Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Republic vs Democracy and Other Drugs

The question of how much weight to give individual votes vs regional concerns is an important one on which reasonable people can differ. But the notion that America is either a democracy or a republic is irrelevant to that question (and to pretty much everything else). Worse, these labels, like so many others, while shedding virtually no light also shed a ton of heat.

Not asking for anyone to take my word for it. Just Google “America Democracy Republic” and see where it takes you.

A few examples:

“For all practical purposes, and in most contexts, ‘republic’ and ‘democracy’ are synonyms. The big difference is that the first comes from Latin and the latter from Greek. To say that the U.S. is a republic, not a democracy, is like claiming to eat beef and pork but not cows and pigs.”

“To say that the United States is not a democracy is correct if democracy is defined in a way that no government on Earth, past or present, qualifies as one. It is as useful to say, ‘The Vietnam War wasn’t a war, because Congress didn’t declare war.’”

“I often hear people argue that the United States is a republic, not a democracy. But that’s a false dichotomy. A common definition of ‘republic’ is, to quote the American Heritage Dictionary, ‘A political order in which the supreme power lies in a body of citizens who are entitled to vote for officers and representatives responsible to them’ — we are that. A common definition of ‘democracy’ is, ‘Government by the people, exercised either directly or through elected representatives’ — we are that, too.”

“If there’s substance behind ‘We’re a republic, not a democracy,’ it’s not as a description of American government. There’s really no difference, in the present, between a ‘republic’ and a ‘democracy’: Both connote systems of representation in which sovereignty and authority derive from the public at large.”

If the concern is over how much weight to give individual votes vs regional concerns, why not just talk about that?

There are tons of other topics poisoned by an addiction to nomenclature. For example, instead of a Manichean death match over capitalism vs socialism (as though there’s a single example of either/or anywhere on earth), why not discuss what services are best provided by the government, and what services are best left to the private sector? An important topic on which reasonable people can disagree, and probably one we could discuss with less shouting, if we could get past our love of labels.

So many labels shed more heat than light. I can’t decide if people are attached to them despite this, or because.

Monday, August 19, 2019

The Red Pill

At a party this past Saturday, I got to talking to a couple people about politics. They asked for my recommendations on what they ought to be reading, so I followed up with an email. And because the thoughts in the email might be useful to others, I thought Id publish them here, as well.


Hi B&D, great talking the other night and I hope I didn’t rant too much…!

If you want to take the red pill, here’s what I’d recommend as a start:

1. Left/Right/Center. We’re constantly fed a framework of left/right/center. But how useful is that framework for understanding what’s going on in our society? I’d argue that powerful/disempowered; insider/outsider; 1%/99%; front-row/back-row (hat tip to Chris Arnade for that terminology); establishment (what we call in other countries “oligarchy, but thankfully we don’t have oligarchs, at worst we have only billionaires)/everyone else) is a far more accurate and useful framework.

You mentioned Axios, for example. Beyond the curious notion that a self-declared cross between The Economist and Twitter could on balance offer anything beneficial, what does the sites funding suggest about its ideology (hint: think corporate and establishment)? Not saying funding is necessarily dispositive (The Intercept, which I think is great, was founded by Pierre Omidyar, and does good work in bringing transparency to America’s powerful factions (we have factions, remember; only primitive, dark-skinned countries have tribes)). But I think it’s sensible to ponder what Axio’s (or anyone’s) funders, all of whom are presumably smart, sophisticated people, are hoping to get out of their investment.

Also note that Axios’s founders came out of Politico, the world’s premier media for insider baseball and vapid horserace coverage—what NYU media professor Jay Rosen calls “savvy” journalism. I’d argue that the “savvy” ideology is far more consequential in America than left/right. Certainly it’s more insidious. Listen to political conversations among citizens—how much do we discuss substance, such as “X program would be good or bad for society,” and how much have we been trained to focus on “Oh, X program was a smart/dumb move by Y candidate, it will fire up/disappoint the base, provide difficult/easy attacks for her opponents…”

But “savvy” is barely recognized as a journalistic style or means of political discourse, much less an ideology.

2. Bias. The notion of “bias” in media is bullshit and inherently propagandistic. Bias is just the bad word for worldview—that is, “worldview I don’t agree with.” But everyone has a worldview, so “X is biased” is a truism that conveys zero useful information. What we should be asking instead is, “Is this coverage coherent and defensible, is the journalist aware of and open about her biases, does she show her work?” Again, Jay Rosen, linked to above, is terrific on this.

More on the “bias” dodge in The Greatest Trick the Devil Ever Pulled. With some links to writers to follow if you’re curious.

