Citizens and Consumers

Once we have left the state of nature, we require the existence of society

— Alan Wolfe, The Future of Liberalism (2009)

In this week’s Sift:

  • Manning and Assange. The two main characters in the WikiLeaks story often get lumped together, but they play very different roles and raise very different issues.
  • The Sift Bookshelf: Consumed by Benjamin Barber. In the conflict between citizens and consumers, you are on both sides.
  • Short Notes. Mad Magazine’s lesser rival is doing serious journalism now. Digby’s 2010 summary. O’Hare on education. Civil War revisionism. Spiritual fitness in the Army. And more.


Manning and Assange: Two Very Different Roles in WikiLeaks

More than one person has spontaneously mentioned the WikiLeaks controversy to me in the past week, so it must be provoking more attention than I thought it would.

There are a lot of angles to this story, but this week I want to focus on the fact that the two main characters in the story play very different roles: Private Bradley Manning is alleged to be the source of the leaks, and Julian Assange is the public face of WikiLeaks, the organization that published the information on the internet. They tend to get lumped together, and they shouldn’t be.

Bradley Manning. Manning had a security clearance and a sworn duty to protect classified information. If he did leak it, whatever his motives and whether the result of the leak is good or bad, he is guilty of something, possibly treason. Civil disobedience, even if it turns out to have been justified, has a cost — which I hope Manning considered prior to whatever he did.

However, he has not been convicted of anything yet, either in a civilian court or a military court martial, but since May he has been held in conditions Glenn Greenwald characterizes as “cruel and unusual punishment”. People who concern themselves with the Constitution ought to be concerned about this, since cruel and unusual punishment — even for people convicted of something — is banned by the Eighth Amendment.

Manning’s treatment re-introduces a question Atul Gawande asked in The New Yorker in 2009: Is long-term solitary confinement torture? Increasingly, it looks like the answer is yes. People deprived of contact with anyone but their interrogators tend to break down in ways that are not easily repaired afterward. (Sensory deprivation — as we did to Jose Padilla long before he was convicted of anything — is even worse.)

Legitimate punishment is temporary. Other than the special case of life imprisonment for murder, you should be able to pay your debt to society and go back to what remains of your life. That’s why we don’t cut off hands like the Saudis do. That’s not punishment, that’s maiming. Well, long-term solitary confinement turns out to be maiming also.

It’s worth pointing out how totally this phenomenon contradicts the prevailing glorification of individuality and denigration of the importance of community. Putting it bluntly, individuality is not sustainable. You are who you are only in the context of some community. Take human contact away for a long enough time, and you’ll cease to be much of anybody.

Julian Assange. There is a question about whether the rape accusation against Assange in Sweden is real or trumped-up. It certainly resembles the conveniently-timed sex charge against Iraq-WMD whistle-blower Scott Ritter — which doesn’t mean that it’s false, just convenient for the powers that be.

In any case, Assange’s personal legal situation has little to do with WikiLeaks itself. Assange is not an American, has no agreement with the U.S. government, and has no legal responsibility to protect U.S. secrets. It’s also not clear that getting him out of the picture would affect the WikiLeaks organization in any way. It is as if someone handed me a bunch of Japanese government secrets. Why should I be obligated not to publish them?

Finally, there should be no legal difference between Assange and the New York Times. “Newspaper publisher” is not a special class of people protected by the Constitution. If newspapers are not prosecuted for publishing leaks, Assange should not be either.



The Sift Bookshelf: Consumed by Benjamin Barber

Every American participates in shaping society in two ways: As a consumer, your participation in the market helps decide which products succeed or fail. As a citizen, your participation in government helps shape our country’s policies.

Consumed: How markets corrupt children, infantilize adults, and swallow citizens whole is about the increasing conflict between those two roles, which corresponds to an increasing conflict between capitalism and democracy.

The root of the problem Barber presents is capitalism’s success in satisfying all the genuine needs of people who have money, creating a situation in which “the needy are without income and the well-heeled are without needs.” If the economy is to continue growing, either government has to tax money away from the well-heeled and spend it on the needs of the poor, or people with money have to be convinced to want things they never wanted before.

To a certain extent we have done both over the last century, but increasingly we are taking the second course. Consequently, economic growth no longer depends on production (as it did in the 19th century) but on marketing — convincing people who already have enough to want more, to want things they have gotten along without all their lives.

