Thursday, December 9, 2010

A Review of "Liberal Fascism: From Mussolini to the Politics of Change"

I admit defeat.

Not in the sense that this book changed my mind and I'm now a die-hard conservative, or even that it softened my attitude to the book's thesis. I mean in the sense that it defeated my will to finish it.

Beyond the factual errors, or selective citations of facts, a subject which others have thoroughly covered, Goldberg's writing style is just atrocious, full of logical leaps, snarky asides, and irritating rhetorical devices.

The first logical section of the book on the history of the fascist movement and the interplay of American left-wing politics with it is actually not all that horrible, and is what made me feel it was worth grinning and bearing. Yes, it brought up a lot of the more uncomfortable skeletons in the collective closet of liberalism. No, none of it was actually condemning from a policy angle. He did himself a great disservice, however, by making snide comments about how liberals THINK history went, and how it is hypocritical of them to call conservatives fascist. It essentially took a break from actually informing to simply construct a contemporary liberal straw-man to be torn down just as quickly on more than one occasion. If he was looking to convince a liberal, he would have lost the more dogmatic liberals within a few pages with this tic.

Even within the history portion, he took to psychiatrist-couching progressive leaders, casting them in a very negative light through their upbringing, early influences, etc. While this is interesting with regard to the ostensible thesis of the book, you can't help but shake the implication that these influences clouded their judgement or somehow twisted them, which is a boon to his underlying obvious goal of discrediting liberalism. He was engaging in ad hominem attacks in all but a direct sense. These flaws made the book largely unremarkable, but not unreadable.

As he pivots to the latter half of the century, he starts making fairly contradictory claims about the motives and base premises of liberal thinkers. In one paragraph he will decry the iconoclasm and rejection of knowledge, history, and elders during the upheaval of the '60s, and the next he will claim that we are all out to replace rule by the people with rule by experts. He rails on about how the pro-choice and sexual liberation movements were anti-Black, but then goes on about Black supremacists and how liberals are in cahoots with them. Maybe these contradictions are his point, but he doesn't make it lucid enough to seem anything but an unintentional consequence of chaining incompatible attacks together. He seems to be mistaken in what liberalism, as it is today, is: a conglomeration of different groups with different motives. Just as I would be hard-pressed to lump together the social conservatives, fiscal conservatives, and moderate Republicans, he should find himself equally as hard-pressed to conflate the populist left, the socialists, the fascists, etc.

This is about when my will broke. After looking up yet another uncited claim that seemed unlikely, and determining that he was flat-out wrong on the matter, I read on in hopes that he might elucidate his reasoning that lead him to make this claim. No reasoning followed, merely letting his point stand on an appeal to correlation. At that point, I safely placed Goldberg in my box of conservatives who don't know how to interpret statistics, or deliberately misinterpreted them, and was simultaneously incapable of making even a cohesive intuitive argument, and removed the book from my Kindle.

If I wanted to read another couple hundred pages of tenuously linked drivel, I would go read conservative blogs. If this is all that intellectual conservatives have to offer, I am deeply disappointed.

To be clear, if you can stomach the obvious propagandizing that becomes a growing portion of the text as the book goes on, it's not a bad look at history if taken with a grain of salt. I think more liberals would do well to know some of the things about the origins of progressivism that he discusses. However, I can only watch a well-researched writer attack the weakest the left has to offer for so long.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Free Market and The Role of Media

The role of the press in a democratic state is to provide information to the public such that they can make informed decisions. However, as it stands now it is currently not selected for by the wonderful pseudo-genetic algorithm called market economics. (The rough equivalence of the market economy and a genetic algorithm will be discussed in a later post.) As our understanding of human psychology grows beyond the concept of the rational tabula rasa, the lessons learned by advertisers and content producers through the trial-and-error process of market economics come into clearer focus, and with it, the perils of abusing these quirks of human thought.

However, there are many cases where rate of consumption has little relation to the net societal value of a good. In the case of information, this disconnect can be easily demonstrated by examining trends in news stories; the dry, non-personal details of economic policy and of the more subtle findings of scientists do not appeal to the highly social human animal, whereas creating an illusion of intimacy with powerful or famous people via inspection of their personal habits draws a wide viewership. Policy and politics do not interest people nearly as much as politicians, the plot and production intricacies of films do not interest them as much as the actors and directors behind them. The human element is what draws people into cable news and, to a certain extent, print news, not the naturalist observation of humanity that would be required for sound thinking about the issues which these individuals have a hand in.

