November 3, 2007

Required reading

Quico says: These days, "required reading" is just an empty cliché, a phrase drained of meaning by decades of lazy overuse. Normally, I avoid it.

I have to make an exception for Tina Rosenberg's New York Times Magazine cover story on the Perils of Petrocracy, though. Covering an immense amount of material fairly, honestly, and engagingly, her piece illuminates the petrostate disease with exceptional clarity. Remarkable stuff from start to finish.

After all these years, I still don't have a clear understanding of why Venezuelans are incapable of producing journalism of this caliber.

Let them grow up

Katy says: Two kids are dead in my hometown of Maracaibo, shot down by the violence that is rapidly creeping into our nation’s soul and changing things forever. Their only mistake was protesting for their rights in a country where protesting is hardly a safe thing to do. The dead students are part of a nationwide movement that has captured the country’s airwaves and imagination in the past few weeks. But before casualties continue to mount, we need to ask what the nature of the student movement is, and what our role as spectators is and should be.

It’s hard for me to look at the current student movement and not feel, in some ways, identified. Fifteen years ago I was an elected student leader myself in my alma mater, the UCAB. I was active in student politics out of a sense of duty, of wanting to participate in bigger ideas and issues. But before I come across as some altruistic public servant, let me clarify that these feelings were part of a morass of feelings and motivations that included a sense of pride and a want of self-promotion, a longing to be popular.

Back then I was not wise enough to recognize that my inclination to participate in student politics had its share of unhealthy egomania. That lack of wisdom is reflected in some of the mistakes I made during my tenure. My lack of judgment during those times makes me grateful today that the country was not clamoring student leaders to be anything but that.

One specific incident comes to mind. When time came to elect my successors, I came down with a bad case of the flu. I went to the voting process sick, and I was in charge of counting the ballots. This led me to proclaim at the beginning the vote count, that I was happy because “por fin se acabó esta vaina…” (at last, this crap is over).

Obviously, the student newspaper skewered me for it, deservedly so. It took me a while to recognize this experience as a valuable and humbling one rather than an embarrassing moment that made an instant enemy of the author of my first negative press.

The reason I bring this up is because the current student movement’s mistakes remind me of my own and make me wish they, too, had some space in which to make them. For example, I think that wearing T-shirts with provocative messages in a hostile environment is looking for trouble, something that will lead to violence. Chaining yourself to the steps of the CNE when they have just listened to what you have to say is uncalled for and hurts your objectives. All these situations engender violence and beg the question – what do the students seek to accomplish? If they want to be heard, provoking violence is not the way to do it. But if what they want is to provoke the government, they will end up losing. Is there a "student movement" as such, or are we placing our hopes on a ragtag group of young people with wildly different agendas?

Due to the extraordinary times we are living in, and the unheralded focus being placed on them, the student movement is over-reaching. While the movement’s leaders may not have wanted it this way, they seem to be encouraging attention and enjoy basking in the limelight. Yet they must remember that while they are definitely helping in the general move to stop Chavez from cementing himself in power, they cannot accomplish this on their own.

The fault, however, does not lie with the students. The fault lies with us, who applaud and encourage them and are ready to christen them in glorious accolades. The fault lies with the media that makes people like Yon Goicoechea and Stalin Gonzalez national leaders when they are clearly not prepared to assume such a role.

Mr. Goicoechea, Mr. González and the others are certainly smart, courageous and media-savvy. They are filled with the innocence of those who think ideas can change the world, and with the hubris of those who have not yet tasted life’s defeats. Yet these attributes we find so attractive and refreshing are precisely the ones that handicap their chances of effecting change.

The students cannot lead the way. They have no concrete proposal for the country, and they have not lived enough to find one. They will be slaughtered – both politically and, God forbid, literally. Their lives may be ruined and the hopes of their generation could be shattered. Who are we to place this burden on them? And why should the country as a whole suffer through their juvenile mistakes?

So as we sit by the TV, enthralled by the latest act of bravado from these original characters, let’s ask ourselves whether we are implicitly applauding while children do our dirty work for us. By cheering them on and placing them at the front of our struggles, we may be inadvertently leading these kids to their doom while they enjoy their newfound recognition.

We should know better, because they do not.

November 1, 2007

Primero Justicia: an inside peek

Katy says: Eighteen months ago, some friends who work for Primero Justicia called me up and asked me if I would like to help edit the document containing the party's platform. Seeing as though Julio Borges had been working on a comprehensive proposal of his own for his presidential campaign, they didn't want the document to die along with his candidacy and they decided they wanted to turn it into the party's platform.

I jumped at the opportunity, and I've been working on it since. Three weeks ago, I took part in the party's ideological congress, where the document would be discussed and approved. Here's my eyewitness account.

First off, I should make it clear that I don't consider myself a party insider. Although I do belong to Primero Justicia, I'm not really active in it since, for starters, I don't live in Venezuela. My main motivation was out of loyalty, yes, but I was also driven by the challenge of writing a document that was comprehensive yet accessible, something that any middle-class Venezuelan with some education would be able to understand but, at the same time, something that public policy experts would think was more than rhetorical wish-wash.

The congress itself had its share of the good, the bad and the ugly.

The good: The event, held in the Eurobuilding's tent, was well-organized and filled to the rims with four thousand people from all over the country. Every state was represented, and there were even representatives of Venezuela's indigenous communities. I was expecting to find a lot of middle-class kids from Caracas' eastern neighborhoods, but I found a portrait of the country: young and old, men and women, union members and housewives, yuppies and workers. The crowd was a sight to see - all enthusiastic, ready to rock. (I even met fellow blogger Daniel Duquenal that day, go here for his account.)

