Tuesday 2 July 2019

Un-Friending The People.

The People's "Friend": In this masterpiece of revolutionary propaganda, the homicidal political psychopath, Jean-Paul Marat, has been transformed by Jacques-Louis David, the French Revolution's most accomplished artist, into a martyred hero of the ordinary people of Paris. Thanks to Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook, the ignorant and the angry no longer need a radical 'friend' with a printing press to amplify their voices. Today they can change the world with a fingertip.

BEN MORGAN IS RIGHT: “This is the first time in history that people with so little competence can so powerfully enter the civic discourse.” The consequences of this undeniable fact, for ourselves as citizens, and for our entire democratic political culture, are huge. When noise equals money, and ignorance has been given such a mighty amplifier as the Internet, then democracy, as a viable system of government, must come under enormous pressure.

The dangers of giving the angry and ignorant their own media outlet was demonstrated most powerfully in the early 1790s, just as the French Revolution was entering its “Reign of Terror”.

The radical political philosopher, physician and noted scientist, Jean-Paul Marat, recognising the rising power of the poorest people of Paris, founded a newspaper dedicated to both arousing and expressing their most extreme political passions. In a sinister anticipation of the very worst aspects of today’s social media, Marat’s Friend of The People turned rumour into fact and gave voice to the poverty-stricken masses most bloodthirsty impulses. To be denounced on the pages of Marat’s “fake news”-paper very quickly became the equivalent of a death sentence. That Marat, himself, was afflicted with an excruciating skin disease did nothing to calm his homicidal fury towards any person or group he judged to be an enemy of the people.

It was at Marat’s instigation that the revolutionary militia – known as the National Guard – carried out the infamous “September Massacres” of 1792. Over the course of a week National Guardsmen, their numbers augmented by the Paris poor, broke into the capital’s prisons and butchered more than a thousand prisoners. Marat had told his readers that the jails of Paris were full of aristocrats ready to assist the counter-revolutionary forces massing on France’s borders. To save the revolution, he declared, they must all be pre-emptively executed. Some of the victims were, indeed, political prisoners awaiting trial. Most, however, were common criminals. Even by the grisly standards of eighteenth century Europe, the grotesque horror of the September Massacres was profoundly shocking.

Marat’s next victims were the “Girondins”, a faction of the National Assembly whom he suspected of excessive moderation. The Friend of the People’s relentless campaigning convinced Marat’s readers that the Girondins were plotting against the Revolution. In short order, his allies in the National Assembly, the radical Jacobin faction, had the Girondins arrested, tried before the Revolutionary Tribunal, declared guilty, and guillotined.

Marat’s bloody reign was brought to an abrupt end by a young Girondin sympathiser called Charlotte Corday, who famously stabbed him to death in his medicinal bath, after gaining access to the “people’s friend” by passing herself off as an anti-Girondin informant. Secretly relieved to be rid of their dangerous journalistic demagogue, the Jacobins transformed Marat into the Revolution’s first great martyr. The painting entitled The Death of Marat, executed by the era’s most accomplished artist, Jacques-Louis David, is an acknowledged masterpiece of revolutionary propaganda.

This cautionary historical tale records only the consequences of a single radical intellectual’s decision to align himself wholeheartedly with the least educated and most desperate elements of a society gripped by revolutionary change. The important difference between Marat’s Friend of the People and Facebook is that, in order to work its malign political magic, the former still required the participation of a guiding editorial hand, a printers’ workshop, and a host of newspaper sellers. Contemporary social media has done away with all these intermediaries. Today, the people need no friend, they can speak for themselves.

These individual voices, algorithmically assembled into vast aggregations of the like-minded, now possess the power to dictate the editorial policies of the world’s newspapers and broadcasting networks. Dependent on the electronic devices of these volatile and easily bored consumers for their economic survival, the legacy media has all but given up on the notion that a newspaper, magazine, radio station or television network should lead and inform public opinion. This clear political goal, which Marat, himself, would have endorsed – albeit in relation to the Parisians’ most extreme opinions – has been supplemented by the media’s existential need to fashion itself into a politically agnostic parasite. The new media organism’s only hope of sustaining itself is to feast, with cynical efficiency, on the madness and mania of the masses, and then excrete it back to them.

With the ignorance and prejudices of the masses setting the social and political tone, the desperation and disdain of well-educated and culturally sophisticated managers and professionals – the people who actually keep a modern, technologically-driven society functioning – is easily imagined.

