Saturday, December 31, 2016

Make America Decline Again

Where is Trump going, and where are our institutions going?

My recent reading of Medieval history was particularly interesting in its analysis of the growth of institutions in Western / Northern Europe. It was a very slow, painful process, as the vacuum of Rome was replaced first by German kings with very primitive notions of the state and society, co-existing, with monks in their cloisters. Then came nascent states that used more bureaucratic structure (increasingly integrated with services from the church) to provide state services to larger territories and more people. Charlemagne built a great state, but it did not yet have the institutional staying power to last much beyond his sons. But over time, bigger and more effectively run states (Norman England, Capetian France) won the struggle for power in Europe, and generated not only bigger armies and bloodier wars, but also more peaceful and prosperous conditions at home.

Many of these institutions by which we live in peace with each other are written down, in constitutions and laws. But many are not. For example, the fact that a majority of votes in the Senate or House passes a bill is understood and obvious, but not actually written down in the constitution. It appears only by default when a 2/3 majority is required for such things as a passing a constitutional amendment or overriding a veto, and would be implicit in the ability of each chamber to make its own rules for administration. More topically, nothing prevents a president from having all sorts of business interests and foreign entaglements that might corrupt his or her administration. It is merely up to the voters to decide, and later the Congress to take up the matter if they have a mind to impeach.

Institutions live not only in our officials and constitutions, but in everyone's implicit expectations of how their society should run. The town meeting is a hallowed institution, by those who take part in it, as the only reasonable way to run a small political entity. They would not dream to call in a dictator from the outside, as was common practice in Medieval Italy.

Corruption is what happens when unwritten as well as written institutions weaken and go by the wayside, allowing the immediate motivations of greed and ego to replace the carefully honed traditions- if those traditions be worthy- and even common decency. An example is gerrymandering. It is obvious that the original intent, and the intent of any fair-minded person, would be that legislative districts should be evenly and regularly allocated to group together people who live close together. But well-gerrymandered state can scientifically allocate voters such that the party responsible gains far more seats that they deserve, which are then impregnable till the next census and the next exercise in drawing districts.

North Carolina's 12th district.

Corruption is not only an offense against fair play and moral decency, but typically against truth as well. No one is proud of being corrupt and abusing written and unwritten institutions. The trick is to claim one's fidelity while subverting in reality. And the cost of our large political system is that people are so out of touch with each other that they can no longer judge closely, or care to judge, or may not be educationally equipped to judge, the candidates for office, who each make the same claims to fidelity, truth and good character.

Which all makes our recent election so difficult to digest. The Democrats surely had their issues with fidelity to public institutions, with Hillary Clinton eagerly feeding at the golden trough of Goldman Sachs, and her husband raking in (charitably, of course) millions from foreign and other politically interested donors, a haul that one assumes is likely to dry up quite dramatically in the coming year.

However, all this pales in comparison to the orchestrated war on our basic institutions and our very understanding of truth that the Republicans have led for decades. Donald Trump campaigned openly on a platform of lies and execrable character. His business history is one of repeated bankruptcy, betrayal, cheating, and bullying. His knowledge of our institutions, and indeed of reality itself, is marginal. His abilty to articulate rational public policy was and remains nil, suited only to emotional outbursts via the 140-character medium of twitter. His emotional makeup was clearly unstable, and evidently psychopathic. And people voted for him.

Why? The battlefield had been softened up by decades of smear operations mounted by the Republican party through FOX news and other organs of the right. It turns out that hate sells, and thus leads to a sustainable business model of purveying emotionally tinged lies, leading to mis-directed hate, leading to more listener engagement, and more advertising dollars. It is reminiscent of the interwar period in Germany, when scapegoats were sought for: who lost World War I. They came up with the Jews, and a general lack of teutonic authoritanianism, in a self-feeding cycle of hate which polarized society to great, deadly extremes.