International visitors included former Bolivian president Jorge Quiroga and PAN (Mexico) congressman Rodrigo Cortés. Both spoke eloquently, Quiroga in particular impressed me with his ability to connect with the audience, telling us his country's experience as a warning that what happens in Venezuela affects the entire continent. (On a side note, Pres. Quiroga warned me about José Miguel Insulza, saying he and Chávez had a pact to get him elected to the OAS and that he would be Chávez's man in Chile in the next election.)

The Congress itself had many hurdles to overcome. The climate of intimidation in Caracas has reached the point where none of the capital's hotels were willing to hire out space to an opposition political party. Originally, it was supposed to take place on the campus of the Universidad Nueva Esparta, but they bailed two weeks before due to the government's pressure. It was a miracle that the Eurobuilding Hotel finally relented and allowed the event to be held there. Even then, just a day before the Congress, the guy in charge of supplying the podium flaked on account of government pressure, so the podium they ended up using was pretty makeshift.

One of the most positive aspects of the meeting was that everybody there understood the importance of the vote. Some of the loudest cheers came whenever a speaker warned against abstanining, saying this was tantamount to handing the country over to Chávez.

The other important aspect was the sense that this is not a "caudillo" party but a cohesive group where everybody understands the importance of team-play. While all the party's leaders spoke, none stood out above the other and they all had more or less the same message. It didn't strike me as a party that revolved around a single person's personality.

Perhaps this is a consequence of the split that happened earlier this year, when Leopoldo López, Gerardo Blyde, Liliana Hernández and others left to join Manuel Rosales's UNT. Everyone I asked lamented their departure, but told me that the problem was that they were simply not team players, they did not believe in the organization or in its goals. While the party may have suffered through this split, it still looks healthy and, in a way, more coherent.

Truth is, Blyde, Lopez and Hernandez have seen their credibility suffer - after all, they said they left PJ because it had no internal democracy and no ideology. The irony is that now Primero Justicia is the only one of the country's two main opposition parties to have held internal elections and an ideological congress. Also worth noting is the fact that many of the people who left Primero Justicia have now joined UNT's top ranks without having been elected to any of their posts, which suggests to me their vehement pleas for internal party democracy were grandstanding.

The bad: If there is one thing lacking in this group is P.R. savvy. Media coverage of the event was a disaster, and even now, the party's ideological platform, its proposals to the country are not on the Internet.

I was shocked to find Venezuela's major newspapers gave us minimal coverage, and most of them focused on Quiroga's speech blasting the Chávez administration. There simply was no mention of the party's main proposals, including strengthening of Misiones, the pledge to raise oil output, the promise to provide Venezuelans with shares of PDVSA so they can use it as collateral for credit or as a pension fund and the firm stance regarding civilian control over the military.

While there is a bias against Primero Justicia in the Venezuelan press, the blame here goes both ways. If the media is against you, you hire an expert to get them to talk about you. If you want them to talk about you, you have to find a way to make it interesting for them to do so. I didn't see any of that.

Even internal communications are error-prone. For example, I'm stunned that the party's website was not functioning that day and, in fact, still isn't. An Ideological Congress is not something to be taken lightly, and independents and sympathizers may have wanted to take a peek at what exactly was being proposed. But if you go to the party's websites, you will find next to nothing about it. (Please email me if you'd like to read the party's proposals, I can send you the PDF.)

This kind of thing left me feeling that the party is not quite ready for prime time, and this is something that has to be seriously addressed, as I told some of the party leaders I spoke to.

It was depressing for me to return to Chile and find that the Christian Democrats - a party that usually gets around 20% of the vote in Chile, in the same ball park as Primero Justicia's 11% - held its Ideological Congress that same weekend and made the headlines in all the major newspapers here. There was even a thorough discussion of the outcome, since many felt the party was veering to the left. Instead, in Venezuela, Sunday's paper had a small corner story that talked about the Congress, and a two-page spread discussing Che Guevara and his legacy.

The ugly: I guess it would be snobbish of me to criticize the fact that the event was scheduled for 10 but began at 11:45. This is Venezuela, after all, and the party in a way reflects the country as a whole.

However, I can't get past the idea that Venezuelans, young and old alike, are hard-wired to think that giving a good political speech is the same as shouting. While none of the speakers were terrible, nobody stood out. The rhetorical style may be suited for Venezuela, but personally, it doesn't do much for me.

Julio Borges's speech was very good, but the guy is distant. He needs to tell a story, to connect with the crowd emotionally. While his comparisons of Primero Justicia's proposals vis-a-vis Socialism was on the mark on an intellectual level, it doesn't really resonate.

Carlos Ocaríz did a little better in terms of connecting, but a little worse in terms of content. Henrique Capriles was simply awful, although he seemed to have the crowd going nuts which was surprising to me. The other guys were OK, but it was the people from the grassroots, from the "interior" of the country (Vargas or Portuguesa) who showed more promise and more preparation.

This is a young party, with lots accomplished so far but still a lot to learn. I was happy to put in my two-cents, and I sincerely wish them well. I hope they work out the kinks in the operation- if and when they do, they may just be a force to be reckoned with.

PS.- I feel terrible. As I write this, Primero Justicia is busy getting their asses kicked on the streets of Caracas and, in the process, trying to drive up Chavez's negatives. And here I am pontificating from my office...

