Saturday, August 27, 2016

Justifying Male Anger as a 'Defense' of 'Their' Women
The Washington Post put up this simple animated cartoon under the heading 'Men: Stop Telling Women What to Wear.'  Pretty simple.  Captures the anger of men, directed at other men, as if unrelated to the object that is women's bodies.


Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Comparing Apples and Oranges
You probably do not want to read this blog post.  My gut tells me I am writing mostly for myself.  So, walk away now and go pet your dog or hug someone or take a nap.

Still here?  Okay, I have a long-standing problem with the way many (most?) Americans think & talk about China. Including my fellow political scientist below, Bruce Dickson.  Just to be clear: I do not know Bruce and my guess is I would like him very much if I were to meet him.  I have not read his larger book and it is entirely unfair to take him to task as I am about to do on the basis of an op-ed.

This op-ed demonstrates at least three common errors I have observed over the years in my compatriots analysis of China.

First, the analysis is based on an overly simplistic understanding of America, in this case American democracy. Second, the analysis then pairs this up with an equally plastic understanding of China, in this case Chinese views of democracy, that (third) just so happens to then become the perfect foil against the high school civics picture of American democracy. I tried to put comments in blue but the program refused to allow that in a couple of places, but all comments are also in [brackets].

Democracy in China? It's in the Eye of the Beholder.
By Bruce J. Dickson in LA Times
China watchers in the West have been fruitlessly searching for signs of democracy for more than 25 years. But there has not been a sustained democracy movement in China since the tragic end of protests in Tiananmen Square and elsewhere in 1989. Most outside observers agree that the People’s Republic remains what it has been since its founding in 1949: a one-party authoritarian regime.
[I am going to jump right in.  I will likely seem petty and mean at first. Only the injection of ‘sustained’ makes this paragraph accurate.  At the same time, I find zero evidence of a ‘sustained democracy movement' in America since 1989.  Polls repeatedly show that Americans hold our government in very low regard and the most salient political movement in American today, Trumpism, is more a rejection of democracy than a democratic movement.
If you are paying attention, you are likely thinking this ‘depends on how we define democracy.’  Precisely, and as you see below, that is a question I want to ask. Without making the mistake of asserting that my definition is the only one, let me offer a definition from one of our greatest political scientists of all time, EE Schattschneider: Democracy is a competitive political system in which competing leaders and organizations define the alternatives of public policy in such a way that the public can participate in the decision-making process. Keep this in mind as we proceed…not because it is correct, but because it contrasts in useful ways with the definition offered here as obviously correct…and once we see that there is wiggle room, the argument advanced here starts to look like a paper tiger.
I am sure an intrepid reader can find a public opinion poll showing that American understandings of ‘democracy’ vary and often present a picture and set of aspirations very different from the definition asserted here.  In fact, that would be central to defining democracy…that we get to define it, which is not captured by the platitudinous definition here. 
Further, if we go to Everyday Democracy we can see that Americans regularly define democracy is ways closer to Schattschneider and in tension with the author here.

What does democracy mean to you? See more at Everyday Democracy here.

“We can have a role in influencing decisions that affect us on a regular basis – not just when we vote.

Democracy means to me......majority rules

Creating a culture where all voices are valued as an instrument for change.
Democracy means being able to disagree.

Democracy means no forced vaccinations, no state schooling, no taxes propping up banks & GE and no central banking aka "The Fed.

Not feeling like your vote doesn't matter, Because money is more important than humanity.
Democracy.....just a word unless it is about people living and working together with respect and equal rights and elected leaders who value and practice the same.]
Most Chinese citizens do not see it that way, however.
[Full stop.  Let’s consider the possibility that the people here know their own minds and interests. And if it conflict with the definition a scholar uses…maybe the definition problematic.]
In a nationwide survey in 2014, more than 4,000 urban Chinese were asked how democratic they perceived China to be at different points in time. The vast majority view the level of democracy as increasing steadily since the late 1970s. Almost 60% believe China is already somewhat or very democratic today. Remarkably, more than 80% are optimistic that in the near future China will enjoy a level of democracy on par with the United States.
How can this be? How can external assessments of China’s government and the perceptions of people living under it be so radically different?
[External assessment—at least those that agree with the author—are wrong.]
The answer turns on the meaning of the word democracy.
[Yes it does, but we have covered that already.]
Survey respondents were given the opportunity to define democracy in their own words. Most Americans would define it as a political system with free elections, competitive parties, rule of law and related institutions of liberal democracy.
[Frankly, I would like to see that data to defend this assertion.]
But less than 5% of Chinese pointed to those attributes. 
About 15% defined democracy in terms of rights: for example, “people enjoy the right to information” and “the opportunity and right to tell the government their views.” Another 15% identified equality and justice among citizens: “Everyone is treated equally” and “to be more equal in terms of income, housing, and employment” were typical responses of this type.
[Okay, this is a case of poor writing.  In the sentence that follows my insert here the author seems to be saying that the 30% above are the Chinese who see democracy as we do, in terms of checks and balances. But the language used here makes that similarity sound like a difference as we read it. First, most Americans would also place ‘rights’ at the center of our definition of democracy, as does the US Supreme Court.  Second, most Americans would put free speech and free press at the top of the rights list…because these allow us to communicate our views to our government. I don’t know about you, but for me ‘justice among citizens’ and ‘everyone treated equally’ is at the core of what I mean by the ‘rule of law,’ which is part of the American definition provided here and supposedly at odds with what Chinese people think.]
In short, about one-third of urban Chinese defined democracy in terms of checks and balances or other ways that closely match Western notions. 
By contrast, a different 30% of Chinese described democracy in terms of how leaders should run the government, not how they are chosen. Comments such as “the people and the government are interdependent” and “government policies reflect public opinion” get at this notion. More importantly, these comments suggest that the public’s interests and the state’s interests are fundamentally in harmony (or at least should be).
[We regularly ask Americans and evaluate leaders on how well they govern. This is not a ‘contrast’ to our definition, because we do not define democracy only in terms of how leaders are elected. What America does not believe that when ‘government policies reflect public opinion’ that is more democratic, despite the fact that this opens the door to an understanding of democracy that can easily become anti-democratic? Finally, ‘these comments’ DO NOT suggest the interests are in harmony, but that they should be if we want to call it democracy…and that is completely consistent with how Americans think and talk about democracy.]
The purpose of democracy, as seen by many Chinese, is to make the state strong so that it can better provide for the common well-being of the people and the nation as a whole. It is not a way to hold leaders accountable through elections, limit the state’s authority in order to protect individual rights and freedoms, or adjudicate between competing interests. 
[I am fit to be tied at this point. Watching Trump supporters call for massive deportations and the constant call on the state to fight Wars on Crime and Wars on Drugs and Wars against Terror or War on Poverty or War on Ignorance and more all suggest that there is a very strong element of the American public that craves a “state strong enough to provide for the common well-being of the people” even if what that looks like can vary.  And…in America (where we are allowed subtle analysis such that we can want two things that can be seen as in tension) we want this AND we want to hold our leaders accountable to delivering it.  Why is it that Chinese people wanting this makes them the opposite of democratic? 
And do Americans only focus on accountability through elections or do we know from experience that elections are just one event and that accountability depends on using the courts and protests and working in legislatures and more?  Then the author here refers to ‘rights consciousness’ as a point where the Chinese differ…even though earlier the author himself has said that 30% of Chinese ‘agree’ with us by focusing on rights.]
Despite lacking political rights and freedoms that we take for granted here, many Chinese see their country as becoming more open.

[Because it is becoming more open and openness is not only about individual rights that we take for granted.]
But by far the most popular definition of democracy — given by a third of the urban Chinese respondents — was “I don’t know”!
[Do I even need to say it? Ignorance of politics is probably a defining characteristic of Amercians.]
These differing definitions of democracy correlated with how satisfied people felt. Almost 65% reported they were satisfied or very satisfied with the level of democracy China has. Those who defined it in terms of elections, parties and rule of law were the least satisfied — and rightfully so — whereas “by and for the people” and “don’t know” were at the high end of the scale. The most satisfied were those who defined democracy in terms of economic growth, but less than 3% did so.
[This is consistent with polling data in America showing Whites see no racism while blacks see lots. And while most Americans see the American economic system as unfair, wealthy Americans do not agree. I have to ask: how is that any different?]
These popular understandings (or misunderstandings) of what democracy is help explain why there has not been a sustained democratization movement in China. People who are optimistic about the future are less inclined to support calls to fundamentally change the regime.
[So, it is because the Chinese people misunderstand the definition of democracy that they (in your view) lack a democracy movement? The misunderstanding is as groundless as is the contention that there is no movement.]
The activists who promote Western-style liberal democratic reform face suppression from the state and indifference from much of society. Liu Xiaobo, for instance, was arrested in 2008 for his role in drafting Charter 08, a bold call for building liberal democracy in China. When he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, many in China were unfamiliar with him. Others doubted he had achieved anything worthy of the prize.
[This just repeats the previous point that the Chinese are uniquely ignorant about politics…which is untrue. Does the Chinese leadership use less subtle tools to control dissent? Yes, but that is a very different point.]
Despite lacking political rights and freedoms that we take for granted here, many Chinese see their country as becoming more open. Even as the Communist Party continues to monitor and suppress any potential threats to its monopoly on power, most citizens still see the state is less intrusive than in the Maoist era or in the immediate post-Tiananmen years.
[The state IS less intrusive than during the Maoist era.]
Still, it’s hard to be sure that trend will continue. 
Since Xi Jinping became president in 2013, the scope of repression has increased. The party has tightened control over media content, arrested human rights lawyers and warned scholars against discussing topics such as universal values, civil rights, civil society, press freedoms and judicial independence.
[Okay, this is more complicated. I grant that these are trends I abhor and even with more space it would be difficult to argue there is as much similarity here as above. But—there is similarity AND even though limited this does not change the point that the author here is contrasting Chinese public opinion with a platitude that does not exist in America.]
Xi’s ongoing anticorruption campaign has exposed the venal top echelons of the party, government and military, which may erode support for the regime. Growing economic inequality and social injustice may also lead people to be less satisfied with the status quo.
[While not an ‘American’ approach…the anti-corruption campaign targets elites and it us just as likely it will increase support for the regime for that reason.]
But for the moment, besides the party itself, the major obstacle to China’s democratization is the popular belief that the process is already underway.
[I could not disagree more.]
Bruce J. Dickson is professor of political science and international affairs and chair of the political science department at George Washington University. This article is adapted from his recent book, “The Dictator’s Dilemma: The Chinese Communist Party’s Strategy for Survival.”

