Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Weight of Other People in Politics

Scott Rasmussen will be speaking at The King's College here in New York City on March 3. As surely you know, he is a prominent American political pollster.

He is also the author of a newly released book, In Search of Self-Governance.

“Self-governance is about far more than politics and government,” says Rasmussen. “It requires a lot of the American people, and it has nothing to do with the petty partisan games played by Republicans and Democrats. Unfortunately, even after more than 200 years of success, there is an urgent need to defend this most basic of American values.” 

This is a principle to which President Obama sometimes pays lip service, indicating that he understands that many Americans believe in this understanding of liberty. He just doesn't share that belief. Neither does most of his party. In their view, good government is government that relieves you of the burden of self-governance. In fact, they appear to believe that "self-governance" and "liberty" are just arrangements by which the rich and powerful exploit the poor and helpless. That's why we need big government.

In his recent analysis of the President's State of the Union address, George Will ("Faux Contrition: Obama Blames the Public") points out how the president looked down on the poor gammas and deltas who make up most of the American people (whom he regards also with an aspect of pity on account of our heart rending stories).

Acknowledging that the longer the public has looked at the legislation the less the public has liked it, he blamed himself for not "explaining it more clearly." But his faux contrition actually blames the public: The problem is not the legislation's substance but the presentation of it to slow learners. He urged them to take "another look at the plan we've proposed."

In his infinite mercy, the president will draw on his truly unprecedented logical and rhetorical abilities and make another attempt to explain the self-evident virtues of his health care reform plan (which he called a plan, even though there are two very different plans, as Will points out).

Not only is President Obama frustrated by our increasingly irksome insistence on retaining a role for ourselves in the government of our personal affairs (everything from choice of doctors to choice of light bulbs), he is also annoyed by having to share power not only with another political party, but also with two other branches of government. Will sees this attitude encapsulated in a phrase Obama used last night: the "weight of our politics."

Obama seems to regret the existence in Washington of...everyone else. He seems to feel entitled to have his way without tiresome interventions in the political process by the many interests affected by his agenda for radical expansion of the regulatory state.
Yet despite this annoyance with how the gears of Washington slow the advance of progress and defer our hopes, Washington (not even state government) is always the answer.

Obama's leitmotif is: Washington is disappointing, Washington is annoying, Washington is dysfunctional, Washington is corrupt, verily Washington is toxic -- yet Washington should conscript a substantially larger share of GDP, and Washington should exercise vast new controls over health care, energy, K-12 education, etc. 

What is false is ultimately incoherent. The truth is always consistent with itself.


Peter Wehner's analysis is along the same lines as Will's, but much more thorough in exposing what he calls "A Self-Referential State of the Union Address."

It was one of the worst State of the Union addresses in modern times – a stunning thing for a man who won the presidency in large measure based on the power and uplift of his rhetoric. ... The speech was defensive and petulant, backward-looking and condescending, petty and graceless. He didn't persuade people; he lectured them. What was on display last night was a man of unsurpassed self-righteousness engaged in constant self-justification. His first year in office has been, by almost every measure, a failure – and it is perceived as a failure by much of the public. Mr. Obama cannot stand this fact; it is clearly eating away at him.

Perhaps I'm reading too much into her expressions, but Michelle seemed to reflect the same attitude up in the balcony. This is the woman who was proud of her country for the first time in her life only when it was fawning over her husband in large numbers. Now that it's turning against his policies (though not necessarily against him personally), she's bitter again.

He also echoed the irony that Will highlighted: "And even as he castigated Washington for being "unable or unwilling to solve any of our problems," he continued to champion an agenda that would concentrate unprecedented power there."

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Free Speech

Recently, President Obama's chief-of-staff, Rahm Emmanuel, was caught on film saying "freedom of speech is over-rated." Granted, perhaps he was joking; perhaps there is a exculpating context we didn't see.

But that is certainly the belief in North Korea as we saw in the savage beating and prompt disappearance of Robert Park. An American citizen of Korean descent, Park entered North Korea across a frozen river with a Bible in one hand and a personal letter for North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il in the other, calling for Kim's repentance and abdication as he arrived. Border guards immediately seized him and beat him almost to death. It is against "the law" there to criticize the Dear Leader in any way, and the guards themselves would have been severely disciplined if they had not responded with physical reprisals to Park's public utterances. (See, "Activist Presents Headache for N. Korea.")

