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. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_Health_Organization_ranking_of_health_systems_in_2000

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

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

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



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Surveillance and the experience of technological sin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lulled into a sense of benign well being

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

What is the source of this lulled existence?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

If liberalism cannot satisfy the disgruntled individual, what will?

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

Did their acts justify their ends?

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

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

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

Has liberal education failed to educate individuals to be citizens?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The pressure cooker at the end of the liberal state

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tony Blair’s excellent advice

lawrence serewicz:

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

Originally posted on Media Meditations:

British Prime Minister Tony Blair Speaks In Ar...

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

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

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

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

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Edward Snowden and America’s suicide

English: Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth Presid...

English: Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth President of the United States. Latviešu: Abrahams Linkolns, sešpadsmitais ASV prezidents. Српски / Srpski: Абрахам Линколн, шеснаести председник Сједињених Америчких Држава. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Snowden revelations are a wakeup call for the United States. He and his promoters have preached a jeremiad, but not the one most people believe they are hearing. Most people will believe they are trying to wake America up to the NSA’s out of control activity and the government’s predatory nature. On the surface such an understanding will satisfying the public’s prejudices. We need to look deeper. Otherwise, we mistake a cause from a perceived effect. Once we look beyond the popular prejudice, or what is being promoted as the popular prejudice, we see the concern about government and surveillance reveals a deeper issue- the problematic relationship between the citizen and the government.

A nation of laws or passions?

The issue is whether America is a nation of laws and whether the citizens respect and support those laws. When we move beyond the surface, we see the decline of a reverence for the laws. Snowden chose to break many laws to expose what he believed, but had not confirmed, as illegal behaviour by the NSA and the government. He claimed he was breaking the law because a higher duty, a duty to the people, required it. Many people lauded his behaviour and some have argued that his theft and revelations were an act of civil disobedience.

Personal preference is civil disobedience?

When we look closely at that proposal, we find that Mr Snowden falls far short of Martin Luther King’s ideal. Even if he is not a Martin Luther King, a rather high standard to achieve, he is certainly not acting in the tradition of civil disobedience. He may claim he is, he may even believe he is, but that does not make it so. Even a cursory glance shows that he lacked the preliminary purification and prompts that led Dr King to act. Snowden has not done the preparatory work that King and others did before they came to civil disobedience. King in his Letter from the Birmingham Jail explained what was needed to justify direct action. He examined his soul, he sought out alternatives, and he attempted to negotiate.

In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action

Snowden by contrast decided there was an injustice and that his illegal act was the only means available. He did not like it so the NSA and the government must be wrong. However, the idea of civil disobedience, while important, is secondary to the central issue concerning the relationship of the citizen to the government.

If you do not obey the laws how can you expect others or the government to obey it?

Snowden’s behaviour and the support for that behaviour suggest the basic agreement; at the heart of American democracy-, the agreement to obey the laws, is in jeopardy. If citizens are not to obey the laws, why should the government? If the government is not to obey the laws, why should the citizens? If obedience to the laws is waning, then an act of civil disobedience to those laws seems almost meaningless. It is here that I think America’s suicide has begun. Instead of showing illegality on a wide scale by the NSA or a disdain or disregard for the laws, we have found the opposite. The NSA has complied with the Constitution and congressional oversight. Critics may argue that this is not enough. However, they have to admit that what they perceive to be insufficient is still an attempt to obey the laws and act within the Constitution. This is not to say that mistakes were made, is any system perfect? It is not to say that greater oversight is unwelcome, what system of oversight is sufficient? On the contrary, to argue otherwise would be to suggest an unpalatable view of democratic due process. However, the alternative proposed by Snowden, and more vociferously by his main supporter WikiLeaks, leads to outright lawlessness and destroys America’s political and civil covenants.

