Wednesday, September 26, 2007 63 Comments

How Dawkins got pwned (part 1)

Richard Dawkins recently wrote a book called The God Delusion. You've probably heard of it.

Professor Dawkins is a great scientist and one of my favorite writers. And I have no quarrel at all with his argument. I was raised as a scientific atheist, and I've never seen the slightest reason to think otherwise. These days I prefer the word "nontheist" - for reasons which will shortly be clear - but there's no substantive difference at all. Except in the context of role-playing games, I have no interest whatsoever in gods, goddesses, angels, devils, dryads, water elementals, or any such presumed metaphysical being.

Nonetheless, it's my sad duty to inform the world that Professor Dawkins has been pwned. Perhaps you're over 30 and you're unfamiliar with this curious new word. As La Wik puts it:
The word "pwn" remains in use as Internet social-culture slang meaning: to take unauthorized control of someone else or something belonging to someone else by exploiting a vulnerability.
How could such a learned and wise mind exhibit an exploitable vulnerability? And who - or what - has taken unauthorized control over Professor Dawkins? The aliens? The CIA? The Jews? The mind boggles. As well it should. Patience, dear reader. All will become clear.

Professor Dawkins' explanation of religion, with which I agree completely, is that religion is a memeplex built around a central delusion, the God meme - an entirely unsubstantiated proposition. Religion exists because this memeplex is adaptive. This explanation is both necessary and sufficient. It is also parsimonious, a la Occam's razor. It may not be simple, but it's a heck of a lot simpler than "God."

(I dislike the word "meme" and the complex of terminology that's grown up around it, mainly because (a) the word has a dorky sound, and (b) it means the same thing as "idea." However, in deference to Professor Dawkins and his numerous acolytes, I'll use it for this discussion.)

In Darwinian terms, Professor Dawkins' main point is that the adaptive interests of religion - or of any other memeplex - are not the same as the adaptive interests of its host. As a celibate priest, for example, you are helping Christianity to be fruitful and multiply. It's performing no such service for you.

Biologists have a word for this: parasitism. Probably because he wants to be nice, Professor Dawkins tries not to use the p-word. But he's clearly thinking it.

The God delusion is a parasitic meme because, being alien to reason, it does not serve the interests of the host. Furthermore, some of the memeplexes which include it - or "religions" - include far more pernicious memes, such as suicide bombing, which are lethal both to the host and anyone within its blast radius. The case would seem to be closed.

But immunology is tricky. After all, if Professor Dawkins is right, anyone who believes in God is most certainly pwned - that is, infected by a parasitic religious memeplex. This category includes some of the smartest people in the world today. Intelligence is certainly no barrier to memetic infection. Worse, there have clearly been periods of civilized history in which everyone was infected by this parasite. The things are dangerous, there is no doubt.

Therefore, without disputing Professor Dawkins' Darwinian conclusion, I think it's prudent to step back a little, and attack the problem with a slightly broader and more careful approach.

The God Delusion is what immunologists might call a specific immune response. Professor Dawkins notes that religion is alien to the reasoning mind. He notes that it reproduces and evolves. He sees that similar phenomena have caused many problems in the past and continue to do so in the present. He identifies a common feature of these problems, the God meme, and churns out antibodies to it.

This process is not infallible. Suppose, for example, you note that a patient is ill and can't eat. You take a biopsy of his guts and find that they're full of - bacteria! Bacteria are clearly not human. They're a well-known cause of disease. So the obvious problem is that the patient has a bacterial infection, and you prescribe broad-spectrum antibiotics. Meanwhile, the poor fellow is dying of colon cancer, and you're trying to eradicate his intestinal flora.

Biological immune systems make all kinds of mistakes. Presumably the same is true of memetic immunology. After all, what was the Inquisition thinking? They thought of heresy exactly the same way Professor Dawkins thinks of religion: as a sort of mental virus, whose eradication, while unavoidably painful, would bring peace and sanity.

In memetic immunology, it's often very difficult to distinguish parasite from counterparasite. When we see two populations of memes in conflict, we know both cannot be healthy, because a healthy meme is true by definition and the truth cannot conflict with itself. However, we might very well be watching two parasites competing with each other. They will certainly both claim to represent truth, justice and the American way.

So I think it might be worthwhile to attack the question from another angle, using the analogy of a generalized immune response. Rather than asking ourselves whether specific traditions, such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc, are parasitic, we can focus on the problem of parasitic memeplexes as a whole.

If Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc, turn up on this screen, perhaps we'll want to point some T-cells at them. But a generalized approach will also detect any other parasitic memeplexes we may be infected with. After all, the God delusion isn't the only delusion in the world.

One way to approach generalized memetic immunology is to design a generic parasitic memeplex. Avoiding specific details which may confuse us, and focusing on the combination of adaptive success and parasitic morbidity, we can construct design rules for an optimal memetic parasite. We can evaluate potential threats by looking at how well they fit this template, which should be as nasty as possible.

When dealing with actual biological agents, of course, we can work in biosafety labs. The most dangerous viruses, such as smallpox, Ebola, and the 1918 flu, cannot be safely handled without elaborate, multiply redundant containment systems. Some would argue that they cannot be safely handled at all.

With memes and memeplexes, there's none of this. By designing the memeplex, we effectively release it into the wild. Fortunately, UR has a small and discreet audience, which strikes me as very wise and conscientious. I'm sure none of you will be tempted to abuse this dangerous memetic technology, which in the hands of less scrupulous thinkers could easily become a formula for total world domination. Remember, this is only a test.

So our generic parasitic memeplex will be as virulent as possible. It will be highly contagious, highly morbid, and highly persistent. A really ugly bug. Let's focus on these design aspects separately: contagion, morbidity, and persistence.

A contagious memeplex is one that spreads easily. The template may not have to infect everyone in the world - although that's certainly one option. However, for any really significant morbidity, we'll want massive, lemminglike misdirected collective action. This requires mass infection.

There are three general ways to transmit a memetic parasite: parental transmission, educational transmission, and social transmission. Needless to say, our template should be a champ at all of them.

If your parasite can't be transmitted parentally, it's really not much of a parasite. Children learn the basic principles of reality and morality before they are six, and - as the Jesuit proverb goes - anything that can slip in at this age is likely to stick. "Give me the child and I will give you the man." Fortunately, any simple idea, even if it is nonsense, can be transmitted at this age. Unless the template is fundamentally dependent on some meme which children are unlikely to grasp, such as partial differential equations, parental transmission is no problem.

But educational transmission - infection of children and young adults by institutions whose ostensible purpose is to instill universal knowledge and ethics - is the mainstay of any successful memetic parasite. Since these same institutions educate future educators, replication can continue indefinitely.

Over multiple generations, educational transmission outcompetes parental transmission. Changes of religion by executive fiat, for example, are common in European history. In the more recent past, the Allied victors eradicated militarist traditions in Germany and Japan through their control of the educational system. Furthermore, by treating the press as an educational institution, we can create a system of continuing, lifelong reinfection in which parasitic memes are omnipresent. (Of course, it's important to remember that exactly the same techniques can also cure a memetic infection.)

But neither parental nor educational transmission can bootstrap itself from a small initial infection. While most parasitic memes probably originate as mutations of preexisting memes, they can certainly be invented from scratch (unlike genes). And even a mutation has to spread somehow.

Therefore, no memetic parasite is complete without a system for social transmission: informal transmission among adults, following existing social networks.

The first step in designing for social transmission is minimizing preexisting immunity. Nazism, for example, would not be an adaptive meme for a 21st-century parasitic memeplex, because so many prospective hosts have strong negative reactions to Nazism, Nazis, swastikas, etc. Any meme which conflicts with its prospective hosts' present perception of reality or morality is socially maladaptive.

The second step in designing for social transmission is to look at the status structure of social networks, and construct memes that will flow naturally along the usual network direction: from high status to low status.

That is, our parasite should be intellectually fashionable. All the cool people in town should want to get infected. And infection will make them even cooler. They will be the hosts with the most. For example, one common trope in various religious traditions is asceticism: the voluntary renunciation of material comforts. Since this tends to be much easier for those who start out wealthy and comfortable, it's an effective status marker. Any memes that can associate themselves with asceticism gain a clear adaptive advantage.

Our parasite is now optimized for contagion. But is it bad? Is it truly evil and destructive? The most contagious parasitic meme in the world, if all it brings to its hosts and those around them is happiness and prosperity, isn't worth worrying about.

So we need to move on to morbidity, which is a fancy medical word meaning "badness." The key to memetic morbidity is that, for a really nasty parasite, morbidity must be essential to its reproductive cycle. Otherwise, because morbidity is after all nasty, it will probably be maladaptive. Our parasite will be outcompeted by a benign mutation of itself - totally defeating the purpose. D'oh.

Most forms of morbidity involve a political step in the replication process. In other words, they allow the parasite to obtain informal power, which it can use to take over educational institutions, suppress counterparasites and competing parasites, etc, etc. There is no period in the history of any human civilization in which political (including military) power has not been a critical factor in the struggle of ideas. This is not to say that such a level playing field or "marketplace" of memes cannot be created - only that it has not yet been done.

First, a parasitic meme is not even parasitic if it is not delusional. It must contain some assertion which is alien to reason, which no sensible person would independently invent. The "God delusion" - a metaphysical construct, like Russell's teapot, with no basis in reality - is a perfect example.

