Is the web now a scout and spy for the passions?

The frontispiece of the book Leviathan by Thom...

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

We often see the web as a place where people can share information and learn. In many ways, the web provides information in ways that break down traditional hierarchies as it allows information to be linked horizontally while traditional approaches to information were often found vertically which required going through a gatekeeper. The gatekeeper could be the physical distance from the information as well as a person or institution that controlled access. Now, the web allows people to search for information and connected in ways that they choose. They can explore and investigate issues that interest them and feed their appetite or thirst for knowledge and information. The web allows us to pursue those interests better than any previous era.

Democratic access to knowledge and our appetites

Unlike any previous era, the web has opened up opportunities and knowledge for the average person that would have only been available to the wealthy and the connected. The average person can follow their intellectual interests and their passions faster than previously. By democratising our access, the web has also allowed something implicit within the human person to become explicit or at least provide it with more capacity. The web has allowed our thoughts to become scouts and spies for our passions. The phrase, taken from Thomas, an English philosopher, suggests the way that our intellect serves our passions.

Pursue power or pointless proclivities?

In his most famous book, The Leviathan, Hobbes raised this point in his discussion on the intellectual virtues. In chapter 8, Of the Virtues Commonly Called Intellectual and Their contrary Defect, he argued that all men want to pursue power, riches, knowledge and honour but all of these can be reduce to the pursuit of power. If a man does not pursue these with his thoughts then, he may as well be dead because if his interests go to less important or inconsequential matters, then he is less than fully human. In making this argument Hobbes argues that our thoughts become the scouts and spies for the passions. Our thoughts work for our passion, the passion to pursue (and obtain) power or some other passion.

“For the thoughts are to the desires as scouts and spies to range abroad and find the way to the things desired, all steadiness of the mind’s motion, and all quickness of the same, proceeding from thence.”

The web is almost a purpose built mechanism to be a scout and spy for our desires. The search engines allow us to fulfil our desires either for gossip, titillation, sexual gratification and occasionally curiosity and learning. In some cases, they can be used for the pursuit of power. However, this appears to be rare because of the dominance of the other goals for the average person. Technology, it would appear, has enhanced our reason so that it serves our desires rather than reason directing and ordering our passions. Moreover, it does not direct us towards power but the less important interests.

If you do not pursue power you may as well be dead

Hobbes continues by explaining that without the desire for power, man may has well be dead. Yet, if an individual pursue those other goals, the entertainments, the web may unleash the flaws within the person. We start to explore for the weirdest, the most extreme, and the most outlandish beyond our usual needs.

“For as to have no desire is to be dead; so to have weak passions is dullness; and to have passions indifferently for everything, giddiness and distraction; and to have stronger and more vehement passions for anything than is ordinarily seen in others is that which men call madness.”

The web does introduce a type of madness in individuals in two ways. First, it introduces them to goals other than the pursuit of power. Second, it encourages people to pursue their passions in a disordered manner such as narcissism.

Whereof there be almost as many kinds as of the passions themselves. Sometimes the extraordinary and extravagant passion proceedeth from the evil constitution of the organs of the body, or harm done them; and sometimes the hurt, and indisposition of the organs, is caused by the vehemence or long continuance of the passion. But in both cases the madness is of one and the same nature.

If we apply Hobbes to our current condition, we see in him a description of the narcissism of the web and the way the web disillusions the mind. In that sense, the web creates a solipsistic syndrome where the individual is either full self-conceit or simply disillusioned and depressed by it.

The passion whose violence or continuance maketh madness is either great vainglory, which is commonly called pride and self-conceit, or great dejection of mind.

However, the problem is not the solipsistic syndrome by itself. The deeper problem for Hobbes, and for us, is that when man is not pursuing power, his pursuits of experiences that confirm his pride lead to anger. When the life on the web does not correspond to his reality, he becomes angry.

Pride subjecteth a man to anger, the excess whereof is the madness called rage, and fury. And thus it comes to pass that excessive desire of revenge, when it becomes habitual, hurteth the organs, and becomes rage: that excessive love, with jealousy, becomes also rage: excessive opinion of a man’s own self, for divine inspiration, for wisdom, learning, form, and the like, becomes distraction and giddiness: the same, joined with envy, rage: vehement opinion of the truth of anything, contradicted by others, rage.

Thus Hobbes helps us to understand how our experience on the web is translated into behaviours in the physical domain. The deeper challenge, though, that Hobbes reminds us of is that the liberalism he created unleashes that pride and therefore needs to be restrained. Hobbes created a restraint in the form of the Leviathan. Today that Leviathan is in danger and is unable to restrain the passions that have been unleashed by technology. The forces unleashed by undirected pride cannot be contained by the commonwealth. The Leviathan is literally being consumed from within as each individual wants to exercise their unlimited pride and demands that the Leviathan enable it rather than restrain it. Each person, through their technological augmentation, or rather the web’s promise of such power, demands that their pride be satisfied. The digital domain might be able to entertain such notions, but the physical domain cannot.

I want to be the judge in my own case, what could be wrong with that?

We can see such prideful thinking today in the logic that supports Edward Snowden and other web libertarians. They demand that the physical world reflect their vision, and behaviour, in the digital domain where they can be the judges in their own case. When their pursuits, for which they are lauded and glorified, do not translate into power, for they have not pursued political power, they become angry and resentful. They then believe that the sovereign state represses their ability to translate their digital status into the physical domain. They have judged themselves worthy, and others have acknowledged their status, so the only thing that stands in the way of their pride, in this view, is the Leviathan. We can see this thinking encouraged by theorists like Corey Robbin. In his article on failed Hobbesian states he appears to make the claim that the sovereign state, according to Hobbes, forbids us from holding our own opinions or being the judges in our own cases. His argument suggests that the Leviathan is going to determine our thoughts. However, the passage he cites (below) to support this view means the opposite. The Leviathan only becomes involved in doubtful cases concerning the interpretation of miracles, hardly the same as discussing personal safety, and it only suggests that the Sovereign is the only neutral judge in such matters. In other words, individuals need to offer their disputes to the sovereign, a third party, to avoid a partisan decision as an individual will not be neutral in judging their own case.

The individual judges what is best for society?