October 31, 2007

Decision Makers

Here's one more ingredient for my conceptual stew. In this post-2004 election piece for The New Republic, Christopher Hayes describes what it was like volunteering to knock on doors on behalf of John Kerry's campaign in Wisconsin that year. You should really read the whole thing - Hayes is a great writer - but I'll just cite some especially interesting passages:

For those who follow politics, there are few things more mysterious, more inscrutable, more maddening than the mind of the undecided voter. In this year's [2004] election, when the choice was so stark and the differences between the candidates were so obvious, how could any halfway intelligent human remain undecided for long? "These people," Jonah Goldberg once wrote of undecided voters, on a rare occasion when he probably spoke for the entire political class, "can't make up their minds, in all likelihood, because either they don't care or they don't know anything."


Undecided voters aren't as rational as you think. Members of the political class may disparage undecided voters, but we at least tend to impute to them a basic rationality. We're giving them too much credit. I met voters who told me they were voting for Bush, but who named their most important issue as the environment. One man told me he voted for Bush in 2000 because he thought that with Cheney, an oilman, on the ticket, the administration would finally be able to make us independent from foreign oil. A colleague spoke to a voter who had been a big Howard Dean fan, but had switched to supporting Bush after Dean lost the nomination. After half an hour in the man's house, she still couldn't make sense of his decision. Then there was the woman who called our office a few weeks before the election to tell us that though she had signed up to volunteer for Kerry she had now decided to back Bush. Why? Because the president supported stem cell research. The office became quiet as we all stopped what we were doing to listen to one of our fellow organizers try, nobly, to disabuse her of this notion. Despite having the facts on her side, the organizer didn't have much luck.

Undecided voters do care about politics; they just don't enjoy politics. Political junkies tend to assume that undecided voters are undecided because they don't care enough to make up their minds. But while I found that most undecided voters are, as one Kerry aide put it to The New York Times, "relatively low-information, relatively disengaged," the lack of engagement wasn't a sign that they didn't care. After all, if they truly didn't care, they wouldn't have been planning to vote. The undecided voters I talked to did care about politics, or at least judged it to be important; they just didn't enjoy politics.

The mere fact that you're reading this article right now suggests that you not only think politics is important, but you actually like it. You read the paper and listen to political radio and talk about politics at parties. In other words, you view politics the way a lot of people view cooking or sports or opera: as a hobby. Most undecided voters, by contrast, seem to view politics the way I view laundry. While I understand that to be a functioning member of society I have to do my laundry, and I always eventually get it done, I'll never do it before every last piece of clean clothing is dirty, as I find the entire business to be a chore. A significant number of undecided voters, I think, view politics in exactly this way: as a chore, a duty, something that must be done but is altogether unpleasant, and therefore something best put off for as long as possible.


Undecided voters don't think in terms of issues. Perhaps the greatest myth about undecided voters is that they are undecided because of the "issues." That is, while they might favor Kerry on the economy, they favor Bush on terrorism; or while they are anti-gay marriage, they also support social welfare programs. Occasionally I did encounter undecided voters who were genuinely cross-pressured--a couple who was fiercely pro-life, antiwar, and pro-environment for example--but such cases were exceedingly rare. More often than not, when I asked undecided voters what issues they would pay attention to as they made up their minds I was met with a blank stare, as if I'd just asked them to name their favorite prime number.

The majority of undecided voters I spoke to couldn't name a single issue that was important to them. This was shocking to me. Think about it: The "issue" is the basic unit of political analysis for campaigns, candidates, journalists, and other members of the chattering classes. It's what makes up the subheadings on a candidate's website, it's what sober, serious people wish election outcomes hinged on, it's what every candidate pledges to run his campaign on, and it's what we always complain we don't see enough coverage of.

But the very concept of the issue seemed to be almost completely alien to most of the undecided voters I spoke to. (This was also true of a number of committed voters in both camps--though I'll risk being partisan here and say that Kerry voters, in my experience, were more likely to name specific issues they cared about than Bush supporters.) At first I thought this was a problem of simple semantics--maybe, I thought, "issue" is a term of art that sounds wonky and intimidating, causing voters to react as if they're being quizzed on a topic they haven't studied. So I tried other ways of asking the same question: "Anything of particular concern to you? Are you anxious or worried about anything? Are you excited about what's been happening in the country in the last four years?"

These questions, too, more often than not yielded bewilderment. As far as I could tell, the problem wasn't the word "issue"; it was a fundamental lack of understanding of what constituted the broad category of the "political." The undecideds I spoke to didn't seem to have any intuitive grasp of what kinds of grievances qualify as political grievances. Often, once I would engage undecided voters, they would list concerns, such as the rising cost of health care; but when I would tell them that Kerry had a plan to lower health-care premiums, they would respond in disbelief--not in disbelief that he had a plan, but that the cost of health care was a political issue. It was as if you were telling them that Kerry was promising to extend summer into December.

In this context, Bush's victory, particularly on the strength of those voters who listed "values" as their number one issue, makes perfect sense. Kerry ran a campaign that was about politics: He parsed the world into political categories and offered political solutions. Bush did this too, but it wasn't the main thrust of his campaign. Instead, the president ran on broad themes, like "character" and "morals." Everyone feels an immediate and intuitive expertise on morals and values--we all know what's right and wrong. But how can undecided voters evaluate a candidate on issues if they don't even grasp what issues are?

Liberals like to point out that majorities of Americans agree with the Democratic Party on the issues, so Republicans are forced to run on character and values in order to win. But polls that ask people about issues presuppose a basic familiarity with the concept of issues--a familiarity that may not exist.

October 30, 2007

Quico says: I suppose readers must think I’ve finally cracked: posting 40 year old public opinion research and papal encyclicals and such. Actually, there’s a bit of method to the madness…these random (seeming) posts are related, at least in my mind, and build together into what (I think) is a coherent argument. (OK, well, maybe not the Japanese one, that one was just random.) But, trust me, the other ones actually hang together. They’re going somewhere. I’m just not “there” yet.

