of his experiences on and off the front in the Spanish Civil War. He was well into his 30’s when he arrived in Spain, and I doubt that his fundamental world view changed much after he left. He was by no means a fanatical ideologue. In fact, he said that the political side of the war bored him. His perception of the events that marked the conflict certainly altered both during and after the conflict. Nevertheless, he stood to the left, not to the right of the Communists in Spain. He saw them as pawns of the Soviet Union, and their policy as subordinated completely to the need to defend the U.S.S.R. As Orwell put it,

The whole process is easy to understand if one remembers that it proceeds from the temporary alliance that Fascism, in certain forms, forces upon the bourgeois and the worker. This alliance, known as the Popular Front, is in essence an alliance of enemies, and it seems probable that it must always end by one partner swallowing the other. The only unexpected feature in the Spanish situation – and outside Spain it has caused an immense amount of misunderstanding – is that among the parties on the Government side the Communists stood not upon the extreme Left, but upon the extreme Right… In reality it was the Communists above all others who prevented revolution in Spain. Later, when the Right-wing forces were in full control, the Communists showed themselves willing to go a great deal further than the Liberals in hunting down the revolutionary leaders.

And who were the real revolutionary leaders? Orwell happened to arrive at a place and time during the conflict where the revolutionary upsurge following the shock of Franco’s coup d’état had reached its peak. He came to Aragon and Catalonia, where, led by the anarchists and the Workers Party of Marxist Unification or POUM, from its Spanish acronym, the workers were in the saddle, the local economy had been collectivized, and an extreme spirit of equality prevailed. As a democratic socialist, Orwell found this state of affairs highly attractive. As he put it,

I had dropped more or less by chance into the only community of any size in Western Europe where political consciousness and disbelief in capitalism were more normal than their opposites. Up here in Aragon one was among tens of thousands of people, mainly though not entirely of working-class origin, all living at the same level and mingling on terms of equality. In theory it was perfect equality, and even in practice it was not far from it. There is a sense in which it would be true to say that one was experiencing a foretaste of Socialism, by which I mean that the prevailing mental atmosphere was that of Socialism. Many of the normal motives of civilized life – snobbishness, money-grubbing, fear of the boss, etc. – had simply ceased to exist… However much one cursed at the time, one realized afterwards that one had been in contact with something strange and valuable. One had been in a community where hope was more normal than apathy or cynicism, where the word “comrade” stood for comradeship and not, as in most countries, for humbug. One had breathed the air of equality. I am well aware that it is now the fashion to deny that Socialism has anything to do with equality… But fortunately there also exists a vision of Socialism quite different from this. The thing that attracts ordinary men to Socialism and makes them willing to risk their skins for it, the “mystique” of Socialism, is the idea of equality; to the vast majority of people Socialism means a classless society, or it means nothing at all… And, after all, instead of disillusioning me it deeply attracted me. The effect was to make my desire to see Socialism established much more actual than it had been before.

How could such a man have become the hammer that dealt such a mortal blow to Communism? It’s easy enough to understand for anyone who reads this short book. There were two fairly well defined party lines prevailing in Spain at the time Orwell arrived. The POUM and anarchists insisted that the revolution must continue unabated or the war would be meaningless. However, orthodox Communists, represented in Orwell’s area by the Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia, or PSUC, insisted that it was essential to win the war at all costs. To achieve victory, revolutionary hubris must be sacrificed to political reality. “Reality” included accepting a return to bourgeois control, centralized government, and a militarized army in place of the party militias prevailing at the time. Initially, Orwell preferred this point of view. Later, he came to reject it. As time went on, the dispute became increasingly bitter.

Orwell had come to Spain with a letter of introduction from the British International Labor Party, which was associated with the POUM. As a result, he joined and went to the front with a POUM militia. At first, he was irritated by their “ceaseless carping against the ‘counter-revolutionary’ PSUC,” which struck him as, “priggish and tiresome.” Later, as he put it, “I realized that the POUM were almost blameless compared with their adversaries.”