The alternative, which Robbin appears to be suggesting, is the solipsistic syndrome, where each individual will judge what is best in their own cases which leads to anarchy. The approach denies that the community or the sovereign, is empowered to determine peace or war and right or wrong for the community. The individual need only pursue what they believe to be right, they only need to follow their passions, be the judges of their own case. Curiously, Robbin fails to realize that such an approach, if it were true, would lead us back to the point that Hobbes wanted to avoid: the state of nature.

Does a sovereign take away our private thoughts or our public acts?

Robbin says that the sovereign is taking away our ability to decide what might threaten us. We cannot judge what a threat is and therefore the sovereign must decide for us.

The only solution to this problem, Hobbes concludes, is to create an all-powerful sovereign to whom we cede this basic right — not the right to defend ourselves from certain and immediate danger (a right no one can rationally cede) but the right to be the judge of what might threaten us and of what actions we will take to protect ourselves from what might threaten us. When we submit to sovereign power, Hobbes says in Elements of Law, we are forbidden “to be our own judges” of our security, for the sovereign, Hobbes adds in Leviathan, is he “to whom in all doubtfull cases, wee have submitted our private judgments.” [emphasis added]

The passage appears to distort what Hobbes meant. When we look at Robbin’s use of Elements of the Law quotation, we begin to see what appears to be the problem. In Chapter 17 there is only one reference to being forbidden to be our own judges and it does not relate to security. The social contract is predicated on the idea that we give up our private decisions to create a community so that we will not have to live with the constant threat that exemplifies the state of nature.

Here is the reference being our own judges in chapter 17 of the Elements of the Laws.

For every man’s passion weigheth heavy in his own scale, but not in the scale of his neighbour. And this rule is very well known and expressed by this old dictate, Quod tibi fieri non vis, alteri ne feceris. [Do unto others as you would have them do unto you [Translated by Google]]

10. These laws of nature, the sum whereof consisteth in forbidding us to be our own judges, and our own carvers, and in commanding us to accommodate one another; in case they should be observed by some, and not by others, would make the observers but a prey to them that should neglect them; leaving the good, both without defence against the wicked, and also with a charge to assist them: which is against the scope of the said laws, that are made only for the protection and defence of them that keep them.

What we find is that it is not the sovereign that forbids us from being our own judges, but the laws of nature. In other words, the proper application of reason in accordance with nature tells us that we cannot judge in our own case. The passage is explaining the basic rule of fairness or justice; you cannot judge your own case. The law is designed to protect those who obey them and punish those who disobey. We can still decide if we have been injured and whether we wish to bring our case to court, before the sovereign, as we still retain our freedom in this regard.

Can we have peace and order if every one judges their own case?

The second problem is that the reference that we must submit our private judgements to the sovereign is taken out of context. The section from which it is taken is not focused on security or on private judgement simply. The section covers a specific issue where private judgements must be offered to an arbiter to avoid greater problems. To understand this quotation, we have to turn to chapter 37 of the Leviathan where the quotation is found. The section is about miracles and man is only giving up his judgement about religious dogma which the sovereign, per chapter 18, must monitor for the danger of threat to public order or safety. It is not that man must give up his judgement about his security, he has given up his judgement to the sovereign on doubtful cases regarding whether something is a miracle.

And when that is done, the thing they pretend to be a miracle, we must both see it done and use all means possible to consider whether it be really done; and not only so, but whether it be such as no man can do the like by his natural power, but that it requires the immediate hand of God. And in this also we must have recourse to God’s lieutenant, to whom in all doubtful cases we have submitted our private judgements. For example, if a man pretend that after certain words spoken over a piece of bread, that presently God hath made it not bread, but a god, or a man, or both, and nevertheless it looketh still as like bread as ever it did, there is no reason for any man to think it really done, nor consequently to fear him till he enquire of God by his vicar or lieutenant whether it be done or not.

The sovereign intervenes in doubtful matters concerning religious dogma rather than all private judgements. As Hobbes lived in an age of religion fuelled civil war, he understood how disputes involving religious dogma become a spark for violent conflict. Moreover, he argued in chapter 18 of the Leviathan that when man creaes the sovereign, the sovereign is given the power, the right, to determine public opinion on matters relating to public safety. In other words, the sovereign has responsibility to maintain public order, as no one individual can decide their own case regarding the public order lest a tyranny be created. The sovereign is not interested in what opinions are best as their only concern is for public opinions that threaten the public order.

Sixthly, it is annexed to the sovereignty to be judge of what opinions and doctrines are averse, and what conducing to peace; and consequently, on what occasions, how far, and what men are to be trusted withal in speaking to multitudes of people; and who shall examine the doctrines of all books before they be published. For the actions of men proceed from their opinions, and in the well governing of opinions consisteth the well governing of men’s actions in order to their peace and concord. ….It belonged therefore to him that hath the sovereign power to be judge, or constitute all judges of opinions and doctrines, as a thing necessary to peace; thereby to prevent discord and civil war.

The sovereign does not proscribe speech, but it will act to prevent speech that is dangerous to the public order. We can see that today as hate speech laws exist and statements that are libellous or slanderous or defamatory are outlawed. In this way, our speech is curbed and the sovereign has a role in determining those cases brought before it so that no one is a judge in their own case. Moreover, the issue is not simply speech; it is that speech leads to deeds. Thus, it is not speech or thought that is constrained it is the deeds that may follow from it.

Words and thoughts are safe but deeds are dangerous

The idea was developed by one of Hobbes’s contemporaries Baruch Spinoza. Spinoza explains in Chapter 20 of A Theologico-Political Treatise why speech and private judgements were defended by the state but not public acts that ran contrary to the state.

For, although mens free judgments are very diverse, each one thinking that he alone knows everything, and although complete unanimity of feeling and speech is out of the question, it is impossible to preserve peace, unless individuals abdicate their right of acting entirely on their own judgment. Therefore, the individual justly cedes the right of free action, though not of free reason and judgment; no one can act against the authorities without danger to the state, though his feelings and judgment may be at variance therewith; he may even speak against them, provided that he does so from rational conviction, not from fraud, anger, or hatred, and provided that he does not attempt to introduce any change on his private authority. [Emphasis added]

Robbin’s analysis of Hobbes appears to confirms the beliefs among the web libertarians that the sovereign is created solely to tell them what to think and how to act. The sovereign is only interested in how they act. Thoughts and speech are not the problem. Where they do become a possible problem is in national security, but this too reminds us of the sovereign’s limits. National security can justify intelligence collection system for electronic communication only to the extent that private statements or conspiracies can lead to public acts that threaten public safety.  Only in that circumstance, with a reasonable suspicious that such private judgements are linked to the reasonable threat of a public act, does the sovereign act. The sovereign, in other words, is doing its job to maintain the peace and stability needed to prosper. To that end, and that end alone, men consent to create a sovereign to protect their interests and make sure that no one is a judge in their own case.

