Friday, March 21, 2008

Switch off that PlayStation!

For a change of pace, here’s a guest-post from Henrik at Europe News. A slightly different version of this essay was posted at his site on Wednesday.

Switch off that PlayStation!
by Henrik R. Clausen
March 19 2008

If you happen to own one of these technological wonders that will allow you to play soccer on a screen, karate without bruises, shoot stacks of enemies without a scratch, and race through town at 180 km/h, one of the best things you can do for society may be to switch it off.

Why, you may wonder? What’s wrong with entertainment, or is it a matter of preserving energy so the next generation will still have some oil left to burn? Or is Wii that much better?

None of the above. It’s a marvel that we can go racing without risking mangled cars, can practice shooting in a virtual world, and can work in teams to recover immense treasures from forgotten dungeons. All without leaving the comfort of one’s home. And surely, looting dungeons of the ancients is much less criminal than looting houses downtown, not to mention the stakes when it comes to shooting.

But this deluge of entertainment — and the Internet at large provides much, much more — is causing a distraction into details and virtual options that distracts a lot of intelligent, well-educated, and well-intentioned people from something vital:

Getting influence has never been easier

And by this, I mean real, political influence that will change our societies for years to come. While it is tempting to enjoy the very beneficial physical circumstances we have in these times, democracy is too important to be left in the hands of the professionals.

Really. Professionals are great, and they’re paid to document exactly the opinion we want them to. But too much professionalism dismantles the quintessence of good democracy, participation by citizens. Take the European Union. It has a huge budget, great buildings sporting thousands and thousands of professional, well-educated, diligent and loyal workers. Yet, this staff does not a democracy make.

Or take our national political systems. Membership of political parties has plummeted, and (at least in Denmark) the parties are on quite strong economic support from the state. A few decades ago, this would have been ridiculous, as party membership of any kind was a natural thing, and the pooled resources went a long way towards what was needed to run a party. Today party membership and attending meetings is a minority interest.

Which, in turn, is a reason gaining influence is easier than ever. There’s less competition, more space to just walk in and get things done. It’s free-for-all, and it’s damn sure that people complaining about lack of political influence have never seriously tried to take any.

Still, some things are needed to join the party. As in every decent party, everyone has to contribute something. It may be knowledge, entertainment, skills, clothing, or coffee, but some contribution is needed. A list of relevant items:

1. Listening
2. Reading skills
3. Knowledge
4. Philosophy
5. Curiosity
6. Diligence
7. Rhetorical skills
8. Writing skills
9. Discipline
10. Supportive friendliness
11. Stamina
12. Joy of swimming

A bumper bundle, ain’t it? Sure would be tempting to go back and switch on that PlayStation anyway, where you just got Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma to deal with, and the computer will even keep track of those for you, in case you forget.

But then .. how many of the politicians you know score high in all of these? Even just ‘fair’? The competition isn’t too scary, actually. And not all of these skills need to be top-notch, and since they’re trainable, they can improve over time. One of the best ways to train them is to be around people who are better than yourself, notice what they’re doing and emulate it. Thus, going to meetings, and apply that listening skill to pick up good stuff.

Let’s look at them in detail:
- - - - - - - - -
1) Listening

This is first, because without this one it’s near impossible to get very far. We need to listen, with real respect, to those who are more skilled and experienced than ourselves. It doesn’t mean that we’ll take what these persons say as gospel, but it does mean to take their statements and their logic with the benefit of doubt, and consider with curiosity statements and details that at first sight seem strange. Listening is essential to learning, and people who don’t have this skill tend to turn autocratic very fast.

2) Reading skills

This is quite obvious, but needs to be mentioned. Anyone looking for influence on society and the future needs to read up left and right, including official stuff, reports, books, and newspapers, Preferably a good blog or two on top, as much of the best intelligence can be found there (as can some of the worst, for that matter), and many good ideas are circulated on blogs where they can be picked up by smart people and passed on.

