The problem is…

mickey sorcerer

This is a post about analysis.  I mean nothing magical by that word, just the ways by which we subtract a little from our ignorance.  We need a frame to understand the world, and facts to make that frame helpful to our actions.   But how can we be certain?

The frames come in the form of stories or narratives that explain to me who I am, where I belong, and what the point is to life, the universe, and everything.  These stories are full of assumptions.  As they move further from my immediate circle of perception they become sketchier, and ultimately elide into the black vacuum of space.

We can never be certain.  That’s the one fixed truth of analysis.

The barbed-wire barrier between the human race and the truth is the feeling that we know.  This feeling depends on the relative success of our daily habits rather than on any inner representation of reality.  I live in two worlds simultaneously.  In my small world, I feel confident about a lot of things, so I say “I know how” about them.

I know how to drive in the toll road during rush hour.  I know how to do my job.  I know the temperaments of my wife and children.  I know where my house is.

Pretty early in this progression, though, I cross into another world – one that is vast, massively complex, and subject to mysterious rules.  I should feel a lot less confident, but I don’t notice the transition, so I keep saying “I know.”  I know O.J. Simpson killed his wife.  I know George W. Bush lied about Iraq.  I know how to end poverty and hunger, and what the best strategy against terrorism is.

We are blinded to the truth by the feeling that we know.  Because we know, we stop looking, we stop thinking – suddenly, we are tumbling off the edge of complexity, and it’s a long way down.

Here’s a small-world example.  My daughter recently lost her cell phone.  When I dialed the number from my car, we could hear it buzzing.  The phone, we knew, was inside the car.  We had performed our analysis, and we had our story:  it must be wedged in some crevice in the floor or the seats.

My wife, daughter, and I spent a day rooting around the dusty hidden spaces inside my car, nearly taking the damned vehicle apart.  No phone was found.  Then, completely by accident, we discovered it:  my daughter had left it on top of the hood.  We had known that it was inside and down.  I had even looked in the same low places two or three times, somehow expecting a different result.

In reality (which is all that counts), the phone was outside and up.  Yet I never raised my eyes, not once in all the hours of searching.  I never went against the story.  That eats at me, even now.

A seductive narrative whispers to the analyst that he knows because he’s scientific.  That’s a potent incantation, an argument-killer and discussion-ender.  It hints that I have techniques beyond your comprehension.  I may have a laboratory, a famous experimental method, esoteric data sets, even mathematical equations.  I don’t actually have any of those things, but it’s implied.

Scientists say” is our equivalent of God’s voice thundering on the mountaintop.  It’s tough to dispute without sounding like a devil-worshipper or a buffoon.

The most thumb-sucking version of the scientific narrative holds that the elemental unit of reality is called “the problem.”  It has the advantage of following a mechanical format, without ever pausing to think.

Here’s how it works.  First, something is described:  the latest unemployment numbers, for example, or the Greek elections.  Then, add the phrase “The problem is…”, as if the complex situation you just described had become, in your planet-sized analytical brain, a simple differential equation.  Finally, toss in your opinion:  unemployment is President Obama’s fault, say.  Magic happens.  Problem solved.

“The problem for Greece,” Paul Krugman writes, “…is the fragility of its banks.”  But fragility is a condition, not a problem.  If by problem Krugman means “painful circumstances,” Greece has a great many more, and worse, than the fragility of its banks.  Greek banks exist as a problem only in Krugman’s enormous brain:  when it comes to the convoluted web of history and culture entangling Greece, he has the feeling that he knows, and we need to listen to him.

Charles Krauthammer describes anti-Semitism as a “European problem.”  Oxfam takes for granted the “problem of inequality.”  Michelle Obama wants to solve the “problem of obesity.”  According to a Danish parliamentarian, “the problem is Islam,” but Tony Blair thinks there’s just a “problem within Islam.”  Blurting out this formulation has become almost involuntary, like Tourette’s syndrome.

Such language might be construed as metaphorical, but it isn’t.  It’s an ideological posture, however dimly self-aware, that makes two demands on the rest of us.

The first is that we swallow a lot of adolescent cynicism.  Everything is phony.  Everyone’s a fraud.  Academics today thus believe that their job is “to problematize.”  What is, is a problem:  history, society, morality, all false, all to be problematized.  Sex, in the past merely embarrassing, is suddenly a big problem.  Race relations?  Arizona State teaches a course on “The Problem of Whiteness.”

The second demand is for a single final “solution” to whatever is agitating the analyst.  If this sounds delusional, it’s for good reason.  If it sounds dictatorial – it’s that too.  Here the analyst takes up the Mickey Mouse role in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.”  He thinks he’s riding the fuhrer principle on a cosmic scale, wagging his finger at reality as to a puppy:  but reality, the whirlwind of chaos, has other ideas.

The analytic universe is plural, not singular.  The human race has an infinite number of ways to get from here to there.  While I, the Analyst-Tyrant, command that the solution be found inside and down, the lost cell phone of truth buzzes mockingly at me, concealed in plain sight, outside and up.

Three generations ago it was a commonplace to speak of the “Jewish problem” or the “Negro problem.”  Before that, it was the “social problem.”  But Jews, blacks, and the working class weren’t really problems.  They just were.  Analysis, as an activity for grownups, confronts the opposite fallacy:  the problem is that problems aren’t.