Is the problem our pride or those who encourage rather than restrain it?

The web encourages a certain libertarian narcissism where people want to judge their own cases and they do not want to live by society’s obligations or rules. They want society to reflect their wishes and when it fails to react, they become angry. Their pride is injured so they claim either the sovereign is denying them their right to judge or their freedom of thought as it forces them to conform. In either case, their argument becomes one that the system is corrupt because their digital status is not reflected in the physical domain, which means the political system is broken. The physical world does not work on open access and the demand that it work like the digital domain forgets that the digital domain is a creature of the natural domain not the other way around no matter how hard they may wish for it. What compounds this problem is that those experienced in the world will encourage such thinking and encourage such behaviour at the expense of the young and idealistic. The web encourages the cynical exploitation of the solipsistic syndrome masked as youthful idealism. Once the deed occurs, those who encouraged it suddenly offer blame for a corrupt world masked as condolences.

The digital libertarians may yet learn to understand Hobbes’s lesson that all men pursue power and anything else, no matter how brilliant or how well received by the admiring crowd, is simply an entertainment.



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If the NSA suppresses political dissent, why are they so bad at it?

English: First page of Constitution of the Uni...

English: First page of Constitution of the United States Česky: První strana originálu Ústavy Spojených států amerických Español: La página primera de la Constitución de los Estados Unidos de América (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I came across Barry Eisler’s post Motive, Means, and Opportunity: Why NSA Secrecy Should Worry Us All and I thought he would explain why secrecy was bad for a liberal democracy. Although he never discussed this issue, he did make a more important claim that is more interesting. He claimed that liberal democratic governments, like the United States suppress dissent.

When it comes to domestic dissent, the government always has a motive. It’s just human nature to see ourselves as noble and good and our detractors as malignant.  And indeed, the historical evidence for the proposition that governments tend to view dissenters as the enemy is overwhelming: see CointelproProject Minaret; and Project Shamrock for just a few recent historical examples, or the Obama administration’s unprecedented campaign against whistleblowers for something more contemporary.

Here we begin to see a problem. Mr Eisler is talking about intelligence activities and immediately equating them with suppressing of political dissent. In each of these programmes, we find that the surveillance was authorised by the government. That in itself is not surprising. What is still not clear is how the monitoring turned into suppressing the dissent. Mr Eisler, nor does anyone else it would appear, suggests that these “dissenters” were assassinated or kept from expressing their views. Moreover, the various people on the lists only appear to have been linked because they were on the list not because they were dissenter. We do not know why they were on the list. To put it directly, being on a list is not the same as being suppressed for dissenting.

If we leave aside the problem with confusing an intelligence gathering activity with suppressing political dissent or being on a list with being suppressed, we still have a second problem. The second problem is that Mr Eisler confuses dissenters with whistleblowers.  In most cases, the whistleblower does not hate his government or country or even dissent from the government or the country. Instead, the whistleblower is pointing out something illegal. The dissenter, by contrast, is disagreeing with the policy, procedures, or position of the government and perhaps the country. They are publicly dissenting from either the government’s accepted position or the country’s or both. By equating the whistleblower with the dissenter, we have a specific activity; whistle blowing now being equated with a form of political speech.  The two are rarely the same. The concern for political speech, however, leads us to the third and deeper problem with Mr Eisler’s post.

He suggests that the United States Government suppresses dissent. Yet, if that were the case, why would someone like Glenn Greenwald is allowed to publish his books and travel freely within the country? Why would the Intercept be allowed to operate and publish? We need to move beyond such superficial and obvious points to a deeper intellectual problem with Mr Eisler’s thinking. To understand the contradiction in his position, we need to look to the political theorists who developed the idea of a liberal democracy and what it means. There we find the opposite of what he is claiming. Liberal democracies do not suppress dissent. Liberal democracies emerged and thrived because they are predicated on the idea of protecting freedom of thought and freedom of public speech. The most famous and outspoken proponent of this idea was Baruch Spinoza. He wrote the following, which suggests Mr Eisler does not understand liberal democracy or political dissent.

For instance, supposing a man shows that a law is repugnant to sound reason, and should therefore be repealed; if he submits his opinion to the judgment of the authorities (who, alone, have the right  of making and repealing laws), and meanwhile acts in nowise contrary to that law, he has deserved well of the state, and has behaved as a good citizen should; but if he accuses the authorities of injustice, and stirs up the people against them, or if he seditiously strives to abrogate the law without their consent, he is a mere agitator and rebel. (p.140)

The central point, which Mr. Eisler and others seem to forget, is that liberal democracies will not tolerate acts that seek to overthrow or damage the government or harm the public safety. They will tolerate free thought and free speech and even active public dissent Free thought and speech are fine. Public acts to thwart the law or overthrow the government through violence are not acceptable. What remains is the problem that neither Mr Eisler nor Mr Greenwald can solve. How to respond to public speech or private thought that will be turned into a public act that hurts the public and public safety? If Mr. Eisler could tell us that we would have no need for the NSA. However, he would do well to remember that even theocracies have spy agencies.

Neither the NSA nor the United States government is designed or directed to stop political dissent. To believe that or to argue that is to suggest something that has no evidence. We may disagree with such programmes and the government that directs them, but to attribute something to them which is false is to fall prey to what he dislikes: the Fundamental Misattribution Error. Mr. Eisler has attributed to the NSA behaviour he dislikes. Curiously, though in the final part of his post, he moves from dissent (words) to the possibility of threats (actual deeds).

Here we have a strange situation. Mr Eisler does not think public safety, either in terms of physical safety or economic safety is sufficient to justify a national security agency. I would ask, if those two goals, which are the main responsibility of any decent governments is not enough, what is? What goals should a government pursue if it is not trying to keep its citizens safe and help to maintain prosperity?

We arrive at the curious point where Mr. Eisler apparently dislikes the NSA and the government because they keep its citizens safe and help to ensure the countries general welfare. The general welfare, he would recall, is the central task of the government according to the United States Constitution.

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. [Emphasis added]

I read his post because I thought I would learn about why secrecy was bad for a liberal democracy. Instead, I found that Mr Eisler does not like a constitutional government and certainly not one that defends itself.