To distrust the government is to distrust ourselves

The seductive desire to disobey the law that Snowden reveals has been growing over generations. WikiLeaks did not create Snowden. Snowden and others who have followed this ideology were produced over generations not overnight. They have been created by the distrust, and in some cases outright hatred, for the government that has been growing for the last two generations. Over the past two generations, since 1968 trust in the government has decreased precipitously. The graph, copyright of the PEW foundation, shows the decline over 50 years.

pew picture


On the surface, this may not seem very significant. People usually do not like to pay taxes or to be told what they can or cannot do. The graph presents a powerful message to the viability and fate of a country that is dedicated to and only survives because of the idea that America has a government of the people, by the people and for the people. In 1863, Lincoln explained that America was fighting a bloody and vicious civil war to answer this question. Could a government dedicated to the proposition that self-government be possible? He worked to save the Union that protected the Constitution, which ensured that his generation answered this question with a yes.

Each generation must answer the call to renew America

Lincoln understood, though, that the civil war did not settle the matter. He knew before the war that America’s political institutions had to be renewed and strengthened by each generation. What would destroy America would never be a foreign emperor leading a conquering army. Instead, he warned in his Lyceum address (1838) that lawlessness and a disregard for the laws by American citizens would be the cause of America’s defeat. In particular, he warned that the lawless in spirit would become the lawless in deed. The goal of those lawless in spirit was to destroy the government because that was the final arbiter of law and order.

“the lawless in spirit are encouraged to become lawless in practice; and having been used to no restraint but dread of punishment, they become absolutely unrestrained. Having ever regarded government as their deadliest bane, they make a jubilee of the suspension of its operations, and pray for nothing so much as its total annihilation.”

The problem was not simply lawlessness or man’s unrestrained appetites. These problems have existed since the dawn of civilisation. What he argued was that for America to survive its people had to remain attached to the government. They had to be faithful to the idea that it was a government of the people by the people and for the people. When the people lose faith in the government, they lose faith in themselves. When this occurs, as Lincoln warned would happen unless Americans acted to reaffirm their faith in America, the laws and themselves, America’s ruin was certain.

“I know the American People are much attached to their Government;–I know they would suffer much for its sake;–I know they would endure evils long and patiently, before they would ever think of exchanging it for another. Yet, notwithstanding all this, if the laws be continually despised and disregarded, if their rights to be secure in their persons and property, are held by no better tenure than the caprice of a mob, the alienation of their affections from the Government is the natural consequence; and to that, sooner or later, it must come.”

Would Lincoln be able to describe Americans today as attached to their government? Instead, America increasingly seems held together by the caprice of the mob. The mob is in the digital domain where Mr Snowden embodies a new form a lawless that is upon the land. The net is full of dark conspiracies and the deep web is a place of lawlessness dedicated to the idea of living beyond the rule of law. Even the social media is a place of twitter mobs and vigilante behaviour where people are tried and convicted by public opinion without a trial. Opponents are silenced by labelling them trolls and encouraging one’s twitter followers to follow suit. The powerful censure those they dislike. However, the problem did not start with Mr Snowden for he is only a harbinger.

Our individual lawlessness devours the common good

America has lost its reverence for its laws. The lawlessness among citizens is growing in proportion to their distrust and even hatred of the government. The desire is to see what we can get away with and how much we can get before we are caught. We have thieves idolized. They are portrayed as victims of overzealous and out of control prosecutors. We have those who betray the public interest celebrated as “truth tellers”. They claim that the political system is corrupt because they dislike what it does. We have those who hurt and sabotage the government lauded as “heroes”. We are not talking about a political debate over the size of the government. We are not talking about whether government spending should be reformed. We are not talking about how regulations stifle capitalistic freedom. We are talking about a dislike, a distrust, and even an outright hatred of the government. Let us not confuse this with an esoteric debate that seeks to parse the nuances of distinguishing the government as an agent separate from the people and so it becomes a legitimate target of scorn and fear because it acts on its own interests. We are beyond such arguments as a Marxists superstructure or a bureaucratic administrative agent. We are talking about a threat to the very proposition that Americans are capable of self-government and what that idea requires of them and their government.

Self-government is hard, slavery is easy.

