Sunday, August 28, 2005

Only Liberalism Can Save Us Now?

Via Shakespeare's Sister, I stumbled onto a debate over why the MSM seems to favor W, and, hence why they suck so bad. For a bit of background, see Lance Mannion's two part piece here and here. Also soo Ezra Klein's piece here. I had read these pieces before picking up Bertrand Russell's A History of Western Philosophy last night, and Russell's very brief overview of the history of intellectual and scientific revolutions gave me a wide frame from which to consider not only the failure of the MSM, but the failure of progressives/liberals/dems.

I don't pretend to be a media expert or as insightful as the above folks are, but I am bordering on fanatically obsessed with why a rather dogmatic and irrational political worldview predominates in our current era. In fact, I think that W's presidency has made me more political than I ever wanted to be in my life.

Ezra argues in his post that the protocols that reporters must follow are to be blamed for why they tend to beat up dems and give a love fest for W. He also suggests that the Republicans have become quite good as manipulating this system, and thereby forcing otherwise good journalists to focus on salacious and sensational scandals. He writes:

Does it suck? Yeah. Is it unfair? Definitely. But at its base, this is how it is. We know how the media react and what they react to. We need to stop pretending, then, that these are autonomous reporters with agency in their stories. They file what sells. They report when new information comes out. And so if we give them stories that sell and new information to sustain them, they'll report. The problem is, thus far, we've only given them those stories when they're about us. Maybe it's time we fed some that cut into the other team. Because the media doesn't look to be getting better anytime soon. Right now, it's only becoming more fractured, more cowed, less able to face down the different interest groups clamoring for coverage. So we're going to have to use it. And despairing over how little they like our candidates isn't the way. Reporters will report what sells. When we figure out how to give them more sellable stories than the other guy then, and only then, will their coverage "like" us.

What stuck in my mind here was the suggestion that we "figure out how to give them more sellable stories than the other guy . . ." I imagine we could start to work the MSM machine, and get as disciplined as the Republicans have become. I don't think it's a bad idea. However, I do worry that the structure of our thought prevents us from playing this sort of game.

And yet, what reading Russell put in my mind was how utterly old this type of political battle is. Russell writes the introduction to his book just after WWII, and is reflecting on what he thinks is a fundamental tension between science and (dogmatic) theology. Historically, when a belief in science, coupled with a confidence in human capacity to comprehend the world without reliance on authority, blossoms (whether Ancient Greece of Italian Renaissance), the more disciplined, organized, and irrational political forces are waiting to crush the "anarchism" that results from free-thinking.

Reflecting on the inevitable demise of free-thinking, secular states, Russell writes:

What had happened in the great age of Greece happened again in Renaissance Italy: traditional moral restraints disappeared, because they were seen to be associated with superstition; the liberation from fetters made individuals energetic and creative, producing a rare florescence of genius; but the anarchy and treachery which inevitably resulted from the decay of morals made Italians collectively impotent, and they fell, like the Greeks, under the domination of nations less civilized than themselves but not so destitute of social cohesion.
So our free-thinking, our scepticism, our scientific approach threatens to make us rather wimpy political leaders. We question the "morals" that the other side leaves unquestioned, and hence we find ourselves left without a pre-scribed moral code; we are left to reason and deliberate about moral matters among ourselves. And, while we are having thoughtful debates or entertaining experiments in living, the other side, organized and single-minded kicks our asses.

Russell gives a wonderfully attractive summary of the rise and fall of civilizations at the end of his introduction:

Throughout this long development, from 600 B.C. to the present day, philosophers have been divided into those who wished to tighten social bonds and those who wished to relax them . . . The disciplinarians have advocated some system of dogma, either old or new, and have therefore been compelled to be, in a greaters or less degree, hostile to science, since their dogmas could not be proven empirically. They have almost invariably taught that happiness is not good, but that 'nobility' or 'heroism' is to be preferred. They have sympathy with the irrational parts of human nature, since they have felt reason to be inimical to social cohesion. The libertarians, on the other hand, with the exception of the extreme anarchists, have tended to be scientific, utilitarian, rationalistic, hostile to violent passion, and enemies of all the more profound forms of religion.

While I don't think that what we mean by "libertarians" now is the same thing that Russell mean (at least those who are aligned with the social conservatives in the US), I like this neat portrait that he draws. It comforts me, oddly, to know that we (the reality-based, rational-minded folks) regularly become vulnerable to the more dogmatic and anti-science forces out there.

Russell's hope lies in liberalism, which he believes is capable of escaping the endless oscillation between tyranny and anarchy:

The doctrine of liberalism is an attempt to secure a social order not based on irrational dogma, and insuring stability without involving more restraints than are necessary for the preservation of the community. Whether this attempt can succeed only the future can determine.

So I am ending this blog entry rather far away from the point being made by the folks I link to above. (Sorry, I think its the nature of my brain). I wonder what Russell would think of the likelihood of liberalism to curb the excesses of tyranny. Clearly we are not threatening to collapse into anarchy right now. Instead, we are facing an ensuing battle over our right to privacy, our right to have a sphere of our lives in which the government cannot interfere. I hope that liberalism wins out.