To a certain extent, this can be done by inventing useful products that people never imagined before. (My grandmother never imagined a cellphone. But if she had, she would have wanted one.) But increasingly demand is created by convincing people to want things that are more-or-less useless. (You don’t really want jeans — you have jeans — you want the designer signature on the jeans. You don’t really want a car — you have a car — you want the newness of the car.)

Who are the easiest people to sell useless things to? Children. And so marketing has increasingly gone in two directions: selling things to children, and encouraging adults to be more childish.

And that creates a problem, because citizens need to be adults. To make good public policy, you need to see beyond your own personal passions and whims and fears-of-the-moment. You need to think about what is good for us, collectively, over the long term.

It’s easy to think that this conflict has always been with us, but actually not. When capitalism was mainly focused on production, when America really needed more food, more shoes, and more steel, capitalism and democracy both needed adults. The so-called “Protestant work ethic” was an adult ethic: show up on time, meet your commitments, work hard, control your appetites, and delay consumption so that you have capital to invest in projects of lasting value. The same virtues that made you a productive worker or businessman also made you a good citizen.

(This explains why colonial powers who tried to teach capitalism to the natives often described those natives as children. The colonists were trying to spread the values of capitalist production — values that corresponded to adulthood in their home country.)

But the childish traits of an easily-sold consumer make you a bad citizen. A marketer’s ideal consumer is an impulsive, short-sighted, self-centered person whose better judgment is easily overwhelmed by the passions of the moment. You can’t build a genuine democracy out of such people. They will not thoughtfully envision the future they want for their country and work towards it. Instead, they will enter a voting booth the way they enter a supermarket — grumbling, perhaps, that the products are not as good as they used to be, but not imagining that they could or should do anything to make them better.

Cake’s song Comfort Eagle sums up very concisely:

Some people drink Pepsi, some people drink Coke. The wacky morning DJ says democracy’s a joke.

Barber’s contrast between the childish consumer and the adult citizen makes sense out of a lot of current problems. The market offers me choices, but not the society-shaping choices I need as a citizen. Do I want cheap gas or expensive gas? Well, cheap gas, of course. Perhaps the long-term future of my community (Nashua, NH) would be better served by a gas tax that funded a commuter train to Boston, but the market does not offer me that choice. Only democracy does. To the extent that we think “government is the problem” and everything should have a market solution, we are moving such choices off the table.

The citizen/consumer split also explains what’s wrong with globalization. It’s not just the trade deficit or that we are shifting jobs to China. The root problem is that we have global capitalism but not global democracy. So when decisions get globalized, I can participate only as a consumer and not as a citizen. My Coke/Pepsi preference is respected, but my concern about global warming is not. (You can try to use your consumer power to promote your values as a citizen — buying dolphin-safe tuna, for example — but it’s like pounding nails with a wrench. The market is the wrong tool for the job.)

Barber’s conclusion is that (left to its own devices) capitalism will not only undermine democracy, but in so doing also destroy the social conditions that make capitalism possible. A potential catastrophe awaits, but Barber does not think it is inevitable. The path to avoiding it is (in the large scale) clear: We need a re-awakening of citizenship locally and nationally, and brand new institutions for expressing global citizenship.

How these are to come about, though, he sees less clearly, and debunks several of the more obvious options (like achieving citizen goals through consumer power). His faith is more of a general faith in the inventiveness of humanity when faced with a challenge.

I share that faith to an extent, but the question is how close to the abyss we’ll have to come before we turn back. The economic disaster of 2007-2008 (which started just after Consumed was published) seems to have changed very little. Clearly something bigger will have to happen to turn things around.


As much as I learned from Consumed, I can’t whole-heartedly urge you all to go out and read it. The book has some really good ideas in it, but it’s an example of the phenomenon Hank Farrell was talking about last February:

I would estimate that about 80% of the non-academic non-fiction books that I do not find a complete waste of time (i.e. good books in politics, economics etc – I can’t speak to genres that I don’t know) are at least twice as long as they should be. They make an interesting point, and then they make it again, and again, padding it out with some quasi-relevant examples, and tacking on a conclusion about What It All Means which the author clearly doesn’t believe herself. The length of the average book reflects the economics of the print trade and educated guesses as to what book-buyers will actually pay for, much more than it does the actual intellectual content of the book itself.

I don’t blame Barber. Books make an impact on society and make money for their authors in ways that magazine articles do not. If I had had Barber’s ideas and an opportunity to publish them in a book, I’d have done it too. That’s just how the market is organized.