How can a delusion be, on its own, adaptive? Very easily. A delusion is a perfect organizing principle for any kind of political movement. By accepting some body of nonsensical doxology, you demonstrate your loyalty to the group. The result is cohesive collective action. As we'll see, most forms of parasitic morbidity involve a political step in the replication cycle.

A frequent strategy, for example, is to present the delusion as recondite and counterintuitive, and the truth as simplistic and wrong. This "emperor's new clothes" strategy is a proven recipe for defeating Occam's razor. Who, for example, really understands the Trinity? But if you don't understand the Trinity, aren't you just stupid? Through internal competition, this counterintuitive delusion generates a revolutionary elite deeply steeped in Trinitology. The harder it is to understand the delusion, the more dedicated your cadre will be.

Another good general strategy for high morbidity is antinomianism, the opposition to law. Since the rule of law can be defined in terms of property rights - property is any right that you can own - any meme that opposes property opposes law. It therefore declares continuous and informal transfers of resources to be morally justified. Antinomianism builds political power by providing an easy avenue for punishing enemies and rewarding supporters, all in the service of whatever bogus concept of "justice" our parasite concocts as a replacement for law.

Finally, our parasite will employ a strategy of politicization, insisting that everyone in a society be involved in the contest for political power. Since our memetic parasite is already bound to one or more political factions, politicization leaves no one with the option to ignore it, and simply live their lives. Neutrality is not acceptable. All those who are not actively infected, and who do not openly endorse the parasite, are by definition its enemies. And they will be crushed. The safest thing is to play along, and raise your children in the faith - even if you don't really believe, they will.

High contagion and adaptive morbidity will allow our parasite to spread widely and rise to power, where it can continuously propagate itself through educational institutions. But there is still another problem: persistence. If our parasite does not resist competitors, or succumbs easily to healthy counterparasites, it won't last long and it won't be much of a threat. It should be as hard as possible for hosts to reject the parasite, whether they are replacing it with a competitor or simply returning to reason.

Our first defense against rejection is mere euphoria. It should feel good to be infected. It should improve the host's self-esteem, making them feel like a better, happier person. If they need to make sacrifices for their faith, if they suffer for it, fine. They are doing what's right.

At a certain level, euphoria graduates into full-on anesthesia. Anesthetized hosts can endure horrific suffering, or the moral pain of inflicting suffering on others, in the name of the faith. Did a wolf come into your house and eat your baby? You have been blessed. The wolf is the sacred animal of Rome. Your baby now dwells with the gods of the city. If the wolf comes again, pet him and speak to him sweetly, and at least give him a hamburger or something.

Indiscriminate and total anesthesia constitutes ovinization. An ovinized individual never imagines responding to any kind of threat with any kind of defensive action, certainly not violence. To the ovinized, anything bad that happens is either (a) an accident, or (b) the result of some sin or other moral error. The concept of an "enemy" does not exist.

Needless to say, euphoria, anesthesia and ovinization all greatly inhibit the ability of our hosts to react against their parasite and eject it - and its followers - from their lives. But sometimes this is not enough. Humans, after all, are bipedal apes. They evolved from some very truculent ancestors. Even if they are specialized for civilization - a certain degree of genetic ovinization is almost certainly present in populations which have lived in governed societies for many generations - occasional throwbacks are to be expected.

Therefore, diversionary hysteria is another essential tactic in our parasite's bag of tricks. Hosts who would otherwise be tempted to notice the morbidities of infection, and attribute them to the parasite itself, must be diverted. Either their defensive energies will be directed either toward other symptoms which are in fact not serious, or they will attribute the real problems to other causes which are not in fact significant.

We can kill two birds with one stone by directing our hysteria toward those who reject the parasite, and identifying their efforts to cure it as the cause of the morbidity. This strategy of counterimmunity, in which the infected treat disinfection as if it were contagious - which, of course, it is - has been a staple of memetic parasites throughout the ages.

The goal of a counterimmune strategy - such as the Inquisition - is to eradicate heresy. But this is actually only the simplest approach to counterimmunity. We can get much fancier.

Suppose, for example, our parasite does not try to eradicate counterimmune responses, but in fact tolerates them. However, we make sure the heretical memes are contained and cannot engage in any serious attack on our replicative cycle. That way, we have them where we can see them - under control. How might we accomplish this?

One approach is to maintain a neutered false opposition. This gang of tolerated heretics, against whom our wise philosophers speak out at every opportunity, must be unable to establish a replicative cycle of their own.

For example, the tame heretical memeplex may include a meme which is delusional, and which anyone intelligent is obviously resistant to - thus binding to, and disabling, the dangerous countermemes which would attack our parasite, by blocking the "early adopters" who would otherwise be tempted to consider the heresy. Similarly, it may include unfashionable memes which impair its power of social transmission. And it may be administratively excluded from educational transmission. It is hard to prevent parental transmission, but as we've seen, over time parents will tend to lose the battle against educational institutions, especially if social transmission is also blocked.

An especially effective approach is to treat the heretical memeplex as if it were, in fact, the dominant parasitic meme. Thus, siding with the parasite will be seen as an act of resistance and defiance, a pose which tends to be fashionable. Furthermore, if the delusional strategy is employed, our friendly hosts will be able to identify obvious delusions among the heretics, who will be unfashionable and educationally isolated.

Since parasites mutate, evolve and improve over time, a good choice for a tame heresy may in fact be an old edition of our parasite itself. Normally this would simply be discarded, and not tolerated at all. By definition it is less competitive. However, if we do tolerate it, we can modify it to attract heretics, doubters, and unbelievers of all kinds, keeping them safely neutered. Hosts infected with the latest version of the parasite will treat these stick-in-the-muds as deluded fools who have not yet liberated themselves from these ancient doctrines, and seen the new, brighter light - who, even worse, are working actively to prevent the truth from being born. Clearly, they must be stopped. And so on.

I think at this point we have a pretty good design for a successful memetic parasite. Don't you agree? If not, how do you think the parasite could be improved? (Of course, this sort of "intelligent design" by no means implies that any such beastie was designed by some purposive plan. We are just trying to reverse-engineer the effects of Darwinian selection.)

Now let's compare Professor Dawkins' target, the God delusion, to this ideal parasite.

Forgetting other religions for a moment, Christianity clearly fits the profile. Every one of the strategies observed above has been employed by some Christian sect, some set of believers in the "God delusion," at some point in time.

However, if I may project a little, Professor Dawkins' readers are not concerned about the Anabaptists, the Arians, the Monophysites, the Nestorians, or any such obsolete sect. They are concerned with vintage-2007 American Christian "fundamentalism." If your goal is to solve a problem, the problem must exist in the present tense.

Fundamentalist Christianity - I prefer the term "salvationism," because the belief that only those who are born again in Christ will be saved is essential to almost all "fundamentalist" sects - certainly matches some of the above descriptions.

For example, it is clearly political, and it is clearly using doctrine as an organizing tool. Antinomianism is a little harder to find - salvationists for the most part are, if anything, big believers in law and order. But depriving women of the right to control their bodies counts to some extent, although this right cannot be transferred and thus only attacks enemies, without benefiting supporters. If this isn't morbidity, I don't know what is.

In the contagion department, however, salvationism is curiously lacking. Compared to other successful memetic parasites of the past - for example, Catholicism before the Reformation - its presence in educational institutions is negligible. In fact, under present law, salvationism is entirely barred from the entire mainstream educational system. At present its great ambition seems to be to sabotage the teaching of Darwinian evolution in primary schools, a goal which it has been generally unsuccessful in. And even if they were to succeed in this, I find it almost entirely impossible to see how it could be of any adaptive value to the salvationist memeplex.

Nor is social transmission of any help, because salvationism is incredibly unfashionable. Quick - how many salvationist celebrities can you name? At the average chic dinner party in Manhattan, how many of the guests are likely to be salvationists? How many salvationists are employed by Vanity Fair, the New Yorker, Random House, Viking or Knopf? And so on.

So, one might argue, the salvationist meme is a threat, it is just a small threat. It needs to be kept in its place, that's all. Sure, the influence of the God delusion has been steadily decreasing for the last four hundred years. But if we take our eye off it, it might come back! I'm certainly not prepared to dismiss this as absolutely inconceivable.

However, there's another candidate we have to consider.

In the first chapter of The God Delusion, Professor Dawkins describes himself as "a deeply religious non-believer." He calls his belief system "Einsteinian religion," and waxes poetical as follows:
Let me sum up Einsteinian religion in one more quotation from Einstein himself: "To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is a something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as a feeble reflection, this is religiousness. In this sense I am religious."
It's easy to see that this statement is not exactly the theory of general relativity. In fact, it appears to have no factual content at all. Hm.

What, exactly, is this "Einsteinian religion?" Did Professor Dawkins invent it? Did Einstein? What else do Einsteinians believe in, besides "beauty and sublimity"? Are there other Einsteinians, or need only distinguished scientists apply? If an Einsteinian were to stoop to anything so mundane as voting, who would he or she vote for?

And how does "Einsteinian religion" stack up against our parasite test? We'll consider these fascinating issues in part 2 of this essay, which will appear next Thursday.

[Please note that I'm on the road and will be more than usually tardy in responding to feedback. However, I will get to it all, hopefully this weekend. I'm especially curious to hear if anyone has any ideas for improving the parasite design.]

