Monday, March 14, 2022

Chomsky’s “propaganda model” of mass media

A common mistake people make when evaluating a theory is to fail to keep in mind the distinction between the theory itself, its application to particular cases, and the auxiliary assumptions an advocate of the theory makes when developing that application.  People will often reject a theory because they find some particular application problematic, where if they thought about the matter more carefully they would see that the problem is only with that application and/or with the auxiliary assumptions, and not with the theory itself. 

For example, and as I’ve often emphasized, philosophers and historians of science commit this error when they claim that the key theses of Aristotelian philosophy of nature (concerning substantial form, natural teleology, etc.) were refuted by modern science.  As I have argued, what modern science has refuted are really only certain auxiliary empirical assumptions that medieval Aristotelians took for granted when applying these ideas, but not the ideas themselves.

Naturally, it would also be fallacious to judge that some application of a theory, or some auxiliary assumption made when developing that application, must be correct simply because the theory itself is sound.  A modern Aristotelian would be committing such a fallacy if, for example, he judged that, since Aristotelian philosophy of nature is after all still defensible, we should conclude that medieval empirical science too is still defensible and that Galileo and company were all wrong. 

A very different example is provided by the “propaganda model” of mass media famously associated with Noam Chomsky, and developed by Chomsky and Edward Herman in their book Manufacturing Consent.  Chomsky is well-known for applying this model to media coverage of U.S. foreign policy, in the service of his particular (anarchosyndicalist) brand of left-wing politics and economics.  Many right-wingers dismiss Chomsky’s model because they reject his left-wing assumptions and the claims he makes about U.S. foreign policy in the name of the model.  Many left-wingers, finding the model itself plausible and already sympathetic to some the political and economic assumptions Chomsky brings to bear when applying it, judge that the applications must be sound.  But here too the three factors – the model itself, the auxiliary political and economic assumptions in question, and the various applications to particular cases – must be distinguished.  Acceptance (or rejection) of one doesn’t entail acceptance (or rejection) of the others.

Wholesale acceptance or rejection is nevertheless common, and tends to be vehement, for Chomsky is a polarizing figure.  This is unsurprising.  On the one hand, he is obviously brilliant and has made important contributions to modern intellectual life – to linguistics, of course, but also to philosophy, as I have noted here before.  Even when you think what he is saying is batty, he is always interesting to listen to, and is independently-minded enough to annoy even his fans from time to time.  On the other hand, especially on political matters he is, to say the least, prone to wild overstatement and sweeping remarks.  He has an annoying habit of reeling out long strings of peremptory assertions, some of them reasonable, some unreasonable, but in any case largely tendentious and controversial yet presented as if no rational and well-informed person could possibly disagree.  He is himself also insufficiently careful to distinguish his “propaganda model” from the left-wing political and economic assumptions that influence his application of it.

My own political and economic views are most certainly not left-wing, though I also reject the libertarian or doctrinaire free-market position that is Chomsky’s usual target.  In my opinion, capitalism is a mixed bag.  You needn’t either accept the whole thing or reject the whole thing.  Left-wingers are too quick to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and right-wingers are too willing to swallow the bathwater in the name of saving the baby.  In any event, my fundamental political principles are subsidiarity, solidarity, and pietas rather than, say, liberty, equality, and fraternity (much less diversity, equity, and inclusion).  My basic economic principles are those of popes Leo XIII and Pius XI.  In short, I approach these issues from the point of view of Catholic social teaching and Thomistic natural law theory.

Naturally, since my political and economic commitments are very different from Chomsky’s, I disagree with much of what he says when he applies his “propaganda model” to specific cases.  For example, while I agree with him that business interests are not always as benign as too many free-marketers suppose, I do not think that U.S. anti-communist foreign policy was essentially malign, as Chomsky supposes.  But you’d have to go case by case when evaluating his various applications of the model, and that’s not what I’m interested in here.  What I do want to address is the “propaganda model” itself, which can be disentangled from Chomsky’s own applications and his background auxiliary political and economic assumptions.

The model

Chomsky and Herman’s “propaganda model” is intended to explain and predict how mass media operate in capitalist countries like the United States, where the feature of capitalism they are most concerned with is the domination of the economic system by large private business corporations.  They hold that mass media in such countries exhibit a systematic tendency to select and convey information, formulate matters of controversy, and frame what counts as respectable alternative positions on those matters, in a way that reflects and upholds the basic ideological presuppositions of the overall corporate order of things.  This basic idea is pretty simple, and may even seem almost trivially true.  Indeed, Chomsky himself takes the basic thesis to be really more of an observation about a fairly obvious feature of the system rather than a “theory.”  But it is an observation that many people do not make, and its implications are insufficiently appreciated.

Chomsky and Herman hold that there are, specifically, five “filters” that determine what information and ideas tend to be conveyed through mass media and how they are presented.  The first concerns the ownership of the media.  In the United States, the main media outlets are themselves owned by large private corporations.  Accordingly, they have a direct interest in upholding the ideological presuppositions of the overall corporate-dominated economic order.  There are, of course, smaller and more local media companies as well.  But they have a strong tendency to reflect the view of things that prevails in the larger mass media.  For the larger companies have much greater resources and thus can generate the information and opinion content that smaller companies draw on in putting together their own content.  The larger companies also have brand-name recognition and prestige that gives smaller and more local media an incentive to follow their lead.

The second filter concerns advertising as the primary source of the income of media companies.  This feature makes media companies inclined to cater primarily to the interests of advertisers rather than to those of readers or viewers (who provide much less in the way of revenue via subscriptions and the like).  Advertisers themselves are primarily interested in appealing to those with purchasing power.  The overall result is that media companies have a strong incentive not to offend the sensibilities of the wealthy, and indeed to frame news and opinion in a way that upholds the basic presuppositions of the system that keeps them wealthy.

The third filter concerns the sources of the information and opinions that are propagated by mass media, which are primarily government officials, business interests, and the experts who are approved of and often funded by government and business.  News media require government and business sources to provide most of the day-to-day information that serves as the content of news stories and programs.  That reporters can draw on “official” sources like these saves them much work and gives the information a prima facie credibility, especially since the government and business sources have more direct knowledge of the events and policies being reported on.  Media also have a natural incentive to want to stay on good terms with these sources.  Government and business sources, meanwhile, obviously have a strong incentive to present information in a way that is maximally consistent with furthering their own interests, and also to stay on good terms with media.  The result is that media, government, and business tend to converge in the picture of events that they present to the public, in a kind of tacit collusion of bureaucracies.

Universities are also a source of expert information, but these, Chomsky notes, are themselves largely dependent for their funding on government and on corporate donations.  Hence they inherit the tendency not to challenge the basic ideological presuppositions shared by government and corporations.  We might note also that, just as smaller media companies follow the lead of the big corporations, so too do smaller academic institutions tend to follow the lead of the most prestigious universities vis-à-vis what ideas are judged respectable, who are the sorts of faculty who ought therefore to be hired, and so on.  And the most prestigious universities are, of course, the ones that cater to the wealthiest segment of society, and whose graduates provide the personnel that dominate media, business, and government.  The result of all this is that it is what is in the common interest of these institutions (government, big corporations, mass media companies, and prestige universities) that will be reflected in the sources that shape the content of news and opinion outlets.

The fourth filter has to do with the “flak” or negative feedback that mass media companies get when their content conflicts with these common interests.  Flak can of course include angry letters to the editor from unhappy readers and the like, but this is not the sort of thing that makes much of a difference to media content.  The flak that counts is the flak that comes from powerful people and institutions – corporations who might threaten lawsuits or pull their advertising from a program or publication, government officials who might stop providing information or threaten hostile regulation, experts whose criticism of a media outlet might entail a loss of prestige, boycotts organized by well-funded interest groups, and so on.

The fifth and final filter is “fear.”  The idea here is that mass media have an interest in selecting and conveying information, and in molding what counts as a respectable range of opinion, in a manner that is conducive to generating fear and hostility toward anyone who would challenge the shared basic ideological presuppositions of the overall government-corporate-media complex.  News stories will, accordingly, tend to characterize people who criticize these presuppositions as ill-informed and irrational, will portray these critics as a constant threat to social order, will play up stories that make this threat seem grave and imminent, and so on. 

Naturally, these critics will also tend to be portrayed as villainous in the popular entertainment content provided by mass media companies.  But Chomsky sees such entertainment as playing essentially a “bread and circuses” role in the corporate economic order.  The function of the ideas that prevail in news media, expert opinion, and universities is to mold the thinking of those who will become future leaders in government, business, media, etc., so that they will act in a way that positively upholds the ideological presuppositions of the status quo.  The function of the ideas conveyed in popular entertainment is to keep the masses acquiescent in this status quo, but primarily by way of providing endless distractions that keep most people from even thinking about the nature of the political and economic system and its ideological presuppositions.