Posted in analysis, narratives | 1 Comment

The crisis of European democracy


With the victory of the Syriza Party in Greece, the sickness of European democracy has entered a potentially fatal stage.  Greece is only an indicator – the shrieking alarm around the hospital bed.  Other political establishments in Europe, equally prostrated, hear the sound and shudder.  The Greek present is their future.

The forces at play are global and secular.  There can be no quick cures, no escape acts, no tricks to conceal the helplessness of a political order that has controlled the continent for two generations.

Syriza promised what Greek voters wanted:  the impossible.  The party is run by unreconstructed Marxists nostalgic for the Soviet era.  But it won, and won big, chiefly on a platform of negation and repudiation.  Syriza stands firmly against the European Union, the euro, austere budgets, debt payments, capitalism, the Germans, the banks, “the rich, the markets, the super-rich, the top 10 percent.”

The status quo became the enemy.  Those who promised to smash it with the most destructive zeal have become saviors.  Negation triumphed in part because the Greek public mistook vandalism for salvation, but also because Europe’s political class has lost the will to grapple with reality.  The cluelessness of rulers, exposed for all to see by the Fifth Wave of information, has triggered an extraordinary reordering in human relations:  and liberal democracy is in play.

Democracy isn’t on the Syriza demolition list, but neither is it particularly valued.  “Our foremost priority is that our country and our people regain their lost dignity,” says the new prime minister, Alexis Tsipras.  That probably means clobbering the status quo and the super-rich.  For their part, Europe’s elites wish to retain control.  The public wants utopian outcomes.  The creaking machinery of representative democracy, with its compromises and manipulations, seems to get in the way of everyone’s priorities.

* * *

Europeans have never been sold on democracy.  From Robespierre to Putin, they have been largely persuaded that dignity – justice, equality, all the political virtues – must be conquered at the point of the bayonet.  State power exists and expands for that purpose:  individual dignity, like the old titles of nobility, must be granted from above.  That’s how Tsipras understands his mandate.

European elites fear and loathe their own public, which they hold responsible for the nationalist outbursts that twice destroyed the continent.  They have evolved a form of democracy in which nothing is decided by elections, and they have organized society so that political discussion gets herded into a small safe space by the power of taboo.  The public thus votes but never chooses, talks freely but with little to say.

This sterilized approach to democracy deals with painful political questions by denying their existence.  Immigration, for example, was never seriously debated anywhere in Europe.  Guest workers who had been invited during the fat years stayed for the lean, and a sudden migratory tide of millions materialized, unsought and unplanned, in nations whose identities were firmly linked to blood and land.

It is remarkable – I want to say, pathological – that basic questions about social costs and benefits were never considered.  Such discussions were declared beyond the pale by elites who remembered the horrors of Nazi Germany and their own colonial crimes, and feared the inherent racism of the public.  The immigrant became a test of European virtue.  Intellectuals applauded, while governments looked the other way.  The public, as usual, was told, not asked:  that was the point of the exercise.

The European Union and its precursor organizations have been central to the politics of denial.  The EU is totally undemocratic.  Its parliament, a bizarre collection of elected eunuchs, seems to exist as a mockery of the democratic ideal.  The language of the treaties which constitute the Union is both verbose and impenetrable.  Nobody has the slightest idea what the EU’s powers are or should be.  Nobody cares.  Its bureaucracy touches everything but achieves no known purpose – a useful attribute for national governments bent on avoiding reality.  The EU is a bit like the elephant graveyard:  a place where large questions go to die.

* * *

The public responded to political emasculation the way the public always does.  So long as times were good, it was happy to play the elites’ game, but once the economy wobbled and then fell apart in 2008, it began, like the Roman plebs, to secede from the system.  The public is walking away.  Because of the virtuous silence of the thinkers and the media and the politicians – because in Europe nothing gets decided, nothing gets discussed – the first step out is a long one.

party decline europe

While orthodox parties peddle avoidance, ordinary voters, in despair, turn to strange new political groups.  Syriza, National Front (France), Five Star (Italy), UKIP (Britain), have emerged from left and right:  but such labels, which refer to a dead world, lack precision here.  The new movements gather beyond the pale.  They are taboo:  that is their appeal to the public and their true orientation.  They put in play forbidden subjects, eternally settled questions – the economic system, immigration, the EU.

The rise of youthful political forces in opposition to a senile old guard sounds like a happy story.  However, there’s a hitch.  The rebels are fixated on the status quo.  They are consumed with grievance and accusation.  As Europe’s elites reject the content of reality, their radical opponents restrict reality to the elites.  Their revolt isn’t about reform or revolution, but is a sort of utopian mirror imaging at best – and at worst a parasitic dependency on the failure and decadence of the system.

Negation, in the form of Syriza and its long hit list, confronts paralysis, embodied by the decrepit European institutions that hold Greece’s debt.  The struggle will be conducted with all the integrity of a professional wrestling match, but there will be winners and losers.  Neither side has much love for the niceties of representative democracy.  Both can be expected to seize any possible undemocratic advantage.  The keepers of the old order will try to place tight boundaries around the Syriza government, for example.  Syriza in power will trample on due process to settle scores.

It is possible, even justifiable, to deride the Greeks for reaping the whirlwind of a culture of corruption:  but, from a certain perspective, they appear merely to have moved faster and gone further in the direction we are all headed.  Greece represents one logical outcome of the global collision between the public and authority in the age of the Fifth Wave.  In this version of the future, nihilism assumes the aspect of freedom.