Anyway, you can add this one to the mix:

The Threat to American Democracy
Wednesday 05 October 2005

Remarks delivered by Al Gore to a conference organized by "We Media" in New York.

I came here today because I believe that American democracy is in grave danger. It is no longer possible to ignore the strangeness of our public discourse ... I know that I am not the only one who feels that something has gone basically and badly wrong in the way America's fabled "marketplace of ideas" now functions.

How many of you, I wonder, have heard a friend or a family member in the last few years remark that it's almost as if America has entered "an alternate universe?"

I thought maybe it was an aberration when three-quarters of Americans said they believed that Saddam Hussein was responsible for attacking us on September 11, 2001. But more than four years later, between a third and a half still believe Saddam was personally responsible for planning and supporting the attack.

At first I thought the exhaustive, non-stop coverage of the O.J. trial was just an unfortunate excess that marked an unwelcome departure from the normal good sense and judgment of our television news media. But now we know that it was merely an early example of a new pattern of serial obsessions that periodically take over the airwaves for weeks at a time.

Are we still routinely torturing helpless prisoners, and if so, does it feel right that we as American citizens are not outraged by the practice? And does it feel right to have no ongoing discussion of whether or not this abhorrent, medieval behavior is being carried out in the name of the American people? If the gap between rich and poor is widening steadily and economic stress is mounting for low-income families, why do we seem increasingly apathetic and lethargic in our role as citizens?

On the eve of the nation's decision to invade Iraq, our longest serving senator, Robert Byrd of West Virginia, stood on the Senate floor asked: "Why is this chamber empty? Why are these halls silent?"

The decision that was then being considered by the Senate with virtually no meaningful debate turned out to be a fateful one. A few days ago, the former head of the National Security Agency, Retired Lt. General William Odom, said, "The invasion of Iraq, I believe, will turn out to be the greatest strategic disaster in US history."

But whether you agree with his assessment or not, Senator Byrd's question is like the others that I have just posed here: he was saying, in effect, this is strange, isn't it? Aren't we supposed to have full and vigorous debates about questions as important as the choice between war and peace?

Those of us who have served in the Senate and watched it change over time, could volunteer an answer to Senator Byrd's two questions: the Senate was silent on the eve of war because Senators don't feel that what they say on the floor of the Senate really matters that much any more. And the chamber was empty because the Senators were somewhere else: they were in fundraisers collecting money from special interests in order to buy 30-second TV commercials for their next re-election campaign.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, there was - at least for a short time - a quality of vividness and clarity of focus in our public discourse that reminded some Americans - including some journalists - that vividness and clarity used to be more common in the way we talk with one another about the problems and choices that we face. But then, like a passing summer storm, the moment faded.

In fact there was a time when America's public discourse was consistently much more vivid, focused and clear. Our Founders, probably the most literate generation in all of history, used words with astonishing precision and believed in the Rule of Reason.

Their faith in the viability of Representative Democracy rested on their trust in the wisdom of a well-informed citizenry. But they placed particular emphasis on insuring that the public could be well-informed. And they took great care to protect the openness of the marketplace of ideas in order to ensure the free-flow of knowledge.

The values that Americans had brought from Europe to the New World had grown out of the sudden explosion of literacy and knowledge after Gutenberg's disruptive invention broke up the stagnant medieval information monopoly and triggered the Reformation, Humanism, and the Enlightenment and enshrined a new sovereign: the "Rule of Reason."

Indeed, the self-governing republic they had the audacity to establish was later named by the historian Henry Steele Commager as "the Empire of Reason."

Our founders knew all about the Roman Forum and the Agora in ancient Athens. They also understood quite well that in America, our public forum would be an ongoing conversation about democracy in which individual citizens would participate not only by speaking directly in the presence of others - but more commonly by communicating with their fellow citizens over great distances by means of the printed word. Thus they not only protected Freedom of Assembly as a basic right, they made a special point - in the First Amendment - of protecting the freedom of the printing press.

Their world was dominated by the printed word. Just as the proverbial fish doesn't know it lives in water, the United States in its first half century knew nothing but the world of print: the Bible, Thomas Paine's fiery call to revolution, the Declaration of Independence, our Constitution, our laws, the Congressional Record, newspapers and books.

Though they feared that a government might try to censor the printing press - as King George had done - they could not imagine that America's public discourse would ever consist mainly of something other than words in print.

And yet, as we meet here this morning, more than 40 years have passed since the majority of Americans received their news and information from the printed word. Newspapers are hemorrhaging readers and, for the most part, resisting the temptation to inflate their circulation numbers. Reading itself is in sharp decline, not only in our country but in most of the world. The Republic of Letters has been invaded and occupied by television.

Radio, the internet, movies, telephones, and other media all now vie for our attention - but it is television that still completely dominates the flow of information in modern America. In fact, according to an authoritative global study, Americans now watch television an average of four hours and 28 minutes every day - 90 minutes more than the world average.

When you assume eight hours of work a day, six to eight hours of sleep and a couple of hours to bathe, dress, eat and commute, that is almost three-quarters of all the discretionary time that the average American has. And for younger Americans, the average is even higher.

The internet is a formidable new medium of communication, but it is important to note that it still doesn't hold a candle to television. Indeed, studies show that the majority of Internet users are actually simultaneously watching television while they are online. There is an important reason why television maintains such a hold on its viewers in a way that the internet does not, but I'll get to that in a few minutes.

