Why Are Journalists Considered Credible And Authoritative Sources Of Information?

From the blog of Mencius Moldbug, Is journalism official?:

When I think back to when I thought I was getting an accurate history of reality from the Times, I am full of amazement. I mean, when you read the Times, you are reading stories that were written by people. Their names are right there. “Steven Erlanger.” “Don Van Natta.” “Andrew Revkin.”

Do I know these people? Do I trust them? Do I have any reason to believe they are doing anything but feeding me a mile-long crap sausage? Why should I? Is it because they work for an organization called “The New York Times”? What do I know about this organization? How does it select its employees? How and why does it punish or reward them? Do I have any damned idea? If not, why do I trust its correct views on everything? Why not trust the Catholic Church instead? At least its officials make up cool names for themselves, like “Benedict XVI.” Imagine if all Times reporters had to choose a Pope name. Would this make them more, or less, credible?

You can see this quite clearly today when you look at journalists’ Twitter feeds. It is amazing what they put on these for the public to consume. More amazing still that they have any credibility left. Just try it yourself sometime. Read or watch something in the news, then look up the journalist’s Twitter feed and see if you consider what you just read/heard differently after the fact.

Review – Patriots: The Men Who Started The American Revolution

Was the American Revolution (and the War of Independence) a popular political movement?

After reading A.J. Langguth’s Patriots: The Men Who Started the American Revolution, it sure doesn’t seem to have been. With a total population in the colonies somewhere around 3 million, the patriots were only ever able to field a few thousand (and in total, a few ten thousand) men at arms in most of the major battles and the Congress was apparently not popular enough to convince the colonies to let it raise its own taxes to properly feed and clothe its army. Considering that the right of parliaments to levy taxes to pay for wars was a key aspect of British legal philosophy which had been developing for centuries since the Magna Carta, the inability of the Congress to avoid resistance to the issue of taxation to support the war effort appears to be as strong an indication as any that this was a minority struggle engineered by a crafty competing elite.

Given its lack of popularity, and the fact that many of those who were first agitating for the conflict had become wealthy by circumventing mercantilist trade laws in the colony (what we might crudely call “smuggling contraband”, much like a modern drug trafficker), the even more puzzling question is why they bothered to start it in the first place? Wouldn’t men like John Hancock have been better off collecting the monopoly rents granted to them by the system of restraints on trade in place which they so profitably worked around? Why were new laws like the Stamp Act, which would have only increased the profitability of their operations, the cause for a major escalation in the dispute between colonial citizens, their local (British-approved) magistrates and the Crown and British Parliament itself?

Unfortunately, “Patriots” doesn’t spend much time pondering or attempting to answer questions like that, which to me is a shame because the reason I bought the book was that both the title and the insinuations of many of the reviewers seemed to suggest it had some conspiratorial light to shed on this momentous historical series of events.

My expectations ran high in the initial chapters of the book. Langguth’s chosen motif, if it isn’t obvious, is to highlight a key personality in the chronological narrative in each chapter. He starts with “Otis”, “Adams” and then “Henry”, but quickly ventures off the rails with “Riots”, and “Politics” and eventually “Saratoga” and “Victory.” The first few chapters outlining some key legal and social goings on, centered primarily in Boston, are exciting, detailed and alive with the moment. The author succeeds again and again at painting a neat little portrait of each major player as they enter the stage such that you get a sense of their personality, their motivations and ambitions and some of their personal back story that helps to create a context for why they’re involved at key moments and why they might have acted as they did. He excels in these early parts at providing interesting data, economic, demographic and otherwise, that help the reader to draw inferences about the larger context of each disturbance, one of my favorite being that the British customs service (responsible for enforcing the system of tariffs that bolstered the mercantilist relationship of the mother country to its colonies) cost 8,000 pounds sterling to operate each year but only managed to collect 2,000 pounds sterling in revenues and fines. Considering the public and private corruption the customs service engendered, why bother with such a system if only to operate it at a 6,000 pound loss every year? It is a piece of data that leads one down many puzzling philosophical paths!

But as the conflicts in Boston move from the courthouses and legislatures to the streets and, eventually, the towns and fields of battle, the narrative structure loses its way. It becomes clear that this is a story that is much too complex to fit this “great personalities” framework and the author seems to willingly abandon it but not before introducing a cavalcade of new characters along the way without fanfare or suitable explanation. In one chapter, a teenage Alexander Hamilton pops his head in for a paragraph in the form of hoping for a war in a letter written to a friend in New York but we hear nothing from or about him until almost two hundred pages later and even then he plays a minor role seemingly mentioned only because of the narrative omniscience that he’ll mean more to American history at a later date.

Aside from covering some of the major struggles in Boston, Langguth talks about issues being debated in Virginia in the House of Burgesses. The rest of the colonies (11 out of the 13 total, mind you!) go essentially without mention in terms of their own internal problems with British authority culminating in their decisions to join an armed rebellion. They only pop in here and there when their representatives make some motion in the Congress, or one of their militia bands achieves some glory (or disgrace) on a battlefield somewhere. If you went off of Langguth’s telling alone, Boston was the only intellectual and politically active place in the 13 colonies and it somehow managed to drag all the rest of the population into a conflict that they had nothing to do with.

Equally puzzling is the intense focus on the military campaign in New England, centered around action in Philadelphia, New Jersey and New York state. Though references are made several times to the “Southern campaign” and the “Northern army” engaged in key battles at Saratoga, Canada and elsewhere, it is almost as if there wasn’t a brutal, guerrilla war despite the colonial military campaign somehow abruptly concluding with Cornwallis’s entrapment and surrender in the Southern (Virginian) Yorktown. Now how on earth did Yorktown become decisive when the fighting all seemed to take place in New England?