Democracy can fail.  It has done so in Europe, multiple times, within living memory.  Greece, which delivered the infant ideal of popular government to the world, may get the opportunity to throw the first spade of dirt on European democracy’s unmarked grave.

Posted in democracy, the public | Leave a comment

Information and terror attacks

12 killed in shooting at French satirical magazine headquarters

The fateful question, rarely asked, about atrocities like the recent massacre in Paris, is:  what did the perpetrators expect to accomplish?  The answer may seem intuitive.  These men were terrorists.  They obviously expected to achieve their political goals by terrifying the population.

But what were the goals?  And how could three gunmen terrify a nation of 65 million?  Here the solid world of guns and bullets, life and death, intersects with the phantom realm of information.

The strategic political objective of every small gang of violent persons is to appear powerful and important.   That was true of Al Qaeda even in its heyday, and remains true of AQ spinoffs today.  One way to appear powerful and important is to seize the attention of the world, and force presidents and prime ministers of great nations into making statements about you.  To achieve this, you need only commit an act of barbaric violence, then let the media – mainstream and social – do what the media does.

Terror is only incidentally about bloodshed.  If that sounds cold, it’s because it reflects the calculation of cruel minds.  Terror is mostly about information, about writing a message in blood, about communicating a frightening, far-reaching capacity in images reproduced by the news media and cellphone cameras.

Accomplishing this this strategic goal makes any tactical demand – censoring cartoons of Muhammad, for instance – a much simpler task to achieve.

The moral and political dilemma is that murder, conducted in public, will go viral.  Violence, in a sufficiently large scale, will make headlines.  Given an open society, this is impossible to prevent.  The terrorists in Paris may advocate a tightly controlled society, but they understand the ways of liberal democracy well enough.  They know us without illusions, better than we know ourselves.

Murder of innocents in the West:  that is the medium.  We then wonder why we should applaud the message.  But I repeat:  we – our dead and wounded – are the medium, we are not the intended audience.  The audience is elsewhere.

paris terrorists

Look on the images of the killers, pouring out of Paris.  They seem straight out of an action film:  black-clad, ninja-looking, gun-toting, full of self-conscious swagger and mysterious hand signs.  Virginia Postrel has written of the “glamour” of the Islamic State’s recruiting imagery:

Videos, magazine features and Twitter memes mirror the glamour of action movies, shooter video games and gangsta rap.  They make killing look effortless, righteous and triumphant.  They promise to make the jihadist manly and important.

The audience for the Paris terrorists’ message is among young people, mostly but not exclusively male and Muslim, in the Middle East but also in the West, who find the cinematic costumes and poses and clichés difficult to resist.  The slaughter of unarmed journalists translates, for this group, into an exhilarating adventure.  Brutality is never excused or explained:  it’s central to the seductiveness of the message.

Why are Westerners targeted?  After 9/11, President Bush guessed that it was because “they hate our freedoms.”  But, as we have seen, Islamists have been able to exploit Western freedoms of movement and speech to advantage.  They conspire using Western technology, sample Western entertainment, emulate Western cool.

Western governments they hate quite sincerely, however.

Osama bin Laden’s explanation for 9/11 turned the freedom argument on its head.  Since the people elected the US government, he reasoned, the American people “in its entirety” were fair game.

But terror is an information strategy, and there are practicalities involved.  Killing Westerners makes news.  If the goal is to grab the world’s attention, a dozen victims in Paris will generate more media noise than tens of thousands bombed and shot to pieces around Damascus.  This, too, is the cold calculation of bloody-minded men.

People ask about the proper response to such incidents.  I won’t pretend to have the answer.  Elite opinion in Europe favors greater sensitivity to Muslim grievance – this sometimes veers into making the murdered dead responsible for their condition.  BBC, for one, frowns on the word “terrorist,” will not link “Muslim” or “Islam” to perpetrators, and often refuses to publish their names for fear of revealing their religion.

I can’t imagine that killers will ever be influenced for good or evil by the sensitivities of media organizations.

Expressions of solidarity come naturally but seem hollow unless they are made facing the barrel of a gun.  I can identify with the murdered journalists and shout “I am Charlie Hebdo,” but I’m really not.  I’m another person in another place, and I can only hope, in anti-solidarity, never to be in the same fatal predicament as the Charlie Hebdo victims.

Public proclamations of support collide directly with the dilemma of information.  Twitterstorms and crowded vigils, for example, will appear to the murderers as proof that they have become world-historical characters.

The only suggestion an old analyst like me can offer is that we hold fast to our perspective.  We should see the Paris attack with our own eyes, assess it with our own minds, not through CNN or the latest trending hashtag.  Terrorists can inflict suffering and death at any moment.  Whether they pose an existential threat is up to us, not them, to decide.  The degree to which we mobilize for self-protection is also our decision.  We shouldn’t accept these contemptible people on their own terms.

Since the conflict is over control of information, we should take care of how we behave in the battlefield.  Will the next anti-Islamist satire be aborted by fear? That question, I submit, should haunt every one of us, the privileged children of liberal democracy.