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Framing Enables and Constrains Thinking
When we frame ‘intelligence’ as a ‘human computer’ or a gift from God, using a hydraulic or steam punk metaphor…the choice we make makes it easier to think about thinking in certain ways…and constrains our capacity to think beyond or outside or without the categories that make up the metaphor. 

It is sometimes difficult to explain the importance of winning the argument over what we should be arguing about (framing). This meta-conflict is usually hidden-in-plain sight despite being the struggle where elites most powerfully impact the outcome of a wide range of conflicts. 

Epstein helps us see this and more below, noting that the metaphor we use to frame intelligence today (computing) ‘encumbers our thinking with language and ideas that are so powerful we have trouble thinking around them.’

The Empty Brain
Your brain does not process information, retrieve knowledge or store memories.
In short: your brain is not a computer

Robert Epstein in Aeon, 2016

No matter how hard they try, brain scientists and cognitive psychologists will never find a copy of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony in the brain – or copies of words, pictures, grammatical rules or any other kinds of environmental stimuli. The human brain isn’t really empty, of course. But it does not contain most of the things people think it does – not even simple things such as ‘memories’.

Our shoddy thinking about the brain has deep historical roots, but the invention of computers in the 1940s got us especially confused. For more than half a century now, psychologists, linguists, neuroscientists and other experts on human behaviour have been asserting that the human brain works like a computer.

To see how vacuous this idea is, consider the brains of babies. Thanks to evolution, human neonates, like the newborns of all other mammalian species, enter the world prepared to interact with it effectively. A baby’s vision is blurry, but it pays special attention to faces, and is quickly able to identify its mother’s. It prefers the sound of voices to non-speech sounds, and can distinguish one basic speech sound from another. We are, without doubt, built to make social connections.

A healthy newborn is also equipped with more than a dozen reflexes – ready-made reactions to certain stimuli that are important for its survival. It turns its head in the direction of something that brushes its cheek and then sucks whatever enters its mouth. It holds its breath when submerged in water. It grasps things placed in its hands so strongly it can nearly support its own weight. Perhaps most important, newborns come equipped with powerful learning mechanisms that allow them to change rapidly so they can interact increasingly effectively with their world, even if that world is unlike the one their distant ancestors faced.

Senses, reflexes and learning mechanisms – this is what we start with, and it is quite a lot, when you think about it. If we lacked any of these capabilities at birth, we would probably have trouble surviving.

But here is what we are not born with: information, data, rules, software, knowledge, lexicons, representations, algorithms, programs, models, memories, images, processors, subroutines, encoders, decoders, symbols, or buffers – design elements that allow digital computers to behave somewhat intelligently. Not only are we not born with such things, we also don’t develop them – ever.

We don’t store words or the rules that tell us how to manipulate them. We don’t create representations of visual stimuli, store them in a short-term memory buffer, and then transfer the representation into a long-term memory device. We don’t retrieve information or images or words from memory registers. Computers do all of these things, but organisms do not.

Computers, quite literally, process information – numbers, letters, words, formulas, images. The information first has to be encoded into a format computers can use, which means patterns of ones and zeroes (‘bits’) organised into small chunks (‘bytes’). On my computer, each byte contains 8 bits, and a certain pattern of those bits stands for the letter d, another for the letter o, and another for the letter g. Side by side, those three bytes form the word dog. One single image – say, the photograph of my cat Henry on my desktop – is represented by a very specific pattern of a million of these bytes (‘one megabyte’), surrounded by some special characters that tell the computer to expect an image, not a word.

Computers, quite literally, move these patterns from place to place in different physical storage areas etched into electronic components. Sometimes they also copy the patterns, and sometimes they transform them in various ways – say, when we are correcting errors in a manuscript or when we are touching up a photograph. The rules computers follow for moving, copying and operating on these arrays of data are also stored inside the computer. Together, a set of rules is called a ‘program’ or an ‘algorithm’. A group of algorithms that work together to help us do something (like buy stocks or find a date online) is called an ‘application’ – what most people now call an ‘app’.

Forgive me for this introduction to computing, but I need to be clear: computers really do operate on symbolic representations of the world. They really store and retrieve. They really process. They really have physical memories. They really are guided in everything they do, without exception, by algorithms.

Humans, on the other hand, do not – never did, never will. Given this reality, why do so many scientists talk about our mental life as if we were computers?

Bottom of Form

In his book In Our Own Image (2015), the artificial intelligence expert George Zarkadakis describes six different metaphors people have employed over the past 2,000 years to try to explain human intelligence.

In the earliest one, eventually preserved in the Bible, humans were formed from clay or dirt, which an intelligent god then infused with its spirit. That spirit ‘explained’ our intelligence – grammatically, at least.

The invention of hydraulic engineering in the 3rd century BCE led to the popularity of a hydraulic model of human intelligence, the idea that the flow of different fluids in the body – the ‘humours’ – accounted for both our physical and mental functioning. The hydraulic metaphor persisted for more than 1,600 years, handicapping medical practice all the while.

By the 1500s, automata powered by springs and gears had been devised, eventually inspiring leading thinkers such as RenĂ© Descartes to assert that humans are complex machines. In the 1600s, the British philosopher Thomas Hobbes suggested that thinking arose from small mechanical motions in the brain. By the 1700s, discoveries about electricity and chemistry led to new theories of human intelligence – again, largely metaphorical in nature. In the mid-1800s, inspired by recent advances in communications, the German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz compared the brain to a telegraph.
The mathematician John von Neumann stated flatly that the function of the human nervous system is ‘prima facie digital’, drawing parallel after parallel between the components of the computing machines of the day and the components of the human brain.

Each metaphor reflected the most advanced thinking of the era that spawned it. Predictably, just a few years after the dawn of computer technology in the 1940s, the brain was said to operate like a computer, with the role of physical hardware played by the brain itself and our thoughts serving as software. The landmark event that launched what is now broadly called ‘cognitive science’ was the publication of Language and Communication (1951) by the psychologist George Miller. Miller proposed that the mental world could be studied rigorously using concepts from information theory, computation and linguistics.

This kind of thinking was taken to its ultimate expression in the short book The Computer and the Brain (1958), in which the mathematician John von Neumann stated flatly that the function of the human nervous system is ‘prima facie digital’. Although he acknowledged that little was actually known about the role the brain played in human reasoning and memory, he drew parallel after parallel between the components of the computing machines of the day and the components of the human brain.

Propelled by subsequent advances in both computer technology and brain research, an ambitious multidisciplinary effort to understand human intelligence gradually developed, firmly rooted in the idea that humans are, like computers, information processors. This effort now involves thousands of researchers, consumes billions of dollars in funding, and has generated a vast literature consisting of both technical and mainstream articles and books. Ray Kurzweil’s book How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed (2013), exemplifies this perspective, speculating about the ‘algorithms’ of the brain, how the brain ‘processes data’, and even how it superficially resembles integrated circuits in its structure.

The information processing (IP) metaphor of human intelligence now dominates human thinking, both on the street and in the sciences. There is virtually no form of discourse about intelligent human behaviour that proceeds without employing this metaphor, just as no form of discourse about intelligent human behaviour could proceed in certain eras and cultures without reference to a spirit or deity. The validity of the IP metaphor in today’s world is generally assumed without question.

But the IP metaphor is, after all, just another metaphor – a story we tell to make sense of something we don’t actually understand. And like all the metaphors that preceded it, it will certainly be cast aside at some point – either replaced by another metaphor or, in the end, replaced by actual knowledge.

Just over a year ago, on a visit to one of the world’s most prestigious research institutes, I challenged researchers there to account for intelligent human behaviour without reference to any aspect of the IP metaphor. They couldn’t do it, and when I politely raised the issue in subsequent email communications, they still had nothing to offer months later. They saw the problem. They didn’t dismiss the challenge as trivial. But they couldn’t offer an alternative. In other words, the IP metaphor is ‘sticky’. It encumbers our thinking with language and ideas that are so powerful we have trouble thinking around them.

The faulty logic of the IP metaphor is easy enough to state. It is based on a faulty syllogism – one with two reasonable premises and a faulty conclusion. Reasonable premise #1: all computers are capable of behaving intelligently. Reasonable premise #2: all computers are information processors. Faulty conclusion: all entities that are capable of behaving intelligently are information processors.

Setting aside the formal language, the idea that humans must be information processors just because computers are information processors is just plain silly, and when, some day, the IP metaphor is finally abandoned, it will almost certainly be seen that way by historians, just as we now view the hydraulic and mechanical metaphors to be silly.

If the IP metaphor is so silly, why is it so sticky? What is stopping us from brushing it aside, just as we might brush aside a branch that was blocking our path? Is there a way to understand human intelligence without leaning on a flimsy intellectual crutch? And what price have we paid for leaning so heavily on this particular crutch for so long? The IP metaphor, after all, has been guiding the writing and thinking of a large number of researchers in multiple fields for decades. At what cost?

In a classroom exercise I have conducted many times over the years, I begin by recruiting a student to draw a detailed picture of a dollar bill – ‘as detailed as possible’, I say – on the blackboard in front of the room. When the student has finished, I cover the drawing with a sheet of paper, remove a dollar bill from my wallet, tape it to the board, and ask the student to repeat the task. When he or she is done, I remove the cover from the first drawing, and the class comments on the differences.

