Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Democratic Index and Public Media by Robert W. Chesney

The Economist is a business magazine that keenly supports capitalism, deregulation and privatization of the economy and is usually unsympathetic towards large public sectors, labor unions, or anything that smacks of socialism. [ My brother buys me a subscription to this magazine so I am quite familiar with how apparently ignorant and narrow their point of view often is.] But every year it produces a highly acclaimed Democracy Index, which ranks all nations of the world on the basis of how democratic they are. In 2011 only twenty-five nations qualified as democratic. The criteria are: electoral process and pluralism, functioning of government, political participation, political culture, and civil liberties. The United States ranks nineteenth by these criteria.

Most of the eighteen nations ranking higher than the U.S. had government media subsidies on a per capital basis at least ten or twenty times that of the United States. The top four nations on the list, the most democratic- Norway ($130 per capita public funding of non-commercial media), Iceland ($45), Denmark ($109) and Sweden ($104) include two of the top three per capital media subsidizers in the world, and the other two are dramatically ahead of the United States ($1.42).

These are the freest, most democratic nations on earth according to The Economist, and they all have perfect or near-perfect scores on civil liberties.  The United States is tied for the lowest civil liberties score among the twenty-five democracies, and on this issues trails twenty nations described as “flawed democracies" in The Economist’s rankings.

Although all of the Democracy Index criteria implicitly depend to a large extent upon having a strong press system –  the report specifically discusses press freedom as a crucial indicator of democracy –freedom of the press itself is not one of the six measured variables. Fortunately, there is a more direct source on press freedom. The Democracy Index can be supplemented with the research of Freedom House, an American organization created in the 1940s to oppose totalitarianism of the left and right, which with the coming of the Cold War emphasized the threat of left-wing governments to freedom.  Freedom House is very much an establishment organization, with close ties to prominent American political and economic personages.  Every year it ranks the nations of the world on the basis of how free and effective their press systems are.  Its research is detailed and sophisticated, particularly concerned with any government meddling whatsoever with private news media.   For that reason, all communist nations tend to rank in a virtual tie for dead last as having the least free press systems in the world.  Freedom House is second to none when it comes to having sensitive antennae to detect government meddling with the existence or prerogatives of private news media.

Freedom House hardly favors the home team. In 2011 it ranked the United States as being tied with the Czech Republic as having the twenty-second freest press system in the world. America is ranked so low because of failures to protect sources and because of the massive economic cutbacks in the newsroom (e.g. the number of paid journalists working for all media is down 40-50% since  1980).

Freedom House’s list is dominated by the democratic nations with the very largest per capita journalism subsidies in the world.  The top nations listed by Freedom House are the same nations that top The Economists Democracy Index, and all rank among the top per capita press subsidizers in the world. In fact, the lists match to a remarkable extent. That should be  no surprise, as one would expect the nations with the freest and best press systems to rank as the most democratic nations .What is usually missing from the narratives of both The Economist and Freedom House is that the nations with the freest press systems are also the nations that make the greatest public investment in journalism and therefore provide the basis for being strong democracies.

One other annual survey supports the Democracy Index and the Freedom House rankings. Since 2002 Reporters Without Borders has produced a highly respected annual world press freedom index that ranks all nations in terms of how freely journalists can go about their work without direct or indirect attacks.  The survey does not address the quality of journalism, but only how unconstrained journalists journalists are to cover their communities and beats without violence or harassment. The United States plummeted to forty-seventh in the world in 2012, largely because of the mushrooming practice of police arresting and sometimes beating up journalists who dare to cover and report on public demonstrations. As journalism weakens, the state has less fear of harassing members of the Fourth Estate, who are seen as unduly interested in issues the state prefers not to be covered. The dozen or so nations that scored well above the rest of the world in terms of press freedom were pretty much the exact same nations that dominated the other lists, those that have the largest public investments in journalism.

Research also demonstrates that in those democratic nations with well-funded non-commercial broadcasting systems, political knowledge is higher than in nations without them and the information gap between the rich and the poor is much smaller. Public service broadcasters tend to do far more election campaign reporting than their commercial counterparts. Those nations with strong public broadcasting have more substantive campaign coverage as well: news about policy that can help inform citizens about the relative merits of a political party or particular candidate. The more public support there is for journalism, the less journalist kow-tow to the government in power.