Posted in influence, visual persuasion | Leave a comment

The social function of the news


In his brilliant little book, Human as Media, Andrey Miroshnichenko provides the following explanation of the news business:

The journalist’s profession is about picking up on the social demand for consolidated pictures of the world, clipping off the variety of superfluous opinion and turning a few select topics into something readable. […]

In this sense, journalists are not only authors, but also mediators between the social demand for order and the personal demand for suitable reference points.  This is what society pays journalists for, not with money alone, but also with status recognition:  the status of priests.  The journalist is the priest of social navigation and readability.

Personal reference points become necessary initially at the level of life and love, where they can multiply virtually to infinity.  But we are also desperate for guideposts to cosmic aspirations – meaning, morality, status – that must be validated by some group.  Journalists, in their priestly capacity, utilize the power of recognition and affirmation to reduce the dangerous torrent of subjective private fixations down to a shallow trickle of stories of interest to the elites.

They achieve this by means of extreme and arbitrary foreshortening.  A very few topics and events are shoved before the public’s eyes, and so appear gigantically important, while most are ignored or swept into the shadows.

For example:  politics always matters greatly, religion not so much.  So we will be bombarded with news about the most trivial incident in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but hear not a word about the Christianization of China.  Or:  ours always matters greatly, theirs not so much.  So a single death in Ferguson, Missouri, will receive obsessive news coverage, while the slaughter of thousands in faraway Congo received almost none.

Historically, it is unclear how neatly the news ever synchronized the public’s obsessions with those of the elites.  Success probably depended on the country and the topic at hand.  A suggestive fact:  when increased literacy opened the possibility of selling news to the masses, newspapers bundled a lot of lowbrow content (sports, horoscopes, advice to the lovelorn, comics) along with political and economic reports.  Those who worshipped at the altar of the news may always have been a small, elite-oriented minority.

Not that it mattered.  For 150 years, the news was the only national conversation around.  If other voices or interests existed, they were inaudible.  Confident that they possessed a monopoly over open information, journalists became persuaded that they were in the business of manufacturing correct opinion:  that is, the opinion held by certain political and intellectual elites.

It isn’t remotely true that Pulitzer newspapers stampeded the country into war with Spain, or that Woodward and Bernstein of the Washington Post hurled Richard Nixon out of the White House.  Other, more powerful forces were at work.  But many people believed that newsmongers were indeed responsible for both events:  and, without question, they contributed to a climate of opinion in which the desired action came to be seen as possible and reasonable, if not inevitable.

If journalists were priests of a false god, the lack of an alternate faith gave them the semblance of influence and power.

Because the news claimed top-down authority, its content became closely aligned with what I would call the framework of nations.  By this I mean the ruling assumptions and modes of perceiving the world that the lessons (and quirks) of history have instilled in the educated elites of each nation.  In France, for example, these are largely ideological.  In Russia, they center on the vigor of the state.  In China, events appear refracted through the prism of social harmony, while Britain’s all about the acts and words of its upper crust.

Everywhere, the framework became the grand organizing principle for journalists in search of the news.  Or to flip this around:  the news articulated the framework, made assumptions explicit, and thus revealed, to anyone with eyes to see, the intellectual and psychological baggage of the elites.

Today, the news is about less and less – and this signifies something more fundamental than disarray among news providers.  Journalists have lost connection to any coherent framework, and are unable to serve the masses as navigators in the sea of complexity.  They still write stories but have been shorn of their power, their social function.  They can no longer affirm.  They can no longer admire.

The reaction has been violent but predictable.  The priest who has fallen from grace can still condemn, can still repudiate, can still curse an established order of which he himself is a shameful part.  Journalists, who get press passes to the White House and the Super Bowl, have fallen in love with the pose of alienation.  They want to smash the system that invented them.

The disintegration of the news reflects a catastrophic confusion and loss of confidence among national elites.  The high modernist ambition of achieving social perfection by way of politics was abandoned as a utopian fantasy.  Nothing has filled the void.  The great conflict of systems of the Cold War was won, and its little brother, the War on Terror, has been forsaken as impracticable.  Nothing filled the void.  The moment is full of nothing – of gloom and doubt.  The framework that once sheltered the political class lies broken beyond repair.  Presidents and premiers, congressmen and ministers, are like blind men suddenly removed to Mount Everest:  the first step forward, they know, may send them whirling into the chasm.

News about nothing is the necessary consequence of a politics of vertigo and panic. The evasions and impostures of journalists are symptoms of a systemic breakdown transpiring far above their heads.  Mock journalists for being empty vessels:  do not confuse them with the cause of anything.  The same can be said about the web and its lynch mobs, the coarsening of culture, the supposed polarization of the public.  They are visible manifestations of a collapsing framework:  of a center that cannot hold.

In my book, I have examined in detail the reasons for this condition.  We are dealing with a massive failure of the institutions, taking place in plain view, before the astonished eyes of the public.  Government has failed, and has been seen to fail, repeatedly, in bipartisan fashion, until it has staggered into a zombie-like state of living death.  Financial houses have failed, and been seen to fail.  Automakers and universities have failed.  In this context, the failure of the news media appears as a minor plot twist in a vast institutional horror show.

For politicians as for journalists, the temptation to condemn and accuse has been almost irresistible.  Rulers can be found repudiating the political systems over which they preside:  this is a reflexive move for Barack Obama.  The president’s world is dominated by shadowy conspiratorial forces – but so, with different villains, is that of Vladimir Putin.  Political vandalism has taken the place of reform and revolution.  It feels liberating, even if it leads to nothing.

