June 27, 2010

Concerning Open and Closed Lists, and the Claim to "Special" Knowledge

Part I: Yet Another Intensely Exciting Internecine Battle at Versailles!

I. Contrasting Open and "Restricted" Lists

Readers who have followed my winding journey here may recall that I mention an email discussion list to which I still happily belong from time to time. It's called Opera-L, and here's part of the website. It's a genuinely open list: anyone at all can join. You can loathe opera and consider it to be the decadent plaything of repellent aging queens (like me!, as Marc Ambinder might say [see the conclusion of the earlier post]), and you can still join. Hmm, I think some of those folk are already on the list.

The primary focus of Opera-L is what the name indicates, but the discussions of opera are very wide-ranging: current performances and artists, recordings (both commercial and pirated), historical traditions and practices, and virtually any and every aspect of opera that you can think of. Ambinder woozily waxes on about the "enormous resource" that Journolist represented in his view. With regard to opera in all its manifestations, Opera-L is a staggeringly monumental resource. If you want to know about the bald Latvian tenor who sang Radames in the third set of performances of Aida at the Imperial Inn and Hostelry (in the Performance Annex) in Prstblk in 1907, you can put the question to the list. You'll have the answer within hours -- with sources provided, along with the specific dates of the engagement. If there is conflicting information, you'll be informed about that, too. I don't exaggerate. Seriously: the information available from the roughly 4,000 list members is astounding.

Members of the list include lots of people who simply adore opera and who are not professional musicians of any kind. They also include well-known critics and musicologists, singers (often using pseudonyms, not only to protect their privacy but to allow the freewheeling discussions, including sometimes harsh criticism, to flourish), instrumentalists, artist representatives, and so forth.

To my knowledge, there is only one prohibition concerning subject matter: Opera-L may not be used to sell anything. (There is a Yahoo Group for selling and buying opera recordings, unsurprisingly named Opera-Sell, and a lot of that goes on at Ebay too, of course.) The list has a moderator (or two perhaps, it's never been entirely clear to me, and I think it may change over time), but his touch is wonderfully light and unobtrusive. His presence makes itself known only on very rare occasions.

Certainly, a lot of the posts are dross. But what's dross to me may be exactly what another list member wants. As some members will point out when others complain about tedious posts concerning this or that, you have a delete function on your computer for a reason. Use it as you wish. Others will use it in a different fashion. And the list exhibits personal animosities as any group will; sometimes the personal tone of specific posts will be a bit much (and once in a while, far too much). Again, you can simply ignore posts like that. The list offers the benefits and liabilities of any group enterprise. For me, the benefits outweigh the liabilities, usually by a wide margin. Others have made a different judgment and leave the list.

And there are times when the list offers messages that are treasurable gems. Because the list is entirely public, I've occasionally excerpted messages that I find especially meaningful and memorable. One example is Albert Innaurato's comments about the very sad death of John McGlinn. Innaurato periodically (and not nearly often enough for me) will offer messages that are wonders of musical and historical knowledge (sometimes with a specificity concerning details of opera scores that is a model of teaching and illumination), combined with a sensitivity and perceptiveness about artistic matters that is a source of astonishment to me. I would remain on the list if Innaurato's posts were the only benefit it offered.

I mention these details about Opera-L to show how an open list can function, and more particularly to demonstrate how individuals who are genuinely and deeply knowledgeable about a particular field can offer that asset to others in such a setting. There isn't a need for lists that are "private," "exclusive" and "restricted." So I offer this observation, and I offer it in the form of a principle with no exceptions, for I can't think of one: when people engage in an activity on the basis of membership in a group that is "private," "exclusive" and "restricted," they do so not for the benefits that specifically result from such restrictions, since there are none, but for reasons arising out of their own psychological demands. Their vanity and self-conception require that they view themselves as "special," and "smarter" and "better" than others. This is again the problem of "oversized vanity and preferred self-conception" that I mentioned in a recent post.

