Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Journalism, Politics, And Aristotle

Courtesy of Jerry at the most excellent Common Sense and Wonder comes this Ed Morrisey observation of ongoing political skullduggery:

Thanks to the Obama administration's attacks on the Associated Press and its representation in federal court that Fox News' James Rosen is a spy for asking questions, one has to wonder whether the First Amendment applies to anyone in the Age of Hope and Change. Fox News host Chris Wallace asked Senator Dick Durbin whether Barack Obama's promise to have Eric Holder look into cases of abuse that he personally approved represents a conflict of interest, but Durbin dodges that question and talks instead about the shield law proposed repeatedly over the last few years as the appropriate Congressional response to the scandal. However, Durbin asks what exactly "freedom of the press" means in 2013, and wonders aloud whether it would include bloggers, Twitter users, and the rest of the Internet media:

Here's what the First Amendment actually says: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." Press at the time would certainly have meant newspapers, which were the high-tech information revolution of the day. It would also have included pamphleteers, perhaps even more than newspapers, as pamphleteers helped drive revolutionary sentiment. Their modern-day analogs would arguably be bloggers and Twitter users, those who reported news and proclaimed opinions outside of the establishment press.

However, Durbin's asking the wrong question. The question isn't who gets protected, but what. Journalism is not an identity or a guild, but an action and a process — and anyone engaged in that activity must be treated equally before the law. A shield law based on membership via employment in privileged workplaces or certified by guilds doesn't protect journalism, it becomes rent-seeking behavior that ensures that only the large players get protected, as I wrote ten days ago.

Durbin's question isn't even the biggest non-sequitur in this argument. The biggest non-sequitur is the shield law itself, which wouldn't have even addressed the Rosen or AP situation. And considering that the Obama administration ignored existing statutes in both cases, why should we believe they would obey a shield law when it got in their way?

Exactly correct in all particulars. The most important of the implications, though, is one the casual reader could easily miss:

A shield law based on membership via employment in privileged workplaces or certified by guilds...becomes rent-seeking behavior [Emphasis added]

Let that sink in for a moment while I pour more coffee.

The rise of the occupational guild was one of the most consequential developments of the Middle Ages. During their heyday, guilds dominated virtually every occupational specialty in Europe. They were not State-sanctioned; with one or two exceptions, they did not enjoy State protection. But they wielded considerable influence over the development of market-oriented economies: negative influence that took centuries to dispel.

The overt purpose of a guild was to conserve and expand the expertise of its members. The covert purpose was to ensure that that expertise remained closely held -- that it would not "leak" to persons or organizations outside the guild. As with the unions of our time, the covert purpose was much the more important of the two.

Guilds were as restrictive about the admission of new members as any contemporary union; it normally took the unanimous consent of all members in good standing to grant entrance to a new member. They attempted to retain control of their specialties by enforcing a rule of succession upon their members: that the expertise and skills of a member were to be transmitted solely to other members, or to the member's male children.

A member found to have violated his guild's rule of succession was usually expelled. Though in most domains he could not legally be prevented from plying his trade, his former colleagues could inflict boycotts on anyone who did business with him. It was a threat which, in the embryonic market societies of the late Middle Ages, carried a considerable wallop.

Presently the royal houses of Europe discovered the "special-interest politics" of their time: they learned to barter political favors to the guilds for economic favors from the guilds. Over time, guilds acquired the overt collaboration of the State at enforcing their occupational monopolies, through royal charters and occupational licensure. In this fashion, the Crown could exert pressure on a recalcitrant noble house by directing critical guilds to deny their services to that house, its retainers, and its common subjects. It was among the era's most effective techniques for the centralization of power.

The politics of the Twenty-First Century have tended to replicate those of the late Middle Ages in several ways. Governments have laid heavy emphasis on "stakeholders" -- in the economic sphere, unions and occupational associations reminiscent of medieval guilds -- in the allocation of political favors. "Stakeholders" that have cooperated with the State have done well by it; those that have not fallen into line with the trend have seldom prospered.