But here in the United States, we still treasure the right to criticize our government freely as we treasure our liberty generally.

In light of these things, it is especially pleasing that the Supreme Court this week upheld our freedom of speech whether you speak simply as an individual with a van, or in conjunction with others as shareholders in a corporation.

Bradley Smith has a good review of the issues in the Citizens United case in the Wall Street Journal, "Newsflash: First Amendment Upheld." He writes, "Hopefully, this ruling marks an end to 20 years of jurisprudence in which the Court has provided less protection to core political speech than it has to Internet pornography, the transmission of stolen information, flag burning, commercial advertising, topless dancing, and burning a cross outside an African-American church."

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Addressing the State of Liberty

As we anticipate President Obama's State of the Union address, we should also cast an eye to Freedom House's annual Freedom in the World report. Freedom House began publishing these global assessments in 1973. In 1984, five years before the collapse of the Soviet empire, Samuel P. Huntington published his essay, "Will More Countries become Democratic?" (Political Science Quarterly, 99:2), and in 1993, The Third Wave: Democritization in the Late Twentieth Century. When the Berlin Wall was finally breached in 1989, and it was clear that the West had won the Cold War, Francis Fukuyama published his provocative essay, "The End of History?," in The National Interest. Twenty years later, things do not look as hopeful for liberty around the globe.

The Economist, in "Democracy's Decline: Crying for Freedom," tells us this about the Freedom House report:

Freedom House classifies countries as “free”, “partly free” or “not free” by a range of indicators that reflect its belief that political liberty and human rights are interlinked. As well as the fairness of their electoral systems, countries are assessed for things like the integrity of judges and the independence of trade unions. Among the latest findings are that authoritarian regimes are not just more numerous; they are more confident and influential.

This map gives stark expression to the advance of tyranny (yes, that is the opposite of freedom) over the last decade.

It is good that the people who prepared this report call themselves Freedom House, not Democracy House. It is a disgrace, given all that political theorists have to teach, that there has been such enthusiasm for "democracy" and multi-party elections, in isolation of the other pre-requisites for liberty, among state department policy makers, journalists, the Bush White House, and now the Obama administration. Ronald Reagan spoke about freedom, a more substantive and less ambiguous good.

With the rise of dictators (Chavez), kleptocrats (Putin), and Islamocrats by the ballot box, democracy has been earning a justifiably bad reputation.

Semi-free countries, uncertain which direction to take, seem less convinced that the liberal path is the way of the future. And in the West, opinion-makers are quicker to acknowledge democracy’s drawbacks—and the apparent fact that contested elections do more harm than good when other preconditions for a well-functioning system are absent. It is a sign of the times that a British reporter, Humphrey Hawksley, has written a book with the title: “Democracy Kills: What’s So Good About the Vote?”.

A good start in correcting the misunderstandings that lead to these tragically false hopes for democracy would be for American college and university political science departments to clear out their Marxists and nihilists, and establish core courses that teach the religious and philosophical roots of modern liberty, as well as the founding and classic texts of American liberty, such as The Federalist Papers and de Tocqueville's Democracy in America.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Big Government and Self-Government

Patrick Henry in the Virginia House of Burgesses, 1851, 
speaking against the Stamp Act

One of my students in her final exam essay wrote, "Why should I trust my government if my government doesn't trust me?" She wrote these words in the context of reflecting on the political problem, viz., "How do you enable to government to restrain the governed while at the same time obliging it to restrain itself?"

Her question is at the heart of the liberal-conservative debate in America today, and the line of that very practical philosophical dispute is showing up in some surprising places of late. On January 19, 2010, the citizens of Massachusetts have the opportunity not only to fill the Senate seat recently vacated by Ted Kennedy, but also to pass a judgment on the political vision our present government is aggressively pursuing, often in opposition to the clear consensus of the American people. People's attention is focused on the current plans for health care reform, for combating what is supposed to be global warming, and for reviving the economy. Behind these plans, however, are fundamental questions concerning big government and self-government.

Liberals see people as fundamentally needy on the one hand and unworthy of being trusted to provide for one another and themselves on the other. Thus, privatizing Social Security would be a disaster. People would lose all their money in the stock market. Only the government can be trusted to steward people's retirement funds wisely. (Of course, they don't steward these funds at all. They spend them, and trust that they can pay us out of the contributions from our children and grandchildren, a formula for bankruptcy when the baby boomers move fully into retirement.)

