Does liberalism need to answer Tony Benn’s questions?

Sir William Blackstone (1723-1780)

Sir William Blackstone (1723-1780) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Many people were not fans of Tony Benn. They did not agree with his politics, or his political style. For some people, he was more in the mould of Michael Foot than John Smith or Tony Blair, which may have been his most appealing quality. For others, such a distinction demonstrates the profound changes to and tension within the Labour party. However, I do not write today about his political style or about his party politics, or about party politics. I am interest in something more serious, more important, and something I always had time to listen attentively for each time he spoke on it.

Prerogative power is the dark heart of democracy

Tony Benn understood the core problem for UK democracy, and any democracy: Prerogative power. His five questions reflect his approach to prerogative power and political power more generally. When we talk of politics today, we talk of power and Tony Benn understood this. I fear he may have accepted it and thus sought to change the balance of power, shift it, rather than challenge the understanding of what modern politics is becoming. If politics is reduced simply to power, then life will become barbaric. Decent politics remains to the extent that power is constrained by the law that reflects the community’s shared sense of justice. Without, though, power, the law lacks force and it will be empty words. Tony Benn understood this, perhaps intuitively, when he focused on prerogative power.

Sovereign power does it know any limit but its own power?

His focus on prerogative power brought to light the tension at the heart of British democracy. The tension is not unique to British democracy, but the UKs’ reliance on parliamentary sovereignty, rather than a constitution, exemplifies the issue. His campaign against prerogative power, started well before the Iraq war, showed that the UK retains an antidemocratic core. Prerogative power is the power reserved to the sovereign and not available to the public. In a democracy, the people are sovereign so the government exercises prerogative power on their behalf. Except in the UK, where parliament is sovereign. Parliament, instead of relinquishing the prerogative power it wrested from the Crown, which was a holdover from the monarchy, has retained it because of its advantages. The best know example is the prerogative power to wage war. Although this is nominally reserved to the crown, the Queen is still head of state, parliament enables it. In other words, even though it is reserved to the Queen it is unlikely that she would be able to declare war, with any effect, without Parliament’s express will.

Prerogative power corrupts absolutely as it is absolute power

What Benn campaigned against, as a true democrat, was that parliament had sold its soul by accepting access to prerogative power, and leaving the monarch in place. The power to wage war is the most notable prerogative power, but Benn was concerned with the hundreds of use of prerogative power that kept power from being democratically controlled. (footnote the number of uses of prerogative power).  Curiously, parliament accepted his view but insisted that without prerogative power it would have extra work that would occupy its time. In other words, the prerogative power, gives it a freedom of action that avoids the same democratic control of other parliamentary acts. One of the problems as Benn understood was that people associate the prerogative power with war, which meant they often missed how undemocratic parliament was in its activities because the prerogative power was exercised regularly without much fanfare or notice.  (see the exact quote from Wikipedia).

What makes Benn worth listening to on this point was his political instinct for power as a politician and as a democratic both jealous and fearful of power. He understood that democracy was limited to the extent that prerogative power existed. He may not have read Carl Schmitt the German jurist who enabled the Nazis to take power, but they shared an interest and appreciation of prerogative power. In an interesting twist, Schmitt misunderstood the prerogative power at the heart of British parliamentary system that contributed to his failure to create such a system for the Weimar republic. Despite Schmitt’s failure and Benn’s near quixotic quest to harness prerogative power, they both shared a common point, which is misunderstood and now long forgotten by the public. Schmitt expressed this point forcefully and clearly.

Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.

By being able to define the exception to the normal situation, where normal rules of politics, justice, and law applied, and the sovereign exercised great power. They could decide when the normal rules had to be abrogated and for how long. Benn understood that prerogative power when used as stating an exception to the norm political process or the democratically accountable process. Although Schmitt and Benn were approaching the issue from different ways, in that Schmitt failed to appreciate fully how the Monarchy provided sovereignty in a parliamentary democracy in a way that the president could not in the Weimar constitution that he helped to create, they understood the need for and the danger from the sovereign or prerogative power.

In a democracy, the people are supposed to be sovereign so they should decide the exception. The challenge, though, is how to translate the people’s will or voice into specific acts. To achieve this, men form a government. The government acts as an agent for the people and as a proxy for the people. However, Britain is constitutionally different because parliament and not the people are sovereign. As Schmitt understood the ability to make this decision, to declare a state of exception or a state of war, means that the sovereign can override what was a normal state of affairs. In a state of exception, the normal rules would not apply which meant the laws did not apply. The sovereign would be free of its previous constraints so long as the state of exception existed.  In the United States for example, the state of war has not been declared since 1945 in large part because it would trigger over 130 different laws that give the government almost absolute and unlimited power over the community. The declaration of war, in the United States is the moment of the exception, which is why there is a tension between the Congress’s ability to declare war and the President’s ability to wage war as the Commander in Chief and conduct foreign policy. In that sense, the Founders understood the danger from the prerogative power and split it even though the people are sovereign.

Why Benn saw prerogative power (or any power) as a threat

For a democrat, such power is a threat. It is a threat to the citizen and it is a threat to the democratic process and democratic society. The threat comes from the people no longer having direct or even indirect control of the power because they lack the sovereign’s power to declare the exception. In a democracy, the people are sovereign but if that power, the power to declare the exception is illusory, then the government becomes the sovereign over the people. As mentioned above, this is why the men who designed the United States constitutional system divided prerogative and sovereign power. They feared, as did Benn, a unitary power unrestrained acting beyond the people’s, express or even implied, will, as the British monarchy was doing. Even though Parliament had that power, Benn understood the danger from that power, which is what his 5 questions reveal.

“If one meets a powerful person – Rupert Murdoch, perhaps, or Joe Stalin or Hitler –  one can ask five questions: what power do you have; where did you get it; in whose interests do you exercise it; to whom are you accountable; and, how can we get rid of you? Anyone who cannot answer the last of those questions does not live in a democratic system.”

Although a democracy has the means to answers all those questions, the parliamentary democracy presents a different challenge, which shows that Benn’s questions are limited in their effect. They are limited because they only work in a democracy where they have any influence. The people he would have asked about it, Rupert Murdoch, Joe Stalin, and Adolph Hitler, were not elected in a democratic sense. Stalin ruled a tyranny. Adolph Hitler’s party created the crisis and weakened the democracy that required his party to be chosen by Hindenburg to assume control. Hitler came to power because the Weimar constitution, shaped by Schmitt, could not control prerogative power. Rupert Murdoch cannot be said to be elected by a democratic organisation, which raises the questions as to why Benn would ask these men these questions.

In a democracy the people are sovereign but without power? 

How each of these men could be deposed demonstrates the inherent advantage of a democracy because it allows one to change the government with a ballot box and not a bullet or other unconstitutional methods. Moreover, the questions only work in a constitutional system where the incumbent government accepting the legitimacy of the democratic will and leaves office without struggle and most importantly without fear of potential persecution and prosecution by the succeeding government.