For decades, the Republicans have been seeking scapegoats for: who lost the culture war? Why are Americans becoming increasingly compassionate towards blacks, towards gays, towards atheists? What is going on, and could the clock be turned back- to make America great again? The backbone of this movement was naturally the right-wing religious believers, who, being temperamentally authoritarian, and having already swallowed one pack of lies, had little problem with a few more, like the whole wishlist from the business community, that wealthy people are the job creators, that government regulation is the main thing standing between rural people and good jobs, and that unions are evil. And that Donald Trump means anything he says or has an ounce of morals. And that the Clintons are unspeakably vile- far more so than those fine business organizations who sold so many fraudulent loans and other toxic waste that we are barely coming out of the recession they caused. And that global warming is a hoax, and that Bengazi was Hillary's fault, and ... well, the appalling list goes on, ad infinitum. They have a great deal of airtime to fill, after all.

The Republican war on our institutions has had a self-reinforcing quality. Given that they want to debilitate governmental institutions, whenever they get their hands on one, like the House of Representatives or the Senate, they make it non-functional, and in a self-fulfiling prophecy, the government indeed doesn't work, and the base can be riled up all over again to attack their chosen targets of hate. The base doesn't seem to make the connection between cause and effect, except when that connection is glaring, such as the government shutdowns that ultimately damaged Newt Gingrich- perhaps the earliest and most vociferous destroyer of American instutions in our generation.

The vacancy on the Supreme court stands as the absolute lowest point of Republican subversion. A shameless plot against norms and practices in place since the founding, in a doomed quest to reverse the course of social development. For however conservative and extreme the court gets, America at large is never going back to the image that conservatives have of it. Similarly, Donald Trump is busily appointing to each department a head who seeks to debilitate it and subvert its purposes and norms, so that corruption by the business elite can flourish. Education will see corporations in charge of charter schools, the EPA, corporations in charge of climate change policy, and the Labor department will see union busters in charge. The tax system as a whole will doubtless see giveaways to corporations and the wealthy that will make the Reagan administration look like a Trotskyite regime.

Is this what his voters wanted? I would hope and assume not. But they knew they were electing a con man, right? How could a ruthless billionaire with no previously recorded ounce of compassion for anyone outside his family do other than he has, hiring those he likes and trusts to run our country, which already is one of the most unequal in the developed world?

While all of politics is a matter of lies and half-truths; banal rhetoric with maximal tone and minimal content, the degree to which Trump could play this game with complete shamelessness and emptiness is not a matter of his talent alone, but of the decades-long evisceration of our public discourse and institutions, and particularly the Ministry-of-Truth programming that his base has been fed so effectively from the right-wing media. They do it not only in the service of their conservative ideals, but also for their true power base- the wealthy and corporations, who could never carry an election with their own votes, but if they destroy enough of our democratic and cultural institutions, and brain cells, can win anyhow, free and fair.

  • Is compassion dead?
  • Yes.
  • Honestly, do we really need a middle class?
  • How about some happy thoughts?
  • "Liberalizing policies are justified in theory only by the assumption that political decisions will redistribute some of the gains from winners to losers in socially acceptable ways. But what happens if politicians do the opposite in practice?"
  • Christmas is pagan.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Repression Makes Us What We Are

Notes on polycomb and histone interaction in developmental gene control.

While we have shockingly few genes in the genomes which engender our complexity, most of them are also turned off most of the time. It is repression, just as much as activation, that generates the patterns of gene expression that allow developmental ramification and specialization. This repression comes in several forms, from individual gene switches to the sequestering of whole chromosomes, such as in female X-inactivation. The stronger forms of repression can be what is called "epigenetic", which simply means they can last a long time, such as through several cell division cycles, or even across a generation. That means that they begin to mimick true genetic effects. However unlike true mutations, they can be programmatically reversed at some future time- otherwise they would not have any function. Thus "epigenetic" features are part of an organism's phenotype, not its genotype.

One general mechanism of long-term and long-range (that is, may extend over many neighboring genes, and large chromosomal regions) gene repression is the polycomb system, named after phenotypes conferred by some of its mutations in fruit flies, whose males have sex combs. This is a system that may descend on a chromosomal region if it is never needed again in the development of an organism, and keeps those genes off, locked up tight. This effect is also called "gene silencing", for obvious reasons.