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An analysis of the Farage interview on LBC Radio: Was it really a “car crash?”


Interview (Photo credit: smiling_da_vinci)

In the week leading up to the 2014 local elections and the European Union elections, we were treated to the power of the media in its ability to hold politicians to account. When the LBC commentator Mr. James O’Brien interviewed Nigel Farage, it was to hold him to account for his views. In particular, the interview was arranged so that Mr. Farage, as leader of the UKIP party, could address the claims that his party is racist. Most people are interested in the interview for what it revealed about Mr. Farage and his party. For some, it was a chance to see him held to account for his views. For a few, in particular those interested in the media, they saw the interview as demonstrating how an interviewer could hold Mr. Farage to account where other political interviewers had failed. Following the interview, a number of articles suggested that well-known interviewers could learn from Mr. O’Brien and his interview technique. It is that last point that I want to explore in this post.

I have to declare my interest at the start to say that I am not involved in politics; I am not associated with any political party and I am not associated UKIP nor am I associated with LBC radio. I had never heard of LBC Radio before this interview was broadcast. My sole intent here is to explore the questions and the questioning technique used by Mr. O’Brien. A separate analysis would focus on Mr. Farage’s responses. Such a commentary would explore what they might mean for UK politics, but that is for another time.

Asking good questions is difficult, ask anyone.

Few people have the natural ability to ask good questions. We assume we can ask good questions or have good questioning techniques. After all, we ask questions every day and we get answers to those questions. For powerful people, it is even more unlikely that they will reflect on the need to ask good questions because they get answers to their questions. They rarely have to consider the best way to pose questions because the organisations they lead are designed to serve them and the people they meet often defer to their status or power. Thus, when someone tells me about an interviewer with good questioning skills I take notice.

Asking good questions is what makes a democracy work

We may think the quality of questions is unimportant. After all, we ask questions every day and we get answers. The answers determine the quality of what we know. In a democracy, the quality of the questions and questioning techniques enables citizens to hold the government or people in power to account. Poor questions lead to poor outcomes. Without good questions, justice is hard to find. However, in a democracy, questions are often confused with political theatre.  Jeremy Paxman repeating the same question to Michael Howard is not good questioning technique even though it is good political theatre. The danger is political theatre becomes what people expect from radio and television interviews. The notable example has been the Leveson inquiry and its high quality of questions, which I have discussed before here.

Easy to ask questions but difficult to ask good questions.

I am interested in political philosophy, which is based on the idea that questions help us reveal and understand the best way to live, so I am interested in people who are reputed to ask good questions in the public domain. I have looked at the questioning skills at the Leveson inquiry, at the Select Committee and in court proceedings, which provided an insight into the LBC interview. Although I am interested in the outcomes and the content of the interview, it is only to understand how questions reveal the information or fail to reveal the information.

Usually when I review a questioning technique, a transcript already existed. In this case, no transcript exists so I had to do my best to create one. I relied mainly on the LBC interview posted on You Tube. ( All errors and omissions are mine.


The interview starts with a question about today’s news. The interviewer says that a UKIP member said something very offensive. The interviewer than says he is likely a small fry but not what we can compare to your small business spokesman who employed 7 illegal immigrants.

The interviewer asks, “Are they both idiots?” Farage response “They are two different issues.” He admits they have occurred and asks why no one else is asking the other parties.

(At this opening point, the interviewer could have explored whether it indicated that UKIP is a party that is not ready for greater political responsibility. Such a question would have revealed something about the political maturity of a party, which could have helped us understand or challenge the view on racism, which as the main reason for the interview. When the UKIP member does or says something inappropriate it receives a lot more attention because the party is now more noticeable. The interviewer could have used this to contrast UKIP with the disciplined party machines of the other parties. However, the closed question does not offer room for a follow up question.)

The interview asks what happens to the councillor. Farage explains he has not heard of him until this moment.

The interviewer asks him what will happen. Farage responds he will face a disciplinary charge to see if he bought the party into disrepute.

(The answer is a stock one for all political parties and organisations. There is no benefit to exploring this question unless the interviewer expects him to say something else or if it leads to a follow up question.)

At 207, the interviewer then says, “That was on the 17th of February”.

(The statement, posed as a question, which is a common failing in political interviews, implies that the party knew about the tweet since February and did nothing. However, this is not good questioning technique. If he had linked it to party machinery, he could have drawn out a deeper problem for UKIP and its party infrastructure. However, Farage has not heard of the man or the tweet until that moment. Which begs the question of why ask it because Farage has explained what he would do now that he knows. How can he do something about what he did not know about in the past? The interviewer could have asked whether anyone in the party knew about it, but he does not. Here he misses an opportunity to suggest that no one in the party saw it as a problem or has suppressed the knowledge of the tweet. Yet, that is not pursued which suggests that the interviewer has not mapped their questions.)

At 208, we get a statement posed as a question “What about the small business spokesperson that employs seven illegal immigrants?” Farage explains the spokesperson resigned from the company after the immigration raid on a company that he is only a director of and does not run on a day-to-day basis. He explains that the company is disputing the immigration authority’s judgement that they were illegal immigrants. When Farage says, “That does not make him an idiot,” the interviewer asks

At 242, “What does that make him?”

(The question does not follow from the issue since it focuses on how Farage or UKIP would classify him rather than investigating the claim. He does not explore how or why they came to be hired. He could have contrasted this with the government’s pilot about warning illegal immigrants that they face arrest and deportation. At the same time, he could have asked if this illustrates the problem that UKIP is supposedly trying to stop. The interviewer could have explored whether it was immigration, illegal immigration, worker movement, or the movement of specific workers that matters. All these options emerge for a skilled interviewer to exploit. He could have used this to suggest the hypocrisy of the UKIP stand on immigration or at least put into sharp relief claims about limiting immigration and why. Instead, no follow up questions are used.)

At 304, Farage starts to explain how the party is distancing itself from the extremists by refusing ex BNP as members.

The interviewer allows Farage to explain how he has removed people who make outrageous statements and they avoid associating with extremist views. The interviewer does not challenge his claims. He then turns to Farage’s claims.

At 326, the interviewer seems to use a statement as a question “Ok, what about your associations with the BNP?” The interviewer describes the person Farage met, but we do not find a question coming from the statements.