And people certainly cannot be trusted to provide for their aged parents, so all the elderly must become wards of the state. This, of course, schools people in the view that their parents are, in the end, none of their concern. Liberals take the same view of children. Get them as early as possible into the public school system. If you want to homeschool your children, (a) you must be crazy and thus incompetent, and (b) the education you provide must be strictly regulated by the local public school authorities, regardless of how bad a job they themselves are doing educating children.

By contrast, conservatives trust people to manage their own affairs according to their own lights and preferences. This may not be wise for every people in the world, but it is certainly fitting for a free people such as we.

Aristotle says that a citizen in the proper sense of the word rules and is ruled in turn, as opposed to one who is a slave by nature who, by definition, requires direction from another. A true citizen, therefore, is not simply someone who enjoys a particular legal status, but is someone who by his character is capable of self-government. This is someone who has the intelligence, moral character, and practical judgment to make life decisions of sufficient wisdom for living a life of human flourishing along with others of similar character.

In short, a free citizen must be virtuous. For this reason, Aristotle identifies aristocracy (rule by the  virtuous few, i.e. the genuinely virtuous) as the best regime. The citizens under that regime rule and are ruled in turn with a view to the common good, or at least the common interest, not seeking their selfish advantage. In other words, the more self-government there is, the more good government there will be. The more virtue there is among a people, the more they will be governed by what Thomas Jefferson called the natural aristoi.

Thomas Jefferson also said, "That government governs best which governs least." He wrote those words in the context of a fairly virtuous people. He might well have added, "...having the least need to govern." The more virtue in a people, the less need for government over a people. The more virtuous a people is, the less they are in need of the restraining power of government. They are largely governed from within. As another of my students put it in her senior thesis, "Since justice by definition entails a just observance of law, law enforcers are less needed for a just people." The internal policemen of their character renders the need for outside policing to that extent unnecessary.

Thus, conservatives are concerned for public morality because they are concerned about people's capacity for liberty, i.e. self-government, both individually and corporately. Liberals, on the other hand, understand liberty as self-indulgence and post-modern autonomy, the freedom to construct one's own moral universe and live accordingly, provided that one does not "harm" anyone else (that provision being a completely groundless restriction within a post-modern frame of reference).

Conservatives are concerned to support personal virtue among the people (yes, it requires support, largely from religion, especially Christianity), so that they can live with the dignity of free people in a free republic. Liberals are happy to see people indulging themselves in any way they please while the government manages and provides for them in as many spheres of life as possible. Thus, American conservatism tends toward republican liberty, while progressive liberalism tends toward, well, benevolent totalitarianism, which in the end, because human nature is what it is, becomes simply totalitarianism.

Thus, the government of a free people can trust the people to govern their own affairs while it attends largely to what in principle they cannot do on their own. This is not to be confused with libertarianism, because it recognizes the need for virtue in the citizenry, and also that public virtue requires appropriate (not oppressive) public support and protection. The Apostle Paul wrote to Timothy that Christians should pray for their governments so that those governments would fulfill their divine calling as government--no less and no more--"that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way" (I Tim. 2:2). What Paul means by a peaceful and quiet life is the liberty to govern one's own affairs, and to take a hand in the affairs of one's community, including taking care of the poor. This requires godliness, and is a life of human dignity. Good government provides for this liberty.

When government does not trust the people it governs, the people they distrust are either a slavish people or a free people. If they are slavish, the government indeed should not trust them, but should nonetheless take steps to cultivate better character in them so that they can live more as free people. This is statesmanship. Government that simply continues in that distrust and uses it as an opportunity to grow itself is just a form of mastery, and, as such, is not a government at all.

If the people it distrusts is a free people, then, as my student said, that people has no reason at all to trust their government. That government views them as slavish and will attempt by a thousand measures to reduce them to servile dependence. The Declaration of Independence describes this as "a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism."

Some people are called to die for liberty. Some are called only to vote.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Rhetoric and Political Accomplishment

President Barack Obama came to office as the Golden Boy with the magic tongue capable of sending tingles up the legs of respected journalists as though they were ten year old girls at a Jonas Brothers concert. He would cry out, "We are the change we've been waiting for," and a concert stadium would go wild. Many thought, "Finally, a President who can talk! He speaks our language and speaks to our hearts."