Saturday, September 22, 2007 12 Comments

Overcome like a fiend by the urge to link

I will be traveling for a week or so, so posting will be light, although barring emergencies I will get Thursday's update out on schedule. In the meantime, some links you may enjoy.

Frequent commenter Boris Broadside has escaped from LiveJournal and relaunched his blog, Former Kerensky. I have it on good authority that Broadside has a black belt in Public Policy, and wherever he learned to wield his axe, he certainly didn't learn it from me. If you disagree with him, prepare to be bisected.

Edward Williams' Reality, a poem in seven parts: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven. As always, Williams is a little nasty, but neither brutish nor short. My feeling is that these can be enjoyed separately and need not be taken as a single horrendous shot. The poet may disagree, but screw him.

(If you are reading this and you think Edward Williams sucks, please be prepared to make your case by sending me a link to your own work. I will post the link if and only if it is as good or better than Edward Williams. Unless it is really, really bad, in which case I will post it anyway, perhaps along with some mocking commentary.)

Michael Blowhard's infamous interview with Gregory Cochran, part one, part two, in which Cochran comes across as a cross between Richard Feynman and the Soup Nazi - see the comments to part one, in which yours truly straps on the gloves and goes mano a mano with Dr. Cochran. Who in all fairness is playing a sort of sixteen-at-a-time blindfold exhibition match. I think it's pretty clear that one of us gets pwned. But I will leave it to you, dear reader, to decide who. In all fairness, Cochran is literally my favorite living scientist.

(BTW, I'm not kidding about College Bowl. At age thirteen Mencius' team won the Baltimore area It's Academic championship, and as a seventeen-year-old junior he was the anchor of a side that came within thirty points of beating MIT, whose teams were perennially stocked with blatantly-ineligible balding grad students, in the regionals. He has probably lost a step, or even two. He is certainly a lot fatter, and he drinks more. But these victories (we actually beat MIT once, before we lost to them twice) were his great successes in life, and he is prepared to defend them by any means necessary.)

Comments on "Is journalism official?"

The nice thing about really long posts is that they appear to scare away stupid and obnoxious people. I don't believe UR has received a single stupid or obnoxious comment for several weeks now. Since the Internet is what it is, this can only be described as a miracle, and perhaps I should apply now to the Pope for preliminary beatification - before reality reasserts itself.

First, I need to apologize for an error in the post. As a number of critics have observed, a cable modem does indeed modulate and demodulate. I probably should have known this. My only defense is that if it didn't modulate and demodulate, it would almost certainly still be called a "cable modem." This excuse is pathetic, I know, but I will stick to it.

Seamus McCauley writes:
A strange interpretation of the relationship between journalism and the state. Many news sources (blogs) that follow the tribulations of journalists throughout the world read like a record of the running battle that is the attempts of various governments to assault, imprison or sometimes murder representatives of the press.
Indeed. But if you accept the "strange interpretation," what does this battle become? It becomes something even more interesting - a power struggle between different factions within the State.

Does history suggest that this is unusual? I'd say history suggests that its absence would be unusual. I mean, call me a Bayesian, but... See also this post on our red and blue governments. The "mystery," obviously, is poorly concealed, but you can't expect drama from the archives.

Randy writes:
Just an example... But I've noticed several articles of late which have shifted from simply reporting the problems of Social Security and Medicare to assigning blame for the problem to the baby boomers (the greedy generation, etc). What we have here is policy implementation - assigning the blame is the first step in deciding who gets the bill - and this policy is being initiated by, or at least coordinated with, the official press.
Exactly. The role of the press in the modern Western state is to set the issues, and declare winners and losers. This is as close as one could come to governing politics.

Sarbanes-Oxley is another good example. I don't have a link handy, but it used to be said that the only two people who still thought Sarbox was a good idea (outside of the press - and the accounting industry, which could easily be mistaken for its corporate master) were Sarbanes and Oxley. Then Oxley gave a speech in which he apologized for the whole thing, explaining that the legislation was concocted in a hurry under enormous "pressure from the public."

Of course what he really meant was pressure from Joseph Nocera (et al). But legislators tend to accept the Times' opinion as a generally accurate leading indicator of public opinion, and they are usually right to do so. After all, if the Pope condemns marital sodomy today, millions of Catholics will condemn it tomorrow. That bond is power.

TGGP writes:
I never read the Times. There are so many sources of information out there. There's a lot of similarity among them, but that's because Racist Confederate Broadcasting wouldn't have as big a constituency as you imagine. It's the tyranny of the market majority. And if Bush is the rebel against the Empire of the Times (which may actually make him bad and them good), why did those who supported his war get promoted while critics whose warnings were correct go nowhere?
Please - the name is Confederate Racist Television, or CRTV. "Now broadcasting live from Jena, Occupied Louisiana, where our reporters are on the scene, as..." Can you imagine? I can certainly imagine. But thankfully I don't feel the need to share.

I think you're right that CRTV would not have a huge audience, although I think it'd be plenty sufficient for any modern cable network. But why is this? Is it because events of the last 50 years have disenchanted and disillusioned the CRTV audience, convincing them that the Lost Cause is really lost, that Robert E. Lee was a no-good dirtbag, and that blacks are wonderful? Or is it because for the last 50 years each generation has passed through an educational system controlled by its enemies? You don't have to be a Confederate racist to answer this question.

I always read or at least skim the Times, because I want to know what the Times is thinking. But I'm not sure I'd recommend this for everyone.

The case of the Establishment pundits (Friedman, Beinart, etc) who supported the invasion of Iraq is fascinating, and I think to really deal with it I need to deal with Iraq, which I've been putting off. Needless to say, my views on the subject are outrageous and will offend everyone.

But I take a very different lesson from it. I think what it tells us is how dynamic and flexible the official press is, how carefully it avoids any misstep that might move it away from power. In 2003, it looked as if the invasion of Iraq would be a success. (In fact, the invasion of Iraq was a success - it's the occupation that has failed.) If the Times had gone full-out Tom Hayden antiwar on us in 2003, and both the invasion and the occupation had proved successful, it would have looked like it was out of touch with reality. Which the powerful can never afford, because they do create their own reality. That's what power is.

Is this the result of some conscious plan? Of course not. Did Friedman, Beinart, etc, even think of themselves as strategically maneuvering to retain power? Certainly not. Ambitious and successful people simply have an instinct for this game - they are "naturals." If the US was taken over by white nationalists and CRTV was playing on airport TVs, I suspect these very same pundits would be telling us about the resurgence of the Anglo-Saxon race. And if they weren't, others would.

Jed Rothwell writes:
The mainstream press treatment of cold fusion has been appalling, and it confirms your point. Many newspapers and magazines claim the cold fusion was never replicated, or even that it was fraud. Journalists never check the facts or read the peer-reviewed scientific literature. The fact is, cold fusion was replicated in hundreds of national laboratories, universities and corporations, these replications were published in prestigious, mainstream peer-reviewed journals.
I'm actually somewhat fascinated by the story of "cold fusion," which I first started reading about on sci.physics when the whole thing broke. The LENR-CANR site is certainly worth a visit from anyone interested. I personally don't have the expertise to apply Occam's razor in this case. But nor do I trust the official press to do so on my behalf.

As far as I'm concerned, the whole issue remains somewhat mysterious. Cold-fusion proponents have no convincing theory to explain their evidence, which is a little surprising given how well we understand atomic physics. Cold-fusion opponents have no institutional incentive to investigate the subject, because their bureaucratic victory is complete. There is simply no neutral authority I trust to tell me what's going on.

B. Broadside writes:
This is why I can't figure out why someone would think of Bush as part of a rebel Red Government. He seems like a meddling multilateralist with bad grammar. There are rebel Red Government types in Washington (maybe even in Congress) but Bush isn't one of them.
First, the red government isn't what it once was. If you think of Disraeli as the quintessential red-government figure, we've come down a long way from there. Even the views of Jeane Kirkpatrick are no longer acceptable in Washington today, and if you set her substantive positions next to those of a real Imperialist, she looks like a wog-hugging rabble-rouser.

But, secondly, I think it's almost beside the point to ask what Bush thinks. It reminds me of a book I have called What Lincoln Believed, by Michael Lind. The problem with figuring out what Lincoln believed is that basically all we have from Lincoln are his public statements, and Lincoln was a politician. We certainly know what his positions were. Can we derive opinions from those positions? Only with a considerable helping of imagination.

Bush is a politician, too, and a pretty capable one as they go. What does Bush believe? Again, I think it's impossible to know, and I'm not sure it really matters. Whatever beliefs he may have, he does not have the bureaucratic power to express them through personal initiative. The President's role in the modern American system of government is entirely passive.

Anon writes:
I've just started reading UR, and I'm not sure I understand the frequent usage of the word "universalist."
Welcome, and pleaase see my definition here. Note that my "Universalism" is the same thing Murray Rothbard called postmillennial pietism. I have already revised the terminology several times and I am thinking of doing so again - reusing an existing word, even with a capital letter, seems to cause a lot of confusion.

M. Traven writes:
I think someone has pointed out earlier that on this issue you are on perfect agreement with Noam Chomsky. Which doesn't make either of you wrong, of course -- but it might make you uncomfortable. You certainly have a more entertaining style.

