July 31, 2004

Death of discourse?

Are specific events responsible for the current lack of open dialogue, or is it something inherent in our way of life nowadays, a necessary effect of the mingling of media and politics? Or is it, as some fucktard said long ago, what you're going to get with democracy eventually? Can we ever go back, or could it not matter less?

  • I sense an agenda behind your post ... and I'm also interested in why you describe Plato as a 'Fucktard' (perhaps I should know, but despite having a degree in politics I ain't ever read him ... and am ashamed of this) Anyway ... I wonder if this is one of those things that has an air of 'it were better in the old days' about it and we're actually no worse off than we've always been ... detailed analysis and debate IS still out there, it may not be on FoxTV (or in fact anything owned by that fucktard Murdoch) or ITV or BBC News24 but it is on BBC2's Newsnight, or in The Guardian or The Spectator or The Independent or on Spiked and any one of hundreds of other media outlets, on and offline And discourse - well that's what we're about isn't it, and what MeFi's about and many other places ... It's a shame that so many people consume so much crap, biased, unanalysed lies passing off as news, but I think the truth is out there ... I dunno, maybe I'm just feeling optimistic at the moment ...
  • It would be interesting if it is the two party system in the US that is causing debate to become so polarised there. When I was growing up, Canada was a de facto two party state, but there was always the NDP. They may not have come close to forming the government, but they did influence the debates, and were occasionally king-makers in minority governments. But I don't think the US could have a viable third party. It isn't the media, it is the presidential system. A political scientist once explained to me that they have a theory that the maximum number of parties is the number of seats, plus one. (The following are also ideas from this political scientist, who happens to study the American Presidency) But the office of the president is so important in the American system is so powerful, it trumps all the other seats. With only one Presidency, only two parties will be able to compete. There is nothing for a third (or fourth or fifth) party to do but suck votes from the first two. If the VP were elected seperately, maybe suddenly the US would see three parties. The first article is very interesting as well, but I don't know if it is just politeness or the lack thereof that causes such divisions in society. I find that often when I disagree violently with someone, it is not because either of us are being extreme or rude, it's because we have radically different ideas of what is good or desirable in society. With no shared ideal, we have no common ground; what they think is common sense, I find to be immoral, and vice versa. (And of course I think I am right, because we are talking about my most fundalmental morals and beliefs about society, and what I think society should be like. They are right, too - but for me the consequences of following what they want would be a society I would not like.) So what do we do about this?
  • But I don't think the US could have a viable third party. It isn't the media, it is the presidential system. You don't consider the candidacies of Teddy Roosevelt (Bull Moose Party), Fighting Bob LaFollette (Progressive Party), or Ross Perot (Reform Party?) to have been viable?
  • dickdotcom, no agenda, swear to God. Actually I got the idea from some of the political threads lately, in which ideas and arguments *have* been exchanged, but they've gotten pretty heated. Got me to thinking about how political discourse in the mainstream US media sometimes seems totally bereft of genuine dialogue, and further how the left and the right seem to be occupying parallel universes -- e.g., "I just can't understand how any reasonable person can vote for candidate x." Calling Plato a fucktard was a bit of verbal irony (though I think he has a point about the problems inherent in democracy, his "rule by he who knows" model is preposterous to me, so I employed the kind of "argument" I put this post up to discuss -- roll your mouse over the links and you'll see more of the same). So, I'm going to step back and let you guys comment on this (if you find it interesting), but personally I don't think this is a simple matter of perception. I think things are getting uglier and uglier, and it worries me. I hear sane, rational people joking about emigrating if November doesn't turn out how they want it, and their laughter gets a little more strained and tense as we get closer. Not trying to turn this into a BushFilter thread, just using that as an example. Here's where I think Plato was uncannily prescient: he argued that the problem with democracy is that over time the level of public debate will degenerate, once the rulers start figuring out that pushing those buttons will serve their own personal ambitions. (His argument is a hell of a lot more complex than this, but this is one facet that stands out to me.) This is, I think, one of the core problems.
  • I don't know anything about those parties - this is just how my friend explained it. In the case of the earlier candidates, maybe the polity was different, and the Office of the President less powerful. And there is a good question of whether the Reform Party is viable. He got as much of a share of the vote (or perhaps more) than the NDP, but there hasn't been a serious Reform candidate since, while the NDP goes on despite recent troubles. Because even just a few seats for the NDP is something, whereas Perot got nothing for his respectable showing.