Gone are the days when these folk were able to filter out the masses’ mania and madness from the news media; when the political parties they largely controlled could aggregate a coherent policy agenda with which to guide an otherwise inchoate electorate. Confronted with such monumental stupidity in every sphere: politics, medicine, science; is it any wonder that the technocrats in charge have learned how to transform the self-same social media which has undermined the guided democracy of the past into the undisclosed vector of its destruction in the present?

The covert manipulation of elections by means of social media has now reached such a level of sophistication that those lacking the skills to participate are rendered utterly irrelevant to the electoral process – except as window-dressing. The impact of these techniques is already evident in the deep organic political crisis currently gripping the United Kingdom. Brexit, that great victory of the ignorant and the angry, has set the UK up for a revolution of its own. A similar fate looks set to overwhelm the United States in the aftermath of the 2020 presidential elections.

Will these revolts throw up their own versions of Jean-Paul Marat? Of course. Only this time the people will not see him. And he will not be their friend.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 2 July 2019.


rouppe said...

Well one could argue that Marat never was their friend, only a cynical manipulator.

Regarding your prediction of "revolution" in the UK after Brexit and after the US Presidential election I would say this: if Brexit occurs, and if Trump wins again, then yes, I also think there will be extreme violence displayed. But it won't be revolution, it will simply be anarchy. Similar to the anarchy shown after Trump's initial win.

If someone else (Biden?) won the US election, the right wouldn't riot in the street destroying property and lives. This will only happen if Trump wins, and you can draw your own conclusions about the leanings of any rioters in that event.

Similarly with Brexit. The EU are treating the UK worse than any other non-EU country they interact with. That should be a sign that the EU is toxic. I liken it to Aron Ralston's experience. Having found yourself stuck in a fatal situation, do you take action that is damaging and painful in the short term but saves your life, or simply let yourself remain trapped, and progressively less able to escape?

John Hurley said...

Recently the American social psychologist Jonathan Haidt described how the social sciences reproduce their intolerant political agenda. Like Antony Jay and the BBC, Haidt knows his subject from the inside. Indeed, he presented his criticisms at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, in January 2011.[36] Haidt argued that the discipline of social psychology is a “tribal-moral society” that shuts out research and researchers likely to produce results that conflict with liberal (i.e. socialist) beliefs.

Haidt argues that religious behaviour is adaptive in that it binds society together but also the educated are as guilty as anyone else and we are seeing that now in so far as humanities departments have sacred values.

Jens Meder said...

For the time being, can we not hope that the dangers of totalitarianism and/or destructive anarchism resulting from revolutionary dreams of myopically ignorant masses -
can be prevented through more widespread impartial secular (material) facts and evidence (not ideology or blind faith) based education?

Would not a political effort towards at least a minimally meaningful level of personal (retirement) capital ownership by all citizens eventually defuse the intensifying polarization and apparent enmity between "haves" and "have-nots" ?

Through a systematic effort, would not an overwhelmingly "middle class bourgeois" society not only be achievable, but represent also the potentially most fair and stable way of democracy imaginable ?

Archduke Piccolo said...

Perhaps we should simply accept that 'people with so little competence can so powerfully enter political discourse.' After all, if we are really serious about democracy, then we have to accept that it be participatory. How do you participate?

And how do the incompetent become competent? By practice. Give them a chance to learn to participate in a meaningful manner. Simple expunging their voices will ensure their continued incompetence, their continued anger, and the continued choice between apathy, and adopting other, more forceful forms of communication.

Remember the line in Desiderata: "Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story."

I have to admit it: I, myself, really ought to take that last piece of advice.

Ion A. Dowman

greywarbler said...

I think that the comments so far present a popular dream of humankind - that factual information made available in a way that each group can understand will change undesirable behaviour for the better. If that worked after a century of education for all, we wouldn't have our present troubles. We are taught subjects like gospel and what school doesn't teach us, our friends and relatives will fill in gaps. Then a lot of people never change those certainties, they are anchor points for the psyche.

The incompetent have to want to become competent at thinking through the
reasons for actions, the justification, the ethics etc. It has to be presented right and shown to have a practical outcome and then maybe they will accede.

We should not be having revolutions now in the western world, we have bigger fish to fry at present or we will have no fish to fry. Stick to the knitting and encourage people to vote and have meetings where there is a free beer and sandwiches. It used to be against the law to treat, I think it was called. Now we need to bribe people to vote and take note.