Television first overtook newsprint to become the dominant source of information in America in 1963. But for the next two decades, the television networks mimicked the nation's leading newspapers by faithfully following the standards of the journalism profession. Indeed, men like Edward R. Murrow led the profession in raising the bar.

But all the while, television's share of the total audience for news and information continued to grow - and its lead over newsprint continued to expand. And then one day, a smart young political consultant turned to an older elected official and succinctly described a new reality in America's public discourse: "If it's not on television, it doesn't exist."

But some extremely important elements of American Democracy have been pushed to the sidelines ... And the most prominent casualty has been the "marketplace of ideas" that was so beloved and so carefully protected by our Founders. It effectively no longer exists.

It is not that we no longer share ideas with one another about public matters; of course we do. But the "Public Forum" in which our Founders searched for general agreement and applied the Rule of Reason has been grossly distorted and "restructured" beyond all recognition.

And here is my point: it is the destruction of that marketplace of ideas that accounts for the "strangeness" that now continually haunts our efforts to reason together about the choices we must make as a nation.

Whether it is called a Public Forum, or a "Public Sphere," or a marketplace of ideas, the reality of open and free public discussion and debate was considered central to the operation of our democracy in America's earliest decades.

In fact, our first self-expression as a nation - "We the People" - made it clear where the ultimate source of authority lay. It was universally understood that the ultimate check and balance for American government was its accountability to the people. And the public forum was the place where the people held the government accountable. That is why it was so important that the marketplace of ideas operated independent from and beyond the authority of government.

The three most important characteristics of this marketplace of ideas were:

* 1) It was open to every individual, with no barriers to entry, save the necessity of literacy. This access, it is crucial to add, applied not only to the receipt of information but also to the ability to contribute information directly into the flow of ideas that was available to all.

* 2) The fate of ideas contributed by individuals depended, for the most part, on an emergent Meritocracy of Ideas. Those judged by the market to be good rose to the top, regardless of the wealth or class of the individual responsible for them.

* 3) The accepted rules of discourse presumed that the participants were all governed by an unspoken duty to search for general agreement. That is what a "Conversation of Democracy" is all about.

What resulted from this shared democratic enterprise was a startling new development in human history: for the first time, knowledge regularly mediated between wealth and power.

The liberating force of this new American reality was thrilling to all humankind. Thomas Jefferson declared, "I have sworn upon the alter of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man."

It ennobled the individual and unleashed the creativity of the human spirit. It inspired people everywhere to dream of what they could yet become. And it emboldened Americans to bravely explore the farther frontiers of freedom - for African Americans, for women, and eventually, we still dream, for all.

And just as knowledge now mediated between wealth and power, self-government was understood to be the instrument with which the people embodied their reasoned judgments into law. The Rule of Reason under-girded and strengthened the rule of law.

But to an extent seldom appreciated, all of this - including especially the ability of the American people to exercise the reasoned collective judgments presumed in our Founders' design - depended on the particular characteristics of the marketplace of ideas as it operated during the Age of Print.

Consider the rules by which our present "public forum" now operates, and how different they are from the forum our Founders knew. Instead of the easy and free access individuals had to participate in the national conversation by means of the printed word, the world of television makes it virtually impossible for individuals to take part in what passes for a national conversation today.

Inexpensive metal printing presses were almost everywhere in America. They were easily accessible and operated by printers eager to typeset essays, pamphlets, books or flyers.

Television stations and networks, by contrast, are almost completely inaccessible to individual citizens and almost always uninterested in ideas contributed by individual citizens.

Ironically, television programming is actually more accessible to more people than any source of information has ever been in all of history. But here is the crucial distinction: it is accessible in only one direction; there is no true interactivity, and certainly no conversation.

The number of cables connecting to homes is limited in each community and usually forms a natural monopoly. The broadcast and satellite spectrum is likewise a scarce and limited resource controlled by a few. The production of programming has been centralized and has usually required a massive capital investment. So for these and other reasons, an ever-smaller number of large corporations control virtually all of the television programming in America.

Soon after television established its dominance over print, young people who realized they were being shut out of the dialogue of democracy came up with a new form of expression in an effort to join the national conversation: the "demonstration." This new form of expression, which began in the 1960s, was essentially a poor quality theatrical production designed to capture the attention of the television cameras long enough to hold up a sign with a few printed words to convey, however plaintively, a message to the American people. Even this outlet is now rarely an avenue for expression on national television.

So, unlike the marketplace of ideas that emerged in the wake of the printing press, there is virtually no exchange of ideas at all in television's domain. My partner Joel Hyatt and I are trying to change that - at least where Current TV is concerned. Perhaps not coincidentally, we are the only independently owned news and information network in all of American television.

It is important to note that the absence of a two-way conversation in American television also means that there is no "meritocracy of ideas" on television. To the extent that there is a "marketplace" of any kind for ideas on television, it is a rigged market, an oligopoly, with imposing barriers to entry that exclude the average citizen.

The German philosopher, Jurgen Habermas, describes what has happened as "the refeudalization of the public sphere." That may sound like gobbledygook, but it's a phrase that packs a lot of meaning. The feudal system which thrived before the printing press democratized knowledge and made the idea of America thinkable, was a system in which wealth and power were intimately intertwined, and where knowledge played no mediating role whatsoever. The great mass of the people were ignorant. And their powerlessness was born of their ignorance.

It did not come as a surprise that the concentration of control over this powerful one-way medium carries with it the potential for damaging the operations of our democracy. As early as the 1920s, when the predecessor of television, radio, first debuted in the United States, there was immediate apprehension about its potential impact on democracy. One early American student of the medium wrote that if control of radio were concentrated in the hands of a few, "no nation can be free."