3. American Violence Is Always A Force For Good. Of course we don’t call it “American violence.” We don’t even have wars anymore, with “military interventions” more the done thing. Here’s me trying to explain to a Martian why American violence is good and indeed exceptional (how could it not be, given American Exceptionalism? A phrase well worth pondering). I did my best, but I think the Martian was more persuasive.

I think it’s critical to remember that we’re all wired to cut ourselves (and, by extension, our in-groups) enormous slack. See, for example, the Fundamental Attribution Error. This is why Ken Burns could conclude that America’s war in Vietnam—where we killed as many as two million civilians and another million North Vietnamese and Viet Cong fighters was a “tragedy,” like a hurricane or cancer or other act of God that isn’t subject to human policymaking and deliberate decisions. And why no western journalist would ever describe, say, the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan in similar terms.

But what should we say about a country that goes all the way to the other side of the world and kills three million people to spread its ideology (I know, I know, all our wars are about defending, never about spreading, only Putin spreads;)) if we didn’t know the country in question was us? Would we say, “Oh, they meant well, and sure, maybe mistakes were made, but only with good intentions, and when they kill three million people in pursuit of their geopolitical objectives, on balance they’re always a force for good, thank God for that country and we should absolutely trust them with thousands of nuclear weapons, because on balance we’re all safer because of those weapons…?”

(Especially when you consider that the country in question is the only one to have used nuclear weapons in anger, ever. And that’s leaving aside the long and terrifying history of nuclear mistakes and terrifying current vulnerabilities. But I digress.)

Or would we reserve that narrative exclusively for ourselves?

4. Chomsky. The ultimate red pill is Chomsky. Here’s a five-minute cartoon primer on his seminal book, Manufacturing Consent. Note the need for an external enemy, which by amazing coincidence, we always seem to have.

5. Democracy Now! The Chomsky video above is narrated by Amy Goodman of Democracy NowThis is a great general news program. It’s easy to understand DN as leftist media, but again, consider whether left/right is the most useful and accurate framework for understanding what DN is doing, or whether there is something more relevant and important about their priorities.

6. Socialism. I know, I know, the bogeyman! Almost literally, in the sense that the bogeyman doesn’t exist and was invented as a means of scaring powerless children into compliance. America is so massively a corporatist society (but how often do you hear about corporatism in establishment media?) that the notion of socialism as something we should fear actually happening here would be hilarious if the demonization of this word hadn’t been so effective at shutting down conversation about what programs the government can and should sensibly provide, and which are better left to the private sector. Instead, anything America’s oligarchy doesn’t want, it can just label with the fear word “Socialism!” and the conversation is over. In fact, politicians have traditionally been so afraid of being branded socialist that the conversation never even gets started.

Thank Bernie for changing that, BTW. :)

And remember, it’s worth considering “But how can we afford that?” is only asked of social programs, never of our endless wars and trillion-dollar annual war budget. Medical insurance for all? How can we afford that? Space Force? No questions even asked!

Why would that be? Where does it come from?

“We can’t afford X” simply means “X is not a priority.” The same as, “I don’t have time for X” means “X is not a priority.” We’ve all had relatives die of cancer. I don’t know about you, but sometimes I wonder whether, if we diverted a bit of our annual near trillion-dollar war spending orgy—in which we spend more on the military than the next seven countries on earth, five of whom are our allies—to cancer research, whether it might have helped my mother. No way to know, of course. But it couldn’t have hurt.

Still, no matter how you cut it, there’s no way anyone can dispute that America cares more about maintaining a grotesquely bloated military than it does about curing cancer. And pretty much everything else. That’s not because we can’t afford those other things. It’s because we’ve decided spending money on war (oops, I meant to say defense!) is more important.

Anyway, given how effective America’s various power brokers have been in demonizing the S word, and given how marginalized the concept is in America, it stands to reason that an avowedly socialist magazine could be a useful antidote for the nonstop western self-congratulation and endless cheerleading for western wars (sorry, interventions) you’ll find in, say, The Economist. In this regard, I recommend Current Affairs.

The main thing is, whatever flavor of establishment media you might be consuming, you’re still consuming an establishment ideology. The Wall Street Journal isn’t a meaningful balance to the New York Times. Likewise MSNBC and Fox. If you want balance, you have to look beyond the obvious, which is what’s most readily available. And all we’re supposed to see.

A final thought:

As a species, we’re hardwired to pursue pleasure and avoid pain. It follows that we would tend to consume news that comforts us by supporting background assumptions rather than news that discomforts us by calling those cherished assumptions into question. If I’m right about this, it follows that we should probably discount the comforting news, knowing our attraction to it is probably more a function of our internal emotional and psychological longings than of its inherent accuracy or utility as anything more than a kind of security blanket.

If you’re still reading, thank you for listening. And of course feel free to disregard. Theres always the blue pill, and in fairness it is much easier to swallow.