David George said...

Social Media have taken on themselves the role of arbitrators of dialogue, usually under the guise of limiting offensive posts. Something very sinister is developing behind that pretext. I dare say you've all seen the Project Veritas exposure of Google and it's covert program to influence elections, remove content and de-ligitimise perfectly reasonable opinion on an ideological basis.
They (Google) You tube, Facebook and Twitter dominate social media and all appear to be singing from the same song sheet, the worrying aspect of that is that it will force fringe/extreme factions into alternative sites and more of an echo chamber. PM Adern's call for increasing censorship from Social Media is starting to look like a very bad idea.

Anonymous said...

Well, like everything, democracy has a limited shelf life. In the past, many people couldn't visualise a society where Christianity was not culturally dominant or where racial equality was a widely held value, but we live in one.

It's time to accept that democracy is turning poisonous and killing reason. Who knows what will come next, but come it will in good time.

Jens Meder said...

Anonymous - I don't think democracy or majority rule has a "limited shelf life", just like I don't think the New Testamemt's most relevant message of Christ "love - respect - thy neighbor" contained possibly in most relevant religions and philosophies - has run out of steam yet, but may actually become the most popular universal message in the world, when people realize that positive and constructive thoughts and actions with participation by all are actually more pleasant in action and results than fighting each other destructively.

Nick J said...

Rouppe, don't you think anarchy has already broken out? And it's not the spectre of Right wing violence, though that may follow. I'm referring to the open revolt against Trump by the organs of state as evidenced by Russiagate which is in itself a direct subversion of an elected president. I'm referring to the refusal of the Democratic party and supporters to accept that result and their attempts to block democratic process and to subvert wherever possible. I'm referring to the lawless antics of Antifa. I'm referring to the deliberate deplatforming of non Leftist views by the likes of Facebook. I'm referring to the Cascade of "false news" from the MSM. I'm referring to a parallel refusal of Remainers in UK.

Don't get me wrong, I don't support Trump or the Right. I do support democracy. What I've described above is an active rejection of a democratic result that is feeding on itself and encouraging breakdown. That's anarchy.

It's all too easy to blame Trump or May or the Martians. The madness of the response is that it will only be mirrored by the Right. The Left has set a precedent in it's anger and haste that will come back to haunt it.

Nick J said...

Jan, it's a nice vision, but I'd challenge you to drive around the likes of Manukau, Cannons Creek, Aranui and their equivalents in any NZ town. You can see second class in every visible way. Ask why is this here, and not in "middle class bourgeois" NZ?

Might I posit one possibility? Maybe you can't have Remuera without Manukau, one feeds the other?

Nick J said...

Grey, stick to the knitting...Tale of Two Cities? Nice.

Anonymous said...

"just like I don't think the New Testamemt's most relevant message of Christ "love - respect - thy neighbor" contained possibly in most relevant religions and philosophies - has run out of steam yet"

That's kind of the point. We still have vestigial Christianity as part of the common culture, even though that religion has nowhere near the social and cultural importance it once had. Same goes with democracy. We'll keep a bunch of things, but it won't be a democratic society, just as current society is not a Christian society.

Jens Meder said...

Well, Anonymous.
Since I believe we all - except the anarchist dreamers - prefer and believe in the rule of law, you can say that all governments are either fascist - or at least semi-fascist - if they periodically submit themselves to a free vote which can adjust and alter any laws.

But is the latter - a majority verdict - not democracy ?

John Hurley said...

Social media now allows everybody to enter the civic discourse no matter how uneducated or uninformed.
Can anyone read this opinion piece by Dame Anne Salmond without agreeing that it contains a deliberate lie (wishful thinking?)

One reason we can't trust the academics is that they mix truth with activism.

greywarbler said...

Maybe you cant have Remuera with Manukau posits NickJ.

Perhaps Manukau comes from a tradition that is firmly related to the land and the physical and spiritual side of it, and work is something that you do to produce the necessities of life.

And Remuera comes from the development of capitalism, the replacement of the physical barter with a piece of paper, a promissory note, that can be passed to someone else as payment for another promissory note or something physical. Then the piece of paper becomes a sort of hologram for any number of things, a magical thing that when you take it out of your pocket turns into anything you want. Looked at that way money is disturbingly
ephemeral. It is not tied to seasons, like food, or physical hard work personally done or traded with somebody else in a food-artifact trade.

