Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The best investment

Bertrand Russell, Free Thought and Official Propaganda:

If there is to be toleration in the world, one of the things taught in schools must be the habit of weighing evidence, and the practice of not giving full assent to propositions which there is no reason to believe true. For example, the art of reading the newspapers should be taught. The schoolmaster should select some incident which happened a good many years ago, and roused political passions in its day. He should then read to the school-children what was said by the newspapers on one side, what was said by those on the other, and some impartial account of what really happened. He should show how, from the biased account of either side, a practised reader could infer what really happened, and he should make them understand that everything in newspapers is more or less untrue. The cynical scepticism which would result from this teaching would make the children in later life immune from those appeals to idealism by which decent people are induced to further the schemes of scoundrels.

In the same way that we learn best about the limits of education when we go to school, the realities of work when we pursue careers, and the possibilities of living whenever we consciously attempt to do so; we also learn best about the world by not accepting uncritically any single account that is reported about it.

For example, seeing the amount of time I invest in following financial headlines, people unfamiliar with my politics sometimes imagine that I know a lot about investing in general. The answer is no: I don't read the financial press in order to understand finance; I read it in order to understand the financial press and the industry for which it speaks. If I wanted to understand finance, I would work in finance, or learn about working in finance from people who do.

Only in understanding another perspective can we compare it with our own, and, as our friend Bertrand suggests, infer a general picture of what the hell is going on between us. What is true for news organizations is true for our relations with anyone else. But we have to know enough about both our own lives and the experiences of others to draw an accurate comparison in each case. This means an ongoing examination of both.

Sometimes we hear about things that don't directly impact on our own lives, but impact on the lives of others; or consist of some combination of the two, expressed in varying proportions. In the case of the US occupation of Afghanistan, for example, we are talking about something that impacts Afghans primarily (it is their country), and Americans and others secondarily. Subsequently, what American commentators think is best for Afghanistan isn't really relevant, since Americans do not fall within the category of persons primarily affected by fate of that country. Their judgments should be considered secondary to those held by whatever groups in Afghanistan its population feels best suited to administering its affairs.

You will notice that this method is altogether different from that endorsed by the commercial news model. According to this model, capital-intensive news organizations employ personnel and sponsor content meant to be "authoritative" in and of themselves. In other words, their job is "the news," our job is to consume whatever version of it we like best so that we might satisfy our role as "informed citizens," by the standard common to liberal democracies.

This means that whenever something important goes down, like a presidential election or a war, we have our choice of nationally syndicated columns or editorials, etc., by which to formulate our own "informed" opinions. The content is derived from professionals so that we might enjoy thoughts of our own, because our time is absorbed in a never-ending quest to pay the bills. Professionals, on the other hand, are paid decently to advance the concerns of whoever pays them. Consequently, we spend a lot of time electing Democrats and Republicans and going to war!

I hope that when you read, listen to, or watch the news, you will not be very impressed at first; but only after you have considered the veracity of the information as it relates to your life. In all things, it is never bad to pose the question after any declaration of fact, Is it true? What is true from one perspective may not be true from another.

The news will reflect different perspectives depending on the money that finds its way into production. Sometimes these perspectives will prove compatible with your own, as on issues where advertisers (for example) and the public are agreed; other times it will seem like you are going crazy, because what is reported and what you experience -- like the "fact" that the recession ended however many months ago -- owe to the difference between perspectives. Remember that the news is not an authoritative view of anything except its own outlook as an institution.


Anonymous said...

"...the 'fact' that the recession ended however many months ago..."

i think there's something to this "fact". as i see it, the "recession" IS over. it was never a "recession" because people were losing their jobs, houses, etc.; it was a "recession" because investers were losing tons of money.

now that investers are making money again, the recession is over. high unemployment, grossly expensive necessities, and a wide swath of the population being miserably poor, these are STRUCTURAL things. a crash in the dow jones, that's cyclical, hence the occasional "recession".

great post, as always.

Ethan said...

Great post as always is fucking right. The sixth paragraph in particular ("this means that whenever...") is a thing of beauty. Thanks again, sir.

JRB said...

That's some good old class analysis, Anonymous.

Golly gumdrops, Ethan! Thank you.

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