Here is how Hitler or Stalin would answer questions.

What power do you have? Answer: The power of life or death.

Where did you get it? Answer: From a barrel of a gun.

In whose interests do you exercise it? Answer: I exercise it in my interest, which is the party’s interest.

To whom are you accountable? Answer: I am accountable to myself.

How can we get rid of you? Answer: Through violence or my natural death.

By contrast, a democracy or a liberal democracy can answer all of these questions and none of them requires or threatens the use of force. Although Benn’s questions are startling and cause most people to pause for thought, it is not because of their inherent quality. Instead, they appear startling because people do not think about these nor have they been educated to think about these issues. Therein we see the true value or challenge from his questions, we no longer think about these questions because we no longer think about prerogative power nor do we understand how or why governments work. If the public knows the X-factor’s “selection process” better than the government’s use of prerogative power (or Benn’s questions), what does that tell us? Perhaps this is Benn’s legacy. To the extent his liberalism has succeeded, it has come at the cost that the public no longer need to worry about political questions. Neither the questions nor their answers invoke a political response because the political questions are settled and we only debate the best way to apply the answers. In this, the questions show us how much we have forgotten about politics.

 

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The web induced solipsism syndrome zombies are coming!

The frontispiece of the book Leviathan by Thom...

The frontispiece of the book Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Snowden revelations have shown us the power of the individual in the age of social media. Although he is often associated with the idea of social media creating a voice for the individual, he has influence because of those who wish to promote and profit from his acts. For the most part, his acts has been about United States intelligence efforts rather than the social contract between individual and society. What we need to consider is whether the social contract between citizen and state and individual and society has to be rewritten because of the individual’s technologically enhanced voice?  In other words, has the citizen been replaced by zombies suffering from the solipsism syndrome?

The social contract is being rewritten by the citizen.

The potential change in the social contract is being challenged by technologically empowered individual who want society to reflect their interests. However, technology, which empowers the individual, comes at a price because the web shapes their life experience. The web changes their perspective and experience to such an extent that they succumb to something called the solipsism syndrome. The solipsism syndrome describes a condition that astronauts, or any isolated individuals, experience when they have been in space or on their own for a long time.

Individuals experiencing solipsism syndrome feel that the world is not ‘real’ in the sense of being external to their own minds. The syndrome is characterized by feelings of loneliness, detachment and indifference to the outside world.

The syndrome is not about technology or the web creating the Matrix. The syndrome affects an individual because the web validates their views without having to challenge it. How the syndrome affects the individual’s perception of the common good and on society is the political problem. Many critics assume that the technological culture is libertarian. This is not the case. The zombies want to change and direct the lives of others and that requires them to infringe the rights and property, intellectual or otherwise, of others. Their behaviour is not guided by an ideology or a political position garnered from long political experience with which they persuade others. Instead, they rely on their personal view of the world. The zombie does not test their views through debate or seek the origins of their thought. They have never known the sting of philosophy because they believe they know the truth. What they know and believe is the truth.

The zombie does not seek out the street or the marketplace where competing ideas and arguments can challenge their opinions. For the zombies their own mind, their conscience, determines what is right or wrong and society must react to them. They assume that politics is corrupt and thus never seek to understand it or what it means. If it does not serve their interests and they cannot get their way, then it must be wrong. The individual decides what is right or wrong for the community. They have no loyalty to the community. If the community is deciding for the individual, this indicates some coercion or injustice. They believe that the technological power to voice their opinion on all matters before the community means an individual’s opinion is superior to the community’s.

Zombies are often directed by experts

The zombies rarely have opinions that are developed by experience. They believe they know enough to reject the politician’s opinion and they are likely to rely on experts. They will listen to internet security “gurus” who advertise themselves as security experts. Such experts invariably talk of fear and security with no reference to Thomas Hobbes his political philosophy which justifies their work. Or they may listen to the social media evangelists. The evangelists fail to realize their vision of digital collective action is Herbert Marcuse mixed with a bit of Ivan Illich. The zombies have lost the power of critical thought and the stamina to become educated about the best way to live.

The state withers away until the nature of politics requires a return

Solipsism syndrome creates the belief that a technologically enabled community caters to the fully autonomous individual. The zombie does not need to participate in the society because it is autonomous. Moreover, society is as benign and inconspicuous as tamed nature. The zombies, nurtured by the web, believe that the state is withering away. What they fail to understand is that nature requires great effort to tame. The harsh nature of politics is why governments exist. The zombies have only been able to protest the society’s constraints because nature and society appear to have been made benign by modern natural science and liberalism. They have only hidden the physical demands that nature and its politics require.

The paradox individual autonomy actually requires more government

Society’s institutional ability to shelter the individual declines as autonomy, digital or otherwise, increases. The more rights an individual wants, the more it needs a government to enforce them. Unless the individual wants to enforce their own right, they need a government. The more the rights proliferate, the more the government has to intervene to arbitrate disputes and punish transgressions. To punish transgressions, the government has to monitor what is happening in the community and peer into an individual’s affairs. The zombie’s unwillingness to accept any constraint they disagree with makes the government unstable and their autonomy untenable. The community descends into anarchy or tyranny because democracy becomes impossible.

The technologically weak must do as the technologically powerful command

The rise of zombies has a political consequence. The technologically vulnerable have a choice of two futures. They can have a democratically accountable society as an agent that represents their will yet constrains them by laws created by their consent. This comes at the cost of limiting the number of zombies that can be tolerated. The alternative is an undemocratic technological community. Such a community will cater to their autonomy and privacy but at the price of their free will and safety.

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Will Chicago’s “disappeared” have justice?

“Behold, I cry, ‘Violence!’ but I get no answer; I shout for help, but there is no justice. Job 19:7

The Chicago Police Department, in its war on crime, has declared some murders as non-criminal deaths. They have done this, according to Chicago Magazine, because of political pressure to have lower crime rates, in particular, lower murder rates.[1] The city benefits from its improved reputation and the murder victim’s family mourns. Every murder victim has a name; they are more than a statistic. In this case, Tiara Groves is one of victims. She had a family and they want justice for their loved ones. Yet, like victims of other wars, their loved ones have become Chicago’s disappeared. No one will investigate the murders. No one will be brought to justice.

A city’s highest duty is justice, without justice it is a gang.

The highest duty a city has to its citizens is justice. A city demonstrates this commitment because murder is a crime without a statute of limitation. As a crime against man, nature and nature’s God, it only closes when the murderer is brought to justice in whatever form that takes. Without justice, the community cannot heal and the city becomes infected by the injustice. Where injustice stalks the streets, natural justice takes up residence. Natural justice means the strong do as they will and the weak do as they must. In such a community, violence, vengeance and retribution are a daily occurrence. However, the city’s political decay is not the result of violence. The violence is the result of the city’s political decay. The injustice of hiding murders is no different from a gangster’s injustice. When natural justice emerges, a natural political inequality follows. In communities where political justice is not available, life becomes poor, nasty, and brutal as gangsters thrive. Might makes right as the powerful rule the weaker in a brutal and extreme form of political inequality.

