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Failure modes of popular discourse

by MillMan Thu Sep 28th, 2006 at 02:19:03 AM EST

and how they hinder world citizens' ability to impact the political process.


1) Non-fact based information processing and filtering
Problem: In a dishonest intellectual climate where the common goal is to win rather than to learn, people tend to assign levels of importance to news and ideas based on how good of a weapon they serve for their viewpoint or their opposition's viewpoint. If it serves as a good weapon for the person's viewpoint it is held in high importance and shared with others, if it serves as a good weapon for the opposition it is either ignored or shared with others through derision and mockery.

Impact: With political correctness in particular it allows people to ignore problems that they want to suppress or that they are too guilty or ashamed to deal with honestly, problems that their opponents may have no trouble discussing and hence projecting influence onto public policy in greater measure. More broadly it lowers the quality of public discourse in relation to professional (think tank, lobbyist, and public relations industry) opinion, negatively impacting the public's ability to influence public policy.

2) Consciously allowing the media to manipulate and frame references in exchange for confirmation of personal biases
Problem: I'll start with an example. Here are two snippets from an article that was linked to by poemless in yesterday evening's open thread:

On the other side of the mainstream media political spectrum from the Journal is the Washington Post, whose Op-Ed page leans towards what you might call "Lieberman Democrats." You know, real leftie stuff. Because America has such a diverse and free press. So how does the Post's take on Putin's Russia differ from the Journal's? I won't keep you hanging, so here goes, the concluding paragraph to an August 23rd editorial: "The West relies on Russian energy supplies at its peril."

Then towards the bottom of the article:

In a poll released earlier this week, Bush's approval rating has soared--SOARED!-- to 44%, the highest in ages. Even more shocking, Americans no longer believe that the war in Iraq was a mistake. The Bertrand Russell theorem applies to us too: we're getting what we deserve.

When I read that poll this past Monday, I exploded in laughter. The absolute, pure gullibility of the American public is without limit, bottomless...

There is a claim in the first quote that the American press is a uniform propaganda machine, yet in the second quote, the author is taking their output at face value.

Internet discourse in particular is rife with this kind  of intellectual indifference (among other colorful metaphors I will refrain from sharing here). When people submit to the media's point of view, they are stuck within the media's framework for understanding current events. The media's framework, at a minimum, represents elite interests that are in broad opposition to the interests of the public.

Impact: Increased inability of the public to articulate its own interests in the voting both and when attempting to influence public policy.

3) Assuming that you are smarter than everyone else, or assuming that everyone else is dumber than you
Problem: For reasons I don't understand, most of the world's middle class assumes that the above is true.

Impact: Retardation in the quality and impact of information exchanged between members of the public. As this belief increases hostility between members of the public, it decreases their influence on fellow citizens vis a vis professionals in the government and the public relations industry, who have a strong grasp on the psychology of influence as it is their job to begin with. It also increases isolation between different social groups, impeding the ability to see common interests between groups.

Display:
anyway, when I originally read the article I quoted it threw me off a cliff on the particular point I made with it, and this entry is the result.

you are the media you consume.

by MillMan (millguy at gmail) on Thu Sep 28th, 2006 at 02:48:59 AM EST
The problem with the media is that they are both media in the narrow sense (that through which our information propagates) and participants in discourse - and thus subject to these failure modes (particularly 1)). This allows them a near-monopoly on the framing of the discourse - we can only talk about what we know.

Your criticism of Mark Ames is entirely valid (though it slid right by me when I read the article). I think we all (perhaps inevitably) fall into that very same trap from time to time. It's good that you remind us of that.


The fact is that what we're experiencing right now is a top-down disaster. -Paul Krugman

by dvx (dvx.clt ät gmail dotcom) on Thu Sep 28th, 2006 at 05:47:05 AM EST
What was that idiot talking about when he said that Americans no longer believe the war was a mistake?

CNN Poll, Sept. 22-24: "Do you favor or oppose the US war in Iraq?" 59% opposed, 40% in favor -- which, funny enough, is roughly the level Bush's approvals have "soared" to recently.

ABC News: 56% opposed, 42% in favor.

I'm not sure which poll this jackass read, but it would appear that Russian writers are even less comptent than American ones.

I didn't read the entire article, because the attempts at being funny were so sad -- to say nothing of this guy having the skills of a high school student -- that it was unbearable, but it didn't seem that he actually addressed Newsweek's claims, other than to say, "I write for a Russian website.  Trust me."  Did I simply miss that part while skimming through the clumn?

Be nice to America. Or we'll bring democracy to your country.

by Drew J Jones (pedobear@pennstatefootball.com) on Thu Sep 28th, 2006 at 08:08:38 AM EST
First, the guy is American.
Second, his article about how Russia is covered in the US press is spot on.
Third - that 40+% are still supporting the Iraq War and/or Bush is nothing short of extraordinary.

Plus you're going to piss off both poemless and me if you say anything bad about the exile. They have been prescient in their coverage of US media - I remember their columns on Friedman et al. back in 1998-1999 - they have been chronicling the hollowness and decline of US punditry for longer than most.

