Thursday, October 06, 2005

At a time when President Bush leaves me feeling somewhat depressed to be a Republican, former Vice-President Gore comes along to remind me to be glad that I am not a Democrat.

Gore's speech yesterday is itself a microcosm of what is wrong with the leadership of the Democratic Party and why as a result Bush is free to make all kinds of boneheaded mistakes without much fear.

Gore focused primarily on the dangers to American democracy posed by a lack of national debate to inform the American people of their government's policies:

"On the eve of the nation's decision to invade Iraq, our longest serving senator, Robert Byrd of West Virginia, stood on the Senate floor asked: "Why is this chamber empty? Why are these halls silent?"

The decision that was then being considered by the Senate with virtually no meaningful debate turned out to be a fateful one. A few days ago, the former head of the National Security Agency, Retired Lt. General William Odom, said, "The invasion of Iraq, I believe, will turn out to be the greatest strategic disaster in U.S. history."

But whether you agree with his assessment or not, Senator Byrd's question is like the others that I have just posed here: he was saying, in effect, this is strange, isn't it? Aren't we supposed to have full and vigorous debates about questions as important as the choice between war and peace?"

You can read this statement essentially as " Because my party lost this debate, therefore it did not happen". I'm not sure where Mr. Gore was in the year prior to the invasion of Iraq but I saw little else in my newspapers, magazines and in the blogosphere than debate about the war - very passionate debate on both sides - across the country and the world. This is a bizarrely counterfactual assertion by Gore.

"Those of us who have served in the Senate and watched it change over time, could volunteer an answer to Senator Byrd's two questions: the Senate was silent on the eve of war because Senators don't feel that what they say on the floor of the Senate really matters that much any more. And the chamber was empty because the Senators were somewhere else: they were in fundraisers collecting money from special interests in order to buy 30-second TVcommercials for their next re-election campaign."

No. The Democratic Senators did not make a case because they had none to make, other than the ones committed out of long political philosophy to an antiwar Left position. The Clinton administration, of which Mr. Gore was part, came very close to toppling Saddam in 1998 with Operation Desert Fox and helped drive Slobodan Milosevic from power with the Kosovo War in 1999 ( which I favored incidentally) with strong support from Democratic senators. The real underlying beef these senators had was the political affiliation of the incumbent in the White House, not any matter of principle or even foreign policy objective since regime change was already U.S. policy before Bush came in to office. The Clinton administration also fiddled around with some CIA orchestrated coups ( using Ahmed Chalabi no less) against Saddam but after goading the Kurds into revolt, left them hanging under Republican Guard fire and ( unsuccessfully) tried to pin the blame on the low-level CIA field operative in Kurdistan.

Wonder if Al had any fingers in that debacle ? Never mind, back to the speech....

"In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, there was - at least for a short time - a quality of vividness and clarity of focus in our public discourse that reminded some Americans - including some journalists - that vividness and clarity used to be more common in the way we talk with one another about the problems and choices that we face. But then, like a passing summer storm, the moment faded. "

Translation. The coverage was virulently anti-Bush. To an extent this was deservedly so but the MSM was also very inaccurate and wildly sensationalistic but I suppose " a higher truth" was being served and that's what counted.

"...Television first overtook newsprint to become the dominant source of information in America in 1963. But for the next two decades, the television networks mimicked the nation's leading newspapers by faithfully following the standards of the journalism profession. Indeed, men like Edward R. Murrow led the profession in raising the bar"

What the big three networks news divisions followed faithfully into even the 1990's was the lead of the editorial page of The New York Times. A stance closely associated with the Eastern Establishment and the Democratic Party since at least before the New Deal - so closely in fact that in foreign capitals the NYT was read for many years as the " unofficial" line of the U.S. government.

And not entirely inaccurately either.

I'm giving Mr. Gore an extra-long snippet here because it is an excellent illustration of how to set up a " stolen concept" argument that turns the literal meaning of words on their head.

"So, unlike the marketplace of ideas that emerged in the wake of the printing press, there is virtually no exchange of ideas at all in television's domain. My partner Joel Hyatt and I are trying to change that - at least where Current TV is concerned. Perhaps not coincidentally, we are the only independently owned news and information network in all of American television.

It is important to note that the absence of a two-way conversation in American television also means that there is no "meritocracy of ideas" on television. To the extent that there is a "marketplace" of any kind for ideas on television, it is a rigged market, an oligopoly, with imposing barriers to entry that exclude the average citizen.