As a result of these fears, safeguards were enacted in the US - including the Public Interest Standard, the Equal Time Provision, and the Fairness Doctrine - though a half century later, in 1987, they were effectively repealed. And then immediately afterwards, Rush Limbaugh and other hate-mongers began to fill the airwaves.

And radio is not the only place where big changes have taken place. Television news has undergone a series of dramatic changes. The movie "Network," which won the Best Picture Oscar in 1976, was presented as a farce but was actually a prophecy. The journalism profession morphed into the news business, which became the media industry and is now completely owned by conglomerates.

The news divisions - which used to be seen as serving a public interest and were subsidized by the rest of the network - are now seen as profit centers designed to generate revenue and, more importantly, to advance the larger agenda of the corporation of which they are a small part. They have fewer reporters, fewer stories, smaller budgets, less travel, fewer bureaus, less independent judgment, more vulnerability to influence by management, and more dependence on government sources and canned public relations hand-outs. This tragedy is compounded by the ironic fact that this generation of journalists is the best trained and most highly skilled in the history of their profession. But they are usually not allowed to do the job they have been trained to do.

The present executive branch has made it a practice to try and control and intimidate news organizations: from PBS to CBS to Newsweek. They placed a former male escort in the White House press pool to pose as a reporter - and then called upon him to give the president a hand at crucial moments. They paid actors to make make phony video press releases and paid cash to some reporters who were willing to take it in return for positive stories. And every day they unleash squadrons of digital brownshirts to harass and hector any journalist who is critical of the President.

For these and other reasons, The US Press was recently found in a comprehensive international study to be only the 27th freest press in the world. And that too seems strange to me.

Among the other factors damaging our public discourse in the media, the imposition by management of entertainment values on the journalism profession has resulted in scandals, fabricated sources, fictional events and the tabloidization of mainstream news. As recently stated by Dan Rather - who was, of course, forced out of his anchor job after angering the White House - television news has been "dumbed down and tarted up."

The coverage of political campaigns focuses on the "horse race" and little else. And the well-known axiom that guides most local television news is "if it bleeds, it leads." (To which some disheartened journalists add, "If it thinks, it stinks.")

In fact, one of the few things that Red state and Blue state America agree on is that they don't trust the news media anymore.

Clearly, the purpose of television news is no longer to inform the American people or serve the public interest. It is to "glue eyeballs to the screen" in order to build ratings and sell advertising. If you have any doubt, just look at what's on: The Robert Blake trial. The Laci Peterson tragedy. The Michael Jackson trial. The Runaway Bride. The search in Aruba. The latest twist in various celebrity couplings, and on and on and on.

And more importantly, notice what is not on: the global climate crisis, the nation's fiscal catastrophe, the hollowing out of America's industrial base, and a long list of other serious public questions that need to be addressed by the American people.

One morning not long ago, I flipped on one of the news programs in hopes of seeing information about an important world event that had happened earlier that day. But the lead story was about a young man who had been hiccupping for three years. And I must say, it was interesting; he had trouble getting dates. But what I didn't see was news.

This was the point made by Jon Stewart, the brilliant host of "The Daily Show," when he visited CNN's "Crossfire": there should be a distinction between news and entertainment.

And it really matters because the subjugation of news by entertainment seriously harms our democracy: it leads to dysfunctional journalism that fails to inform the people. And when the people are not informed, they cannot hold government accountable when it is incompetent, corrupt, or both.

One of the only avenues left for the expression of public or political ideas on television is through the purchase of advertising, usually in 30-second chunks. These short commercials are now the principal form of communication between candidates and voters. As a result, our elected officials now spend all of their time raising money to purchase these ads.

That is why the House and Senate campaign committees now search for candidates who are multi-millionaires and can buy the ads with their own personal resources. As one consequence, the halls of Congress are now filling up with the wealthy.

Campaign finance reform, however well it is drafted, often misses the main point: so long as the only means of engaging in political dialogue is through purchasing expensive television advertising, money will continue by one means or another to dominate American politic s. And ideas will no longer mediate between wealth and power.

And what if an individual citizen, or a group of citizens wants to enter the public debate by expressing their views on television? Since they cannot simply join the conversation, some of them have resorted to raising money in order to buy 30 seconds in which to express their opinion. But they are not even allowed to do that. tried to buy ads last year to express opposition to Bush's Medicare proposal which was then being debated by Congress. They were told "issue advocacy" was not permissible. Then, one of the networks that had refused the MoveOn ad began running advertisements by the White House in favor of the President's Medicare proposal. So MoveOn complained and the White House ad was temporarily removed. By temporary, I mean it was removed until the White House complained and the network immediately put the ad back on, yet still refused to present the MoveOn ad.

The advertising of products, of course, is the real purpose of television. And it is difficult to overstate the extent to which modern pervasive electronic advertising has reshaped our society. In the 1950s, John Kenneth Galbraith first described the way in which advertising has altered the classical relationship by which supply and demand are balanced over time by the invisible hand of the marketplace. According to Galbraith, modern advertising campaigns were beginning to create high levels of demand for products that consumers never knew they wanted, much less needed.

The same phenomenon Galbraith noticed in the commercial marketplace is now the dominant fact of life in what used to be America's marketplace for ideas. The inherent value or validity of political propositions put forward by candidates for office is now largely irrelevant compared to the advertising campaigns that shape the perceptions of voters.