At the front, Orwell witnessed the heroism of POUM fighters, some of them mere children of 15, in their battle against the fascists. There was no question in his mind about the integrity of their revolutionary ideals. However, when they returned to Barcelona after months of privation in unspeakably primitive conditions, the Communists treated them to anything but a heroes’ welcome. Quite the contrary. In Orwell’s words,

Tentatively at first, then more loudly, they began to assert that the POUM was splitting the Government forces not by bad judgment but by deliberate design. The POUM was declared to be no more than a gang of disguised Fascists, in the pay of Franco and Hitler, who were pressing a pseudo-revolutionary policy as a way of aiding the Fascist cause. The POUM was a “Trotskyist” organization and “Franco’s Fifth Column.” This implied that scores of thousands of working-class people, including eight or ten thousand soldiers who were freezing in the front-line trenches and hundreds of foreigners who had come to Spain to fight against Fascism, often sacrificing their livelihood and their nationality by doing so, were simply traitors in the pay of the enemy… It is not a nice thing to see a Spanish boy of fifteen carried down the line on a stretcher, with a dazed white face looking out from among the blankets, and to think of the sleek persons in London and Paris who are writing pamphlets to prove that this boy is a Fascist in disguise… One of the dreariest effects of this was has been to teach me that the Left-wing press is every bit as spurious and dishonest as that of the Right.

Here, then, one finds the source of Orwell’s hatred of Stalinism and orthodox Communism. He rejected them, not because he preferred Capitalism, but because, as a convinced Socialist, he found the Stalinists devious, power-hungry, and essentially counter-revolutionary. In Spain, he was confronted with their betrayal. It was a betrayal, not of Capitalism, but of the workers power. Thanks to them, “the process of collectivization was checked, the workers’ patrols were abolished and the pre-war police forces (for Orwell, the natural enemies of the workers), largely reinforced and very heavily armed, were restored, and… finally, most important of all, the workers’ militias (in which Orwell had fought), based on the trade unions, were gradually broken up and redistributed among the new Popular Army, a ‘non-political’ army on semi-bourgeois lines, with a differential pay rate, a privileged officer-caste, etc. etc.” As a result of Communist activity, Orwell noted that, “A general ‘bourgeoisification,’ a deliberate destruction of the equalitarian spirit of the first few months of the revolution, was taking place… What had seemed on the surface and for a brief instant to be a workers’ State was changing before one’s eyes into an ordinary bourgeois republic with the normal division into rich and poor.”

When Orwell, a man who had suffered and risked his life in defense of that workers’ State, was denounced as a “traitor, fifth columnist, and fascist,” by the very Party that he saw dismantling the revolution before his eyes, that betrayal inspired the intellectual deconstruction of the Stalinist state that occupied much of his remaining life and culminated in “Animal Farm” and “1984.”

The fact that Orwell, like so many of his fellow intellectuals during the era of the Great Depression, was a democratic socialist, and launched his blows at Communism, not from the right, but from the left, is not as surprising as it might seem in retrospect. Many of Communisms most effective foes were similar to him in that respect, at least at some point in their lives.  Often, like Orwell, they had witnessed the contrast between the ideal and the reality firsthand.  See, for example, “The New Class,” by Milovan Djilas, and “Child of the Revolution” by Wolfgang Leonhard.  Another interesting and entertaining if lesser known example of the genre is “Out of the Night,” by Jan Valtin.  Thinkers long before the time of Marx had predicted the eventual demise of the socialist ideal because, unlike conventional religions, which promise paradise in the world to come, it promised paradise on earth, where the disconnect between the reality and the ideal would finally become too obvious to overlook.  Orwell and his peers were the messengers who finally revealed the man behind the curtain.  We owe them much, and their relevance hasn’t ended with the demise of Communism.  Eventually, another messianic ideology will arise to take its place. 

homage-to-catalonia

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.

The Left and its “Smears”

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.”

Beating Up on Noam Chomsky

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.

Harry’s reaction:

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.

Readers seeking a more intellectually consistent critique of the “evil corporations” meme may find it in the film “Team America” by the creators of “South Park.”

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.

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Torture: Let the Prosecutions Begin

The recent release of the CIA Inspector General’s report has, once again, moved the issue of torture into the national spotlight. I have commented elsewhere regarding the reasons for my rejection of torture. Apparently, Attorney General Eric Holder is considering the matter of prosecutions. In a recent column in the Washington Post, attorney Jeffrey H. Smith cited six reasons not to proceed with them. I beg to differ with him. Smith’s reasons and my arguments for rejecting them are as follows:

1. “These techniques were authorized by the president and approved by the Justice Department… That alone will make prosecutions very difficult.”