The German philosopher, Jurgen Habermas, describes what has happened as "the refeudalization of the public sphere." That may sound like gobbledygook, but it's a phrase that packs a lot of meaning. The feudal system which thrived before the printing press democratized knowledge and made the idea of America thinkable, was a system in which wealth and power were intimately intertwined, and where knowledge played no mediating role whatsoever. The great mass of the people were ignorant. And their powerlessness was born of their ignorance.

It did not come as a surprise that the concentration of control over this powerful one-way medium carries with it the potential for damaging the operations of our democracy. As early as the 1920s, when the predecessor of television, radio, first debuted in the United States, there was immediate apprehension about its potential impact on democracy. One early American student of the medium wrote that if control of radio were concentrated in the hands of a few, "no nation can be free."

As a result of these fears, safeguards were enacted in the U.S. -- including the Public Interest Standard, the Equal Time Provision, and the Fairness Doctrine - though a half century later, in 1987, they were effectively repealed. And then immediately afterwards, Rush Limbaugh and other hate-mongers began to fill the airwaves."

Seldom has liberal nostalgia for indirect government and big corporation censorship of news and political debate been so brazenly portrayed as an argument for a free exchange of ideas. This is really something out of Orwell.

Mr. Gore is lamenting the Reagan-era repeal of " The Fairness Doctrine" and related legal strictures that gave the Democratic Party and the Eastern Establishment elite interests ironclad control over public debate. And well he should, as the Fairness Doctrine was a tremendous built-in advantage for people like himself to dictate the parameters of acceptable public discourse free from any effective competition whatsoever.

Once upon a time ABC, CBS and NBC had an actual oligopoly on television news coverage in the United States, which as I mentioned earlier usually accepted a similar editorial frame for the news as the NYT, sometimes taking a leaf from the Washington Post or a major news magazine like TIME. This stance, which certainly communicated a partisan worldview along with factual news content, was legally defined as being objectively neutral under the Fairness Doctrine. You did not see or hear " hate -mongers"[ sic] like Rush Limbaugh giving alternative views because a conservative or pro-Republican viewpoint was legally defined as being subjective and partisan, requiring that a station affiliate provide free " equal time" to "the other side". TV and radio stations prosper by selling commercials, not by giving free air time to amateur cranks to rebut the hosts of their scheduled programs. Thus there was an enormous financial incentive to muzzle conservative commentary and content. So you didn't see guys like Rush in the media unless you counted the two minutes of Paul Harvey at 4 a.m. after the morning hog report.

And these corporate behemoths were supplemented by government funded entities like PBS and NPR. High quality broadcasts, certainly. Objective, hardly. Public broadcasting is even further to the Left than the networks despite the fact that a majority of the American public is to the Right of their tax dollar supported news programs.

These old glory days for which Mr. Gore so obviously pines can be described as many things but a "marketplace of ideas" isn't one of them. Unless your idea of a marketplace is the old Soviet GUM department store. Returning the FCC to a role of a media GOSPLAN would be a utopia for Gore and Al Franken - who can't seem to make their dream of an all-liberal station format competitive with Rush Limbaugh without the heavy hand of the state to tip the scales.

What Gore seems not to realize is that this media echo chamber he lauds fatally undermined the ability of the Democratic Party to actually wage a battle of ideas the same way having the ref on your side undermines the playing skills of a basketball team. The intellectual edge is dulled by a recourse to shutting up opponents instead of debating them. The information feedback loop is corrupted which is why liberals who won't read anything to the Right of Paul Krugman wake up dazed on election day to find Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush re-elected and their guy rejected by an enormous geographic swath of the nation. Deliberately cultivating cognitive dissonance is a dumb political survival strategy

A good history lesson for the aforementioned Mr. Bush, whose current difficulties are a result of a disconnect created by firewalling himself off from all contrary viewpoints and unwelcome news.
or George W. Bush re-elected and their guy rejected by an enormous geographic swath of the nation.

A bit of overstatement, eh?

I also think that Gore meant "debate by the Senate" rather than the blogorrheic and other [re-]media[l] debate over the war. Perhaps a review of transcripts from the Senate floor would be interesting...

I remember some of the online debate, though it was at an online poetry forum rather than the blogosphere. I remember the fears of an Armageddon-like outcome of any invasion of Iraq (particularly in the urban combat and the possible use of WMD by Iraq.) I worried about these things, also. At the time, however, I thought that the effort might be the right effort, but that GWB was not the man to do it. More and more, I'm thinking I was correct.