The interviewer moves on to ask about Farage’s association in 1997 with a lunch with a far right writer/ activist. Farage is then alleged to have used racist language in the pub after the lunch. A month later, the writer wrote an article suggesting that the UKIP and BNP find common ground.

At 358 the interviewer asks “How does something like that (the article being written) happen”.

(Instead of asking a follow up question about the arrangements for such a meeting or asking if he discussed whether an article could or should be written, he does not follow up on the meeting. He allows Farage to explain how the writer was brought into the centre of UKIP by the founder. Yet, the interviewer does not ask how he came to be removed or why it appears that UKIP attracts such figures.)

At 420-426 Farage then explains that the person who founded the party, which Farage now leads, brought figure into the party. Farage then explains he met with him to find out what made him change his view.

(The interviewer does not explore the issue. Another chance for a follow up question is missed as he could have asked him “What did you find out about why he changed his view?”)

At 430-456, Farage explains the alleged comments he made and he describes it as mud. He accepts the defence by Farage unequivocally. He accepts it was mud.

(Here the interviewer passed up an opportunity for a follow up question to explore motives of the founder and Farage’s motives in meeting the person and the outcomes.).

At 458-515, the interviewer asks “What about the mud that is being thrown about the far right groups”. (The statement posed as a question only reminds us of UKIP’s alliances in Europe, but it does nothing to explain or reveal why those alliances are made. The interviewer could have asked, “Why do you ally with these parties?”

At 535 Farage explains that the political language and politics of Europe is different from the UK.

At 546-554, Farage says he has drawn a line in Europe so that UKIP will not sit with the extremes but will sit with people “We believe to have a reasonable balanced point of view.

(The interviewer could have explored what Farage meant by reasonable balanced points of view. He could have explored why UKIP had to ally with such groups or find the least extreme parties with which to create an alliance. However, he does not challenge these statements or explore them. However, at 600 the interviewer does ask a good follow up question.)

At 600, he asks, “Why not just leave it?”  Farage says that they may consider it. (Here the interviewer missed an opportunity to get a commitment or ask why he considers it now but not when they made the initial compromise. The interviewer stays on the surface and does not use this as an opportunity to drill into the issue. If this section of the interview was mapped out or planned, the interviewer could have explored what UKIP requires to achieve power and the extent to which UKIP has to compromise to achieve that power. If they compromise on this issue, what is it that they must compromise to be part of the group? However, the interviewer accepts Farage’s statement uncritically, which raises the question of why did he ask it in the first place? Again, if it was to remind listeners of those associations rather than understand UKIP’s behaviour, policy, or goals in Europe, what was the point? So far, all the questions have been on UKIP’s associations without exploring them. A well-structured interview probes and digs beneath the surface. Here the interview remains on the surface.)

At 631 Farage explains that a degree of compromise is needed. The interviewer does not explore this issue.

(When Farage explains that he has to make compromises in EU politics as that is the nature of the political system, the interviewer does not question the logic nor does he ask what types of compromises are required. He does not ask, “What guides UKIP when it makes a compromise?” He does not appear interested in the way that an answer would reveal UKIP’s political strategy. The interviewer does not explore the decisions behind those alliances and the purpose they serve. He does not go beyond the surface to understand or reveal more about UKIP thinking. Instead, he goes to the issue of political classes.)

At 636-645, the interviewer begins to explore Farage’s claim about the political classes and their friends in the media were attacking UKIP unfairly as the party is no different from any other party yet UKIP sells itself as being different.

(The interviewer misses an opportunity in making this point to ask which it is. Is it that UKIP is different or is it like the mainstream parties? The interviewer does not ask this question nor does he explore the issue. Instead, the interviewer starts to ask him about whether he writes newspaper columns.

At 658- 708 the interviewer explores how Farage is in the media without raising a question. (We see another situation where statements are posed as questions, which are not a good technique because it does not force or require an answer. He could have asked about Farage’s friends in the media, as he seems to have some success at being heard and gaining access to the media.)

At 708 we move on to the issue of who is paying Farage’s medical bills as the interviewer raises a Private Eye report that claims Farage’s medical bills are being paid by a newspaper proprietor. Farage does address whether he will make a legal challenge and dodges the issue by saying he is running an election campaign.

(Here the interviewer could have asked, “Who are your friends in the media?” Alternatively, he could have asked something to draw out the issue, as he will know that all political parties rely on favourable media relationships. All political parties have reporters or media outlets they believe are sympathetic or friendly and that question may have been useful to draw out those relationships. However, the interviewer accepts his defence and moves on. He failed to go beyond the surface issue and ask any follow up questions to draw out elements of the issue or find a gap for further questions. Moreover, he does not explore why the legal challenge cannot be pursued during the campaign.)

From 753 to 802 the interviewer allows Farage to explain why he came into politics and what he wants to achieve, which is to remove the UK from the EU so that it is not tangled up by the bureaucrats in the EU. He then claims to have sacrificed a lot to run this campaign.

At 802-1018, the interview focuses on Farage’s business experience and it starts with the interviewing asking whether Farage has sacrificed in pursuit of his goal. “Have you? The last company you ran was wound up?” Farage explains that he ran his own company for nine years and he closed it down. When the interviewer raises some additional points, Farage then clarifies that he was a non-paid company secretary of a firm that was wound up.

(The interviewer never probes the claims nor does he ask a direct question about the firms. He could have asked whether that experience would inform UKIP economic policies. We never understand why the issue was raised. Every year 80,000 companies are wound up, but the question is never put in context. Was the issue raised to show Farage’s business failings? Was it to suggest his financial connections? The question is left hanging, which should rarely occur in a well-structured or thought out interview.  the interviewer keeps focusing on the winding up order, in the mode of Paxman, without using the question to illustrate anything about the issue or about UKIP policies. The could have asked whether Farage has the necessary experience to lead a country through a recession or he could have asked how he would manage the problem of public sector spending in a time of austerity. The interviewer ignores these options.)

At 1018, Farage is able to paint the picture that UKIP is only asked about “Its’ idiots” and never talks about the other parties “idiots”. He then says that we are not having a debate on Europe.

At 1035, halfway into the allotted time for the interview, we reach the central issue. The interviewer says, “People are not worried that the Labour Party and the Tory party are spreading racist propaganda.”