Our democracy has been hallowed out. The opinions of the voters are, in effect, purchased, just as demand for new products is artificially created. Decades ago Walter Lippman wrote, "the manufacture of consent ... was supposed to have died out with the appearance of democracy ... but it has not died out. It has, in fact, improved enormously in technique ... under the impact of propaganda, it is no longer plausible to believe in the original dogma of democracy."

Like you, I recoil at Lippman's cynical dismissal of America's gift to human history. But in order to reclaim our birthright, we Americans must resolve to repair the systemic decay of the public forum and create new ways to engage in a genuine and not manipulative conversation about our future. Americans in both parties should insist on the re-establishment of respect for the Rule of Reason. We must, for example, stop tolerating the rejection and distortion of science. We must insist on an end to the cynical use of pseudo studies known to be false for the purpose of intentionally clouding the public's ability to discern the truth.

I don't know all the answers, but along with my partner, Joel Hyatt, I am trying to work within the medium of television to recreate a multi-way conversation that includes individuals and operates according to a meritocracy of ideas. If you would like to know more, we are having a press conference on Friday morning at the Regency Hotel.

We are learning some fascinating lessons about the way decisions are made in the television industry, and it may well be that the public would be well served by some changes in law and policy to stimulate more diversity of viewpoints and a higher regard for the public interest. But we are succeeding within the marketplace by reaching out to individuals and asking them to co-create our network.

The greatest source of hope for reestablishing a vigorous and accessible marketplace for ideas is the Internet. Indeed, Current TV relies on video streaming over the Internet as the means by which individuals send us what we call viewer-created content or VC squared. We also rely on the Internet for the two-way conversation that we have every day with our viewers enabling them to participate in the decisions on programming our network.

I know that many of you attending this conference are also working on creative ways to use the Internet as a means for bringing more voices into America's ongoing conversation. I salute you as kindred spirits and wish you every success.

I want to close with the two things I've learned about the Internet that are most directly relevant to the conference that you are having here today.

First, as exciting as the Internet is, it still lacks the single most powerful characteristic of the television medium; because of its packet-switching architecture, and its continued reliance on a wide variety of bandwidth connections (including the so-called "last mile" to the home), it does not support the real-time mass distribution of full-motion video.

Make no mistake, full-motion video is what makes television such a powerful medium. Our brains - like the brains of all vertebrates - are hard-wired to immediately notice sudden movement in our field of vision. We not only notice, we are compelled to look. When our evolutionary predecessors gathered on the African savanna a million years ago and the leaves next to them moved, the ones who didn't look are not our ancestors. The ones who did look passed on to us the genetic trait that neuroscientists call "the establishing reflex." And that is the brain syndrome activated by television continuously - sometimes as frequently as once per second. That is the reason why the industry phrase, "glue eyeballs to the screen," is actually more than a glib and idle boast. It is also a major part of the reason why Americans watch the TV screen an average of four and a half hours a day.

It is true that video streaming is becoming more common over the Internet, and true as well that cheap storage of streamed video is making it possible for many young television viewers to engage in what the industry calls "time shifting" and personalize their television watching habits. Moreover, as higher bandwidth connections continue to replace smaller information pipelines, the Internet's capacity for carrying television will continue to dramatically improve. But in spite of these developments, it is television delivered over cable and satellite that will continue for the remainder of this decade and probably the next to be the dominant medium of communication in America's democracy. And so long as that is the case, I truly believe that America's democracy is at grave risk.

The final point I want to make is this: We must ensure that the Internet remains open and accessible to all citizens without any limitation on the ability of individuals to choose the content they wish regardless of the Internet service provider they use to connect to the Worldwide Web. We cannot take this future for granted. We must be prepared to fight for it because some of the same forces of corporate consolidation and control that have distorted the television marketplace have an interest in controlling the Internet marketplace as well. Far too much is at stake to ever allow that to happen.

We must ensure by all means possible that this medium of democracy's future develops in the mold of the open and free marketplace of ideas that our Founders knew was essential to the health and survival of freedom.

October 29, 2007

Venezuela's right-wing dictatorship

Katy says: I have been to Venezuela three times in the last year, and each trip brings a new insight into what is going on there, insights that are hard to get from reading Globovisión or form the daily feeds of Unión Radio, El Universal and Descifrado. Recently, I began wondering whether Venezuela is indeed a right-wing dictatorship.

The thought occurred to me when I was window-shopping the Duty Free stores at the not-quite refurbished Maiquetía airport and I came across a display of Swarovski figurines. You know the ones - made of crystal, ridiculously expensive, tacky yet attractive.

Anyway, we had thought about getting a few for our house, and I figured that it would be great to buy them in Venezuela. The price for the figurines was listed at $100 each, or Bs. 215,000 at the official exchange rate of 2,150 Bs/$. Yet out in the street, you could sell your dollars for at least 5,000 Bs/$. It doesn't take a math genius to figure out that by selling $43 at the street rate, I could get the Bs. 215,000 that I needed to buy the $100-worth figurine that I wanted.

The $57 difference between what I would pay for the figure and what it actually cost is a subsidy I, a member of the "corrupt oligarchic elite," would get from this supposedly left-wing government. Mind you, it's not a subsidy to send my kids to school. It is a subsidy to decorate my house with expensive crystal figurines.

The effects of Mision Cadivi are everywhere in Venezuela. People are buying Italian kitchens by the hordes. The streets are chock-full of large, brand-new vehicles. And with a tank of gas costing less than $1, there is no need to control the size of your vehicle - the bigger the better!

The stories you hear are incredible. Whisky imports have reached all-time highs, and this year we are headed for a milestone - $40 billion in imports, a much larger figure than our current level of international reserves. People are traveling abroad like never before - in the airport, I ran into a few escuálida friends who were going to Israel for the third time this year!