Common misunderstandings

In order properly to understand this “propaganda model” of mass media, it is crucial to note that it is not saying what people often mistakenly accuse it of saying.  For example, Chomsky is often accused of peddling a “conspiracy theory.”  But that is precisely what he is not doing.  Indeed, Chomsky has, much to the frustration of some of his fans, been consistently critical of the best-known conspiracy theories of recent times, such as those that posit U.S. government involvement in the JFK assassination, those that claim that 9/11 was an “inside job,” and those that allege “collusion” between Trump and Russia during the 2016 election.

Chomsky is not positing a cabal of sinister operatives who gather in smoke-filled rooms to plot out what will be said in mass media.  He is instead describing economic incentives, cultural attitudes and mores, and the like, which shape the thinking of opinion-makers mostly without their even realizing it.  He is also not claiming that most of the people who write news stories and express opinions on issues of the day are lying, or that they have bad motives.  On the contrary, he says that for the most part they sincerely believe themselves to be conveying the unvarnished facts and to be providing reasonable and responsible commentary about those facts.  The trouble is rather that, in determining what facts are important and worth reporting, which experts to trust, which alternative opinions are respectable and worth a hearing, and so forth, they are guided by assumptions they are mostly unaware of and never seriously question, and that these assumptions conform to the basic ideological presuppositions of the overall governmental-corporate order of things.  Hence they never seriously reflect on whether that order is itself problematic, and indeed find it very difficult even to consider the possibility that it might be and that those who challenge it might have serious reasons for doing so.

Nor is Chomsky positing a self-defeating “hermeneutics of suspicion” that undermines the possibility of knowing anything, including the propaganda model itself.  Chomsky is not a skeptic who thinks that we can never get at the truth.  On the contrary, he thinks that the relevant information about important controversies is available, sometimes in media and government sources themselves.  The trouble is that most people, including journalists and opinion makers, either don’t bother to look for it or misunderstand its significance.  The reason is, again, that their decisions about what is worth looking for, about how to interpret the relevant information, etc. are shaped by assumptions that uphold the interests of the corporate-government-media order and which they never seriously question. 

Chomsky also acknowledges that there are dissident voices and alternative sources of information.  He does not think that the U.S. political system is like that of Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, violently quashing dissent.  He emphasizes that that is not how suppression of criticism of those in power works in capitalist societies with democratic political structures.  Rather, it works in the much more subtle ways described by the propaganda model.  Indeed, the point of the model is in part to explain how violent suppression is not the only way for powerful political and economic forces to sustain themselves.  Chomsky is not claiming that dissent cannot or does not exist in the political and economic order he criticizes, but rather that voices and institutions that challenge the basic presuppositions of that order are at a massive disadvantage.  Hence it is not a serious criticism of the propaganda model to point out that there do exist anti-establishment media, that critics like Chomsky are able to get their books and articles published, etc.

Chomsky also does not deny the obvious fact that there is media criticism of government policy and of business, vigorous debate between the political parties over policy, and so on.  His point is that the criticism and debate are all kept within certain boundaries.  Criticism occurs when government or business does not live up to principles that reflect the basic ideological presuppositions of the state-corporate-media order of things.  Policies are considered worthy of debate when they are consistent with those presuppositions.  What does not occur is criticism or debate about those basic presuppositions themselves.  Chomsky also acknowledges that corporations do not always pursue profit, for an idea might be profitable in the short term but have a tendency to undermine the basic presuppositions of the government-corporate-media order in the long run.  Hence corporations and media will forego profits in a particular case if doing so helps to uphold that order.

It is also very important to see that there is nothing essentially left-wing in the model as I have described it so far.  Indeed, the model as I have described it so far is for the most part politically neutral.  One can even imagine someone who approves of the existing political and economic order of things and judges it good and proper that it is upheld in the way that Chomsky describes.  But of course, for someone who is critical of that order, what the propaganda model describes is seriously problematic, a major structural impediment to achieving a more just society.

Chomsky, again, criticizes the prevailing political and economic order from a left-wing point of view – in particular, from a very far-left point of view that he describes as “libertarian socialist” or anarchosyndicalist.  Hence the examples he uses to illustrate the “propaganda model” reflect that point of view.  For instance, his examples of the “fear” filter include anti-communism and the war on terror, and he routinely characterizes the government-corporate-media complex that the propaganda model upholds as “right-wing.” 

Conservative critics of Chomsky often find this mystifying.  They point to the liberal bias of news outlets like CNN and The New York Times, and the fact that one of the two main U.S. political parties is liberal, as if such facts obviously refuted him.  But what Chomsky is criticizing is what mainstream Democrats and Republicans alike agree on.  Both parties uphold a capitalist economic order dominated by large corporations, and thus neither is socialist, despite the fact that Democrats tend to favor more regulation and redistributive taxation than Republicans do.  From Chomsky’s perspective, that makes them both “right-wing” (even if the Republicans are further right than the Democrats) and thus he is critical of liberals and conservatives alike.  From a right-wing point of view that may be an idiosyncratic use of the term “right-wing,” but the substantive point is that to refute Chomsky it does not suffice merely to point out that mainstream media outlets tend to be liberal.

Appropriating the model

One could, in any case, object to the U.S. government-corporate-media complex from a right-wing perspective that is not as uncritical of capitalism as Chomsky’s usual conservative targets tend to be.  For example, one could object to it from a populist point of view, or from the point of view of Catholic integralism or some other brand of throne-and-altar conservatism.  Or one could simply object to features of the system for reasons drawn from Catholic social teaching and Thomistic natural law theory, even if one does not go in for populism, integralism, etc.  And one could adopt something like Chomsky’s “propaganda model” as a tool for analysis and criticism.  Needless to say, the particular features of contemporary mass media and state and corporate behavior that a right-wing version of the “propaganda model” would object to would be very different from the things Chomsky emphasizes.  But the basic model would be similar.  It would simply be a matter of applying it to different cases than the ones that interest Chomsky, and bringing different auxiliary political and economic assumptions to bear on the application.

Nor is it difficult to see obvious applications in recent history.  Consider the lockdowns that afforded no significant net benefit in dealing with Covid-19, but inflicted staggering economic damage and harm to children’s education and mental health.  Consider the 2020 riots that destroyed many businesses and neighborhoods, and the spike in crime that predictably followed in the wake of the imbecilic “defund the police” movement.  Consider the stubborn insistence on Covid-19 vaccine mandates even after it became clear that vaccination was no longer effective in stopping transmission, despite the fact that many who refused to comply have lost their jobs as a result.  Mass media outlets were in general not only supportive of these manifestly destructive policies, but shamelessly censored critics of the policies and demonized them as “anti-science,” “anti-vax,” “racist,” etc.

Given all of this enormous damage and how predictable it was, what explains the government-corporate-media complex’s support for the policies that led to it?  Well, consider some further facts.  Large corporations did extremely well during the lockdowns, especially media corporations and the tech companies that provide them their platforms.  It is the small businesses that compete with big corporations that suffered.  Wealthy and educated people who largely work and live online anyway had a relatively easy economic and psychological transition to lockdown conditions.  Working-class people, by contrast, either lost their jobs, or had to put themselves at risk of getting the virus in order to make it possible for the affluent to work from home while still getting their food and groceries delivered, their plumbing and electrical problems solved, and so on.  Wealthy people also had the financial wherewithal and technological resources to stay at home and make sure their children learned online, whereas poorer people had to go out to work or lacked the resources to provide reliable online access to class materials and Zoom sessions.  It was primarily poor neighborhoods that suffered when rioting occurred and when police presence was reduced.  Mandatory vaccination made enormous profits for pharmaceutical companies, and entailed unprecedented control by government-corporate-media bureaucracies over citizens, consumers, and public opinion.  Those who lost their jobs for resisting were largely working class people, as were the bulk of those demonized as “racist,” “anti-vax,” etc. 

In short, the social chaos of the last two years yielded increased wealth for corporations, increased power for governments, increased control over information flow for the mass media, and increased financial rewards and cost-free virtue-signaling opportunities for the affluent – while at the same time imposing economic hardship, decreased public safety, educational setbacks, psychological stress and humiliation on the working class and the poor. 

It is largely right-of-center voices who have been calling attention to this breathtaking social injustice, though there are many honorable exceptions on the left – some, like Glenn Greenwald, precisely in a Chomskian spirit.  In any event, the “propaganda model” makes good sense of what happened.  And again, it has nothing to do with any conspiracy.  It is instead a matter of a class of people with certain common interests and ideological presuppositions naturally converging on policies that serve those interests and support those presuppositions, while being blind or indifferent to the costs imposed on people with different interests or presuppositions. 

Unfortunately, too many right-wingers have over the last couple of years nevertheless fallen for crackpot “narratives” and woolly conspiracy theories.  The patterns they see in recent events are real, and they are correct to judge that these patterns are not accidental, but they reason fallaciously when they infer from this that there must therefore be some cabal that planned things to go the way they have.  The fallacy is similar to the one committed by egalitarians when they judge that economic disparities must have come about by discrimination. 