As you point out, it is not so easy to step outside the consensus reality of the Times. Those who do this consistently generally need to adopt some alternative narrative that organizes their worldview, but also makes them sound like conspiracy kooks. And once you start exploring alternative realities it is hard to know when to stop.
What's fascinating about Chomsky is that, in a way, he is an infallible guide to reality. You just have to reverse him precisely. In Chomsky's mind, Poland is always invading Germany.

For example, which institution has more motive, opportunity and propensity to spin the news? ExxonMobil, or the Columbia School of Journalism? What's going on in the mind of the Chomster is that he observes that the official press is 99.9% Polygon Universalist bureaucracy, and 0.1% corporate spin. Because he believes the former is utterly pure and the latter is deeply pernicious, he ignores the elephant and attacks the flea.

Obviously, if you went to the doctor and he told you that you were 99.9% healthy tissue and 0.1% cancer, you'd want him to cut out the cancer right away. So there is method in Chomsky's madness. As long as you believe that the German people are the natural leaders of Europe, and they must defend themselves against the unendurable insults of the aristocratic, Jewified Poles and their Franco-British puppetmasters, everything makes perfect sense.

ChairmanK writes:
The CFR's official history which you linked is fascinating. The writing has an "official bullshit" quality which would have been appropriate for an publication of the International Lenin School.
It has a kind of glorious carefulness, doesn't it? Every detail is 100% accurate, and yet the picture seems almost too good to be true. I especially admire how the author manages to skate around l'affaire Hiss.
Your use of the word "press" as a synecdoche for "media" smudges some important details. The press is declining, and in some parts of society the press no longer even exists, because it has been wholly replaced by other non-press media. The cost structure and response time of the press constrain what can be printed therein, whereas other media have different constraints.
I don't see a lot of intellectual distinction between newspapers and TV today, and the former certainly have a very fast response time - now visible on the Web.

To me the boundary of the "press" is best defined by its broadcast structure, which associates economies of scale with intellectual centralization. So bloggers may be "media," but they are certainly not "press."
Not all scientists care about getting published in the "gray journal". Perhaps Margot was working in a field in which careful publicity can attract huge amounts of funding. But most scientists disdain the media (journalists are useful idiots who never report confidence intervals!) and would much rather be on the cover of Nature than the front page of the New York Times.
I'm sure this is true emotionally, but in terms of ruthless professional advancement, they might want to think again. Funding comes from Congress whether we like it or not, and everyone along that chain respects power. Scientists who are media stars (and who don't completely alienate their peers) find it much easier, I think, to get what they want. Of course, there is a word other than "star" which could be used in the above sentence, and no scientist is entirely without dignity, but the profession is what it is.

Also, Nature and Science are - as I'm sure you're aware - to some extent turning into the New York Times. Certainly on scientific questions of political weight, it's usually pretty easy to figure out where their editors stand. Moreover, those editors, while I'm sure they are better educated than the NYT's science reporters, are, after all, journalists rather than scientists.

drank writes:
Out in the real world, though, I don't think the media is reliably playing the "Ministry of Information" role that you assign to them. Most of the time, they seem more played than player to me!

Said differently, your postulated war between Blue Government and Red Government is largely fought on the battleground of the national media. The pack of Washington journalists, I think, intentionally keep themselves ill-informed and "spinnable", as that's what their sources value, and hence how they maintain their status and perks. Bob Woodward is just the most egregious example of this. The Bush 43 administration - either due to incompetence at media manipulation or a vast amount of opposition from the civil service or both - has provided an endless display policy disagreements and turf wars being fought through leaks to the national press.
This is certainly true - see also my response to TGGP above. The press is the battlefield. But that battlefield has a shape. And I wouldn't call it flat...
But why should anybody else should pay attention to all this inside baseball? Journalists are consistently rated as less trustworthy than used car salesmen and lawyers, which doesn't say much for their actual ability to shape public opinion. Blogs make endless fodder out of the bias, sloppy methods, secret sources, poorly-concealed editorializing, credulous reporting, and repackaged spin that constitute most of the output of the national press. I see the MSM as closer to a national joke than a sinister agent of influence.

Michael Totten is a great counter-example of an alternative reporter with a lot of competitive advantages over this mess. But it's becoming increasingly easy to find a Totten in many fields - someone who can offer knowledgeable, informed and trustworthy writing without being beholden to official power. Someone who you'd want to read if you actually wanted to learn something the realities of their field.
I agree in general, but I fear you may be slightly overstating the number and influence of people who actually care about actually knowing what's going on in the world. The blogosphere has grown a lot and it has developed some actual power, but the vast majority of even intelligent, college-educated people are still enormously dependent on the official press, and I would be (pleasantly) surprised if this changes as fast as you expect.

Michael writes:
I would like to note that I do in fact know of some settings where a Times Journalist would distinctly NOT be a feather in the host's cap, but as discussed by Fussell, such settings are "out of sight."
Fussell's book on class is always right except where it's wrong, and it's frequently wrong. Little dollops of Marxism are everywhere. I'm sure certainly still some old Optimates who look down on the press, but they don't matter.
Finally, I just looked at NYTimes science columnist John Tierney's column, and I found that opposition, of a moderate sort, to the drug war and to global warming silliness, were the first items showing.
Tierney is a columnist, not a reporter, and that's his "blog," not his column. We are pretty far down on the in-house dissident scale here. Although not as far down as David Brooks.
My first choice for a fanatical devotee would be James Simons followed by Bloomberg, but Buffett would be my first choice among your offers.
I think you overstate the power of money. Money is wonderful, but it is not power, and it has not been power for quite some time, certainly not since the post-Watergate campaign finance reports. Sure, I would love a Moldbugista think tank (Dr. Simons, if you're reading...), but there are already such of every political description, and their impact on public opinion is not impressive. Certainly not compared to the universities.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007 39 Comments

Is journalism official?

Readers may have noticed that, where most writers of my general ilk would refer to the mainstream media, I prefer to refer to the official press.

The second half of this eccentricity is easy to explain. At the age of twelve I returned to America from strange foreign parts and was promptly thrust into what was supposedly one of the best public high schools in Maryland. If this is so, and I have no reason to doubt it, God save Maryland. The school had been built in 1971 around the then-fashionable open-school fad, and the teaching areas - in which some crude, ramshackle partitions had been constructed, although "room" would still be an overstatement - swept in a great semicircle around the heart of the building, a large, wall-less library. (Because there should be no barriers to learning.)

Except that it wasn't called the library. It was called the media center, and for the first month or two of my weird, disorienting existence in this appalling primate facility, I struggled to figure out where the media center was, what it was, and why everyone thought the question was so funny.

Since then I've had a profound allergy to the m-word. Moreover, I find McLuhan ridiculous, jejune and sophomoric. Moreover, considering the dignity of the institution, and considering the comical sound of a phrase like freedom of the media, I prefer the old term. It's true that the New York Times is no longer printed by ink compression, and CNN is not printed at all. Nor does a "cable modem" modulate or demodulate. Somehow we manage to deal.

We are left with that other word - official. Is journalism official?

Because if journalism is official, we know exactly what it is. A "journalist" is an official writer. A member of the union of writers. If he writes for the Times, he may even be a member of the central committee of the union of writers. In our democratic society, the official press is entrusted with the important social responsibility of informing the public. Therefore, not just any poor schmuck can tell us what George W. Bush said today. No, it takes a "journalist."

Of course, this is consistent with the Polygon hypothesis - that power in modern democracies belongs to those who manage public opinion. This hypothesis is actually not mine - I believe it was first stated by Walter Lippmann in 1922, in his book of that name. And Lippmann himself did quite a bit to put his system into practice. The Polygon is not so crude as to have a name or a mailing address - it is a movement, not a conspiracy. But if it did have a name and address, its name would be the Inquiry and its address would be 68th and Park.

The key to the Polygon hypothesis is that three words are synonyms: responsibility, influence, and power. The New York Times, for example, is responsible because if it does the wrong thing rather than the right thing, it can cause a great deal of suffering. It is influential because its actions affect the lives of many people. And it is powerful because there is no conceivable meaningful sense of the English word power which is not synonymous with responsibility and influence. Power is the ability to make a difference, to change the world. Remind me again what people say on their J-school applications?

For example: who is the most powerful man in the United States? There's an easy way for me to answer the question: I can ask which American I would prefer, if I had to choose one and only one, to magically convert into a fanatical and unquestioning disciple of UR. Obviously my plans for the new, improved America involve a level of "social change" that would boggle the mind of even the most diversity-addled Yale freshman. Who would be the best individual to carry out this program? Note that the answer isn't particularly dependent on the extremist ideology - neocameralism, communism, Nazism, whatever.

Suppose, to narrow the question slightly, I could choose between George W. Bush, Warren Buffett, Rupert Murdoch, and Arthur Ochs "Pinch" Sulzberger Jr. Which of these four individuals has more capacity to "create change"?

For example, when we equate power with influence and responsibility, we can see easily that George W. Bush is almost powerless. Our "decider" is often presented with decisions, which have been carefully prespun to ensure the correct outcome. He is treated as a sort of chimp-eared magic 8-ball. He cannot even write his own speeches. If he came to his staff with a policy idea, one which he came up with himself, their first thought would probably be to send him for an MRI.