While this observation is somewhat obvious, the fact that this hasn't been accounted for by free market ideologues in their passionate attack on the idea of state-funded media is somewhat telling. Many people of all ideological stripes acknowledge the problem posed by a media with dwindling standards for journalistic substance and objectivity, but few are willing to offer solutions, or even are willing to call out the causes aside from blaming consumers.

Of those who do complain about causes, oftentimes, those who are inclined towards free market ideologies will blame the perceived "plague" of reform-liberalism thinking as a direct result of the market impulses they extol as virtuous, invoking the impact of business and special-interest groups upon the state and media to declare the illegitimacy of the views and policies of both, ignorant to the irony of their complaints. Surely it is the right of "Big Labor" to supply money to whomsoever they want? What should stop news organizations from accepting money in return for favorable coverage of politicians or businesses? What should stop a business like News Corp or Disney from using stations and news outlets they own as their own personal mouthpieces? Expressing outrage against this is surely inconsistent if you take a classical liberal standpoint, and certainly if you take a modern libertarian stance on the matter. If you give people the right to say whatever they want, however they want, and at whatever scale they want, you should be surrendering the ability to complain about impropriety when they do so.

The business models of mass media have remained largely unchanged, and are unfortunately both tied directly to consumption, not quality. Advertising, and subscription revenue (either directly or indirectly through service carriers) are in essence the only way to monetize the press. Subscription revenue (particularly, print media ones) have the benefit of providing enough latency that people aren't repeatedly questioning their choice of news source, and are thus less likely to change on a whim to something "more interesting." The fallacy of sunk cost winds up working in our favor, as people read "boring" content because they've already paid for it. Advertising-driven revenue from free services, on the other hand, provides little incentive for a consumer to suffer through content that might not tickle their emotional and social centers. They can simply flit between these services on a whim, seeking the juiciest celebrity gossip and the most apocalyptic-toned political punditry. The market responds, advertisers shift to the more "interesting" sites to get better numbers, and we're a poorer culture for it.

The death of investigative journalism has been lamented at length by other authors, and so I won't expound upon it here. But to summarize the arguments I've heard elsewhere, fickle revenue streams combined with aggressive profit drive and concerns about time-to-press minimize the incentive for outlets to publish well-researched pieces, and instead often just regurgitate press releases and official statements as a side effect.

While I think that state and state-regulated media should be approached with great caution, I posit that some of the worst effects of state media have easily already happened in a slightly different form with private media. The market response is not the fault, nor are consumers. We are all human, and a finger-wag to "be better consumers" does not do much to override our innate tendency to consume what we desire, especially if doing so has no obvious detriment to others. The media responding to financial incentives, however, has created the conditions for media bias, factual inaccuracy, and sheer vacuous coverage to plague our airwaves. Some action needs to be taken, and relying on the markets to correct it is clearly not the solution.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Ubuntu ConsoleKit Obnoxiousness

If you are having trouble on Ubuntu 10.04 with using audio devices without being logged in on the local console (and current vt,) add yourself to the 'audio' group. That is all.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Technocratic Impulse

Often I find laissez faire idealogues railing on about how some far removed politicians have no place in telling an industry how to go about its business. They continue to imply that somehow business leaders, particularly in established businesses, have some level of expertise that our politicians don't. When I agree that yes, people who know what they are doing should run things, they nod in agreement until I explain who I think know how to do things: Scientists, engineers, and laborers.

The technocratic impulse has been cast aside due to its rough systemic resemblance to theocracy. The priestly class of earlier centuries have been displaced in role if not in functional behavior by scientists, even to the point of invoking public frenetic trend-seeking (often deliberately in the former case, mostly accidentally in the latter.) The failings of theocratic rule are obvious to skeptics; not only does a devotion to a religion not guarantee any particular competency at decision-making, it can and has served as a method of maintaining the status quo. Historically the former could be argued; the clergy were at one point (at least in Europe) among the most educated men within a population, and as such it may indeed have imbued them as a population more fit to rule than the common man. Similarly, hereditary rule guarantees at least some standard of education, even if it does nothing to guarantee character or responsiveness. These approaches had their merits at a time when education was lacking among the general public (though said condition was perpetuated by these approaches.) However, at one point in the history of the western world, we decided that governance wasn't best left up the crap shoot of genetics or to the interpretations of old tomes. (Note, theocratic rule here refers to any heavy use of religion in policymaking, not literal rule by the priestly class.)