The truth is that complex social phenomena have structural features that can generate patterns without anyone having intended them.  They are, as Hayek liked to say, “spontaneous orders” which (as Scottish philosopher Adam Ferguson famously put it) are “the products of human action but not of human design.”  Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” is one such mechanism, and Chomsky’s “propaganda model” describes another.  That does not mean, either with the patterns Smith described or those that the “propaganda model” describes, that the patterns are necessarily benign or that we can’t work to counteract them.  That’s not the point.  The point is that before you can properly evaluate such a pattern, you need to understand how it actually comes about.  Conspiracy theories don’t aid us in understanding this, but only obscure what is really going on.  Into the bargain, they actually help those who are responsible for bad policies, by making their critics look paranoid and stupid.  (The Substack writer Eugyppius has written some helpful articles – e.g. here and here – about why what has been happening over the past couple of years is best understood as malign instances of “spontaneous order,” rather than in terms of conspiracy.)

The foolish things being said by a few (by no means all) Catholic traditionalists in defense of Vladimir Putin are the latest fruit of this muddleheaded “narrative thinking” and conspiracy theorizing.  The narrative has it that the people who favored lockdowns and vaccine mandates, and who are imposing “wokeness” on the country, have also long hated Putin because of his hostility to wokeness and because of their lunatic belief that he somehow stole the 2016 election for Trump.  And that much is true enough.  The problem is that the Putin defenders think this somehow shows that the invasion of Ukraine is defensible, or at least maybe not so bad, and that to oppose it somehow puts one in league with the woke conspiracy.  If you’re having trouble following the logic here, that’s because there isn’t any.  Whatever one thinks of Putin’s anti-woke and pro-Christian rhetoric, the fact remains that his invasion of Ukraine manifestly doesn’t meet just war criteria, and an unjust war is among the most grave of injustices.  Hence Putin is perpetrating great evil, and the fact that he has said some nice things in favor of Christianity and against wokeness doesn’t change that for a moment.

Of course, it doesn’t follow that NATO intervention in the war is a good idea.  Since it would risk nuclear war, it is an extremely bad idea, and itself would not meet just war criteria.  That there is even a debate about this is, I think, a consequence of the anti-Russian hysteria that has been ginned up within the mass media over the last few years.  That brings us back to Chomsky, who has long been critical of this hysteria and who I’ll give the last word.  In a recent interview, he addresses the Ukrainian situation.  On the one hand, he notes that peaceful, diplomatic means of addressing Russia’s concerns about NATO expansion were available before the war, and thus condemns Putin’s “criminal invasion” of Ukraine.  On the other hand, he warns against actions that can only make the situation far worse, such as the NATO no-fly zone requested by Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky.  Says Chomsky:

Zelensky’s plea is understandable.  [But] responding to it would very likely lead to the obliteration of Ukraine and well beyond.  The fact that it is even discussed in the U.S. is astonishing.  The idea is madness.  A no-fly zone means that the U.S. Air Force would not only be attacking Russian planes but would also be bombing Russian ground installations that provide anti-aircraft support for Russian forces, with whatever “collateral damage” ensues.  Is it really difficult to comprehend what follows?

Related reading:

Chomsky on the mind-body problem

Liberty, equality, fraternity?

The trouble with capitalism

Hayek’s tragic capitalism

Continetti on post-liberal conservatism

Adventures in the Old Atheism, Part IV: Marx

Scientism: America’s state religion

Narrative thinking and conspiracy theories

The trouble with conspiracy theories

Just war theory and the Russo-Ukrainian war

62 comments:

  1. I have 3 initial comments, to get things started. First:

    Chomsky is not positing a cabal of sinister operatives who gather in smoke-filled rooms to plot out what will be said in mass media. He is instead describing economic incentives, cultural attitudes and mores, and the like, which shape the thinking of opinion-makers mostly without their even realizing it.

    Given that he is looking at social structures and built-in mechanisms that can work - and DO work, in part without conscious intent, the term "propaganda model" is remarkably inapt. Propaganda denotes a kind of conscious, intentional molding of the material conveyed for purposes distinct from those of merely conveying simple truth. So: who came up with the name? If its authors, they are to blame for the misconceptions about their thesis. A better expression might be something like "self-confirming model" or even "destruction-resistant model" (if you want to get feisty).

    Second, the "theory" is explained, above, by a remarkable number of words like "tends to", "primarily", "typically" and so on. These words illustrate that what is being described are a series of social forces with certain directive activity: the forces have discernible directions.

    It is important to recognize the extent to which the vectors of these forces are not measured if their content remains categorized by "largely" and so on. And without measurement, no conclusions can be determined rigorously: neither verified nor falsified. Any conclusions developed by observing the fact of certain forces in society, without nailing down strengths of these forces, or competing forces, and entirely skew forces that may also be at play, is largely an exercise in political story telling. There is nothing wrong with political story telling - it is what all political peoples have done since time immemorial when they have formed themselves into polities and remained intact. But it isn't science, either. Nor is it a particularly good example of philosophy, if it cannot bother itself with self-critique and self-restraint about its claims. And if Chomsky is noted for an annoying habit of reeling out long strings of peremptory assertions, some of them reasonable, some unreasonable, but in any case largely tendentious and controversial yet presented as if no rational and well-informed person could possibly disagree, it seems unlikely that he is sufficiently aware of the limitations of his own analytical efforts.

    Third, to highlight the need to consider OTHER forces also at work: while there are, certainly, a number of factors that play into this self-confirmation, one should also recognize that there also seems to be quite serious alternate directions to forces. The liberaligentsia has had, for at least 7 decades, a cadre of institutions that quite intentionally PUSH the envelope of "allowed" theories and thinking. Major social changes have come from these, including the drug culture, abortion, and so on. Actually, the extremely heavy flirtation of the top universities with communism in the 1930s is another example (though "flirtation" is pretty limp, it might better be named outright prostitution). Professors like Peter Singer would have been out of a job long, long ago if there were not some really serious counter-forces to the 5 that Chomsky delineates.

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    1. Second, the "theory" is explained, above, by a remarkable number of words like "tends to", "primarily", "typically" and so on.

      I would add that if we're going to use this propaganda model as an alternative explanation to "conspiracy theories," I would first ask, what is meant by a conspiracy? If we mean that not everything is explained by a grand Manichean scheme orchestrated by the Freemasons, Illuminati, and Trilateral Commission, well enough. But do we dismiss those conspiracies for which there is compelling evidence, or in some cases, outright confirmation? It's not like collusion, corruption, and political machinations are absent from the halls of power. Maybe we can distinguish between "grand conspiracies," where everything is orchestrated, and "conspiracies of opportunity," that arise in response to events?

      The liberaligentsia has had, for at least 7 decades, a cadre of institutions that quite intentionally PUSH the envelope of 'allowed' theories and thinking. Major social changes have come from these, including the drug culture, abortion, and so on. Actually, the extremely heavy flirtation of the top universities with communism in the 1930s is another example (though 'flirtation' is pretty limp, it might better be named outright prostitution).

      More than seven decades⁠. Woodrow Wilson pushed for involvement in WWI because, in part, it aligned with his Progressive agenda. The passage of the 16th Amendment, allowing Congress to levy an income tax, was justified on the need to pay for the war. The 17th Amendment, removing the election of senators from state legislatures, weakened the Senate as a handbrake on bills coming out of the House.

      Of course, from the 1920s onward, socialist and communist infiltration was actively funded by the Soviet Union (Stalin's Secret Agents, Blacklisted By History, Hollywood Party are excellent treatments). Infiltration of Soviet agents was greatly aided by the massive expansion of the federal bureaucracy of under FDR's New Deal, as well as the administration's near indifference to (or sympathy with) communist activities. For example, one of those new bureaucracies was the Federal Communications Commission, under which regulation of the radio spectrum and broadcast media was consolidated.

      In the 1960s, that federal bureaucracy changed (see Red Tape: Its Origins, Uses, and Abuses), which coincided with LBJ's "Great Society" and the expansion of the welfare state.
      Now, again, I don't suggest some kind of master plan, but as you point out, Communism made its way into those universities, where many of the elites in politics and media were trained and educated. Universities which have, over decades, become ever-increasingly tied to public funding through teachers' unions, public research grants, federal student loans, direct government funding, etc.

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    2. (2/2)

      And the elites really are a close-knit bunch, educated at many of the same schools, living in the same cities, residing in the same neighborhoods, sharing the same social circles, belonging to the many of the same organizations, attending the same social and professional functions, vacationing in many of the same spots, hiring each other's friends and relatives, sometimes marrying into each other's families, and so on.