Given time, the cumulative erosion of trust, the poison in the air, must damage the legitimacy of the democratic process:  but the leading persons of our moment, teetering blind above the chasm, can take little notice of such long-term effects.

Posted in cataclysm, death of news, newspaperss | 1 Comment

Death of news, “We All Want to Save the World” edition


The following correction recently appeared in the website, a property of the Boston Globe newspaper:

Earlier today, published a piece suggesting Harvard Business School Professor Ben Edelman sent an email with racist overtones to Sichuan Garden.  We cannot verify that Edelman, in fact, sent the email.  We have taken this story down.

Consider that fatal phrase, “in fact.”  The defense of the news media rests entirely on the claim that editors vet the facts communicated by a news report.  Unlike, say, social media, journalism is supposed to be factual, empirical, objective.  On that single claim an ambitious ideology of news has been erected:  what’s good for the news business is said to be good for democracy.

So what happened at  It had access to the Globe’s densely-packed phalanx of editorial personnel.  How could it go public with a story that, in fact, it couldn’t verify?

I don’t know the details.  I never read the offending piece.  But, having studied the news business for some time, I can easily come up with a theory of the case.

You have an accusation of racism.  You have a business school professor.  Capitalist pig stereotype, meet racist monster stereotype:  the two belong happily together.  If you are a young reporter of the usual social background and political predilections, eager to expose injustice, this marriage of stereotypes assumes the authority of Platonic truth.  It is, in fact, cosmically verified.


The same devotion to ideal forms explains the fact-blindness displayed by Rolling Stone Magazine in its story about a rape in the University of Virginia.  As with the pre-emptively racist professor, that blindness was self-induced.  Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the author, hitched her wagon to a higher truth – exposing the “rape culture” in American campuses – but paid no attention to the potholes in that lowly road to uncertainty most of us call “reality.”

Rubin Erdely, 42, has penned articles on transgender longings, Catholic “secret sex files,” and the abuse of gays by Republican evangelists.  She’s a woman on a mission.  The details of the rape she reported were horrific, but they were also a grotesque stereotype of frat boy behavior.  She had spent six weeks hunting just such a stereotype, and found it at UVA, with its “aura of preppy success” and “throngs of toned and overwhelmingly blond students.”  Plus, it was Southern.  You have stereotype heaven.  What more likely setting for a sexual horror show?

Rubin Erdely was reporting on the pictures of the world inside her head, as confirmed by her solitary source – the supposed victim, Jackie.  It is now clear that she lied about cross-checking Jackie’s account, and that Rolling Stone, for all its democracy-preserving editors, bought the lie at face value.  Bill Dana, the magazine’s managing editor, said in 2006:  “we’ll write what we believe.”  The rape story fit the pictures inside his head.

That the story has come undone – Jackie, it turns out, was lying too – is less surprising than the reaction of many right-thinking observers.  They seem upset that anyone would question even a single instance of sexual assault.  They believe in “rape denialists”:  people who deny rape exists.  In rape cases, they maintain, we “should believe, as a matter of default, what an accuser says.”  Facts matter less than theology.

The existence of this cult places Rubin Erdely’s high-risk deceptions in perspective.  She imagined that the only permissible response to a charge of rape was dogmatic applause.

It could be argued that Rolling Stone is a pop culture rag, and Sabrina Rubin Erdely is less a journalist than a manufacturer of moralistic fables.  But real people were accused.  Real damage was done.  All this was invisible to Rubin Erderly.  She failed to interview the alleged rapists because she already knew who they were:  a combination of the “overwhelmingly blond” bad frat guys from Animal House and the vicious serial torturer in Silence of the Lambs.

animal house blond frat

The aftermath demonstrated another peculiarity of journalists:  although they claim factuality and objectivity, they never reveal much about their choices, and they rarely accept responsibility for their errors.  Rubin Erdely, that fierce exposer of injustice, retreated behind Rolling Stone’s public relations staff.  Rolling Stone, in turn, initially passed the blame on to Jackie, complaining that its trust in her had been “misplaced.”  This caused such an uproar that the magazine followed up with a “Note to Our Readers” blandly acknowledging bad “judgments” and “mistakes” with a palpable lack of regret.


Somehow, the voices from heaven never command that the news business expose itself to scrutiny.  Reporters cover everyone except other reporters.  When it comes to the anthropology of journalism, we don’t know what we don’t know.  Occasionally, however, someone breaks omertà, and what emerges is never pretty.

Matti Friedman, a former AP correspondent, has written a depressing piece for The Atlantic about news coverage of Israel.  Here, far afield, we find the same cast of characters that we have encountered before in Boston and UVA:  men and women from a certain class, on a mission to “help.”  They work for NGOs like Amnesty Watch, international agencies like the UN – and, of course, for news purveyors like AP.  They drink together and court and no doubt bed each other.  They share information.  They come to think alike.

In these circles, in my experience [writes Friedman] a distaste for Israel has come to be something between an acceptable prejudice and a prerequisite for entry.  I don’t mean a critical approach to Israeli policies. . . but a belief that to some extent the Jews of Israel are a symbol of the world’s ills, particularly those connected to nationalism, militarism, colonialism, and racism – an idea quickly becoming one of the central elements of the Western “progressive” zeitgeist, spreading from the European left to American college campuses and intellectuals, including journalists.