  • Let me be the first in this thread to say: Shutupshutupshutupshutupshutupshutupshutupshutupshutupshutup Shutupshutupshutupshutupshutupshutupshutupshutupshutupshutup Shutupshutupshutupshutupshutupshutupshutupshutupshutupshutup Shutupshutupshutupshutupshutupshutupshutupshutupshutupshutup
  • I have to agree with Plato: the problem with democracy is that the uneducated are running things. Would you go to an uneducated "doctor"? No. Would you let an uneducated "mechanic" loose on your car? No. But here we are in democracies letting the uneducated (the electorate) choose the uneducated (political candidates) to represent them in matters related to every area of life. It's hardly surprising that things go wrong. What the solution is, I don't really know. Plato's Republic is unthinkable for us (although I will continue to support the idea, just to stimulate debate). The other alternative is direct democracy, where each member of the electorate is required to vote on each and every political matter. This is becoming a possibility with the profusion of information technology. But still the problem remains: the uneducated will be running things. Discourse is the ONLY way we can come up with a better solution, which is probably why the political predators such as Dubya & Co. are trying so hard to supress it. (Full disclosure: I am not an American, and have no desire to become one.)
  • It seems that, historically, discourse becomes more polarized as cultures undergo large changes: the old guard tries to regain 'traditional values', the new guard wants to leave the past behind, and discussion devolves into shouting. Things usually settle down after a generation or two. Seeing how things will turn out requires more prescience than I possess, but history would imply that our current administration is an old guard making a last stand. They'll eventually fall, but may cause much damage in their death throes.
  • if you'll pardon the self-post, i recently wrote about the death of moderation in many aspects of society.
  • But zedediah, is society changing that much more rapidly than it has in the past? I know it feels that way to us, but I wonder how much of that is just being in the middle of it. The changes in society between c.1800 and 1850 were very profound as well, though it fades in our memory. I also think (as Sidedish's and other articles mention) that mass media has had its effect. Elections in the nineteenth century could not be national for lack of the media; they had to be much more local, about local issues (at least for seats in Congress or Parliament). People only got to know Presidential candidates by reading long speeches. But now it is so differently shaped - and driven not only by the nature of the media, but also by the necessity of selling that same media. I wonder if there is a substantial difference in political rhetoric somewhere like the UK where the BBC is such a strong non-profit media source. (Of course, the rhetoric in the UK could be very different for other reasons as well, like political culture.)
  • here's the thing: our democracy works really really well. Yeah I hate Bush as much or more than the next guy. But I voted for Gore and when Bush won, no one in jackboots came and kicked down my door the next day. And I still have the right to speak out against Bush exactly as much as I want. To wit: Fuck Bush. Yeah things are kid of messed up in the world right now. But for me personally, I'll be honest and say my daily life has not changed one bit ever because of who was president. And that is because our system works so well. When people go overboard and compare Bush to Hitler or real dictators, it doesnt serve any purpose but to show a TREMENDOUS lack of perspective. Real dictators do things 1000s of times worse than Bush has ever done or could ever get away with in our system. And much as W. Europe has some good points (drug laws, more liberal politics on most things) you couldnt pay me enough money to live anywhwere but the U.S. I too have made those jokes about leaving the country but they are just that, jokes. People in other parts of the world stay in their countries through decades of dictatorship, torture, etc etc. I am going to leave b/c I am mildly annoyed by something I see on TV while my incredibly comfortable life goes on exactly as before, or because an incredibly close election result may have involved fraud? (I dont recall anyone fleeing when Kennedy dubiously won Illinois in 1960) Have a little perspective, that's all I'm sayin'
  • Wedge: I believe that none of these candidacies resulted in a long-lasting political shift, office held, or new and permanent party forming. You may form your own conclusion, based on the definition of the word 'viable'. Dr. Jimmy: the jackboots were directed at the door of middle- eastern illegal immigrants, such as the guy down the street from Istanbul who had a falafel stand and now does not. Otherwise I follow you. American democracy has been much more polarized in the past, up to and including gunplay on election day at the polls (cf. Chicago politics, the election of Andrew Jackson, and - ahem - the Civil War). We are headed in an increasingly polarized direction, and I believe this will lead to political violence, but probably not civil war. (In Florida, at the recount, the GOP folks that were there to make life hard for the recount people had sticks with them. Gore's people were discouraged from bringing sticks. Good thing, or bad thing?) Once violence re-enters electoral politics, economics will dictate a resolution of that violence, and that's when the democracy will actually be in jeopardy. One final point: I have to agree with Plato: the problem with democracy is that the uneducated are running things. I utterly disagree with this. The problems we have are the reflection of the inverse proposition: an insufficient minority of participants is encouraged to be politically active. Therefore it is not the uneducated, but primarily the educated. Plato may be correct (fucktard or not) about the susceptibility of the unvirtuous (read: uneducated) to demagoguery, but his key mechanism for increasing the stability and wisdom of governance is enfranchisement of the newly-virtuous. That translates, I think, directly to extending enfranchisement in a democracy, on the theory that you can encourage people to act responsibly by giving them responsibility, a thesis I embrace.