There are several proteins that make up polycomb complexes, each with its own super-powers. Most of these powers revolve around working with histones- the small proteins that are the smallest packaging units of DNA in eukaryotic cells. Histones are not passive spools around which DNA wraps, however, but through a vast number of possible chemical modifications (methylation, acetylation, ubiquitination, at numerous different positions) are pivotal levers of control over on the availability of DNA to all the other denizens of the nucleus.

One typical core complex of histones, acting as a spool for our DNA. The DNA is actually much larger, covering most of the histone surface. Yet the histone tails stick out, ready to be modified and recognized by various other regulatory proteins.

One of the special characteristics of polycomb action is that it can spread along the DNA from a initiating site to nearby locations, in a progressive fashion. This is unlike a normal gene repressor, which just acts locally within a mixture of activators and repressors for one enhancer site upstream of one gene. How does polycomb do this, and how does it know where to stop?

There are two parts to the system, polycomb complex 1 and complex 2 (PRC1, PRC2). PRC2 acts first, binding to other proteins at particular DNA sites called polycomb response elements, and methylates the local histones H3 on lysines (K) 9 and 27, which are on the tails sticking away from the DNA and thus accessible. How does this get turned on? The targetting proteins are the ones that are themselves regulated to initiate the whole repression process. A second activating change is methylation of the local DNA, at CG dinucleotides, which tends to concentrate at silenced genomic locations, and helps initiate that silencing.

Methylation has a specific charge effect, eliminating the positive charge on the affected lysines, (or negative charge at the CpG DNA sites), thus helping the histones repel each other less, and pack together. But the marking of histones by various methyl, acetyl, and other groups on their tails has more subtle effects, since each modification is specifically recognized by other proteins, creating a complex code that regulates gene activity at very fine scales.

The second step, carried out by PRC1, which finds and binds to histone H3 methylated on lysine 27, is ubiquitination of histone H2A on lysine 119. As ubiquitin is a small protein, its attachement is a much more dramatic change than modifications like methylation or ethylation. And though ubiquitin is generally associated with marking proteins for destruction, here is doesn't have that effect, but rather has a regulatory role in stablizing and compacting chromatin structure. However, as a large complex with several activities, PRC1 may do other things to promote repression which are not yet known.

A recent paper delved into this a bit to ask how PRC1 is composed, and what activates it. It is not a stable or uniform complex, but a consortium of several proteins that converge when needed and whose components come in several flavors. It is apparent that repression even in this general polycomb class comes in different forms. Representative components are:

  • RING1 or RING1B- this is the ligase that enzymatically attaches ubiquitin to Histone H2A
  • PCGF1- This is a helper for the RING ubiquitin ligase activity.
  • CBX2 or RYBP- a protein that binds to the H3 methylation site, and binds other proteins, especially PCGF1, and YY1. YY1 is one of the targeting transcription factors that can bind the polycomb response elements and help initiate repression.
  • KDM2B- an enzyme that can de-methylate histone lysines, and binds to the CpG dinucleotides that, in part, target polycomb repression. It also has a protein domain with a role in targeting ubiquitination of other proteins (the F-box).
  • BCOR- This protein interacts with other histone de-acetylases.

The point of this particular paper was to demonstrate the composition of one particular version of the PRC1 complex, and to show that the core subunits of RING1B and PCGF1 are sufficient for histone ubuquitination, but that they are stimulated by the addition of the subunit RYBP. The other subunits don't help ubiquitination in vitro, but have other roles (whether known or unknown) in regulating and directing the complex's activity in cells.

One example of a PRC1 complex, which ubiquitinates H2A histones. B shows an electrophoretic gel that separates the proteins by size. kD is kilo-Daltons. C shows a mass-spectrographic study of cross-linked complexes showing which parts of which components interact directly with which other ones.

