Disliking the public

There are those in the press and government who don’t like or trust the public they serve. It is an unliberal attitude–which can come from Liberals, by the way–for it doesn’t buy the core belief of liberal democracy that the people properly rule. Two classic examples:

Here we have a German government official saying that it is his job to protect consumers from themselves. In other words, they don’t know best; he does. Nevermind what they do — giving up private data on Facebook or giving Google the highest market penetration anywhere — he says they should do something else. And so he’ll use his regulatory power to change their behavior to his expectation.

And here we have a columnist for the Observer (aka Guardian), Will Hutton, who says in a fit of journalistic hubris that the BBC is “the last bulwark against populist government by the mob.” So the BBC is what protects the public from itself. He further says, “The bile, unfairness and lack of restraint in the blogosphere is infecting the mainstream media and thus American politics.” Which is to say that the press and government were unsullied and free of bile and unfairness until these damned bloggers (read: citizens with tongues) came along to corrupt them.

In both cases, we simply see members of a power structure threatened by the emergence of a public with its own mind and voice. We thus see the conflict that arises out of the rise of publicness. That’s one of the topics I’m thinking through as I write my book.

  • Funny coming across this article, because I was just thinking the opposite. I read a story in Big Press about some company being “the next Google”. Who cares. Does it have a product that I want to use?

    I have written in the past that Big needs Big. The network of Giants always has to have one big winner and a lot of wannabes and losers. They cannot fathom a fungible world, where success, and information, is spread — yea, squandered — across lots and lots of blogs, and people.

    In this same way, these officials need to call the shots and decide what is right or wrong. The detail, the tailored knowledge….the cannot fathom.

    • Andy Freeman

      > The network of Giants always has to have one big winner and a lot of wannabes and losers.

      Story-tellers need big. Big makes is easier for them to tell their stories and reduces the amount of work that they have to do.

      Govts need big too. They don’t have the bandwidth to deal with reality and big gives them the illusion that they can cope.

  • reader

    I think you might oversell your case. Anti-majoritarianism has its proper place. It’s why we have a Senate, and why Supreme Court Justices have life tenure.

    • Another reader


      _One_ core principle of liberal democracy is majority rule. _Another_, just as important, is protecting the rights of political, and other, minorities. Plenty of bad rulers have been elected. That’s why we have the Supreme Court.

      As the article indicates, many Germans like it, but it may violate a right in the German Constitution. In the U.S., at least, politicians swear to uphold the Constitution, not to obey the whims of the public – let alone the whims of the latest Silicon Valley fad.

      There is one state that governs the way you’re talking about – California. And it’s a disaster.

  • Then there are those who dislike the press and government.

  • This is textbook colonialism, Jeff, and if you have eyes to see it, you’ll recognize it everywhere from the workplace to government to religion. A central tenet of colonialism is that the (uneducated, poor) masses need the (educated, rich) elite, but that is seriously disrupted in a hyperconnected universe. The truth is that the elite need the masses more so than the other way around, and so you have the essence of the cultural conflict of the 21st Century.

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  • Jay

    Mr. Jarvis, did you read the same article I did? You seem to be overlooking the facts, quoted below from the NYT piece.

    FACT: Google did indeed collect information it should not have, as has been widely reported and as is noted in this paragraph.

    “American technology companies are under close scrutiny in Germany. Google is being investigated for having errantly collected personal Internet information like e-mail passwords while doing research for its Street View mapping service.

    FACT: Facebook did collect data it should not have. And guess what, Facebook realized there was a groundswell of opposition to its privacy policies, but I guess you would discount that since it was headed by a member of the “elite”, Canada’s privacy commissioner.

    “Facebook is being investigated for collecting data on non-Facebook users from the mailing lists of active users. And Apple has been asked to explain what kind of information its latest iPhone 4 is storing on users and for how long.”