Money used to be linked to gold which is a physical thing that is eternally fascinating because of its seemingly eternal properties. But gold was too limiting, the magic of promises written down was so much greater. Once one realises the power and magic of money and can utilise it, the sky's the limit. Once there was international agreement about money and finance and how to make transactions according to that agreement, there was a break from grassroots thinking which is accelerating with IT.

I think that realisation and the skills to exploit that knowledge, is the difference between Manukau and Remuera.

Tauhei Notts said...

Chris Trotter's piece about the newspapers excreting their trivialities upon their readers brought to mind a book by the irascible Bob Jones. He called it "True Facts" and it was a parody on modern day journalism. In behind the book's side splitting humour was an ugly truth.

David George said...

"is it any wonder that the technocrats in charge have learned how to transform the self-same social media which has undermined the guided democracy of the past into the undisclosed vector of its destruction in the present?"

Or, have the "technocrats in charge" taken the opportunity to override, suppress and ignore the interests and values of the people?
The Democrats presidential shortlist "debate" had them pushing policy that, while no doubt applauded in the Elite's favoured media, was so far removed from the core values of their constituency as to make then wholly unelectable. Effectively: open borders, free stuff for all, welfare and the right to vote for illegal aliens; one clown even wants free abortions for trans women (biological men) What the people see are aspirants more concerned with illegals and transvestites or whatever. Looks like Trump for 2020.

A really interesting article on these issues over on Quillette. Excerpt:
"To the extent that such international institutions embody these Anywhere views, it is worth noting that though many of them are clearly liberal in outlook, they exercise jurisdiction over people who have no democratic reciprocal control over them.
All this may well backfire in a terrible way against the moderate forms of liberalism which have served democracies so well since World War II. If there is one crucial lesson to be learned from the horrors of the 20th century, it is that the suppression of the right to self-determination—the source from which modern nationalism and modern democracy both emerge, reciprocally supporting each other—can push nationalism to erupt in violent, anti-democratic ways."

Jens Meder said...

Yes greywarbler - so would not the most needed, noble and effective thing to do-

to encourage, guide, educate and gently "push" the have-nots to participate in the magic of capitalism, i.e. wealth ownership creation and maintenance ?

If you don't know how that is done without robbery or gambling (wealth has to exist before you can rob it or gamble on it, and work alone does not help either, if you consume all your productivity hand-to-mouth without first creating/saving some capital out of it for reserves, trading, or useful/profitable investment) -

then it is high time to have some serious to-the-point discussions on it.

Nick J said...

KDave, I saw that Putin called the "liberal" idea dead. It's worth hearing how others see our Western mental malaise. For commentary try this http://cluborlov.blogspot.com/2019/07/the-death-of-liberal-idea.html?m=1

Nick J said...

So Jan, everybody learns how to be a middle class suit, being good capitalists. That's cool, who does the work?

Next up, we are all equally good at making the wealth, so we do. Et voila we all have the same...no more Remuera?

I read Marx years back, and very little of it stands the test of reality. Only one useful thing remains as a reasonable tool; relation to production. Those who control capital also control wealth creation and the division of the spoils. So Remuera tamely sits by and watches Manukau take their fair share of profits?

Jens Meder said...

It is over 40 years ago, when on the proposition to introduce a universal or compulsory personal wealth ownership creative savings rate into our taxation system to achieve property ownership potential by all in our property owning democracy, when I received the disappointing answer from Dr. Brash - that "as a liberal party (National), compulsory savings are unacceptable for us, but savings incentives would be acceptable...."

National eliminated our systematic (i.e. compulsory) savings based Universal NZ Super Fund a few years later.

So indeed, Putin might be right - We have compulsory taxes, basic education, traffic rules etc. already, so since under free market libertarian economics increasing socio-economic polarization into Haves and Have-nots is inevitable - especially when consumption on credit is encouraged by both capitalists and public opinion - excessive liberalism will not lead to widening wealth ownership by have-nots - and the future is not in the direction of more liberalism, but in more disciplined liberalism. (Or perhaps in more liberalized fascism?)

And don't worry Nick J. If something needs to be done, it is the capitalists who got the wealth to compete for the services of those willing to work, and if there are none left in NZ, there are still plenty of them in foreign lands.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"Social Media have taken on themselves the role of arbitrators of dialogue, usually under the guise of limiting offensive posts. Something very sinister is developing behind that pretext."