Self-government is not a right, it is a not a certainty, it is a proposition that must be answered anew by each age and by each citizen. If we are to live together as one people, Americans, we have to understand that it is as one people, united and expressed in the common good, which is a government of a people, by the people, and for the people. As that idea dies and we find it acceptable and even praiseworthy to disobey the law and attack the government, we must confront an ugly truth, the alternative is not freedom but tyranny. This is not a tyranny imposed by violence or the government, but a tyranny of the easy slavery to our appetites and private pleasures. Self-government was our last best hope to shake off the shackles of slavery before a tyrannical sovereign. We had a chance to be our own sovereign, to practice self-government, and that chance has begun to fade into memory. The fire that should, must, burn in the heart of every citizen has dimmed to a faint glow, a fleeting memory only remembered by a few. Our account is now running and we must face the grim truth that we have failed to answer the question that Lincoln asked.

The lawlessness has grown over the past two generations.

As Machiavelli warned, evil does not occur immediately, but over generations. Over two generations, the people can lose their understanding of what is good for the country and needed to sustain the institutions that keep them safe. When the decisions by the people are no longer guided by a type of virtue that recognises the common good as being best for the individuals, the problems begin. What we find are decisions are made for a group, an institution, or an individual at the expense of the common good. As citizens lose an understanding of the common good, the country begins to suffer. Such a decline only takes two generations. The illness does have a cure.  Machiavelli described this problem well.[1]

Will you reignite the flame of self-government?

Recourse to political parties or political slogans will not reignite the flame of self-government. The libertarian alternative only exacerbates the problem with a drive to self-interested behaviour that fails to understand that law is founded on a belief in the common good, something larger than the individual and something more than a cynical transaction between the citizen and the state. The only way we can reignite the hunger for self-government is if we educate our young to be citizens, to be human.  They need to understand that the fullest human expression is not in private pursuits of their pleasures, it is found within a community and a country that supports their opportunities.

To paraphrase Aristotle, to live beyond the walls (the laws) of the city, a man must be either a beast or a god. Inside the city, the walls, man finds his fullest expression. Such a view is not communistic nor is it socialistic, it is a basic democratic idea that the people together can determine their destiny and as citizens they owe it themselves and to each other to act to support those ideals. Either we return to the idea of self-government or we prepare ourselves for its alternatives anarchy or tyranny. What will you choose? What have you chosen?

[1] This security, and this weakness of her enemies, caused the Roman people no longer to regard virtu in bestowing the Consulship, but graciousness, drawing to that dignity those who knew better how to handle men, not to those who knew better how to conquer their enemies: afterwards they descended from those who had more graciousness to give it to those who had more power. So that because of the defects of such institutions, the good were entirely excluded from everything. A Tribune or some other Citizen could propose a law to the people on which every Citizen could speak in favor or against it before it should be adopted. This institution was good when the Citizens were good, for it was always well that anyone who intended some good for the public was able to propose it, and it was well that everyone could speak his thoughts on it, so that the people, having listened to all sides, could then select the best. But when the Citizens had become bad such institutions became the worst, for only the powerful proposed laws, (and) not for the common liberty, but for their own power, and everyone for fear of them was not able to speak against them: so that the people came to be deceived or forced into deciding their own ruin.
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Who decides the public interest: journalism’s death or resurrection?

lawrence serewicz:

A new model is developing for journalism that will involve a different view of the public interest? Has public opinion become so tyrannical that the press becomes restrained which in turn undermines the public interest? The question to consider are whether the change in public interest to a politically motivated approach will succeed and be translated into politics

Originally posted on Media Meditations:

February 14, 1972, article in New York, by Tom...

February 14, 1972, article in New York, by Tom Wolfe, announcing the birth of New Journalism (Photo credit: Wikipedia)



Who decides the public interest? This question haunts the media. Without the public interest, the media has a limited role in society. The question also haunts politics. Without the support of the public interest, the government’s legitimacy is destabilized. Both rely upon the public interest but in different ways. How the media and government use the public interest shapes the public opinion and how the public understand the common good. What is at stake in this question is the regime’s soul.