Another finding is that the PRC2 complex recognizes not only the initiating factors at the polycomb response elements, but also the ubiquitinated histones left by PRC1. This is likely to be part of the positive feedback "spreading" mechanism by which polycomb extends its area of repression from those initiating sites on the DNA / chromatin. Unfortunately, the details of initiation, the exact mechanism of spreading, the implications of ubiquitination, and the reasons for limits on the dimensions of polycomb-repressed regions are still largely unknown, or only hinted at, so far.

That gives you a taste of the state of the field, from this recent paper. The polycomb system has been known for a long time, having been established genetically in fruit flies over 70 years ago, with the discovery of the original polycomb mutation. It is unfortunate that this field is not farther along, in the understanding of the individual components, and how this form of repression is initiated and limited.

  • Yes, he has his own brown shirts.
  • Meet your new friends.
  • Cultures of stupidity.
  • To hell with the whole thing...
  • We can make all the jobs we want.
  • Apparently, a feminized culture is a bad thing.
  • Scientific epistemology, the value of negative results, and the canonization of facts.
  • Institutional development in China, vs freedom.
  • Can we call it treason, already?
  • Religion is part of the reason for our new love of Putin.
  • Mergers are good for someone, but not you.
"By utilizing new techniques to isolate the effects of mergers, they find no evidence that mergers increase efficiency, but do find evidence that they increase market power, meaning they allow companies to generate higher profits by raising prices."

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Encounter With Aristotle

Leading Western cultures encountered Aristotle at critical times. What was the result?

This is a continuation of last week's appreciation of Norman Cantor's "The Civilization of the Middle Ages", which devotes a great deal of space to the renaissance of the twelfth century. This was when most of the extant writings of Aristotle- an enormous corpus- reached Europe, from various sources, including translations from Arabic and then later, translations from the original Greek, which had remained on file in Christian Byzantium.

I can not claim any expertise on Aristotle whatsoever; it is a mountain I have yet to climb. But his central position in both ancient and later philosophy is clear. This episode of recovery and rediscovery by Western Europeans after their long intellectual darkness is particularly interesting and momentous in many ways, not just to philosophy.


Aristotle was the proto-scientist, to Plato's idealist. Christian thought had developed as a fusion of Judaism and Platonism. Ideals such as god, categories, spheres, were to Plato not only real, but the only real things at all, with particular, empirical manifestations being of far less interest, merely the deficient instantiations of ideals and inferences which an intensely abstract intellectual would find the only compelling things. Imagine that you had just discovered gravity. The examples of it in everyday life are interesting, but the universal idea of it is vastly more powerful and conceptually deep.

On the other hand, Aristotle, while not dismissing Platonic idealism, matched it with a regard for empirical complexity and existence. His biology is a good example, where actual observations and even dissection support a classification scheme without a lot of idealistic baggage. Aristotle believed in god, but in a sort of deistic version- the prime mover. Nor did he think we have immortal souls, but that all life forms have souls in various gradations that are just our vital motive forces, and which, at best, reunite with a universal soul at death, but in most instances die with the body. One can portray Aristotle as a stage in humanity's maturation, from childish magical thinking, where all concepts have to revolve around the self, to an ability to deal with reality forthrightly, with fewer mythical crutches, and more humility.

His huge and advanced corpus was clearly far beyond what the local philosophers and scientists of the Muslim, Jewish, or Western European worlds had achieved. Naturally, it challenged them in fundamantal ways. The greatest intellects of each tradition grappled with Aristotle and wrote commentaries: Averroes, Maimonides, and Thomas Aquinas. Cantor writes:
"In both Moslem and Jewish thought, the attempts of great thinkers to deal with the relationship of revelation and the new Aristotelian science thus ended in defeat and disaster at the beginning of the thirteenth century. Islam turned away from science because it was considered heretical by religious leaders who were able to obtain the assistance of fanatical princes to destroy rational speculation. The general decline of vigor in Islamic civilization undoubtedly also played a part in the termination of the great scientific and philosophical movement in the Arabic world. Judaism at the same time turned its back on science and secular thought, partly again because of the hostility of orthodox leaders and partly because of the ghettoization of European Jewry which began in the twelfth century."