      But more than that, so many of our elites are technocrats, utopians, and authoritarians who, as a matter of philosophy, seek power, seek to expand their power, and seek to use that power to engineer society. Educated and mentored by Leftists of yesteryear, they've inherited their worldview and methods as a template. They also spend the better part of their lives in power, which gives them quite a bit of time to scheme. Then there are the actual real world groups and powerbrokers who really do push long term agendas and grand schemes. Of course, as often as not, their plans blow up in their faces.

      I can well accept that various groups may, from a shared outlook and common interests, converge on common courses of action. But the idea of that this "propaganda model" can explain away concrete evidence of real conspiracies, of actual wrongdoing, seems a bridge too far.

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    3. Right. The fact that not everything that happens is due to some conspirators' secret (or publicly declared) plan, doesn't prevent SOME of them from being according to a plan.

      I would also like to see some commentary on how much some of the 5 "filters" mentioned correspond merely to inherent social forces of ANY functioning society. Surely any functioning society has some customs - it's part of the definition that enables you to call it "a society". But the very existence of customs imply negative social feedback to flouting those customs. That's just the nature of the beast.

      If Chomsky's descriptions amount to (in part) "media is an accepted part of society" because media elements have ways of "fighting back" against those trying to flout the "acceptance", that's not something SPECIAL to media as media, it belongs to any socially approved cohort.

      It may be that media has grown to have especially long, powerful fangs to exert negative feedback. That's pretty likely, in our case. But then we have to look at not just the mere existence of its great power, but also whether that power is focused on decidedly wrong targets, and WHY.

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  2. I agree with the article, and I don’t think that Catholics who end up on the polarised right and left ends of the culture war are being true to the faith. By setting your sights on the eternal, we should be better at avoiding these ‘emotional reaction’ ideologies, that are dressed up in intellectual clothes afterwards.

    There are two points I would make from an ‘outside the US’ perspective.

    Firstly, some elements of US policy do seem right wing in both main parties to people in Europe. A certain level of universal healthcare just seems morally necessary to us, even if those of us leaning more to the right would disagree that every visit to the doctor should be free to all (resulting in doctors becoming social workers, comfort for the lonely etc). Taxes in general seem way too low, especially considering how high salaries are for so many. There are several areas where the consensus area in US politics looks right wing even to those of us who would - if pressed - put ourselves right of centre on most things.

    The second point is that I think the prominence of evangelical descendants of puritanism drive the polarisation of politics in the US in a way that is unique, even if much of the content of the polarisation is adopted more broadly. The fact that Young Earth Creationism is adopted by even a large portion of Catholics in the US is an outcome of this, a kind of protestant literalism which solidifies the US left’s framing of themselves as ‘pro-reason’ (despite the fact that relativism and reason will always be opposites).

    Nonetheless Dr Feser walks a sensible path through the carnage, one which seem to me to broadly get the right balance, detached from the mania and hysteria where people link their identity to politics rather than faith and reason.

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  3. There is a lot of right in this article. However, the key idea - that Putin had the possibility of a peaceful solution to the conflict, but instead preferred the worst military option - is incorrect. In 2014, the United States staged an "orange revolution" in Ukraine. And from that moment on, they began to treat Ukraine as their colonial acquisition. Pumping weapons, genocide of the Russian population - these are all acts of the West.
    Moreover, inspired by the victory of the West in Ukraine, the Americans tried to create "orange revolutions" under anti-Russian slogans in Belarus and Kazakhstan.
    Putin has repeatedly demanded contractual security guarantees for Russia from the United States and NATO. In response, there were only mocking statements that NATO is an open bloc, which includes everyone.

    Therefore, it is not Putin or even the puppet Zelensky who is to blame for this war. The West, led by the United States, is to blame for this war.

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    1. Correction: the Orange Revolution began in 2004. Euromaidan began in 2013.

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    2. Dear Cibus Mihi Placet,

      Thanks for the clarification. However, to be quite precise, the Orange revolution ended at the end of January 2005, and the Euromaidan at the end of February 2014.
      Both events took place with the support and funding of the United States. The meaning of both events was to prevent pro-Russian forces from coming to power.

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    3. Anon, are you seriously arguing that Putin has no other choice but to invade Ukraine? No other choice at all?

      Even if you argued that NATO has done some bad things, the invasion was Putin's only option?

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    4. In 2014, the United States staged an "orange revolution" in Ukraine. And from that moment on, they began to treat Ukraine as their colonial acquisition.

      Whatever else might be the case, this seems to be somewhere between exaggerated and complete baloney. If the US were treating Ukraine as a possession, we would have managed to dicker with Russia in a better way than has happened.

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    5. Dear Tony,

      The problem is that the United States was not going to negotiate with anyone. The Empire comes to terms with the barbarians only when it is weakened and receives sensitive blows. Is the US weakened? No. Western civilization cannot negotiate with anyone, because it considers everyone else to be enemies of the only possible Civilization.

      It's not about Putin, the fact is that those who do not obey the West have no right to exist. He automatically passes into the category of outcasts, evil, barbarians, uncivilized, wrong and so on. By the way, Professor Feser himself reproached one of the famous liberal philosophers for hypocrisy. It was about John Rawls. This liberal philosopher believes that the modern Western liberal worldview is acceptable for any other cultures and worldviews. However, as soon as it turns out that some culture or worldview does not accept this Western model, the liberal worldview declares such a culture to be incorrect, distorted, and demands its abolition and destruction as barbaric and non-progressive. In other words, the Western model will accept any culture, but only if this culture does not contradict this Western model.

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  4. On a lighter note, if Elon Musk happens to have a working model of the Iron Man armour and decides to use it against the Russian invaders to save the Ukranian people could it be considered as an act of war by the United States ?

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  5. Can we come up with a better rallying cry than "Subsidiarity, Solidarity, and Pietas!"?

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    1. How about "We're prepared to beat the Hell out of you"? No? Add in "but at the lowest feasible level of force necessary to get the job done"? That should be OK. /sarc

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  6. I think, generally speaking (as I’ve personally only learned fairly recently): a prudent & common sense approach to understanding something new is to consult an expert in the field. Chomsky makes a good point when discussing the presence of certain materials found in the foundation of WTC building 7, i.e. he doesn’t know enough about these things to meaningfully comment upon them.
    That principle could be applied to almost every part of your life. For instance, news/current events like foreign policy, vaccines, history, etc., ask yourself: what are this person’s credentials? What’s the evidence?
    That approach also applies to the most mundane, day-to-day anxieties one might have. Perhaps you’re (neurotically) anxious each night about whether you’ve turned off the stove (i.e. OCD). Apart from doing CBT to treat your problems, you can simply consult various experts about your concerns (e.g. perhaps ask a firefighter friend or family member whether it’s commonplace for a house to burn down due to a stove being left on).
    I know this probably seems a little off-topic, but it just fosters a healthy approach to life, i.e. consult with experts.
    Personally, I’ve recently just started studying to be an accountant. One big thing I’ve learned? I have no idea what I’m talking about on most things. It’s a good opportunity to practice humility, and to learn from competent people, rather than talking gibberish on a message board about what I “know” about the Russia and Ukraine, vaccines, etc.

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  7. Just a superb and fair post from Feser. I love Chomsky *and* Feser. How about them apples?

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  8. If Chomsky is right about his model, he ought to have qualms about whether his political stance is as radical as he thinks. He has, after all, been a respected academic in American universities for decades. If the US elites really regarded his anarchosyndicalism as a challenge to their basic assumptions, and a threat to the social order, they'd have forced him out of academia long ago. (See, for instance, how Larry Summers was driven out of Harvard for saying that there might be cognitive differences between the sexes which make women less likely to enter or succeed in some fields.)

    In other words, if Chomsky were correct, not merely about the existence of the social forces he described, but about the range of opinions that the dominant social order will tolerate, his career would have resembled that of Neitzsche - an itinerant author, living in poverty - not a tenured professor at a prestigious university, as Chomsky was and is, and Neitzsche could have been.

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    1. I'am kinda late for the party, but would that not perhaps be because Chomsky views, while challenging the order that exists now, still depends a lot on the pressupositions that sustain the particular model we have in a way that it is not challenging enought for it to be safely tolerated?

      I remember Foucault getting at it on their debate. Noam view still seems to take persons as having intrinsic value, freedom of indiference as being good, religion as a inrelevant thing etc. He does afirm the state religion, even if in a diferent way. The fact that he and his fans seems fo be content to just complain also help. By contrast, someone like Larry Summers suggestion goes straight against one of the necessary assumptions of the liberal worldview: tabula rasa.

      This would explain why he is a radical but is tolerated: he can't be a real danger, so letting he be makes the system tolerant and friend of debate. If he was from the extreme-right, on the other hand, them this could not be the case because them Chomsky would challenge the current order on a way that rejected a lot of its necessary pressupositions, being them dangerous.

      Ironically, i'am taking the Unabomber as a basis here, same guy that, if i'am remembering right, tried to bomb Noam.