  • The man who knows to do right will do it. That's Plato's ethic. It follows, then that the man who does not right, does not know the right thing to do: he has not learned what the right thing is: he is not fully educated. Politicians, when educated to the task, would always do what is right. The problem Plato has, along with Dubya, is that he believed in a rational solution to every shade-of-grey problem in the world. Often, there is no one right course of action, but many possible right courses of action. Which is why we (everyone involved) need to come to agreement by discourse. (I have yet to really get to grips with J├╝rgen Habermas, who addresses this very topic.)
  • Not to derail, but... Great article, SideDish. I didn't know the 2-n Ronn Owens had written a book (he's a longtime success on the radio in San Francisco, but bombed here in L.A.). Speaking of dietary immoderation, how about the new "diet wars" between the low-fat and the low-carb? I'm fighting to keep a sense of moderation in writing TV reviews, and it ain't easy... No wonder nobody ever heard of Hesiod. He's a wimp. ;) As for Plato, why'd they close down his Retreat?
  • I have thinking this for a while (A few years back) and, with a disclaimer that I'm nothing more than an aficionado when it comes to politics, I have thought what could be a good fix for democracy. Since people (you, me and everyone else) are more ingnorant about of everything related to issues in their own countries and how to solve them as problems become more national or global in scope, they should be barred from having any mean to interfere in the big issues without proper credentials. By this, I mean that people should only have voting powers for local issues, including local leaders elections and local house representatives. Thus everything becomes a piramid of power were elected local oficials and representatives are the only ones allowed to vote for state oficials and representatives and so own until reaching the highest levels of government. How is this any better than the usual mean of election officials. Well for one, local officials and representatives are supposed to have a more comprehensive view of state issues and how those affect their own localities. Since it's their job to know. What's more, they can discuss and deal with local representatives of other areas. So they won't necessarily pitfall on the common problem of don't caring about the other side of the river. Furthermore, state and federal candidates to official positions would only care about convincing those who are just below of them. That means that they can make their own campaings more complex and informative without caring for reaching the "uneducated masses". They will stop using stupid catchphrases and spending millions on advertising and 30 second spots. Those who vote for them become better informed and make better, more intelligent choices that would be better for them and everyone bellow them. That's it's all. How stupid did it sound?
  • The changes in society between c.1800 and 1850 were very profound as well, though it fades in our memory. You are absolutely correct. What with worldwide connectedness giving us news in minutes instead of weeks, some things occur faster, but I think societal changes have happened just as quickly in the past. (Example: Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror chronicles, among other things, the end of the European feudal model and rise of a merchant/middle class, all accomplished within fifty years due to the Black Plague) Change occurs in fits and starts- think Gould's 'punctuated equilibrium" theory of evolution. Another change is underway: old social models don't work very well, our media doesn't have so much influence, and the eternal tension between 'progressive' urban areas and 'traditional' rural areas seems greater than before. you couldnt pay me enough money to live anywhwere but the U.S. Just out of curiousity, how many countries have you lived in?