3) Knowledge

One may be tempted to believe that the politicians we see on television know a lot more than we do, not least if they say things abstract or incomprehensible. Reality is somewhat different. Our politicians are so busy they hardly have time to read books, which is frequently reflected in incoherent, confused, hasty and downright stupid reactions from their side.

Take Yugoslavia. When it fell apart, politicians who had never bothered digging into the history of the country were jumping past each other to tell the citizens of the country what to do — without even basic knowledge of the history of the country, the Ustasja regime or the crimes in WWII. This led to a disaster which in hindsight could have been avoided, had the history of the country been respected. OK, that was a controversial one. Don’t worry, it won’t be the last.

Another reason to have a healthy supply of knowledge is that once you seek some influence on society, detractors will appear. They frequently sling around charges of racism, fascism, and the like, in order to make you stand back and leave the spoils of influence to them. That’s not what we’re in the game for, so instead it’s better to outwit these wannabes. For that’s usually all they are. The very common charge of ‘fascism’ is countered most effectively by knowing what fascism is, and the details of what makes it bad. It turns out very frequently that those accusing others of fascism have significant fascist attitudes themselves. Joseph Stalin was a prime example of this twisted logic. Stalin used this to get rid of his opponents by sliming them. Knowing how to avoid this trap is good.

4) Philosophy

Now, this is getting weird. We need philosophy to make a difference? Absolutely yes. We need some coherent system behind our line of thinking, or it will very easily devolve into populism. If not at first sight, then under pressure. Many interesting philosophies exist, but it’s not quite arbitrary which one to pick. It needs to be one that you have confidence in, that you believe will benefit people. Technically speaking, one can also succeed with one that exploits people, disempowers them and lets the people of influence run with all the benefits. But this I find too unethical to mention, so better focus on philosophies that will bring wide benefit in the long term. It doesn’t quite matter if it’s socialist, capitalist, conservative or libertarian, as long as it is one trusted to improve the life quality of people at large. Having one with clear, abstract principles is a huge advantage against the trap of populism. Becoming a teacher of philosophy is quite possible — but in disguise, of course, a disguise of politics. Opinions abound, but those held together by a coherent philosophy are rare, and valuable.

5) Curiosity

This is easier. To be involved in society and forming the future, curiosity for a lot of things will be needed. One might start out with a single issue, like I personally started out examining the deceit surrounding the Turkish EU negotiations, only to find that the principles involved are so interesting and so widely applicable that there’s no end to what contexts the principles can be applied to. It’s endless.

6) Diligence

Perhaps not obvious, but worth remembering. One gets only so far without an appetite for work and processing of knowledge, as well as for keeping working under harder circumstances. Diligence is one of the most important qualities if one wishes to go really far into politics and influence. But it’s booby-trapped! If the workload gets too heavy, if no time or capacity is left for fun and enjoyment, working too hard may lead to making serious mistakes of taking corruption or playing too many intrigues. Better to take some time off before it gets too bad, and let someone else take the bribe and have the scandal.

Related to diligence is a bit of patience. We may have all wonderful ideas about how to change society and improve the future, but quite frequently very few are receptive to the revolutionary, progressive ideas. In that case, it might be useful to write an essay to seed the ideas with some other people, release it to the world for others to pick up and ‘steal’ the ideas, then respond with appreciation when your great ideas suddenly come back from someone else. No need to claim them back, of course — what matters is that great ideas are put into action, not who specifically does it. It might be, of course, that the ideas get lost in space, never to return. If they’re really important they can be taken for another spin. But hey — it might be that they were not really so great to begin with, and that it was better that they went into oblivion.

7) Rhetorical skills

By now, you may wish that you were back at the PlayStation trying to figure out if the shotgun or the rocket launcher is the most appropriate weapon for your next enemy. But this article is relentless. Rhetorical skills can be subdivided into at least three kinds:

  • The logic of discussion and arguments
  • The skill of maximizing emotional impact
  • The skill of diverting attention from important points

The first of these is the classical Greek art, arguably their most important contribution to civilization. Arguably, in that I will argue that is was more persistent than their invention of democracy (which was re-invented in Europe anyway), and much more systematically useful than the synthetic idealism they passed off as ‘science’. Rhetoric is classically described as the third of the Trivium (not to be confused with ‘trivial’, BTW), the two first being grammar and logic.