A year into his presidency, we are in a good position to access his rhetoical ability.

This is no small matter. Rhetoric is one of the essential tools a democratic statesman needs for governing effectively. Rhetoric is the use of public speech—words that are well chosen and well spoken—to move people to agreement and to action. Francis Bacon called it the application of “reason to imagination for the better moving of the will” (Advancement of Learning II xviii 2).

The Presidents pictured above had various records of success in their ability to speak to the American people. George Bush was pretty good when he wanted to be. He was hot when he debated Michael Dukakis on television. But in office, he spoke of "the vision thing" as though it were of little importance. He lost the next election. His son, George W., was worse. In his second term, he pressed ahead with his policies, but gave almost no attention to bringing the voters along with him in understanding and commitment. As a consequence, his approval rating fell to the floor, Congress ignored him insofar as they could, and his political power diminished considerably.

Bill Clinton could talk. He was trained by actors, and carefully calculated his words, their delivery, and their emotional coloring. He connected with the people on a deep level. But, of course, this was squandered, because what agenda he had was paltry compared to his considerable abilities, and he wasted much of his opportunity defending himself against avoidable scandals.

Then there was Jimmy Carter, the man on the end who seems to be off on his own. It is no accident that he is not the leader of his party, even though he is a former President, alive, and writes books. At our time of multiple crises, he showed us a long, worried face, and scolded us for our malaise. Apparently, he did not actually use the word "malaise," but we all remember that he did, as it summarized nicely whatever he said in his public address that night, and so it stuck. Again, one term, but also lasting shame.

The Great Communicator of course is man who is not pictured: Ronald Reagan. He had a knack for going around the press, speaking directly to the American people about their concerns in familiar terms because he knew them well.

So what about Barack Obama? In office, he has come across as inappropriately cool, as, for example, when he (finally) spoke after the underwear bomber's failed attempt to bring down a plane over Detroit. He usually speaks in the dry and technical manner of a tenured university professor, i.e. one who knows more than anyone in the room, and who doesn't have to convince anyone of anything to keep his job. He seems emotionally detatched and socially aloof.

This style does not match his agenda. He and his Democratic allies in Congress have set out on an aggressive agenda of government intervention and control the likes of which we have not seen in two generations or more. Yet, he has not been able to bring the great middle along with him. Approval for his most treasured initiative, health care reform, stands today at 37%. Under Obama's government, the American people have actually become more conservative.

David Brooks, in his column "The Tea Party Teens," identifies the present governing class (as they also identify themselves) as "the educated class," and argues that the Tea Party movement is a passionate but informed rejection of everything that this governing class--that includes and is typified by President Obama--represents.

Every single idea associated with the educated class has grown more unpopular over the past year.

The educated class believes in global warming, so public skepticism about global warming is on the rise. The educated class supports abortion rights, so public opinion is shifting against them. The educated class supports gun control, so opposition to gun control is mounting.

The story is the same in foreign affairs. The educated class is internationalist, so isolationist sentiment is now at an all-time high, according to a Pew Research Center survey. The educated class believes in multilateral action, so the number of Americans who believe we should “go our own way” has risen sharply.

Commenting on Brooks, Noemie Emery emphasizes that the public recoil against the President's politics is substantive not only as to specific policies, but also as to the political theory underlying those policies.

While the liberal Left controls the White House along with both houses of Congress, the country it governs has moved to the Right. These phenomena are all interrelated: The country is moving Right in reaction to Obama's theories of governance, and Obama and the educated class are one and the same.

Michael Barone, also commenting on Brooks's column, remarks on how the 2008 Obama supporters were impressed largely with his style.

The Obama enthusiasts who dominated so much of the 2008 campaign cycle were motivated by style. The tea party protesters who dominated so much of 2009 were motivated by substance.

