jimsleeper.com » George Soros and me on our public sphere

George Soros and me on our public sphere

user-picBy Jim Sleeper – September 8, 2011, 10:55AM

As we try to make sense of the Republican presidential candidates’ debate, and of Barack Obama’s long belated, once-bumped, high-stakes speech on jobs – it might help to read George Soros’ frightening assessment of the American public sphere. Too few noticed his warning when he published it last June, perhaps because he made the tactical error in burying the best of it a self-referential account of his early life and philanthropic goals.

I did notice it, though, because only a month earlier I’d published my own account of the collapse of our public sphere, “American Journalism in the Coils of Ressentiment, in a post that many also missed because I, too, made the tactical error of burying its best insights in a long review of William McGowan’s New York Times-bashing book.

Fortunately, Justin Peters, managing editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, rescued my essay from blogoblivion. Heartened, I sent it to Soros, whose minions responded with a form letter explaining that he’s preoccupied. No matter; now you can ponder these excerpts about the scary predicament we’re all in:


George Soros, New York Review of Books, 6/2011:

“The United States has been a democracy and open society since its founding. The idea that it will cease to be one seems preposterous; yet it is a very likely prospect. After September 11, the Bush administration exploited the very real fear generated by the terrorist attack, and by declaring “war on terror” was able to unite the nation behind the commander-in-chief, lead it to invade Iraq on false pretenses, and violate established standards of human rights….

“The war on terror forced me to reconsider the concept of open society. My experiences in the former Soviet Union had already taught me that the collapse of a closed society does not automatically lead to an open one; the collapse may be seemingly bottomless, to be followed by the emergence of a new regime that has a greater resemblance to the regime that collapsed than to an open society. Now I had to probe deeper into the concept of open society that I had adopted from Karl Popper in my student days, and I discovered a flaw in it.

“Popper had argued that free speech and critical thinking would lead to better laws and a better understanding of reality than any dogma. I came to realize that there was an unspoken assumption embedded in his argument, namely that the purpose of democratic discourse is to gain a better understanding of reality. [But] if thinking has a manipulative function as well as a cognitive one, then it may not be necessary to gain a better understanding of reality in order to obtain the laws one wants. There is a shortcut: “spinning” arguments and manipulating public opinion to get the desired results.

“Today our political discourse is primarily concerned with getting elected and staying in power. Popper’s hidden assumption that freedom of speech and thought will produce a better understanding of reality is valid only for the study of natural phenomena. Extending it to human affairs is part of what I have called the “Enlightenment fallacy.”

“As it happened, the political operatives of the Bush administration became aware of the Enlightenment fallacy long before I did. People like me, misguided by that fallacy, believed that the propaganda methods described in George Orwell’s 1984 could prevail only in a dictatorship. They knew better. Frank Luntz, the well-known right-wing political consultant, proudly acknowledged that he used 1984 as his textbook in designing his catchy slogans. And Karl Rove reportedly claimed that he didn’t have to study reality; he could create it.

“The adoption of Orwellian techniques gave the Republican propaganda machine a competitive advantage in electoral politics. The other side has tried to catch up with them but has been hampered by a lingering attachment to the pursuit of truth.

“Deliberately misleading propaganda techniques can destroy an open society. Nazi propaganda methods were powerful enough to destroy the Weimar Republic. Different but in some ways similar methods have been used in the United States and further refined. Although democracy has much deeper roots in America than in Germany, it is not immune to deliberate deception, as the Bush administration demonstrated…. .

“How can open society protect itself against dangerously deceptive arguments? Only by recognizing their existence and their power to influence reality by influencing people’s perceptions. People’s thinking is part of the reality they need to understand, and that makes the understanding of reality much harder than the philosophers of the Enlightenment imagined. They envisioned reason as something apart from reality, acting as a searchlight illuminating it.

“That is true for natural science but not human affairs. In political discourse we must learn to give precedence to the understanding of reality; otherwise the results will fail to conform to our expectations. Karl Popper took it for granted that the primary purpose of political discourse is the pursuit of truth. That is not the case now; therefore we must make it …. an explicit requirement for open society to prevail.