Carlyle once compared a democratic leader to a rider on a mad stallion run amuck in a forest - his main concern being not to accomplish anything in particular, but just to stay on the horse. If the analogy was apt for the likes of Palmerston, how much more so for George W. Bush! Of course, American Presidents cannot be unseated by a vote of no confidence or a snap election. But one notices that when the President's approval number slips below 30% or so, the White House loses any domestic influence it may once have had. The effect is about the same.

The White House - that is, the faction elected along with the President - has some power. At least, it had power in 2003, at least over military policy. And by force of ancient institutional habit, it strives constantly to equate everything it does with the person of George W. Bush. No one in Washington actually believes this, but no one bothers to contradict it, either. It's just one of those Beltway things.

Anyway. I digress. Back to the Times.

If there was one moment at which I realized how things actually work in this country, it was sometime in 2000, courtesy of a woman I dated for a few months. Since I have nothing bad to say about her, I'll use her real name, Margot.

Margot was about seven years older than me, and she was more or less the Brahmin to end all Brahmins. She was an MD, an internist specializing in the many troubles of the homeless. At the time she was just coming off a stint as chief resident at UCSF. This is not a position that is easy to acquire. I believe she's now a research professor at the same institution. Also not a position that is easy to acquire. Obviously I have no such credentials or ambitions, and Margot retains the distinction of being the only woman who has ever dumped me, a very sensible decision for which I'm quite grateful, as is Mrs. Moldbug - or so I hope.

At the time I had not quite developed my present extremist views, but I would not say I was still taking the blue pills, either. Since Margot's opinions were exactly as one might expect for a person in her line of work, this led to a number of animated conversations.

I still believed, however, that the New York Times was presenting me with a basically accurate picture of current history. Of course it was clear to me that all the reporters were orthodox Universalists - not that I used that term - but I thought I could just read past their occasional devotional flourishes. This was kind of before the whole blog thing.

And one day the subject came up in an entirely different context. Margot was explaining to me how her research career worked. Obviously, the point is publishing, and there were different journals, which at least in her corner of the profession were commonly called by their colors. So the Journal of Endemic Gastroenterology might be the "green journal," the Journal of Unquenchable Sinus Infections the "yellow journal," etc, etc.

"But," said Margot, "everyone's real goal is to get into the gray journal."

This is one of those facts too strange to boggle the mind - whose only option is to accept it as an axiom. So to us it is axiomatic that all the thousands of top-rank scientists in the US (of course Margot had a special political angle, being concerned with "public health"; but I pretty much guarantee you that any scientist in the world would trade any publication for a writeup in the Times) are doing pretty much anything they can to "get into the gray journal."

Of course, they can't do much. You can't submit to the gray journal. There is no formal review process. You simply have to know someone who knows someone who... and who is on the end of this chain? Five or ten very ordinary people, with no particular expertise in anything, perhaps a BA in some science or other. Who happen to have gotten themselves assigned, through whatever feat of bureaucratic mastery, to the "science beat" at the Times.

Can you imagine having this job? Everyone in the universe wants to be your friend. Full professors, geniuses of historic consequence, winners of MacArthur grants, hacks, cranks and crackpots of every description. Because you have some decency, you don't ask them to fall down and lick your shoes. "No, the soles... lower... ah, that's it. Nothing like genius spit for dissolving those nasty wads of gum." But, let's face it, you could.

Don't you think it's slightly strange that this handful of basically-uneducated individuals essentially controls science? That, for example, they could have written up the Wegman report, and consigned global warming - rightly or wrongly - to the same category as cold fusion, N-rays and Hwang Woo-Suk? What do you think will happen the first time they actually do make a mistake, and get caught at it? And who even has the power to catch them?

And this is just science. For example, suppose you see an article about Israel on the front page of the Times with the by-line "Steven Erlanger." Perhaps there is one of these every few days, and no doubt if you put them together they tell a story. But the one thing you are guaranteed not to read in this story is that one of the ten most powerful people in Israel - maybe even one of the most five - is... "Steven Erlanger."

I recommend a lot of old books, but let me switch gears and recommend a new one, Mark Moyar's revisionist history of the first half of the Vietnam War. What Moyar did was to go back through the archives and rewrite history as though the American correspondents in Vietnam were human participants in the story, not dispassionate, angelic observers. It's really a remarkable read.

There is a sense one gets when one reads a history in which some of the players have been airbrushed out. It's like being in a novel in which there's a poltergeist. Plates suddenly fly out of the cabinet and leap across the room to smash on the wall. Flying plates! Irresistible forces of historical destiny! When you see the same story with all the characters restored, and you realize that someone actually picked up the plate and threw it, you get this very comfortable feeling of reality returning.

So I think we have a reasonable understanding of the level of power today's press has. What we haven't looked at is how it got that way.

One fact that every American learns in high school is that there used to be something called yellow journalism. If yellow journalism is with us today, it only exists in the sort of papers which no one of any quality reads, like the New York Post, or the Daily Mail, or Juggs.

Clearly the New York Times would stand out in this list, so clearly it is not yellow journalism. It would certainly dispute the characterization, and I certainly agree. But in order to compare the two, we need a parallel terminology. So I humbly propose gray journalism for the latter.

What is the difference between yellow journalism and gray journalism? Who invented gray journalism, when, and why? And is gray journalism - which its practitioners call responsible journalism, objective journalism, and so on - best defined as official journalism?

One interesting possibility is that the transition from yellow to gray journalism is identical to the transition from ochlocracy to mediocracy. Under this theory, the grayification of journalism is a sort of Gleichschaltung, a coordination or alignment. Yellow journalism, such as that practiced by Hearst, Pulitzer, etc, used its political power to serve a variety of divergent private interests which did not always coincide with the interests of the State. Gray journalism has learned its Hegelian manners, and invariably serves and upholds the State.

(Of course, this does not mean it serves "the government." It means that when the New York Times attacks the White House, it sincerely believes that it is serving as a nonpartisan watchdog in the public interest. Apparently the State Department never does anything wrong, and thus never needs to be barked at. Perhaps this is because State too is a nonpartisan agency, selflessly performing its difficult work of diplomacy in the public interest. Ladies and gentlemen, the Polygon.)

Regardless of whether or not this theory is true, one question we can ask about the transition between yellow and gray journalism is: which is more powerful? We all know about Hearst starting the Spanish-American War. Most of us don't know that Civil War journalism was even more heinous - with some of the things I've been reading, I'm starting to think the Civil War is best understood as a war between the Northern and Southern presses. So, when this evil octopus of yellow journalism was finally defeated by its gray successor, did it lose power? Or did it pull an Obi-Wan Kenobi, and become even more powerful than before?

One way to measure this is to look at social attitudes toward reporters around the end of the yellow-journalism era. Here, for example, is Lippmann, from Public Opinion:
This somewhat left-handed relationship between newspapers and public
information is reflected in the salaries of newspaper men. Reporting,
which theoretically constitutes the foundation of the whole
institution, is the most poorly paid branch of newspaper work, and is
the least regarded. By and large, able men go into it only by
necessity or for experience, and with the definite intention of being
graduated as soon as possible. For straight reporting is not a career
that offers many great rewards.
(This is what I love about reading Lippmann. While he has his own agenda and is certainly not a trustworthy fellow, he is certainly describing the real world of 1922. You'll read these long passages in which he could be describing the real world of 2007, and then blam! You're on Mars. "For straight reporting is not a career that offers many great rewards.")

Max Weber, in his famous Politics as a Vocation, is even more vehement. The journalist's situation in Germany in 1919:
The journalist belongs to a sort of pariah caste, which is always estimated by 'society' in terms of its ethically lowest representative. Hence, the strangest notions about journalists and their work are abroad. Not everybody realizes that a really good journalistic accomplishment requires at least as much 'genius' as any scholarly accomplishment, especially because of the necessity of producing at once and 'on order,' and because of the necessity of being effective, to be sure, under quite different conditions of production. It is almost never acknowledged that the responsibility of the journalist is far greater, and that the sense of responsibility of every honorable journalist is, on the average, not a bit lower than that of the scholar, but rather, as the war has shown, higher. This is because, in the very nature of the case, irresponsible journalistic accomplishments and their often terrible effects are remembered.
[...]
Yet the journalist career remains under all circumstances one of the most important avenues of professional political activity. It is not a road for everybody, least of all for weak characters, especially for people who can maintain their inner balance only with a secure status position. If the life of a young scholar is a gamble, still he is walled in by firm status conventions, which prevent him from slipping. But the journalist's life is an absolute gamble in every respect and under conditions that test one's inner security in a way that scarcely occurs in any other situation. The often bitter experiences in occupational life are perhaps not even the worst. The inner demands that are directed precisely at the successful journalist are especially difficult. It is, indeed, no small matter to frequent the salons of the powerful on this earth on a seemingly equal footing and often to be flattered by all because one is feared, yet knowing all the time that having hardly closed the door the host has perhaps to justify before his guests his association with the 'scavengers from the press'.
The 'scavengers from the press'! Today there is absolutely no social context, anywhere in the world, where the presence of a Times reporter would not be a feather in the host's cap. We cannot even imagine this old pre-1914 'society' that held itself superior to the press. Again, Weber might as well be talking about Mars.

So Obi-Wan Kenobi is about right. Powerful as the yellow press was, the gray press appears to be even more powerful. At least judging by its social status. Note also that both Lippmann and Weber, quite presciently, see that this is a temporary misalignment of status and power, and expect it to resolve in favor of the latter.

