Warring Stories

[Note: Tim Bray is conducting an interesting exercise in public debate over on Google+, testing its commenting capabilities to see how it fares in civil discourse on contentious political topics. His efforts are well worth following. I’m re-posting one of my comments below for posterity – as much for my own benefit as anyone else’s.]

There seems to be a nearly universal preference for narrative over fact in most (if not all) of the US debate over economic policy. People invest the issue with their own biases (a common propensity) then construct or defend the most closely aligned story.

In short, people have been led to believe that the whole situation:

a) makes sense;
b) can be simply expressed; and
c) has a straightforward solution, if only the rest of the world can be made to see it.

This explains not only the refusal even to grant that a debt policy must of necessity consider revenue generation AND reduced spending, but also the tendency to draw the Hayek/Keynes/Friedman debate as a zero-sum argument.

Government, at the best of times, is more a clusterfuck than anything else. It requires a level of opportunism and ideological/ethical/moral compromise that few of us can stomach. Tragically, it breeds people who can stomach it far too easily.

Human society requires narrative in order to make sense of this otherwise senseless situation. (We can’t all be Sartre or Clauswitz – and really, who wants to be?) But its desire for narrative has been cynically abused so consistently and for so long by propaganda that the possibility for civic (not to say civil) discourse has been reduced nearly to zero.

The increasingly (irretrievably?) fictional rhetoric driven by the various camps within the anarchic village that is Washington has made mutual understanding (and therefore compromise) impossible. We can, in other words, no longer talk usefully amongst ourselves.

Protecting our Children

[This week’s Communications column for the Vanuatu Independent.]

Note: Because of public demand for a printable version of this column, here’s a PDF version of this week’s column.

This week, I’m going to give over much of my column space so that other voices can be heard.

Over the last two weeks or so, there’s been an animated and quite fascinating discussion on the VIGNET technical mailing list. VIGNET is a mailing list service provided by the Vanuatu IT Users Society (VITUS) in order to contribute to a public dialogue about all things to do with technology. With over 220 subscribers, it represents a significant number of people working in IT in Vanuatu.

Following the roll-out of Digicel’s GPRS mobile Internet service, concerns have been raised about children and youth in Vanuatu having access to unsuitable content, especially pornography, through their mobile phones.

With nearly 100 messages from dozens of different contributors, the discussion was illuminating, intelligent and remarkably respectful, especially given the delicacy of the topic. What follows is a small but representative sampling….

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Words for Words

[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Weekender Edition.]

A week ago today, four men entered the offices of the Vanuatu Daily Post and attacked publisher Marc Neil-Jones, punching him hard enough to fracture his nose and then kicking him while he was down.

Asked about the assault, Neil-Jones half-smiled and described it in philosophical terms, suggesting that this kind of treatment comes with the territory. “This isn’t the first time this has happened to me,” he said, then added wryly, “of course, I’m older now than I was.”

Neil-Jones was beaten because his staff did their job, reporting on events and recording their views, for the public good and for posterity.

This column isn’t about the events that led to the attack. It’s not about prisons, politics or even publishers. This column is about getting results. It’s about resolving issues instead of exacerbating them.

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