While this might sound real alien, it actually isn’t. Grammar we usually master quite easily. Logic is something that we may or may not appreciate on its own, but it has a lot of meaning in debates, where it’s essential to figure out how to construct a good argument, what a real counterexample means and the like. Rhetoric, in this context, is the art of maximizing debate skills, making your presentation and your arguments as compelling as possible. Interestingly, it’s very rare to convince an opponent. But the 100+ ‘lurkers’, who just read your thread, will have a great time enjoying a well argued debate, and will be inclined to adopt the point of view of the most compelling person. Which is what we want.

Rhetoric, as in formulating oneself in the way that causes maximum emotional impact, is a finer art yet. Churchill may be the best teacher.

Rhetoric, as in diverting attention from important facts, is discouraged.

The whole point of this, of course, is to do well in public debates. Blogs are great places to practice as you’ll find all kinds of opponents and allies, and will be able to try out various approaches. One of my favorites is “Show, don’t tell”, and it’s important. Everyone’s entitled to have an opinion — sure — but if your opinion is to be more than just that (ideally it’s also convincing, right?), the reasons for that opinion become more important than the opinion itself. Why bother accusing someone of being stupid if you can demonstrate it by picking apart his logic? Why just give your own conclusion when you can present the evidence it is based upon, thus helping everyone reach that same conclusion on their own? These skills are vital for maximum impact.

8) Writing skills

Once grammar, logic and rhetoric is covered, good or at least decent writing skills are also needed. Now, one doesn’t need to have the skills of Dostoyevsky, but a basic joy and mastery of presenting an article or a letter is needed. If one is a bit weak in this field, it can be compensated for by having a healthy supply of knowledge and sticking to the nuts and bolts of facts and reason.

9) Discipline

Before escaping for that PlayStation, please consider this. You may play a great karate master on the screen, but being one, also in terms of influence, takes real discipline, not just fast reflexes (well, being a karate master in real life also does). Real discipline means being able to stay focused on your target, even when obstacles or emotions blur your vision or distract your attention. It takes training, but the raw power of real discipline is staggering.

One example of useful discipline is to avoid ‘ad hominem’ attacks in blog debates. Your opponents are human just like yourself, and deserve respect. Their points of view, however, are a completely different matter. Since you’ve read up on facts, philosophy and logic, there’s a really good chance that your point of view is better substantiated than theirs, and it’s open season on theirs. And precisely the discipline of attacking the confusion, not the persons, will earn you a lot of support and goodwill out there. Even when attacked yourself, countering the attack, not the person, is the way to go. And it takes exactly one thing to do so: discipline.

10) Stamina

When going into the battlefield of public debate, chances are that you’ll be slimed. Stabbed, assaulted. Vilified. Insulted. Falsely accused. All kinds of nasty attacks will be coming your way. While it’s technically not a game (since you’re still reading, I assume the PlayStation is still off), it feels like this. One needs the ability to withstand quite a bit of heat without resorting to anger. And the attacks deserve to be handled suitably, including fast, appropriate reactions, adequate strength and suitable spells.

One of my favourite spells in this context is called ‘Libel’, and it is extremely effective in neutralizing the oft-used spells of ‘Racism’ or ‘fascism’. Pointing out that libel is punishable under the law usually cools off those overheated spell-casters instantly. Failing to react to these slanderous attacks has unpleasant long-term effects, not unlike poisoning. Immediate, fast reaction is good, and in case of libel will make it very clear that you find the charges utterly unjustified.

One may think that these personal attacks are too stupid to be taken seriously, but they do seem to be part of the game. Many, not least on the so-called ‘left’ of the political spectrum, simply use personal attacks in an attempt to make their opponents back down so they can have their (frequently quite confused) ways.