The Jews are the white frat boys of the Middle East.  They are invisible as a people, and can be perceived by Western reporters solely in the guise of a crude stereotype:  the human monsters of their imagination.  Israel is the only democracy in a desert of despotism, but that truth is selected out of their field of vision.  Friedman cites Orwell:  “The argument that to tell the truth would be ‘inopportune’ or would ‘play into the hands’ of someone or other is felt to be unanswerable.”

“Inopportune” to those who “have largely assumed a role of advocacy of the Palestinians and against Israel.”  “Play into the hands” of the forces of evil – the devilish Jews.  Journalists covering the conflict have made a canonical choice.  Readers back home, they have decided, are best served when exposed to just one side of the story.  Friedman was forbidden from interviewing the head of a rare pro-Israel NGO:  “In my time as an AP writer moving through the local conflict, with its myriad lunatics, bigots, and killers, the only person I ever saw subjected to an interview ban was this professor.”

I have argued argued elsewhere that there’s no special category of information we can call “the news.”  This applies with particular strength to the Israeli-Palestinian struggle.  What we get isn’t a slice of reality, “new” information, or facts about important events, but rather “a kind of modern morality play in which the Jews of Israel are displayed more than any other people on earth as an example of moral failure.”  This attitude, Friedman reminds us, has “deep roots in Western civilization.”


The final act in the recent self-detonation of the news media may seem unconnected to the rest:  the fatal assault and battery on The New Republic by its owner, Chris Hughes.  Some, indeed, contend that no significant lessons about journalism can be derived from this episode.  It’s just another case of digital technology disrupting the print media business, or maybe “the story of one incompetent media mogul.”

Both explanations are valid – but let me suggest another.  The relationship of this specific disruptor-mogul to the news business can only be described as pathologically subjective, and can only be explained in the context of my other stories.

The facts of the matter are well known.  Hughes purchased TNR, the faded beauty queen of the intellectual left, at “fire sale” prices in 2012.  He has since managed to antagonize most of the staff, who felt that he lied to them and betrayed the historic mission of the magazine.  When Hughes fired Frank Foer, the editor, after publicly endorsing him, all senior and contributing editors walked out the door – horrified, as one put it, that the dowdy old institution was being “vandalized” by ownership.

Think of Chris Hughes as Sabrina Rubin Erdely plus $700 million.  His wealth added a certain density to the fantasies inside his head.  His goals for TNR were famously captured by the CEO he brought in to run the magazine:  “We need to just break shit.”  Likely translation:  “Go find stereotypes of human devils we can smack around like pi­­ñatas.”

Hughes, 31, made his money by being Mark Zuckerman’s roommate at Harvard, and has spent much of his short life trying to find a suitably idealistic way to justify this accident of fate.  Purchasing TNR was part of his personal quest.  He wanted to break shit, center stage.  He longed to hear the dogmatic applause of sectarians.  He could trample on the work and reputation of others because he was rich, but also because they were invisible and he was headed to a far better place.

The significance of the news business for Hughes – as for Rubin Erderly – has nothing to do with facts, objectivity, reality, democracy, or even the reader.  The news, for both, is a field of dreams for the game of social identity and personal justification.

erderly and hughes

Traditional news reports, Walter Lippmann warned long ago, should not be confused with truth.  But journalism today seems to have strayed into a labyrinth of blind subjectivity, where wish-fulfillment controls information and the sole permissible activity is the ritual slaughter of imaginary beings.

The sociopolitical implications aren’t trivial.  An institution once devoted to the manufacture of mass opinion has turned divisive and inquisitorial.  It plays favorites and lacks even the pretense of integrity, thus contributing to the contemporary delusion that public debate must mean making a vast noise of negation.

The difference between social media and the news, in fact, is that the rant appears honestly and openly in the one but comes sneakily, with a bad conscience, in the other.

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Trolls and the trolled


You enter a dark forest and encounter a stranger.  You both carry something of value.  Neither of you can appeal to the police for protection.  What happens in the dark forest stays in the dark forest, forever.

How should you behave in that situation?  More fundamentally:  what’s the right principle of action?  Sympathy for a fellow traveler?  Hostility toward a potential criminal?  Aggression and theft, since these will go unpunished?

We spend a large chunk of our lives in that dark forest.  It’s the web.  It exists in a state of nature, as I noted as long ago as 2005.  The object of value is our new-found capacity to convey information to the world, no matter how far we stand from the centers of power and mass communications.  The dilemma of right action centers entirely on the character of that nameless stranger.


On the internet, there are worse things than to flirt, unawares, with a dog:  worst, by far, is being stuck alone in that dark forest with a troll.

The troll is an animal without discernible features, except for a protective shroud of obscenities.  It joins virtual conversations only to destroy them, and jumps onto online controversies only to threaten and vilify.  Trolls can gather in lynch mobs or act as solitary vandals, but they are always bizarrely persistent:  they will continue to shout until they outlast you, though they have little to gain by doing so.

Academics have studied the condition without throwing much light on it.  One study finds that trolls display “sadism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism.”  Another claims that they suffer from “antisocial personality disorder.”  These are words that describe what they seek to explain.  Yet I can produce a simple explanation without trying too hard.  Trolls may be who we are:  and by “we” I mean the Big We, our species, the human race.