(The statement does not lead to a question, but one is implicit that UKIP are spreading racist propaganda. Here we see a curious disconnect. The interviewer fails to mention (nor does Farage) the government’s pilot campaign against illegal immigrants Here the interviewer could have asked whether UKIP was taking a page out of the government’s media toolkit. Instead, he misses an excellent opportunity to get beneath the surface to ask if politics of fear is what drives UKIP. However, that opportunity is lost.)

At the 1100-1115, the interviewer explains that the public opinion views UKIP as deeply divisive.

(The poll and the point could have opened up questions about whether UKIP is exploiting fear and whether it had a coherent positive vision rather than one that appears to be negative. He could have asked, “Why does your party appear divisive to the public? Is your party divisive (Closed question that leads to follow up question “If your goal is not to be divisive, why do you policies appear this way to the electorate? (Open question) However, these questions never emerge as the interview focuses on statements and claims rather than on questions.)

At 1130-1216, the interview moves on to the topic of people speaking foreign languages on the train. However, he does not ask a question. Instead, he makes a statement. Farage explains his comments that he felt uncomfortable on the train. When he does ask a question of sorts, the interviewer mentions at 1151 that Farage’s wife is a German speaker.

(Instead of asking questions, the interviewer relies on statements posed as question. The interviewer does a poor job of exploring the issues and the deeper issues this reveals about Farage. He could have explored how everyone reacts to uncomfortable situations. He could suggest that this shows how much the world has changed. The interviewer could have asked, “Why do you view that as a threat where other people view that as a benefit?” “Why did you become self-conscious?” Why is your discomfort a reason for immigration control?”  The interviewer could have asked, “If one feels a strangeness of being different in their own country, does he (Farage) understand his own country?” However, these points are not explored and the interviewer goes for simple points about Farage’s family that confuse rather than clarify the issue. His statement goes for a rhetorical point rather than helping us understand Farage or to understand the economic challenge that immigration reflects. The interviewer could have explored that Farage was uncomfortable with some languages but not others. Alternatively, he could have asked if he felt uncomfortable about languages because the UK is not doing enough to encourage language skills, which presents a problem for the UK to compete in the world economy. The interviewer could have asked how Farage would support schools to teach foreign languages and encourage students to see their opportunities in a global economy. However, these points were not prepared so no follow up questions were available.)

At 1216-1238, Farage looking at English as a second language issues in schools, makes a point about the need for a balanced, sensible immigration policy. He wants people with skills to arrive and integration in the society.

(Here the interviewer could have made some excellent secondary questions. He could have asked, “What would you do to improve the way that the UK assimilates and integrates immigrants? “How do your plans to help immigrants integrate and assimilate differ from the current policies in this area?” How will the “ability to integrate” be a criterion for immigration policy?” He could have asked, “As the UK is part of the commonwealth, what model would he use for integrating immigrants?” “The next challenge after integration is then the challenge of assimilation. How does Farage understand the process by which an immigrant becomes a citizen? How does a stranger become part of a society?” The history of Europe shows these are powerful and far-reaching questions. The answers can tear apart families as immigrants struggle with the cross-cultural demands of assimilation. The deeper challenge in European history is that immigrants may assimilate but never belong. As Europe’s history has been written by these challenges and the consequences of ignoring it or hoping that it is solved by tolerance and openness, without addressing the nature of one’s culture and what it means to belong to a country, can be catastrophic for all people involved. The interviewer could have asked how Farage’s policies help the UK to change and adapt to the new ways of living and working that other cultures introduce. A country will change an immigrant and in turn, immigrants change a country. The process can be done through integration and assimilation, which is positive and productive, or it can be done through violence, fear, and repression. Where people only live in enclaves and ghettoes and never become part of a society, a culture, even if they are politically or legally a member, the society soon begins to disintegrate along those fault lines. The interviewer could have asked, “What is your plan to help legal immigrants integrate and assimilate?” However, he did not.)

At 1238-1301, we turn to the issue of English as a second language at a school. (The interviewer could have asked if Farage was using this issue as a proxy for deprivation just as free school meals are often used as a similar proxy. The interviewer could have asked “What are your plans to help schools that may face lower performance as the language spoken at home will influence the possibility of success in schools Any plan to limit immigration still has to deal with the issue of the immigrants that are already here and those that will arrive legally through an agreed immigration policy. However, the interviewer does not explore these issues.)

At 1323 -1401, we arrive at the central point for Farage, which he has mentioned in passing earlier. He wants to manage immigration so that doctors, engineers, and skilled professionals are encouraged to arrive from non-European countries. He argues that as a member of the EU the UK has to have open borders to any unskilled worker who happens to be an EU citizen, which is the basic issue he wants.

(The interviewer does not ask Farage to explain the current immigration policy discriminates against certain groups. He could have asked him to explain why it is ok for some immigrants in certain fields but not others. He could have asked how that reconciles with a global competition or what he is doing to improve the skills of UK workers.)

At 1408, the interviewer explains that the terms of the interview do not appear to allow for such debate. “If that was the debate you offered to have on the programme we would have it now…”

(For an interviewer who appears to have an aggressive style he seems quite reluctant to ask the difficult questions or draw out the points of that debate.)

At 1409, he turns to the central issue, which is the question from the caller. “Why do so many people think you are racist?” (The interviewer then goes on to propose an answer! In an interview, one never puts the answers into the interviewer’s mouth. Here we see a missed opportunity. The interview has opened up a great opportunity to hold Farage to account for his proposals but the interviewer refuses to explore it. If the programme was to debate explore why UKIP appears a racist party and immigration policy appears to be a central part of the UKIP appeal, then a debate on that issue seems to be a priority. The interview could have explored what the UKIP would do to help UK workers who lack of language skills needed for worker mobility within Europe aside from managing immigration. The interviewer could have asked, “What will UKIP do for a UK worker who needs the skills to work in larger EU market?” Unlike other workers, the UK workers appear to lack the language skills that will allow them to seize employment opportunities in other countries, which will not be improved by reducing immigration further. The interviewer could have suggested that none of the parties have an answer and the UKIP solution seems the least helpful. The interviewer could have asked, “What are your plans to increase the UK worker’s mobility within the larger EU market?” However, we do not have that debate we move on to something else. I would not suggest that an interviewer who avoids a debate is an example of good interviewer.)

1407-1421 the interviewer then goes to the caller’s question that sparked the interview “Why do so many people think you are a racist?”