Because you might never have seen a demonstration like this, or because you might have trouble imagining the outcome, I have asked Jinny Hyun, one of the student interns at the institute where I conduct my research, to make the two drawings. Here is her drawing ‘from memory’ (notice the metaphor):

And here is the drawing she subsequently made with a dollar bill present:

Jinny was as surprised by the outcome as you probably are, but it is typical. As you can see, the drawing made in the absence of the dollar bill is horrible compared with the drawing made from an exemplar, even though Jinny has seen a dollar bill thousands of times.
What is the problem? Don’t we have a ‘representation’ of the dollar bill ‘stored’ in a ‘memory register’ in our brains? Can’t we just ‘retrieve’ it and use it to make our drawing?

Obviously not, and a thousand years of neuroscience will never locate a representation of a dollar bill stored inside the human brain for the simple reason that it is not there to be found.
The idea that memories are stored in individual neurons is preposterous: how and where is the memory stored in the cell?

A wealth of brain studies tells us, in fact, that multiple and sometimes large areas of the brain are often involved in even the most mundane memory tasks. When strong emotions are involved, millions of neurons can become more active. In a 2016 study of survivors of a plane crash by the University of Toronto neuropsychologist Brian Levine and others, recalling the crash increased neural activity in ‘the amygdala, medial temporal lobe, anterior and posterior midline, and visual cortex’ of the passengers.

The idea, advanced by several scientists, that specific memories are somehow stored in individual neurons is preposterous; if anything, that assertion just pushes the problem of memory to an even more challenging level: how and where, after all, is the memory stored in the cell?

So what is occurring when Jinny draws the dollar bill in its absence? If Jinny had never seen a dollar bill before, her first drawing would probably have not resembled the second drawing at all. Having seen dollar bills before, she was changed in some way. Specifically, her brain was changed in a way that allowed her to visualise a dollar bill – that is, to re-experience seeing a dollar bill, at least to some extent.

The difference between the two diagrams reminds us that visualising something (that is, seeing something in its absence) is far less accurate than seeing something in its presence. This is why we’re much better at recognising than recalling. When we re-member something (from the Latin re, ‘again’, and memorari, 'be mindful of’), we have to try to relive an experience; but when we recognise something, we must merely be conscious of the fact that we have had this perceptual experience before.

Perhaps you will object to this demonstration. Jinny had seen dollar bills before, but she hadn’t made a deliberate effort to ‘memorise’ the details. Had she done so, you might argue, she could presumably have drawn the second image without the bill being present. Even in this case, though, no image of the dollar bill has in any sense been ‘stored’ in Jinny’s brain. She has simply become better prepared to draw it accurately, just as, through practice, a pianist becomes more skilled in playing a concerto without somehow inhaling a copy of the sheet music.

From this simple exercise, we can begin to build the framework of a metaphor-free theory of intelligent human behaviour – one in which the brain isn’t completely empty, but is at least empty of the baggage of the IP metaphor.

As we navigate through the world, we are changed by a variety of experiences. Of special note are experiences of three types: (1) we observe what is happening around us (other people behaving, sounds of music, instructions directed at us, words on pages, images on screens); (2) we are exposed to the pairing of unimportant stimuli (such as sirens) with important stimuli (such as the appearance of police cars); (3) we are punished or rewarded for behaving in certain ways.

We become more effective in our lives if we change in ways that are consistent with these experiences – if we can now recite a poem or sing a song, if we are able to follow the instructions we are given, if we respond to the unimportant stimuli more like we do to the important stimuli, if we refrain from behaving in ways that were punished, if we behave more frequently in ways that were rewarded.

Misleading headlines notwithstanding, no one really has the slightest idea how the brain changes after we have learned to sing a song or recite a poem. But neither the song nor the poem has been ‘stored’ in it. The brain has simply changed in an orderly way that now allows us to sing the song or recite the poem under certain conditions. When called on to perform, neither the song nor the poem is in any sense ‘retrieved’ from anywhere in the brain, any more than my finger movements are ‘retrieved’ when I tap my finger on my desk. We simply sing or recite – no retrieval necessary.

A few years ago, I asked the neuroscientist Eric Kandel of Columbia University – winner of a Nobel Prize for identifying some of the chemical changes that take place in the neuronal synapses of the Aplysia (a marine snail) after it learns something – how long he thought it would take us to understand how human memory works. He quickly replied: ‘A hundred years.’ I didn’t think to ask him whether he thought the IP metaphor was slowing down neuroscience, but some neuroscientists are indeed beginning to think the unthinkable – that the metaphor is not indispensable.

A few cognitive scientists – notably Anthony Chemero of the University of Cincinnati, the author of Radical Embodied Cognitive Science (2009) – now completely reject the view that the human brain works like a computer. The mainstream view is that we, like computers, make sense of the world by performing computations on mental representations of it, but Chemero and others describe another way of understanding intelligent behaviour – as a direct interaction between organisms and their world.

My favourite example of the dramatic difference between the IP perspective and what some now call the ‘anti-representational’ view of human functioning involves two different ways of explaining how a baseball player manages to catch a fly ball – beautifully explicated by Michael McBeath, now at Arizona State University, and his colleagues in a 1995 paper in Science. The IP perspective requires the player to formulate an estimate of various initial conditions of the ball’s flight – the force of the impact, the angle of the trajectory, that kind of thing – then to create and analyse an internal model of the path along which the ball will likely move, then to use that model to guide and adjust motor movements continuously in time in order to intercept the ball.

That is all well and good if we functioned as computers do, but McBeath and his colleagues gave a simpler account: to catch the ball, the player simply needs to keep moving in a way that keeps the ball in a constant visual relationship with respect to home plate and the surrounding scenery (technically, in a ‘linear optical trajectory’). This might sound complicated, but it is actually incredibly simple, and completely free of computations, representations and algorithms.

We will never have to worry about a human mind going amok in cyberspace, and we will never achieve immortality through downloading.

Two determined psychology professors at Leeds Beckett University in the UK – Andrew Wilson and Sabrina Golonka – include the baseball example among many others that can be looked at simply and sensibly outside the IP framework. They have been blogging for years about what they call a ‘more coherent, naturalised approach to the scientific study of human behaviour… at odds with the dominant cognitive neuroscience approach’. This is far from a movement, however; the mainstream cognitive sciences continue to wallow uncritically in the IP metaphor, and some of the world’s most influential thinkers have made grand predictions about humanity’s future that depend on the validity of the metaphor.

One prediction – made by the futurist Kurzweil, the physicist Stephen Hawking and the neuroscientist Randal Koene, among others – is that, because human consciousness is supposedly like computer software, it will soon be possible to download human minds to a computer, in the circuits of which we will become immensely powerful intellectually and, quite possibly, immortal. This concept drove the plot of the dystopian movie Transcendence (2014) starring Johnny Depp as the Kurzweil-like scientist whose mind was downloaded to the internet – with disastrous results for humanity.

Fortunately, because the IP metaphor is not even slightly valid, we will never have to worry about a human mind going amok in cyberspace; alas, we will also never achieve immortality through downloading. This is not only because of the absence of consciousness software in the brain; there is a deeper problem here – let’s call it the uniqueness problem – which is both inspirational and depressing.

Because neither ‘memory banks’ nor ‘representations’ of stimuli exist in the brain, and because all that is required for us to function in the world is for the brain to change in an orderly way as a result of our experiences, there is no reason to believe that any two of us are changed the same way by the same experience. If you and I attend the same concert, the changes that occur in my brain when I listen to Beethoven’s 5th will almost certainly be completely different from the changes that occur in your brain. Those changes, whatever they are, are built on the unique neural structure that already exists, each structure having developed over a lifetime of unique experiences.

This is why, as Sir Frederic Bartlett demonstrated in his book Remembering (1932), no two people will repeat a story they have heard the same way and why, over time, their recitations of the story will diverge more and more. No ‘copy’ of the story is ever made; rather, each individual, upon hearing the story, changes to some extent – enough so that when asked about the story later (in some cases, days, months or even years after Bartlett first read them the story) – they can re-experience hearing the story to some extent, although not very well (see the first drawing of the dollar bill, above).

This is inspirational, I suppose, because it means that each of us is truly unique, not just in our genetic makeup, but even in the way our brains change over time. It is also depressing, because it makes the task of the neuroscientist daunting almost beyond imagination. For any given experience, orderly change could involve a thousand neurons, a million neurons or even the entire brain, with the pattern of change different in every brain.

Worse still, even if we had the ability to take a snapshot of all of the brain’s 86 billion neurons and then to simulate the state of those neurons in a computer, that vast pattern would mean nothing outside the body of the brain that produced it. This is perhaps the most egregious way in which the IP metaphor has distorted our thinking about human functioning. Whereas computers do store exact copies of data – copies that can persist unchanged for long periods of time, even if the power has been turned off – the brain maintains our intellect only as long as it remains alive. There is no on-off switch. Either the brain keeps functioning, or we disappear. What’s more, as the neurobiologist Steven Rose pointed out in The Future of the Brain (2005), a snapshot of the brain’s current state might also be meaningless unless we knew the entire life history of that brain’s owner – perhaps even about the social context in which he or she was raised.

Think how difficult this problem is. To understand even the basics of how the brain maintains the human intellect, we might need to know not just the current state of all 86 billion neurons and their 100 trillion interconnections, not just the varying strengths with which they are connected, and not just the states of more than 1,000 proteins that exist at each connection point, but how the moment-to-moment activity of the brain contributes to the integrity of the system. Add to this the uniqueness of each brain, brought about in part because of the uniqueness of each person’s life history, and Kandel’s prediction starts to sound overly optimistic. (In a recent op-ed in The New York Times, the neuroscientist Kenneth Miller suggested it will take ‘centuries’ just to figure out basic neuronal connectivity.)

