from “My Philanthropy” by George Soros, New York Review of Books, 6/22/11, at GeorgeSoros.com
…The United States has been a democracy and open society since its founding. The idea that it will cease to be one seems preposterous; yet it is a very likely prospect. After September 11, the Bush administration exploited the very real fear generated by the terrorist attack, and by declaring “war on terror” was able to unite the nation behind the commander-in-chief, lead it to invade Iraq on false pretenses, and violate established standards of human rights in pursuing and interrogating terrorists.
The war on terror forced me to reconsider the concept of open society. My experiences in the former Soviet Union had already taught me that the collapse of a closed society does not automatically lead to an open one; the collapse may be seemingly bottomless, to be followed by the emergence of a new regime that has a greater resemblance to the regime that collapsed than to an open society. Now I had to probe deeper into the concept of open society that I had adopted from Karl Popper in my student days, and I discovered a flaw in it.
Popper had argued that free speech and critical thinking would lead to better laws and a better understanding of reality than any dogma. I came to realize that there was an unspoken assumption embedded in his argument, namely that the purpose of democratic discourse is to gain a better understanding of reality. It dawned on me that my own concept of reflexivity brings Popper’s hidden assumption into question. If thinking has a manipulative function as well as a cognitive one, then it may not be necessary to gain a better understanding of reality in order to obtain the laws one wants. There is a shortcut: “spinning” arguments and manipulating public opinion to get the desired results. Today our political discourse is primarily concerned with getting elected and staying in power. Popper’s hidden assumption that freedom of speech and thought will produce a better understanding of reality is valid only for the study of natural phenomena. Extending it to human affairs is part of what I have called the “Enlightenment fallacy.”
As it happened, the political operatives of the Bush administration became aware of the Enlightenment fallacy long before I did. People like me, misguided by that fallacy, believed that the propaganda methods described in George Orwell’s 1984 could prevail only in a dictatorship. They knew better. Frank Luntz, the well-known right-wing political consultant, proudly acknowledged that he used 1984 as his textbook in designing his catchy slogans. And Karl Rove reportedly claimed that he didn’t have to study reality; he could create it. The adoption of Orwellian techniques gave the Republican propaganda machine a competitive advantage in electoral politics. The other side has tried to catch up with them but has been hampered by a lingering attachment to the pursuit of truth.
Deliberately misleading propaganda techniques can destroy an open society. Nazi propaganda methods were powerful enough to destroy the Weimar Republic. Different but in some ways similar methods have been used in the United States and further refined. Although democracy has much deeper roots in America than in Germany, it is not immune to deliberate deception, as the Bush administration demonstrated. You cannot wage war against an abstraction; yet the war on terror remains a widely accepted metaphor even today.
How can open society protect itself against dangerously deceptive arguments? Only by recognizing their existence and their power to influence reality by influencing people’s perceptions. People’s thinking is part of the reality they need to understand, and that makes the understanding of reality much harder than the philosophers of the Enlightenment imagined. They envisioned reason as something apart from reality, acting as a searchlight illuminating it. That is true for natural science but not human affairs. In political discourse we must learn to give precedence to the understanding of reality; otherwise the results will fail to conform to our expectations. Karl Popper took it for granted that the primary purpose of political discourse is the pursuit of truth. That is not the case now; therefore we must make it so. What was a hidden assumption in Popper’s argument must be turned into an explicit requirement for open society to prevail.
I thought I had a convincing argument in favor of the truth. Look at the results of the Bush policies: they were designed to demonstrate America’s supremacy, and they achieved the exact opposite; American power and influence suffered a precipitous decline. This goes to show, I argued, that it is not enough to manipulate perceptions; it is important to understand how the world really works. In other words, the cognitive function must take precedence over the manipulative function. That is the additional requirement I put into my definition of open society, but obviously it did not have an effect on the public that reelected Bush in 2004.
The election of President Obama in 2008 sent a powerful message to the world that the US is capable of radically changing course when it recognizes that it is on the wrong track. But the change was temporary: his election and inauguration were the high points of his presidency. Already the reelection of President Bush had convinced me that the malaise in American society went deeper than incompetent leadership. The American public was unwilling to face harsh reality and was positively asking to be deceived by demanding easy answers to difficult problems.
The fate of the Obama presidency reinforced that conviction. Obama assumed the presidency in the midst of a financial crisis whose magnitude few people appreciated, and he was not among those few. But he did recognize that the American public was averse to facing harsh realities and he had great belief in his own charismatic powers. He also wanted to rise above party politics and become—as he put it in his campaign speeches—the president of the United States of America. Consequently, he was reluctant to forthrightly blame the outgoing administration and went out of his way to avoid criticism and conflict. He resorted to what George Akerlof and Robert Shiller called the “confidence multiplier” in their influential book Animal Spirits. Accordingly, in the hope of moderating the recession, he painted a rosier picture of the economic situation than was justified….
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