CS009: Computers and Human Values
Department of Computer Science, Brown University
Notes, November 29th -- Roger B. Blumberg

Lippmann II: 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).

Computer Networks, Propaganda, Privacy and Censorship

The recent controversy about the "coverage" of Brown campus life on the Fox News Channel's "The O'Reilly Factor" seems to point to a problem that Lippmann had perhaps not imagined. In the final section of his chapter, "Privacy and Censorship", Lippmann writes:

"Without some form of censorship, propaganda in the strict sense of the word is impossible. In order to conduct a propaganda there must be some barrier between the public and the event. Access to the real environment must be limited, before anyone can create a pseudo-environment that he thinks wise or desirable. For while people who have direct access can misconceive what they see, no one else can decide how they shall misconceive it, unless he can decide where they shall look, and at what."

"At different times and for different subjects some men impose and other men accept a particular standard of secrecy. The frontier between what is concealed because publication is not, as we say, "compatible with the public interest" fades gradually into what is concealed because it is believed to be none of the public's business. The notion of what constitutes a person's private affairs is elastic. Thus the amount of a man's fortune is considered a private affair, and careful provision is made in the income tax law to keep it as private as possible. The sale of a piece of land is not private, but the price may be. Salaries are generally treated as more private than wages, incomes as more private than inheritances. A person's credit rating is given only a limited circulation. The profits of big corporations are more public than those of small firms. Certain kinds of conversation, between man and wife, lawyer and client, doctor and patient, priest and communicant, are privileged. Directors' meetings are generally private. So are many political conferences. Most of what is said at a cabinet meeting, or by an ambassador to the Secretary of State, or at private interviews, or dinner tables, is private. Many people regard the contract between employer and employee as private. There was a time when the affairs of all corporations were held to be as private as a man's theology is to-day. There was a time before that when his theology was held to be as public a matter as the color of his eyes."

In an era of computer networks and media outlets, with voracious appetites for "content", the phrase "compatible with the public interest" seems a difficult foundation for regulating the airwaves (which are publicly licensed). Punishing a particular content producer for "showing" something, or compelling them not to show it in the first place, often results in cries of "censorship". Yet the term "censorship" has an interesting, and relatively short history, grounded in the concept of "news". What Lippmann could not have imagined (I think) is the way contemporary technology has facilitated "The End of News", in Michael Massing's phrase, and we might take a moment to discuss how/whether this contemporary development changes how we should evaluate Lippmann's ideas.

Public Opinion, Parts 5-8

"We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness."

We'll begin with a discussion of the phrase "consent of the governed". What does it mean in the passage from The Declaration of Independence and what does it mean to you now? How do Lippmann's chapters "The Making of a Common Will"? Does Lippmann's view alter or confirm your sense of the role and/or significance of newspapers (or other forms of media) in a democracy?

You may have noticed Lippmann's stylistic tick of concluding each chapter with a rather discouraging final paragraph. In this light, what did you make of "The Image of Democracy" and specifically the chapter "A New Image"?

We'll do our best to finish Lippmann's book on Thursday. A framework that might inform all the presentations and discussions is the one created in the last part of the book by the juxtaposition of chapters titled "The Appeal to the Public" and "The Appeal to Reason."

Last Words and New Questions about Public Opinion

As we finish Lippmann's book it is useful to return to Cherny's The Next Deal and ask:

For Next Time:: Finish Public Opinion.

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