Is equality before the law a fading memory in the land of Lincoln?

The victims were murdered. In their death, they suffered the added insult that they were disappeared. In both they were denied the equal protection of the law. Yet, the statistical crime is only a symptom of political corruption that infects the city. The corruption makes public officials complicit out of institutional or personal necessity. Even though a veneer of prosperity and rectitude on public display may hide the moral decay, the violence in the street and the dishonesty in the city’s government reveal the injustice in the city’s soul. The vulnerable and the weak are sacrificed so the powerful and the protected can reap the financial and political benefits of a “safer” Chicago’s reputation. A deep inequality within the city suggests that the belief that all men are created equal is limited by a city’s political necessity.

When public officials become complicit, who escapes the corruption?

The senior officers who direct this statistical sleight of hand create a culture that corrupts others such as the junior officers and related public officials. In a healthy political culture, the law directs the organisation, and the organisation directs the senior officials. Yet, the average police officer and public official know that in the changed statistics, the law is twisted to serve the organisation and the organisation serves the senior officers who can reap the political benefit from a lower number of murders. When officers betray their oath[2] and change statistics for political or organisational purposes they become like gangsters. Those who make that decision know the injustice of their acts, but they remain silent because it profits them.[3] Honest officers and public officials will see that those who follow the senior officer’s lead are protected and promoted. If they want to remain in public service, they must become the willing participants in an institutional abuse of the vulnerable and weak.[4] A cynic might justify this by a claim that the officers act for the greater good. The public are better served by a city that appears safe and open for business. Yet a question remains unanswered.

Who speaks for the Victim?

When the city decides that a murder victim is not a murder victim, who speaks for victim? They cry out for justice, but who will step forward and march for their civil rights? They are voiceless. They are victims of the city’s injustice because they lack the power or connections to demand justice. They cannot command equality because the city denies it to them. The city’s powerful, privileged, and protected can demand justice shield them from such a fate. Yet, a city unable or unwilling to deliver justice can protect no one.

Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is in an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob, and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.—Fredrick Douglass

Justice is possible but only with courage.

Chicago is not beyond reform. Chicagoans need to denounce those who betray justice and have the courage to reject the profits of injustice. Political reform is needed to connect political justice to the common good and break the cycle of violence. If there is no reform, there will be no justice. If there is no justice, there will be no peace. The violence will continue because the city is not just. No statistical sleight of hand will change that fact. The rule of law must run from the street to City Hall with neither being a refuge for “natural justice.” Our choice is between two cities: the corrupt city or the just city. The corrupt city sees the powerful protected and the weak voiceless and forgotten. This is the path to ruin no matter how well the statistics look. Until justice is restored to the city’s soul, it will remain polluted. No amount of positive media coverage or prosperity will hide the fact that Chicagoans have lived with genteel gangster justice for too long. It is time to wash the city clean and choose the just city. In the just city, the rule of law lives in all communities. Such a city does not tolerate the radical poverty, inequality, and violence in its midst. It faces its problems with honesty, courage and fortitude and not does not shirk from them or hide them with statistical sleight of hand, nor distract the public with media messages that burnish the city’s reputation. Moreover, a just city has the integrity to look within itself and see that it cannot deal with the injustice on the streets without removing the injustice within its government.

The time has come for a choice: What will Chicago choose?

Chicago has a choice. It can remain silent and wait for injustice to find the next victim or it can speak up for the disappeared. The city’s leadership may believe such a judgement may be deferred, delayed or distracted. However, they cannot dispel the injustice in the city’s soul nor drown out the voice of the victims. Their blood cries out for justice

9Then the LORD said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” And he said, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” 10He said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to Me from the ground. 11“Now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand….

Will you listen to the voice of the victim crying for justice?

If you have the courage, you can deliver justice for Chicago’s disappeared.  Will you act?

Will you speak for Tiara Groves?

 

 

[1] Although the police have condemned the report because it relies on anonymous sources, it has not denied that the practice occurs or that the victims mentioned in the article have not been reclassified.

[2] Here is the Chicago Police Officer’s oath of office. “I . . .{name} . . . having been appointed to the office of Police Officer, City of Chicago, do solemnly swear that I will support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of Illinois and that I will faithfully discharge the duties of the office of Police Officer, according to the best of my abilities.”

[3] The crimes became known when the magazine investigated. No city officials or police officers came forward publicly. They have remained silent, which reveals the culture. They are unable or unwilling to speak up yet, willing to benefit from a system and practice they know to be wrong.

[4] If Emmett Till were murdered in Chicago today, would it be a noncriminal death?When Emmett Till was murdered in Mississippi, the city had the “decency” to investigate the crime, charge someone with it, and hold a trial. Does Chicago now lack such decency?

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A response to Paul Pillar on Ukraine

English: A map showing European membership of ...

English: A map showing European membership of the EU and NATO. EU member only NATO member only Member of both Česky: Mapa zobrazující členství evropských států v EU a NATO. státy pouze v EU státy pouze v NATO státy v NATO a EU (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In his essay NATO Expansion and the Road to Simferopol Mr Pillar makes several arguments to suggest that the European Union, the United States, and NATO were as much responsible for Russia’s interventions in Ukraine as the Russian. His argument, which he summarizes at the start, is that the EU, NATO, and US have cornered Russia. How else did we expect Russia to react but to intervene in Ukraine and destabilize it and occupy parts of it when they were encouraged to oust a corrupt administration and seek closer ties with the EU and NATO?

To support his argument, Mr Pillar makes seven substantial points. I will address each of these before concluding.

Democracies not empires are based on consent.

He begins by reminding us that NATO and the EU are expanding into the old Soviet empire. He seems to forget that empire is never consensual. In empire, there are the rulers and the ruled. If someone is trying to escape an empire, by allying with non-imperial countries, like democracies or democratic alliances, it seems strange to suggest that democracies must respect the empires and their previous domination. One almost forgets the right to self-determination that each of these countries peoples have to seek to determine their own fate.

We promised Russia but who promised the Ukrainians?

He begins by invoking the idea that the West promised Russia it would not approach the states formerly subjected to Russian domination. Yet, that seems to suggest quite ironically, that the West can make these promises on behalf of the subjugated people. Was the sort of thinking that kept the West from supporting Hungary in 1956, or Czechoslovakia in 1938 and 1968?