Consider American journalism as it really exists today in the almost complete absence of significant public support. Elections are a farce. Local elections, indeed nearly all non-presidential elections, barely get any news coverage, and what coverage they do get is generally inane, often driven by the TV ads and comprised of assessments of PR strategies, gaffes, and polling results. As for the presidential election, its coverage is as endless as it is meaningless. Those with the most money to purchase the most ads dominate the political discourse. Few people have any more ideas about the candidates or the issues than what they read or hear as a headline, or get from the PR agents who now generate as much as 85% of news. The logical course for most people is to opt out, rather than be drowned in a pool of slime, spin, clichés, and idiocy. Where has “the marketplace of news” left  freedom, democracy and governance in this country?

If the U.S. Federal government subsidized journalism today at the same level of GDP that it did in the early days of the Republic and throughout the nineteenth century it would have to invest in the neighborhood of $30 to $35 billion annually.

As late as 1910, when postmaster Albert Burleson questioned the need for newspaper and magazine postal subsidies, he was roundly dismissed as someone who knew little about news industry economics. To Americans of all political persuasions –and especially to progressive political movements like the abolitionists, the populists, and the suffragists – even during the most laissez-faire periods in American history, the necessity of a large public investment in journalism was a given. Today public broadcasting receives approximately $1 billion in public support, only a small portion of which goes to journalism and most of that is provided by State and local governments and universities, with only about $400 million coming from the federal government.

There is, of course, one group that definitely benefits from the lack of journalism and information inequality in this country. They do not wish to have their privileges or affairs examined closely, either in politics or commerce. The Wall Street banks, energy corporations, health insurance firms, drug companies, defense contractors, agribusinesses – powerful interests of all sorts- do not want their operations or their cozy relations with the government exposed for all to see, nor do the politicians who benefit from these relationships. These powerful forces oppose anything (whether it be in the form of tax or telecommunications legislation or rule-making)  that would open and enhance our news media and they aggressively oppose any campaign for press subsidies like public, non-commercial media or citizenship news vouchers.

Not all wealthy people are content with a world that lacks democratic journalism. True free-market capitalism would even benefit from a strong press system. But none of the rich have a material stake in pushing the cause, so it founders.  Our political system is so corrupt that it is losing the capacity to address problems that threaten its own existence. Instead, the main issues placed before policy makers are making what seem like endless cuts in social programs, lower taxes on business and the wealthy, ignoring environmental protections, increasing “national security” spending, and corporate deregulation. The hand of unrestrained capital seems heavier and heavier on the steering wheel of public welfare, taking us to places farther and farther off the democratic grid.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

The End of Innocence by Lisa Downing

The search for answers to the enigma of the child who kills continues unabated. About the demonizing media treatment of Thompson and Venables, Blake Morrison wrote: “Evil is no answer.  That’s the one of the lessons of the Bulger case .  .  . Time to grow up. Evil won’t do.”  Similarly, if rejection of one-dimensional explanations is in order, it is also the case that the presumption of innocence as the default character of children simply will not do either.

Childhood as a construct needs to be freed from the specter of its regressive Victorian framing that conceptualizes children as a class whose nature is defined – and constrained – by their innocence.  Children need to emerge as people.

Thirdly, I would contend that it will  simply not do to continue unquestioningly to assume the positive influence of the institution of “the family,” if enacted in its current, culturally ideal, nuclear form.  The cause of violent behavior in young people is repeatedly laid at the feet of families who fall short of the normative ideal, especially divorced, single-parent, alcoholic, abusive, or economically deprived families.  While there may be causative links between abuse and delinquency, this is not the whole picture.  Such a charge is proven to be patently inaccurate in the cases of the Columbine school shooters Harris and Klebold, who both had educated, boundary-setting, financially comfortable, happily married parents –the very opposite of the stereotype of the family that would produce a young killer.

It may be worth considering instead the proposal that the nuclear family itself is a problematic institution, based as it is on the paradigm of hierarchy and dominance, and indeed of ownership. (The common perception that children belong to and with their mothers as a matter of both nature and right accounted for Mary Bell’s extended family leaving the little girl in her mother’s charge, despite their serious worries over the suspicion that, on at least four occasions, Betty Bell had tried to kill Mary.)