Meanwhile, vast sums of money are being raised for brain research, based in some cases on faulty ideas and promises that cannot be kept. The most blatant instance of neuroscience gone awry, documented recently in a report in Scientific American, concerns the $1.3 billion Human Brain Project launched by the European Union in 2013. Convinced by the charismatic Henry Markram that he could create a simulation of the entire human brain on a supercomputer by the year 2023, and that such a model would revolutionise the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease and other disorders, EU officials funded his project with virtually no restrictions. Less than two years into it, the project turned into a ‘brain wreck’, and Markram was asked to step down.

We are organisms, not computers. Get over it. Let’s get on with the business of trying to understand ourselves, but without being encumbered by unnecessary intellectual baggage. The IP metaphor has had a half-century run, producing few, if any, insights along the way. The time has come to hit the DELETE key.

Robert Epstein is a senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology in California. He is the author of 15 books, and the former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today.

You can find this article here.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Just love this picture

"Life is not about waiting out the storm, but learning to dance in the rain."

Monday, August 15, 2016

'It's Just Politics' Seems to Obscure More Than It Reveals
When I see a talking head or fellow citizen throw up their hands or roll their eyes while concluding that something is 'just politics' or the actors are 'politicizing' something that speaker is implicitly arguing should not be politicized...this is one of those rare times I feel driven to examine what we mean by a commonly shared this case, the word 'politics.'

So, when I ran into this lecture I read it with great interest.  Flinders does not make the argument I initially expected or the one I imagine myself making were I to sit down and try...but his lecture is worth thinking about, which is why I provide it in full here.  I have made a few comments, mostly to myself, in [brackets] and highlighted some portions of his text in blue, because that is what I do.

In Defense of Politics
Politics Professor from Sheffield University, 2011

I want to sing out in praise of politics! This seemed such a good idea twelve months ago but in front of five hundred people—friends, family, colleagues—and in the wake of even more stories about MPs not declaring foreign trips and former ministers demanding ‘cash for access’ the idea of trying to defend politicians and praise politics suddenly seems like a very bad idea. 1.

And yet it is exactly because politics is held in such low esteem that this lecture is so important. Democratic politics matters because it achieves far more than we generally give it credit for. The first person I told about the title of my inaugural lecture happened to be based on the other side of the world in Australia. He emailed me back very quickly to inform me ‘Someone’s already beaten you to that one, by about half a century—Crick— bad luck!’

For those of you who might also be a little worried that my title and topic is not as original as I may think I want to set your mind at ease—I am well aware of Bernard Crick’s classic little book In Defense of Politics and I want to return to it for the simple reason that its arguments are more appropriate today than they were when it was first published in 1962. Moreover, as he was the first Professor of Politics at the University of Sheffield, a post he held between 1965 and 1971, working within the contours of Crick’s work provides a direct relationship with the heritage and history of the department that has been my intellectual home throughout my career.
We live in strange and troubled times. Public opinion surveys suggest that large sections of the public are more distrustful, disengaged, skeptical and disillusioned with politics than ever before. ‘Politics’, for the many rather than just a few, has become a dirty word conjuring up notions of sleaze, corruption, greed and inefficiency. On the eve of a General Election it is impossible to deny the conclusion that although a central aim of New Labour was to rebuild public trust and confidence in politics it has failed.
  • ninety per cent of the public distrust politicians;
  • seventy-five per cent believe politics is broken in Britain and is in need of significant and urgent reform;
  • over seventy-five per cent of the public believe most MPs make significant amounts of money by using public office improperly; and
  • sixty-five per cent of the public believe that MPs put their own interests before their party, constituents or country.

Let me be the person who dares to put his head above the parapet and speak in defense of politics. Let me stand up and argue against the current anti-political sentiment and state in no uncertain terms that the vast majority of politicians are overworked and underpaid, that public servants generally do a fantastic job in the face of huge pressures, and that, most broadly, politics delivers far more than most people acknowledge or understand.
Democratic politics can and does affect and shape people’s lives. It saves lives. It
forges a sense of collective endeavor, social support and a sense of humility. We must not allow our political system to become synonymous with failure because public apathy and distrust places a mighty weight on those who have stepped forward on behalf of society in order to attempt to deal with the wave after wave of crises (social, economic, environmental, etc.) that crash upon the shore of politics with ever increasing frequency.
Let me be even bolder. In the United Kingdom a cost-benefit analysis of the Telegraph’s exposure of the MPs’ expenses system in 2009 would probably reveal a negative balance sheet. The sensational drip-drip-drip approach to covering the issue was the political equivalent of napalm or carpet-bombing and appears to have left all politicians as weak and cowering aspects of a rather dejected political landscape.
In the United States the great expectations that propelled Obama into office, the promises of change and new beginnings, now weigh heavily upon not only the president as an individual, but also on the political system more widely. As such, it is important to realize the argument I seek to make—my defense of politics—has merit far beyond our shores.
I am not arguing that democratic politics, as we know it, is perfect. Politicians frequently promise too much and deliver too little. Some politicians have abused their positions for personal gain. But I will not let the behavior of a few destroy the achievements of the many (most politicians and public servants are just; only a few are just awful).
Although imperfect, we can do much worse than honor ‘mere politics’. Indeed we must examine very carefully the claims of those who would do better or who would apparently
turn their backs on politics completely. We must also challenge those who bemoan politics but in the next breadth demand that the institutions of the state do more and more. Politics can and does make a positive difference to peoples’ lives. It delivers far more than most ‘critical citizens’ in the USA, the UK and other ‘disaffected democracies’ realize. Politics can and does make a positive difference to people’s lives.
The brave (or the foolish) individuals who dare to challenge public opinion frequently find themselves ploughing a rather lonely furrow, but speaking in praise of politics I will actually be following a line of argument that has already been made in recent years, in slightly different ways and from varying perspectives, by a number of my friends and colleagues—notably Andrew Gamble, Gerry Stoker, Tony Wright, and most recently Peter Riddell—but I want to make the furrow slightly wider and deeper; I want to stick my neck out even further and suggest that the public have become politically decadent in their expectations about what politics should deliver, how politicians should behave and their own responsibilities within society.
[Reasonable, but is this not a reflection of decades of public miseducation by the far right railing against the possibility of good government and exaggerating both the possibility and desirability of running everything like a business?  Is there no place for an analysis of power here?]
I want to suggest that people ‘hate politics’ because they simply do not understand it; and they are generally not helped to understand it by the media (or university professors of politics for that matter).
There may also be a demographic factor at play: this contemporary climate of anti-politics is arguably rooted in a generation that has become complacent and parochial, and in doing so has forgotten the alternatives to democratic politics.
Those individuals who remember the two world wars that stained the first half of the twentieth century might well possess a far more urgent and personal understanding of why politics matters and why it is sometimes necessary to speak up in its defense. The experience of living through or losing loved ones forged a great collective belief in both
democratic politics and the capacity of the state. It also taught many people never to take things for granted.
My concern is that, despite the pain and suffering of two world wars, we seem to have forgotten this basic piece of information and in its place have created little more than a political marketplace in which there are very few incentives for politicians to actually tell the truth, and too many people who take politics and what it delivers for granted.
Politics succeeds because it generally ensures stability and order: it avoids anarchy or arbitrary rule. Those who argue that democratic politics is broken would do well to read Tim Butcher’s Blood River, an account of his recent journey across Africa and the raw violence, manipulation, poverty and extortion he encountered. My involvement with international research projects and more recently my work for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in South-East Asia has underlined the fact that by international standards politicians and public servants in the UK are among the most honest in the world. I’m not saying that the MPs’ expenses scandal and more recent controversies surrounding foreign trips and the behavior of former ministers is irrelevant but I do think it is important to put things in perspective.
As part of this fightback against the anti-political climate, however, politicians urgently need to rediscover the moral nerve and capacity to speak with the authority and weight of their predecessors. At the heart of this rediscovery must be the acceptance that the ‘the first business of government is to govern’, as Churchill put it, ‘which may at times call for the deliberate endurance of unpopularity’.
And yet it is this paradox, let us call it ‘the governing paradox’—the need for politicians to garner and sustain popular support versus the more basic need for politicians to sometimes deny the public, reject demands or make unpopular decisions—that I want to put at the heart of this lecture.
It could be argued that this governing paradox is not as extreme as one might think: the public are not stupid. They understand that in the wake of the global financial crisis (the ‘GFC’ as it is increasingly known) the economic situation is not positive and that around the world significant cuts within the public sector will have to be made; just as they are aware that responding to climate change is likely to require significant lifestyle changes. And yet the public can also be a selfish master to serve. My concern is that the contemporary negativity, the expectations that we hold, the very big gap that has emerged between the governors and the governed, has made us lose our sense of what might be.
Just as Crick’s original In Defense of Politics was written ‘in one deep breath at a particular time’, so was this lecture. It was conceived and for the most part written during a ten and a half hour train journey from Exeter to Sheffield on 18 December 2009. Since then I have sought to finesse and develop my arguments, but my ambition has not been to write a sequel to Crick’s classic text but instead to pen a complementary text that projects and amplifies his argument into the twenty-first century. This is because his simple quest to restore confidence in politics and pierce the skin of the anti-political climate remains more important today than it did almost half a century ago.
However, if imitation is the highest form of praise then I am happy to admit that I have sought to imitate Crick’s seminal book in terms of structure and style. Sequels, as film lovers will generally attest, are rarely as good as the original and in this sense I anticipate that many people will criticize me for attempting to build so directly upon Crick’s work—I can already hear the quills being sharpened—let alone daring to speak in praise of politics and in defense of politicians! But that is exactly what I intend to do by adapting the structure of Crick’s In Defense of Politics, in order to structure this lecture.
It is beyond the scope of this lecture to discuss each of these themes in any detail. My
intention is to give you only a flavor of my argument by focusing on the changing
nature of political rule and what I call the politics of public expectations as the common chord linking each of these sections together. So let me begin by reflecting on 