I have very little respect for any news broadcasters, whether the MSM or alternative sources. It's not just where the talking points originate, but in how they are handled. The three old networks have a 30-minute format for discussing all news (evening), not just the most important news, and never fail to include in that timeframe some feel-good or quirky story. Or yet another story on how Americans are overweight, or about how excessive tanning is bad for your health, etc.

Americans never seem to reach any conclusions. The MSM capitalizes on this by reducing their costs in the reductio ad infinitum they produce, reproduce, and revisit again. Sometimes they have to do this, because they have no other material, or their first presentation was a 5-minute piece that skimmed the surface while trying to present an image of depth. So they skim again.

Most of the extended formats (such as "news magazine" broadcasts) only add more time to do what they do in their short broadcasts. Just more of it.

Every so often, a news agency will hit the nail on the head; but Americans never seem to reach any conclusions. The nail and the head get swamped by the Prez getting head or nailed. Or Michael Jackson, for that matter.

The MSM is not in the business of providing knowledge, but in providing opinion. If GWB or Gore say something, they might highlight it, then present a cursory opposing view. Next day, someone who holds that opposing view might be highlighted and a spokesman for GWB or Gore will present the first opinion again.

The MSM call this "balanced," as if truth cannot be had but in the eternal consideration of opposite opinions.

The "independent" news sources think they break the MSM routine by sticking to one opinion; but their "independent" opponents do the same thing; so the result isn't much different.

Ok. I'm rambling. Back to the topic at hand:

Gore doesn't realize he's a has-been.

Plus, I think that "the marketplace of ideas" is an overblown concept: as if glut equates to prosperity. No, only the best ideas matter; and, those best ideas only matter if they are put into practice; and, they can't be put into practice if an army of opposing Sophists -- who are needed to put into practice any major ideas -- continually say, "Oh, but on the other hand -- er, NO."

The fact that we have two dominating political parties, constant opponents, also ensures a steady stock of material for the MSM. One side must lose, finally; or, both must lose to a third.

But as I said, Americans never seem to reach conclusions.
Gore must be economically illiterate. Even small children should know that expanded markets come with expanded choices. It is through the very virtue of the market that strong ideas have replaced weak ones, all by viewers budgeting their time by making choices. Rush broke out early because of the low amount of capital needed to start up in radio, and a redirection of national attention followed conservatism after that, all under the freedom of an unregulated marketplace.

In light of this, it amazes me that anyone could swallow Gore’s insistence that there is no marketplace, and it doubly amazes me that such people can’t take the logical steps necessary to discover that the 80-20 rule (power law) is a part of the nature of running a marketplace that rewards quality, but rather, they’d rather imagine the “intelligent design” of a magical oligarchy shaping the opinions of millions with 800 cable channels.

People like Gore obviously can’t tolerate free markets even if they’re arranged without the “evil” of money, and consequently, can’t tolerate freedom itself, beyond a few inconsequential civil liberties dealing with basic bodily functions, anyway.
What I took away from Mr. Gore's speech is entirely different than what you seem to have gathered from it. The main theme, as I see it, was that television is a one-way medium, and as such it is not the voice of The People, it is the voice of The Media, who are controlled by the powerful and the wealthy. All peoples' opinions should be heard based on merit rather than on who pays most. In television, the ad space goes to whomever can pay for it. This is why it is so vitally important to keep the internet free. In a way, blogs are democracy's greatest hope. The debate we're having here is what democracy is about. I'm not a democrat. I'm certainly not a republican. But I am ardently pro-democracy. Many are the times I've disagreed with Bush, but often enough I find myself defending him. I hate party devisiveness. We need to focus less on party lines and on attacking the other political party. I think it's STUPID to attack someone based solely on their political party. I hate mention of "The Other Side" as if there are only two. We need to focus more on moving forward, eliminating corruption, maintaining freedoms and public discourse.

Nobody wants CONTROL over public debate - it should be free and open. The problem with the "Fairness Doctrine" is that while it is totally unneccesary in an environment like the internet (and more specifically the blogosphere) where opinions are as varied as people and anyone with a computer can easily set up a blog, within the context of television, the corporations who own the stations are consolidating at an astounding and dismaying rate, and the number of opinions available is shrinking. It's not about whether a news station supports a Republican or Democratic agenda - it's about the diversity of available opinions. It's like having Pepsi and Coke discuss beverages and calling that "diversity of opinion". And it's about more than simply generating a viewpoint that conflicts with any propsed idea - ideas should be judged and valued on merit - not on which political party you belong to or how much money you have to buy television time.