Thus, we can easily see that when it sets out to extend its powers into some new sphere of human activity, the State will prefer to grant its protection to a "stakeholder" association rather than to the activity itself. The protected association becomes a client of the State: to retain the favor of the State, it must agree to a price, usually in the form of licensure rules and fees. In return, it acquires the power to profit by restricting admission to its numbers: classic second-order rent-seeking. Over time, such a "stakeholder" will find that its interests become ever more coincident with those of the State, verging on indistinguishable. Those on the outside are, of course, left out of the game.

There is nothing more important to protecting the interests of any State than the control of the dissemination of information. To keep its subjects subservient, a State must persuade the overwhelming majority that there are no alternatives to its rule, or at least none preferable. Indeed, it's widely held that the explosion of new information conduits was what brought down the most powerful tyranny of all time, the Soviet Union. In this regard, journalism will be the highest-priority target of any aspiring tyranny. Inasmuch as there will be some reportage even in the most tightly regulated societies, it will strive to create a protected class of journalists subservient to the State, and to deny entry to the occupation to persons outside that class.

Now reflect afresh on the gambit of the Dishonorable Richard Durbin. Could there be any doubt about his endgame, especially given the subservience the Main Stream Media have already exhibited toward the political Left?

The Western approach to ratiocination as a field for study begins with Aristotle, first of the classical philosophers to conceive of how men form abstractions -- categories -- and deal with them through logic. Aristotle's key insight lies in the process by which we form definitions, which are indispensable to all other aspects of abstract reasoning.

Though the process of definition embeds several assumptions, for our purposes this morning we can skip over all but the most important two:

  • That shared characteristics will correlate with shared consequences;
  • That significant shared differences are sufficient to form divisions between categories.

(Yes, there are other assumptions buried in that word significant. But that's a trail to be followed at another time.)

Those assumptions give rise to the Aristotelian approach to definition:

  • A category to be defined will have a genus: that is, an enclosing category all of whose significant characteristics its members share.
  • But to be distinguished from the genus, the members of the category to be defined must possess shared differences from the genus: ways in which the members of the new category differ from the enclosing one. This is the new category's differentia.

To approach journalism as a definable category, we would first locate its genus category, and then compose its differentia: the ways in which journalism differs from the genus.

Journalism might thus be defined as:

  • Genus: The activity...
  • Differentia: ...of collecting and disseminating emergent information about immediate or recent events (i.e., "news").

By that approach, we would deem journalism something anyone could do, whether continuously or sporadically. But another approach is possible: to make the actor prior and superior to the activity he pursues:


  • Genus: A person who...
  • Differentia a member of a recognized association of journalists.

That second definition has several logical flaws -- "Recognized by whom?" being the most important one -- but politically, the aspiring tyrant would favor it over the first one.

Durbin's gambit about whether the First Amendment protects bloggers and so on is a sly attempt to privilege the second definition over the first. He hopes to establish as a matter of law that:

  1. Journalism is something journalists and only journalists do;
  2. Washington will decide who is and who isn't a journalist.

Never doubt that such a guild would be at once co-opted and managed by the ruling regime.

Words matter. The words in which we couch our statements and our arguments for them matter critically. The words politicians use matter more than most, as their product is entirely in words. Never doubt that they choose their words with the utmost care. Indeed, that's the source of the gag definition of a gaffe: when a politician accidentally tells the truth.

Beware. The current regime, as power-hungry and freedom-hostile as any America has ever suffered, has repeatedly attempted to redefine the words we use for our most important concepts. If we want to retain any confidence in the veracity of the "news" that reaches us, it is vital that we deny the State that privilege.

1 comment:

furball said...

Erudite, timely, cogent.

I'm sorry America is in a state that requires these screeds, but you do them extremely well.