 NATO expands by a fit of absentmindedness

Mr Pillar then invokes the idea that the moves to Ukraine are only a way to keep NATO occupied as an institution. He suggests that NATO has expanded east almost in a fit of absentmindedness as if expansion was simply what it was programmed to do. The problem with this analysis is that it forgets the success of Europe has been based on peace. Unlike the US, Europe has a whole has never known a period without some military threat hanging over it. As a result, its views on security and stability are more informed by Hobbes’s state of nature than the Federalist’s idea of an empire of liberty. However, both agree that where there is peace and stability there is also prosperity. For the Eastern European countries to be brought into that stability, they need to join NATO as EU has no army worth speaking of and any such army would be a “greater” threat to Russia than one lead by and restrained by the United States. To put it bluntly and directly would rather have NATO with America at its helm or a European army with a nuclear-armed Germany at its heart.

Without expansion the US would lose interest?

Mr. Pillar is concerned that eastward expansion has been a way to keep the United States involved in the security affairs in Europe. Leaving aside the point about a nuclear-armed Germany at the heart of a European military, the United States has let its European partners take the lead on a number of issues. We need to remember that the United States has never fought a military action outside of the Caribbean without an ally. One only need note that the US stepped back from direct intervention into Syria when the UK voted against supporting the effort. The West has expanded Eastward through the EU’s economic ties and only minimal military ties. The United States has become involved when direct military leadership is needed for a military solution. For the most part, that has only occurred infrequently in comparison to the continual and normal business and economic contacts between Western and Eastern Europe. The underlying reality is that Eastern Europeans would rather feel safe, be inside the EU and NATO, than face life under the continued and continual threat of Russian control. Poland’s stability and prosperity in contradistinction to Ukraine’s turmoil and relative stagnation show us the difference.

Above all, do not hurt the Russian’s feelings forget the Ukrainians feelings though.

We are reminded, though, that no one is being sensitive to Russia’s fears of being surrounded or showing enough concern for them. Such words seem to ring true, except that they ring hollow, when we consider Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and the Berlin Wall. We also are puzzled by the fact that Switzerland is surrounded and seems rather calm about it. Perhaps because it has the 3rd largest army in Europe. The issue is not whether someone is encroaching on someone else, which the United States perhaps more than any major power has shown a high degree of sensitivity (one only need to note the concerns for Khrushchev to “save face” over Cuba) for other states in dealing with them. Yes, America can insensitive or boorish, but that is hardly a basis for deciding the security of a state. Considering the insensitivity, though, I think Europeans well remember that the Soviet Union trained and aided Hitler and the Nazi war machine up to the point it turned on them.

Such bad manners for democracies to court former imperial vassal states.

We then are reminded that any western advance of NATO and the EU is simply bad manners because it rubs Russia’s nose in its failure in the Cold War. Such thinking accepts the Cold War like the Super Bowl where if it had gone the other way, Russia would be chiding itself for being so rude as to impose a communist tyranny in North America. The expansion of NATO and the EU are simply trends within a wider geopolitical logic that goes beyond the tactical concerns with putting a “W” on the board. What looms over all of this is China’s rise and the potential to control Eurasia, which would be catastrophic for the United States. Russia has become the pawn between the United States and China and it wants to reassert some status, but can find no other way than to act as a spoiler rather than an enabler. Such behaviour suggests that its political sympathies lie closer to Beijing than the West.

We just need an enemy and Russia is misunderstood.

Although mention of China seems to indicate another enemy to focus America’s attention, the opposite is true. America does not go in search of enemies because it is a magnet for them. As Dean Rusk always used to say, the tenets of USFP are bound up with the UN Charter. He always talked of creating and maintaining a decent world order shown by the promise of the UN. We see a clear demonstration of a decent world order in the contrast between the EU and Russia regarding Ukraine. The EU sends tanks and Russia sends troops. One brings prosperity the other brings violence. The decent world order is one that has many enemies both at home and abroad without the need to search them out. Although many will want to view this as a Manichean struggle, Ukraine is simply part of the larger attempt to create a decent world order. No one need be destroyed to maintain this decent world order, which is why the PRC has been able to support it.

We are forgetting history because we never learned from it

I applaud Mr. Pillar for these arguments because they show us that if we forget history we are doomed to repeat it. We need to look to 1648 as much as we need to look to 1948, 1954, and 1968 to know what is at stake in the Ukraine. We would better to remind ourselves of Spykman and Mackinder than worry whether we are “hurting Russia’s feelings”. We need to consider whether we want a decent world or not. Do we avoid trying for of “triumphalism?”  One wonders how America can remain free if it continued to basis its security and the security of its allies on the hurt feelings of states seeking to impose a tyranny by force or fraud. Perhaps Mr. Pillar could consider Thucydides “The strong do as they will, the weak do as they must. Only between equals is there justice”. I see the West trying to bring equality and the Russians asserting through force and fraud what the powerful have always done through history, subject the weak.

Which side are we to join? That is the choice we will have to explain to Ukrainians.

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The harm of censorship is worse than the harm of debt? A response to: Should public libraries block payday loan websites?

On his blog, Adrian Short makes several arguments against internet “censorship” by Councils who block access to payday loan sites on library computers.  Here is the link.

Should public libraries block payday loan websites?

He says that blocking access to a payday website is censorship and it is a bad thing. Even though he accepts that such blocking (he never clarifies the difference between blocking and censorship nor does he define censorship) may be part of an anti-debt strategy, which seems to suggest that Mr. Short accepts that an anti-debt strategy is a good thing. However, that raises a question he never addresses even though it is implicit in the issue: Which is better, to have an anti-debt strategy that is supported by blocking some payday sites, or to have an anti-debt strategy that does not block payday sites. It would appear it is better that the vulnerable public remain in debt just so long as they have access to the payday loan sites, which are contributing to their debt. It would appear that the harm from blocking a website is worse than the harm of being in debt.

He then says that this is a fundamental shift in how public libraries think about providing internet access.  Strangely, though he goes on to explain that they have always blocked access to some websites, so that would suggest that it cannot be a fundamental shift so much as a widening of an existing and acceptable approach by the Council. He never explores why the Council and the libraries did not see a need to block these sites 5 or 10 years ago, which suggests that something has changed regarding payday loan companies, their marketing,  and the demands on the Council to take such measures as part of its anti-debt strategy. He does not ask why the Council has an anti-debt strategy nor why it saw a need to limit such access, he is only concerned with access not whether the access may harm people.

Mr. Short continues by suggesting that such an approach is paternalistic. Again, we are left uncertain what that means, he does not define paternalism,  and whether the issue he is addressing or concerned about is paternalism, blocking, or censorship or all three. Furthermore, Mr. Short seems to have forgotten, or rather he may have overlooked, that all politics aims at some good and all governments act in some way to benefit their citizens or subjects and reduce what may harm them. Perhaps he believes, then, by extension that all politics is paternalistic. If this is the case, he seems to be suggesting a system of anarchy in which we are ok to make a choice so long as it is not paternalistic. Yet, he seems to offer no alternative as to how a council, a democratically mandated local government, would act on its mandate if it could not act on the public’s good. Should it act to harm the public? We now enter a strange world it seems because if we take Mr. Short at his word, he would rather have the government do nothing so that the public are harmed or even take actions that harm the public just so long as it did not appear paternalistic as either option is not as bad as blocking a payday loan site.