How the media uses the public interest reflects a democratic deficit. On the surface this means the media are not elected. That surface understanding is not enough. Beneath it, we find a deeper problem. Traditionally, the media acted in the public interest. They used the public interest…

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Surveillance, conformity and censorship: the reality and the myth

A model of the GCHQ headquarters in Cheltenham

A model of the GCHQ headquarters in Cheltenham (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We have heard from many writers that when the NSA and GCHQ monitor the web and communications across the web they engage in censorship or the surveillance becomes a form of censorship because it chills the freedom of expression and creates.[1] In a liberal democracy, this is a myth, a dangerous myth, because it masks the underlying power of public opinion. What silences us, if we are to be silenced, is not the state but four other actors: our neighbours, the public, our employer and, finally, the laws. While we find it convenient to blame the state, the one overt guardian who sets public limits to our behaviour in public and private, they are less effective than the other actors are in enforcing conformity. We blame the state because it is abstract and remote and by doing it we absolve ourselves from responsibility for our opinions and our actions.

The public is a better censor than the state.

Behind all of these actors is the public opinion that influences how each of these actors affects our willingness, as opposed to our ability, to speak publicly. If the public opinion frowns upon some opinions, for example common human decency restrains the more morally obtuse opinions[2], then people will usually hesitate from speaking about them publicly. They either fear the consequences, such as losing their job or their friends, or they fear being seen as inhuman in their opinions. Even if common human decency does not eliminate evil, it does contain it enough so that society can offer a morally safe space for people to live and flourish free from fear of overt physical violence and aggression. In the public sphere, as opposed to the private, we find that surveillance, in a liberal democracy, is almost unnecessary regarding speech. When people suffered abuse online they have published and broadcast the abuse to draw attention to it. In response, the decent public opinion has rightly condemned it and in many cases forced the government, as an expression of the common decent opinion, to act. In other cases, they have acted directly on the offender’s employer to exert pressure on them to withdraw their statements of suffer consequences from expressing them. The public, not the state, had them under surveillance and restrained the other speakers. The public, rather than the state’s covert or overt surveillance, identified the offensive opinions and “censored” them.

Surveillance and control: not always the responsibility of the state.

If we consider surveillance as a substitute for social control or an extension of the rule of law, we realize that it only reflects what the community expects regarding the standard of behaviour within its borders. I purposefully ignore external, or foreign, intelligence surveillance, covert or overt, because it is outside the state’s political domain. By that I mean, what a state does externally to defend itself is not the same as what it must do domestically to retain its legitimacy.[3] To confuse or conflate the two is to embark on a utopian or dystopian journey to a world state where there is no foreign policy only domestic policy. Even in the digital domain, the two realms only overlap to the extent the digital domain has no borders. The author still has a physical presence and exists in a physical space that is subject to state authority. As the state polices the overlap between the digital and the physical, we realize that the NSA or GCHQ are too remote from our daily activity inside the state to be considered as a form of social or community control. Instead, their profile is in an inverse relationship to their influence. We need to look closer to our daily lives to understand where social or community control or influence occurs on our public opinions.  The intelligence agencies in liberal democracies are not the source of censorship; other actors have that role without the aid of the state.

Public or private, if it is written down it can be read.

I would stress that we need to distinguish between our private opinions and our public opinions. Private opinions are those opinions that are limited to the spoken word in a private setting, such as the home or an association like a club or church, and it excludes places like work. Public opinions are what we say or write in public places like work, the street, in court, or on a social media platform. The focus has to be on our public opinions published or broadcast on a public media, physically, such as speaker’s corner, or, digitally, such as a social media platform. Neither of these “places” can be considered private no matter how exclusive because they are intended to be public. The “speech” is recorded and held by a publicly accountable organisation and are published to be shared and read by others beyond our control.[4] Even though the spoken word allows a plausible deniability on its meaning, its intent, and its context, which is not available to the same extent with the written word, it is still public.[5] To put it differently, but directly, you cannot write for different audiences with the same text as you can speak to different audiences with the same speech. In the latter, it is easier to display your intent differently to different audiences.

What is the orthodoxy that censorship defends?