 Radical feminist Shulamith Firestone made the liberation of children from ownership by parents one of the central tenets of her imagined postpatriarchal utopia.  In a chapter entitled “Down with Childhood,” she describes how the “cult of childhood” is not in the interest of children’s well-being, as we like to imagine, but rather in the service of shoring up small, self-centered family units in which children are important because they are the “product of that unit, the reason for its maintenance” and the guarantors of the hierarchy on which it rests, since they are by definition at the very bottom of the heap.  She further argues, in an audacious move that resonates particularly powerfully with our discussion of kids who kill, that children are so trapped, so oppressed by the wishful fantasies that adults project onto them, and so powerless to resist them owing to their physical weakness and lack of full citizen status, that “childhood is hell” and “the result is the insecure and therefore aggressive/defensive, often obnoxious little person we call a child.”

For Firestone, the nature of the bond that ties woman and child so closely together “is no more than shared oppression,” and oppression, moreover, that is all the more devastating and hard to rebut for being couched in the phraseology of ‘cute,’ the very projected characteristic that accounts for the excessive vilification of those child and woman killers who fail –or refuse – to live up to it.

The so common as to be clichéd “what about the children? Or “think of the children” rhetoric beloved of the tabloid press, which made intelligible the discourses about James Bulger as the archetype of “ideal child” and ideal victim, does not benefit actual living young people, but serves instead to shore up conservative beliefs about what society should look like and what childhood means, as queer theorist Lee Edelman has devastatingly argued.

What “The Child” signifies, according to Edelman, is a cipher for the preservation of the Anglo-American conservative order. It encourages compulsory heterosexuality and a pro-reproductive social imperative; it ensures homophobia, as discourses of gay male sexuality so often collapse onto discourses of pedophilia; and it perpetuates misogyny, promoting the narrow idea about woman’s social roles and the biological and cultural “rightness” of maternity.

The cases discussed in this chapter show up the necessity to deconstruct and rethink both the category of “the child” with regard to the question of agency, individuality, violence, and citizenship, and the category of “the murderer.” As has been seen throughout this book, the myth of the exceptional individual exculpates society and scapegoats the individual in the case of male adult murderers, obviating the need for class-based analysis.  Feminists have repeatedly pointed this out, claiming that male perpetrated murders are in fact extreme symptoms of a mainstream violence/rape culture.  Looking at the treatment of woman killers and of kids who kill alongside the representation of male adult murderers, as I have been doing, throws into relief and instance of colossal cultural hypocrisy.

 .  .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .

The question of the original and the copy in the case of high school killings (in the 10 years following Columbine there were more than 80 in the U.S.)  is one of the themes explored in the acclaimed novel by Lionel Shriver We Need To Talk About Kevin (2003). The novel is narrated from the point of view of Eva, the mother of the eponymous high school mass killer. The novel is referential of real-life school killings and shows a familiarity with media discourses and psychological theories surrounding child-killers. It interrogates, and fails to provide an answer to, the question of why the figure of the high school killer came into vogue.

 One theory proposed in the novel is that the badge of “high school killer” offers self-definition to those at a notoriously difficult life stage. Shriver has Eva write: “He’s found himself, as they said in my day. Now he doesn’t have to worry about whether he’s a freak or a geek, a grind or a jock or a nerd. He doesn’t have to worry if he’s gay. He’s a murderer.” The idea is thereby raised that the subjective identity contained in the label of “murderer” has become an option for children, as well as for adults, in the context of the high school killing trend. And, in a culture of peer-regulated obsession with “coolness,” the role of murderer is “cooler” than any other of the available roles:

Every time Kevin takes another bow as Evil Incarnate, he swells a little larger. Each slander slewed in his direction –nihilistic, morally destitute, depraved, degenerate, or debased – bulks his scrawny frame better than my cheese sandwiches ever did.

School massacres are so shocking, at least in part, because of the idealized notion to which culture clings that school is a safe, protective, nurturing environment. In fact, schools are hothouses of power struggles, iniquities, and class divisions, pretty much mirroring those of culture at large, but with immature and disenfranchised players. Shriver’s book does not shy away from challenging our comfortable assumptions about the institutions of childhood, maternity, paternity, and school. It allows for a reading that suggests that questioning the innate benevolence of these institutions may be a more productive endeavor than continuing to attempt to “solve” the secret riddle of the making of the individual aberrant killer.

.   .   .   .   .