He then admits that payday companies are bad, he calls them “generally predatory bastards”, although he believes that they should be allowed to publish whatever they want. Strangely he seems unaware that neither the council nor the libraries want to stop the payday companies from broadcasting their messages. I found no evidence, nor has Mr. Short asserted this, that the Council or the libraries want to stop the payday companies from promoting their business through the internet. Instead, they just want to keep them from appearing on Council hosted library browsers. One would expect that the Council would have the right, as given to it by the public’s democratic mandate, to organise its services and determine access to its services according to the law and its mandate, but Mr. Short does not appear to accept that possibility or at least he does not explore it.

He then suggests that the Council would have to block any and all sites that were harmful to its citizens. Strangely, he fails to realize that this is what the council does in other areas and is part of its ethos and its responsibility as an organisation. Trading standards works constantly to protect the public from fraudulent or dangerous traders or practices such as food that is incorrectly labelled. The building enforcement officers review buildings to ensure compliance with building regulations to make sure that substandard work is prevented or removed so that the public can be protected. I suppose this is a council being paternalistic to make sure the food is safe and buildings are safe.

We then start to see the issue that is emerging. Mr. Short believes that the Council’s actions are a sign of wide scale blocking and the potential collateral damage from it even though he does not explore the collateral damage from debt. In reality, he seems to have forgotten or overlooked, which is strange given his skill and experience with the web, that Google and most web search systems already use algorithms and search engine optimisation tools to decide which sites will be returned on a search. Thus, it is not so much the Council is blocking the site, which a user may wish to use and know about but cannot access, but that the whole internet is designed in such a way as that occurs by its default. Different search engines will provide different results depending on the location and most importantly the users profiles all of this is done without most users knowing nor with any democratic mandate. One would take it that his silence on this matter seems to suggest that he approves of such undemocratic methods yet seems aggrieved by a democratically mandated public body acting in the best interests of its voters.

He then seems to suggest that all research and any research on the web could or would be block by the site as no one will have access to payday websites where they wish to do their research. The problem is though that most students will have access through their own institutions which may allow access or through their own private browsing systems and such research can still be done in person, by telephone, or even through the post. In a pinch they may have to buy a magazine that specializes in comparing such companies or go to an advice bureau which could provide them information on these companies. Perhaps if the blocking leads them to see that the web is not the only method for obtaining information it would be a good thing, thus we see that the blocking rather than inhibiting research and academic freedom, is encouraging it. Is Mr. Short against such things that would enhance people’s ability to research or would he rather they remained dependent upon the web?

Strangely he is concerned about the reputation of the library because people will go elsewhere.  He also worries that the web’s reputation will be ruined by such action. Yet, he does not accept that payday loans and aggressive business practices promoted through the web are a problem or hurt the web’s reputation. It is only a problem when a democratically mandated organisation seeks to reduce the harm from the web on its residents.

We then start to see a larger issue emerge; the Council’s actions are creating a digital divide. We now must save people from a digital divide but not act to stop them from going into debt. The harm we must act to stop is a digital divide but the harm we must allow is for people to fall into debt and to be marketed by payday loans through Council websites *even if the Council has a democratic mandate to help its citizens who are in debt* because their digital divide will be worse for them.

What we realize is that the issue for Mr. Short is that the public must be protected from the harm of censorship and the digital divide but not be protected from the potential harm of debt. Why the intangible is worse than the tangible I am not sure, but Mr. Short is certain he knows which is worse for the public, which does sound a bit paternalistic, but then it is to prevent the harm of censorship so it must be a good thing.

 

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If public opinion is a tyrant, does journalism still serve democracy?

lawrence serewicz:

We often take public opinion for granted or as something that simply exists in the background to our lives. Do we give much thought as to whether it is democratic? Perhaps if we look at the ways that public opinion can appear to be tyrannical, we may see the media’s role and the role of government differently. Do they modify public opinion, bend it to their purposes, or simply react to its incessant, if at time unfocused, demands? Whatever their role, it may be time to reconsider the nature of public opinion in a democracy

Originally posted on Media Meditations:

Italy

Italy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It may be surprising to hear that public opinion in a democracy can be tyrannical. In a democracy, we want to believe that public opinion will also be democratic. Yet, public opinion is tyrannical in any community because a community needs to regulate the opinions within it to survive. A democracy is no different. The issue, though, is whether that opinion simply regulates or tyrannizes thought. The challenge for the press is to help with the former without succumbing to the latter.

When Athenians put Socrates to death it was because he refused to acknowledge the gods the city believed. He refused to accept the tyranny of thought that the city had to impose to survive. The alternative was to say that the city’s opinions were wrong and Socrates was right. If they had would that have been a democratic outcome?

Unlike Athens, the press mediate…

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Has Putin’s claim to bring glory back to Russia masked his betrayal?

 

 

President George W. Bush of the United States ...

President George W. Bush of the United States and President Vladimir Putin of Russia, exchange handshakes Thursday, June 7, 2007, after their meeting at the G8 Summit in Heiligendamm, Germany. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

If Putin wanted to bring glory back to Russia, he would be doing the following. First, he would improve health care[1]. Second, he would improve higher education.[2] Third, he would create jobs.[3] Fourth, he would free his people from Russia’s imperial past rather than keeping them enslaved.[4] Taken together, he would ensure a fair society that protected the vulnerable and constrained the powerful. His efforts in these areas belie his claims to want to restore Russia’s glory.

 

Successful tyrants improve the lot of the people

 

Like all tyrants, he does what is good for him and claims it is for the greater glory of mythical Russia.  Are his people better off for the bread and circuses that they are offered? Sochi is the circus while the events in Crimea are promoted as delivering on Russia’s status. The efforts in Crimea and the Ukraine betray a clumsy, almost comically Brezhnev like, attempt to assert Russia’s interests but with all the subtlety, we have expected from Putin. He now faces the same fate in that he must keep his rivals from deposing him.

 

A return to the past betrays the future?

 

Instead of recognizing the new Ukraine and supporting it, and nurturing it, like an older brother or mentor helping a young protégé to secure lasting influence he has acted like the bully and historical slave master that Russia has always played in the region. He has no subtlety because he has no tools but repression, fear and force.

 

Putin’s programme of persuasion pales by comparison with the EU

 

Contrast his offer with that of the EU. The EU offers trade and Putin offers tanks. The EU invites, and Putin invades. The EU wants dialogue and he gives diktats at a gun barrel. He invokes the old Russia to sell a dream because he has nothing left to offer. He cannot change and he cannot improve Russia so he can only do what he knows, which repeats the past rather set a new hopeful path for Russia able to walk with pride and influence on the world stage.