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  9. Nice post. Chomsky's 'propaganda model' combined with other considerations suggests that the essential nature of the mass media is a malign one.

    Most obviously, in a profit-driven mass media, what sells? Salacious stories, gossip, and stories that undermine important social roles. Which of the following is going to get more readers: a story in which a father goes to work every day and works overtime to support his wife and children, or a story in which a father beats his wife and sexually abuses his children? The latter of course.

    More fundamentally, a profit-driven media in a capitalist society has no intrinsic connection to the common good, and so it has no incentive to promote it. This, combined with its autonomy means there are neither any internal principles nor external forces to constrain it: it has power but no attendant responsibilities. (Lack of responsibility corrupts; absolute lack of responsibility corrupts absolutely). It can attack the state, the Church, the family with impunity. Meanwhile, because of the First Amendment and cries of censorship, the state is not permitted to punish the media for undermining the common good.

    (The state, on the other hand, does have an intrinsic connection to the common good: therefore, if we must have a media, better a state-run media than a media-run state, which is what we have.)

    Instead of our gossip being localized and regarded as a vice as it mostly was before the age of mass media, we've nationalized it and elevated it to a virtue: the news is something every man of good breeding is expected to be fluent in. But gossip is still a sin even when it's sophisticated and done by well-coiffed Harvard-educated journalists exuding their nauseating faux-gravitas.

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    1. (The state, on the other hand, does have an intrinsic connection to the common good: therefore, if we must have a media, better a state-run media than a media-run state, which is what we have.)

      If Pravda doesn't make you re-think this, there's no hope for you.

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    2. I would argue for both, a mix of regime media and private media (both corporate and independent varieties) and a general consciousness that the media is something like an unreliable person or town gossip who might be telling the truth, but not an authority or reliable source, just another data point used to make reasonable conjectures for practical purposes.

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    3. Tony,

      The U.S.S.R. was an ideological state, as is ours, so true, a state-run media in those cases isn't likely to be much better, and perhaps in some respects much worse. Nevertheless, even such a state will be constrained to some degree by needing to maintain a minimally functioning society. An independent media does not have such fundamental constraints other than the constraint of being financially solvent and so can afford to be wildly more irresponsible in undermining the common good.

      In the long run, then, I still think an independent mass media is likely to have worse effects than a state-run media. The U.S., for example, seems far more out of touch with reality today than the Soviet Union ever was.

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    4. Oktavian,

      I would argue for both, a mix of regime media and private media (both corporate and independent varieties)...

      If by 'private media', we mean the news media as an independent entity and as something characterized by reporting on current events for the sake of current events, then the goal ought to be to minimize its influence as much as possible. Reporting on current events in this fashion can only lead to a distorted view of the world. In a traditional, healthy society, mass media of this sort would be nonexistent.

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    5. To Octavian Zamoyski:

      Are you related to Adam Zamoyski? His book "Phantom Terror," about the creation of the modern state from 1789 to 1848, was brilliant. It explains so much about the world today.
      I read it three times last year.

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    6. I would take issue with two presuppositions of Ian's theories. First

      More fundamentally, a profit-driven media in a capitalist society has no intrinsic connection to the common good, and so it has no incentive to promote it.

      A capitalist would argue that an "intrinsic connection to the common good" is implicit in the very nature of a media marketplace that responds to the pressure of supply and demand, because responding to supply and demand is, itself, related to the common good. In principle, the common good cannot be FULLY stated without reference to demand, even if it is not DEFINED by demand. Ian's comment simply begs the question.

      A more objective approach (not beholden to the capitalist take on things) would still question whether it is necessarily the case that a for-profit media marketplace MUST ALWAYS be driven toward the "lowest common denominator" of public tastes. Are there, in addition to the forces driving in that direction, other forces in the opposite direction that can be counter-forces, and even (if parlayed properly) overcome the drive toward the bottom? If you look at the last 60 years, there have been 2 examples that stand out (to my mind) as indicators that the drive to the bottom is not the sole drive: (1) the Motion Picture Association ratings system, while far from perfect, is a public/private (but non-governmental) address to constrain media within certain bounds; and (2) the explosion of successful alternative media content like EWTN. A proper analysis cannot be made without explaining the success of these counter-examples running against a race for the bottom.

      The other questionable presupposition is that the only alternatives are (a) for-profit media; or (b) government-controlled media. As an obvious option, there are plenty of private non-profit media sources. Arguably, certain kinds of integrated public-private enterprises might be possible, including ones that are government influenced without being government controlled.

      Ultimately, the principles of subsidiarity must be taken into consideration in whether to have the government not only TAKE NOTICE of an activity, but CONTROL or even TAKE OVER an activity of its people. It would be incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to prove that government MUST IN PRINCIPLE take over transmission of truth to its people, and in the absence of such a proof we should allow for private (i.e. non-government) activity in that arena. The presumption is in favor of permitting private activity, until it is proven that it is contradictory to the common good.

      What Ian is pointing to is (and Chomsky) is a media circus from a people nearing the last throes of moral degeneration. It should not be at all surprising that in such a people, its media (like many other parts of its society) is degraded. That hardly speaks to what is essentially true about media in private hands. (Indeed, this same point holds more broadly about all of the private enterprise in our system, which is conveniently slapped with the name "capitalism" but embraces many, many individual elements that are mainly private without being capitalist in any essential sense.)

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    7. The presumption is in favor of permitting private activity, until it is proven that it is contradictory to the common good.

      To quote Hugh of St. Victor, writing in the 12th century, "The pursuit of commerce reconciles nations, calms wars, strengthens peace, and commutes the private good of individuals into the common benefit of all."

      Of course, commerce, capitalism, the market, or whatever term you want to the apply, is somehow expected to magically restrain most human evil, or is blamed for failing to do what by nature it could never accomplish. Then, reasoning from that presumed failure, there are calls to hand more control to secular authority, increasing the power of those encouraging that moral degeneracy and eroding further the means to resist it.

      Indeed, this same point holds more broadly about all of the private enterprise in our system, which is conveniently slapped with the name "capitalism" but embraces many, many individual elements that are mainly private without being capitalist in any essential sense.

      Of course, this leads to the question of what is actually meant by capitalism. In the broadest and simplest sense, the market could be defined as private property and the freedom to transact, which encompasses most or all of those individual elements.

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    8. Tony,

      ...responding to supply and demand is, itself, related to the common good.

      All actions refer to some good. The capitalist, however, will argue that the individual ought to be free to pursue whatever market goods satisfy his desires, whether or not such preferences contribute to the common good. He rejects the idea that markets ought to be subordinated to the common good, but rather should be an autonomous sphere independent of other non-economic concerns a society might have. Free market principles reflect liberalism as applied to the economic sphere.

      The standard then becomes merely one of maximum preference satisfaction, and there is no objective standard acknowledged by the market by which to judge certain preferences as objectively superior to other preferences, except accidentally insofar as individual preferences correspond to what is objectively superior. The market, for example, treats whether particular consumer behaviors are better for short-term or long-term as an arbitrary consumer preference. And we all know that without societal constraints in place, men will often opt for the short-term.

      Of course, a capitalist might still argue that capitalist economics are the best way to secure the common good, albeit indirectly (e.g., because market preferences that don’t contribute to the common good will ultimately die out, or because the prosperity required to support human flourishing can only be achieved via modern capitalism), even though he does not favor explicitly subordinating economic activity to the common good. I disagree, and I think history plainly shows this to be false, but arguing against this would require a more thorough analysis of the underlying principles.

      ...the explosion of successful alternative media content like EWTN.

      My analysis does not really apply to outlets like EWTN: such sources are not characterized by reporting on news for the sake of news, but have a larger raison d’etre. While such alternative institutions may still be affected and influenced by liberalism (because what isn’t?), they do not have an intrinsic tendency toward undermining the common good as I argue the wider mass media does.

      So I did not presuppose that the only alternatives are (a) for-profit media and (b) government-controlled media. It’s just that those were the only two I happened to mention. I envision a healthy society as potentially having a variety of sources of information (but not ‘news’, if again, ‘news’ is characterized by reporting on current events for the sake of current events). Such sources might be associated with various institutions, all of which contribute to the common good in their own way. People would likely be a bit less informed about what was going on in Bhutan, but... should we really care?

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    9. More fundamentally, a profit-driven media in a capitalist society has no intrinsic connection to the common good, and so it has no incentive to promote it. This, combined with its autonomy means there are neither any internal principles nor external forces to constrain it:

      There is no absolute presumption that a for-profit media is also an "autonomous" media; and the very fact that it is not the whole of the social order implies that the social order will have some constraints on it. In practice, all societies exercise constraints on the media in various ways. Our are subject to certain narrowly specified limits, (libel, copyright, sedition, and release of government secrets being some of them). In practice, when the media is run by the government, it has more constraints on it, but no definitive orientation to the common good, because (in practice) governments that fully control the media END UP making its orientation be for the benefit of those in power.