If prosecutions are undertaken, their importance and significance will lie in the extent to which they are successful in establishing the rejection of torture, both legally and as an accepted national moral standard. For that reason, in this exceptional case, the question of whether the prosecutions will be difficult or not is insignificant. The question is not whether the Adolf Eichmann defense – “I was only obeying orders” – will stand up in a U.S. Court. The question is whether the United States, as a nation, will reject torture, or embrace it and accept Eichmann’s creed: “Now that I look back, I realize that a life predicated on being obedient and taking orders is a very comfortable life indeed. Living in such a way reduces to a minimum one’s need to think.”

2. “Prosecutions would set the dangerous precedent that criminal law can be used to settle policy differences at the expense of career officers.”

Failure to prosecute will set the far more dangerous precedent that career officers can, literally, get away with murder, not to mention torture, and never have to worry about the possibility they may eventually have to bear legal and moral responsibility for their acts. It would behoove career officers who are really capable of believing that the question of condoning torture or not is really just an insignificant “policy difference” to seek a less challenging occupation.

3. “After Justice declined to prosecute (under Bush), the CIA took administrative action, including disciplinary action against those officers whose conduct it deemed warranted such responses… If (Justice) declines to prosecute, the matter is sent back to the CIA for appropriate administrative action.”

Here Smith is attempting to apply the legalese argument that prosecution now would not be in accord with established precedent. In a case of such overriding importance, this is a matter of utter insignificance. Other than that, the Inspector General’s report, not to mention the overwhelming weight of credible evidence of brutality that preceded it, make it abundantly clear that the “established precedent” that it is unwise to put the fox in charge of the henhouse is still as valid as ever.

4. “Prosecuting CIA officers risks chilling current intelligence operations. This country faces an array of serious threats. A prosecution or extensive investigation will be an unmanageable expense for most CIA officers. More significant, their colleagues will become reluctant to take risks… And such reactions will be magnified if prosecutions focus only on the lower-ranking officers, not those in the chain of command.

It seems to me rather insulting to suggest that “most CIA officers” are irresponsible government stooges, incapable of appreciating the significance of the matter at issue, and possessed of such delicate sensitivities and fragile morale that they will all become mere time servers and ignore their duty to defend the country if anyone dares to question their actions in a matter of such overriding national and, indeed, international importance. As for the “serious threats” we face, there can be no greater threat to our security than the notion that, in order to “protect” our security, it is entirely acceptable for us to ignore established national and international moral codes and standards of conduct and jettison our national heritage and everything that can give any rational meaning to the term “Liberty.” Those who have read my previous posts may take note here of my rejection of the notion that, because morality is subjective, it must, therefore, be relative and pliable to suit the situation. That is, in fact, the version of morality that our current “conservatives” on the right are promoting, in defiance of their usual breast-beating pronouncements about moral absolutes. Regarding the matter of focusing on the lower-ranking officers, any prosecution that does so will be doomed in advance. The level of focus of any prosecutions should bear a direct relationship to the level of those involved in torture in the chain of command, starting with Bush and Cheney.

5. “Prosecution could deter cooperation with other nations. It is critical that we have the close cooperation of intelligence services around the world.”

One can only conclude from this “reason” that Smith is utterly oblivious to what has been going on in the world since 911. Our embrace of torture based on the irrational hope that it will enhance our national security has shattered our moral authority in the world, and provided our many enemies with a weapon against us that they have used to devastating effect. It is beyond me how anyone who lives outside a hermetically sealed box can have failed to notice this. The idea that anyone could really believe that these deep, self-inflicted wounds were somehow justified by the need to maintain amiable relationships with foreign intelligence services boggles the mind.

6. “President Obama has decisively changed the policies that caused so much damage. He recognizes that it is vital to our security to have an effective intelligence community that is not distracted by looking backward and coping with congressional investigations and grand jury subpoenas.”

Presidential terms are limited to eight years in the United States. It is, therefore, absurd to suggest that President Obama is capable of “decisively” changing policies by administrative decree. The next President may just as “decisively” change them back again. It is precisely because we must look forward, and not backward, that the prosecution of the foul acts of torture that have stained not only our reputation but our spirit as a nation is necessary and justified. We must decide whether we will continue along the path established by our forefathers in defense of Liberty, or abandon that heritage, embracing torture in pursuit of an illusory national security. May reason prevail.