Remember those rapturous crowds that swooned at Barack Obama's rhetoric. "We are the change we are seeking," he proclaimed. "We will be able to look back and tell our children" that "this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal." A lot of style there, but not very much substance. A Brookings Institution scholar who produced nothing more than that would soon be looking for a new job.
The great surprise of the Obama presidency has been the contrast between the enormity of his domestic policy ambitions in comparison with the rapid shrinkage of popular support for them on account not only of their inherent problems but also of his ineptitude in promoting them rhetorically. Obama's governing rhetoric has not matched the rhetoric of his campaign. Ill-crafted rhetoric in support of unpopular and even irksome policies will make Barack Obama an historically important one-term President.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The GMification of America

We can call this the GMification of America. When the federal government took control of a bankrupt General Motors, the automaker was said to be a giant retirement community that built cars on the side. (I think it’s one of Steyn’s.) Its internal welfare obligations had become so large—so generous to so many—that there was simply not enough productive base left to support it. Crash! As a result not only of the Democrats having their way with us for the past year, indulging a thousand pent up political desires, but also of governments of both parties at every level building what they think is a beautiful world with imaginary money, America is preparing the same crisis for itself, starting with the states (California is just the first to fall), and working its way to the national level. Stephen Goldsmith sets it before us in “Red-Ink Tsunami: Why Old Ideas Can’t Fix the New Government Perma-Crisis” (e21, Jan. 10, 2010).

Government at all levels now faces an inescapable reality – the promises of public services exceed our ability to pay for them – and will do so regardless of when the recession ends. The steady increase in the quantity and cost of public services, coupled with the needs of an aging population and public pension costs have produced a long term, structural deficit. ... Like it or not, fiscal crisis is the new normal.

The dark future for states:

Even before the crisis took hold, unfunded liabilities for state and local retirees topped $1.6 trillion. In Illinois alone future taxpayers are on the hook for over $80 billion for public employee pensions. ...

California, like the canary in the coal mine, is a harbinger of the nation’s fiscal future. In the past year, it has raised taxes by $12 billion and received $50 billion in stimulus dollars from the Federal government. Yet, this summer the state still had to issue IOU’s to its creditors. The latest projections have California staring up out of a $21 billion hole. ...

A December 2009 report from the National Association of State Budget Officers found that “Fiscal conditions significantly deteriorated for states during fiscal 2009, with the trend expected to continue through fiscal 2010 and even into 2011 and 2012.”

The dark future for the United States:

A new report from the Peterson and Pew Foundations found that: “Over the past year alone, the public debt of the United States rose sharply from 41 to 53 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). Under reasonable assumptions, the debt is projected to grow steadily, reaching 85 percent of GDP by 2018, 100 percent by 2022, and 200 percent in 2038. However, before the debt reached such high levels, the United States would almost certainly experience a debt-driven crisis…” Governments at all levels face a tidal wave of red ink.

Goldsmith then gives “5 Strategies of Yesteryear That Won’t Work Today.” For “The Road Out of the Crisis,” he has us waiting for future articles. And wait we shall.

Stephen Goldsmith is the Daniel Paul Professor of Government at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and a former mayor of Indianapolis.


Here is a related reflection from that Harold sent along. It is "Class War: How Public Servants Became Our Masters," by Steven Greenhut.

Bigger government means more government employees. Those employees then become a permanent lobby for continual government growth. The nation may have reached critical mass; the number of government employees at every level may have gotten so high that it is politically impossible to roll back the bureaucracy, rein in the costs, and restore lost freedoms.

People who are supposed to serve the public have become a privileged elite that exploits political power for financial gain and special perks. Because of its political power, this interest group has rigged the game so there are few meaningful checks on its demands. Government employees now receive far higher pay, benefits, and pensions than the vast majority of Americans working in the private sector. Even when they are incompetent or abusive, they can be fired only after a long process and only for the most grievous offenses.

It’s a two-tier system in which the rulers are making steady gains at the expense of the ruled. The predictable results: Higher taxes, eroded public services, unsustainable levels of debt, and massive roadblocks to reforming even the poorest performing agencies and school systems. If this system is left to grow unchecked, we will end up with a pale imitation of the free society envisioned by the Founders.

This is the beautiful world that our liberal overlords in the Obama-Reid-Pelosi government are fighting so tirelessly at the moment to help perfect.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Francis Bacon, Technology, and Modernity

If you are interested in further reflections on Francis Bacon, the problem of technology, and the crisis of modernity, go to my theological blog, Piety and Humanity. For example, there is this reflection on Perez Zagorin's account of his life in chapter two of his 1998 book, Francis Bacon, the chapter entitled, "Bacon's Two Lives."