A distinction should be kept in mind here. I'm not referring to activities which, given their own nature, demand a minimal level of expertise -- e.g., a professional sports team. Insofar as listservs of the kind at issue here are concerned, such requirements are altogether irrelevant. But the self-designated "experts" want to view themselves as possessing information and insights unavailable to "ordinary" people -- and they also demand that "ordinary" people (that's you and me, my friend) view them as "special" and able to deal with issues that we lowly folk are too ignorant to comprehend.

Perhaps I should mention a further aspect of this in passing. Ambinder claims that one of the benefits of Journolist was that it provided a place where "extremely smart people" (like him!) "could test their own ideas before they refined and presented them to the public." It's certainly true that many writers want input from people they particularly respect with regard to works in progress. I will occasionally do this myself when I'm working on an essay I find especially tricky, or still earlier, when I'm thinking through a subject or issue I find very challenging. But, and I sadly suspect I need to state this painfully obvious point explicitly in this context, that's why we have friends, or if not friends who are suited to the task, at least colleagues and acquaintances who will generously offer their thoughts about our work prior to publication. You see acknowledgments for assistance of this kind in the notes at the beginning or end of many books. There's nothing mysterious or "special" about this process, and there is no need for "exclusive" and "restricted" private groups.

II. The Claim to "Special" Knowledge and Expertise

You see the claim to an utterly invalid kind of "expert" knowledge with unambiguous clarity in Ambinder's post discussed at the conclusion of my previous article. The members of the elite utilize this approach across a wide range of issues; in fact, they use it with regard to every issue of moment. Let me provide a few examples from earlier articles.

From "The Vampire, Struck by Sunlight":
Those people who have followed the foreign policy catastrophes of recent years are repeatedly struck by this phenomenon: all the "experts" who are supposedly so knowledgeable in this area -- that is, all the "experts" who led us into the catastrophes and who were grievously, bloodily, murderously wrong about every significant matter -- remain entrenched in the foreign policy establishment. Moreover, they are precisely the people to whom everyone turns for the "solution" to the disasters that engulf us, both now and the disasters likely to come. This is what it means to have a ruling class. As I have said, the ruling class rules. The ruling class exercises a lethal monopoly on the terms of public debate, just as it exercises a lethal monopoly on the uses of state power.

What you have seen over the last six months and more, and what you will see in the coming months and years, is the same phenomenon in the realm of economic policy. All of the solons who led us into this abyss of mounting debt, worthless securities, failing financial institutions, economic contraction and collapse, rising taxation, and all the rest, will now instruct us as to how we should "solve" the crisis that they have created. The crisis may be ameliorated to a degree, and the worst of the consequences may be postponed for a while. But whatever "solutions" are implemented, whatever reorganization and reregulation is imposed, it will all be done in accordance with the ruling class's desires and goals. It will all be to protect their own wealth and power to whatever extent is possible, and to expand their wealth and power still more...
It is the "lethal monopoly on the terms of public debate" that groups like Journolist are specifically designed to perpetuate. This is the kind of "expert" knowledge that Ambinder, Klein, et al. are so in love with: the claim to "special" insight and understanding that serves to consolidate and continue the power of the ruling class, and to keep all those "ordinary" people in willing submission. After all, we wouldn't want to challenge the wisdom of our "betters," especially when they are dedicated only to acting "for our own good."

Here's another example, one that is particularly heinous and systematically used for vile and destructive purposes. Almost everyone -- including, I'm certain, many of you reading this -- continues to believe that "intelligence" about other nations, their military capabilities and plans, etc. is a genuinely serious and grave matter. Almost everyone insists that we must have the "right" intelligence. We must know what our enemies (real or imagined, and they're almost always imagined as far as the United States is concerned) are planning, so that we can act accordingly. Note that how we "must" act almost always involves still another act of military aggression, overt or covert.