Standing up against these stupid attacks can be very unpleasant, but it’s important. Having a good cause, good documentation and good style will win eventually, and others will suddenly turn to you for support when they face similar trouble. And it can be navigated out of, for what’s important in society is not so much who decides as what is being decided. Rather obvious, in a way, but it bears repeating.

11) Supportive friendliness

After all this fighting, a good dose of friendliness is a very healing quality. Being polite doesn’t cost anything, and if you’re able to be precise at the same time, it won’t cost you impact in the debates, either. Actually quite the opposite, as restraining from anger while still making a precise argument is one of the most compelling ways to make your case. Abstaining from ‘ad hominem’ attacks is vital, as your opponents are (probably) not vile, poison-spewing abominations from the nether realms, but (more likely) human beings with various interesting kinds of confusion. Curing them of these confusions — or at least preventing others from becoming infected — is a compassionate act. Politeness is helpful in this.

On a related topic, it is important to support others in doing well. Your friends here and there will already have more detractors than they can handle, and anyone giving them information and ideas that make their lives easier and help them achieve their goals earns gratitude and good connections. Support is also an interesting way to further any good ideas one may have at hand. And it’s very possible to make underhanded criticism through genuine support anyway. For instance, one may talk about how good an example Jesus was for human behaviour, telling between the lines that certain other founders of religions were perhaps not quite as beneficial, but without actually denouncing them. That can be polite, yet very effective.

12) Joy in swimming

This is a metaphor, to be sure. What I mean here is to participate in debates, meetings, exchanges, large and small, here, there and everywhere. To be in the details, to apply the above tools to real-life problems, and even some that seem benign. This is work, and it takes time and effort that could otherwise have been perfectly wasted playing computer games.

But why play computer games where you have to deflect incoming missiles when you can play the same game in real life, learning to deflect incoming attacks on your credibility and character? It’s a lot more exciting to take these battles in real life, and the outcome will not only be a significant sharpening of knowledge and debating skills — it may even influence decisions made by politicians and others in a positive direction, thus bringing benefit to many others.

This joy in participating in real life exchanges will also bring in new contacts, new information and new opportunities, and once going, there is no end to how far into the rabbit hole this can go.

Remember, it’s a magic world

Of course not in a strict literal sense. We know the world, the things it has to offer, the way to drive a car. And we know that if we want to lift something heavy, a crane is much better than a magic spell.

Still, some things appear to work like magic. For instance, someone recommends an important book to you, and a couple of years later you get in a position to invite the author to a conference, digging deep into his knowledge. Or you go to a meeting, and happen to meet someone who’ll have influence on something that’s important to you, and you get the chance to have your say and change how things work. These things just happen. Somewhat unpredictably, sure, but effectively.

One thing that’s harder to get than influence is prestige. But what’s the good of that anyway? Only a limited number of us can be the ones on the front pages, and frequently these people are not the ones who really make the difference. Probably the most influential position is a bit removed from the spotlight, where people don’t attack you too much, and there’s time to work things through and forge the bullets that others will be using.

It’s a great world out there. And one of the greatest contributions we can make is to unplug from the stream of senseless entertainment and use our talent, intelligence and our good intentions to make a better future. It has never been more important, or easier, to make a difference than now.

Final wish: Have fun!


Sir Henry Morgan said...

Off topic, but a wonderful little read:

And following on from a Dutch professor:

Academics eh - who would have thunk it?

Afonso Henriques said...

"democracy is too important to be left in the hands of the professionals."

I agree. But I have been reading some things that made me wonder whether we could have a more perfect democracy much easier. The Romans had their society divided in 4 or 5 categories. When the elections were held, the most important ones voted, then the next, from higher to lower strata... When a majority (of classes, not an unversal majority)
was reached, democracy was working good and the lower class smple did not had a voice. After all, why should the murderer in jail vote count the same as the vote of the nobel and honoured policeman?
The great flaw of Democracy is that in democracy quantity rules... It perhaps would be better if we could manage both, quantity and quality. Just wanted to share this toughts...

"It’s free-for-all, and it’s damn sure that people complaining about lack of political influence have never seriously tried to take any."

A great thruth!

This is a great post! Now I understand why I like Henrik's comments so much.