But is gray journalism official? Can we use this word? After all, the New York Times Company is a private company, just like Microsoft or McDonald's. Its journalists' independence is rigorously guarded, not just from the government, but even from many parts of its own corporate hierarchy. Certainly no one is sending them emails telling them what to write or not to write, whether it's the White House or the Democratic National Committee. Is this really, as the phrase official journalism implies, in a class with Pravda or the People's Daily?

Another way to ask this question is: what is the minimal set of structural changes needed to make gray journalism unarguably official? And, if we make these changes, have we created something totally different, or have we only made a few cosmetic modifications?

First, we'll have to create a Department of Journalism. This will be an elite branch of the Federal Government, with its own grade system - like the Foreign Service, only more elite. Ranks will follow the GS/SES system, but with a special J code, for journalist. A senior journalist, such as "Steven Erlanger," might be hired as a J-15. J-School deans, editors, and the like will carry the special SJ rank, meaning simply "senior journalist."

The Department of Journalism will pull the entire "mainstream media," with all its features and appurtenances, into this system. It will have three branches: Training, Reporting and Investigation, and Editorial. Training will coordinate the journalism schools. RI will align the news desks from all existing newspapers and broadcasters. Editorial will develop opinion content from a diverse mix of political columnists, both Republican and Democrat. And so on.

The critical question is: under this regime, which clearly qualifies as official journalism, how different would the job of a journalist be? I suspect the answer is: not different at all.

For example, it would be unthinkable for any other branch of government to tell RI what to write, or how to write it. It would be like the White House ordering the Justice Department who to prosecute, or how to prosecute them. Absolutely scandalous - if discovered. And, of course, RI is right there to discover it. We usually think of "independent journalism" as a consequence of freedom of speech. But perhaps it's easier to see it as just another form of civil service protection.

For example, the UK has something very close to a Department of Journalism. It's called the BBC. How different is the job of a BBC reporter from the job of a CNN reporter? Not very.

For me, the reason I see journalism as official is that I think journalists are civil servants. Stators, we might say, in the rotary system. They have the same ethos of public service, they have the same protection from political interference, they are nonpartisan - they serve only the State. If you believe in the Hegelian apolitical civil-service state, you believe in official journalism. Of course, then you have to explain what was so wrong with Brezhnevism, but that's another story.

Moreover, the Department of Journalism is clearly one of the most powerful departments in the Western civil-service state. A journalist can attack anyone, and no one can attack him - except a judge, and then only in a limited set of ways that correspond to approved procedures, aka "laws," which journalists have great influence in designing.

This is perhaps the most salient remaining difference between the post-Communist civil-service state, as seen in China and increasingly in Russia, and its Western cousin. In the post-Communist system, power is in the hands of the security services, who can command the journalists and judges. In the Western system, it's the other way around. Of course, as a Westerner, it's easy to see the advantages of our approach. But it's also interesting to look at who runs a trade deficit versus whom.

So, if all this is true, why do people believe this stuff? Why do they still read official journalism? Why, for example, do I visit nytimes.com on a regular basis?

When I think back to when I thought I was getting an accurate history of reality from the Times, I am full of amazement. I mean, when you read the Times, you are reading stories that were written by people. Their names are right there. "Steven Erlanger." "Don Van Natta." "Andrew Revkin."

Do I know these people? Do I trust them? Do I have any reason to believe they are doing anything but feeding me a mile-long crap sausage? Why should I? Is it because they work for an organization called "The New York Times"? What do I know about this organization? How does it select its employees? How and why does it punish or reward them? Do I have any damned idea? If not, why do I trust its correct views on everything? Why not trust the Catholic Church instead? At least its officials make up cool names for themselves, like "Benedict XVI." Imagine if all Times reporters had to choose a Pope name. Would this make them more, or less, credible?

My conclusion is that people trust the Times - and the rest of the official press - not despite the fact that they're basically reading Pravda, but because of it.

We live in a world made by gray journalism. If you don't believe in gray journalism, you believe in nothing. You are a nihilist. I go to nytimes.com and I read a story about Pakistan. Does this "Pakistan" on the page have any resemblance to reality? Is there even a country called "Pakistan"? Once you deny gray journalism, you can deny anything. Your paranoia becomes unlimited.

These days I read the Times not because I think of it as true, but because the Times is the collective reality that, for better or worse, most of the educated planet lives inside. I read the Times to know what Times readers are thinking, much as an atheist might read the Bible to know what Christians are thinking.

While I am revealing personal confidences, let me note that my stepfather (who certainly does not endorse these messages) is actually a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He has a PhD in politics from Harvard and was once a protege of McGeorge Bundy, and his story about the Times is that one day in the '60s, when there was a newspaper strike for several days, Bundy said something to the effect of "we've lost the best interoffice memo system we have." This is perhaps the best way to think of the Times, and of the official press as a whole: it tells you what the State is thinking. Which is certainly a sufficient reason to read it.

Of course, if journalism is official, we have to be able to lustrate it. If you agree with me that this system is thoroughly pernicious, and that the State should not be managing the minds of its citizens, how do we get rid of it?

I have many bad things to say about the US system of corporate regulation, but sometimes it turns out a real gem. One such rule - a really well-designed law - is a little thing called Reg FD. The "FD" stands for "Fair Disclosure," and the impact of the law is that when public corporations disclose information, they must disclose everything to everyone at the same time.

My view is that an uncorrupt 21st-century government should adopt its own version of Reg FD. No government has any good reason to practice or allow any kind of selective disclosure. When the State releases information, it should release to everyone at the same time - without according any privilege to "journalists."

This has a larger impact than you might think. Almost every press story you'll see is either (a) a rewritten press release (a practice even the 'scavengers of the press' find degrading), or (b) a product of selective disclosure by some government or other. The practice of talking off the record, or even downright leaking, to journalists, is widespread and uncontrolled, despite the fact that it is generally illegal.

The result is a very complicated power relationship between journalists and the civil servants who are their sources and contacts. Each is using the other. The journalist wants a story, the civil servant wants a story that contains certain information and is told in a certain way. There is plenty of room for compromise and quid pro quo.

Every time I read some piece of "investigative journalism" in the Times, I have one question which is never answered: why is this story being told? How did it happen? How did these events come to the attention of the author? For some reason, this is never in the text.

Compare this to the work of a genuinely free reporter, such as Michael Totten. Totten, because he is not institutionally attached and thus is unofficial, simply cannot participate in these kinds of relationships. Nor does he have any interoffice-memo credibility. His voice is simply his own and he tells us how he gets his stories, and his only tools for convincing us are his words and his pictures. And he succeeds. If the Times and Totten disagree, I simply assume the latter is right and the former is snowing me. Your mileage, of course, may vary.

This species of journalism deserves its own color as well, and I will take the liberty of suggesting my own favorite, orange. Orange journalism is any writing about current history which does not depend on any official credibility, and is not filtered or authorized by anyone. It has only its own voice to create and maintain trust. The eXile is another fantastic example of orange journalism - I don't know that I trust Ames, Dolan & Co. as much as Totten, but I sure as hell trust them more than the Economist.

Imagine if "Steven Erlanger" quit his job at the Department of Journalism and started a blog. Competing with Michael Totten, on his Middle East beat. What would it take for me to trust him, the way I trust Totten? One heck of a lot. So why should I trust him more now, just because he works for the Man? I don't. And I don't think anyone else should, either.

Losing your faith in official journalism is an extremely large mental step. It's really in the category of giving up a religion. It creates an enormous set of questions which you thought were answered, and now suddenly are questions again. And it's very easy to get those questions wrong. To paraphrase Chesterton, when people stop believing in the Times, they don't believe in nothing, they believe in anything.

So if you're not sure you're prepared for this step, perhaps the safest and most sensible option is to just keep reading the official press. Put the whole thing off for a year or two. Reality doesn't go away - when you're ready for it, it'll still be there.

Monday, September 17, 2007 45 Comments

Since some people seem to still think I'm exaggerating this stuff

From an essay by Robert Weissberg, professor emeritus of political science at UIUC:
My experience is probably typical and thus the fear of giving "offense" consigns thousands of graduates to incomplete educations. Sort of like proper Victorian sex education. A vicious cycle is created - "safe lectures" beget boredom and this only encourages yet more sleeping and more garbling. This censoring can also have more tragic consequences for those oblivious to awaiting minefields. I had a distinguished colleague - Stuart Nagel - whose tale is worth telling. He taught public policy and one day explained that black businesses in Kenya were uncompetitive against Indian-run enterprises since blacks where too generous in granting credit to friends and family. He had been invited by the government of Kenya to study the situation and suggested better business training for black Kenyans. The topic was indisputably part of the course and thus totally protected by AAUP academic speech guidelines. Stuart was also extremely liberal on all racial issues.

Nevertheless, to condense a long story, an anonymous letter from irritated black students complained of Nagel's "racism" and included the preposterous change of "workplace violence." After a protracted and bungled internal university investigation, two federal trials (I testified at one), he was stripped of his teaching responsibilities and coerced into retirement. Interestingly, having been charged as "racist," his departmental colleagues, save two conservatives, abandoned him. A few years later, partially as a result of this emotionally and financially draining incident ($100,000 out-of-pocket for legal fees), he committed suicide. I can only speculate that he believed that years spent being a "good liberal" (including service in the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division) would insulate him from being denounced as a "racist." Nor would he have anticipated that the university would spend the hundreds of thousands in legal fees to punish a famous tenured faculty member who "offended" two students. Nagel's sad saga undoubtedly provided useful lessons to many others. Stupidity can really be dangerous, even in a university. Better keep quiet.
We now return you to the menace of "global warming."