1.The nature of political rule in the twenty-first century.
Let me begin by exploring how the nature of political rule and the challenges of governing have altered since the middle of the twentieth century. In doing so I want to very briefly highlight ten issues. The first and most basic change in the nature of political rule concerns levels of public trust (1) and confidence in politics.
Public commitment to the concept of ‘democracy’ remains high; whereas faith in the day-to-day operation of politics has fallen further. It is true to say that politicians have never been popular people and their motives have always been questioned, and to some degree a suspicious and wary public reflects a healthy and connected citizenry. The paradox of our current situation is that despite the fact that democracy has flourished in large parts of the world in recent decades (Eastern Europe, Southern Europe and large parts of South America) the extent of public apathy, anger and frustration with the operation of democratic politics seems to have gone far beyond what is healthy.
As we shall see later, this negativity has created an anti-political climate (2) or context that appears to have sapped the moral integrity of politicians. Functions, responsibilities and decisions are increasingly transferred away from elected politicians to a range of scientists, technocrats, judges or ethicists on the basis that professionalizing or ‘depoliticizing’ decision-making will somehow produce ‘better’ decisions. And yet this narrowing or infolding of politics possesses a certain ‘out of the frying pan and into the fire’ unease for those who want to revitalize democratic politics.
Other changes, moving on more quickly, that have affected the nature of politics in recent decades include: the development of new forms of information communication technology (3) like the internet, twitter, blogs, etc.; changing patterns of ownership, distribution and editorial policy within the media (4); scientific advances (5) concerning—amongst other things—stem cell technology, human embryology, cloning and xenotransplantation that place new opportunities, decisions and regulatory demands on the political agenda; at the same time the topography of politics, the institutional landscape (6) through which politics functions has become increasingly complex and interdependent at a time when the challenges facing politicians and policy-makers are more grave and pressing than ever before.
More broadly, standards of conduct and behavior are now exposed to the light of public and media scrutiny by the emphasis on transparency (7) and also through the growth of a regulatory industry of complaints processes, sleaze busters and political watchdogs.
At the same time, public expectations (8) of politics, in terms of the behavior of politicians and the standard of services delivered by the state, are increasing at a period in which not only the resources to satisfy these demands (public support, financial capacity, etc.) appear in short supply, but the challenges faced by politicians have also become more intricate and thorny (security issues, resource depletion, global warming, etc.).
By emphasizing the shift towards transparency, the creation of numerous investigatory bodies and increasing public expectations I am not in any way seeking to defend politicians or officials who abuse power, tell lies, or engage in corrupt (or morally dubious) practices, but I am trying to put things in perspective. Attacking ‘politics’ in general, and ‘politicians’ in particular, is becoming something of a national blood-sport in many countries.
Very few politicians or public servants abuse power, tell lies, or engage in corrupt practices—at least not in those countries that seem to have lost most faith in politics—but by treating them as if they do we risk destroying ‘a great and civilizing human activity’, as Crick argued ‘something to be valued almost as a pearl beyond price in the history of the human condition’.
This brings me on to a further and particularly significant change in the nature of politics—the role and influence of ideology (9). Simply stated, fifty years ago politicians might also have lacked resources but they did at least arguably have a clearer and more stable ideological foundation. The politics of the left or the right provided a form of moral compass or anchorage through which politicians could rationalize their responses to social challenges and offer a relatively coherent governing narrative. I am not for one minute arguing, like some, that we exist in a ‘post-ideological’ historical phase but I am suggesting that politicians appear to have lost their political safety-blankets, by which I mean recourse to a fairly clear and coherent ideological position, be it liberalism, socialism or any other variant that provided a sense of direction.
I might be wrong. It could be argued that the ideological foundations of mainstream politics have not waned but have, in fact, narrowed as political parties have clustered increasingly around a rather restricted acceptance of a market economy in which the legitimate and appropriate role of the state vis-a`-vis the market has been, at least until last year’s global economic crisis, relatively uncontested. At the very least it would appear that as the ideological battleground has narrowed so politicians and the media have been forced to construct even more artificial boundaries.
Finally, one of the less discerned changes to the nature of politics since Crick’s In Defense of Politics was published relates to the academic profession (10) itself. We—and I mean we—are in danger of becoming strangely depoliticized ourselves. As a discipline the study of politics has been somewhat sanitized by the managerialist direction of higher education policy.
The pressure to ‘publish or perish’ within an increasingly contract-based environment, to produce evidence-based research and demonstrate ‘impact’ while also teaching and supporting increasingly demanding – and rightly so – students – seems to have sapped the moral vigor of academics and narrowed the profession.
This is a point that I hope to return to elsewhere and it is sufficient for me to note here that for me one of the benefits of becoming a professor is a greater degree of personal and professional security which brings with it the confidence to stand up, stand back and view your field of study as a whole. As such, tonight I want to fly a few kites and make some very bold statements in order to challenge established stereotypes. I want to argue in favor of a paradigm shift in the way we view and understand politics because there is a pressing need to be a little brave—to risk inevitable misunderstanding and deliberate criticism—in order to defend politics from those who seek to narrow and subvert the political realm and against those who have become politically decadent.
Decadent because they can no longer appreciate the great benefits that being a member of a democratic community delivers. Decadent because they carp from the sidelines but refuse to step forward and make a positive contribution themselves. Let me simply say that democratic politics matters more than most people understand and acknowledge. Politics matters more than ever. It matters because on the whole it delivers.
This lecture—as by now I am sure you realize—attempts to restore confidence in the virtues of political activity and through this contribute to reconnecting the governors with the governed. It is not a systematic or evidence-based treatise. But it is an attempt to respond to contemporary political disenchantment by (in turn) defending politics against itself, against the market, against depoliticization, against the media, and lastly (but certainly not least) against crises.
As such it seeks to recast Crick’s argument within the contours of contemporary debates and themes by remaining true to the intellectual thrust and style of In Defense of Politics while at the same time forging a distinct line of argument regarding the limits of politics and the need to reflect on the emergence of an expectations gap between what is promised by politicians, expected by the public and what can realistically be delivered by the state.
This is clearly a wide-ranging lecture and, like painting on a large canvas, this will require the use of a fairly broad brush, in analytical and empirical terms. However, I hope that by emphasizing some of the achievements of politics and daring to swim against the tide of popular opinion I might provoke some reflection on whether political institutions, political processes and politicians really deserve to be the focus of such extreme public ridicule and derision.

Having examined the nature of governing in the twenty-first century let me build upon these challenges by offering my first defense, and what may at first appear quite an odd point of departure.

2. A defense of politics against itself.
There are some who will tell us that the twentieth century was the democratic century as huge numbers of previously authoritarian regimes around the world transformed into various manifestations of what would usually be accepted as ‘liberal democracy’. Indeed, such was the gusto behind such a sense of democratic triumph that some even spoke of the ‘end of history’.
There are some who would argue that democracy is the true form of politics—a form of societal organization and behavior that is innately superior to other forms of political regime. The simple argument I am making here is that in the absence of any broad public understanding of the simple aims (and costs) of democracy in modern politics will inevitably contain the seeds of its own ruin because at the root of democratic politics lies a preference for collective goods over individual desire.
The warning being—as Crick originally set out—that democracy, taken alone and without any true and honest understanding of its core emphasis, represents little more than the destruction of politics.
Without this social acceptance of the need for restraint an ‘expectations gap’ can emerge between what politics promises and what it delivers that continually fuels public cynicism, distrust and disengagement.
What then would a true and honest understanding of politics look like and how would it help in closing the gap that has apparently grown so wide between the governors and the governed?
For me, and those other brave souls who have dared attempt to defend politics, a more accurate and straightforward understanding of politics would be built upon three pillars. Firstly, any evaluation of democratic politics must reject idealized notions of ‘the Republic’ or ‘the people’ and instead reject the naive view that it is possible for anyone to identify and protect the ‘public interest’, when the reality is that societies increasingly consist of a heterogeneous mix of social groups with radically different demands. The role of a politician is therefore invidious and messy as they are frequently forced to rob Peter to pay Paul, and must decide which particular constituencies to represent, protect or assail at any given time. ‘The real problem with politics’, Stoker therefore argues, ‘even in democracies, is that it is inevitably destined to disappoint because it is about the tough process of squeezing collective decisions out of multiple and competing interests and opinions.’6
This is the beauty of politics—not its failure. Democratic politics (secondly) rejoices in the existence of difference and the smooth assimilation of different social groups and competing demands without resorting to authoritarian modes of control. What gives politics its beauty then as a form of social organization is that it is not solely concerned with the fulfilment of societal demands but is equally tasked with the rejection of specific demands, possibly on the basis of resource limits, impracticability, fairness, a desire to protect the interests of less literate social groups, or even to protect the life chance of future generations from the detrimental behavior of the current cohort. For Crick, ‘politics’ was ‘often settling for less than what we want, because we often want to live without violence or perpetual fear of violence from other people who want other things’.7
The fact that politics often produces messy compromises; that suboptimal decisions are made and bureaucratic processes appear slow and cumbersome; and that politics inevitably disappoints some sections of the community is simply the price we pay for seeking to govern through consensus.
Finally, gauging politics against the realities of governing rather than some idealized system of rule underlines the simple fact that politicians must be able to make decisions. Governing capacity is therefore a requirement of any political system. My point is that we cannot bind the hands of politicians by placing more and more limits on their governing capacity, or by subjecting their every decision to forensic analysis, and then attack them for failing to govern with conviction or take decisive action.
These three pillars coalesce around the theme of public expectations and it is exactly this issue that I want to promote as the central strand of my lecture. I want to suggest that a number of factors may have combined to raise the public’s expectations of politics to a point against which it will always fail. Moreover, the incentives and sanctions structure associated with conventional forms of democratic engagement arguably encourage politicians to promise standards of behavior, levels of public services and institutional relationships that are unrealistic and unattainable; but having inflated public expectations, the subsequent performance of those politicians undermines public confidence, thereby fueling disenchantment and apathy. This focus on the creation, management and potential pathologies of public expectations therefore provides a way of understanding and teasing apart a central driver of the trend towards political disenchantment.
Crick implicitly highlighted what I would term the ‘expectations gap’ when he noted a tendency for politics to ‘lead to false expectation. It may lead people to expect too much—and the disillusionment of unreal ideals is an occupational hazard of free politics.’8 If ‘saving politics from itself ’ is tied to the management of public expectations then it is necessary to reflect on the evidence and implications of this argument before considering its relationship with the other parts of this lecture.
The notion of an ‘expectations gap’ is not purely academic. It was first coined by David Miliband when he was director of the Prime Minister’s Policy Unit (1997– 2001) and referred to the difference between the politicians’ promises and the public’s expectations of what politics and the state could and should deliver, on the one hand, and what politics and the state could realistically deliver given the resources it was provided with, on the other. The important aspect of Miliband’s approach to this dilemma stemmed from his acceptance that although the government’s public service modernization agenda could marginally increase performance, it was never going to close the gap. The most important role for ministers, Miliband argued, was not driving forward reform but suppressing (or at least not inflating) public expectations. This focus on an ‘expectations gap’ suggests that politicians have three main options—Option 1: increasing supply (moving the bottom bar up); Option 2: reducing demand (moving the top bar down); or, Option 3: a combination of Options 1 and 2 (closing the gap from above and below). Framed in this manner, the rather difficult position of politicians becomes slightly clearer; increasing supply, in terms of financial resources, is not an option in the wake of the global economic crisis, and reducing demand is easier said than done in the context of electoral competition.