  • drjimmy11: I don't think anyone would suggest that you should leave the United States. (Though having lived in both the US and Canada, and with a fiance in Britain, I can say that the latter two are very nice places to live, and perhaps much better if you are the kind of person not likely to have health insurance). I think that US democracy came up, because it is my impression that political rhetoric of the "you suck" variety is particularly strong there right now. I had started thinking, based mostly on comparing Canada and the US, that the US had more extreme politics, but then I remembered the LePen (sp?) vote in France, and how well the UK Independance Party did in the recent Euro-elections, and the continuing blight of the British Nationalist Party (whom it is certainly not a Godwin to call Nazis, because they so are). But despite these extremist parties, it seems like the rhetoric among the majority (at least in Britain; I don't read French well enough to follow politics there) is less divided and extreme than in the US. People don't seem to have such a strong sense of everyone being left or right with nothing inbetween - not even among university students :) Maybe because there are three major parties (LibDem, Labour and Tory) to identify with, and a host of other parties around the edges (including the aforementioned). mwhybark: I'm a bit confused by what you mean about extending the franchise. Aren't all citizens over a certain age already enfranchised? Also, I've never read Plato, and I am having trouble following your first point (which sounds interesting). So you mind expanding?
  • Zemat sez: That's it's all. How stupid did it sound? Not stupid, but it's been tried before. The USA ain't a democracy, and never has been: we're that strange Chimera, a Representative Republic. The founding fathers were afraid of mob rule, so controlled who could vote, and limited the powers of central government. Our country has moved resolutely towards more power for individuals and the federal level every time the arrangement was challenged. Determining who might be 'qualified' to vote opens a messy can of worms that we'd best avoid. Plato assumed that anyone, put into a position of authority, would rise to the occasion and do the 'right' thing. I think he was correct, although there are many nasty exceptions. Sometimes I think our government would run better if it was all random: if you want to be considered for public office, buy a lottery ticket, and have a drawing for each position. We could hardly do worse than the system in place now.
  • .
  • The USA ain't a democracy, and never has been: we're that strange Chimera, a Representative Republic. There are many forms of democracy. Representative democracy is one. It doesn't match up to its name, no form of democracy does, but it is democracy. Plato assumed that anyone, put into a position of authority, would rise to the occasion and do the 'right' thing. Plato didn't quite say that. He said that only the people who will do the right thing should be put into a position of power. That's a statement we can all, in principle, agree with. We know, however, that there is never any guarantee that only such people will attain power. (Else a benevolent dictatorship or monarchy is what we would chose.)
  • We know, however, that there is never any guarantee that only such people will attain power. Just, if I could point out, Plato says that such people will never come to power, because to come to power you have to want power, and the people who will make the right decisions when in power are also the people who don't want power in the first place. Have to drag them kicking and screaming into office, in fact.
  • jb: Don't mind at all. But, uhm, which point again? In the Plato argument? Regarding enfranchisment, yes, everyone over 18 has the right to vote, at least legally. But rather than ecouraging folks to take that responsibility seriously over the past fifty years, the America I live in and observe has gone out of its' way to discourage the practice of that vote. In response to broad changes in the demography of persons legally able to vote, members of these groups have been discouraged from exercising that power, primarily via media images. This is just my perception, of course, and concrete counterexamples abound. I guess the upshot of my perception is to say that I see a distinction between legal enfranchisement and the successful societal support of that right. When the society's responsibility to encourage responsible participation is not enforced or encouraged, the society begins to fail. Generally speaking, regarding glosses on Plato, Skrik and PF are doing a great job fine-pointing his ideas. He argues that political power should be distinct from economic power, but that political power flows from economic power, in that persons with wealth have reasons to be invested in the political mechanics of the society which provides them with wealth. However, persons who originate as non-wealthy persons should never be given direct political power, as they will never achieve what he terms virtue (something roughly akin to a combination of wisdom and nobility). Only the virtuous should be permitted to wield political power, and only acclimated wealth can produce virtue. I disagree with these ideas in countless ways. Yet, Plato is influential in Western political thought because he clearly identifies the link between economic and political power. He identifies the absolute requirement of constructing mechanisms for political change that follows changes in the economy. His goals are to minimize large-scale societal disruptions such as plague, war, population migration, and genocide. Worthy goals. I should note that I don't think my analyses of Plato are particularly mainstream, in that my interest is to understand the relationship of Plato to varieties of contemporary politics and not to understand him on his own terms (I'm not reader of Greek).
