Wednesday, January 14, 2004

A Wizard Should Know Better

Dave, you make a very compelling argument, and I agree that much of the responsibility here has to fall on the electorate. However, I am unable to dismiss out of hand the responsibilities of people in positions of power, from the candidates themselves to the pundits and campaign strategists to the party committees and editorial boards to reporters and many others. While each one of these has a duty to compete for public favor, and as such to play to their audience, they also have the power to shape public perception and to influence to the way the public considers the ideas and issues raised in the political sphere. I think there is a great danger in allowing their responsibilities to be shaped in a purely competitive, sort of cut-throat Darwinian sense where their only directive is to beat the other guy. I think these people all carry a responsibility of public service that they should hold in equally high esteem. And they should know better.

This touches back to a number of our previous discussions. In part it comes back to my feeling, discussed in many contexts, that successful democracies require substantial cultural buy-in. You could write the best democratic governmental system with the most amazing constitution ever, and if you dropped it in on China or any number of other countries, I can pretty much guarantee you it would fail. People have no faith in public institutions and the public and political figures alike, up and down the power structure, expect corruption to be the name of the game. It's not even regarded as we regard corruption here. It's just business as usual. No democracy can survive that cultural background. Our own democracy teetered on the brink for its first couple decades and succeeded only when a number of great men established the strong democratic traditions and culture that made it work. Where would we have been without the likes of George Washington or John Marshall? It is often said that Washington could have kept his post permanently if he had chosen and could have effectively ruled as king. This is not an uncommon situation in new democracies and has been the demise of more than a few. Georgia (the ex-Soviet republic) recently only barely escaped that fate, and only because the democratic culture had strongly taken hold with both the populace and the military leadership. I feel that it is not absurd to attach responsibilities and expectations to participants in the system that are not (and often cannot be) specifically required of them by the laws of the land (which these participants often have the power to mold and reshape), and that may at times conflict with their desire to win at any cost. Rather this is a necessity. The right culture is a necessity.

Additionally it touches on our discussions regarding intellectualism and behavioral flaws and such. We've frequently questioned how realistic it is to expect the public to move en masse towards intellectualism, and how susceptible the public is, of no fault of their own, to behavioral flaws and behavioral manipulation. As much as I agree that the public is functioning at a level far beneath its potential, there are legitimate questions as to what level of expertise and insight we can really expect, even under good circumstances. The press and politicos are, as a group, better educated than the general public, and through their specific job functions far better informed on the relevant topics than the general public. This knowledge combined with the fact that their job puts them in the position of speaking to the public on these issues means they, more than anyone, have the opportunity, and I believe the duty, to steer the public right on these topics. If the public is to gain a better understanding of these topics, where else would it come from but the press and the politicians themselves? As Treebeard says, "a wizard should know better."

This last point also leads me back to our discussion of revolutionary thresholds and the tie-in to George Orwell's 1984, where he had a very similar point to make. In 1984 the government had gone to great efforts to construct a perfect system for stifling dissent among educated and relatively upper class citizens, but completely and utterly ignored "the plebes". This general public, in the eyes of the government, was completely harmless, as they are essentially a reflection of what they are fed. Pacify the movers and shakers and you have pacified the plebes. This, I think, is a danger of the movers losing sight of their public service duties and simply playing to the crowd. It becomes a feedback loop on a downward spiral. It doesn't seem that they ask for much, so you don't give them much, they reflect this and ask for even less, you oblige, etc, etc.

What I'm getting at is that a) it is ok (even necessary) to demand certain sorts of behavior out of people critically involved in the political process, b) the fact that they are simply giving the audience what it wants is not a valid excuse, c) it seems reasonable that one of the behaviors that it makes sense to expect is that these people involved in the political process should have a duty to help illuminate the truth of our political issues, instead of obscuring them for personal gain. They have a duty to inform rather than pander. For better or worse, most of what the public knows about political issues come from the way they are dealt with by politicians and the way this is covered by the press. If we are disgusted about what people know about political issues, we need to also be disgusted about the way politicians and the press handle them.

I understand the the point that it's the job of the media to appeal to the audience, because if they don't they'll be put out of business by a competitor that does. And likewise I can see the perspective that if a politician doesn't play to the crowd they'll be beat by the one who does. And this touches back to yet another discussion I recall from one Boys' Weekend or another regarding that fact that in certain respects capitalism and democracy are in conflict with one another. They have competing value systems, the one promoting this Darwinian win at all costs or die approach, the other driven by principles of equality and inclusion and the sense that each person should share equally in decisions. I think what leads to your sentiment that politicians and the press can't be blamed for playing down to the stupid public is an application of the capitalist value system onto the democratic political model. And I just don't think that's a sustainable paradigm. We need to recapture our sense of democratic values, our sense of civic duty, our "ask not what your country can do for you..." And where I see this need most pressing is with the politicians and the press, the people who should know better.

Now, I need to note here that I am on the record as being very much opposed to people trying to solve systemic problems with calls to personal responsibility. It just doesn't work. You can't solve the welfare problem by telling people to get off their ass and get a job. I realize I am dangerously close to this with my position here. However, I really do believe that culture plays a critical role here, and I'm not sure how else you can approach this. Really if the right culture is in place you shouldn't have to be placing these movers in a position where their public service and competitive objectives are in conflict. These people should be policing each other. When some member of the press or politics sells out on their public service duties the others should call them out and ride them down. We've gotten so far from this model that there does exist this conflict though, and it's hard to tell where to go from that. However, I think the least we can do is for those of us who are cognizant of this problem to try to penalize the bad actors and reward the good ones as best we can. We should not excuse people just because they are playing the game. If their peers won't call them out, at least we can.

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