But Consumed is really a long magazine-article’s worth of ideas, and padding it out to book length has forced Barber to reach for a more sweeping thesis than he can really support. The stuff about marketing to children (which I have left out of my summary) is a related article, but doesn’t make a seamless whole with the contrast between adult citizens and childish consumers.

And the quest for ever-more examples has led Barber into areas he clearly does not understand: sports, for example. Other than simple mistakes that no true fan would make (he identifies Terrell Owens as a running back rather than a receiver), Barber sees trends where none exist. He uses Shaquille O’Neal as an example of the glorification of immaturity. And yes, Shaq’s public image is the quintessential manchild: big and fun-loving and not terribly serious about anything. But to make a trend out of Shaq, you have to forget the sports idol of my grandfather’s era: George Ruth, who spent his whole adult life answering to the name “Babe” and calling everybody else “Kid”. Sports heroes have always been childish; the whole professional-sports fantasy is that you never have to stop playing games and get a job. Half a century ago, Hall-of-Fame catcher Roy Campanella said:

To be good you’ve gotta have a lot of little boy in you. When you see Willie Mays and Ted Williams jumping and hopping around the bases after hitting a home run, and the kissing and hugging that goes on at home plate, you realize they have to be little boys.

Similarly, Barber does not understand George Lakoff’s framing theory. He portrays Lakoff’s strong-father vs. nurturant-parent dichotomy as infantilizing, because the citizens are children in both models. Not only is this criticism unfair in the present, but to see a trend in it you have to ignore centuries-old imagery like “Founding Fathers” and “Father of HIs Country”.

But surely the low point of the book is when Barber uses a Rutgers student hangout called Stuff Yer Face as an example of the infantilization of dining. I’ve been there. The stromboli is excellent.



Short Notes

OK, I’m willing to accept that a comedian like Jon Stewart can cover some stories better than the news networks. But when Cracked is cleaning up the year’s journalistic messes, something has gone horribly wrong.


Digby went on a roll just before the New Year, highlighting stories that sum up how crazy things have gotten. Did you know that Justin Bieber had endorsed the Ground Zero Mosque? No? Well, maybe that’s because he actually didn’t; the whole thing is a (fairly obvious) comic hoax made up by CelebJihad.com. But that didn’t stop the Muslim-haters from announcing a Justin Bieber boycott. Digby’s comment:

Ignorant right wingers threatening manufactured teen-idols based on fake news. I think that says it all.

Speaking of the Ground Zero Mosque, Salon explores the trajectory of the coverage:  It drew zero negative attention when the NYT first announced the Park51 project in December 2009. In May the right-wing bloggers discovered it, and eventually national figures felt obligated to weigh in on this local project. After November, when it wasn’t useful as a wedge issue any more, everyone lost interest in the story, even though the project putters on unabated. Salon’s comment:

Looking back now, it’s pretty good evidence of a manufactured story when coverage spikes and then vanishes, even as nothing has fundamentally changed.

Digby goes on to call attention to a Will Bunch column from May about police tasering a fan who ran onto the field at a Phillies game. Bunch writes:

People forget that the whole justification for police to get Tasers in the first place was to subdue potentially violent suspects in cases in the past in which they might have been tempted to use lethal force. But the notion that the cops would have pulled a gun and shot 17-year-old field jumper Steve Consalvi is absurd, which means the rationale for tasing him is…what? … Did anyone call for stun-gunning “Morganna the kissing bandit” in the 1970s because we lived in “a post-JFK assassination world”

Tasers don’t just subdue a suspect, they are painful enough to constitute corporal punishment. And yet Bunch reports many of his readers supported tasing the teen (who wasn’t going to get away anyway), and the crowd approved.

Digby amplifies what Bunch was saying: That we have become a meaner, harsher country; when people annoy us, we don’t just want them stopped, we want them to suffer.


Like Matt Yglesias, I’m not sure I totally agree with this Michael O’Hare piece on education, but I like the way he shakes up a tired public discussion. Comparing the classroom to the workplace, O’Hare observes:

I don’t know any grownup workplace where pay and promotions are awarded on the basis of sit-down tests except a few government agencies, and none whatever where management does this by choice. Nor any successful one where people do well to the extent that they parrot what the boss already knows.