The transition between these two phases leaves us with a time when communication was limited, knowledge wasn't readily available, and science frequently had little to say on common matters involving large systems, their conclusions largely isolated to issues without large-scale consequence. Until the formal investigation of the Cholera plague by Dr. John Snow in the 19th century (1), there was little to indicate that government took heed of the word of experts, and rightfully so. Formal science, and medicine in particular, was still not quite mature and had yet to bring about the massive transformative changes that we've seen in the past century. With the advent of telecommunication, experiments are more likely now to be verified or at the very least examined in depth by other researchers. The existence of a much larger pool of peers has made the academic world a more refined system than it was a century or two ago. We may have abandoned our priests and hereditary rulers for our representatives, but this was not necessarily the obvious progression. The gap that science's youth represented in the lineage of religion was filled with representative government.

As another valuable benchmark, in the 19th century, mankind reached an important critical point, becoming capable of creating a measurable impact on the environment around him; even if the full consequences of large-scale combustion were not fully known, the particulate pollution for which London became known had a noticable impact on the welfare of the nation. Though this may have been largely ignored at the time, the industrial revolution created two concepts that would echo through the following centuries: Capitalism and the common good.

I speak not of the concerns about inequality of wealth when I say "the common good;" that is a topic for another post. I speak instead about the concept of externalized costs and public goods. The industrial revolution not only heralded an increased ease in expanding income gaps as factory ownership and employment of unskilled labor displaced artisans, but also gave us the first real responsibility as a species. We now were capable of greatly negatively impacting our environment with no clear short-term indicators.

The irony, of course, is capitalism only enhances the incentive to abuse public goods. The water and air supply isn't the owner's problem, he lives in a different section supplied by different reservoirs, upwind from his plant. And even if he lived next door, his factory would not seem to make an impact on the quality of the water and air, lost in the heaps of pollution from other industry. Not only did we introduce a new, dangerous ability to mankind's repertoire; we had created the very social engine for its abuse.

Attempts to alleviate these conditions under the flag of reform liberalism have led us to where we are today; those of us in industrialized nations by and large live comfortably with reasonable assurances of our long-term health due to environmental factors, and as a side effect have gained reasonable assurances of protection from abuse by employers.

Fast forward to the consumerism of the 20th century; modern marketing, pioneered by Edward Bernays (2), creates a new lever for capital to control: Public opinion. But surely, public opinion was a crucial part of capitalism? Was this not the check, the invisible hand that made it so successful? Prior to the internet, media was purely centralized, and as such had little citizen involvement except for the weak feedback that is consumer behavior. Capital, the beast which is least likely to care about the people, now controls the people, who in turn control the government meant to tame the beast. The internet only has slightly alleviated this problem. Content generation may be largely decentralized, but this is fragile when the content provision is still quite centralized, in a social sense; this blog post, of course, is being transmitted from a server owned by a company with a $168 billion market cap, over wires and fiber most likely owned by one of a small handful of companies.

Forgive me if this talk of control sounds hyperbolic; this is not to say that we are totally under the thumb of large businesses. We are not. But we are not only by some of the virtues provided by the capitalist system that prevent them from cooperating. I find this to be cold comfort as we find that advertising has permeated every aspect of our lives, and our understanding of the technology we use every day is being obfuscated by trade secrets, DRM, and byzantine design. Even if Capital does not have a unified will, it nonetheless follows a stumbling walk towards the ideal position for its existence.

The weaknesses of representative government are simultaneously becoming clear and accelerating the ascendancy of a new form of organization; a renewed plutocracy devoid of human compassion and rationality and entirely filled with self-preserving animal emotion. Corporations in particular cannot be our beneficent overlords; beneficence is directly contradictory to their legal mandates. The slow response and waste in our representative government has spawned distrust for it, and the relative, superficial success of capital has made a large number of Americans clamor for it to take the throne, ignoring the real driver of our improving quality of life: Science and engineering.

Representative government, ultimately a stop-gap measure for establishing a proper meritocracy, has run its course. The educated among us tend towards the technocratic impulse, and for good reason; we see politicians flub basic facts of our chosen fields, and assume they do the same for other fields, even if we are not certain. But few of us seem to give voice to what this wish is. We think we want smarter politicians, or more benevolent businessmen; in truth, we (or perhaps just I) want the erudite to rule, not the popular, or the thrifty. Running a country isn't about making people like you, or finding some clever niche in which to fit and thrive. It is solving a vast, complex problem of many interlocking disciplines. Let's start acting like it.