Lytton Strachey's question, "Who has ever explained Francis Bacon?," still hangs over Bacon scholarship (Elizabeth and Essex, A Tragic History. Butler Press, 2007; p.9). Perez Zagorin identified the puzzle at the very outset of his book, a study of Bacon's life and thought entitled simply Francis Bacon (Princeton, 1998) :

Francis Bacon lived two separate but interconnected lives. One was the meditative, reserved life of a philosopher, scientific inquirer, and writer of genius, a thinker of soaring ambition and vast range whose project for the reconstruction of philosophy contained a new vision of science and its place in society. The other was the troubled insecure life of a courtier, professional lawyer, politician, royal servant, adviser, and minister to two sovereigns, Elizabeth I and James I, who from early youth to old age never ceased his quest for high position and the favor of the great (p.3).

He could have practiced law, a profession for which he trained at Gray's Inn. Indeed, many suggested that he solve his financial difficulties by pursuing that option, but he simply refused. He could have sought an academic position, but that would not have satisfied him. He desired political office. Though he combined both scientist and politician in his soul, he was fundamentally a man of politics. ...

Read on at "Francis Bacon's Very Political Life." Perhaps you have heard that Bacon was a godly example of devotion to both Christ and science? Perhaps you've heard that he was a selfless servant of enlightenment and human well-being with an inexplicable interest in practical politics? As they say in Brooklyn, "fahgettaboudit."

In addition, there will soon be a post on New York City, dung, and our dance with technology. How can you resist that? Really, it's like seeing Hans Zinsser's Rats, Lice, and History in a used book shop for 75¢ and not buying it. (You wouldn't do that, now would you?)

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Progress and Its Discontents

This semester, beginning next week, I am leading six exceptional students at The King's College in a seminar on Francis Bacon's Invention of Modern Politics. We will be exploring Lord Verulam's plan to conquer nature for the relief of our estate, the benefits that have come of it, as well as the problems inherent in it. We will look closely and critically at Bacon's writings--The Great Instuaration, New Organon, New Atlantis, Essays--and then students will research the benefits and moral complications of subsequent technological developments.

Robert Faulkner, in his penetrating work on Bacon's artful and revolutionary project to reshape and redirect Western civilization, Francis Bacon and the Project of Progress, expresses this sober assessment nicely: "Now it seems that a thoughtful citizen of a modern country must be prepared to defend the benefits of progress, or at least to reconsider them while being aware of the defects as well as the advantages" (p.3).

For example, consider email. Most of us depend on it because we find it useful, and so we use it all the time. But we also sense a downside. What is that disturbing impulse we feel to be constantly checking our inboxes. That's not good. John Freeman explores the complexity of the technology in his book, The Tyranny of E-Mail: The Four-Thousand-Year Journey to Your Inbox. "E-mail might be cheaper, faster and more convenient, but its virtues also make us lazier, lonelier and less articulate."

Also have a look at "Louis c.k." claiming that Everything's Amazing and Nobody's Happy. Warning, this is very funny, and you may see yourself in one of the "spoiled idiots" he describes.

He's entertained by the fact that conservatives and Christians find his routine resonates with what they believe. What they like is clearly the call to moderation and contentment. Louis just despises them, but that's a sign that he doesn't understand either what he's saying or the conservatives and Christians. He himself is incoherent. He meant to condemn capitalism in this routine. He explains this to Opie and Anthony. (The second clip is better than the first, but blasphemous at points.) Yet capitalism is the economic system on which he depends for his lucrative career and high flying lifestyle. He also explains that he is not against technology. He just thinks we should chasten our expectations for it and have a little more peace while using it. This thought has clearly hit a nerve with people given the video's "viral" popularity. People are uncomfortably aware that while technology is good, it affects the way we see the world in ways that are morally unhealthy. And that is a subject worthy of study.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Brit Hume Brings Christ to Fox News

This post on Brit Hume's spiritual advice for Tiger Woods made the Lead Story position on I guess that makes me a journalist now.

Fox shock! Brit Hume on Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace crossed the line of decency (and on Sunday, of all days!) by recommending "the Christian faith" to Tiger Woods as the remedy for his personal problems. Here's the clip. Viewer discretion advised.