      I am not saying governments don't have a role regarding media. I am saying government control is not a panacea for what ails ours.

      The capitalist ...rejects the idea that markets ought to be subordinated to the common good, but rather should be an autonomous sphere independent of other non-economic concerns a society might have.

      Sure... the absolutist free-market capitalist says that. But that's just one (extreme) version of the many flavors of those who champion a market not controlled by government, and the role of capital in generating goods and services. Lumping the entirety of "capitalists" into that type of absolutism is just strawmanning the problem. And when you do take that type of extremist capitalist, you have a whole cargo-ship of other problems besides that of media out of whack.

      I envision a healthy society as potentially having a variety of sources of information (but not ‘news’, if again, ‘news’ is characterized by reporting on current events for the sake of current events).

      You seem to deride the reporting of current events as if it were something dirty. Yes, it can be done to excess: I don't know when my neighbor cut his grass last week. But "current events" also includes horrid new bills proposed by wacky state legislators, which need alert citizens to take alarm at and call their legislator; it includes claims by new drug makers on the pros (and cons) of their new drugs; arguably, it includes the police sheet, (not because each person needs to know each item on the sheet, but because SOME people need to see them and take note of things like disturbing trends - which you get only by looking over many not-disturbing things also). I stopped getting a newspaper long ago, because the ratio of news I wanted to read to the cost (of time spent finding it, and paying for the rest I didn't want) was too low. But I didn't stop looking at news sources. The notion that a government has the RIGHT knowledge and prudence to decide what info you should be getting is incredibly dangerous, and mostly impractical anyway: there are vastly many things that one specific person might need to know that not many others need, and that no government agent would be competent to decide FOR you whether you need to know. That is why there is room for a bajillion journals on picayune topics that government can't (and shouldn't) be in charge of, covering little tid-bits of news of interest (and worth) to tiny subsections of the population.

      The (real) problem of gossip and idle curiosity does need to be considered, but mainly from the standpoint of private morality (your priest, in your parish church, and in the confessional), not primarily by laws.

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    10. In response to this part:

      A more objective approach (not beholden to the capitalist take on things) would still question whether it is necessarily the case that a for-profit media marketplace MUST ALWAYS be driven toward the "lowest common denominator" of public tastes. Are there, in addition to the forces driving in that direction, other forces in the opposite direction that can be counter-forces…

      Well, yes, there are always opposing forces that counter the drive to the bottom. This is true of liberal society in general, not just capitalism. Otherwise, liberal society would have immediately self-destructed the moment liberalism was adopted. But people have a variety of preferences, many of these tied to more traditional habits and ways of thinking. Such preferences tend to retard to the race to the bottom. In the U.S., for example, an attachment to a generic Protestantism helped keep liberalism moderately in check until the ‘60s.

      But liberalism (and capitalism) treat all preferences as equal, so it does not have the resources internal to itself to resist a trajectory to the bottom if that’s what people want. And human nature being what it is – i.e., a social animal that requires society to be ordered to the transcendent Good in order to support the virtuous life – man will inevitably choose to race to the bottom. After all, society is telling man that the highest good is to be able to pursue his own preferences, whatever those happen to be, so it’s no wonder that men will eventually come to believe that.

      I might add as an aside, you bring up the film rating system, but this is clearly a degeneration from the old Hollywood Production code that preceded it.

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    11. Tony,

      There is no absolute presumption that a for-profit media is also an "autonomous" media; and the very fact that it is not the whole of the social order implies that the social order will have some constraints on it.

      By ‘autonomous’, I do not mean that it is free of any constraints whatsoever. The Church could be said to have been autonomous in the Middle Ages: that does not mean that it was totally unconstrained by certain social forces or by kings and other powerful secular officials.

      What I mean, more or less, is that the media is not tied to any particular institution whose goals it must subordinate itself to. It is not constrained to support the state or the church or the family, or any other institution, but can set its own goals.

      And yes, it is true that you could in theory have a ‘for-profit’ media that was not autonomous (i.e., tied to some other institution), but that’s not the situation we find ourselves in.

      I am saying government control is not a panacea for what ails ours.

      I never said that it was. You are making too much of my throwaway rhetorical aside.

      Sure... the absolutist free-market capitalist says that [markets ought not to be subordinated to the common good].

      Well, when I was a free marketer, this seemed to be a pretty standard view, and not just among dogmatic libertarians. Yes, some conservative free marketers might favor banning things like pornography, but otherwise, as long as something wasn’t intrinsically immoral, the tendency seemed to be that the market ought to be able to choose without interference from the government. For example, how many capitalists today would favor discrimination in favor of married men in the workplace in order to promote the patriarchal family? I doubt many, even among most Christian conservatives who support the free market.

      At any rate, I’d be happy to concede that my criticism only applies to certain species of capitalism, but I’d also be interested in hearing what your definition of capitalism is. Typically I think of capitalism has having an ideological component. Maybe we can refer to my target as ideological capitalism.

      You seem to deride the reporting of current events as if it were something dirty. Yes, it can be done to excess…

      It’s not about quantity or excess, it has to do with the purpose: of course it is important to know some current events, but the modern news is characterized by no purpose beyond current events, except perhaps for some vague purpose of keeping citizens ‘informed’, which is thought to be required to maintain a functioning democracy. But this is clearly an illusion. The average citizen has neither the time nor the inclination to be well-informed on every political topic that confronts him. Why, for example, should the average citizen be expected to form an opinion on global warming when he does not even understand the basic physics that underlie it? Or why should the average citizen be expected to have any opinion on the current war in the Ukraine? The media does not encourage people to study these things for themselves and come to well-thought-out conclusions; rather it encourages people to take positions based on faith in media authority (and journalists are not typically experts on the things they report on). Of course, probably most of our opinions are based on authority of some kind or another, and there is nothing wrong with that in principle, but the media encourages doing so in a reckless and irresponsible manner, since by its very nature it reports on things of an ephemeral character and without providing any of the context required properly to evaluate such events.

      The notion that a government has the RIGHT knowledge and prudence to decide what info you should be getting is incredibly dangerous, … and that no government agent would be competent to decide FOR you whether you need to know. …

      I am not assuming nor advocating any such thing.

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    12. I think we can agree on this: we would all be far better off (1) if the MEDIA complex were much smaller, and (2) if the "news" reporting were far smaller, which would tend to increase the quality of what gets reported; and (3) if there were better checks on media to reduce grossly inappropriate content.

      The devil is in how to achieve those.

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    13. What I mean, more or less, is that the media is not tied to any particular institution whose goals it must subordinate itself to. It is not constrained to support the state or the church or the family, or any other institution, but can set its own goals.

      And yes, it is true that you could in theory have a ‘for-profit’ media that was not autonomous (i.e., tied to some other institution), but that’s not the situation we find ourselves in.


      Your point is largely true, but also missing a point. By and large, all small businesses start out with a two-fold purpose that makes it not UTTERLY "autonomous". On the one hand, it is "in business" to make a profit. The owner needs for it to pull its weight in order to commit time and energy to it. But the other is that the owner intends to OFFER SOMETHING that is of value (in his view, and (he hopes) to others, that is the entirely wholesome reason why it CAN produce a profit. The new restauranteur hopes to feed people well. The new gym owner hopes to help people get fitter. The new shoe store owner hopes to help people get shod well. The new book publisher hopes to help people become better informed. These are all worthwhile in themselves, which is what makes paying (some) amount for them suitable.

      While some wild-eyed "capitalist" (extremist) might say "I don't give a darn whether my shoes, or food, is any good, I just want to turn a profit", this is hardly the normal (or typical) view of the new small business owner. But we don't universally think that somehow, a restauraneur, or shoe-seller, needs to "subordinate" his trying to make a go at selling his goods, "to the common good" through being controlled by a higher institution that tells him how far he must sell, and no farther. Perhaps, in some specific industries or business lines, there is a need because those business lines have gotten excessively corrupt. But the principle of subsidiarity says that the presumption lies in favor of individual action (and decision, and prudence) at the individual grass roots level, for all sorts of these activities that CAN be accomplished by human creativity and energy at the small level. That applies to producing news reports as much as to shoes. And the media entrepreneur has an obligation to consider his product's impact on the common good as does a gym owner's, and take steps to conform it to that common good while seeking a profit not BECAUSE he ought to be controlled by a higher body, but because all businessmen (and laborers) ought to consider the common good and act for it.

      To refer to a new media company as "autonomous" because they aren't controlled from "up above" is true but no more enlightening than saying gyms or shoe stores are autonomous because they are not controlled from above. They are SUBJECT to the same underlying principles of justice, prudence, charity, subsidiarity, and solidarity. And if the owner can restrain his own activity to conform to the common good, there is no special reason there needs to be a higher body regulating him.

