Progress

November 26, 2011

It is fair to say, I think, that over the last 40 years or so there has been little progress in the quality of life of the average person in the West, and quite possibly there has been a deterioration. (The only indicator in which there has been steady progress, I think, is longevity.1)

Progressive ideology generally asserts that there is a wide variety of elements of conceivable and feasible policy and technology that would significantly improve average quality of life. It may be further assumed that the pursuit of any of those elements or any combination of those elements can be expected to be fruitful. To some extent this assumption – what may be termed the “parallel progress assumption” – seems to be implicit in much of present-day progressive activism: the agenda is usually very eclectic and often somewhat vague on specifics. While this is partly a tactic that is aimed at maintaining wide appeal, there is also the implication that as long as general principles are agreed to, laying out a detailed workplan is not necessary since progress can be made on any of many items quite independently of each other. While I accept the progressive assumption (i.e., that progress is possible) it appears to me that the parallel progress assumption is incorrect.
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Terrorism

August 17, 2011

The pursuit of the definition of “terrorism” has proven to be a formidable task that is personally useful for some. The standard dictionary definition,

the use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, especially for political purposes,

clearly conflicts with accepted usage, for if it were believed then any military activity, or even police activity, would constitute a terrorist activity. Other definitions come closer to the intended meaning:

Terrorism is defined as political violence in an asymmetrical conflict that is designed to induce terror and psychic fear (sometimes indiscriminate) through the violent victimization and destruction of noncombatant targets (sometimes iconic symbols). [Attributed by Wikipedia to Carsten Bockstette.]

Obviously, military activity would often fall within those terms if it were not for the “asymmetrical” condition. Such activity, when considered legitimate by the speaker, is never referred to as “terrorism”. Read the rest of this entry »

Media consumption

December 24, 2010

Average total media consumption time in the U.S. – about 9 hours a day – has remained unchanged since at least 1990, while TV consumption time – about 4 hours a day – has remained unchanged since at least 1984. Also essentially since 1984 unchanged are reading time – a little over 1 hour a day, and consumption of recorded music – about half an hour a day.

The most noticeable change trends during the period have been the decline in broadcast TV viewing, all absorbed by increase in cable TV viewing, and the appearance of internet media consumption, with an offsetting decline in radio consumption. Note that the internet media category does not include consumption of TV or text news online, as long as the sources of those are not internet-only organizations.

The media consumption categories not broken out on the graph are “video games” (about 14 minutes per day in 2007), “home video” (10 mpd), “movie in theater” (2 mpd), and “educational software” (80 seconds per day in 2007).

Data source: The Statistical Abstract of the U.S. of the following years: 1994 (Table 884), 1997 (Table 886) and 2010 (Table 1094) [Data text file].

In a previous post I argued that Glenn Greenwald’s arguments against laws for the suppression of certain ideas cannot be effective until he establishes what makes expressing ideas different from other human activities that are regulated by law. Greenwald’s main argument, which seems generally on the mark and deserves close examination, is that regulations that bar the expression of certain ideas foreclose the possibility of certain political changes. It seems that Greenwald considers this effect as something clearly to be avoided (even at high potential short term cost) but, as is unfortunately his habit, he does not make his argument and his reasoning explicit. I previously committed to consider this argument in detail next. Before doing so, however, I want to consider a somewhat different argument mentioned by Greenwald. I therefore postpone treatment of the main argument to an upcoming post.

Greenwald’s other argument purporting to show why banning speech is not like banning other types of behavior is short-term utilitarian. Greenwald claims that “airing” ideas is “better” than suppressing them – “better”, we are given to understand, even for those who find those ideas wrong or offensive. Read the rest of this entry »

Glenn Greenwald is excoriating the hate speech laws of Canada. It turns out that an official in a Canadian university in which an American, one Ms. Coulter, has been invited to speak has sent that speaker a letter notifying her that expressing certain types of ideas while in Canada would be against the Canadian law.

As has been the case with his post dealing with the court decision regarding regulations of election campaigns, Greenwald’s argument weaves several related but distinct claims – of varying validity – into a single narrative. Unpacking the argument, I identify several claims. The first three seem almost gratuitous:

  • The official’s letter is “threatening”.
  • The official is anointing himself as the arbiter of what is and is not sufficiently “civilized discussion”.
  • For the two reasons above, the letter is “hateful” and is therefore itself a violation of the hate speech laws.

