Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
17Jan/140

On Civic Journalism

ArendtWeekendReading

In Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan describes a man with a Muck Rake, a man who looks only down, raking the muck off the floor. Earthly, gazing down, collecting the muck around himself, the Muck Raker sees only the detritus of our world. He never looks up, neither into the heavens or even into the face of another. For Bunyan, the Muck Raker is blind to the spiritual and sublime.

The journalists who beginning in the late 19th century came to be called Muckrakers looked down at the painful truth that was America in an age of corruption, inequality, and corporatism. As Doris Kearns Goodwin describes in her excellent new book Bully Pulpit, the muckrakers turned a “microscope on humanity, on the avarice and corruption that stunted the very possibility of social justice in America.”

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One of the central storylines of Kearns Goodwin’s Bully Pulpit is the alliance between Theodore Roosevelt and the Muckraking journalists around McClure’s Magazine. Roosevelt met frequently with Sam McClure and his writers, feeding them stories and also soliciting their advice and knowledge as he promoted his progressive agenda and took on corporate trusts. Roosevelt both needed the journalists, but also feared the excess of their truthtelling zeal. Here is how Teddy Roosevelt describes the Muckrakers in one speech from 1906:

In Pilgrim's Progress the Man with the Muck Rake is set forth as the example of him whose vision is fixed on carnal instead of spiritual things. Yet he also typifies the man who in this life consistently refuses to see aught that is lofty, and fixes his eyes with solemn intentness only on that which is vile and debasing. Now, it is very necessary that we should not flinch from seeing what is vile and debasing. There is filth on the floor, and it must be scraped up with the muck rake; and there are times and places where this service is the most needed of all the services that can be performed. But the man who never does anything else, who never thinks or speaks or writes, save of his feats with the muck rake, speedily becomes, not a help but one of the most potent forces for evil.

The McClures crowd always insisted that they “muck-raked never to destroy, but with utter faith in reason and progress.” It was because McClure and his writers “criticized in full confidence that, once understood, evils would be speedily corrected,” that they so fully gained Roosevelt’s trust and confidence. What Kearns Goodwin so vividly makes clear was the power of such an alliance between crusading journalists and a courageous politician.

Complaints about the contemporary state of the press are common. Rarely, however, does someone lay out in stark detail both the failures of the press, as well as providing insight into when, why, and how the press does succeed in fulfilling its role as the watchdog of corruption and the attendant for crusading change. But that is just what Dean Starkman does in his new book The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (recently excerpted in Columbia Journalism Review).

Starkman sets out to argue a simple thesis: “The US business press failed to investigate and hold accountable Wall Street banks and major mortgage lenders in the years leading up to the financial crisis of 2008. That’s why the crisis came as such a shock to the public and to the press itself.” In short, he argues that if the press had done a better job of alerting the public and our political leaders to the corruption and crises within the mortgage markets, the financial crisis likely could and would have been avoided.

Starkman offers an optimistic view. It is based on the assumption that the people and our leaders actually respond to rational warnings. It is equally likely, however, that the press doesn’t warn us because we don’t really want to be warned. Over and over again on questions of importance from torture to totalitarianism and from corruption to criminality, complaints that the press failed are myopic. In nearly every case, the press has indeed reported the story. What has happened, however, is that the hard-hitting stories about torture or cover-ups or financial misdeeds rarely find an audience when times are good or the country feels threatened. The problem, indeed, may be less a feckle press than dormant population.

The beauty of Starkman’s analysis is that he makes clear that serious muckraking journalism about the illegal and corrupt practices in the mortgage lending industry did appear if briefly—it just had little effect and faded away. While most of these articles appeared in small non-mainstream journals, some larger papers and magazines like Forbes and the Wall St. Journal did run such hard-hitting investigative reports. The problem is that they did so only early on in the build up to the crisis—from 2001-2003. After that period, they dropped the ball. Starkman sees this as evidence that the press did not bark. On one level he is right. But it could also be seen as evidence that the press barked and learned a sad lesson: That so long as chickens were plentiful, the people didn’t care to know that the fox was in the hen house.