Pushing the issue of public expectations a little further allows us to think of it as a form of linkage and as such that it can be divided into at least two distinct forms: there are public expectations about political behavior; and political expectations about public behavior. The need to secure and maintain public support arguably makes it difficult for politicians to impose their views on the responsibilities of the public vis-a`-vis public services. Indeed, politicians and public servants who have spoken in favor of placing greater emphasis on the duties and responsibilities of members of the public to society as a whole—like showing evidence of adopting a healthier lifestyle prior to medical treatment, ensuring children have a good night’s sleep (and an appropriate breakfast) before school, or introducing incentives for recycling— risk upsetting those on whose votes they depend. Reducing (or at the very least recalibrating) the public’s expectations or promoting significant behavioral change is therefore harder than most people understand. As such, the main statecraft strategy used in many countries in an attempt to ‘close the gap’ has in recent years focused upon increasing supply through the absorption of market principles within the public and political sphere, a point that leads me to the third part of my lecture.

3 A defense of politics against the market
Politics would not be interpreted as failing so frequently and people would not ‘hate’ it as much as they do if it was judged against a more realistic set of expectations.
That is essentially the argument I am trying to make, and in this section I want argue that the incursion of market-based values, relationships and institutions within the public sphere has played a role in damaging public confidence in politics by failing to recognize the basic essence of democratic politics, in general, and promoting unrealistic public expectations about what the state can and should provide, in particular.
In giving the 2009 Reith Lectures Professor Michael Sandel made the argument that politicians and other influential social actors had mistakenly accepted and perpetuated a belief that the institutions of the public sector should be structured and managed to emulate a well-functioning competitive market. I too have argued that the public sector ought not to be automatically modelled on the private sector, but to criticize the gradual capture of the public sphere by the market is hardly original.
Graham Allison wrote his seminal article over a quarter of a century ago on the innate differences between the public and private sectors in terms of values, assumptions and ambitions.9 More recently, David Marquand—my erstwhile PhD supervisor before he departed for Oxford—has developed these themes in his The Decline of the Public (2004). However, in the context of the GFC these debates concerning the relationship between public and private modes of governing have assumed greater significance.
Once-secure assumptions have been stress-tested—not to destruction but in a way that poses new questions about long-standing weaknesses and fault-lines. The Spectre at the Feast, to use the title of Andrew Gamble’s book on the topic, has always been the risk of crisis but I want to turn things around and suggest that those who dare to speak in praise of politics should never waste a good crisis.10
The GFC has created an arena of political debate in which ideas regarding the respective advantages and disadvantages of public and private modes of governance and decision making can be reviewed. I have played my role elsewhere in these debates and I do not want to revisit my work on the manner in which dominant understandings of ‘good governance’ have frequently veiled the imposition of highly normative market-based notions (the logic of contestability, the logic of the market, the existence of ‘splintered logic’, etc.) within the public sector.
What I want to emphasize here is that what we might term the ‘logic of the state’, the ‘logic of politics’, or the ‘logic of collective provision’ offers far more than has commonly been recognized. My argument is that ‘post-crisis’ politics may provide the creative space in which to move beyond prosaic and perennial set piece debates (‘big state versus small state’) and in its place facilitate a more sophisticated discussion regarding ‘the smarter state’—the boundaries and contours of which remain unclear.
The notion of the ‘smarter state’ is a topic I am currently exploring with colleagues at the Institute for Government and the Institute for Public Policy Research and I therefore have no answers to give on this topic at present. What I can do, however, is tease out some of the ways in which any attempt to build a ‘smarter state’ must acknowledge that the marketization and commodification of the state played a key role in undermining public confidence in politics.
It emphasized individualism, personal choice and material benefits while doing little to foster or safeguard those facets of collective endeavor (the public sector ethos, citizenship, institutional memory, etc.) that had taken half a century to build. More germane to the argument of this lecture was the way that managerialism has and continues to cultivate ‘citizen-consumers’ who are encouraged to expect those levels of service provision that they would commonly expect from the private sector. Thereby inflating public expectations far beyond what the state or politics was ever intended, expected or resourced to provide. This is the political equivalent of self-harming.
Democratic politics and the role of the state is built and sustained on the basis of externalized rationing in which certain decisions about the allocation of resources (and paying for them) are imposed and enforced by the state. This externalized rationing system may sometimes appear overly centralized, controlling and even unfair but it has been established and sustained on the basis of (1) a coherent logic based upon the need to protect certain shared resources; (2) the need to avoid inferior social outcomes, protect individual freedoms and deter free-riders; and last but not least (3) the view that some resources are too important to be left to the vagaries of a pure market. As such, membership of a democratic political community brings with it an acceptance that some people will take out more than they put in, and not everyone would receive the level of service provision they might wish for.

The conception of citizens as consumers risks inflaming rather than reshaping public expectations because, as Gerry Stoker has set out, ‘the discourse and practice of collective decision-making sits very uncomfortably alongside the discourse and practice of individual choice, self-expression and market-based fulfilment of needs and wants. So it turns out that a propensity to disappoint is an inherent feature of governance even in democratic societies.’11

But the marketization of the public sphere has done much more than this. It has eroded a sense of human solidarity and belief in the utility of collective action, and through this has served to downgrade the merits of democratic engagement. The architecture of democratic politics has arguably overemphasized individual rights and in doing so created a less deferential and more consumerist public who think of themselves as customers rather than citizens. This is reflected by those who assert their rights in a selfish way without regard to the rights of others. A stronger and bolder argument, and one I am sure Bernard Crick would have made, is that the public sector is a civilizing and humane expression of collective sentiment, shared challenges and a common fate that should not automatically be viewed as inferior to the market. Not only will whoever wins the general election have to acknowledge this fact if they are going to construct a ‘smarter state’ but they will also have to accept that the role of elected politicians is to make difficult and frequently invidious decisions—a point that leads into… 