As you can see, reflecting on the mess that Tiger Woods has made of his life--his career, his family--Hume points out that Tiger's religion, which is Buddhism, is ill-adapted to deal with the family side of the crisis, as there is no element of forgiveness and redemption in the Buddhist religion. Essentially, Hume called him to give his heart and life to Christ.

Hume is Episcopalian, which is usually as Protestant as a public figure can become while still remaining respectable. He became much more serious about his faith after the suicide of his son, Sandy Hume, himself a prominent journalist, in 1998. When he retired as Fox News anchor, he told The Hollywood Reporter concerning his post-retirement plans,

I certainly want to pursue my faith more ardently than I have done. I'm not claiming it's impossible to do when you work in this business. I was kind of a nominal Christian for the longest time. When my son died, I came to Christ in a way that was very meaningful to me. If a person is a Christian and tries to face up to the implications of what you say you believe, it's a pretty big thing. If you do it part time, you're not really living it.

The next day, on "The Factor" with Bill O'Reilly, Hume went even further beyond the bounds of good taste and acceptable public morality. He used two of the nine words you must never use on public airwaves: Jesus Christ. Swearing is okay, but he wasn't swearing. O'Reilly asked Hume if he was "proselytizing" in what he said. Hume said he didn't think he was, but of course he was. He also denied that he was criticizing Buddhism, but he was obviously doing that too. He was pointing out a rather stark and fundamental deficiency in the religion, in comparison to what is found in Christ.

I then give Tiger Woods' own description of his religion, a clip of li'l Tiger at age 2 on the Mike Douglas Show, and my concluding reflections on the whole matter. Read it all at, "Proclaiming Christ on Fox News."

Read Peter Wehner's "Hume's Gentle Witness" at National Review Online.

Monday, January 4, 2010

For Newsmags, Only the Wise Will Survive

The Internet has been devastating to print journalism. Even the New York Times, on the verge of bankruptcy, has been adding conservative columnists to the token David Brooks in an attempt to break the rush of subscribers to electronic sources of information. But the answer to print journalism's future may lie in its past.

A recent Economist features a fascinating historical reflection on our present situation ("Network Effects: How a new communications technology disrupted America's newspaper industry--in 1845," Dec. 17, 2009; pp.142-144). It starts off cleverly:
"Change is in the air. A new communications technology threatens a dramatic upheaval in America’s newspaper industry, overturning the status quo and disrupting the business model that has served the industry for years. This “great revolution”, warns one editor, will mean that some publications “must submit to destiny, and go out of existence.” With many American papers declaring bankruptcy in the past few months, their readers and advertisers lured away by cheaper alternatives on the internet, this doom-laden prediction sounds familiar. But it was in fact made in May 1845, when the revolutionary technology of the day was not the internet—but the electric telegraph."

Prior to the telegraph, newspapers received information largely from correspondents, that is, people who literally wrote letters from far away places, primarily for people in need of business and investment information. The history of the common newspaper, even just the glimpse of it contained in this short article, is illuminating.

In the early 1800s newspapers were astonishingly slow. They received news by post, some as reports from correspondents but mostly by copying old stories from other newspapers as part of an exchange system. The Weekly Herald, recalling the 1820s, noted that “the newspapers of that day relied altogether upon their exchanges for news, and, of course, the intelligence which they gave the readers was meagre, stale and unsatisfactory.” Foreign news, if any, was usually several weeks old.
The invention of the telegraph changed all that forever.

Raw news and market information would now arrive first at the telegraph office; papers, along with merchants and everyone else, would have to queue for it. Telegraph firms would establish a new monopoly over news delivery, and would sell early access to the news to the highest bidder. Papers would be unable to compete. Circulation would decline and advertisers would flee.

James Gordon Bennett, editor of the New York Herald, predicted that the advent of the telegraph would put many newspapers out of business. Only papers that provided commentary and analysis would survive. Another paper concurred, writing that print journalism could still find its niche, “examining causes, tracing effects, enlightening the judgments, and directing the reflections of men.” News of the death of print news was premature, however. Despite the speed of the telegraph to bring news from the farthest corners of the globe, newspaper were still needed for distribution over "the last mile" from the telegraph office to the street corner. Sales actually increased. So much for examining causes and tracing effects.