Those three claims can be easily dismissed. The letter itself is informative rather than threatening. It does not indicate that the official or anyone else in the university would try to instigate a criminal prosecution against the speaker. The official to some limited extent expresses some opinion that certain ideas are uncivilized, but so do many people, more or less convincingly, in countries with or without hate speech laws. In this particular case, the official seems to indicate that in his opinion the speech outlawed by his country’s laws is uncivilized. This is hardly outrageous, hateful, or even unusual or controversial. That is his opinion and nothing more. Whether a certain idea is illegal under Canadian law is decided on grounds that are not directly affected by that opinion.

The more substantial points are Greenwald’s arguments for the inadvisability of criminalizing certain ideas:

  • “The hubris required to believe that you can declare certain views so objectively hateful that they should be criminalized is astronomical; in so many eras, views that were most scorned by majorities ended up emerging as truth,”
  • “I’ll never understand how people want to vest in the Government the power to criminalize particular viewpoints it dislikes,”
  • “[I] will never understand the view that it’s better to try to suppress adverse beliefs than to air them,”
  • “[I] will especially never understand people’s failure to realize that endorsing this power will, one day, very likely result in their own views being criminalized when their political enemies (rather than allies) are empowered.”

And, in the comments,

  • “[If the majority can suppress certain ideas then] all opinions held by a minority could be criminalized. Who would endorse a standard like that?”

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I posted on Equality-by-Lot a short critique of the proposal by McChesney and Nichols of financing public news media by distributing “media vouchers”. My message in a nutshell is that vouchers are like elections while what would be useful would be a sortition-like system.

It is interesting that McChesney and Nichols would promote a voucher system for news media, while as Lefties they are probably opposed to the vouchers idea in the context of education. I have not read the entire book but neither in the interview on The Real News Network nor in the excerpt I read on Google books do they offer an explanation of what are the differences between those two areas that make them think vouchers work in one but not in the other, and why they do not suggest a system that mimics that public education system. The two areas are sufficiently different so that an argument can surely be made – but it is rather surprising that they do not make an explicit case.

Glenn Greenwald is not a mainstream intellectual. His columns show that he is an informed, independent thinker. In the wake of the U.S. supreme court decision invalidating some restrictions on political speech in the mass media, Greenwald wrote a couple of interesting columns (1, 2) in which, contrary to what is probably the standard response in the circles that are ideologically close to him, he defends the decision, and goes further to defend anathemas to those ideological circles – the ideas that “money is speech” and that corprations should have free speech rights.

For reasons that are largely in agreement with Greenwald’s, I don’t see the particular case as being very important. (Striking down the restrictions can hardly make a significant difference in the sum total of the power of corporations to influence public opinion, since they already control public discourse almost exclusively. It can only shift power among corporations.) However, the arguments Greenwald marshals are of much more fundamental importance – they bear on basic political notions  – “free speech”, power within society, legality, constitutionality and democracy. I therefore wish to examine his points one by one. In this first post I will enumerate all the important points he makes, with the intention of analyzing each one in later posts.

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Paul Krugman, Princeton economics professor, winner of the Nobel prize in economics for 2008 and New York Times op-ed writer is a person worth paying some attention to. Unlike most other mainstream commentators he does not deal mainly in cliches and often shows respect towards his readers by supporting his positions with hard data. He is also willing to take some risk by, on occasion, pushing against the envelope of mainstream propriety and using impolite words toward people with power.

Of course, he is not without faults. Of course, none of us is. The point is that Krugman’s faults are not too different than those of many of his colleagues. In other words, while Krugman is somewhat of an exquisite specimen of the mainstream intellectual, he is still very much such a specimen.

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The case of Rudolph Guiliani suggests that mass media cannot dictate to the public who to vote for. However, since it is impossible to vote for a candidate one has never heard of, mass media cannot help but determine who the public will not vote for.

Senator Barack Obama announced his candidacy for president in January 2007, yet even by by February 2006 over 40% of the people heard enough about Obama to have an opinion about him.

For comparison, a different Democratic congressmember running for the nomination, Dennis Kucinich, never managed to have more than 35% name recognition, even during the height of the primary season.


(The points marked with ‘k’ show the proportion of people recognizing Kucinich.)

Data: pollingreport.com: Newsweek, NBC and Gallup series.

The aim of this post is to provide some particulars for the proposal for democratic media which I made:

Using public funds, “media sections” (TV and radio channels, newspapers, book publishers, etc.) are created and sustained. The media sections are controlled by citizen-editor boards, a role that would rotate within the entire population. Each citizen-editor board has a budget and complete control over a section – i.e., over a certain part of the public media – in the same way that present-day editors and media outlet owners have today.

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