Different Expectations.

May 16, 2014

WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange recently sat for interviews which were to form the basis of his ghostwritten “autobiography,” the final draft of which he objected to publishing on the ground it made too much information public. An “unauthorized autobiography” was thereafter published, over objection. Some cried hypocrisy: the man whose mission was to expose the secrets of governments was taken aback at the prospect of his own secrets made public.

In truth, there was no hypocrisy: individuals (typically) have a greater expectation of – and right to – privacy than governments, because individuals are not given power by the citizenry. Governments, conversely, are empowered by, and accountable to, their citizens – the private investigation of governments (by citizens, journalistic citizen apparati, or other means) is an important check on their power and a shield against over-reaching, as well as an alarm to corruption and waste (necessarily tempered by security concerns). Individuals, on the other hand, are answerable to laws, not to the population at large, and have thus a more pronounced expectation of privacy in their affairs. People elect governments, making governments answerable to people. The same is not true of Mr. Assange, who never stood for election.


Like Clockwork

April 23, 2010

Lifted shamelessly from Reason.com, where Brendan O’Neil published it: Big Brother run amok across the pond.

In recent years Britain has become the Willy Wonka of social control, churning out increasingly creepy, bizarre, and fantastic methods for policing the populace. But our weaponization of classical music—where Mozart, Beethoven, and other greats have been turned into tools of state repression—marks a new low.

We’re already the kings of CCTV (closed-circuit television). An estimated 20 per cent of the world’s CCTV cameras are in the UK, a remarkable achievement for an island that occupies only 0.2 per cent of the world’s inhabitable landmass.

A few years ago some local authorities introduced the Mosquito, a gadget that emits a noise that sounds like a faint buzz to people over the age of 20 but which is so high-pitched, so piercing, and so unbearable to the delicate ear drums of anyone under 20 that they cannot remain in earshot. It’s designed to drive away unruly youth from public spaces, yet is so brutally indiscriminate that it also drives away good kids, terrifies toddlers, and wakes sleeping babes.

Police in the West of England recently started using super-bright halogen lights to temporarily blind misbehaving youngsters. From helicopters, the cops beam the spotlights at youths drinking or loitering in parks, in the hope that they will become so bamboozled that (when they recover their eyesight) they will stagger home.

And recently police in Liverpool boasted about making Britain’s first-ever arrest by unmanned flying drone. Inspired, it seems, by Britain and America’s robot planes in Afghanistan, the Liverpool cops used a remote-control helicopter fitted with CCTV (of course) to catch a car thief.

Britain might not make steel anymore, or cars, or pop music worth listening to, but, boy, are we world-beaters when it comes to tyranny. And now classical music, which was once taught to young people as a way of elevating their minds and tingling their souls, is being mined for its potential as a deterrent against bad behavior.

In January it was revealed that West Park School, in Derby in the midlands of England, was “subjecting” (its words) badly behaved children to Mozart and others. In “special detentions,” the children are forced to endure two hours of classical music both as a relaxant (the headmaster claims it calms them down) and as a deterrent against future bad behavior (apparently the number of disruptive pupils has fallen by 60 per cent since the detentions were introduced.)

One news report says some of the children who have endured this Mozart authoritarianism now find classical music unbearable. As one critical commentator said, they will probably “go into adulthood associating great music—the most bewitchingly lovely sounds on Earth—with a punitive slap on the chops.” This is what passes for education in Britain today: teaching kids to think “Danger!” whenever they hear Mozart’s Requiem or some other piece of musical genius.

The classical music detentions at West Park School are only the latest experiment in using and abusing some of humanity’s greatest cultural achievements to reprimand youth.

Across the UK, local councils and other public institutions now play recorded classical music through speakers at bus-stops, in parking lots, outside department stores, and elsewhere. No, not because they think the public will appreciate these sweet sounds (they think we are uncultured grunts), but because they hope it will make naughty youngsters flee.

Tyne and Wear in the north of England was one of the first parts of the UK to weaponize classical music. In the early 2000s, the local railway company decided to do something about the “problem” of “youths hanging around” its train stations. The young people were “not getting up to criminal activities,” admitted Tyne and Wear Metro, but they were “swearing, smoking at stations and harassing passengers.” So the railway company unleashed “blasts of Mozart and Vivaldi.”

Apparently it was a roaring success. The youth fled. “They seem to loathe [the music],” said the proud railway guy. “It’s pretty uncool to be seen hanging around somewhere when Mozart is playing.” He said the most successful deterrent music included the Pastoral Symphony by Beethoven, Symphony No. 2 by Rachmaninov, and Piano Concerto No. 2 by Shostakovich. (That last, I kind of understand.)

In Yorkshire in the north of England, the local council has started playing classical music through vandal-proof speakers at “troublesome bus-stops” between 7:30 PM and 11:30 PM. Shops in Worcester, Bristol, and North Wales have also taken to “firing out” bursts of classical music to ward of feckless youngsters.

In Holywood (in County Down in Northern Ireland, not to be confused with Hollywood in California), local businesspeople encouraged the council to pipe classical music as a way of getting rid of youngsters who were spitting in the street and doing graffiti. And apparently classical music defeats street art: The graffiti levels fell.

Anthony Burgess’s nightmare vision of an elite using high culture as a “punitive slap on the chops” for low youth has come true. In Burgess’s 1962 dystopian novel A Clockwork Orange, famously filmed by Stanley Kubrick in 1971, the unruly youngster Alex is subjected to “the Ludovico Technique” by the crazed authorities. Forced to take drugs that induce nausea and to watch graphically violent movies for two weeks, while simultaneously listening to Beethoven, Alex is slowly rewired and re-moulded. But he rebels, especially against the use of classical music as punishment.