We cannot claim that surveillance from our home, our work, or the public “censor” or constrain our speech until we can explain what orthodoxy they enforce. Censorship only exists to the extent that it is used to enforce or defend a known orthodoxy. Those who claim that surveillance has chilling effect on public speech fail to articulate the orthodoxy or the common standard of opinion that is being defended by such surveillance. If the opinion that might be chilled is in line with the opinion being defended by surveillance, then the speaker should not fear the surveillance. Even this assumes that the people who undertake the surveillance understand what is being said, find some threat or challenge in it, and then know its possible effect on the orthodox opinion. Leaving aside those secondary questions, we still return to the fundamental question: what is the orthodox opinion that is being defended or propagated by those who undertake surveillance? The theorists who speak against surveillance and its “chilling effect” seem to believe that the orthodoxy is automatically challenged by all speech and surveillance automatically creates or enforces conformity. Instead, what we find is that surveillance and the orthodoxy it defends is more concerned with public order issues and those that could lead to an attack or action against the public order, which is the state’s fundamental responsibility to its citizens. The state’s concern with the orthodoxy fits closely with what the legal system or the laws (an expression of the community) require.

You cannot advocate the abolition of the monarchy, but who cares?

To illustrate the point consider that in the UK it is illegal to argue or advocate for the abolition of the monarchy. Yet, no one has revealed any surveillance or any arrests or prosecutions for it.[6] In that simple case, we see how benign the state is in its surveillance or how far it has accepted the idea of free speech even though it would, technically, have an interest in this part of the orthodoxy. Moreover, we see that its focus is on a narrow issue of physical and immediate threats to public order through violent acts that are designed to damage or destroy the society and its guardians rather than sustain some political orthodoxy. If the state and surveillance were focused on stopping free speech or chilling speech, it would focus on those activists or speakers who advocated the abolition of the crown, yet the surveillance state has not done that. When the state has put activists or speakers under surveillance these have been directed against public order threats rather than political speech.  We only need to consider how extensively and widely “hate” preachers are able to operate before the state takes an interest. When they do, it is because their word is threatening to become a deed, which will affect public safety.

Is surveillance different from being in the public gaze?

In many ways, surveillance makes one self-conscious. In much the same way that a person becomes acutely self-conscious when they have to speak before a group.[7] People would rather remain in the audience rather than be on the stage. Surveillance gives the psychological appearance that the person is no longer in the audience but on the stage. From this point, we can begin to understand why people in the entertainment industry and politicians are inured to surveillance. They are in the public gaze, they court it, and they attract it and surveillance is similar to being on the stage. For the average person, such attention may seem strange or threatening. Yet, the average person is unlikely to be under surveillance. If anyone has them under surveillance, it is likely their family, their work, or their community. The final actor, after all of these have been exhausted, is the laws.

Family and neighbours

Our family and neighbours are people for whom we would not say in private or public something that would embarrass or alarm them. In our family, there are topics we will not discuss or we would not want them to see us discussing. Often times, this will restrain some discussions and in that sense our concern for how our public comments affect our families or friends can inhibit what we say. We are censored by those relationships when their views actively inhibit us from speaking and we know why. In that sense, we try to conform to their expectations in speech and actions. The Ancient Greeks, through Oedipus Rex, revealed the power and danger of familial conformity and censorship for behaviour that was threatening to the family.

Public (community).

Our community, either the wider public or simply our cohort or network of contacts creates standards that constrain our opinions. These standards are often closely, but not completely related to the laws. This can include religious groups but only to the extent that it is a public religion. We can see this censorship at work on in contexts such as twitter, or Facebook, where a social group that determines what acceptable behaviour is. We can see this in political communities where the group’s orthodoxy must be respected or the speaker is reproached or potentially expelled. Baruch Spinoza is perhaps the best-known philosophical example. Our community, beyond our family and friend, create a constraint on our views. If we speak publicly our community, either physically or online, may express a view that our opinions are not welcome or are not acceptable within that community. Such speakers may find their accounts blocked, or disabled, and the community shunning them in public or refusing to engage with them. We must remember that in a liberal democracy public opinion is more tyrannical than the state in defence of its orthodoxy.[8] Consider the case of Justine Sacco to see the power of public opinion on an individual.[9]

Work (Not Suitable for Work).

At work, we see a form of surveillance and censorship from our employer’s expectation or even a legal requirement that certain speech be avoided. The colloquial phrase, Not Suitable for Work (NSFW) exemplifies this issue. In the United States for example, the freedom of speech does not extend into the company domain. A company can set rules regarding political speech within its workplace such as those stopping political speech. More generally, the standard of the workplace, (is it work related), determines whether some topics can be discussed.