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    14. @Ian: "In a traditional, healthy society, mass media of this sort would be nonexistent."

      Can you give us an example of a traditional, healthy society? What was the most recent? Is there one now?

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    15. @Ian: pushing the ball forward a bit, I expand on my earlier question. Would you say that Spain under Franco was a traditional, healthy society? Or perhaps Vichy France? Or Cuba under Battista? Or Greece under the colonels? Though Greece was not Catholic, so it might be disqualified on that count.

      Please let us know.

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    16. Tony,

      It is true enough that the typical institutions and associations in a society, such as the family, the various trades and professions, businesses, etc., should be oriented primarily to their own particular goods rather than making the common good their explicit purpose (which would destroy them). And it is also true that by the very fact of focusing on their own flourishing, they nevertheless contribute to the common good. And so it is indeed true that such institutions should be to a large degree autonomous.

      The difference between a shoemaker or a restaurateur on the one hand, and the media on the other, is in the nature of what the latter sells. When one reads the newspapers, he is not mastering a discipline; he is not obtaining knowledge that is ordered to anything, as one might learn in school or in a trade; he is not learning something useful for practical living; he is not learning facts ordered in a proper context as one might learn from reading a history or science book. Rather, he is learning certain ‘facts’ shorn of proper context, since the news by its very nature is focused on what is current and ephemeral and on what is aberrant and cannot properly contextualize these things without ceasing to be the ‘news’. This cannot but distort one’s view of the world.

      The profit motive merely exacerbates this problem.

      So this why its autonomy is a problem in a way that it is not for the shoemaker or restaurateur. The media's autonomy means that its intrinsic tendency to distort our view of the world is less constrained than it might otherwise be.

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    17. ficino4ml,

      I get the sense you are baiting me.

      I doubt there are any widescale 'traditional, healthy' societies in existence today, given that the entire world is permeated by secular liberalism, though there are likely pockets here and there of local communities that might qualify.

      The world existed for a long time without the existence of mass media, and surely some of the societies that existed then could qualify as reasonably 'traditional and healthy'. So take your pick.

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    18. @Ian, you are the one who extolled "traditional, healthy societies." Yes, I'm casting you some bait. Do you have any examples of such societies to adduce? Adduce one, and then we can consider the virtues to attribute to it and compare with all of today's societies, none of which you seem to think is "healthy" (I assume that you consider "traditional" a necessity property of a healthy society, so I drop "traditional," but perhaps you don't so consider it.)

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  10. A curious incident occurred yesterday on the 1st channel of Russian television. During the broadcast, Ukrainian Ovsyannikova appeared behind the announcers. She unfolded a poster with the words "all this is propaganda, you are being deceived, down with the war!" This woman was an editor on this channel.

    What did the evil Putinists do? They fined her about $270 for hooliganism. She was not even fired, as dissidents expressing an alternative point of view are fired on American television and in newspapers. And even more so, she was not forced to give up her previous point of view on the video camera, as they do in Ukraine. Several well-known bloggers with obvious signs of beatings have already come out and cursed Russia.

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  11. This model also sheds light on our "appetite culture". Since our society is suffused with a consumerist culture and ethos that makes the satisfaction of the appetites and increasingly disordered desires the religion and the law of the land, it would make sense for this government-corporate-media complex to rationalize and defend, say, the sexual politics and gender ideology of the day and malign anyone expressing traditional views as racist, bigoted, phobic, (insert in vogue epithet here).

    But there's also a progression in overt status quo since it does not sit still. As liberal presuppositions unfold, the overt status quo is forced to shed its "outmoded inhibitions" to better conform with the tacit status quo. Incidentally, this probably explains why so-called "conservatives" as so ineffective when they have either embraced the tacit liberal presuppositions themselves or the society they're trying to influence is underpinned by such liberal presuppositions. How can a tacit liberal defend subsidiarity, solidarity, and pietas, or make a defense of these without aiming first at liberal presuppositions? Doing so would threaten the tacit status quo and make such a person a pariah.

    (There's also this: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/economics-and-philosophy/article/marketplace-of-rationalizations/41FB096344BD344908C7C992D0C0C0DC)

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    1. Oktavian Zamoyski @ 6.38AM
      You write: "Since our society is suffused with a consumerist culture and ethos ..."

      It's called Capitalism. When we have championed the worst excesses of capitalism as a model by which to run our western economy is it any wonder that consumerism is the the God of our society. That is why big business, big pharma, big energy/oil companies, mass social media organisations and global financial institutions must be ever reigned in and held accountable within the community, through laws, legislation and corporate governance rules. The uninformed call this 'red tape' but overwhelmingly, this is prudent control over those who see justice, fair-dealing, moral leadership and the practice of ethics as anathema and a hurdle to doing business.

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    2. I wouldn't say you're wrong, but as always the devil is in the details. The "progressive" belief that conservatives oppose regulation as such is a straw man. Outside a fringe of fanatical Libertarians, no conservatives hold that ridiculous position. The question is what gets regulated, in what ways, and to what degree. The real conflict between left and right is not over whether to have regulation but over the degree to which regulation is necessary and the degree to which it strangles economic activity. For people who love to accuse others of blindness to nuance, "progressives" are prone to ignore that life involves tradeoffs. Every regulation has a cost, and at some point the costs become prohibitive. Reasonable people can disagree about exactly where that point is, but accusing everyone who disagrees with you about where that point is of rejecting regulation per se is disingenuous at best.

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    3. The other problem with regulation is that it simply results in big companies bribing the regulators (except here we call it "lobbying") and using them as a tool to crush the small, more agile companies who might otherwise outcompete the titans in key areas, because the small companies can't afford to pay the massive bribes required.

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    4. Fred, the moment you threw in 'left' and 'right' I at once knew you were not serious about how we might look to collectively improving the capitalist model we grew up with and to manage the worst excesses of capitalism that we have become inured to. Your myopic binary view of society is an instant conversation stopper. I am a centrist, a constitutionalist, and from that perspective you are so far to the radical right that it seems impossible for you to envisage and appreciate the ground I call the 'sensible centre'.

      Cantus, that you say regulation 'simply results is big companies bribing the regulators' says more about our stupidity in failing to provide the requisite teeth to legislation that targets not only the bribed but the CEOs and the Boards of those companies who must also personally bear the responsibility for their companies actions, than it does about abandoning the law to hold such people accountable. But that inadequacy should not deter us as a community to go even harder after the cheats. And it need not only be at a criminal level, but stronger sanctions at a civil case level. For far too long big business had gotten away with what to ordinary citizens would be a 'slam-dunk' felony; and CEOs getting away with it simply because the organisation is 'big', which I understand is not a legal criterion under which these reprobates can claim immunity.

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    5. Oh right paps, just dismiss what I said with (totally inaccurate) name calling. That way, you don't have to address anything I actually said and can maintain your delusions of moral and intellectual superiority.

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    6. You are absolutely right Cantus. That is another factor to take into consideration in any debate about regulation. And it is another factor "centrist constitutionalists" like paps ignore.

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  12. As much as I have been thinking something vaguely similar to this myself, this does sound eerily like a Marxist picture of things, with the state-corporate-media order sounding like a kind of superstructure that everyone, by-and-large, upholds.

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    1. Marx could get some things right too. Of course, his dismissal of other views because they are "ideological" and whatever was quite silly.

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  13. Chomsky is not positing a cabal of sinister operatives who gather in smoke-filled rooms to plot out what will be said in mass media. He is instead describing economic incentives, cultural attitudes and mores, and the like, which shape the thinking of opinion-makers mostly without their even realizing it.

    I agree with this, but I increasingly wonder, what about the spiritual aspects to all this? At the risk of sounding crackpottish to modern sensibilities, I don't think modern Christians take seriously enough that spiritual warfare is real, and that demons are real and really do influence people. And they do, presumably, conspire and plan when they do so.

    I agree with everything you say here about "spontaneous order" based on shared interests and sensibilities rather than some conspiracy of elites. And yet, I wonder if that fully accounts for what we're seeing. From lockdowns to gender psychosis to abortion worship to CRT and everything else, the way our ruling elite seem to rapidly get on the same page regarding the newest monstrous groupthink that is reliably in defiance of all natural law, morality, and sanity, as if directed by a malevolent force who desires the destruction and degradation of humanity, really makes me suspect that there is an aspect to it that is diabolical in the most literal sense.

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  14. Excellent article. I donated it to the Memory of Mankind time capsule.

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  15. You are correct about the reaction of traditionalists to Putin's invasion of Ukraine. I am close to being one such myself, and I can testify that, for me at least, the primary reasons were an reflexive opposition to anything the Left supports (which, to be fair, will lead to you doing the right thing 9 times out of 10) and a sense of sheer disgust and exhaustion with our corrupt, evil elite class. I was just so utterly fed up with them that I wanted something, anything to humiliate, weaken, and defeat them. Putin was hurting my hated enemies, and that was all that really mattered. Now, while I still have most of the same feelings, you've made it clear to me that Putin's war does not meet the criteria of Just War, and thus cannot be supported no matter what desirable side-effects it might have. Thank you for that, Prof.