The lesson Starkman draws is different. It is that we need to preserve the muckraking tradition, which now goes under the bland professionalized name of “accountability reporting.”

Now is a good time to consider what journalism the public needs. What actually works? Who are journalism’s true forefathers and foremothers? Is there a line of authority in journalism’s collective past that can help us navigate its future? What creates value, both in a material sense and in terms of what is good and valuable in American journalism?

Accountability reporting comes in many forms—a series of revelations in a newspaper or online, a book, a TV magazine segment—but its most common manifestation has been the long-form newspaper or magazine story, the focus of this book. Call it the Great Story. The form was pioneered by the muckrakers’ quasi-literary work in the early 20th century, with Tarbell’s exposé on the Standard Oil monopoly in McClure’s magazine a brilliant example. As we’ll see, the Great Story has demonstrated its subversive power countless times and has exposed and clarified complex problems for mass audiences across a nearly limitless range of subjects: graft in American cities, modern slave labor in the US, the human costs of leveraged buyouts, police brutality and corruption, the secret recipients on Wall Street of government bailouts, the crimes and cover-ups of media and political elites, and on and on, year in and year out. The greatest of muckraking editors, Samuel S. McClure, would say to his staff, over and over, almost as a mantra, “The story is the thing!” And he was right.

Starkman opposes “accountability reporting to “access reporting,” what he calls “the practice of obtaining inside information from powerful people and institutions.”  The press relies too much on simply telling us what the companies want us to know rather than digging deeply to tell the untold story. This is even more the case in the internet era, Starkman worries, because news organizations are cutting budgets for investigative reporters as the economics of journalism turns to commentary and linking rather than investigation. What the public needs, he writes, is a public-centered support for accountability journalism in the mainstream media.

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To buttress his claim, Starkman invokes Walter Lippman.

Walter Lippmann is as right today as he was in 1920. It’s not enough for reporters and editors to struggle against great odds as many of them have been doing. It’s time to take the public into our confidence. The news about the news needs to be told. It needs to be told because, in the run-up to the global financial crisis, the professional press let the public down.

But after his early call for a better kind of public-spirited journalism in 1920, Lippmann shifted gears with the publication of Public Opinion in 1922. As Jim Sleeper writes recently in Dissent, Public Opinion was much less optimistic about the power of the press to serve the public good.

Lippmann later claimed to identify something more profoundly problematic than bad reporting: “the very nature of the way the public formed its opinions,” as his biographer Ronald Steele put it. He despaired of a public of citizens with enough time and competence to weigh evidence and decide important questions, and in 1922 he published Public Opinion, which contended that experts needed to be insulated from democratic tempests when making decisions, which could then be ratified by voters. Lippmann’s contemporary John Dewey called it “perhaps the most effective indictment of democracy as currently conceived ever penned.”

Sleeper recognizes, in a way Starkman does not, that such optimism runs counter to Lippmann’s powerful conclusions about the formation of public opinion in democracy. Sleeper nevertheless praises “Starkman’s civic faith, which enables him to distill from his experience some real clarity about journalism and its proper mission.” Undoubtedly the mission is laudable. His story about journalism should be told. Starkman does it well and it should be read. It is your weekend read. As you do so, ask yourself:  If we want to revitalize democracy can a revitalized muckraking journalism lead the way?

-RB

18Jan/135

Power, Persuasion, and Organization

 

John Duncan has in interesting response to Bill Dixon’s Quote of the Week this week. Dixon wrote about the importance of power (as opposed to violence or domination) in political life. And he worried that power was being lost and, what is more, becoming impossible to hold on to or acquire in the modern world. He writes:

The dilemmas of modern powerlessness are peculiarly wrenching in large part because they are not readily negotiable by political action, by those practices of public creativity and initiative that are uniquely capable of redefining what is possible in the common world.  Rather, these “choices” and others like them seem more like dead-ends, tired old traps that mark the growing powerlessness of politics itself.

