Sources of Power

Ari Pernick reviews the recent “why the death tax is good” presentationon campus. I saw the presentation, and am somewhat sympathetic to the arguments. Miguel also reviews a recent presentation by Robert Fisk, pointing to this interview where Fisk claims that the job of a journalist is to monitor sources of power.

The general premise of both is that isolated aggregations of influenceare anathema to freedom. This is not a new meme. The problem I have with both Fisk and Collins is that they present an incomplete view, and deflect attention away from some of the very problems they claim to be exposing.

To begin, the media institutions that Fisk serve are a significant source of power in modern democracy. Since Fisk’s article is published on Chomsky’s mouthpiece, zmag, readers should note the connection between Fisk and Chomsky’s rants about the tyranny of the media. Fisk is predictably reticent about who should monitor the media. If Fisk asserts loudly and often enough that he is the very instrument of accountability, perhaps nobody will ever think to demand trasparency and accountability from him. If the remaining few media conglomerates continue to “expose” abuses of power, perhaps people will not notice the power accruing unevenly to those who control them.

This sort of self-righteous resistance to transparency is the norm for the otherrarely-noticed source of power in America today; the foundations. Foundations have in recent decades become more concerned about cultivating a positive public image, reminding people that “yes we have influence, but it is good.” Check out the theme from last year’s “Council on Foundations”, “Preserving the Public Trust: Responsible Use of Private Wealth for Public Good“. The conference was packed with sessions intended to communicate a sense of benevolent stewardship and leave the 2,000 attending organizations with a better self-image. If only the founding fathers had been so clever! We could have eliminated all sorts of redundancy, checks-and-balances, and transparency requirements in our government by simply having our leaders self-host a yearly conference on “how to be responsible”. Come to think of it, the Chinese Communist Party does this every couple of years, too.

Of course, I’m not arguing against a healthy suspicion of government; nor am I arguing that foundations and the media do not serve useful social functions. But secrecy and lack of accountability are an even greater threat to freedom than is power disparity, and I think that many “activists” (and especially journalists, who should know better) have their priorities reversed by failing to realize this.

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