Anonymous said...

Excellent writing. You make many good points, Henrik.

Unknown said...

I never really thought about it before, but the article makes me think it may be true: public financing of campaigns will act to decrease voter participation in both in campaigns, and in the end, probably voting as well. If what goes to a political party is just another bin on your paystub, we're not likely to pay anymore attention to it that we do taxes now. If you send money to a campaign, you have a vested interest in it's success -- you're more likely to volunteer and above all, you are far more likely to turn out to vote. Something to think about...

VinceP1974 said...

Gina: Great comments.

I have thought about this issue before and I came to the conclusion that having the State pay money to the parties or to candidates is a major mistake.

Political Parties should only be finananced by the citizens/corporations directly and have nothing to do with the state.

What can be more Democratic than the parties being totally dependent upon its membership to sustain itself.... lose or alienate your political base and you may face bankruptacy .. as you should.

I also recommend getting rid of most campaign finance "reform" law. Especialy the money limits that a person may contribute to a candidate. You should be allowed to give as much money as you like.

I do support manadatory and immediate full disclosure of all monies from received and from whom and all expedentitures.

Henrik R Clausen said...

having the State pay money to the parties or to candidates is a major mistake.

Being active in the local branch, I've thought of that. The money we're getting are quite needed for practical work, like postage & printing, but something in the principle is damaged, indeed.

Now, the state funding is a compensation for the obvious inequality that some parties benefit from rather large contributions by corporations and/or labor unions, contributions easily 10x larger than the public funding, at least in Denmark.

That's problematic. The idea to fix it with public money disguises the problem, but doesn't solve it.

The core of the problem, I believe, is that corporations are trying to purchase undue political influence. They see it as an investment, and it works. On one condition, of course - that their contributions are not disclosed. Contributions known to the public tends to be *much* less effective.

Which leads me to wonder - would mandatory full disclosure fix the problem, for good? I'm a big fan of transparency, and it just might work. Has it been tried anywhere..?

VinceP1974 said...

Henrik: I did debate to myself regarding the wisdom of allowing corporations to contribute to a candidate and I came to my view because a few things

- Government policies impact corporations , so corporations do have valid justification to be allowed to engage in politics just as individuals do.

- A Corporation is merely an agent speaking on behalf of the many individuals who compose it. In America the 1st Amendment protects the right of the people to lobby the government and to petition the government for a redress of issues. By concentrating their many individual voices into one powerful voice a corporation serves as a powerful way for people to get the government's attention in a way that a normal person could never do.

- Corporations (like all actors who will be affected by government policy) will always act on behalf of its interests.. Coporportions will always seek to influence those in power to see things from its POV. It's going to happen and there is no force in the world that could prevent.

So if you criminalize corporations funding candidates of their choice you are inevitibly causing the corruption of the political process. Laws should be made in view of an understanding of reality. Laws which are based on false premises are more harmful than if they had not been written.

I believe full and immediate disclosure is the best mechanism the public can have when they are evaluating the candidates.

That individuals and corporations will try to influence politicans in their interest is a basic part of human political nature, so its much better to have a system that acknoweldges this reaity and therefore everyone can see who has the ear of the candidate.

I would much prefer to know that Corporation B has an insanely aggressive support of a candidate by thier givng him 500 million dollars then forcing Corporation B hiding this suport through a black market of back-room influence peddling with corrupt middle men.

I think a good idea might be to change the election process a little to have the ballots list the top 20 donors for each candidate right there while you vote. So not only are you voting for a Candidate or a Party but you can see right there if you also are going along with the programs of thier biggest supporters too... i think that's a powerful way to blunt a politican's ablity to try to appear to be all things to all people. By seeing what kind of peolpe actually put thier money where their mouth is by making contributions to a candidate they think will actually accomplish thier will.

I have no idea if my ideas have been in place anywhere. I do know that usually when government tries to "fix" something they usually make the problem worse.. and indeed our election process is way worse now after 30 years of "reform" laws than it was beore the "reforms".

Afonso Henriques said...

