In the Critics this week

A History Special featuring David Cesarani on Holocaust studies, John Gray on the history of political violence and Sherard Cowper-Coles on Aghanistan.

Much of the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman is devoted to our annual history special. In his “Critic at large essay”, the historian David Cesarani surveys the changing face of Holocaust historiography. “Holocaust studies” as we recognise them today were born, Cesarani argues, in the aftermath of the trial in Jerusalem of Adolf Eichmann in 1961. The work of Jewish historians who’d either been interned in the camps or had fought as partisans shattered forever “the stereotype of Jews passively accepting their fate”. Nevertheless, Cesarani concludes, “the ‘lessons of the Holocaust’ seem no clearer” than they did 50 years ago, and “efforts to comprehend the Jewish tragedy continue to provoke as much controversy as reflection”.

In the lead book review, John Gray considers the long and bloody history of political violence. Reviewing Max Boot’s history of guerrilla warfare, Invisible Armies, and Martin A Miller’s The Foundations of Modern Terrorism, Gray argues that “lumping together every kind of irregular warfare into the category of terrorism, as is often done today, blurs the difference between those who have terror as a tactic in guerrilla warfare … and networks such as al-Qaeda that have opted for terror as their sole strategy.” Happily, Gray concludes, “we hear little these days of the absurd ‘war on terror’”.

Also in Books: Britain’s former special representative in Afghanistan, Sherard Cowper-Coles, reviews Return of a King: the Battle for Afghanistan by William Dalrymple and Games Without Rules: the Often Interrupted History of Afghanistan by Tamim Ansary (“if those who have directed [the latest war in Afghanistan] had applied the lessons that leap from the pages of both these books, the Afghan people might have harvested a more enduring dividend from the spilled blood and squandered millions of the last, lost decade”); Juliet Gardiner reviews Engineers of Victory by Paul Kennedy (“[Kennedy shows that] a greater understanding of the vital contribution of logistics and supply lines, plus the imagination, practical ability and dogged hard work of the ‘problem solvers’, … eventually coalesced to achieve an Allied victory”); Daniel Swift reviews The Pike, Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s biography the Italian nationalist poet and later fascist sympathiser Gabriele D’Annunzio (“In fashioning himself into a public figure, D’Annunzio prefigured both mid-20th century fascism and our modern cult of celebrity”); Connor Kilpatrick, managing editor of Jacobin magazine, reviews Freedom National, James Oakes’s book about the destruction of slavery in the United States (“it was not the inevitable march of progress that destroyed American slavery – it was a political movement”).

PLUS:

Jonathan Derbyshire talks to the historian Norman Stone about his latest book on the Second World War, his admiration for AJP Taylor and the future of secularism in Turkey, where he lives and teaches: “[Syrian refugees] make sure their little girls and little boys are doing their Quran lessons separately. But that’s precisely the kind of thing that secular Turkey was set up stop. This is fantastically dangerous …”

Elsewhere in the Critics:

Ryan Gilbey reviews Pablo Larrain’s film No (“No is an inspiring watch”); Kate Mossman reviews new albums by Anais Mitchell and Jackie Oates (“much of the thrill of this music lies in [Mitchell’s] fresh utterance of attitudes and ideas that have slipped out of view …”); Thomas Calvocoressi visits “Light Show”, a new exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London; Rachel Cooke is not convinced by Stephen Poliakoff’s latest magnum opus on BBC2; Antonia Quirke is delighted to hear some frank discussion of sex on Radio 4; plus Will Self’s Madness of Crowds.

 

Afghan children play in a street in Herat. [Photo: Aref Karimi/Getty Images]
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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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