Pleading with his therapists to turn the music off, he tells them that “Ludwig van” did nothing wrong, he “only made music.” He tells the doctors it’s a sin to turn him against Beethoven and take away his love of music. But they ignore him. At the end of it all, Alex is no longer able to listen to his favorite music without feeling distressed. A bit like that schoolboy in Derby who now sticks his fingers in his ears when he hears Mozart.

The weaponization of classical music speaks volumes about the British elite’s authoritarianism and cultural backwardness. They’re so desperate to control youth—but from a distance, without actually having to engage with them—that they will film their every move, fire high-pitched noises in their ears, shine lights in their eyes, and bombard them with Mozart. And they have so little faith in young people’s intellectual abilities, in their capacity and their willingness to engage with humanity’s highest forms of art, that they imagine Beethoven and Mozart and others will be repugnant to young ears. Of course, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The dangerous message being sent to young people is clear: 1) you are scum; 2) classical music is not a wonder of the human world, it’s a repellent against mildly anti-social behavior.


Brooks, on The Machine

February 28, 2010

David Brooks, The New York Times‘ token conservative, recently wrote an opinion called “The Power Elite” which was published in that newspaper on February 18 of this year. In it, he accurately plots the trajectory of America’s confidence in its leadership and establishments as the composition of those institutions “progresses” …or rather, fails to. It’s worth a read, and presented here, below, sans editing. Mr. Brooks is on to something. 

One of the great achievements of modern times is that we have made society more fair. Sixty years ago, the upper echelons were dominated by what E. Digby Baltzell called The Protestant Establishment and C. Wright Mills called The Power Elite. If your father went to Harvard, you had a 90 percent chance of getting in yourself, and the path upward from there was grooved in your favor. 

Since then, we have opened up opportunities for women, African-Americans, Jews, Italians, Poles, Hispanics and members of many other groups. Moreover, we’ve changed the criteria for success. It is less necessary to be clubbable. It is more important to be smart and hard-working. 

Yet here’s the funny thing. As we’ve made our institutions more meritocratic, their public standing has plummeted. We’ve increased the diversity and talent level of people at the top of society, yet trust in elites has never been lower. 

It’s not even clear that society is better led. Fifty years ago, the financial world was dominated by well-connected blue bloods who drank at lunch and played golf in the afternoons. Now financial firms recruit from the cream of the Ivy League. In 2007, 47 percent of Harvard grads went into finance or consulting. Yet would we say that banks are performing more ably than they were a half-century ago? 

Alas...

 Government used to be staffed by party hacks. Today, it is staffed by people from public policy schools. But does government work better than it did before? 

Journalism used to be the preserve of working-class stiffs who filed stories and hit the bars. Now it is the preserve of cultured analysts who file stories and hit the water bottles. Is the media overall more reputable now than it was then? 

The promise of the meritocracy has not been fulfilled. The talent level is higher, but the reputation is lower. 

Why has this happened? I can think of a few contributing factors. 

First, the meritocracy is based on an overly narrow definition of talent. Our system rewards those who can amass technical knowledge. But this skill is only marginally related to the skill of being sensitive to context. It is not related at all to skills like empathy. Over the past years, we’ve seen very smart people make mistakes because they didn’t understand the context in which they were operating. 

Second, this new system has created new social chasms. In the old days, there were obviously big differences between people whose lives were defined by “The Philadelphia Story” and those who were defined by “The Grapes of Wrath.” But if you ran the largest bank in Murfreesboro, Tenn., you probably lived in Murfreesboro. Now you live in Charlotte or New York City. You might have married a secretary. Now you marry another banker. You would have had similar lifestyle habits as other people in town. Now the lifestyle patterns of the college-educated are very different from the patterns in other classes. Social attitudes are very different, too. 

It could be that Americans actually feel less connected to their leadership class now than they did then, with good reason. 

Third, leadership-class solidarity is weaker. The Protestant Establishment was inbred. On the other hand, those social connections placed informal limits on strife. Personal scandals were hushed up. Now members of the leadership class are engaged in a perpetual state of war. Each side seeks daily advantage in ways that poison the long-term reputations of everybody involved. 

Fourth, time horizons have shrunk. If you were an old blue blood, you traced your lineage back centuries, and there was a decent chance that you’d hand your company down to members of your clan. That subtly encouraged long-term thinking. 

Now people respond to ever-faster performance criteria — daily stock prices or tracking polls. This perversely encourages reckless behavior. To leave a mark in a fast, competitive world, leaders seek to hit grandiose home runs. Clinton tried to transform health care. Bush tried to transform the Middle East. Obama has tried to transform health care, energy and much more. 

There’s less emphasis on steady, gradual change and more emphasis on the big swing. This produces more spectacular failures and more uncertainty. Many Americans, not caught up on the romance of this sort of heroism, are terrified. 

Fifth, society is too transparent. Since Watergate, we have tried to make government as open as possible. But as William Galston of the Brookings Institution jokes, government should sometimes be shrouded for the same reason that middle-aged people should be clothed. This isn’t Galston’s point, but I’d observe that the more government has become transparent, the less people are inclined to trust it. 

This is not to say that we should return to the days of the WASP ascendancy. That’s neither possible nor desirable. Rather, our system of promotion has grown some pretty serious problems, which are more evident with each passing day.