“I thought I had a convincing argument in favor of the truth. Look at the results of the Bush policies: they were designed to demonstrate America’s supremacy, and they achieved the exact opposite; American power and influence suffered a precipitous decline. This goes to show, I argued, that it is not enough to manipulate perceptions; it is important to understand how the world really works. In other words, the cognitive function must take precedence over the manipulative function….

“The election of President Obama in 2008 sent a powerful message to the world that the US is capable of radically changing course when it recognizes that it is on the wrong track. But the change was temporary: his election and inauguration were the high points of his presidency. Already the reelection of President Bush had convinced me that the malaise in American society went deeper than incompetent leadership. The American public was unwilling to face harsh reality and was positively asking to be deceived by demanding easy answers to difficult problems.

“The fate of the Obama presidency reinforced that conviction. Obama assumed the presidency in the midst of a financial crisis whose magnitude few people appreciated, and he was not among those few. But he did recognize that the American public was averse to facing harsh realities and he had great belief in his own charismatic powers….

“Consequently, he was reluctant to forthrightly blame the outgoing administration and went out of his way to avoid criticism and conflict. He resorted to what George Akerlof and Robert Shiller called the “confidence multiplier” in their influential book Animal Spirits. Accordingly, in the hope of moderating the recession, he painted a rosier picture of the economic situation than was justified.

“The tactic worked in making the recession shorter and shallower than would have been the case otherwise, but it had disastrous political consequences. The confidence multiplier is, in effect, one half of a reflexive feedback loop: a positive influence on people’s perceptions can have a positive feedback in its effects on the underlying economic reality. But if reality, for example the unemployment rate, fails to live up to expectations, confidence turns to disappointment and anger; that is the other half of the reflexive feedback loop, and that is what came to pass.

“The electorate showed little appreciation of Obama for moderating the recession because it was hardly aware of what he had done. By avoiding conflict Obama handed the initiative to the opposition, and the opposition had no incentive to cooperate. The Republican propaganda machine was able to convince people that the financial crisis was due to government failure, not market failure….

“The Republicans had good reason to take this line: it is a half-truth that advanced their political agenda. What is surprising is the extent of their success. The explanation lies partly in the power of Orwell’s Newspeak and partly in the aversion of the public to facing harsh realities.

“On the one hand, Newspeak is extremely difficult to contradict because it incorporates and thereby preempts its own contradiction, as when Fox News calls itself fair and balanced. Another trick is to accuse your opponent of the behavior of which you are guilty, like Fox News accusing me of being the puppet master of a media empire. Skillful practitioners always attack the strongest point of their opponent, like the Swiftboat ads attacking John Kerry’s Vietnam War record. Facts do not provide any protection, and rejecting an accusation may serve to have it repeated; but ignoring it can be very costly, as John Kerry discovered in the 2004 election.

“On the other hand, the pursuit of truth has lost much of its appeal. When reality is unpleasant, illusions offer an attractive escape route. In difficult times unscrupulous manipulators enjoy a competitive advantage over those who seek to confront reality. Nazi propaganda prevailed in the Weimar Republic because the public had been humiliated by military defeat and disoriented by runaway inflation. In its own quite different way, the American public has been subjected to somewhat comparable experiences, first by the terrorist attacks of September 11, and then by the financial crisis ….. With the rise of China occurring concurrently, the shift in power and influence has been dramatic.

“The two trends taken together–the reluctance to face harsh reality coupled with the refinement in the techniques of deception–explain why America is failing to meet the requirements of an open society. Apparently, a society needs to be successful in order to remain open.

“What can we do to preserve and reinvigorate open society in America? First, I should like to see efforts to help the public develop an immunity to Newspeak. Those who have been exposed to it from Nazi or Communist times have an allergic reaction to it; but the broad public is highly susceptible.

“Second, I should like to convince the American public of the merits of facing harsh reality…..

“But improving the quality of political discourse is not enough. We must also find the right policies to deal with the very real problems confronting the country: high unemployment and chronic budget and trade deficits. The financing of state and local governments is heading for a breakdown…..

“We need to undertake a profound rethinking of the workings of our political system and recognize that half-truths are misleading. The fact that your opponent is wrong does not make you right. We must come to terms with the fact that we live in an inherently imperfect society in which both markets and government regulations are bound to fall short of perfection. The task is to reduce the imperfections and make both private enterprise and government work better. That is the message I should like to find some way to deliver.”