Sure, they are jerks, but that was the chosen style of their paper form the start.

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Thu Sep 28th, 2006 at 11:46:41 AM EST
[ Parent ]
O, cпасибо, Jerome...  I simply don't have the energy to say what I want to say regarding this diary.  So I was just going to ignore it or try to stew in the irony of it (if you don't know what I'm talking about, MillMan, take a look at their letters to the editor. [sic!])

So, yeah, what Jerome said.  

In all fairness, I did point out the mild inconsistency in Ames' last piece (criticizing the US media and then citing it...).  And Jerome had no problem correcting some assertions made in the Cheney's Cold War piece.  So we are not sycophants.  But while Ames may miss a few swings, he is still hitting more stuff out of the park than just about all the other press coverage of Russia and America combined.  

Anyway, I realize the eXile isn't to everyone's taste, but you should take a while and familiarize yourself with their MO and their history before you go after them.  For your own sake.

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. -Voltaire

by p------- on Thu Sep 28th, 2006 at 12:04:51 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I didn't write this to attack that particular piece - I see what he did CONSTANTLY from others and this piece just sent me over the edge.

you are the media you consume.

by MillMan (millguy at gmail) on Thu Sep 28th, 2006 at 12:53:07 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I'm sorry.  I was conflating your diary and Drew's comment.  I do think it is an interesting topic, and one I think about a lot, but I just think you picked a bad journalist/newspaper to illustrate your point.  

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. -Voltaire
by p------- on Thu Sep 28th, 2006 at 02:00:08 PM EST
[ Parent ]
He laid it all out in plain terms, it was a perfect example.

you are the media you consume.

by MillMan (millguy at gmail) on Thu Sep 28th, 2006 at 02:11:45 PM EST
[ Parent ]
that we got distracted from your very valid point by the side discussion on the exile.

The points in your diary do stand.

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Fri Sep 29th, 2006 at 03:02:35 AM EST
[ Parent ]
First: Okay.
Second: I didn't disagree with that.
Third: I didn't disagree with that either, but it does not take anything away from his clearly incorrect statement about public opinion.

Perhaps I was too harsh, but I tend to respond harshly after being stereotyped as a "Bible-thumping, pious militarist" and a "grotesque, abject sucker".

Ames' assertion that Americans no longer believe the war was a mistake is demonstrably false (hence my quoting of two out of many polls recently conducted), and, given the overall tone of the column, along with more than a few vicious attacks, it seems he deserves to be taken down a peg or two.  As far as his characterization of the US media is concerned, few -- especially on the left side of the center -- would disagree with the idea that the press is playing into the hands of Old Cold "Warriors" (quotes used because few of them actually served) who don't realize that it's 2006, and that, more generally, the press is, at best, a joke and, at worst, no less insane than the Bushies.

Further, he brings in the quote from Menon in 2004, saying that Menon believed the war in Chechnya was unwinnable.  Small problem: The quote doesn't say that.  It says that, in 2004 (just as in some earlier year not quoted by Ames), the war was a stalemate.  Ames employed a straw man argument.  (Why anyone would need a straw man argument to take on the press is beyond me, unless, of course, he has no serious rebuttal.)  Again -- and I'm almost finished reading, so I think I know the answer -- I have got to ask: Does he ever even address Newsweek's claims?  I haven't even read the NW article, and I can so far tell that he has not.

He, then, ridicules NW's question :"What happens when--not if--oil and gas prices begin to retreat?"  But he never answers it, nor does he argue that it is not a question of "when" but "if," which would've been an easy argument to make, as you, of all people, know.  This is where my view -- that Ames writes like a high school student -- originated.  A serious writer would've answered NW or provided an argument against NW's premise.

The Cold War was not about defeating Russia, anyway.  It was about defeating communism.

Be nice to America. Or we'll bring democracy to your country.

by Drew J Jones (pedobear@pennstatefootball.com) on Thu Sep 28th, 2006 at 01:43:24 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The Cold War was not about defeating Russia, anyway.  It was about defeating communism.

Like in China, for example?  Sorry for the snark.  I'll meet you in the middle and say it was about defeating the Soviet Union.  The Soviet Union collasped and America declared vistory in the Cold War, while communist regimes & movements elsewhere carried on.  

Actually, no, you know, it was in large part about containing Russia.  

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. -Voltaire

by p------- on Thu Sep 28th, 2006 at 02:06:14 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Well, the cold-warriors currently in the US cabinet seem intent on sparking another cold war with Russia, so maybe the original one was indeed about Russia.

Those whom the Gods wish to destroy They first make mad. -- Euripides
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Sep 28th, 2006 at 02:18:59 PM EST
[ Parent ]
As if China were communist in anything but party name these days.  (Not exactly running around in those ridiculous Mao costumes anymore, are they?  It's pinstripe suits all around.)  The communist regimes have all either collapsed, as in Russia; liberalized their economies (to one degree or another), as in China; or become even greater hellholes than they were in the glory days of the USSR, as in North Korea.