He’d like to see schools have more large-scale group projects and less rote memorization of information of dubious utility.

In architecture school, my classmates could barely keep awake in the structural engineering course, but as soon as they needed to know how deep the floor had to be to hold up the ceiling over an auditorium, because that forced the second floor level to a point that might mean the grand staircase would have to be folded, etc. etc., they were quite interested in beam formulas; indeed, I had to ration helping them so I could get some drawing done. More and more, I’m absolutely sure that the correct sequence is challenge first, tools second, no matter how much the untidiness of the resulting learning process offends authoritarians and the insecure.

I will argue this far in favor of memorization: You need to lay down an initial matrix of facts to create a context for remembering future facts. Historical dates, for example, exhibit a network effect: The first ones you learn are as useless as owning the world’s only telephone, but the more of them you know, the more meaningful each one becomes. So if you know that the Constitution was written in 1787 and the Civil War started in 1861, then hearing that some other thing (the Fugitive Slave Act, say) happened in 1850 starts to mean something. Otherwise 1850 is just an arbitrary number that leaves your brain as fast as it can.


Speaking of the Fugitive Slave Act, it completely destroys all the Civil War revisionism we’re hearing out of Republicans from the South: that the Civil War was about states rights and not slavery. The Southern states cared nothing about violating the states rights of Northern states, as the FSA did. As embarrassing as it is to admit today, they cared about slavery, pure and simple. States rights was just a rhetorical tool for maintaining slavery.


From time to time I run across indications that evangelical Christians are trying to take the U.S. Army away from America and turn it into their own vision of the Army of God. The latest is the Spiritual Fitness Initiative, the fifth component of Comprehensive Soldier Fitness.

The folks trying to implement SFI at the Sargeants Major Academy sound well-intentioned. Broadly defined, spiritual fitness means having the inner resources to deal with loss, guilt, disappointment, and other ordinary life challenges exacerbated by war. That’s a fine thing to promote, if possible, but in practice SFI turns out like this: The mandatory Soldier Fitness Tracker survey has a spiritual section, which an honest soldier who does not believe in God — like Justin Griffith — is likely to fail. That leads to “remedial” training that Griffith describes as “absolutely swimming in religion”.

And you know that some commanders will use “spiritual fitness” to shamelessly proselytize for Jesus. Soldiers have already been punished for not attending concerts of Christian rock, and the Spiritual Fitness Center at Fort Hood is basically a Christian mega-church, built with $28 million in earmark funding.


TPM gives out the 2010 Golden Duke awards for outstanding accomplishment in the fields of “venal corruption, outstanding self-inflicted losses of dignity, crimes against the republic, bribery, exposed hypocrisy and generally malevolent governance.”


Salon’s ten favorite stories of 2010.


Even Jeffrey Goldberg has started to worry about where Israel is headed.

The Weekly Sift appears every Monday afternoon. If you would like to receive it by email, write to WeeklySift at gmail.com. Or keep track of the Sift by following the Sift’s Facebook page.

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Comments

  • macduff  On January 3, 2011 at 5:37 pm

    I think an important distinction here is that Wikileaks has dispensed the hundreds of thousands of documents to several news organizations while publishing some 2,000 or so documents on the list. The MSM would have you believe that Wikileaks dumped 250,000 documents directly onto the web.

  • macduff  On January 3, 2011 at 5:38 pm

    when oh when will I proof my comments?

    on the list should have been on the web

  • David  On January 3, 2011 at 8:13 pm

    Benjamin Barber is one of my favorite writers. I use two of his pieces in my composition classes: a magazine-length version of “Jihad vs. McWorld” and another essay called “More Democracy, More Revolution.” He wrote Jihad vs. McWorld almost 20 years ago now–it feels very prescient and contemporary to me even after that amount of time. (Or maybe it's just how people get locked into a way of seeing things from when they are young adults?)

  • Anonymous  On January 8, 2011 at 12:19 pm

    Hey,

    you might want to check out the unpa campaign: http://unpacampaign.org

    Might be a long way to global democracy, but I still believe we can do it : )

Trackbacks

  • […] In retrospect, it’s interesting to note that more than half of the 2011 books were about economics: Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber, The Seven Deadly Innocent Frauds of Economic Policy by Warren Mosler (reviewed in two parts: first, second), Why Marx Was Right by Terry Eagleton, The Lights in the Tunnel by Martin Ford, and Consumed by Benjamin Barber. […]

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