In recent posts I have explored, and dismissed, the doomsday arguments made by journalists and self-styled intellectuals who consider the collapse of the newspaper industry, and the general decline in authority of the news, synonymous with the fall of democracy. Here I want to turn the matter around, and ask just what a person must know to function effectively as a free citizen, engaged in public questions while sovereign over the great decisions of his own life.
If we can answer this question, we may be able to calculate the effects of the new information environment — presently in the grip of a vast, deep, cascading transformation — on the sphere of human freedom.
We might as well start with the proposition that every citizen must consume a huge volume of detailed reports on policies, events, legislation, and so forth. This is a necessary premise to the doomsday argument: if newspapers, which deliver such reports, disappear, good citizenship will become impossible.
But it isn’t at all apparent why I must know about events in Afghanistan or Iraq. They touch nothing in my life, and my life touches nothing about these events.
Even if I had personal reasons for interest, these would drive me to a very different level of description from that of news reports. If my son was a soldier, I would be interested in his safety. If I had invested my money on the Iraqi stock market, I would be interested in the country’s economy. If I were a scholar of Iraqi history, I would be interested in large developments revealed over centuries of time.
An argument on behalf of the know-it-all citizen — put forward by Nicholas Kristof in the NYT — is that we arrive at truth by the “clash of opinions,” and particularly by exposing ourselves to those that oppose our own. This simply isn’t true. Opinions are moral judgments, and morality, much cognitive research shows, is almost never altered by debate. Can one imagine a pro-abortion advocate, listening to a well-reasoned argument by an anti-abortion crusader, feeling anything other than upset?
Yet another corollary of this position, exemplified here by Pat Rice, is that the public needs a watchdog over the government, a job only the press can perform. This is not a trivial question. Governments must be watched. But, again, it isn’t clear why the public should delegate this function to an unrepresentative body.
It isn’t at all clear that the press acts as a watchdog. The examples offered by Rice seem random and trivial. Other examples, like the media hounding of Sarah Palin, convey the sense that the press is a political player rather than a watchdog, asserting its power to achieve its preferred ends.
The search for a watchdog merely repeats our original question: what must a citizen know, to remain free? The answer must distinguish between knowledge which is necessary to the formation of character, and information which is helpful in arriving at political decisions.
By knowledge I mean a certain understanding of how the world works, as opposed to keeping score on the latest congressional vote or Middle East explosion. The knowlegeable person asks difficult questions, and is skeptical of easy answers. He reads books rather than newspapers, and keeps his eye on context and connections rather than on the random flow of events. He respects and seeks out depth of expertise, but will not surrender his explanations to priests, wise men, guardians, scientists, or technicians. Human life, he knows, is an unfathomable mystery.
It follows that a liberal education is a precondition to individual sovereignty. This is hardly a new insight: Jefferson, according to Jean Yarbrough, advocated universal education for strictly political reasons. He believed, correctly I think, that an education procured the citizen’s “freedom and happiness.”
School learning, however, it only the first step in the acquisition of knowledge. The second pertains to practical affairs: the ups and downs of social life, the struggle in the markeplace, the basic need to find food and shelter. The knowledgeable person will master, and seek to excel in, some profession or trade, by means of which he will retain his independence from wealthy patrons, shop stewards, and government largesse. He is not, in Emerson’s words, a minor or an invalid “seeking a protected corner.” Rather, he is self-reliant in his worldly affairs, and occupies the place of an adult in his community.
Practical knowledge can only be gained in the doing. Abstract formulas won’t help. Experience can, but only if filtered by an attitude of engagement with the community and the workplace, and a rejoicing in competition even when one is bested. The quest for excellence enlarges the sphere of individual freedom.
It is possible to be excellent — say, as an artist or builder — yet not be good to yourself or others. The latter requires moral knowledge, which arrays book learning and practical knowledge along a matrix of right and wrong behaviors.
Here at last is the purpose of all knowledge, all information, all human questing: to achieve the good life. Here, too, is the mainstay of freedom, which without morality becomes impossible. Absent “virtue in the people,” wrote Madison, democracy disintegrates into mob rule and despotism.
I have posted often of the process of moral education (see here and here), and will not dwell on it now. I also have had some things to say about the primacy of morality over politics, a point of some confusion today. Suffice it to say that, except for pathological cases, all persons learn to distinguish right from wrong, and apply their moral sense to judge policies and events on the great stage of the world.
The knowledgeable person considers politics to be an incidental extension of his education, his engagement in the community, and his moral sense. Government with all its tos and fros he views as if from a high place. Participation is either necessary — at those rare times when corruption or disaster threaten — or unimportant. It will never be routine. It will never become a way of life.
The matter of watching the government remains open. What type of information does the free citizen need, to know when participation is necessary? How can that information be accessed?
In our representative democracy, the character of the people’s representatives, and to a lesser extent their competence and political ideology, must be judged by the citizen somehow. That’s the type of information journalists like Rice claim to provide. If the death of news is indeed upon us, how will the public watch over their government?
Judgments of character require information about a person’s background and approach to problems. The amount of information, Malcolm Gladwell argues in Blink, need only be a “thin slice” — a mass of details tends to confuse rather than enlighten. The new information environment, which contains the online trail — including professional and political history — of candidates, and which removes the expensive mediator and places a candidate’s website in direct contact with the citizen, easily meets the requirements for judging personal character.
What about what Gladwell calls the “Warren Harding error” — a candidate whose impressive superficial traits blinds the “thin slicing” citizen to a corrupt and incompetent character? Well, I don’t know that any information structure can weed out the occasional successful demagogue — and Warren Harding, after all, arose during the heyday of the news.
But if the new information landscape does anything well, it’s to provide multiple perspectives on every pose and assertion. Facts get checked; hidden pasts are revealed; claims to grand achievements are examined by many in a position to say true or false. None of this can completely override political gullibility of the Warren Harding kind, but it will unmask impostors more surely than the TV nightly news has done.
The same applies to watching government actions. Yochai Benkler has described the rise of a “networked public sphere” connecting citizen to citizen on a gigantic scale, disseminating individual reports and analyses, and promoting communities of interest — including political organizations. Being networked, the new structures are able to ingest and digest vastly larger volumes of information than the news media, which always labored with very limited resources.
Benkler believes the application of networked information will deliver “enhanced autonomy”: in other words, it will give the individual more choices, in effect making him freer.
This, of course, is an untested proposition. Only time will tell. But it’s safe to say, at this point in the transition, that the new world of networked information will not watch the government’s failings less effectively than did the old world of news. It will surely provide a broader perspective on policies and people.
We will no longer be limited to the “lords of truth” mindset of the Columbia School of Journalism and its ilk. And finally, because of interactivity and ability to exploit larger information sets, our brave new world may ultimately foster a smarter, more discerning, and less harping watch over the people in power.