The laws are the censor we consent to accept

Behind all of these communities as a last resort are the laws. The law constrains what we can or cannot say. The defamation law in the UK that came into force will change how people write. Most concerns about NSA surveillance are on what is written or recorded electronically rather than what is spoken extemporaneously. Even speech is covered by the law with slander and libel laws limiting what people can say with impunity.

Surveillance is not censorship: public opinion is a better censor than the state.

What we find is the NSA surveillance or any surveillance does not censor our speech so much that other institutions already in society, before the surveillance and distinct from surveillance, create a belief that we must censor ourselves or face censorship from them. In other words, we conform to our peer groups and the societal clues that do not require state surveillance or enforcement. If we focus on censorship, rather than conformity, the claim that surveillance creates censorship is not useful unless one knows the orthodoxy that surveillance seeks to defend. Surveillance for the sake of surveillance will have no effect on speech. Surveillance to defend the orthodoxy against its critics could. In liberal democracies, where freedom of speech is promoted and the orthodoxy is tolerant of dissent, it would take an extremely dangerous speech to even warrant surveillance and that would usually only be on the basis that a physical threat of disorder were proposed. To put it differently but directly, people regularly make radical statements without consequences. One could say that so many radical statements are made they drown each other out. Alternatively, radical statements are now so common that we do not recognize true radicalism as moderate and measured statements are ignored or shouted down. However, when word becomes deed then surveillance may become censorship, which is what the community expects and demands despite the myths to from those who benefit from an agitated public. Perhaps the conformity that is being demanded is that we accept that surveillance leads to censorship and conformity.

[1] We have to be clear to differentiate between censorship, which is a specific act by a group or the state to stop someone from speaking and chilling free speech, which is stopping anyone from speaking freely. Censorship usually implies or requires orthodoxy to be defended. By contrast chilling of free speech must suggest that people are unwilling to speak more generally not simply about a specific topic or topics. On the issue of conformity, consider http://psychology.about.com/od/socialinfluence/f/conformity.htm

[2] Please note that I distinguish between general opinions and the more specific case of “truth telling” as defined by the idea of parrhesia or truth telling in all settings literally “say anything”. The latter is a specific case in which the person knows, or at least has taken time to discover a truth and has to speak it for the benefit of the common good regardless of context or circumstance. This is not the same as speaking truth to power although it is related. Speaking truth to power is a subset of parrhesia, which is truth telling A whistle-blower is not by definition someone who is practicing parrhesia, they are making an opinion about an event or issue that needs to be tested to discover whether it is a truth. They believe a clear criminal wrongdoing has occurred which they know from their professional work. One does not claim to be a whistle-blower to have a “debate” or to let people decide. In a liberal democratic state with elected representatives exercising administrative responsibility such a role does not exist because the system, by its structure, intent, and design, is for democratic debate.

[3] I also distinguish between monitoring the various domains, like the published press, and surveillance which is directed towards a specific person, topic, or target. Surveillance is not monitoring or collecting. Surveillance has to be intentional with a target and a purpose that reflect the state’s politically legitimate process. To put it another way, even theocracies have intelligence agencies.

[4] If someone publishes something on their company’s internal email system or their intranet, they are still subject to the law of libel or defamation. The law does not distinguish between private and public statements.

[5] On speaker’s corner someone may take exception to what you are saying and react to it either verbally or physically, which is a crude form of accountability.

[7] In this sense, one could say the NSA surveillance reminds one of God. As the believer understand that God knows what is in their hearts and what their intent is behind their acts. Perhaps people are uncomfortable with confronting their conscience once they are reminded of it? This is not to preclude the danger of a state abusing surveillance, which is why the focus here is on a liberal democratic state, which starts with the assumptions that the individual is well protected and has a robust legal and political system to protect an individuals legal and political rights.

[8] Public opinion is not always the same the orthodoxy. In a liberal democratic state, the state defends the orthodoxy even from public opinion although even the state may succumb to a sustain assault by public opinion.

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