CS009: Computers and Human Values
Department of Computer Science, Brown University
Notes, December 1st -- Roger B. Blumberg

Lippmann III: Public Opinion, Expertise, Lippmann's America and Ours

Introduction: Foreign Policy and Public Opinion

In the same year of Lippmann's Public Opinion, Elihu Root wrote, in the first issue of Foreign Affairs,:

When foreign affairs were ruled by autocracies or oligarchies the danger of war was in sinister purpose. When foreign affairs are ruled by democracies the danger of war will be in mistaken beliefs. The world will be the gainer by the change, for, while there is no human way to prevent a king from having a bad heart, there is a human way to prevent a people from having an erroneous opinion
(from "A Requisite for the Success of Popular Diplomacy." Foreign Affairs 1:1-10, (1922))

Root had been a US Secretary of War and Secretary of State, and he had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1912. By 1922 he was a well respected (Republican) foreign policy expert.

Root's view clearly differs from Lippmann's and today, as the US finds itself in the midst of a war the justification for which may have been "mistaken beliefs", it might be useful to: discuss and debate the merits of Root's and Lippmann's views on the role that public opinion can/should play in US foreign policy. We can begin by questioning how and to what extent propaganda can be said to shape US public opinion today compared to the US of the 1920s; and ask, in the spirit of Root's remark, what sorts of errors of political judgement we think worst and whether/how they can be avoided.

I should repeat here that Lippmann came to question his views about public opinion and foreign policy in light of the Vietnam War. It turned out that public opinion isn't the only "dangerous master of decision when the stakes are life and death" (a quotation from Lippmann's 1955 book, Essays in the Public Philosophy).

Public Opinion, Parts 7-8

I am completely exasperated by this approach to the news. The idea seems to be that we go out to report but when it comes time to write we turn our brains off and repeat the spin from both sides. God forbid we should...attempt to fairly assess what we see with our own eyes. "Balanced" is not fair, it's just an easy way of avoiding real reporting and shirking our responsibility to inform readers." Ken Silverstein, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, quoted by Michael Massing in "The Press: The Enemy Within", NYRB, 12/15/05.

We'll begin our discussion by asking what Lippmann thought were the primary problems with the press, and what Massing and other contemporaries now think is the primary problem. We can then think about whether Lippmann's solutions/remedies were persuasively presented in Public Opinion and whether they could be so presented now.

For Tuesday:: Read the epigraphs and the first 5 chapters of Cass Sunstein's republic.com.

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