The result here was that, for all the heroic efforts of Averroes and Maimonides (and their followers and colleagues) to blaze a compatibalist path that shoehorned the two systems together, the larger community was not having it. Any shoehorning of elements of the faith, especially of the Koran, was unacceptable. One can surmise that the social functions of the respective faiths were recognized as such, and as more important than free searches for truth that were clearly sowing the seeds of heresy if not total obliteration of the faith.

Saint Thomas Aquinas.

On the other hand, the European scholastics such as Aquinas, in their innocence, had such faith in the truth of their faith that they did not even consider that another truth, whatever its source, could threaten it. Heresy was untrue, but true things necessarily had to be consistent with the Gospel and church. So Aquinas adopted Artitotelianism in large part, and insisted on compatibalist solutions- on the soul, on natural morality, on sensory empiricism. This took quite a bit of interpretive effort, but was rewarded by everlasting fame and sainthood- quite a different result than in the other religious traditions. Aquinas is still a bedrock of Catholic theology.
"It was his Aristotelian epistemology that allowed Aquinas to work his way to his conclusion. His whole system rests on the principle that knowledge comes not from the illuminating participation of the mind in pure and divine ideas, as was held by Augustinian Platonism, but that it is primarily built up out of sensory experience. As an Aristotelian he could not accept that Platonic theory of forms; to him it was not scientific, and any Christian philosophy that was based on a false epistemology would fail, as the twelfth-century realists had failed, in the face of nominalist attack. ... He admitted that  there are certain ultimate areas of the Christian faith to which reason cannot penetrate: it is impossible to prove the miracle of the Incarnation or the Trinity. But it is possible to prove rationally the existence and many of the attributes of God. Aquinas presented five proofs for the existence of God, all of which were based on the Aristotelian argument for the existence of a first cause. ... He proceeded to argue, with a validity that was doubted by many, that from this premise could be derived the Christian attributes of God as perfect, omniscient, omnipotent, and free.... Similarly, he proceeded from Aristotelian causality by way of logical argument to prove creation ex nihilo, and similarly from Aristotelian psychology to the human soul, and from Aristotelian ethics to Christian virtue."

Yet acceptance of the innovations of Aristotle, of natural theology and rational ethics, etc., obviously also sowed the seeds of theological destruction, since if god is read in his or her works- the book of nature- the more carefully you read, the less you may find, if that god does not actually exist there, and faith was the key ingredient all along. First the Protestants insisted in reading the books of nature and scripture for themselves, and then scientists discarded scripture entirely. Now here we are in the post-Newtonian and post-Darwinian epoch, shorn of any (natural) rationale for god other than Aristotle's wan prime mover, though even that remains only as an unknown possibility rather than a necessity.

Lastly, what of the status of Aristotle in the culture where his writings were originally preserved- Eastern Rome, or Byzantium? Obviously, despite their wealth and institutional stability, they had no more of a scientific or philosophical revolution in the first millenium than the Western Europeans had. They were just as, and perhaps more, besotted with Christian theology, in characteristically "byzantine" disputes over iconography in particular, such that free thought seems to have been in very short supply. There was evidently just enough attention paid to the classics to keep them in print, but little more.

The endless and exceedingly complex ruminations about the nature of the soul through all this time were especially remarkable and saddening in their vacuity. They expressed little more than a profound ignorance of biology, which is understandable, as we still are some ways from understanding how it all works. The vegetable, animal, and rational souls of the Aristotelian system were reasonable stabs at classifying the levels of consciousness / biological being. Nor did they, in Aristotle's hands, appear to be immortal, with all due respect to Aquinas's efforts, but at best universal as "forms" by way of Plato's idealism / realism about such things, not individually. Death, is, after all, such an obvious and final fact of life. The centrality of the afterlife- the promises on which the whole Christian corpus and attraction is based- led to the very unfortunate dominance of intuition and magical thinking over simple reasoning, which haunts us to this day.