The reduction of complexity in the case of the murdering subject is a tendency identified in discourses about all the murders discussed in this book. The artist-killer, the sex-beast, the unnatural child-hating woman, the “random” serial killer: these are archetypes in the history of discourses about the murderer that are seldom challenged, and that function to make the persona of a given murderer fixed, singular, and one dimensional. On the one hand many the murderers discussed are exceptional. Civil servants and trade union activists are not usually prolific homicidal necrophiles, as Dennis Nilsen was. Woman who do sex work do not usually commit the kinds of killings that Wuornos did. Most children do not set out to  murder other children. However, focusing on this exceptionality as proof of an incomprehensible “other” is a red herring. So too is focusing on the unfathomable nature of the crimes as reflections of the nineteenth-century “pure act,” often translated into the twentieth-century discourse of “randomness” ascribed to the serial killer and the psychopath. (I have argued that the attempt to ensure the label of “serial killer” for Wournos was designed to render her acts meaningless and obviate the necessity to speak truth to power and consider her crimes in the light of her justifiable anger (at being raped) and her social disenfranchisement..) The insistence upon these subjectifying stereotypes is thus a way of obviating what is really exceptional about these cases – that they are aberrant reactions to, and symptoms of, normative and normalizing culture, not the acts of wholly incomprehensible monsters, madmen/madwomen, or geniuses. To borrow a term from Jacques Lacan, the murderer may be best understood as an example of “extimacy.” That is, as the kernel of otherness that is interior to – at the heart of- our own culture, intimate but necessarily disavowed in order to maintain a semblance of decency.

I close ,  with the assertion of my solemn and sobering belief that we all, whatever our gender, age, sexuality, ethnicity, or economic class, could, in some circumstances, ourselves become murderers. It is also my conviction that, in such an extreme situation, we could find ourselves treated very differently depending upon our particular status within those hierarchical categories. Both of these propositions, however, are ones that “civilized” culture, which shores up its unassailable rectitude by the creation of abjected ‘others,’ refuses absolutely to own.

Friday, May 10, 2013

The Iran Problem by David Crist

An Iranian antiship missle is launched during an exercise near the Strait of Hormuz.  Iran has developed an unorthodox military force capable of inflicting significant damage to the U.S. Navy in the event of a new war in the Persian Gulf.

The Iran problem is an enduring constant in American foreign policy.  Over the decades, every administration has had its moments with Iran.  The country has been too strategically important to ignore.  Various administrations have tried to woo it back into the Western fold, or talk of replacing the Islamic Republic with one more to Washington’s liking but - usually following the narrow focus of a one-way lecture on American demands- the results have been miserable.  In the final analysis, Iran simply rejects any vision of the Middle East as imposed by the will of the United States. A famous quote by Ayatollah Khomeini puts it succinctly: “We will resist America until our last breath.”

Unfortunately, Washington has helped perpetuate the animosity. The United States has displayed a callous disregard for Iranian grievances and security concerns.  Giving a medal to a ship’s captain who just inadvertently killed 290 civilians and then wondering why Iran might harbor resentment is just the most obvious example of American obtuseness.  An ill-conceived intervention in the Lebanese Civil War against the Shia, while at the same time backing Iraq, threatened the new Iranian government.  Tehran’s response, to level a building full of marines and to take American hostages, still colors American thinking, equally understandably.  Washington invariably took the wrong course with Iran. When diplomatic openings appeared, hardliners refused to talk and advocated overthrowing the Islamic Republic.  When Iran killed U.S. soldiers and marines in Lebanon and Iraq, successive administrations showed timidity when hard-liners called for retribution.

Glimmers of optimism invariably give way to the smell of cordite and talk of war. In 2012, the prospects for conflict peaked again.  Seasoned, pragmatic Iran watchers called for tougher sanctions to punish Iranian intransigence regarding its nuclear program. But punishing Iran for its intransigence  also hardens Iranian Iranian leaders and justifies in their minds the need for a nuclear program, both for increased self-sufficiency and as a deterrent against Western aggression.  Within the U.S. Administration, discussions in the White House Situation Room turned to the possibility of pressing for sanctions against Iran’s central bank.  As this is the means by which Iran receives payment for its oil exports, this would be a radical act, tantamount to an embargo of Iranian oil. “Iran could see it as a de facto act of war,” said one senior Obama administration representative.

Unfortunately, now neither side has much desire to work to bridge their differences. Distrust permeates the relationship. Three decades of twilight war have hardened both sides. When someone within the fractured governing class in Tehran reached out to the American president, the United States was unwilling to accept anything but capitulation. When President Obama made a heartfelt opening, a smug Iranian leadership viewed it as a ruse or the gesture of a weak leader. Iran spurned him. Obama fell back on sanctions and CENTCOM; Iran fell back into its comfortable bed of terrorism and war-mongering.  Soon it may no longer be twilight; the light is dimming,  fog is rolling in, the night is approaching.