"I have thought about this issue before and I came to the conclusion that having the State pay money to the parties or to candidates is a major mistake.
Political Parties should only be finananced by the citizens/corporations directly and have nothing to do with the state."

I don't think that is beneficall to put Democracy under the Capital.

Sorry for that anti-Capitalistic sentence, but I feel that the poors do have the same right to influence a party than the rich. Even if it is only teorethically.

X said...

So how do you decide how much money each party gets from the state? Membership size? Size of vote at the last election? Does the party in government get more money or less? What about the "minnows", small parties that virtually never get a seat but can often swing the results in an election? Any sort of state funding would simply cement an existing party relationship and prevent new parties from finding their feet, and completely remove the ability for people to influence political thinking. It strengthens the idea of a political class, too, and it makes all parties beholden to whichever party happens to be in power, because that party can simply order the funding of "undesirable" parties to be cut.

No. Private capital is, as the saying goes, the least worst option. Requiring parties to declare all contributions - as opposed to contributions over a certain threshold - should be more than enough to keep them honest.

xlbrl said...

It's all irrelevant. Nicely done, and irrelevant. The highest of practical abilites are insuficient, lacking philosophical insight, to understand that improving competence in a system that is fundamentally flawed brings you no closer to changing the system. It may keep you from it.
The weakness of the practical mind is that although it clearly sees the existing circumstances of the case, it has small power of forsight.
Tocqueville advised us that the welfare state reduces the value and frequency of the exercise of free will and gradually removes autonomy from each citizen. We have been prepared to regard this as a blessing, and to derive consolation from being supervised by thinking we have choosen our supervisors.
There is no point in asking for a more involved citizen when the actual objective has already been achieved.
If you want to ask for a revolution in understanding, do it. Do not ask for a better citizen for the

Henrik R Clausen said...

So how do you decide how much money each party gets from the state?

Here in Denmark, it's this:
Size of vote at the last election?

Which makes sense, in one way, but still is window dressing for the real problem, the fact that some parties get massive institutional infusions, and others don't.

(Oh. I feel another essay coming. Think I'll cut it short and just make it a comment.)

We're talking a factor 10 X in difference for comparable parties. In Denmark, we have three (and a ½ - NA) right-wing parties, V, K & O. The latter of these is Dansk Folkparti (DPP).

Now, when journalists mention how much money these parties have, they usually quote the consolidated figure of about €4 million a year. This disguises that V & K have almost all of this money, while DPP (I don't remember the exact figure) has perhaps €200,000 of this. The difference being that V & K are heavily supported by big corps, which DPP isn't.

I think the argument that 'capitalism' should not put money in politics is wrong, and that a straight-out ban would not lead to the desired effect, only to the support going underground, AKA corruption.

And, after all, capitalism is just an expression of citizens working together and getting some financial gain. It's still an expression of citizen activity, not some third-part aliens or something. Capitalist corps also have the right to donate their money to whatever cause they fancy, including politics.

But the problem starts when they try to 'purchase influence'. That's a dodgy way of avoiding real democracy, that is, making your case in public and convincing others in sufficient numbers that it's good. Going directly to the politicians is a kind of laziness that skips this step, hoping that said politician will tend to the interests of his supporters - which frequently works quite well.

Now, there's one cure so obvious that it's hard to miss: Transparency. Since this is a mainstay of well-functioning free markets, it should be applied to 'purchasing influence' as well. In lots of cases, a mandatory transparency for political donations simply might cancel out the effect, in terms of influence, of said donation, because citizens can see the connections and react accordingly when the politicians seem to be acting out of 'purchased' motivation, and cry 'Wolf!'.

What I think big business should do instead is to use the money to convince the general public that it has a good cause. Obviously, that takes more money and effort - which is why they tend to prefer to take the short circuit directly to the politicians.

But the better way is through the public. If they have a good case in the eye of the public - fine, the majority will support it. If not, the attempt at influence will fail.

I'm fine with the fact that money has some influence. Money in the bank, after all, is usually a sign that one has done something useful to others earlier, which is a good quality.