Be nice to America. Or we'll bring democracy to your country.
by Drew J Jones (pedobear@pennstatefootball.com) on Thu Sep 28th, 2006 at 05:57:43 PM EST
[ Parent ]
give right now to be doing a salsa with some Latin hottie in that hellhole Havana and spending my Euros.

That's trite, I know, but a man can dream can't he?

"Schiller sprach zu Goethe, Steck in dem Arsch die Flöte! Goethe sagte zu Schiller, Mein Arsch ist kein Triller!"

by Jeffersonian Democrat (rzg6f@virginia.edu) on Fri Sep 29th, 2006 at 11:12:52 AM EST
[ Parent ]
they quite like hyperbole and blanket statements over at the exile (not to mention their aggressive mysoginy). It's sometimes hard to know how much of it is pure pose, but it does give them often the look of a fratboy club. It's a tolerable offense for me in view of their other insights.

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes
by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Thu Sep 28th, 2006 at 02:20:45 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Which is fine by me, as you know from you and I being on the same side during the episode of Islamic Wingnuttia following the Danish cartoons.  And perhaps the magazine does offer great insights, but this particular column did not.  Was Ames right about the American media being incompetent?  Sure, but so have about a billion other people inside and outside of America.  His other assertions were clearly false.  And, again, he never actually addressed Newsweek's arguments, instead choosing to simply ridicule them, which is how high school students and college-campus ideologues debate.

Be nice to America. Or we'll bring democracy to your country.
by Drew J Jones (pedobear@pennstatefootball.com) on Fri Sep 29th, 2006 at 03:22:48 AM EST
[ Parent ]
His article is not about Russia, but about coverage of Russia. He is making the absolutely correct point that there is this new meme in the media that Russia is being both criticised for exercising its strength and dismissed for being weak and that there is an element of wishful thinking in the second.

As you know, I tend to think that indeed Russia is weaker that it thinks it is, because its strength is predicated on oil prices rather than real development, and it has terrible problems like the declining population and widespread corruption. But as I also think that oil prices will remain high, that strength will remain and, more importantly, the pride that Russians feel in their country apprearing to be strong and a force to be reckoned with (and their President symbolises this extremely well, thus his very high popularity) will last.

So we have to deal with Russia seriously, instead of alternating bluster, dismissal and panic.

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Fri Sep 29th, 2006 at 04:00:04 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I'm all for taking Russia seriously, and, yes, he was right about US media coverage being schizophrenic, but the point could be made just as easily without straw man arguments, attacks, and ignorance.

If US politicians and pundits are really so fearful of Russia -- which I find ridiculous, to be quite honest, but ridiculous fear is par for the course these days in Washington -- then isn't the answer, as with the Arabs, to stop sucking at the oil and natural gas teet?  If they really wanted to clear away any doubts, and really make Russia look like a joke, they would push for a serious renewable energy program.

Be nice to America. Or we'll bring democracy to your country.

by Drew J Jones (pedobear@pennstatefootball.com) on Fri Sep 29th, 2006 at 04:31:28 AM EST
[ Parent ]
but I tend to respond harshly after being stereotyped as a "Bible-thumping, pious militarist" and a "grotesque, abject sucker".

But this is their style.  They go after absolutely everyone, usually with this express intention of getting exactly that kind of response.  It might be hyperbole or "shock" value, but there is usually a major dose of truth in it, and the way it works is it is all funny hahaha to smuggly laugh at the stupidity and incompetence of other until they shine the spotlight on you.  It ends up pissing a lot of people off.  Especially those guilty as charged.  I think their motto must be "If you take yourself too seriously, you must be hiding something."

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. -Voltaire

by p------- on Thu Sep 28th, 2006 at 02:22:36 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Does having a government that thinks it can legalise torture count as a failure of public discourse?

11 Dems supported this fiasco.

And you're worried about The Exile?

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Thu Sep 28th, 2006 at 10:10:34 PM EST
First, you didn't read my comments in this thread, and second, I don't take direction from others on what to write. That particular issue is a nuclear bomb and I will not discuss it online after I made the mistake of doing so with a bunch of chicken littles yesterday.

you are the media you consume.

by MillMan (millguy at gmail) on Fri Sep 29th, 2006 at 12:17:33 AM EST
[ Parent ]
One conclusion might be, that objectivity of the media is not a given, the society has to make an effort to make it more objective and critical.

On the other hand, this is Rupert Murdoch's world. He made the media as it is now, or "convinced" us that it should be som or it is always such.

The main feature of this media situation is absence of adequate opposition to the status quo. The news organizations are convinced that the only way to compete is to follow the Fox News model. No one is willing to invest to overcome this perception.

Murdoch's media empire is indeed strong, thanks to changes in media concilidation laws in US in the 1990's. Any public discource should respect the media it is functioning it. But if the media is tilted against you, it is not a very crazy idea to work on changing the media. Expectations should be low, but if you need the public be educated up to appropriate level, you have to do the educating yourself, however earnestly or slowly.

by das monde on Thu Sep 28th, 2006 at 11:23:16 PM EST


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