And why do so many Americans want to be deceived? Soros gives part of the answer. Here’s another part:

Jim Sleeper, Talking Points Memo, May 11, 2011:

“The word ressentiment (in French it’s pronounced “ruh-sohn-tee-mohn”) refers to a syndrome, a public psychopathology, in which gnawing insecurities, envy, and hatreds that had been nursed by many people in private converge in public, presenting themselves as noble crusades in scary social eruptions that diminish their participants even in seeming to make them big.

“In ressentiment, the little-big man seeks “easy” enemies on whom to wreak vengeance for frustrations that are only half-acknowledged because they come from his exploitation by powers he fears to face head-on. Ressentiment warps the little-big man’s assessments of the hardships and opportunities before him. It shapes the disguises that he tries on in order to pursue vindication without incurring reproach — at least until there are enough of him (and her, of course) to step out together en masse, with a Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin.

“Whether ressentiment erupts in a medieval Catholic Inquisition, a Puritan or McCarthyite witch hunt, a Maoist Cultural Revolution, or nihilist extremes of “people’s liberation movements” or political correctness, its most telling symptoms are paranoia and routinized bursts of hysteria. These gusts of collective passion touch many raw nerves under the ministrations of demagogues and an increasingly surreal journalism that prepares the way for them by brutalizing public discourse.

“These movements’ legitimate grievances often goad them to a fleeting brilliance, but they soon curdle and collapse, tragi-comically or catastrophically, on their own cowardice, ignorance, and lies…. Surreal journalism… — sometimes smooth, sometimes loud — softens up the public sphere for something much worse.
Both left and right have credible claims on certain republican truths, and, at any historical moment, one side’s claims may be the more liberating in its uphill struggle against the other side’s institutionalized premises and cant. But each side tends to cling to its own truths so tightly that they become half-truths that curdle into lies, leaving each side right only about how the other is wrong.

“Usually, these one-sided surges crest with the support of less than a majority of the population, and then they recede. They certainly recede in a basically sound society, which, like a healthy person, strides on both a left foot and a right one, without stopping to notice that at any one instant, all of the body’s weight is on one and not the other. A good society needs a left foot of social provision for equality — without which neither the individuality nor the communal values that conservatives cherish could flourish — and a right foot of irreducibly personal liberty and responsibility, without which even the most brilliant social engineering would reduce persons to clients, cogs, or worse.

“When left or right get stuck in their imagined upswings, it’s because those who’ve been harnessed to them out of ressentiment clamor to shift all the society’s weight onto one foot until it swells almost beyond repair. The morphology of one’s mindset doesn’t change with this kind of “flip” from left to right, or vice-versa: The real problem, George Orwell wrote, is “the gramophone mind, whether or not one agrees with the record that is being played at the moment.”

“That’s what accounts for the uncanny resemblance of so much American conservative opinion journalism to the Stalinist kind that Orwell exposed when he wrote Homage to Catalonia, Animal Farm, and 1984.

“The tactics and tropes of today’s neo-conservatives mirror uncannily those recounted with rueful humor in The Age of Suspicion, by my cousin James Wechsler, an anti-communist liberal who graduated from Columbia in 1937 and edited The New York Post during its liberal heyday, until 1977, when Rupert Murdoch took over and turned it into a daily reminder that Australia was founded as a penal colony.”

Well, there you have it. Republican presidential candidates don’t like to sound as if they’re trying to stir ressentiment, but they’re doing it, along with Fox News and the radio talk-show blowhards, who’ll have a devil of a time focusing Americans’ resentments on the Democrats now that the Republican candidates have to go after one another. Obama tries not to stir ressentiment at all, ever; but he’s its target twice over, as a black man and as an Ivy Leaguer.

And when we think about America’s becoming more Orwellian about national security, both at home and abroad, and about the casino-finance, corporate-welfare, consumer -bamboozling wrecking ball that the global economy has become – again, at home and abroad — I don’t see the Obama administration escaping Soros’ charge. Pasting Obama’s or Fareed Zakaria’s face on that wrecking ball won’t humanize it or save the republic.