Our ancestors evolved biologically in hunter gatherer bands, and culturally in villages and small towns, where everybody knew everybody and everybody watched everybody else.  Even among the crowds of contemporary Manhattan, signs of public deviance are quickly detected and bring down the police.  What happens when these constraints are removed?  Nobody could know.  We were never free to be our secret selves – to say exactly what we wanted to say – until our late migration into the dark forest of the web.

Now, the returns are in.  Some people, a meaningful number, love to say vicious and destructive things for the sheer hell of it.  They do it because they can:  for the fun, “for the lulz,” for the second-hand thrill of smashing things while nobody’s looking.

Here’s the important point:  trolls and trolling aren’t an incidental side-effect of an otherwise benevolent web, like a rash from penicillin.  They are intrinsic and foundational to it, emanating out of the heart of the “hacker ethic” that proclaims all information wants to be free, and they have drawn the endless conversation that is the digital universe in the direction of reflexive negation and rhetorical violence.


Two powerful but opposite forces twist and warp the global information sphere:  one pulling toward community, the other toward nihilism.

The spontaneous clustering of communities around some shared topic of interest – video games, say, or a political cause – was an immediate and much commented-upon effect of the internet.  These communities represented the authentic tastes of the public, very consciously in opposition to the authoritative dictates of the elites.  The early blogosphere was thus fiercely anti-“MSM,” for example.  Wikipedia became the un-Britannica.

Communities of interest were a revolt against the top of the information order, but increasingly need protection from the depths.  Trolls surface, disrupt, and often drive away those who truly care about the topic.  A humble example:  when the Nationals baseball team came to Washington in 2005, a vibrant community sprang up around a number of new websites.  Ten years later, most Nationals sites had been killed off.  The aggravation of dealing with trolls outbalanced the joy of talking baseball.

To stay on-topic, digital platforms must wage a Darwinian struggle with trolls.  Sites are “curated”:  that is, gated to a greater or lesser extent.  Comment sections get switched off.  Participants and interactions now depend on the will of someone, so that an assault on elite-based filtering becomes a filtering exercise.  The new elites, like the old ones, are trapped in a version of the dictator’s dilemma:  the more they filter and control, the smaller their reach, and the less authentic the community.  In the age of reddit and Twitter, the trolls will flame you regardless.

Trolls exert constant adaptive pressure on virtual behavior.  Authenticity is now identified with louder, nastier, angrier.  The more enduring and influential sites aren’t just against, but virulently so.  Tea Partiers warn, “Don’t tread on me.”  Feminists turn into “social justice warriors.”  Even Washington Nationals fans have come to be dominated online by angry ranters, nicknamed “LOD”:  the legion of doom.  The survival strategy seems to be to out-troll the trolls before they arrive.

There are exceptions.  You can form an idealistic community dedicated to Deirdre McCloskey’s theories on rhetoric and economics:  obscurity will be your friend.  Or you can participate in the vast positive enterprise of Wikipedia, where volunteer watchmen keep out the trolls.  That is still possible.  But obscurity is an uncertain gamble, Wikipedia has ever fewer watchmen along the city walls:  and the digital barbarians never rest.


So what is the right way to act, if the stranger in the dark forest is revealed as a troll?  Options are limited.  You can unplug:  wear a hairshirt, hide in a wilderness, feed on locusts and wild honey.  Others have tried this.  Almost invariably, such information exiles return home.

You can follow the conventional wisdom that says, “Don’t feed the trolls.”  Meaning:  if you ignore them, they will go away.  Andrey Miroshnichenko argues, with sound logic, that the purpose of every interaction on the web is to “elicit a response”:  so you have theoretical justification for this approach.  Empirically, things look shakier.  To ignore the troll means to look away from the vandal heaving a rock through your window.  He now has an incentive to come back and try again.

You can anoint curators and erect thick walls around your community, but this, we saw, leads straight to the dictator’s dilemma and a new class of information gatekeepers.

Let me suggest another way to look at the vexing question of trolls and the trolled.

The existential threat posed by trolling is that of the entropy of systems.  Every system accumulates noise, and will become increasingly disorganized unless sanitary measures are taken.  Mass media applied those measures brutally, upfront.  Publishers and editors chopped information down to tiny, discrete, largely unconnected gobs.  It became a kind of code only elites could understand – but it cleaned out the noise.  Trolls don’t haunt the newsprint edition of the New York Times.

The digital information system works on a different principle.  It produces an astronomic volume of stuff every instant.  Publisher and audience, author and editor, are all assumed to be the same collective entity, the public, and to prefer signal to noise.  The latter is true even of the troll, who sends strong signals about his favorite hipster sunglasses and mobile devices.  He’s a part-time troll but a full-time member of the public, and thus a signal amplifier.

It is at the level of the public – not of the author, editor, or publisher – that digital information sorts out relevance from noise.  The public, in turn, can be many things:  a person, an extended family, a virtual community, a national or global cluster.  Each layer of the honeycomb extracts meaning out of the Amazonian flood of content sweeping the landscape.  When the system works to specs, the result is far easier access to and a deeper engagement with information than the products of mass media allow.

From this perspective, the encounter in the dark forest resolves into a personal choice.  You can deal with the troll as a special case, an irreconcilable enemy, a show-stopper – or as just another feature of a complex landscape, part of the cost of extracting signal from the system.  The first tactic is self-fulfilling:  the troll becomes a destroyer of digital worlds.  The second shrinks the troll to the dimensions of a pop-up ad:  he can’t be ignored, really, but in the long journey toward meaning he can be circumvented.