Sunday, September 16, 2007 21 Comments

Further conversation on regime change

Beyond the obvious scourge of spam, which Blogger seems to have preserved us from so far, there are a number of ways to moderate a comments section.

For example, by far the most heinous is the "voice of God" UI deployed by such sites as RealClimate, in which the authorities answer the comment quite directly - by simply editing it and installing their response in brackets. (I should not even mention RealClimate without noting that it's brought to us by the generosity of Environmental Media Services, aka Fenton Communications. On the Web, nobody may know you're a dog, but it's never hard to tell who's a Party organ.) RealClimate has developed quite a reputation for simply deleting technical questions that they can't knock out of the park, creating a wonderful impression of omniscience. Needless to say, if I could get away with this, I wouldn't need to blog - I could simply issue orders.

I thought it would be fun to try a new approach, in which I stay out of the comments section and instead respond on the main stage. This is only possible because of the continuing high quality of UR's comment brigade. You can help to maintain this delicate, ephemeral state of affairs, dear reader, by sharing this URL only with friends who are at least as intelligent and perceptive as yourself.

Let's try this approach on this week's post, which received many excellent comments, of a generally critical nature. UR is not, despite all appearances, a cult, and my gratitude to those who care enough to disagree cannot be repeated too often. Of course, if you do agree, I admire your foresight and wisdom. But please don't expect me to spend too much time praising it.

Gojomo writes:
The diagnosis of systematic dishonesty is sound. The implied prescription remains suspect. For example, I find this suggestion fantastical:

Since I believe in separation of information and state, I believe it's very easy for a government to avoid any implication in pseudohistory or pseudoscience. It can simply refuse to care what its citizens think, and separate itself from any activity that would involve the construction or propagation of "official truth."

Governments don't engage in propaganda because that's the *hardest* way to retain 'sovereignty', but because it's the easiest. A government could be honest, invest heavily in police/military, and face wealth-destroying resentment and occasional violent resistance from various organized idealists (who, historically, kill even in futile efforts). Or, a government could divert some of that 'strongman' budget into opinion-control and get an excellent ROI: fewer police/soldiers required, more cheerful compliance by coopted idealists, and less wealth-limiting negative-sum conflict. Lying by rulers is adaptive: cheaper and more effective than the alternative.
This position has much to recommend it and is historically associated with the Straussians.

Moreover, we can see easily how it leads directly to democracy. If convincing one's subjects that your regime is governing in their interest, that it exists only to serve the People, is the pons asinorum of effective government, then a regime that does not enjoy popular support is doomed to fall and should probably receive a gentle shove. Democracy formalizes this process and thus makes it healthier.

The only weak link in the above is this judgment:
Governments don't engage in propaganda because that's the *hardest* way to retain 'sovereignty', but because it's the easiest.
This may well be true, but it's a military judgment. It is not an observation drawn from human nature, which is relatively constant across history. It is an observation of military reality as it is today, which seems to correlate reasonably well with the real problem of state security in the last two or three centuries.

Military judgments change as military realities change. Military realities change as military technology changes. It is hard to know what people will invent in future. But let's try and reexamine this judgment with respect to the technical reality of 2007.

One: the difficulty of crowd control is vastly overrated. First, as the example of China demonstrates so well, the historicist assumption that any regime which orders its troops to fire on a mob has lost the Mandate of Heaven and is doomed, is questionable at best. This assumption is deeply intertwined with the mystical logic of democracy. Every democracy on earth has its martyrdom legend, in which a mob of its revolutionary supporters was fired on. If we're looking for democratic pseudohistory, we need look no further.

In fact, the military advantage of soldiers over rioters has been increasing steadily for the last two hundred years, and continues to do so. "Investing heavily" is not required. A few loyal units with crew-served weapons and an adequate ammunition supply can defeat any mob. Furthermore, nonlethal crowd control technology continues to advance.

Two: the real problem with effective crowd control is maintaining the loyalty of the military. The subject is covered quite well in Professor Luttwak's wonderful Coup d'√Čtat: A Practical Handbook. Given the advantage of military over nonmilitary forces, whoever controls the army controls the government.

In the past, ensuring military loyalty was a tricky and human problem, with no easy solution. For example, foreign mercenaries are more likely to be effective in crowd control. They are also more likely to turn on you and capture your state. At Tiananmen the PLA used forces from remote parts of China who felt relatively little personal sympathy for the students of Beijing, a very effective approach, but not one which is always available.

One way to describe the importance of popular support to military loyalty, despite the almost complete military irrelevance of unarmed forces, is to see control of the military as a coordination game and public opinion as its Schelling point. Military loyalty is a coordination game because, in a situation of conflicted military loyalty, the personal advantage of siding with the winning team is likely to be considerable.

However, 21st-century technology has made - or at least should make - this problem obsolete. The solution is to supplement personal loyalty with cryptographic weapon locks, as used today on nuclear weapons. In the world of modern networking, there is no reason at all why this approach cannot extend all the way down to small arms. When lawful authority is married to digital security, as it is today with the nuclear football, coups become impossible. Loyal forces will find that their weapons operate. Disloyal units might as well be wielding Super Soakers.

And, again, once military loyalty is assured, crowd control is a trivial problem. The era of mob rule is over. It just doesn't know it yet.

Three: perhaps most important, propaganda (pseudohistory and pseudoscience) is an epiphenomenon of 19C and 20C information technology, which gave strong advantages to broadcast designs. Broadcast propaganda works. For almost the first three decades of my life, I was completely confident that the New York Times was presenting me with a complete and generally accurate perspective of reality. D'oh.

Pseudohistory and pseudoscience, when forced to confront reason on a level playing field, tend to lose. At least, they lose in the minds of reasonable and intelligent people. And, on a level playing field, it's not too hard for reasonable and intelligent people to identify each other - and act effectively and collectively. Worse, the outcome has very little relationship to the mass of force deployed. A few reasonable people can defeat a giant horde of brainwashed flacks. The latter, again, might as well be armed with Super Soakers.

If you accept the proposition (which I've only just begun trying to demonstrate) that pseudohistory and pseudoscience are widespread in the present Western institutions of education and journalism, the appearance of a level playing field - peer-to-peer packet networking, aka this little thing called "the Internet" - creates an impressive disequilibrium.

It's possible to unlevel the field by filtering the Internet. But effective Internet filtering is not easy. Worse, the success of pseudohistory and pseudoscience is not just the result of the fact that it's easy to filter broadcast information systems. It's the result of the fact that it's easy to create subtly filtered broadcast information systems, which don't appear to be in the business of managing public opinion on behalf of the security forces, but in fact are doing just that.

This level of plausible deniability is simply unachievable on the Internet. I can't imagine how it could possibly be done. Therefore, my conclusion is that, if 20th-century Western information systems are indeed contaminated with pseudohistory and/or pseudoscience, the disequilibrium is unsustainable, and regime change in the medium term is inevitable.

JewishAtheist writes:
Therefore, my reboot test is that a government should be rebooted if it systematically and successfully promotes essential pseudoscience or pseudohistory.

I cannot believe any government on Earth could pass this test. We'd be rebooting more often than Windows 95.

Nor do I see why it should be grounds for rebooting. The only justification I see in this post is "I simply see no reason at all to tolerate this kind of crap." I'm not sure that qualifies. :-)
Also, it appears to me that in order to affect a reboot, it would be necessary to convince a majority of the population that the government had engaged in pseudoscience or pseudohistory. But if you can convince the population of that in a democracy, you've already solved the problem!
I cannot believe any government on earth can pass this test, either. Which is why the issue strikes me as significant. As for "more often than Windows 95," I suspect you are referring implicitly to the same argument that Gojomo makes above.

It's very interesting that a thinker such as yourself, who if I'm not projecting too much seems quite comfortable in accepting continuity with 200 years of revolutionary democratism from the philosophes to Hillary, all aimed at freeing your mind so your ass will follow, would gravitate to the Straussian line that government without propaganda is physically impossible. If "I simply see no reason at all to tolerate this kind of crap" strikes you as short on gravitas, perhaps a visit to the Jefferson Memorial will refresh your memory. My alignment is lawful neutral and hence I try to keep a good distance from the altar of God, especially when swearing - it reminds me of the time I sacrificed a dead elf on the altar of Amaterasu Omikami, which didn't work out well at all. But I certainly concur with the general sentiment.

As for convincing the majority of the population, yes: that's one way to trigger a reboot. In fact, in today's world it may well be the only way. The practicality of a military coup seems low at present, though of course these things can always change.

But my interest is in answering the question of what the dog should do when it catches the car. Certainly the likes of, say, Newt Gingrich, didn't turn out to have a good answer. At present, the power of public opinion is considerable, but it is only useful if it is focused on achieving a desirable and specific result.

The tremendous looseness and vagueness of today's political coalitions, especially in the US and Britain, effectively defeats the ochlocratic form of democracy and maintains the present mediocratic form. Using democratic mechanisms to achieve a major structural change in the state - such as a reboot - by definition involves a reactivation of ochlocracy, aka mob politics.

