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.