 

China’s success shows Russia’s hollow claims.

 

Putin and his claims are haunted by China. Despite bigger handicaps and a lower starting point than Russia, China is now Russia’s economic superior. Unlike Putin, the PRC leadership retains its power and satisfies its people. The rulers are delivering on their promise of a materially better future. Russia’s offer to the world appears reduced to its raw materials. In two generations, Russia has declined from a functioning first world state to a third world power armed with nuclear weapons run by plutocrats.

 

Is Putin the plutocrats’ puppet?

 

Unlike Reagan who used the arms build-up, as a way to restore pride, leverage strategic capacity and kick-start a period of economic growth Putin’s arms race is his economic package because he cannot constrain the powerful and coerce or even encourage them to work for the common good. He may have hoped that he could control them by fear, but with nothing left to steal, he can only offer to protect their gains. Even now as his power fades, he can no longer keep them from doing explicitly what they have been doing implicitly as they exploited Russia’s resources and industry for their personal gain. He continues the bread and circuses in the hopes that in time things will improve. Instead of vision, he offers empty promises of a future he knows he cannot deliver and does not intend to deliver beyond a rudimentary level. Does the Crimea change the fundamentals of the Russia’s economy and society?

 

Has Putin created the seeds for a new Russia?

 

Russians understand their dilemma. Their empire was built on oppression and power not freedom and cooperation. To change their future they must transcend their past. Their future requires a new approach to the world. However, they lack political leaders who can view the world differently because their success is based on the past. The Crimea exemplifies the limits of Russia’s power and influence, which is force and threats. Putin is caught in a dilemma. He knows intimately that this failed Russia in the past and only creates a deeper problem of legitimacy but his political future rests on the oil and gas pipelines that traverse the Ukraine. He has secured the plutocrats profits to remain in power but now makes them hostage to the illegitimacy of his “success”. He may have short-term political leverage by taking Crimea but it is a poisoned chalice because Russia now has no basis by which to legitimate its good intentions. The only way Russia can demonstrate its good faith is to hand back Crimea at some point. Perhaps he has done his successor a favour because they now have a way to repudiate him and Russia’s past while ensuring Russia’s strategic interests and creating a new future.

 


[1] Russia was the lowest in Europe and ranked 130th in the world in 2000. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_Health_Organization_ranking_of_health_systems_in_2000

[2] No Russian university is in the world top 100 and there is a chronic “brain drain” as educational talent looks outside Russia for opportunities. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/26/world/europe/russia-moves-to-improve-its-university-rankings.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

[3] http://www.freetheworld.com/2013/EFW2013-complete.pdf Russia ranks 101st for economic freedom which improves on  its ranking in 1995.

[4] For a general understanding of where Russia ranks, consider this list. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_rankings_of_Russia  Interestingly Russia ranks 102 out of 108 countries on quality of life index in 2005.  A recent survey suggests some modest improvements but hardly ones that a leader of Putin’s ego should consider as worthy of any accolade.

 

 

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Surveillance and the experience of technological sin

English: Official portrait of J. Robert Oppenh...

English: Official portrait of J. Robert Oppenheimer, first director of Los Alamos National Laboratory. Français : Le portrait officiel de Robert Oppenheimer, alors premier directeur du Laboratoire national de Los Alamos. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Throughout the furore over the NSA revelations, one thing that has remained constant is the way that technology companies and technologists have expressed a certain naiveté over politics. I do not mean that they are unaware of politics. Instead, I mean they are unaware of how or why their technological inventions would be used politically. For example, Ross Anderson a well known academic on computer security expressed surprise that the NSA were able to build the machine to monitor the internet. “To find that they had built this machine and got it working is an eye-opener,” he told the BBC.

The question for me is why should this be a surprise? The atomic bomb project should teach any scientist or technologist that a state will use and exploit any technology.

The  the Manhattan project is the seminal event that shows technology and the modern state intersecting. Robert Oppenheimer understood what it meant most clearly. However, all brilliant minds that made experiment to prove the weapon was viable  understood its terrible consequences.

We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the      Bhagavad-Gita… “Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

None of the scientists left Los Alamos the same. They understood, perhaps deep down in places they never thought about, that their scientific prowess was no longer, and never was, a benign intellectual or academic exercise in knowing for knowing’s sake.

In some sort of crude sense which no vulgarity, no humor, no overstatement can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.

The issue here is that scientists and technologists seem to forget that politics has not gone away. It remains despite the best efforts of technology to give us the appearance that it does not matter. The state will always seek to have the monopoly on violence or security within it. This is why the state and not an individual have nuclear weapons. This is why the state and not an individual have army, navy and air force. The state has an obligation to keep its citizens safe and to keep them safe, it must control or exploit the strategic high ground. The web is just another strategic high ground. As a technology it is no different from an atomic high ground. To believe otherwise, misunderstands the state’s role in protecting the citizen and the threats a state faces and must counter or mitigate to the best of its ability. If a state cannot mitigate or counter these threats, then it will lose legitimacy because it cannot meet the basic contract, which is to keep its citizens, and itself, safe.[1] When a state loses its legitimacy it begins to lose it ability to sustain and defend the other rights to which it is designed to protect and promote.

Lulled into a sense of benign well being

The web with its focus on benign communication and the potential for a democratic outcome has lulled us into a false sense of comfort and safety. We assume that the state, which keeps us safe, will not be interested in social media technologies. We have forgotten that the source of our access, at least in terms of technology is the state. We believe that because we have access to tools usually or previously reserved to a state means that we do not need the state. Google Earth satellite images give the public access to images that only a few of the most powerful states would have been able to access in 1972. Why would we assume or believe that the state would not attempt to exploit technology, as it did with the splitting of the atom, for its purposes, its political purposes? The state, by definition, is not interested in free enquiry or playing with ideas because its work is much too serious for such frivolity. If the state loses its strategic high ground, then it will be weakened. If the state is weakened, then those states who are less scrupulous in such matters, will exploit that vulnerability.

What is the source of this lulled existence?

One view is that technology, like science, is value neutral. It is neither good nor evil in itself. Thus, the intent for which it is used determines its value and determines its moral content. Thus, technology is empty of meaning or intent so the focus is only on those who use technology and the ends to which they use it. The challenge, though, mentioned above, is that the state has to work from the worst-case scenario, the exception, that can be found because of human nature. One only need to consider Google Glass and the late concerns about “creep shots” or the other ways it could be used.

A contrary view, suggested by Heidegger, was that the essence of technology preceded technology and shaped the moral content that would judge or use technology. Thus, we find it increasingly difficult to judge (pass a moral judgement) on technology because it shapes us to such a degree we do not realize how our choices are already determined by it.[2] As a result,  modern natural science is only considered for what it provides, like a crude cost-benefit exercise, and not for its effect on the user. Our decisions and thinking to reach modern technology have shaped our understanding that we find it difficult, if not impossible, to think differently about it.