Social media are companies which have developed a platform and algorithms and all the rest that goes with that, which you use if you agree to abide by their rules. It is not censorship – only the government can censor you. Facebook are essentially publishers and you cannot force publishers to publish stuff they don't want to. Anyone is perfectly free to set up their own damned platform and say whatever the hell they like, and that hero of the right Jordan Peterson has set up exactly that. So all you have to do is go there.

David George said...

Thanks for the tip GS but I'm already signed up on Thinkspot although it's only in Beta (trial) mode at the mo. The intention is for it not to become an echo chamber and feature articles and feature articles and to foster interest from across the spectrum.
The issue is way bigger than social media as the Gadi Taub (link above) article makes clear.
There is a powerful trend towards the de-legitimisation of the people; their democratic rights, interests, values and traditions to be devalued, ridiculed and replaced.
A couple of local examples: the attacks on Don Brash as a Far Right extremist for his views on race based representation. When put to the vote the people overwhelmingly (about 75%) rejected separatism and supported the fundamental principle of equality before the law. That would indicate that, far from being far right he is a centrist. That didn't stop the usual suspects declaring a "failure of democracy". Or PM Adern bizarrely and maliciously linking those genuinely concerned (the Nats among others) with the UN immigration pact as far right nutters/Nazis/supremacists.
Since you've been following Jordan Peterson you will be aware of his concerns with the polarisation within politics and social discourse and of his recent efforts in Washington. Excerpt.

The Washington trip (see News for June 25, below) appeared to go extremely well. I met individually with a number of congressmen and senators, and then had dinner with 10 Republicans and 10 Democrats, along with Gregg Hurwitz, who has been involved with Future Majority, an organization trying to promote a centrist/classic liberal narrative among Democrats, and who has been successful in the attempt to promote victory among about 20 "New" Dems during the last congressional election (centrist and moderate, as opposed to the radical Justice Democrats, who fared comparatively badly). We had everyone around the table speak for five minutes about their motivation for running for office, their frustration with the current state of political dialogue -- asking them all to stay personal and tell their stories. I found the entire group admirable (and have certainly been in similar situations, most memorably with the Canadian Senate, where that was clearly not the case). To a man (or woman) all the congressmen were driven to run by duty, either familial, religious or military, and expressed the deepest of concern for their constituents, Republican and Democrat alike, regardless of their own party affiliation. It seemed to me and to the other observers that there was a palpable sense of relief for all concerned as a consequence of meeting across the aisle, so to speak, and having a chance to both speak freely and to see members across the house in their human guise, instead of mere representatives of the generic enemy. We are planning a repeat in September.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Ah Kiwi Dave, you conservatives seem really fragile at the moment. Has anyone in the government stopped Brash from speaking? I don't think so. We certainly hear enough from him for someone who's been de-legitimised – so he's hardly been discriminated against. He's just been the subject of robust debate. By politicians who tend to go in for that sort of thing a lot.
And God help us all, you cannot take Jordan Peterson's word on anything political. There is no such thing as a radical justice Democrat (Whatever that is.) in the US. Those who are accused of such would be considered centrist anywhere outside of the US, and by any sensible person who wasn't Jordan Peterson. Pretty much any of them would slot into the National party here. It's only the extreme right – which Republicans have now become – which categorises them as anything else. And I suspect that half of that at least is deliberate in order to scare the US electorate, which is a damn sight more moderate than its elected representatives.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

See here's the thing Kiwi Dave, conservatives seem to be able to SJW and loony left as much as they like, but of course as soon as someone in the context of a robust debate because your man a racist you get all hurt. I mean just look at Arderne and Ocasio - Cortez. "They're too young, they're girls, they don't know anything, one of them has had the temerity to have a child. Why should you get all upset about Arderne's kid when the last National Prime Minister had what – six? Why should you get upset about someone lacking a bit of experience, particularly a woman, when Maggie Barry had absolutely none. What provides me with a load of innocent amusement is that Ocasio - Cortez is making so-called "experienced" politicians look stupid, which many of them are I must confess so it's not necessarily difficult. Seems to me the attacks only confirm that you think they are dangerous.:)
I think the main reason that your man Brash couldn't hack it as a politician was that coming from the public service and being a mandarin he was expecting everyone to defer to him and his opinions, and simply couldn't take the cut and thrust. I bet you conservatives are really sorry you invented the term 'snowflake' these days.