  • Champion of workers, or of extremely rich CEOs?
  • After Pizzagate, one gun is not enough.
  • Yes, the media are easily led.
  • Could Trump be the messiah, after all those Christians voted for him?
  • Thoughts about integration.
  • Prospective cabinet has a "total net worth that exceeds the combined wealth of more than one-third of all Americans."
  • The costs of a good foreign policy.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Why Were the Dark Ages so Dark?

Review of "The Civilization of the Middle Ages", by Norman Cantor.

Everyone thinks they are living in the modern age, at the cusp of technological and social development. At least till they get older, and realize that everything is, instead, going to pot. While we are always at the edge of time, we also live within the institutions and ideas of the past. That became painfully apparent with the recent election, when the electoral college went one way, and the popular vote went dramatically the other way, by a 2% margin.

Our culture and its institutions have been under development for thousands of years, and while the events of much of that time were not very well documented, that doesn't mean they weren't important. Norman Cantor's not terribly scholarly, but highly opinionated and readable overview of the Middle Ages (~500 to 1500) is one of the best sources I have read to understand this period. He takes an analytical view of why institutions developed the way they did, and offers frank views on what was helpful and what was not, in the cause of overall Western progress. No wonder this book is still in print, after over two decades.

His major theme seems to be the establishment of large, competent states as the endpoint of successful social progress. Each epoch is judged by the coherence of its political institutions, from the height of Rome, to the depths of post-German invasion Europe. Cantor is dismissive of the Germanic institutions of government, which were little more than tribal councils and endless warfare. Thus the tension between the new invaders and the inheritance they were so close to, from Rome proper, and from the rump Eastern Roman empire, aka Byzantium.

The invaders (apparently pushed by other invaders to their rear, like the Huns) didn't mean to destroy Rome, really- they just wanted to share in the bounty as well as in its institutions. But Rome didn't have a very welcoming immigration policy, and ended up fighting itself into oblivion. There are many interesting elements to the subsequent story, but I will focus on just a couple- the role of the church, and nature of law.

Once we get into the 500's and beyond, as Rome let go of England and other territories, and was sacked separately by the Visigoths, Vandals, and Ostrogoths, and then was reconquered for good measure by the Byzantines, things had really fallen apart. Various Germanic tribes were in charge of most parts of what was previously the Western Roman Empire, with little institutional memory descended from the Roman epoch. What was the one functional institution? The church. But it was a very long time before the church realized that it had a role to play in the general organization of society.

10th century depiction of St. Gregory, d. 604 at work in his scriptorium, with the help of the dove of the holy spirit.

The Benedictine order is by far the oldest form of Western monasticism, originating around 530 with the innovative communal organization, as opposed to the lonely ascetic hermit mode of the East. It was the Rule which organized each house, and gave it a strong, independent, and self-sufficient government. This was in marked contrast to the ambient governments outside its walls, which rose and fell with each dynastic squabble, and whose legal and bureaucratic concepts were virtually non-existent. Only after three hundred more years did the Franks under Charlemagne briefly raise the level of governance, with a Europe-wide kingdom that began a significant alliance with the papacy and developed rudimentary bureaucratic forms to keep the ship running in the personal absence of the king.

While that empire promptly fizzled within a generation or two, the seeds for greater alliance between the educated class (i.e. monks from the Benedictine houses) and the various Germanic rulers had been sown, and as we get into the later 900's and 1000's, monks are the standard administrators for governments across Germany and France. This enabled the Pope to gain power over the kings, whose ministerial staffs were at least partly loyal to the Pope. But the general effect was to raise the level of bureaucracy over the most basic to non-existent level it was at before, and give each state some institutional memory as well as a pan-European perspective (the language was Latin, after all).

By the time of the Cluniacs, (~1100) monks were really riding high on the hog, living well, in great demand, and running affairs all over Europe. In parallel, Cantor emphasizes the enormous innovations conducted by William the Bastard, conqueror of Britain in 1066. He set up a government of unprecedented thoroughness and durability that offered order at the cost of relentless taxation, not to mention the reduction of the previous Anglo-Saxon nobility to serfdom. This renovation of Germanic institutions of law and government was to serve as the springboard for English power for centuries to come.