We can see this in the maker culture. The idea that we build things with 3D printing seems to forget the underlying reality that enables 3D printing. The technology for 3D printing is based on and is a product of other technological decisions that were determined before the user sat down with the machine. The maker culture contains the idea that one makes the tools as well as the products. However, this seems to forget that people are not making their own microchips. In that regard, the “maker movement” presupposes a technological view of the world that only gives us the appearance of a return to a primary relationship with tools and making.  Without perhaps being conscious of it, the maker movement makes technology the primary element of life and thus removes us further from a different understanding of our lives. The digital maker movement shares some interesting similarities to “Shakers” sharing the belief that “that making something well was in itself, “an act of prayer.”” Today, we pray to a technological god and to make something is is to worship at its altar.

A third view, perhaps a hybrid of the two, is that science as philosophy expresses man’s deepest longings to know. Technology, as an expression of modern natural science can be used to serve that purpose without being reduced to cost benefit or used solely nor to relieve our human condition, nor becoming a nihilistic exercise where man simply becomes a slave to technology. However, that third view is a now perhaps a dream in that it relies upon wisdom and power to be reconciled without succumbing to either extreme. I doubt that we are educating our young to understand this view or educating them to begin to think about it.

If we return to the presenting problem, we find that technology contains a moral content that cannot be escaped.  The reason it contains a moral content is we are moral beings who live within a political context, within our cave. That context, for the time being, shapes our use of technology and shapes us. However, technology or rather its stepchild modern natural science appear to have succeeded in capturing how we understand the world.  Even if we return from these dismal thoughts, we have to accept that people who use technology will not agree about its use. To determine its use, rather than technology itself, we have to return to politics.  When we return to politics, though, we confront the problem anew because technology appears to remove the need for politics. Yet, to remove the need for politics means that technology has a settled understanding of politics and therefore about human nature. Unless we take a sceptical view of technology and subjects it to scrutiny and control based on our understanding of human nature, technology will dominate our lives and create that which we want to avoid without us even realizing it.


[1] Consider Charles Tilly’s work based on his idea that “War made the state and the state made war.” http://www.jesusradicals.com/wp-content/uploads/warmaking.pdf

[2] Consider the work of George Grant on this question. Grant, G.P. (1976). The computer does not impose on us the ways it should be used. In W. Christian & S. Grant (Eds.), The George Grant reader. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press. For an unvarnished look at the same issue consider Heidegger’s final interview.  http://web.ics.purdue.edu/~other1/Heidegger%20Der%20Spiegel.pdf

 

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Snowden, Manning and Tsarnaev: is the only difference a pressure cooker? (Part 2)

Title page from Joseph Priestley's Essay on a ...

Title page from Joseph Priestley’s Essay on a Course of Liberal Education for Civil and Active Life (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(This is the second part of an essay, the first part, published earlier can be found here.)

If liberalism cannot satisfy the disgruntled individual, what will?

Manning, Snowden and Tsarnaev attack on America has revealed liberalism’s limits in the social media age.[1] The liberal democratic state appears at the limit of what it can deliver and still provide a system for orderly political change. It now appears that the government’s legitimacy depends more on each individual’s concept of justice rather than an agreed concept shared and expressed through the government. If the individual believes the government is illegal or immoral, then it is. The problem in its essence is not new as it is as old as the tension between the individual and the community. What is new, and problematic, are the methods used to express that dissatisfaction. How can long can the liberal democratic state cater to such empowered individuals?

Did their acts justify their ends?

In part one of this essay we discussed how Ms Manning, Mr Snowden and Mr Tsarnaev justified their actions. All three believed their personal preferences determined whether their acts were right or wrong. None of them consulted critical experts, or sought alternative methods beyond nominal efforts, or explored, beyond a cursory nature, the ways to change and influence their organisation or society. None of them examined their decision against a non-arbitrary standard. None of them showed an understanding of the government policy or the purpose of the American regime. In this they appear uneducated, which is *the* problem for the regime and for liberalism.

Educating the citizen is the state’s highest responsibility within the state.

The term uneducated, does not mean illiterate, stupid, or lacking skills. [2] The term means specifically that they lack a liberal education, an education into what the regime means, how it works, and its purpose. Their lack of education is the deeper problem that haunts the American regime. They are the harbingers of a democracy ill informed and out of control as a result of its young no longer being educated to be citizens. Without an education, citizens are guided by public opinion, or their own appetites, and expect the government to cater to these appetites. Without an education they can be neither human, because they do not know who they are, nor a citizen, because they do not understand their relationship to their community and country. Instead, as individuals they rely upon public opinion for their identity.[3]

Has liberal education failed to educate individuals to be citizens?

When a regime educates its citizens, it turns individuals into citizens and ensures the regimes survival. The regime enables the individual to be educated in culture either at a minimum, the culture of the regime, or at a maximum, the culture of the mind. Here I mean both, as they are linked, but the reality is that without the former, the latter is impossible. A regime can only survive if a citizen will obey the laws.[4] A citizen will obey the laws, when they understand their purpose and the process by which they are made. In the process, we see the regime express that which sustains it beyond any one generation, the constitutional order that endures. Even if a citizen disagrees with the laws, they must obey them. They will obey them because they understand the purpose of the law and recognize the legitimacy of the system that made the laws protects them and nurtures them. From that understanding they would consent to the law and the rule of law, which in turn provides for their freedom. The constitution and the laws, rather than their conscience, create a non-arbitrary standard and process for judging the rightness of the regime so that they can consent to its goodness. However, neither Manning, Snowden nor Tsarnaev were educated to understand or articulate a non-arbitrary standard by which to judge the regime’s legitimacy and by which they could consent. Their standard was the extent to which it catered to their appetites or they agreed with it. If they agreed, they consented. Once they disagreed, they removed their consent which suggests that they do not appear to understand themselves or their role as citizen within a liberal democratic state. The regime is not simply good because they consent; rather it is good which is why they consent. Instead, their methods and intent betray a naivety, ignorance, or even hatred for liberal democracy and the education required to sustain it.

Without an education, individuals fall prey to demagogues who attack the government and sow distrust, discord, and dissension. They attack the laws which express the common good because by eroding a belief in the common good expressed by and within the constitutional political order. When a belief in the common good erodes the virtue needed to sustain a democracy declines. In America the government is of the people, by the people, and for the people so distrust or hatred of the government, which has grown in recent years, means that self government becomes uncertain. Self-government is precarious because it can only exist in relations to a robust democratic society. Self government and government are not mutually exclusive or at odd with each other. The alternative to self-government through a democratic government is either slavery or tyranny. Lincoln warned against this danger. He argued that if the public has lost faith in the laws and the government the country will fail because the possibility of self-government is lost. Even as the government tries to protect them, Americans seem intent on renouncing their responsibility to self government and demand a government strong enough to cater to them as autonomous individuals, yet weak enough not to hinder their appetites. However, Self government requires sacrifices and tradeoffs. Yet, Manning Snowden, and Tsarnaev seem to operate under a guise of a libertarian freedom. All appetites can be enjoyed so long as the government gets out of the way. What we find is that they reflect is an education that is no longer liberal.