This is dangerous. So is a military coup. There is no non-dangerous way to accomplish any significant political change. By "safe" I suppose what I meant was "safe" in the FDA sense of the word, that is, "as safe as possible."

Daniel Nagy writes:
In my experience, the only reasons for a populace to demand regime change are substantially lower living standards than those in recent memory or those it came to expect. This is an absolutely necessary, though not sufficient condition for a successful reboot.

As long as people are reasonably prosperous by their own standards, most of them oppose regime change.
Were the regime changes of 1989 really associated with a drop in living standards? And what about 1789? It's certainly true that this correlation has held in a number of cases, and it's true that you need some pressing source of rage and political estrangement, but I can think of many such.

Michael V. writes:
The question is: among what social or professional circles is it more fashionable to be a conservative than a progressive?

The answer is: the energy industry, the agricultural industry, the military, the salvationist religious community, and pretty much nowhere else."

You missed finance Mencius. Big miss. Combine that with real-estate development and medicine, where the fashion benefit is more moderate, and, oh yeah, everything associated with food and industry, and you are talking a majority of the economy and thus the society even ignoring the items you mentioned.

Exxon could, if it wanted to, buy control of all the Ivies, but that wouldn't support the bottom line.
I think you're thinking of social and professional circles in which conservatives are tolerated. It's true that in some areas of finance and medicine (eg, surgery), it's acceptable and normal to be someone who voted for George W. Bush. It's also true that in all of these areas, it's acceptable and normal to be someone who voted for John Kerry.

Who, for example, is the anti-George Soros? Warren Buffett? Buffett (son of the great Howard Buffett) is donating his entire fortune to the generally liberal Gates Foundation. BTW, I don't know where you work but I know where Byrne works, and I'll take his word on this one.

When you look for social and professional circles in which progressive opinions are considered weird and disturbing, and their holders make a conscious effort to avoid admitting to them in the workplace, you have to move several steps away from anything that even resembles social influence. You're probably right, for example, about real-estate developers. Real-estate developers influence one set of individuals in the next generation: children of real-estate developers. And even those probably want to distance themselves a little, if they have a clue.

Exxon could not do a damned thing to affect the opinions of Ivy League professors or students. Frankly, it'd have better luck trying to take over the Catholic Church.

George Weinberg writes:
I'm going to have to go along with the others here. The "essential lie" criterion for "reboot" is a crock. In the vast majority of societies which have existed, whether one was ruler or ruled was pretty much irrevocably fixed at birth, and this was well known. So because it's not a secret, the ruled should regard this as right? That makes no sense. It seems to me that the pragmatic criteria should be 1) are you sure you can pull it off? and 2) are you sure you'll be better off afterwards? bearing in mind the potential consequences of being wrong. When the estates general was first called, the French nobility thought the result would be a decrease in the monarch's powers and an increase in their own. When one is wrong, sometimes there is nothing to be done but to shrug one's shoulders.

I think the idea of an essential lie is peculiar to democracies, or at least to societies which pretend to be democracies. Coming from anyone else, I'd say this objection to being lied to sounds like moral indignation trumping practical considerations. Are you sure it isn't? Because it's okay if it is.
It is. And I think (1) and (2) are obvious questions to ask before considering any sort of regime change. I have certainly spent quite a bit of time justifying (2).

No one can justify an "ought" based on an "is." I could argue that, over time, regimes which are based on an "essential lie" are unstable and hence dangerous. And I certainly believe this.
However, I do object to being lied to, and since I live in a democracy, or at least a society which pretends to be a democracy, I am not alone in this. If you want to know why I consider (1) not beyond the reach of plausibility, perhaps this is my answer.

M. Traven writes:
Whatever force is sufficient to effect a reboot of government has to be at least as strong as the current government, and thus is likely to be just as problematic as what it replaces. The new one will be uncorrupt in your definition why, exactly? Because you'd prefer it that way? Lustration will remove all the corrupted and corruptors and replace them with a shiny new class of honest rulers? Where do these honest souls come from and what prevents them from becoming what they replace?
I refer you to my discussion of neocameralism. Either you buy it, or you don't. But the crucial point is that a government whose legitimacy is a consequence of property rights, not public opinion, has no reason to manipulate public opinion or otherwise deceive its residents. And plenty of reason not to.

Studd Beefpile writes:
The more interesting question is how MM, as a good formalist, can support revolution?
I knew someone would ask this! Thank you, Studd.

The point of formalism is to move from disorder to order, and stay there. In general this involves recognizing and legitimizing existing power structures.

However, in cases where systematic deception is an essential aspect of the existing power structure, convincing it to formalize itself may be extremely difficult. For example, it may not even believe that it's a power structure. In these cases, there may be no alternative to a reboot, or some other form of peaceful but effective regime change.

Randy writes:
The basic problem, as I see it, is that government = corruption. As the anarcho-capitalists are so fond of pointing out, an entirely voluntary government wouldn't need to be a government at all. And as all elements of government that are not voluntary are corruption, government = corruption. Does it make sense to reboot corruption in order to establish a new order of corruption? Then neither does it make sense to reboot government. However, what does make sense is to downsize government/corruption, and the way to do that is to take each element one at a time and find a way to make them all voluntary.
This is not quite how I see it. The way I see it is that government = sovereignty + corruption, where government means "government as we know it today," sovereignty means "self-enforced property ownership," and corruption means "deception as an outdoor sport."

The problem with anarcho-capitalism as I see it is that anarcho-capitalists seem awfully keen on eliminating sovereignty. Which equates to creating a vacuum of power, which creates an unstable power dynamic which is hence dangerous. Neocameralism is different in that it accepts sovereignty, but aims to strip it of the mystical claptrap in which it has always sought, generally successfully, to clothe itself.

Turning to some actual positive feedback, B. Broadside writes:
One argument against the reboot can be applied to almost any proposal for political reform: if the power to make this reform exists, how come it hasn't happened yet? This isn't particularly original nor is it easily dismissed. UR is about selling ideas of limited government to a new audience. Selling them democratically, a la the Libertarian Party, hasn't worked, and UR argues it can't work. So, stop asking people to give up power and sell them on a new way of using their power - coming forward, being honest about what they're doing - and punishing them when they fail to do so.
I suspect any workable solution involves a bit of both approaches. Convincing people to give up power always does: it involves persuading them to use what is left of their power to ensure an outcome that they will find satisfactory, typically by presenting them with an alternative that is even less desirable from their perspective.

I haven't talked much about the libertarian experience with democratic politics. To me, the basic problem, which is basically unsolvable, is that libertarianism and democracy are basically inconsistent. Judicially limited government simply doesn't work, nor does any other approach of limiting government by separating or opposing powers.

So libertarians cannot present a realistic picture of a world in which their battle gets won and stays won. They wind up looking for ways to push a world in which the State's natural downhill path is to grow, back up the hill. This prospect is Sisyphean, and it's understandable why it attracts so few supporters.

From the same source:
Does the lustration extend to the military? I'm just curious, because it seems like you've spoken favorably of martial law, and in any case the loss of experience which would come from kicking out all the lieutenants and generals would seem pretty severe. On the other hand, maybe by "old regime" you only mean the blue government, in which case the old security forces could stick around as long as they took care to separate themselves from the information providers.
My goal, of course, is to kick out the blue government, because this is the government that has the real power (that is, the government that manages public opinion). Obviously in a coup situation this is how it would go down. For a democratic reboot, it would depend on the power structure.

It's worth noting, however, that for every lieutenant or general, there are several retired lieutenants and generals. And, the Pentagon being what it is, I suspect that often these are actually the best people.

Byrne Hobart writes:
How do you segregate 'government' from the Polygon? Can a former member of the government edit a newspaper? Can he write a blog? Can he manage a campaign? If it's literally "Members of the government" who are forced out, wouldn't every major pol just switch job titles with his campaign manager and return to the status quo?

I think you need more than a bit. You need an 'influence quotient' that measures the correlation between someone's opinion and subsequent policy. So I probably have an IQ of -.8, and Ted Kennedy probably has an IQ of .9. If you want this to work, you either have to have a cutoff (nobody in government without an IQ below .5) or a tax (you lose $10K and one vote for every .1 of IQ above 0).
I like your IQ, but it's too algorithmic and not legalistic enough. Constructing the database would be an enormous and subjective task.

Here's how you lustrate, I think.

One, identify all organizations which are considered part of the old regime. This is likely to include many nominally private organizations, such as newspapers, universities, etc. Step one is the hard part, because it's inevitably subjective and has to be a personal decision. A good guideline is that the organization is subsidized or accredited by the State, but this is by no means a hard-and-fast rule.

Two, dissolve all these organizations and, perhaps after a short cooling-off period, publish all of their internal files. Sunshine is the best disinfectant. Imagine what's in the cabinet at the NYT! Or the Harvard admissions office!

Three, identify all employees of these organizations. This is a matter of public record. If nothing else, it can be done from their HR files.

Four, publish an official list of these employees, and declare them ineligible for employment in the new government or any contractor thereof. Otherwise, they can do whatever the heck they like.

Can the former editors of the NYT start a group blog and call it "The New York Times in Exile"? Of course they can. They're welcome to. They will have to establish their credibility by what they say, just like the rest of us dumb assholes.