Duncan wonders how power can be created and made in our world. He answers:

Express, discuss, decide, persuade, negotiate, compromise: these are the skilled activities that bring power into existence. These are the skills that direct the course of an organization and allow it to change without losing support of its individual members. The skills are used with other people (which is why they’re political). The skills require a space where their use can take place; imply a basic equality of participation; a reason or purpose to be together; and a love and respect for language and the power of well chosen words.

I am particularly taken by Duncan’s discussion of persuasion as a source of power.

Persuading is the art of convincing and winning-over others in a non-manipulative way. It presupposes strong convictions in one’s view of reality — particularly opportunities, threats, organizational strengths and weaknesses. It requires a well articulated vision of what the enterprise might become that is inspiring while solidly grounded. It requires a belief that the right words will bring others around to see things your way. It also implies a willingness to be persuaded oneself, to recognize and accept superior insights and understandings of others.

These thoughts on the possible manufacture of power in modern politics raise important points about modern social justice movements like Occupy Wall Street, the Tea Party, and also the horizontalidad movement in Chile. One question we should ask is why the Chilean movement has proven so powerful whereas OWS (and now it seems also the Tea Party) has fizzled and died.

Exploring the lessons of the Chilean movement is indeed the theme of an interview Zoltan Gluck conducted with Camila Vallejo and Noam Titleman, leaders of the social justice movement in Chile (Zoltan is a former student of mine, just a shout out of congratulations!)

In response to a question about the connection between leaderless and consensus based ideology of OWS and how it relates to the Chilean movement, Noam Titleman answers:

Let me say that I think the Chilean movement does place a special emphasis on its decision-making processes and does truly want to involve everyone in these processes. But one of the reasons that the movement has been able to build such strength has been its ability to concentrate its collective force in an organized fashion. That is, not just leaving decisions to the sort of ritualistic or experiential feeling of being in one place with a lot of people and discussing things, but actually putting them into action. And this obviously requires a high degree of organization. I think there is a danger that by criticizing institutions, we end up criticizing organization and that’s really a big mistake. I think that horizontalidad allows us to make sure that the decisions are made by everyone, but in the execution of those decisions we need to have some sort of organization, otherwise we are doomed to be in a beautiful, noble, and naïve movement but not a not very efficient one.

Organization is, of course, another way power can be created in modern politics. That is, unless protest leaders are so caught up in theories of oppression, domination, and hierarchy that they are unwilling or unable to organize or lead.

Thomas Frank makes this point vividly in a recent essay in The Baffler. Frank is reviewing a series of recent books about Occupy Wall Street. Frank is clear-sighted in detailing not simply the limits of OWS, but of the books that are now pouring forth about the movement. The books are all, he writes, “deeply, hopelessly in love with this protest. Each one takes for granted that the Occupy campaign was world-shaking and awe-inspiring.” Not only is this wrong, it prevents these authors and I would add most liberal supporters of Occupy Wall Street from confronting the stunning failure of Occupy Wall Street. Here is Frank:

The question that the books under consideration here seek to answer is: What is the magic formula that made OWS so successful? But it’s exactly the wrong question. What we need to be asking about Occupy Wall Street is: Why did this effort fail? How did OWS blow all the promise of its early days? Why do even the most popular efforts of the Left come to be mired in a gluey swamp of academic talk and pointless antihierarchical posturing.

What Frank points to is the dominance of academic talk and theorizing. Surprisingly he makes the case that this is true of both OWS and the Tea Party. The books about OWS and the protesters, Frank writes, cared more about the “mechanics” of the protest—the fact that it was non-hierarchal, open, inclusive, and consensual—than any ends, goals, or accomplishments. Whereas the Chilean movement embraced getting things done and working to build institutions, the anti-institutional bias of the theorists within Occupy Wall Street militated against building an organization. Talk was allowed, but no persuasion.