It's not just rich Venezuelans who are benefiting from all this - rich people from neighboring countries are in on it as well. Travel agencies in Colombia, Panama, Peru and Ecuador routinely schedule their passengers to Europe to fly via Caracas. Through associations with Venezuelan travel agencies, their customers can take advantage of this massive arbitrage opportunity and travel for less, while both travel agencies benefit get their cut. Colombians wanting to buy cheaper cars, microwaves, computers, washing-machines and other goods are making the trip from Cúcuta to San Cristóbal's shops by the hordes.

We have a name for governments that subsidize the rich more than the poor: right-wing governments. Because if you put all of Chávez's rhetoric aside, that is what this amounts to, a massive subsidy of the middle- and upper-classes. In a country where $150 in cash traded in the black market buys you a months-worth of groceries for a family of three, the more you consume the more subsidies you receive. Never mind the scarcity - I saw some of that, but I also saw lots of imported olive oil and Spanish olives for sale. And ultimately, scarcity is caused by private importers' inability to purchase staples like milk at international prices and sell them at the controlled rate. Sooner or later, the government steps in - as it always does - and buys the milk overseas and sells it cheaply. The subsidy works its way to your pocket one way or another, you just have to be patient.

I also saw a lot of indications of Venezuela lurking toward a dictatorship. There is more fear in the streets, and fewer ways of channeling it. The government's pressure can be felt everywhere, and the massive subsidies it hands out undoubtedly act as a distracting measure. Who has time to conspire, plan for the future or organize grass-roots efforts to oust Chávez when there are all these arbitrage opportunities to be had?

My friend Roger told me the Internet was pulled from all computers in his government office, armed security has begun inspecting their briefcases and their pen drives every day when they leave work, and he received a memo indicating that, from now on, all employees had to come to work on Fridays wearing pro-government red T-shirts. Oh, what would Scott Adams do with this stuff.

Turn on the TV and you're unlikely to catch any opposition voices. Pro-Chávez lawmakers routinely make the rounds at Globovisión and Televen, while Venevisión has simply dropped all its opinion shows. José Vicente Rangel even has his own show in Televen again, where opposition figures almost never make an appearance. In VTV, not even chavista-light legislators from Podemos make the cut.

Businessmen are scared to even discuss with the government the cons of what they are doing. I met people who want to sell their apartments but are afraid of putting them in the market for fear of being marked as "rich" and kidnapped. Bullet-proofing your car has become the latest trend in yuppie excess.

As for the economy, people are doing really well, rich and poor alike. The industries doing the best are shopping malls selling imported stuff and anything related to the government. Non-oil exports, investment in technology and research and development are practically nonexistent.

As for the poor, well, you still see the same ranchos, you still see beggars in the street, the government has cracked-down on street-vendors, and traffic has gotten worse. While they are probably better off in absolute terms, it's hard to dispel the notion that they are not benefiting as much as some of my richer friends. Their paltry Misiones checks don't compare with the hefty subsidies the rich get, but that's life under a right-wing dictatorship. Good luck complaining.

PS.- I'm not the only one thinking Chávez leans to the right - check out Bruni's terrific post about this issue. A must-read!

Encyclical on the Nature of Human Liberty, 1888

Pope Leo XIII said:

The end, or object, both of the rational will and of its liberty is that good only which is in conformity with reason. Since, however, both these faculties are imperfect, it is possible, as is often seen, that the reason should propose something which is not really good, but which has the appearance of good, and that the will should choose accordingly. For, as the possibility of error, and actual error, are defects of the mind and attest its imperfection, so the pursuit of what has a false appearance of good, though a proof of our freedom, just as a disease is a proof of our vitality, implies defect in human liberty. The will also, simply because of its dependence on the reason, no sooner desires anything contrary thereto than it abuses its freedom of choice and corrupts its very essence. Thus it is that the infinitely perfect God, although supremely free, because of the supremacy of His intellect and of His essential goodness, nevertheless cannot choose evil; neither can the angels and saints, who enjoy the beatific vision. St. Augustine and others urged most admirably against the Pelagians that, if the possibility of deflection from good belonged to the essence or perfection of liberty, then God, Jesus Christ, and the angels and saints, who have not this power, would have no liberty at all, or would have less liberty than man has in his state of pilgrimage and imperfection. This subject is often discussed by the Angelic Doctor in his demonstration that the possibility of sinning is not freedom, but slavery. It will suffice to quote his subtle commentary on the words of our Lord: "Whosoever committeth sin is the slave of sin."3 "Everything," he says, "is that which belongs to it a naturally. When, therefore, it acts through a power outside itself, it does not act of itself, but through another, that is, as a slave. But man is by nature rational. When, therefore, he acts according to reason, he acts of himself and according to his free will; and this is liberty. Whereas, when he sins, he acts in opposition to reason, is moved by another, and is the victim of foreign misapprehensions. Therefore, `Whosoever committeth sin is the slave of sin.' "4 Even the heathen philosophers clearly recognized this truth, especially they who held that the wise man alone is free; and by the term "wise man" was meant, as is well known, the man trained to live in accordance with his nature, that is, in justice and virtue.

Therefore, the nature of human liberty, however it be considered, whether in individuals or in society, whether in those who command or in those who obey, supposes from this most the necessity of obedience to some supreme and eternal law, which is no other than the authority of God, commanding good and forbidding evil. And, so far, the authority of God over men far from diminishing, or even destroying their liberty, protects and perfects it, for the real perfection of all creatures is found in the prosecution and attainment of their respective ends; but the supreme end to which human liberty must aspire is God.