Cantor also mentions the discovery of the Code of Justinian as an epochal event in Europe, around this same period. This finding did not have much influence in England, but elsewhere on the continent, it quickly provided a whole new view of law and the legal profession. For a newly urbanizing culture, it provided a newly relevant and exceedingly detailed template of jurisprudence from the urban cultures of Rome and Byzantium. And for kings, it provided a ruler-centric vision of law, as the extension of the will of the emperor. Thus the distinction that still exists between English law, with its juries of commoners, and continental law, where judges run the whole show. For the urban elite, it provided a new profession- that of lawyer, which together with the university system, slowly propagated bureaucratic, legal, and scholarly skills beyond the abbey.

What is important in all of this is that our institutions are precious achievements. Government may be the casual target of unending grumbling, abuse and criticism. But virtually any government is better than none at all. Freedom is not the absence of government, but quite the opposite, given that we are each other's primary predators and irritators. The union of justice with power has been the principal achievement of great civilizations, and is what has allowed all the other benefits, advancements, technologies, arts, and sciences to grow like a garden of flowers from a secure and prosperous populace.

  • Jobs and work are a fundamental good.
  • Against anti-knowledge in economics.
  • "The bottom half of the income distribution in the United States has been completely shut off from economic growth since the 1970s"
  • "For babies born in 1980 — today’s 36-year-olds — the index of the American dream has fallen to 50 percent: Only half of them make as much money as their parents did."
  • Trauma and stuttering.
  • Post-truth ... say it ain't so!

Saturday, December 3, 2016

The Poisoned Pen

Jefferson and the Republicans had their own (early) version of FOX news.

I am reading the McCullough biography of John Adams, which is a real hagiography. But it is also well-written, packed with information and insightful in many respects. His portrait of Thomas Jefferson is particularly harsh, as would be natural because he and Adams became bitter antagonists. Jefferson's main tool in their fights was the press. Specifically, secret relationships with the National Gazette, and its successor, the Aurora General Advertiser.

The polical parties of that time broke down along centralizing, pro-government (Federalist) and pro-agrarian, decentralizing, and Southern (Republican / Democratic). The latter were also, at least in the person of Jefferson, much more enamored of the French Revolution. Adams immediately saw the mob nature of that revolution, so different from that of the Americans, and forsaw chaos as well as its eventual descent into dictatorship. But there were many other sources of conflict such as the basic party splits over Southern vs Northern interests and ideologies, personal enmities, and personal ambitions.

The vitriol that came pouring out, once the founding era was swept away and the two-party system was established, is truly disturbing to behold. Secretary of State Jefferson employed Phillip Freneau in the State Department as a translator, but with little work. Freneau spent his main energies as publisher of the National Gazette smearing Jefferson's (and James Madison's) enemies within the administration, including Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and George Washington. (On the other side, Hamilton gave his favored printer, John Fenno of the Gazette of the United States, a large government printing contract.)

They made a great deal of hay out of a long debate fostered by John Adams as vice president on the proper forms of address towards the president. Adams favored something a little more grand like his highness, or something of the kind. For this he was painted as being a monarchist and wanting to subvert the independence that had so recently been achieved. Also that his lengthy stay in Europe as ambassador to France, the Netherlands, and Britain may have turned his head.

The language of these attacks was often hyperbolic and scurrilous. A birthday party for Washington was described as "a forerunner of other monarchical vices." Adams was described as being among the men who proposed "the principles of monarchy and aristocracy, in opposition to the republican principles of the Union and the republican spirit of the people." There was a reference to the "corrupt sqadron of the Treasury," and to Hamilton as "a vile sycophant". The Federalists proposed laws that are "injurious to liberty and enslaving to the happiness of the people." And Republicans concluded that "our Constitution was galloping fast into Monarchy."

It was a combination of party rivalry and tribalism, along with honest fears that the fragile experiment of American self-government could, if entrusted to the wrong hands, or blown off course by a crisis, end in tears. Today, we have a more settled system, indeed well-neigh an imperial system with its own problems of vast size, corruption, and unmanageability. And, thanks to the poisoned press of our own age, a president-elect far from the founder's ideals.