There were a few takeaways that seemed clear to me. War and military combat is horrible and there is nothing glorious about it, not even when fighting (nominally) for political freedom. Descriptions of the bayonet charges, of men having their heads pulverized on impact by cannonballs, of the mutilations and amputations that are left after a major battle all made it clear that war is inhumane. Another takeaway was that war is not carried out by men shooting at each other on battlegrounds alone. Spying and intelligence gathering, bribery and loyalty-negotiation and even market forces are all things a commander needs to contend with. Finally, while I certainly don’t believe it is reasonable to expect men to be “better” than this anytime soon, it was fascinating to see how many of the various “Patriots” were what might be described as traumatized, ego-driven personalities who struggled vainly for glory and treasure and were willing to do violence because of these passions. It really got me thinking about how little conflict the world would be engendered by if it wasn’t populated by men willing to abandon their loving families for years on end to engage in oratorical parlors (Congress) or to carry out war and destruction for a little excitement (Hamilton, Washington, etc.).

One of my biggest frustrations with the book turned out to be the fact that over half of the book followed the military campaigns of the Revolution, but it was difficult and at times impossible for me to parse Langguth’s narrative to understand what, physically, was occurring on the battlefield and why. There are clearly reasons why men with rifles and cannon did what they did to defeat one another in those days, but it was rarely clear to me a.) what it was they were actually doing and b.) why they determined it to be advantageous. I know very little about how war is conducted, in this era or any other, and this author didn’t help resolve my veil of ignorance.

On Conspiracy

I’ve spoken to a lot of people who deny the existence of various conspiracies behind well-known human events because they believe it’d be too hard to keep a secret with the assumedly large number of people who would have to be in on it to pull off the original act.

I want to ignore the possibility, which I’ve raised, that secrecy isn’t even necessary because many times people will ignore or not recognize criminality right in front of their face (ie, the ongoing, millenia-long fraud of the State).

Instead, I want to reflect on the following current events. Nearly every week for the past several months, new information about global national “security” apparatus spying has come to light thanks to the efforts of Edward Snowden and his allies. Each one of these stories are billed as surprising revelations not previously known.

I don’t think there has been any specific disclosure of how many people at the various agencies fingered are involved in each of these various schemes but it seems safe to say they are “numerous.” I don’t know what kind of upper bounds a person would put on the number of members of a conspiracy required to keep a secret but I’d have to believe, given that these agencies occupy fairly large office buildings and other campuses around the country and the world, that the number of operatives exceed those thresholds.

How, then, did these programs manage to remain a secret?

To take this further, how do “intelligence communities” manage to operate at all given that they, too, are “numerous” and their entire model operates on the assumption that secrets can be kept despite their numerousness?

If I were to venture a guess, I’d say the answer lies with recognition of the fact that people have strong incentives to keep secrets concerning criminal or otherwise socially-reprehensible activity they’re engaged in. Especially when such activity constitutes their “job” which provides food for their families, or, even more powerfully, when such activities line up with their ideological beliefs, whose faithful following gives their lives purpose and meaning.

I think it unwise to overly discount the economic likelihood of conspiracy.

Do You Know What The NSA’s True Purpose Is?

A friend sent me a chilling article from Wired magazine about a new, gargantuan spy center being built by the NSA in Utah. The article started with this short background on the genesis, and current evolution, of the NSA:

For the NSA, overflowing with tens of billions of dollars in post-9/11 budget awards, the cryptanalysis breakthrough came at a time of explosive growth, in size as well as in power. Established as an arm of the Department of Defense following Pearl Harbor, with the primary purpose of preventing another surprise assault, the NSA suffered a series of humiliations in the post-Cold War years. Caught off guard by an escalating series of terrorist attacks—the first World Trade Center bombing, the blowing up of US embassies in East Africa, the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen, and finally the devastation of 9/11—some began questioning the agency’s very reason for being. In response, the NSA has quietly been reborn. And while there is little indication that its actual effectiveness has improved—after all, despite numerous pieces of evidence and intelligence-gathering opportunities, it missed the near-disastrous attempted attacks by the underwear bomber on a flight to Detroit in 2009 and by the car bomber in Times Square in 2010—there is no doubt that it has transformed itself into the largest, most covert, and potentially most intrusive intelligence agency ever created.

I want to channel G Edward Griffin a little bit here. Griffin is the author of The Creature From Jekyll Island, and in this book he put forth the notion that if the results of a policy consistently and widely diverge over time from the stated intentions, one has a sound basis upon which to question the stated intentions of the policy being observed.

In “Creature”, Griffin was discussing the Federal Reserve System and its “dual mandate”– to maintain stable prices and low unemployment. Of course, the Fed has never managed to achieve either one of its objectives since it was founded, leading a skeptical observer to wonder if the Fed was perpetually failing at its stated objective, or consistently succeeding on an unstated one.

Proponents of the NSA will argue that there are many successes we might never know about due to matters of secrecy. We can’t critically examine the veracity of these arguments because we’re not deemed worthy of the trust necessary to obtain the information required to evaluate these claims, so they must be ignored.

What we are sure of, as the paragraph above points out, is that there have been numerous “surprise assaults” that the NSA has done nothing to stop.

And yet, it only grows larger.

Maybe the NSA is succeeding wildly at its true purpose despite appearing to fail at its stated purpose. The construction of this massive, $2 billion facility in Utah is alarming.

But we should be even more alarmed that we do not know what is the true purpose of this multi-billion dollar agency.