4 A defense of politics against depoliticization
Such is the extent of the political climate that many commentators—even politicians— now argue in favor of reducing the role of our elected representatives and drawing more heavily on the skills and knowledge of what I might term the ‘enlightened elite’. If party politicians are self-interested, irrational, corrupt and lacking in specialist skills—so the argument goes—why not simply transfer decision-making powers to (nonpartisan)
scientists, engineers, technocrats, ethicists and judges? This preference for political outsourcing has been promoted by pressure groups, think tanks, the World Bank and the United Nations as a way of not only increasing the efficiency and responsiveness of the state but also (paradoxically) as a way of rebuilding public confidence in politics.
Depoliticization—the transfer of responsibility for major areas of public policy away from elected politicians—has therefore emerged as a central element of modern politics and governance around the world.
[So, is politicization the transfer of responsibility for major areas of public policy to elected politicians (as opposed to bureaucratic experts or the market)? Like Schattschneider’s ‘socialization’ that occurs when we expand the scope of a conflict to include the state as an interested party…is this politicizing a conflict and thus, depoliticization is privatizing conflicts by narrowing the scope of the conflict to exclude the state?  How do various ‘publics’ existing in the middle here?  For Schattschneider, the ‘audience’ was a metaphor for state actors, but as mass and social media grow in influence and independence from the state we need to revisit his ‘audience’ to include various competing and overlapping publics as factors…but not agents? Yet, below turns to nature of the conflict/good as key in determining what is political/public and not, regardless of the venue or arena or sphere.]
Jacques Rancie`re may well be correct that ‘depoliticization is the oldest task of politics’12 but my aim is to ask how are we to revitalize politics when politicians themselves increasingly deny their own capacity to make a difference? Does an issue become any less political in terms of its social and economic impact if decisions are made beyond the purview of our elected politicians? No. The arena might change but the politics remains.
Depoliticization is a dangerous trend; the gradual infolding and hollowing-out of the political sphere to the burgeoning sphere of ABCs (agencies, boards and commissions) is a threat to democratic politics, not its savior. Colin Hay— someone who I am very pleased and proud to have as a friend and colleague— has examined the relationship between depoliticization and public attitudes to politics in his award-winning book Why We Hate Politics.13 All I want to do at this stage of the lecture is very briefly relate depoliticization to two important issues: our old friend public expectations, and the issue of political leadership.
For politicians the opportunity to transfer difficult decisions or areas of policy provides a way of dealing with the pressure of public expectations. As Tony Wright argued in his 2009 Political Quarterly lecture, politics is a ‘messy business of accommodating conflicting interests, choosing between competing options, negotiating unwelcome trade-offs, and taking responsibility for decisions that may often represent the least worst option’.
If the public, pressure groups, journalists or members of the opposition are either unable or unwilling to understand this basic point then is it really surprising that politicians seek to restrict the sphere for which they can be held personally responsible? Is it any surprise that at the general election we will witness the largest turnover of MPs in modern history! To some MPs I have no doubt we should say ‘good riddance’; but the majority are leaving not because they have abused the expenses system but simply because they have had enough of trying to operate within a low-trust high-blame attack, attack, attack political context.
The problems we face are not simple and (most) politicians are not fools. Those anti-political agitators do society an injustice by suggesting that we merely need to eradicate party politicians through a mixture of citizen participation and technocratic rule. There is very little evidence that the public actually wants to participate; and even less evidence that technocrats or judges can deliver unequivocal answers to complex socio-economic questions.
As Crick argued with his typical literary elegance, the man who claimed he could rule beyond the polis was either a ‘God or a beast’. This notion of gods or beasts flows into the relationship between the outsourcing of politics and political leadership. Few members of the public would seek to deify politicians in the current climate; most would define them as beast (though I, of course, would not). But I do believe that the almost knee-jerk reaction of politicians to respond to new social challenges or incidents by creating a new specialist body to assume responsibility reflects a loss of confidence amongst our political elite. Politicians, particularly but not exclusively in the
United Kingdom, have arguably
lost their nerve, their confidence to make difficult decisions. Where are the politicians who are willing to stand-up and defend their
role? The issue of moral courage and political leadership is one I will return to later.
However in order to understand better the position of politicians and mount an effective defense of politics it is now necessary to turn our attention to, dare I say, the real sinners. [!]
5 A defense of politics against the media
In turning my attention to the media I make no apology for my lack of restraint and my inability to talk in anything but fairly harsh terms. If we really want to understand how the public are misled, abused and exploited then it is to journalism and the media, and not just to politicians and politics, that I think we should turn.
It is a curious paradox of modern times that just as we have more media space than ever its content is generally found to have less and less healthy debate. Few issues are addressed in any real depth or in a way that engages with large audiences—talking points (and usually the same one across all outlets), rather than issues of social concern, dominate. Sound bites, by their very nature, are the opposite of balanced reporting and comment.
I’ve lost count of the number of times in recent months I have been approached by journalists and asked to provide a list of the ‘ten worst quangos’, my views on the ‘sleaze ridden’ House of Commons, or have been offered large sums of money to add my name to articles written elsewhere. This trend, however, is not benign but has major political implications due to the manner in which the forces of technological change and intense competition have emphasized speed rather than accuracy, hostility rather than balance and a tendency never to let the truth get in the way of a good story.
I am not alone in making this argument as an increasing number of journalists have reflected on the gradual but constant demise of their profession. John Lloyd, for example, has written at length of the manner in which the media have shifted from a check on the excesses of politics to an alternative establishment dedicated to a theatrical distrust of individual politicians and a furious and calculated indifference to the real-life intricacies of policy-making.14
Similar themes pervade Thomas Patterson’s book Out of Order and generate a compelling critique of the media’s domination of the political process in the USA.15 In 2007 Jeremy Paxman used the MacTaggart Lecture to suggest that journalists were increasingly betraying ‘the people [they] ought to be serving’. In addition to noting this general shift in the nature of journalism he also made a point of direct relevance to this lecture’s focus on the issue of ‘public expectations’ by emphasizing what he called the ‘expectation inflation’ that had resulted from the emergence of 24/7 news. He confessed that on some days as a presenter on Newsnight if he was truly honest he would have started the program by stating in no uncertain terms, ‘Not much has happened today. I’d go to bed if I were you.’ However, in the current climate the media ‘chatterati’ cannot accept such truisms—‘The story needs to be kept moving, constantly hyped. . . . in this context even the slightest development . . . is fallen upon as if it were a press release announcing the second coming.’ If there is no story one will have to be invented—hence the rise of celebrity culture and reality television.
Hugh Cudlipp, one of the giants of British journalism and editor of the Daily Mirror when Crick was writing In Defense of Politics, once said ‘A tabloid newspaper should strive—more diligently perhaps than ‘a serious quality newspaper’—to be acknowledged as mature, stable and fair in its attitudes to people and public issues.’ How far the media seems to have moved from such a position; and what is particularly critical for the focus of my lecture is that the media in all its forms has become imbued with a culture of negativity that I cannot help but feel has corroded public confidence and understanding in politics.
As Alistair Campbell stressed when giving the 2008 Cudlipp Lecture, ‘failure, it is thought, is what sells and what people want to hear and read about. I am not so sure. Britain is not the basket case, nor its politics and public services the abject failures conveyed through the media.’16 Robin Cook, someone I knew and respected through my work with the Hansard Society, used to cite a study showing a shifting ratio of positive to negative coverage of issues and events in the national press. During the 1970s the ratio was three positive stories to one negative, but by the millennium the ratio had shifted to one positive story for every 18 negative.
My point here is not to deny the existence of problems with our political system but to simply emphasize the corrosive influence of constant negative media reporting on public confidence in politics. I am arguing in favor of a shift towards ‘civic journalism’ that would: not feed on speculative stories that owe little to reality; not amplify specific incidents into systemic failings; not focus on the ambitions that were not achieved rather than the majority that were; and although civic journalism would have to be ‘right’, as in correct in terms of factual content, it would not need to be right now, in terms of being the first to break a story.17
Let me go even further and link this critique of the media to my earlier focus on the market. The media is increasingly concerned with what could be termed the commodification of social issues in order to protect and enlarge market shares.
Some months ago I spoke at a public event on the topic of ‘Was politics broken in the wake of the MPs’ expenses scandal?’ alongside journalists from the Telegraph and the BBC. It was I, you might not be surprised to learn, who made the simple point that if you actually stood back and examined the position of all MPs you would find: a small number of MPs who may have broken the law; a second larger group of between 40 and 50 MPs who had clearly abused the spirit, if not the letter, of the system; and then a larger group of possibly 200 MPs who had been asked to make repayments due to a mixture of administrative incompetence, confusion about the scope of legitimate expenses and the rather harsh retrospective reasoning of Sir Thomas Legg. (This is a point that was underlined by Peter Riddell just a couple of months ago as he sought to set out his own defense of politicians.)18
If you add the members of those three groups together you find that the ‘scandal’—the ‘meltdown’ of British democracy—did not even involve half of the members of the House of Commons. Let us not pretend that the Telegraph’s coverage of the MPs’ expenses scandal was concerned with public propriety any more than the tabloids’ focus on Madeleine McCann is driven by concern for the child.
The word ‘Madeleine’ sells; the word ‘sleaze’ sells. I, personally, would like to see how many of today’s journalists could cope with the pressures of life as an MP—or would even think of getting out of bed for the salary of a backbencher. But more broadly I want to emphasize that the political implications and corrosive influence of purely negative reporting has very simple and straightforward implications in terms of hollowing out public confidence in politics and deterring individuals from engaging in public service.
But now I need to move on (I hear a Red Deer19 bellowing to me in the distance), the approach of the media to politics is couched more and more in the language of extremes—there is little room in modern political coverage for shades of grey. Politics is portrayed as an arena forged upon binary distinctions— saints and sinners, triumphs and disasters, savior to failure, hero to zero, knights and knaves—and as a result issues become strangely depoliticized within public discourse as the more interesting shades of grey that provoke debate and offer real options are rarely exposed.
[This is an interesting use of depoliticized, defined above as—‘the transfer of responsibility for major areas of public policy away from elected politicians—has therefore emerged as a central element of modern politics and governance around the world.’ I do not think the author means to argue that the language of extremes results in the transfer of responsibility for policy away from elected politicians, does he?  Here he refers to being ‘depoliticized within public discourse,’ and that seems to highlight a more symbolic dimension of depoliticization. Or does he mean (skipping logical steps) to assert that the language of extremes has a corrosive impact on public opinion, which in turn enlarges the expectations gap in ways not specified here, which in turn results on either citizens or elites or both being more likely to see issue x (or a large menu of issues) as best managed with market tools rather than politics.]
Of course, the generally cynical approach of media reporting that I have sought to
highlight in this section creates a predisposition towards the negative side of each
of these counterparts and an emphasis on the most overused word in political
reporting– crisis. 