Once again, I must emphasize how important debate like this is and how glad I am to be able to discuss issues like this openly. This is the marketplace of ideas.
What I took away from the post, the boring speech, and the comments is tha domestic American politics has become an incredibly boring kabuki theatre done in a ridiculously overstated manner.
for once Col, you've got something right.

Hey Col-

I find domestic politics generally dreary and scripted which is why I post mostly on other things...

Welcome Greg,

Well, I understand your point in terms of interpreting Gore's speech but TV is the medium of yesterday - and the TV MSM producers are all online reading blogs, wire feeds and the Drudge report anyway.


The American people sometimes reach conclusions that are at least generational in scope, sometimes greater. For example, regarding slavery in 1864, laissez-faire in 1932, isolationism & appeasement in 1941, Civil Rights in 1965, Vietnam-Watergate/trust in 1974 and so on.

No, there were multiple worldviews (or, U.S.-views) on those subjects at the time; and, they were and are largely moral judgments rather than conclusions. The generational "conclusions" are often a matter of acquiescence: some people don't come to the same conclusions, but give in to the trend or the majority opinion. This is why so many people continue to be latent homophobes, for instance, even if they are willing to support a certain degree of equal rights for gays; and, it's why those people can so easily be persuaded to acquiesce to an anti-gay agenda. They never reached a conclusion, in the first place.

This is also why so many people could support the war in Iraq and the President, but then turn around a few years later and call him a buffoon and the war an error.

The fact that some conservatives were overjoyed with the re-election of GWB but now wander in a daze of disillusionment or outright rage...well, it shows the illusion of their original conclusions. People become bedazzled by their own phantasmagorias and think they have reached a solid conclusion about Senator X or President Y.

When polls give a politician very high ratings one month but sharply reduced ratings a half year later, the change is a reflection of the fact that no conclusions were ever made -- except for fantasy conclusions or acquiescence.

This happens in American politics all the time.

The arrangement of the multi-party system (2, generally), as well as the measures which ensure a "marketplace of ideas", are really a safety feature more than a guarantee of success: a defense rather than a leap forward. Francis Bacon highlighted this centuries ago when he isolated his idolatries; it is "the idolatry of the marketplace." Idolatries are always at risk of being shattered, and we want to allow for their shattering in order to avoid totalitarianism. The problem is, new idolatries often replace the shattered idolatries, while the losers continue to nurture their own.

Generationally, some opinions build up a momentum and inertia, when enough have acquiesced for long enough; but I would not call them conclusions. For instance, look at the evolution vs creationism/ID debate. Evolution seemed like a done-deal in the American psyche for quite some time, even if we knew that "fringe" groups believed otherwise; and now we are back to where we started, or nearly so, in the debate, and there is at least one poll showing that a hefty majority of Americans believe creationism/ID should be taught in public schools.
My dear Barnie:

For once?

Amusing. Ranging from American fatness to the Iraq war, I've an impeccable record of being correct, even if it offends your Right Bolshie sensibilities.

This being said, I do find the argument around the marketplace of ideas somewhat.... unrealistic. It is a nice metaphor but I wouldn't take it too seriously as it is not clear to me that marketish mechanisms are in fact operative in a real sense.

Not that I have any sympathy for the losers, whether the idiot Left or the Right Bolshies depending on the context, but the marketplace metaphor seems more than slightly dodgey.

But what do I care?

I don't think we are using " conclusions" in the same way & perhaps we ought to define our terms.

For me, in this context, " conclusion" means that an issue has been effectively become a settled question for the body politic and any remaining dissent is marginalized.

For example, like Lincoln's detractors from the neo-Confederate Right and the academic Afrocentric Left. These critics for the most part can raise valid critical points regarding Abraham Lincoln's actions and character yet these criticisms have little or no salience in the mainstream culture.

They are irrelevant- being unable with their attacks on Lincoln to reopen the questions the critics would fervently like to see society address.
For me, in this context, " conclusion" means that an issue has been effectively become a settled question for the body politic and any remaining dissent is marginalized.

I like this as a working definition; but I'm not too sure it's complete. I do tend to be cynical sometimes (in my "Fight Club" moments); then, I look for ways in which "settled" issues might someday become tragically unsettled.