The parallels between this mid-nineteenth century technological development and the explosion of Internet use 150 years later are striking and instructive. Whereas the nationwide network of telegraph wires was described as "the great highway of thought," we know the worldwide web today as "the information superhighway."

With easy and instant access to what may fairly be called the universal brain, we are overwhelmed with a glut of information. This was also the experience a century ago.

Writing in the Atlantic Monthly in 1891, W.J. Stillman, a journalist and critic, decried the effects of the telegraph on his profession. “America has in fact transformed journalism from what it once was, the periodical expression of the thought of the time, the opportune record of the questions and answers of contemporary life, into an agency for collecting, condensing and assimilating the trivialities of the entire human existence,” he moaned. “The frantic haste with which we bolt everything we take, seconded by the eager wish of the journalist not to be a day behind his competitor, abolishes deliberation from judgment and sound digestion from our mental constitutions. We have no time to go below surfaces, and as a general thing no disposition.”

So what lessons can we learn from the parallel? Unlike the newspapers of Bennett's day, many today are closing up shop. People get their news online at their desktop telegraph station. But they can also get it on the go. Cell phones and BlackBerrys receive short news bursts even before the information reaches the news website. So what does a newspaper do, or even a newspaper website? The situation is still more acute for a weekly like TIME, or a biweekly like World, an Evangelical Christian news magazine.

Of course, very smart and desperate people are frantically trying to figure out an answer. Some organizations allow free access to part of their content, but reserve "premium" content for paid subscribers only. Others are talking about organizing a system of micropayments so people can view content for pennies a page and accumulate a monthly bill at a central dispensary. This is a plausible arrangement. Many people spend money that way for cell phone minutes and text messages, and think nothing of it. Why not also web access to information?

I suspect that people are willing to pay a lot more than they're presently asked to pay. And they ought to pay. Too much is free on the net. It's bad for us. It raises our expectations in other areas of life. People are especially willing to pay for web services that have become indispensable for their electronic lives. If the Wall Street Journal cut off free access to their editorial and opinion pages, I would gladly pay a nominal sum to receive it each day.

Facebook and Blogger are free. Why? Facebook has become the way people stay in touch, and even the way close friends communicate, replacing email in some cases. Once people start using it, the elasticity of demand for the service becomes very low. Life without Facebook becomes unthinkable.

The same is true for bloggers like me. I know this format. I have an archive. People know where to find me. My natural inertia also disinclines me to switch to Wordpress or some other platform. So Blogger could easily charge me for their service, and I would gladly pay it...up to a point.

So my advice to news magazines like World is this. Offer one year of access to all your content free of charge to anyone who will simply sign up for it. If you have a product that works for people, they will gladly pay for what has become an important part of their lives. Of course, there will be some who do not pay to renew their access, but instead resign for a free year under an assumed name and different gmail account. There will also be some who treat you like a zero percent credit card. They'll cancel and bounce back and forth between different news magazines. This might be problem for TIME and Newsweek, though World is unique in the market, so they wouldn't have to deal with this. But as there are very few actual Scotsmen in the United States, most people will find this excessively bothersome, especially if the price is right.

As for the content, it cannot be simple news. That is just too easily available everywhere else at no cost. Here is where James Gordon Bennett finds himself vindicated, though his timing was 150 years off. Pay-as-you-enter news sources would have tofocus on the twenty-first century "last mile." With what seems like an ocean of facts, people need thoughtful intermediaries to make sense of it all. They need someone, as someone put it in a bygone era, to examine causes, trace effects, enlighten their judgments, and direct their reflections.

This is one reason that the Fox cable news programs dominate the top ten spots in the ratings. Much of what they broadcast is advocacy journalism that is insightful, suitably entertaining, and slanted conservative in a right of center nation. Successful print media will do the same, providing just enough raw news data to establish the background for the analysis. Some analysts are better than others. Some, like George Will and Charles Krauthammer, are tops. Just as Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane bought up the best names in the business for the Daily Inquirer and turned the paper around, a successful news source will pay top dollar to have a good names writing exclusively for them. Sports franchises do not let their players tour around with other teams. Get these consistently brilliant analysts on your team, and your team only.

We are swimming in information, but we are parched for wisdom. This twenty-first century collision of computer technology and markets with news and analysis will put wisdom to work for newspapers and news magazines. Or they will simply disappear.