The central arguments regarding the crucial nature of "intelligence" constitute a prime exhibit of the claim to "special" knowledge and how profoundly damaging the claim is. From "Fools for Empire," here is what I consider a classic statement of the issue from Barbara Tuchman (in The March of Folly):
Acquiescence in Executive war, [Fulbright] wrote, comes from the belief that the government possesses secret information that gives it special insight in determining policy. Not only was this questionable, but major policy decisions turn "not upon available facts but upon judgment," with which policy-makers are no better endowed than the intelligent citizen. Congress and citizens can judge "whether the massive deployment and destruction of their men and wealth seem to serve the overall interests as a nation."


The belief that government knows best was voiced just at this time by Governor Nelson Rockefeller, who said on resumption of the bombing, "We ought to all support the President. He is the man who has all the information and knowledge of what we are up against." This is a comforting assumption that relieves people from taking a stand. It is usually invalid, especially in foreign affairs. "Foreign policy decisions," concluded Gunnar Myrdal after two decades of study, "are in general much more influenced by irrational motives" than are domestic ones.
In the same essay, I quoted Gabriel Kolko to essentially identical effect (in The Age of War: The United States Confronts the World):
It is all too rare that states overcome illusions, and the United States is no more an exception than Germany, Italy, England, or France before it. The function of intelligence anywhere is far less to encourage rational behavior--although sometimes that occurs--than to justify a nation's illusions, and it is the false expectations that conventional wisdom encourages that make wars more likely, a pattern that has only increased since the early twentieth century. By and large, US, Soviet, and British strategic intelligence since 1945 has been inaccurate and often misleading, and although it accumulated pieces of information that were useful, the leaders of these nations failed to grasp the inherent dangers of their overall policies. When accurate, such intelligence has been ignored most of the time if there were overriding preconceptions or bureaucratic reasons for doing so.
And from "Played for Fools Yet Again," here is my own summary of the problem:
I therefore repeat my major admonition, and give it special emphasis:
It is always irrelevant to major policy decisions, and such decisions are reached for different reasons altogether. This is true whether the intelligence is correct or not, and it is almost always wrong. On those very rare occasions when intelligence is accurate, it is likely to be disregarded in any case. It will certainly be disregarded if it runs counter to a course to which policymakers are already committed.

The intelligence does not matter. It is primarily used as propaganda, to provide alleged justification to a public that still remains disturbingly gullible and pliable -- and it is used after the fact, to justify decisions that have already been made.
I've written numerous essays about this issue and its endless manifestations. If you follow the links above, you'll find them. I've gone through this exercise about "intelligence" and its uniformly disastrous effects many, many times (certainly well over ten individual articles). And still almost everyone insists on the critical, indispensable role of "intelligence" and how vital it is that we get it "right." And do not doubt that, should the Obama administration finally decide that a military attack on Iran (or another country not now the focus of news reports) is an absolute necessity, it will be the "intelligence" that "made them do it" -- just as it was the "intelligence" that "made" the Bush administration invade Iraq. That is always the claim.

But perhaps the example provided by the Weigel controversy, helpfully embellished by posts such as the one from Ambinder, will help people to see the claim to "special" knowledge for what it is. And that is simply another means by which the ruling class and its eager courtiers strengthen and expand their grip on power, and seek to keep all the rest of us in subservient roles -- and, to the degree we believe their claims, willingly so.

Keep in mind another effect of the claim to "special," "secret" knowledge. It is not an accident that such "secret" knowledge always serves to justify the exercise of power by those who already possess power beyond imagining, just as it is not an accident that the same "special" information frequently serves to justify the expansion of that power still more.

No, none of it is an accident. All of that is why the claim is made in the first place. To the extent you give credence to this dishonest and entirely invalid tactic, you permit the ruling class to continue to have its bloody way with you, both figuratively and, with ever greater frequency, literally. One would think that a few more people have by now had quite enough of that.

[While in the process of writing this article, I found that it developed in unexpected ways. I decided that the issue of "special" knowledge raised in Ambinder's post (and other posts on the Weigel affair made the same point in different ways) merited lengthier treatment, given that the claim arises so often. As a result, less critical points about the Weigel business, together with some additional posts about it from other writers, remain to be discussed. I plan to get to it soon, although I may deal with a few other subjects first.]