Most people tend to disagree only about the things they do not understand. E.g., you and I are not likely to argue over whether the sun and the moon are distinct bodies in space. As soon as we begin projecting realities from abstractions, or forming abstractions from realities, a world of debate might open. This act of projection or formation is often a signal that something is not quite understood. Emerson:

"The two parties which divide the state, the party of Conservatism and that of Innovation, are very old, and have disputed the possession of the world ever since it was made." (opening his essay, Conservatism)

I find the continuous struggle of these opposing worldviews disheartening. It is as if we, as a "People," never really know what to do or believe about the world and ourselves. They are theories about the most efficacious manner of living in the world, and people go from being one to being the other; but thus far we don't have a clear understanding of where we've been and where we are going, so we bounce from one to the other as conditions change, hoping or even believing that we have found the best path.

This perpetual pendulum represents stasis. While I'm sure that we could devise a theory on the necessity and benefit of being able to alter courses -- go from Conservatism to "Innovation" or the other direction -- I'm also often of the opinion that another course is available which dismisses neither but works in harmony with both. I don't like the terms "centrism" or "moderation" because to me those ideas represent an abridgement of each side rather than a unification of them. The overall stasis of the pendulum (in its full movement) represents stagnation; there is no definite forward movement.

In order to move forward, we must break the pendulum. We can only do this once we've achieved a firm understanding of things. I don't see the general abhorrence for slavery as being a conclusion, because I don't believe most people truly understand what it means to be a slave. E.g., a system of indentured servitude developed in the South after the "end" of slavery. Another example would be in the way waiters and waitresses are nowadays called "servers" -- which isn't much different than the "servants" which waited on the wealthy in past feudal and monarchial societies. (A modern-day server cannot up and tell a customer that he's rude and obnoxious, because the minor tyrant will have that server fired. In modern America, however, the server can become the tyrant when off-duty.) These systems of control continue under new names, to varying degrees.

The strongest example of perhaps a wide-spread push toward slavery is the federal government's belief, under GWB, that a person does not have a "right to die" and that the central government can dictate who will and who won't be born (abortion): it is the master who determines whether a slave lives or dies. An argument might even be made that some form of slavery is necessary. The federal government is very concerned that states or even individuals do not break away from the U.S., because the work of those states and the work of individuals produce taxes for the federal government: How, exactly, does this system differ from the South's slavery? Yes, there are civil liberties -- abridged, monitored, and controlled from many, many sides. As long as the system also benefits the individuals, fairly, then it might not be called slavery -- but how are we to measure such benefit? (Slaves in the South received room and board.)

America is satisfied to believe that our current condition is 100% different than the South's old economic system, when it isn't. In fact, because we view "slavery" through an old lens, we are less likely to see it when it occurs in ways different to the old model.

An understanding of fundamentals -- rather than a general consensus -- is what I'd call a "conclusion." I realize that some of the above segue into various issues might seem a bit radical; but I'd like to do a David Letterman style of interviews of the American public and see what they really know about "slavery" and "indentured servitude" and our economic system in general. I bet we'd receive little consensus, let alone fundamental understanding of the U.S. economic system

So we bicker.
Ah...Not David Letterman, but Jay Leno.

I also have noticed, again, the quote from Machiavelli you have posted in the sidebar: a much more succinct way of saying it than I've been able to produce. My apologies.

In order to move forward, we must break the pendulum. We can only do this once we've achieved a firm understanding of things. I don't see the general abhorrence for slavery as being a conclusion, because I don't believe most people truly understand what it means to be a slave. E.g., a system of indentured servitude developed in the South after the "end" of slavery. Another example would be in the way waiters and waitresses are nowadays called "servers" -- which isn't much different than the "servants" which waited on the wealthy in past feudal and monarchial societies. (A modern-day server cannot up and tell a customer that he's rude and obnoxious, because the minor tyrant will have that server fired. In modern America, however, the server can become the tyrant when off-duty.) These systems of control continue under new names, to varying degrees.


America is satisfied to believe that our current condition is 100% different than the South's old economic system, when it isn't. In fact, because we view "slavery" through an old lens, we are less likely to see it when it occurs in ways different to the old model.


There is a huge difference between slavery and employment: one is compelled by violence. Conflating work-for-pay and work-because-of-the-threat-of-violence is dangerous, and the tool of every would-be tyrant, John Stuart Mill included.

Dan tdaxp
Dan, I suspect that a survey of Americans to find out how satisfied they are with their work-for-pay would be revealing. Those who live from paycheck to paycheck...who are easily made destitute by one or two missed checks or by hurricanes...who must suffer pains and severe illnesses because they cannot afford healthcare selling cigarettes or steak dinners to their fellow Americans, are living under the shadow of the sword.
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" The great majority of mankind are satisfied with appearances as though they were realities" -- Machiavelli

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