  • Certain sections of the French press are totally and remarkably immoderate and rude. It's, y'know, tradition. The business with Le Pen was a result of their 2-step elections. In the first round, people vote to give a good healthy kick in the teeth to the government, safe in the knowledge that that the two same old parties will end up on the final ballot after the runoff. Well, it didn't work last time. I wouldn't read too much into Le Pen's first-round score. The second round is the one that counts.
  • mrwhybark: Thanks, that helps a lot. It's interesting that you mention Plato's idea that only the wealthy should vote. It was political "wisdom" in seventeenth and eighteenth century England that only those who had a stake in the land through property ownership were responsible enough to vote. It's very likely they were reading their Plato. (Some disagreed, of course, and were called evil Levellers. I did always wonder how the American franchise came about after the war, since most of the Founding Fathers were very like the ruling classes in England.)
  • Absolutely, jb. Plato's ideas were very influential on ideas of aristocratic governance from the time of the Renaissance forward. He actually clearly states that only the sons of the newly-wealthy should be allowed to participate in governance, because only through pure, virtuous education can the student approach the ideal. How he might have felt about all the gambling at Eton can only be surmised. One last thing I've never totally grasped is that we know Plato only through the writings of a student of his - a fellow later executed for rabble rousing and corruption of youth. You may have heard of him; his name was Socrates. He had his own ideas about governance, and moreover was active in the era of of Athenian democracy and I believe after. I've often wondered if and how much of Plato's ideas are (to an extent) straw men for a more-democratic Socrates to bowl over. I've never read anything on the topic, though.
  • I thought Socrates was the teacher, and Plato the student? Then Plato went on to teach Aristotle, who tutored Alexander...
  • mwhybark- I think you've got it backwards: Socrates left no writings, and his words come to us through his students Plato and Xenophon.
  • Plato, Socrates.
  • jinx
  • On which one of us? (I knew I shouldn't have anything - I just come off as a know it all, when really this is the only think I know about Plato. Except for that excerpt I once read about men and women and how the Republic was going to have free love...)
  • jinx on zed, we linked to the wame wikipedia article was just trying to back a monkey up, yo
  • now wame, that's pretty cool
  • One last thing I've never totally grasped is that we know [Socrates] only through the writings of a student of his I don't know if the above corrections answered this for you, but we simply don't have any independent records that Socrates ever existed. We've got Plato (though which ideas are Plato's and which belong to Socrates is constantly debated), we've got Xenophon (if memory serves, they served in the military together, and Xenophon had a little thing for him), and we've also got a parody of Socrates in Aristophanes' the Clouds, which features Socrates descending on a cloud and extolling the virtues of Sophistry (which would have been fightin' words to him). But there's no record of the trial, execution, nothing else.
  • Also a couple references in Aristotle to his teachings...
  • I don't think any historian seriously maintains that Socrates did not exist, nor that Aristophanes nor that Xenophon did not exist. Either one accepts that historical accounts by Socrates' contemporaries are valid, or one does not -- in the latter case, no evidence can be regarded as validating anything whatsoever, which I understand is the more extremem pomo position.
  • It's the trial of Socrates for which there is limited sources. (from Famous Trials)
  • I don't think any historian seriously maintains that Socrates did not exist No, that wasn't my point. I was only stressing that we have only two sources (IMO, the others don't really count for much) of evidence that establish that Socrates did exist, and that give us any information of what he was like. There aren't any records of his trial or citizenship or anything. Not to mention that the two major accounts don't always match up -- Xenophon's account of Socrates' defense at his trial is quite different from Plato's Apology, for instance. What historians and philosophers debate is how much of the content in the dialogues comes from Socrates, and how much of it comes from Plato. Some contend that Plato occasionally used Socrates as a voicebox for his (Plato's) ideas, while some others contend that Plato genuinely thought he was writing down all of Socrates' philosophy, but did a little "filling in" here in there with what he thought Socrates might say. A very good book to read is The Trial of Socrates, which has some good historical perspective as well as analyses of the dialogues. btw, this is one of the most pleasant derails I've read here in a while. I love this stuff.
  • moi aussi
  • sorry I meant emoige dokei