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  16. Also, while the media, government, and corporations do indeed collaborate unconsciously because of shared interests, they ALSO do conspire on occasion, and when they do they lie and collude ever more fiercely. Look at everything that occurred around the 2020 election, and how the response to it was so clearly co-ordinated. The ground being prepared ahead of time with the "Red Mirage" narrative, the unanimous consensus of the mainstream media, the mass, ruthless banning of anyone who dissented or provided any evidence of wrongdoing, the constant, fierce gaslighting into pretending that nothing was wrong, the lies followed by refusal to accurately report the results of the Maricopa county audit. Even going so far as to brag (in Time magazine, no less!) that they had done exactly what they would ban you in a heartbeat for saying. Then again, despite all the horror of it, it has had some good effects - it has woken an unprecedented number of people up to the sham of a country they are living in, and to the fact that their leaders all hate them. It may be that this is part of God's Providence, to provide us with a means of being saved. In either case, His Will be done.

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    1. Most/all of the mass censorship of the past two years was clearly coordinated behind the scenes by genuine "shadowy cabals." This would include most especially the Hunter Biden laptop story, which the CIA, corporate media, tech giants, and elected Democrats all very clearly colluded together to squash. Censorship of information about Covid was also pretty clearly coordinated and directed by public health bureaucrats in government. Some of that we know about directly through leaked emails of Fauci and Collins.

      The exposure of the Journolist back in 2009 showed that there really was a great deal of coordination going on in the media, and things have only gotten worse since.

      The propaganda model is how things work in capitalist society, but America has gone a substantial way towards transforming from a capitalist society to a fascist or Stalinist regime where dictates are handed down by commissars.

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  17. While I get that one of the main points being made here is that the overall structure of how various institutions shape opinion comes about as more of a matter of self-interest than outright malice, for me personally it's hard to see how there isn't some serious moral culpability here.

    News organizations like to pride themselves on how (to quote CNN's Anderson Cooper verbatim, if I'm not mistaken anyway) they're "keeping 'em honest" when they don't seem to be too reflective on the degree to which they're own biases keep them from acting in ways that are in some way or another intellectually dishonest.

    Maybe I'm not getting anything worth saying here but I have hard time swallowing the idea that the whole shebang is just some tragedy of honest mistakes coalescing into a train wreck that is the current picture of popular political views instead of a mass of people refusing to entertain the idea that they might be wildly mistaken on a number of ideas that are highly open to scrutiny.

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  18. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    1. Uhh...there won't be any fight once nukes start flying. You'll be fighting starvation when your emergency food supply eventually runs out and nuclear winter destroys any ability to grow any more food.

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    2. The difference is that eventually it became clear that Hitler was not going to stop, plus nobody had an arsenal of nukes thoroughly tested and ready to go then. Putin wants Ukraine, he isn't threatening NATO.

      However, if Ukraine falls, that does raise serious concerns, but until then, we shouldn't jump the gun. We'll have to see how peace talks and Ukrainian defense holds up.

      Bringing it back to the main topic of this post though, the current message of the govt-corporate-media order has basically been that Pres. Zelensky is a saint and any question of his actions or words is playing in to Putin's hands. And, the people are taking the bait. They love him. If Russian forces were to take Kyiv and likely kill Zelensky, or imprison him for the rest of his life, the non-stop message is going to be that NATO failed him and failed Ukraine. The urge among the populace for full scale intervention will grow massively, the US, UK, and possibly some mainland European govts will take massive hits in popularity and support as they will struggle to control the narrative. Biden's already terrible numbers will collapse even further. I don't think pledging to send even more weapons is going to help.

      With the propaganda model, it would seem that the govts will be out of step with business and media on this. To course correct, it would seem that govts may be forced to join media and business in being all for military intervention.

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  19. On a related topic: I doubt I’m the only one who’d like to hear Dr. Feser’s thoughts on the upcoming Consecration of Russia to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. There seems to be questions about whether it was ALREADY DONE properly, or whether it WILL BE DONE PROPERLY, etc.
    I’d like Dr. Feser’s assessment; that way I can then make those assessments my own, impress everyone, and get the respect I deserve. (Kidding of course; that last sentence, anyway).

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  20. Just Google the question.

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  21. Hey, Ed great post as always!

    Guys, can you indicate to me a post where Ed's tackling reductionism and the sum of the parts for a quick brief on a subject I am on?

    Just out of curiosity my task is to engage with a problem like this: humans have a capacity to, say, 'kick' (we can have any other example). And this power is different from the diverse realizations it might occur, but there was once a time in human development (when it was a baby in the mother's womb) that it didn't have even the vehicles (i.e a leg), say, to perform the power - but it has that in potency in his being. And given that, once that potency to form a body is actualized, the person has this capacity now as a standing ability!

    Given that short introduction, a reductionist might say that it is because of this property X in the material part of the human body that makes the case for a person to have the power to kick in the first place (i.e the power is reducible to that part), without it, the power would not exist. So, for the sake of the argument, let's suppose that there really is a part X that is the cause - not only responsible but the proper cause. How could we best answer that objection?

    I personally thought that a good objection is to assert the real distinction between a power and its specific operation but I don't know how to properly deploy it in the argument. And I thought that the first/second actuality/potentiality distinction might help in the task to show that humans have the capacity to kick, even in potency, despite the fact that a part X is 'responsible' for the power.

    What do you guys think? Of course, we can give another example than the 'kick' one, but that's just how I elaborated it. Feel free to change it.

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    1. Just in case someone stumbles across this question in the future and wonders how to answer that, I will give an answer that I think fits better.

      The key notion to keep in mind is the distinction of first/second actuality/potentiality. And we need to keep in mind that, apart from the possessor of things (in my example, 'kick') these things are mere abstractions.

      So, even if a reductionist say's that it's X that gives the power to 'kick' (again, from my example, but you can fit any other), he needs to answer why we have that power, and not any other thing. And the key to noticing that is that the potencies (the power to 'kick') are grounded in the actualities of the thing. You can't say that the air 'kicks' something or that the dolphin 'kicks' in the same sense as ourselves. That's because even though some human being does not have actually the apparatus for that, giving the reductionist claim, that gives us the power to 'kick', we have a first potentiality for that, otherwise, it would be impossible - and even mysterious - that we can possess that capacity in the first place.

      So, if someone claims that it's the part X that gives us whatever the powers might be, that part X does not exist by itself and it's necessarily and logically preceded by the substance that can have that part X in the first place, that's why the substance is the real possessor of its powers and not the part.

      And to anyone that's reading this. May God bless you.

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  22. Advertising is literally not the income of any major media outlet. Whether or not someone is willing to pay money for an ad spot in some major media is more-or-less an indication of how successful in making the message "main-stream." The irony of all leftist thinkers is that they themselves are always the prophets of their own failures. They lie about manufacturing consent when anyone with a brain watched as mass media literally manufactured a false consent to try to push through gay marriage in the Supreme Court. A complete violation of every law in the U.S. But did Chomsky write a book about what a disgusting, evil fraud that was? Of course not.

    For example, anyone who works knows for certain in their particular field that the popular conception of it is totally false. Human beings at best specialize in and learn or master one thing, which is why Chomsky sounds like an idiot when he talks about anything too far beyond his specialty. Anyone who actually bothered to listen to Chomsky and was left wing would be shocked at his open confessions that the U.S military establishment basically funds the entire higher-ed American college system and is the only reason it is sometimes actually interested in producing unique or original thinkers and not just talking heads, like that giant mass of clowns you saw protesting Trump: they thought they were smart because they had a college degree, even though they couldn't find a job or someone to hire them outside of McDonadalds or Starbucks. They complained about McDonalds but not Starbucks, because Starbucks charges you a premium for its exploitation of cheap, foreign labor and profits more from it, even though Starbucks has literally never even fed a soul.

    The brainwashing of the right to imagine that capitalism is a good thing is always betrayed by its tendency to prostitute literally everything. America is absolutely not a capitalist country: if it were, why is so much of the crap you buy made by slave labour in doggedly communist China? Why does the NBA fall on its knees and beg the communist cowards in charge of China for forgiveness when one of its own slaves implies Taiwan is an independent country?

    Back to mass media: advertising is not what funds it. The fact you buy a baseball or NBA or NFL ticket is not what actually funds those organizations. It's more the fact you are willing to pay anything at all to attend that really funds them.

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  23. Hello Profesor. Comments on the "Conspiracy theories, spontaneous order and the hermeneutics of suspicion" are disappearing before being published.

    (Meanwhile, I'm re-reading Aquinas and Aristotle's Revenge :)

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