It’s even possible to squeeze signal out of trolling.   Under authoritarian rule, for example, online stooges often reveal the fears and pain-points of the regime.

The arrow of entropy moves in only one direction.  From the laws of thermodynamics, we learn that disorder must eventually overwhelm all systems, including the digital and physical universes.  In the cosmic long run, the trolls will triumph.  For the next few billion years, however, we retain the choice to push and shove in the opposite direction.

Posted in new media, the public, web | Leave a comment

The Gruber revelations


The digital ink was scarcely dry on my last post when a controversy erupted to illustrate its main point.  I wrote that a growing distance between rulers and ruled lay at the heart of the crisis of liberal democracy.  Moments later, in a series of web videos, Jonathan Gruber delivered a virtuoso performance in the pathology of political distance.

Gruber is an economist at MIT beclouded with honors and titles:  a sort of pan-dimensional, hyper-intelligent being whose Big Thought was intellectual authorship of portions of President Obama’s 2010 health care law.  To anyone willing to listen, Professor Gruber ever since has insisted that passage of the law was possible only by means of the noble lie.

“The bill was written in a tortured way to make sure CBO did not score the mandate as taxes.  If CBO scored the mandate as taxes, the bill dies. . .  In terms of risk rated subsidies, if you had a bill which said that healthy people are going to pay in – you made explicit, healthy people pay in and sick people get money, it would not have passed.”

The professor went on:

“Lack of transparency is a huge political advantage.  And basically, call it the stupidity of the American voter or whatever, but basically that was really critical to getting the thing to pass.  Look, I wish…that we could make it all transparent, but I’d rather have this law than not.”

This wasn’t said in a shuttered smoke-filled room, to a cabal of shadowy political manipulators.  Nor was it a verbal outburst fueled by emotion or inebriation:  a “gaffe.”   Here and elsewhere, Gruber offered his considered reflections at open academic conferences, where they were received as such, without fuss.

The tenor and substance of Gruber’s argument is always the same.  Democracy, he regrets, isn’t up to the job.  The gap between the brilliant shepherds who rule the nation and the simple-minded sheep they must lead to pasture can be bridged only with reassuring lies.  To enact a necessary law, the public had to be deceived.

His audiences responded to such utterances in the same manner, too:  with nods of understanding and the occasional chuckle of mild amusement.  In an age of infinite offense-taking, it seems nobody felt offended by the trashing of American democracy.

That changed when videos of his talks went viral.  In the great angry noise that ensued, however, I have yet to hear anyone ask the most pertinent question:  how is this possible?  Jonathan Gruber isn’t a revolutionary or a neo-Nazi.  He’s a mainstream academic who means well for his country.  His audiences probably share the same description.  How can it be that they assume, collectively, without debate, the stupidity of the public, the failure of the democratic process, and the need for those in power to rule by trickery?

Conservatives like Charles Krauthammer find the explanation in “the arrogance of an academic liberalism that rules in the name of a citizenry it mocks, disdains and deliberately, contemptuously deceives.”  The charge has some merit.  Those who aspire to the title should ask how an attitude of scorn for public opinion and representative democracy and honest dealing can be construed as “progressive.”

Barack Obama’s blithe dismissal of the legitimacy of the midterm elections fits snuggly into this pattern of illiberal liberalism.

But it was President Bush, compassionate conservative, who erected a police apparatus that treats ordinary Americans like enemies of the state in the public places of their own land.  There can hardly be greater disdain than that.

For Bush, it was security, for Obama, welfare:  the practical effect, surely intended, was a desperate clinging by both to the protective distance between power and the public.

Distance explains Professor Gruber and his untoward proclamations.  Gruber resides at the top of the pyramid of the expert class, where policy wonks schmooze with political players.  The worldview from the heights is more 1930s than new millennium.  The illusion of invisibility from the public persists:  distance makes blind.  The professor thought he was speaking strictly entre nous, among members of his club.

But why did he dwell on the stupidity of the public?  Well, the public doesn’t have all of his diplomas.  It doesn’t speak to presidents.  It doesn’t participate in legislation.  The public lacks the tribal tokens and credentials that buttress Gruber’s identity as an expert, and make him feel interesting and important.  That one could be smart and lack those never enters his mind for an instant.

Gruber – like Obama and Bush, and all government elites – peers at the public from the wrong end of a telescope, until it resembles a tiny but multitudinous insect, a swarm of fire ants on the move, driven by primitive urges, but deprived of reasoning capacity.  The public is where terrorists and white supremacists and obesity come from. The job of government is to tame this beast.  The awkwardness of the democratic process, from the elites’ perspective, is that it demands that noble lie.

The tragedy of democracy, from a historical perspective, is that the public is a very different creature than the elites imagine.  The public is far from blind:  it body-scans the elites right back on digital, searchable formats.  With a click of my laptop, for example, I can see Jonathan Gruber boast about lying to the voters, again and again.  He is deluded in his invisibility but exposed in his fraud.

The trouble with the noble lie is that it’s tough to make a case for nobility once the lie has been found out.

Trust between rulers and ruled functions much like Humpty Dumpty:  it can’t be put together again.  That is where we are today.  The lies are all found out.  The public mistrusts every word and act that comes from government – and the hyper-intelligent Professor Gruber’s revelations confirm that it has good reason to do so.

Posted in the public | 1 Comment