(The interviewer could have asked, “How will the UKIP’s immigration policy help the public to understand the economic challenges facing the country when it does not reduce or address the global economic competition?” Alternatively, he could have asked, “What does your policy do to improve the existing situation for immigrants?”  Instead, we have the tired rhetorical question or its variant “Why do people think you are a racist?” The short answer is “I do not know.”  Then where does the interview go? It descends into pantomime “Oh yes you are! Oh no I am not!” Pantomime interviews make good political theatre, but they do not make for a good interview nor do they suggest a technique that others should emulate.)

At 1422, we arrive at the rhetorical question by Farage “What is racism?”

(If the interviewer had been alert to the question, he might have made an interesting comparison to a similar rhetorical question by Pontius Pilate when he asked Christ “What is truth”. The interviewer might have asked, “What do you understand racism to be? By asking an open-ended question, rather than engaging in pantomime, he could have opened up an opportunity to ask follow up question that require Farage to explain himself. Instead, he does not listen and does not ask any follow up questions. Moreover, the interviewer reaches the point where it would appear that if you discuss schoolchildren speaking English as a second language and your own children speak a foreign language, then it can be or can appear to be racist.)

The discussion about being uncomfortable about language then continues without any questions emerging and we arrive at the question about Farage’s statement about living next door to Romanians.

1453 If a group of Romanian men moved in next door to you would you be concerned?

1455 Would you be concerned if a group of Germans moved in next door? What is the difference?

1459 Farage responds, “You know what the difference is.”

1501 The interviewer says, “No, I do not know what the difference is.” (Here we are now reduced to pantomime interview techniques “Oh yes you are/Oh no I am not!”)

1502-1530 Farage explains we have a problem with quality and quantity of immigration. He mentions he has visited the Roma encampments [he visited a Gypsy Roma encampment in Bulgaria]

He explains he visited the encampments and describes the problems of the Roma people (1515) (1526) (not Romanians). He says they have not viable alternatives so end up in a life of crime.

(The interviewer could have explored why the Roma have not been able to integrate in that society and discuss the ways in which the UK offers a better opportunity to integrate. He could have asked, “What would UKIP do to help such immigrants integrate?” The interviewer could have contrasted that with the UK policies on these issues and described how well the UK government and communities treat Romani and Gypsy Travellers. A deeper problem for the interview emerges in this exchange. Farage has said Roma and the interviewer failed to pick up the discrepancy. What this means is that the interviewer was not listening. He failed to notice the discrepancy or explore it. The interview continues under this misunderstanding and the focus is on Romanians rather than Romani or Roma.)

1530-1535 Farage then turns to open door of immigration that he associates with human trafficking.

(From 1541 onward, we do not know if this is about Romanians or Romani people. As it is not clear who is being trafficked. The confusion from Farage, who mentioned the encampments and he only visited the one in Bulgaria, is never clarified. If the interviewer had prepared for the interview, they would have picked up this issue but the interview focuses on Romanians without asking whether that is what Farage meant. Of course, this does not excuse Farage either as he could have clarified the issue. A further problem is created by the interviewer simply accepting the connection between human trafficking and open borders. One could have explored the issue that the trafficking is worse with stricter border controls, as the UK has, than with open borders such as across Europe. Moreover, the interviewer could have disentangled between human trafficking, the sex trade, and economic immigrants, people seeking to get into the UK to work. However, this issue is never explored and accepted uncritically.)

At 1603-1609, we arrive at the issue of fear and the provocative poster. The interviewer refers to the large poster that says, “They are coming for your job”. Farage uses this to talk about worker movement within the EU.

(Here the interviewer lost an opportunity to ask Farage to explain what UKIP would do to improve education rather than raise fear or raise barriers to the free movement of labour. “What are the benefits of immigration that you oppose?” Or something to draw out how UKIP will square a commitment to Treaty of Rome and other treaties that provide the economic market for the UK with a desire to leave the EU. He does not question the central premise that EU relies on UK in a way that UK does not rely on the EU. The interviewer makes no reference to the UKIP issue o or even the more “detailed” party manifesto. Both of which contain statements that could have been explored.)

The interviewer returns to the central theme about racism. He accuses Farage at 1616 glossing so slickly over demonizing the Romanians. (Even though we do not know if the interview is talking about Romanians or Romani as Farage referred to Roma encampments at 1515 and 1526.)

At 1634, Farage says he is demonizing the political classes that allowed this to happen. (Here the interviewer does not challenge Farage for stating he is demonizing a political class. He could have challenged him about the idea that demonizing a part of society, even a political “class” is opening the possibility for demonizing other parts of the society. However, he does not explore this issue.)

1630-1658 the interviewer asks why Farage links or connects Romanians and people trafficking. Farage provides an answer saying he did not. He then explains that he was asked if he would be worried if a group of Romanians moved in next to you would you be concerned. I think if you lived in London, you would be (1654).

(Here the interviewer misses another opportunity. He has made two mistakes. He has not explored the issue of people trafficking. Moreover, he has not forced Farage to explain what he means by it. He does not explore whether UKIP is equating or linking people trafficking to immigration. An interviewer could have separated the two points as Mr. Obrien has allowed him to connect the two. The second issue is that the interviewer simply allows the statement to go unchallenged. He has not explained how or why Romanians (not people traffickers) would create concern. The interviewer does not draw out the issue to make UKIP explain, beyond improved immigration, how to reassure people about any immigrants even Americans. Moreover, he does not ask Farage to explain why this is a problem of immigration rather than a problem of a host culture being unable to integrate or assimilate immigrants.)

At 1704, the interview asks if it is true that Farage pulled out of an interview because there was no makeup artist.

(The question seems bizarre and out of context. One moment the interviewer is asking if Farage’s party is a racist party and then asking if he pulled out of an interview over makeup artists. A well-structured interview stays focused on the issue and does not go off topic except if it serves a purpose.)

From 1708 onward the interviewer then begins to express his view that he remains unconvinced that UKIP has cleared up the confusion about whether the party is racist. He reiterates at 1713 the alliances with rightists and extremist groups even though he did not explore Farage’s answers.  He then asks the Romanian questions again through 1721-1750.

The interviewer says, “I do not understand why you use words like Romanians when describing who you would or would not want to live next door to. I do not understand why you are uncomfortable with listening to foreign language when your wife and children speak them. I do not understand why you talk about problems in primary schools caused by children like your own?”

As Farage starts to answer by asking the interviewer to meet UKIP BME members, the interviewer makes light of that claim by muttering 1741 “Some of my best friends are….” Farage then explains that weekend polling shows that UKIP is polling at 16% within the BME community. The interviewer does not explore this claim and then agrees to the proposed meeting.