As John Duncan writes in his comments, persuasion cannot be empty or purely mechanical. It requires a “well articulated vision of what the enterprise might become that is inspiring while solidly grounded. It requires a belief that the right words will bring others around to see things your way.” This is deeply true and it requires the openness to leadership and inspiration that the forces guiding Occupy Wall Street would not allow.

What distinguishes revolutions from rebellions is that while rebellions merely liberate one from rule, revolutions found new institutions that nurture freedom. What has happened in Egypt is so far only a rebellion. It has liberated Egypt from the yoke of tyranny. Time will tell whether Egypt will experience a revolution that builds institutions of freedom. At the core of Arendt's political thinking is her insistence that freedom cannot exist outside of institutions. As had Montesquieu before her, Arendt saw that power, freedom, and collective action belong together.

What the new experience of American power meant was that there could not be and could never be in the United States a single highest and irresistible power that could exert its rule over the others. The states would limit the federal government; the federal government would contest state power; legislative power limits executive power; judicial power bridles the legislature; and new forms of power in voluntary organizations, political clubs, and advocacy groups all limit the power of professional politicians. Since written laws cannot control power, but "only power arrests power," freedom depends upon institutions that can continually give birth to new centers and sources of power. Together, this diffusion of power in the United States meant the "consistent abolition of sovereignty within the body politic of the republic, the insight that in the realm of human affairs sovereignty and tyranny are the same."

What Dixon, Duncan, Titleman, and Frank help us see in an Arendtian vein is that power today will only reappear if we work to build and found new organizations and new institutions. Such a building requires vision as well as tactics. Arendt offers us one vision: it is the ideal of federalism, the radical diffusion of multiple sources of power throughout society. That vision is in danger of disappearing today under the fiscal and political forces of centralization. If it is to be resisted, those who would resist it will have to be willing to articulate a vision of a different way. In Frank’s words, it will require a movement.

whose core values arise not from an abstract hostility to the state or from the need for protesters to find their voice but rather from the everyday lives of working people. It would help if the movement wasn’t centered in New York City. And it is utterly essential that it not be called into existence out of a desire to reenact an activist’s fantasy about Paris ’68.

Frank’s essay is bracing reading and should keep you warm with thoughts over this cold weekend. Enjoy. It is your weekend read.

-RB

24Aug/121

Redefining “Liberal”

I am not usually hanging out on the Archbishop of Canterbury's website, but a former student and current Arendt Center Intern alerted me to his Reverence's recent review of Marilynne Robinson's newest book, When I Was A Child I Read Books. It turns out the Archbishop and I share a fondness in brilliant contemporary authors:

These essays are pure gold. Written with all her usual elegance, economy, and intellectual ruthlessness, they constitute a plea for recovering the use of "liberal" as an adjective, and, what is more, an adjective whose central meaning is specified by its use in scripture. "The word occurs [in the Geneva Bible] in contexts that urge an ethics of non-judgmental, nonexclusive generosity" - and not a generosity of "tolerating viewpoints" alone, but of literal and practical dispersal of goods to those who need them.

Psalm 122 is, you could say, the theme song of this vision, and it is a vision that prompts Robinson to a ferocious critique of the abstractions of ideology - including "austerity" as an imperative to save the world for capitalism. She offers a striking diagnosis of the corrupting effect of rationalism: rationalism as she defines it is the attempt to get the world to fit the theory; and because the world is never going to fit the theory, the end-product of rationalist strategies is always panic.

Two points jump out here, besides the Archbishop's excellent taste. First, the Archbishop's desire to defend an old-fashioned ideal of liberality, one that has little to do with political partisanship. The liberalism Archbishop Rowan Williams defends has its secular antecedent in the philosophy of Aristotle. In his Ethics, Aristotle defines the liberal man as one who is praised with regard to "the giving and taking of wealth, and especially in respect of giving." The liberal man knows how to give to the right people and how much. And such liberality, especially when directed toward the public, is an essential part of public virtue. In giving to the public, freely, the liberal man offers an example of public spirit and generosity that, more so than paying required taxes, affirms a belonging to something bigger and more meaningful than just himself. This is one reason for the importance of a culture of philanthropy.