A lot has been made of how the elite media was out of touch from the angry Trump voters. But Trump was covered incessantly during the campaign, with the helpless passivity of a star-struck media long-used to a commercial role and to reality-TV imperatives. Just as in the founder's day, there were political operatives pulling the strings behind the faux-news curtain, such as Roger Ailes and Steve Bannon- operatives whose regard for the system and nation as a whole took a distant back seat to their vitroloic personal and tribal campaigns.

For all the complaints about political correctness, which seems to be the animating animus of the alt-right troll brigade, political correctness was a stranger to this campaign, and we are now the worse for it. Civility and decorum are not just fusty relics of a puritanical age, but basic ingredients, even institutions, of an operating political system. Strength and manliness are not indicated by grossness of expression, nor are honesty and truthfulness. There was no better con man than the insurgent candidate, Trump, whose obvious contradictions, lies, and mean-ness seem to have been swallowed with equal relish by media and supporters alike with the complimentary condiment of "controversial".

When the going got really rough, during the Quasi-War with France in the late 1790's, Adams and the Federalist party passed the Alien and Sedition acts, which allowed the administration to jail and fine anyone, especially those in the media, who insulted the President or otherwise made what were deemed false statements critical of the government. And Adams has rightly been pilloried then and since for not vetoing this obviously unconstitutional legislation, hardly a decade after passage of the first amendment.

So the internet is not a new thing, in its capacity to foster rumors, spread lies and invective, and keep its readers in thrall to a mean-spirited and partisan echo chamber. We have survived such media from the start. But that doesn't mean it isn't a problem. The US was blessed with a special period of media civility in the mid-twentieth century, due to the cultural bonds of the world wars and depression, and also to the uniquely restrictive technical landscape of radio and TV, which only allowed a few channels and thus special federal rules for equal time and public interest in media behavior. That was a time when corporatism in the media industry largely served the stability of political system.

Now is different, and we need to think hard about ways to preserve some sanity in a media landscape so incredibly diverse and free, yet at the same time so starved of resources that in-depth reporting, balanced perspectives, and public interest investigations are disturbingly scarce. Where corporatism has turned the media into a thoughtless race for clicks, if not the plaything of retrograde billionaires, and where trolls use twitter to win political office. We need to fight against this creeping post-truth condition, which was a continues to be exemplified by the information practices of the Soviet, and now Russian, state.

While the first amendment prohibits government from meddling with the freedom of other's speech, it does not prohibit it from sponsoring public interest media. We need a segment of distinterested media that is not driven by an ulterior agenda such as greed, partisanship, or more obscure ideology. Non-profits would be ideal purveyors of this, but they do not on their own have the resources to address this quite large need. The public providers PBS and NPR stand as great accomplishments of the last fifty years. This is where we can build a better media landscape, perhaps expanding them into print and enhanced, deeper reporting. The BBC is a model of such expansion, to evolve towards broader news organizations.

The danger, of course, is that the wrong hands at the top could break down the barriers of independence at these institutions, and turn them into especially powerful cudgels of partisan warfare- new Ministries of Truth. On the other hand, even if not explicitly directed by the government, their government funding might make them reluctant to look too deeply into offical corruption and instritutional breakdowns. One can already see this in the tendency of PBS and NPR news to avoid breaking dramatic stories about government problems. Yet who broke the Flint water crisis story? It was the ACLU, reported by NPR affiliate Michigan Radio.

The landscape we face now desperately needs better media. Abigail Adams wrote a remarkable passage to Thomas Jefferson late in his presidency, after a newspaper writer whom he had previously supported and colluded with to smear John Adams turned against him, extorted him and exposed Jefferson's correspondence as well as his relationship with Sally Hemmings:
"The serpent you cherished and warmed, bit the hand that nourished him, and gave you sufficient specimens of his talents, his gratitude, his justice, and his truth. When such vipers are let loose upon society, all distinction between virtue and vice are leveled, all respect for character lost."