At 1759, the interviewer counters by asking, “What about the polling that shows just over 40% of the voters believes your party is racist”.

(From 1704 onward, we see an interview that has foundered and has no meaningful summary to provide. The interviewer is not the one that needs to be convinced. The interviewer is there to force or encourage the interviewee to explain their position and use questions to draw out consequences and concerns for the audience. He could have asked, “Your answers would appear to leave people unconvinced. How will you convince people your policies will improve their lives? Alternatively, he might have said, “You have shown a concern for people being fearful and your policies and advertisements have played on that fear. How do you reduce that fear if the root cause is not immigration? What have you proposed to improve the skills of the UK workers? (This is not mentioned in the UKIP manifesto or in its European manifesto). The interviewer could have asked, “What would UKIP have done to prevent the current economic recession?” Such questions would force UKIP to explain what they have to offer beyond closing the borders given the economic constraints were from a financial crisis that was unrelated to immigration. However, he does not challenge the evidence or ask a follow up question about what UKIP has to offer the BME community. If UKIP is offering a better economic policy, how will that help the BME community? How will UKIP improve UK competitiveness when the UK relies upon a wider EU labour and export market that membership with the EU provides? The interviewer does not challenge or explore why UKIP appears to be polling well in the BME community.)

At 1805, the interviewer says we only have 20 minutes not a full hour, which thus sets the context for why it finishes the way it does. He says that an opinion poll shows that 40% of voters who see your party as racist.

At 1807-1815, the interviewer asks what you have done in the last 20 minutes to assuage the fears of those people [the 40% of voters who believe the UKIP party is racist] Farage offers a short summary of his defence

1815- 1820. Farage says he will allay fears because he will “Make it clear to people that actually controlling the quantity and quality of people coming into your country is a primary duty of government and we cannot do it as members of the European Union”

(Here is the central issue that should have started the whole interview. The interviewer could have quizzed Farage on the current immigration controls. He could have asked him what he would do to improve those controls. He could have explored how leaving the EU does not change or alter immigration nor does it provide better control over the borders. Instead, he has been allowed to confuse the concerns over free movement with free movement of workers. He could have pointed out the existing controls and work to limit immigration.

However, none of these issues is explored. If the interviewer had prepared, he might have asked Farage to explain his position on these policies. He might have asked him to explain what the policies require as the UKIP spokesperson for small businesses fell afoul of them in being involved in a company that allegedly hired illegal immigrants. The interviewer has allowed the interview to stay on the surface and allowed the interview to make claims that go unchallenged. This does not suggest a strong interview technique that should be emulated by other interviewers.

At 1821-1854, the discussion moves to EU finances and whether UKIP will have an audit of its finances and whether party members will sign up for it.

At 1854, the press officer intervenes to explain that the interview has run over its time.

At 1914, we have a final question “Will you go for an audit that all Labour MEPs go for?” Farage provides a non-committal answer to the closed question by saying it is not an audit as such.

The interview runs down at 1921 rather than being ended abruptly.


What we find is that Mr. O’Brien appeared superficially prepared for the interview but he only asked superficial questions. He rehashed previous events and did not have a game plan to his questions. He did not map out his questions or consider potential follow up questions. Moreover, he often used statements as questions, which meant that Mr. Farage would infer a question from the statement and provide an answer, but no follow up question was asked. A good interviewer knows where they want to go with a response and either use it to link to the next question or provide a rebuttal summary that forces the interviewee to respond. An interviewer who simply accepts the response must only do this if it is for effect. In this interview, none of the responses had the impact that allowed them to speak for themselves.

A second set of issues with the interview technique emerges. The interviewer said that they had no time to debate the immigration claims. Yet, we find they had time to ask about make-up artists, MEP financial audits, and health expenses. If the interviewer had prepared an interview plan, he would have started with the central argument that UKIP wants to manage immigration by leaving the EU. The interviewer could have used that as a theme to draw out the consequences for UK labour market, UK businesses and UK workers. At no point is Farage asked to explain how UKIP will improve the skills for workers to compete in a globalized labour market. He does not explore how UKIP will help business compete in the global market if immigration is restricted or if UK leaves the EU. The interviewer could have asked how a simple solution to a complex issue will be implemented.

Overall, the interview allowed Farage to make a series of uncontested statements and claims. If the interviewer had prepared follow up questions, he would have been able to challenge these statements. At critical points, the interviewer simply moved on and left the topic. The underlying lesson here is that interviews require a question map so that themes can be explored and follow up questions planned. If an interviewer tries to wing it or link together superficial issues, then they will have a superficial interview.

The interview does not appear as damaging to Farage or UKIP as many headlines would have us believe. As a result, it appears to have confirmed popular prejudices rather than forced Farage to explain his position. His position or views on any topic were rarely challenged. In many ways the interview helped rather than hurt the UKIP position on these topics because the central claims went unchallenged.

I would recommend that people who want to improve their interviewing skills learn from this interview. They could see the benefit of a question plan, the benefit of preparing secondary questions, and the benefit to starting with a premise rather than a conclusion. If your question plan has more closed questions rather than open questions, you will have a different outcome. The challenge is to plan open and closed questions so that when they are combined you draw out issues and ideas that would not otherwise be seen. A central flaw or weakness in this interview is so many “questions” were statements that implied questions. Instead of asking a direct question, which many people confuse with making a statement, the interview makes a statement and implies it as a question. For example, the statement “Your wife is a German speaker” only implies a question. The interviewee must infer a question, which does not reflect a well-planned interview. A good interview does not imply questions or require an interviewer to infer them. A good interview asks questions. Finally, a good interviewer never answers the question for the interviewee, which is what happens at one point in the interview. Overall, this is a mediocre interview. It was not worth the hyperbole and headlines that it garnered.

List of resources.

For readers who want to improve their questioning skills, the following are a list of sites and resources. I am not endorsing these sites. They exemplify what is available for those who want to understand questioning skills and how to plan questions for interviews.

This provides examples of closed and open questions.

This site provides examples of questioning techniques from Socrates.

Here is a resource that shows how questions are at the heart of the scrutiny process. It is a useful resource for citizens to hold their government and public official to account.

I would suggest that the Centre for Public Scrutiny is a good organisation to start with for understanding how good question skills are important for good government.

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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 (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.

[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.

[3] 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.  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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