The question of liberalism is much in the air today. Not only do Republicans deride liberals, but since Paul Ryan's selection there has been a raging debate about the tradition of liberal Christianity. Many Catholics have argued that Ryan's calls for austerity violate the Catholic ideals of social justice. In response, Bill McGurn argued this week in the Wall Street Journal that social justice is an optional requirement for Catholics, whereas support for human life is non-negotiable. McGurn writes:

Mr. Ryan's own bishop, the Most Rev. Robert C. Morlino, addressed the subject with his most recent column in the diocesan paper for Madison, Wis. The church, he wrote, regards abortion as an "intrinsic evil" (meaning always and everywhere wrong, regardless of circumstances). In sharp contrast, he said, on issues such as how best to create jobs or help the poor, "there can be difference according to how best to follow the principles which the church offers."

It is hard not to see the Archbishop of Canterbury's review of Robinson's book as a contribution to this debate over the requirements of liberal Chistianity. For Archbishop Rowen, and unlike McGurn and Ryan's own bishop, liberality is biblical in origin and demands an ethic of "non-judgmental, nonexclusive generosity." What that means is, of course, open for debate. But the requirement of liberal Catholic generosity itself is, pace the Archbishop, indisputable.

A second point to glean from the Archbishop's review is his interest in Robinson's "striking diagnosis of the corrupting effect of rationalism." The difference between thinking and rationalizing is that thinking refuses to sacrifice reality to the coherence of theory. Rationalism as Robinson has described it in so many of her essays and novels, elevates logical coherence above the factual messiness of reality.  Rationalism  "is the attempt to get the world to fit the theory; and because the world is never going to fit the theory, the end-product of rationalist strategies is always panic."

Where thinkers shine is in their responsiveness to individuals and singular events, and few writers today are more attentive to particulars than Marilynne Robinson. Robinson has spent the last few decades showing up the world's leading scientists and theorists, exposing the leaps of faith upon which their scientific rationalizations are predicated. The effort is not to diminish science, but to warn us against denigrating the complexity of scientific knowing to simple faiths that offer easy answers to life's perplexing questions.

You can read the Archbishop of Canterbury's review of Marilynne Robinson's essays here. Better yet, download and read Marilynne Robinson's 'When I Was a Child I Read Books'.  You can also read past discussions of Robinson's work here and here.

 -RB

24May/121

The Technocrats to the Rescue, Part 4

How many times can we watch the latest European movie? Once again Europe is buckling under the weight of debt and austerity. And once again, Greece, the birthplace of democracy, has led the democratic leaders of Europe to shun their responsibilities and beg for technocratic saviors.

As the Financial Times reports, European leaders are as bankrupt as their economies and they are seeking to be bailed out politically and economically by Mario Draghi, the unelected President of the European Central Bank.

To the frustration of Mario Draghi, its president, the European Central Bank is once again being eyed as a possible saviour of Europe’s monetary union.  Since he became president last November, Mr Draghi has urged bolder action by politicians to strengthen public finances and build effective “firewalls” against spreading crises. Earlier this month he scolded governments for creating a European Financial Stability Facility that “could hardly be made to work”. He saw the unelected ECB’s role as strictly limited.  Instead, eurozone politicians, led by François Hollande, France’s new president, have sought to turn the tables, demanding action from Frankfurt.

As one person the FT quotes says, “There is a constant frustration at the ECB with politicians.” Sounds familiar. It is not only in Europe that politicians have refused to lead and take responsibility for solving our growing and increasingly insoluble problems.

It is easy to blame politicians. But keep in mind, they are elected. And that may be the problem. For it is we, those self-interested and apparently spoiled folks who elect them, who refuse to consider tax raises or austerity, or both, which would actually be necessary to bring our financial houses into order. This is especially true in Greece where voters have repeatedly refused to honestly and pragmatically accept the reforms needed to right the ship of the Greek state.