Liberal education is already two tiered; a deeper inequality than wealth

America has become a two tiered country where some are liberally educated and the rest lack access to, or an awareness of, a liberal education. This does not mean Americans are less patriotic or have become unpatriotic. Those who are liberally educated seem unaware of, or removed from, the regime’s founding principles, purpose, and what is required from them to sustain the regime.[5] Consider Harvard University, America’s top school, where the average grade is now an A. Graduates leave the school uneducated in virtue assuming that life outside the university will provide similar rewards. They are not educated in virtue.[6] Today an education in virtue seems a faded memory, a quaint idea, in a technological age.[7] Virtue has been replaced by a faith in technology. Students are not taught to be human. They leave school with a stunted understanding, a technological understanding, of what makes us human. Man becomes and is encouraged to be a standing reserve to be consumed, to be used to satisfy the appetites, instead of an intrinsically worthy being, exiting within the laws of nature and nature’s God. Politics is either a libertarian self-interested model, or a hedonistic system that masking nihilism, where humans live to enjoy their appetites because nothing else matters.

In the second tier, a liberal education is overlooked or forgotten. It is not a priority because people no longer know what it means. There is no time or leisure to consider what it means to live a liberally educated life. Even the term liberal in popular culture creates confusion if not outright disdain. The intellectual and moral ground is no longer fertile. The modern citizen can no longer imbue the ethos of the regime and understand what makes it great and what is required to make it great and beautiful. Instead they consume the American symbols but not their meaning. Where they do have an “education”, it comes from public opinion. A public opinion shaped and nurtured to teach them to be cynical, sceptical, resentful and angry towards the government. They are told, and believe, that the government is the problem.

Both tiers find an unintended common ground in the technological society but for their own reasons. In the technological society people no longer interact in places where their rough edges are smoothed by rubbing shoulders and elbows with different citizens. On the net, everyone is isolated and alone, they are pure individuals neither part of a group nor citizens. On the net, they live without borders and without a country. They are individuals beholden to no one but themselves, their own ideas, appetites, and prejudices. Where they are part of a group it is to reinforce and identify themselves by their appetites and prejudice and neither seeks out what is common to them as citizens. Where they do seek that common ground it is in pleasures and leisurely pursuits rather than in activities that require them to interact or to compromise within their community for a higher purpose that is the common good.

Where a liberal education does occur it is almost by happenstance, or by familial tradition, neither of which can sustain the regime much longer. A liberal education is more than going to university because a liberal education is a way of life, an education to a way of life, the life of citizenship. Above all it is an education to recognise the great and beautiful within each other and the common good. Through the common good, we share as citizens in something greater than ourselves. Without that education, a citizen’s virtue fails. Without a citizen’s virtue, democracy fails. Thus, we see the true pressure cooker that haunts America

The pressure cooker at the end of the liberal state

Western society faces two pressure cookers. The first is the pressure cooker of the next homemade bomb.[8] The second though is the deeper more pressing problem. It is the pressure cooker of an uneducated citizenry. The pressure from both is growing within liberalism. Liberal democracy, that expresses the political hope of liberalism, appears unable to contain the incessant demands created by a technological individual. The technological vision of democracy where the state must act like a service provider that respond to each individual without sacrifice or trade-off and all laws are to be understood like computer code betrays liberalism’s origins. The atomized individual requires no sense of the common good that sustains the regime and no sense of shared purpose. Each individual sees themselves as determinative rather than seeing themselves as part of, and involved in, the common good. They want what they can get from the state or the system. We see this expressed, in part, but not exclusively in the financial system. The system was corrupted by citizens unable to believe in the common good or who, if they acknowledged the common good, believed their behaviour, no matter how corrupt, served it. Citizenship was reduced to an economic transaction where as long as you did not get caught you could get away with it. Manning, Snowden, and Tsarnaev indicate that liberalism and America are losing their ability to resolve the demands of the technologically empowered autonomous individual who is uneducated in liberal democratic virtue. IT is not their acts nor their reasons for acting, but rather what they imply that is the larger problem that needs to be addressed. How this problem is addressed will determine America’s and liberal democracy’s fate.


[1] For an introduction into the multifaceted understanding of liberalism look at Stanford University Internet Philosophy Encyclopedia.

[2] Although all the individuals had received some education beyond high school and some university or college level training; the individuals could not be considered to have had a liberal education. However, that fact raises a deep question for the regime because it suggests that the regime cannot educate its citizens properly. The liberal education required to sustain a liberal democratic state is not available nor offered to all citizens. Even for the ones who are given a “liberal education” it would appear that it is no longer sufficient to sustain the regime.

[3] Please note that this does not make them inhuman or even subhuman. Instead, it is to suggest, like Hamlet, they are incomplete, because they do not know who they are.

[4] I explored this idea in greater detail at this post on Edward Snowden and America’s Suicide.

[5] Take for instance the following article that asks why insider trading is illegal. In the article the author suggests that there is no illegality because there is no victim. He questions whether society should enforce its moral sentiments on anyone. In contrast to Manning, Snowden, and Tsarnaev, the author is well educated, he has an advanced degree beyond university, and has a position of power and influence, and he is a Senior Editor at CNBC.com. If someone with his position of power and influences lacks an understanding of liberal democratic justice, then it raises questions about the education towards citizenship and ethics required to sustain the legal system and the regime.

[6] To an extent, Professor Mansfield, who brought this issue to light, teaches his students virtue through his grading system, which reflects, perhaps, his understanding of Cyrus.

[7] My point is different from Allan Bloom’s who expressed concern about a university education. I am concerned with education in its fullest sense, which includes the education outside of the university, the education of the citizen.

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Tony Blair’s excellent advice

lawrence serewicz:

Tony Blair is a polarizing figure now in British politics. Despite what critics may say, he was and is an extraordinarily successful politician. When he gives advice, it pays to listen.

Originally posted on Media Meditations:

British Prime Minister Tony Blair Speaks In Ar...

British Prime Minister Tony Blair Speaks In Armagh, Northern Ireland. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tony Blair has given us a great insight into his success as a politician and a public figure. If we look beyond the propriety of his advice and Mrs Brooks motive in recording it, we will see its value. Tony Blair is an astute politician. He succeeded in large part because he could manage the media message, which today is as important as the political programme. He has provided good crisis management advice that corporate leaders and politicians should take note.

The advice in its parts helps us understand how he managed the appearance as well as the reality of the situation. Like all successful politicians and public figures, Mr Blair understands that appearance can become the reality.

“1. Form an independent unit that has an outside junior counsel, Ken Macdonald, a great and good type, a…

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