6 A defense of politics against crises
If politics is in crisis then it seems to have been so for some time. ‘The Crisis of
Democracy’, for example, was the title of the final report of the trilateral commission
into political disaffection in Western Europe, the United States and Japan in the 1970s. That is not to deny the contemporary relevance of responding to the apparent decline in public confidence in politics but it does at least help keep things in perspective. It might also be used to support the claim that the term ‘crisis’ is in danger of becoming overused in the sense that it has been so broadly applied in recent years that it has lost its meaning in a world obsessed with hyperbole.
Political science has for some time explained instances of rapid change with reference to the role of crises because dominant assumptions about the efficacy of certain governing arrangements can be destabilized by a crisis which, in turn, both reduces the capacity of the incumbent government to prevent reform while also increasing the resources of reform advocates. One of the challenges of governing in the twenty-first century is that crisis situations appear to have become the norm as opposed to the exception.
There is hardly a day goes by without another crisis for politicians to attend to—mad cows, avian flu, fuel blockades, predatory pedophiles, feral hoodies, economic collapse, terrorist plots, volcanic eruptions—and as Chris Mullin laconically acknowledges in his diaries, even in periods of relative calm politicians know ‘It can only be a question of time before a new crisis is organised’.20 And yet in reality most of these issues are not really crises but elements of the general rhythm—the ebb and flow—of politics.
Fortunately, events that I would class as crises (civil wars, natural disasters, invasions, etc.) are few and far between in those established democracies that appear most disaffected. But what this focus on crises reveals is the role of the media and opposition parties in articulating crisis narratives, amplifying risks and increasing the public’s expectations of politics in order to place pressure on incumbent politicians.
Put slightly differently, crises do not happen, as such, but incidents or issues must be socially constructed by social commentators and articulated as such.
The phrase ‘Crisis, what crisis?’, for example, has gone down in political folklore as Jim Callaghan’s response to a question about the Winter of Discontent that helped bring down the Labour government in 1979. Although the phrase reinforced a popular sense that the government had lost touch with the country the Prime Minister never actually said it: it was a creation by a journalist working for the Sun. If the facts were rarely allowed to get in the way of a good story thirty years ago then the pressure on journalists to deliver ‘breaking news’ today creates a powerful tendency towards ‘crisis inflation’ in which even the smallest issue can be rapidly amplified into an example of systemic failure.
[Highlighting (1) what Bennett calls a journalistic preference for more dramatic and fragmented and personalized angles on stories and (2) the struggle to amplify some, and mute other, conflicts.  And the semi-independent incentives for journalists to participate in this struggle for reasons that may have little or nothing to do with either the nature or importance of the conflict OR with elite agenda-setting struggles.]
Why then does this increased emphasis on crises matter? Firstly, it matters because it drains and distracts politicians and officials from focusing on the long-term strategic management of public services. Doing nothing is generally not perceived as an option, even when it is unclear what exactly an effective response would look like. Secondly, it matters because it creates a constant climate of instability, insecurity and political failure that, in itself, reinforces a negative view of the capacity of politicians to take control. This (thirdly) feeds into the fact that whatever the source of the crisis it is politicians who will be held responsible and generally blamed.
[Since the topic here is mass media, should we not start with its impact on public opinion, or the ways it ‘drains and distracts’ citizens?]
No allowances are made for ‘acts of God’, human nature or simple mistakes. Politicians know that being held to account will not involve a rational examination of the available evidence but a desperate exercise of blame allocation and the demand for a sacrificial lamb. Accountability is very much of the ‘gotcha’ variety.
This focus on the existence of fate flows (fourthly) into this lecture’s emphasis on the ‘expectations gap’ due to the manner in which crisis-related stories inevitably place unrealistic expectations on the shoulders of politicians and public servants.
The benefit of hindsight is a wonderful thing after an event. What makes the issue of crises within the context of increasingly ‘disaffected’ democracies particularly interesting is that it is possible to identify an element of transference as the public’s anger and frustration about one issue can be conducted and earthed, to some extent, through political outlets. I have no empirical evidence to support this point—I did say that I was going to fly some kites—but I cannot help but feel that the incredible public outrage over the MPs’ expenses scandal—and it was a scandal not a crisis—was to some degree connected with the broader social outrage at the behavior of bonus-fueled yet largely unidentifiable city bankers. 
Parliamentarians therefore provided a convenient and timely lightning-rod for social unrest; a number of MPs deserved everything they got and, more broadly, acting as an outlet for public anger can be viewed as a proper and legitimate role for the House of Commons. But at the same time any individual can only cope with a certain an amount of abuse and hostility before they question their ability to play a positive role without a step-change in the broader context.
Let me inject a little story to burnish this point: I was recently interviewed for a high-profile but non-partisan position within the public sector and was not entirely surprised when the main focus of the interview was not so much on the fit between my skills and experience and the specific requirements of the post but on how I would cope with the media going through my bins, with my children being followed to school and with anyone I’d ever met being offered large amounts of money for salacious stories.
The mixture of issues that shape the nature of governing in the twenty-first century (discussed above) already make governing difficult enough. Do we really need to make things any harder by adding to the burdens of politicians and public servants in this way; what does anyone gain from adding to the shrill discourse that encourages us to view all politicians and public servants as corrupt and unreliable?
The maintenance of a perpetual state of crisis or political outrage and the outsourcing of politics beyond the grasp of electoral control prevents us from stepping back and acknowledging all that politics delivers. I am not encouraging voters to follow the advice of Bernard Baruch, an adviser to Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt in the USA, to ‘vote for the man who promises least because he’ll be the least disappointing’ because to do so would be to let the pessimists, detractors and politically depressive from robbing us of the sense of optimism and hope that democratic politics offers. But I am suggesting that if the public genuinely believe that politics (and therefore politicians) are failing them then this may well tell us more about the public’s expectations than the failure of our politicians.
The link between unrealistic public expectations and crises has possibly been clearest in the United States since the election of Obama. His campaign was based on the promise of radical and distinctive change: nothing more; nothing less. As the campaign came towards an end, and particularly as public opinion surveys suggested an Obama victory was likely, his campaign team’s focus shifted to an emphasis on lowering public expectations about what he would be able to achieve if elected. The sudden financial crisis and the prospect of a deep and painful recession increased the urgency inside Obama’s campaign team to bring people down to earth, after a campaign in which his soaring rhetoric and promises of ‘hope’ and ‘change’ were suddenly confronted with the reality of a stricken economy. Seeking to dampen down public expectations continued throughout the transition period following the election in an attempt to prevent ‘a vast mood swing from exhilaration and euphoria to despair’ as one of Obama’s senior advisers noted. In response to questions about his immediate priorities on taking office Mr. Obama repeatedly told the world’s media that ‘the first hundred days is going to be important, but it’s probably the first thousand days that makes the difference . . . I won’t stand here and pretend that any of this will be easy—especially now’.
It clearly has not been easy for Obama as the challenges of getting into office seem to have paled into insignificance against the challenges of governing. ‘Yes we can’ has in relation to many commitments turned into ‘I’m still hoping we can at some point’ and his approval ratings have fallen accordingly. And yet I’m personally quite relieved that Obama is not Superman. (Too many people sidestep their own individual responsibilities as a citizen by looking for a superhero to take control.) And yet the election of Obama still demonstrates the capacity of democratic politics to renew itself, to reconnect with sections of the political community that had effectively become disenfranchised, and to secure agreements on ambitious policies that many thought could never be achieved. With these more upbeat thoughts in mind I want to conclude by coming full circle and speaking in praise of politics.

7 In praise of politics

This lecture has attempted to restore a degree of confidence in the virtues of politics as a great and civilizing human activity. In this endeavor I have tried to swim against the tide of popular opinion and I hope you feel I have at least been able to tread water, and have not drowned in my attempt to adopt what some might view as a brave, courageous or foolhardy position. But as Crick said, ‘Free men stick their necks out’.21 I hope I have at least provided food for thought that may nourish a more positive and constructive approach to political matters. I have tried to show that politics matters because on the whole it delivers far more than most people recognize, and the alternatives are far worse.
Let me provide you with a reference point: ‘A vast, chaotic, misgoverned, dysfunctional morass; its rulers historically preoccupied with looting rather than governing. The armed forces bloated, parasitic, disloyal and generally useless except in so far as they threaten the lives and welfare of the much put upon civilian population.’ 22 Reflecting upon this recent description of an African state might encourage some of the critics who bemoan what democratic politics delivers to pause for thought.
When was the last time you were forced to pay a nurse, local official or police officer a bribe to access certain public services? Why do people believe the NHS is in crisis yet rate their personal experience of services as generally very good? Why does the public seem to distrust MPs as a political class, but tend to hold far more positive views about their own constituency MP?
[In the end, this single reference to ‘it is a lot worse in Africa’ turns out to be the only arguments in defense of politics.  The rest focuses much more on explaining why average citizens expect too much from politicians and that this erodes confidence in ‘politics’ itself, rather than on defending the proposition that we should, even in the face of the forces explained here as undermining our confidence, still see politics as worthy of our confidence and support.  Or even defending the proposition that—if we could reduce the expectations gap—we would then be able to renew our confidence in politics.]
The intention of democratic politics is not to deliver individualized public services exactly when, where and how you want them. Politics arises from recognition of restraints and a commitment to respecting diversity; it is a moral, humane and civilizing activity that never claims to be able to solve every problem or ‘make every sad heart glad’ but it is far better than other forms of rule. When put like this I put it to you that maybe the fabric of politics is not quite as threadbare as many think.
Speaking in defense of politics is not easy. Anyone daring to stand up for politicians or political processes risks being immediately labelled as irrational, mad or—even worse—harboring political ambitions themselves. I harbor no ambitions within party politics but can no longer stand on the sidelines and watch a noble profession—public service interwoven with a belief in the capacity of collective endeavor—be the constant
focus of ridicule and derision.
Especially when anti-political arguments are commonly
deployed as a Trojan horse for market-based solutions that risk deconstructing
a public sphere that we have spent a century building.
Almost half a century ago Bernard Crick wrote In Defense of Politics as a sharp and thoughtful rejoinder to those who would decry the achievements and principles of democratic politics. His argument is even more relevant today. So as my lecture comes to an end we might view this moment as the calm before the storm. Politics over the short to medium term will be focused on managing the process of reducing the public’s expectations of what the state can and should provide; on reducing the ‘expectations gap’ from above rather than from below.
And yet it should be remembered that crises bring with them opportunities and, as such, should never be wasted. The GFC is going to force many governments to address difficult questions about the future of public services and what it is realistic to expect the state to do in the twenty-first century. Difficult decisions will have to be taken by politicians, but the opportunity exists to use these challenges in order to generate a more realistic set of expectations amongst the public. In the UK the general election will also deliver fresh hope in the form of an influx of new MPs untainted by accusations of sleaze and corruption. I certainly get the sense that the public hankers after a more optimistic, balanced and informed account of politics, particularly in terms of what it might offer in the future.
My debt to Bernard Crick is great but in order to conclude my inaugural lecture I want to go back not fifty years, to Crick’s Defense, but to almost exactly one hundred years and to a speech delivered, on the 23 April 1910, with both anger and passion by Teddy Roosevelt. ‘The Man in the Arena’ remains the most authoritative rebuke to those who carp from the sidelines about the failure of politics. It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause. It is in this spirit that I want you to reject the bland fatalism that has for too long blinded us of the merits in politics and in future sing out in its defense.
This lecture was posted on this blog in June 2011.

Added on 8/23:  Heard a colleague refer to a powerful leader on campus as being 'very political' and that we should expect his comments to be 'political statements' and that he advised this person that political statements would work/be ok for a while, but not too long.

I took him to mean that 'being very political' in making 'political statements' means to be expedient, to be making comments that are designed to get us through the moment or conversation without derailing momentum, even if doing this means being less than clear.  

Interesting.  I need to think about this more.