Which is why Amartya Sen's Op-Ed in the NY Times Tuesday sounds so shrill. Sen rightly sees that democracy in Europe is being replaced by technocratic fiat, and this understandably bothers him. He writes:

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of Europe’s current malaise is the replacement of democratic commitments by financial dictates — from leaders of the European Union and the European Central Bank, and indirectly from credit-rating agencies, whose judgments have been notoriously unsound.

But Sen's response is out of touch. If the Greeks would just be given an opportunity to publicly discuss the matter and engage in a rational public discourse, they would be able to take appropriate steps. In his own words:

Participatory public discussion — the “government by discussion” expounded by democratic theorists like John Stuart Mill and Walter Bagehot — could have identified appropriate reforms over a reasonable span of time, without threatening the foundations of Europe’s system of social justice. In contrast, drastic cuts in public services with very little general discussion of their necessity, efficacy or balance have been revolting to a large section of the European population and have played into the hands of extremists on both ends of the political spectrum.

This is of course a good point. It would be best if the Greeks were to engage in. It would be best if the Greeks were to engage in participatory public discussion leading toward appropriate reforms. But this doesn't seem to be happening, resulting in the draconian cuts, which, yes, are revolting to a large section of the European population. Unmentioned is the fact that other Europeans are revolted by the fact that Greeks for years have worked pitifully few hours in comparison to other Europeans, have paid significantly lower taxes, and supported a political patronage system that creates an untouchable class of political bureaucrats who live well for doing very little. The New York Times reports, today, on the class of Greek plutocrats who for years have avoided taxes and now, when times are tough, are abandoning philanthropies in Greece and secreting their money to tax havens. If the Greeks won't help Greece, why should the Germans?

The point is not simply to punish the Greeks for their past transgressions (although that too is not out of place), but that Germans also no longer trust the Greeks and refuse to go on paying for their profligate ways. And since the Greeks have not and seemingly will not democratically make the changes to their lifestyles that are required by their economic position, they are putting their hopes in undemocratically elected technocrats at the European Central Bank to save them.

The Greeks are not alone in seeking to trade democracy for technocracy. As I have written here and here and here over the past months, the trend toward technocratic governance is growing as people around the world lose faith not simply in democratic leaders, but in democracy itself. Around the world, democracies are electing politicians who are handing off power to non-democratically elected technocrats. This is happening in Europe and also here in the U.S.  I am sure some of "the people" disagree with this. But more and more seem fine with it.

It is easy to blame the politicians, just as it has been easy for years to blame the press. But as Edward Luce writes in his recent book Time to Start Thinking, the real problem with democracy is us. He focuses on America:

Americans reflexively single out Washington, D.C., as the cause of their ills. As this book will explore, however, Washington's habits are rooted in American society. Blaming politicians has turned into a lazy perennial of modern American life.

The problem as Luce sees it is that left and right are caught in a thoughtless nostalgia for a golden age that no longer exists. The left, he writes,

yearns for the golden age of the 1950s and '60s when the middle class was swelling and the federal government sent people to the moon. Breadwinners worked eight hours a day in the factory and could bank on "Cadillac" health care coverage, a solid urban or suburban lifestyle, and five weeks' vacation a year.

On the other side, the right is nostalgic for

the godly virtues of the Founding Fathers from whom their country has gravely strayed. People stood on their own two feet and upheld core American values. It was a mostly small town place of strong families, where people respected the military and were involved in their community churches.

Luce understands not only that both these visions are nostalgic, but that they are preventing us from thinking honestly and seriously about our present. The problem is that thinking honestly today requires accepting sacrifice.

The wealthy and the upper middle classes (not just the 1% but the top 20%) will have to pay more in taxes. The poor and the middle classes will have to receive smaller pensions, work longer, and get fewer governmental services in return. Maybe citizens will have to do public service. Standards of living across the board will be hit. This is the payback for decades of debt-infused living that we all need to confront. Luce is right, it is time to start thinking.

-RB