    AND PRETTY CLOSE TO “FACT”: Yeah, OK, one can’t prove that most people are clueless with respect to what is being done with their data, but deep inside, you know this is true, don’t you? Sure, many people don’t care — until their info is misused, and then all of a sudden they ask why government did nothing to protect them from corporate sharks.

    “Johannes Caspar, a data protection supervisor in Hamburg who is conducting the investigations into Google and Facebook, said his agency was trying to protect consumers from themselves. “The problem is that many people are unaware what is being done with their data,” he said.”

    FACT: Governments and corporations have been known to use personal information in nefarious ways. Some governments, for example, have a history of illegal wiretapping.

    “Strict privacy laws are a product of the post-World War II reconstruction, when German lawmakers restricted the use of personal information to prevent the government from singling out citizens and persecuting them.”

    NOT FACT: Mr. Jarvis, you say that Casper’s comments are evidence of “members of a power structure threatened by the emergence of a public with its own mind and voice”. I’m not sure how you’ve infused a couple of quotes from a German bureaucrat with paradigm-shifting significance. Another interpretation is that the man is doing his job.

    I don’t know what it’s like in the USA, but in Canada, I surmise that people realize they are not experts in everything. If we don’t like the decisions of “elites” or “experts”, we have the ballot box and we have political action. So if the German people don’t rise up against these oppressive government functionaries, I guess one can say the people have decided — they either don’t care, or they approve.

    • Eric Gauvin

      This is usually where Professor Jarvis quickly makes a few new posts and changes the topic to something more important…

  • Will Hutton’s column was more nuanced than you imply. Its main thrust was the regulatory requirement for British news broadcasting to be impartial (unlike Fox), a trend for Coalition ministers to criticise the BBC and the supine reaction of US govt and pressure groups in the Shirley Sterrod case.

    He certainly doesn’t imply, or at least thats not how i read it, that the “blogosphere” is a lumpen bloc. It was a stout defence of the BBC obviously but you could just as much read it as a discussion of the consequence of a power structure threatened by a strong, independent er, “old media” rather than a consequence of an empowered public voice due to the tools created by the new.

    • That was his point but there was much collateral revelation, I think

    • Andy Freeman

      > the regulatory requirement for British news broadcasting to be impartial (unlike Fox),

      Hmm – what US news, broadcasting, or publishing organizations have a regulatory requirement or obligation to be impartial?

      I’ll help – none. So why mention Fox?

      Yes, Fox is different – very few of its people participated in Journolist.

    • Michael K Pate

      At least Hutton isn’t actively advocating the overthrow of the government.


  • Chris B

    Jeff, what about things like Prop 8? You celebrated the judge’s ruling today on TWIG, but if we run things simply via voter preferences — the voters clearly supported Prop 8 — then it’s clearly “illiberal” to celebrate the ruling.

    Not that being illiberal is always bad… the Founding Fathers clearly sought to check the power of direct democracy, as others have already noted. And they were right.

    • I’m never suggesting that everything is simply a vote — not design of a car, not a constitution. That is why we have a structure. And ours is pretty damned good. Today’s news is a case of it working. The constitution rules.

      • Chris B

        I find your comment to be perfectly plausible, but I don’t think that it reconciles very well with your original post as written. Apply the text of the post to this instance… do the people of CA properly rule? Do they know best? Didn’t the voters evince their own mind & voice?

        Again, I see no problem with asserting that the people can be wrong and that we need the judiciary to correct their errors. I just don’t know how one might simultaneously hold both that position and what I read in your original post.

        To be clear, I’m open to correction if I’ve misread the post; I’ve re-read it to try to ensure that I’m not reading in something that’s not there, but it still reads as a very strong affirmation of the power of the people. But doesn’t your take on today affirm that in fact there are times when it’s not only okay, but even necessary to dislike the public?

  • roger rainey

    “CAN come from liberals”? Isn’t it clear that the preponderance comes from liberals?

  • Kate

    Hey buzz machine. Do you have a weekly mail out? I feel I might quite like to hear your latest rants (sorry) regularly. Thanks.