Alright, Where'd You Hide That Freedom
of Information, Anyway?
Ian interviews Joseph Haney, creator
Recently it occurred to me that I should stop writing
about politics. I've neither a journalism degree, nor a political
science degree; for that matter, I don't have a baccalaureate in
any particular field either. Then it occurred to me that someone
I know who probably knows more about government than a lot of people
who've made it their profession is a product of non-academic learning
If you've ever gone to a government web site looking
for a basic piece of information or common document and encountered
the baffling series of directory links and query tools that government
web designers call information architecture, you might appreciate
CitizenSource. A well categorized set of links to government and
media information, it's sparse on commentary, and easy on the eye.
In speaking to the site's developer, Joseph Haney, I've often thought
I'd vote for him if he decided to run for office. However, with
his combination of intelligence, honesty, and insight, I'm afraid
he's completely unelectable.
We thought it would be interesting to pick his brain
a bit anyway. The e-mail interview below is the result. You be the
What in the world ever inspired you to do something
like this for no financial reward?
First of all, who said I did this for no financial
reward? Just because I haven't seen any...That said, the short answer
is outrage. I simply got tired of the half-truths, mistruths and
untruths of politics, beginning with what was obviously the deliberate
misuse of the nation's past. I thought, at least, I could make available
the nation's founding and defining documents so that people could
read them for themselves. Of course, I was far from the first to
do that. I also found that, once you post the Constitution, pretty
soon you're doing the Magna Carta and Roe v Wade. Then it seemed
media might be useful, and economics, and the way the government
works, and campaigns and voting, and issues, and volunteerism. So
the point of CitizenSource is to be sort of a one-stop-shopping
portal for the informed citizen. And the other goal was, of course,
to separate the worthwhile from all the garbage that's out there
there is a lot of garbage out there. Of course, CitizenSource has
hardly scratched the surface; but with a couple million in funding
and a staff of a hundred or so
Right up front you say "A utility for democracy,
because democracy isn't easy." What's so hard about democracy?
Because effective democracy requires responsible
choice, and that requires either balanced or objective information
and rational, disinterested thought. Those things aren't easy; but
CitizenSource's goal is to furnish a bit of the first and encourage
Many of us paranoid delusional blogger types assume
the government doesn't want us to know how "they" operate.
In your opinion, is there any basis for this?
Of course. It isn't paranoid or delusional to simply
state how most governments work. There never has been completely
transparent government, and there never will be. The paranoid and
delusional part comes in when you believe that what they're not
telling us is poisoning us, or robbing us of our freedoms, or
your paranoia! Which is not to say that things like that don't happen,
nor is it to deny that the best answer to that problem is a healthy
transparency. It's just that the question, 'What is the government
hiding from us?', is like the question, 'Have you stopped beating
your wife'. Unfortunately, what with our feckless media, the only
people asking those questions are paranoid delusional blogger types
who couldn't handle - or most likely wouldn't believe - the truth
if they found it. (Present company excepted, of course.)
You've done an amazing job of compiling media
links, and seem to have kept the idea of painting them liberal or
conservative at arm's length. In your own opinion, is there a liberal
slant to "the media" as is often suggested?
My standard reply to that is that the traditional
media tells a passable semblance of the truth, and the truth just
On that note, do you think the "revolving
door" in Washington has a negative impact on either journalism
Whenever those in power and those responsible for
keeping an eye on them trade places on a regular basis, interests
unavoidably become muddied and corrupted. However, I think one thing
forgotten in your question is that, at the corporate level where
the door most often revolves, media shows a greater fear of and
pandering to the public than it does to politics. No politician
affects the bottom line like the Nielsens. It's the relentless dumbing
down of the media, and its consistently craven criticism of politics
and politicians that bothers me; and that, in my opinion, has far
less to do with offending those in power than it does with offending
a viewing public that supports those in power. What has corrupted
news is the corporation, and the need for news organizations to
turn a profit by keeping an audience mesmerized and pacified. You
can't turn relevant news into a commodity and expect it to remain
both relevant and news.
Again on that general note: Do you think this
or other recent administrations are more guilty of manipulating
the media than in generations past - say, going back 100-150 years?
What do you mean? Like fake White House reporters?
planted stories? video news releases? The funny thing is that 100
or 150 years ago media - newspapers - were very partisan; but it
wasn't because politicians called the shots, it was because the
papers' owners did. Manipulation at the time was more the media's
manipulation of politics than the reverse. Since then, with direct
access to the public, and a wider diversity of media to use to that
end, politicians have become very sophisticated not only in finding
already friendly media, but at crafting the message right down to
the individual word. The upshot is that no administration really
needs to manipulate the media; all they have to do is keep it effectively
silent while they manipulate the public directly. So the answer
to your question is yes
I know from informal discussions with you that
you've taken a pretty good look at many of the documents that were
the basis for the structure of the U.S. government. Sorry for the
leading question, but do you think that people have changed so much
in 200 years that these documents have needed to be modified to
the extent that they have?
I don't think any of them have been modified. There
is an on-going legitimate process of interpretation, especially
of the Constitution. There has also been an unfortunate tendency
toward selective history and outright misinterpretation. An easy
example would be the religious right's identification of their beliefs
with those of the Founders when the truth is that the beliefs of
men like Jefferson, Adams, Madison and Hamilton bear little resemblance
to modern fundamentalism. But then, with rare exception, everybody
cites the history that suits them.
Back to democracy not being easy: do you feel
we're living in an exemplary democracy in the U.S.?
Of course not. Besides, as Pat Buchanan consistently
points out, ours is a republic, not a democracy.
That being said, would you say they Gore Vidal's
recent remark that "...the old American republic is well and
truly dead ......we're in uncharted territory" (see the
interview) is in any way accurate, or simply the rantings of
a wealthy old drunk writer?
Are you suggesting that the rantings of a wealthy old drunk writer
are, ipso facto, inaccurate? (Is it the wealthy, old or drunk part
that bothers you? Or some alchemical combination of the three?)
If you'd like a line by line commentary on the Vidal interview,
I could give you one; but to answer your question, though we may
be in 'uncharted territory' the old American Republic is far from
dead. As a matter of fact, it was uncharted territory the Republic
was made for.
Additionally, although the average American probably
doesn't give it much thought, the U.S. has always had an aristocratic
class that in one way or another has shaped policy either by governing
themselves or influencing those who do. It's a simple fact that
the current administration is comprised largely of a group of people
who have very specific interests, i.e.: oil production and weapons
manufacturing. Do you see signs, as many do, that this administration
is actually trying to shift the balance of power in U.S. government
to the Executive and Judicial branches? (phew! more statement than
Well, since you seem to be in on more 'simple facts'
than I am, I'll leave the specific answers to you.
What I will say is this: I think there is one major disservice that
both the left and the right have done to the nation; in fact, more
than a disservice, but major damage. Both, in their own way, and
for their own reasons - ideological reasons attributable to the
narcissism of both movements - have made people believe that government
does not, cannot, serve them. It often seems to me that the loudest
- and let's face it, the most smug and cynical - voices are the
ones that turn us away from the common project that could be this
nation. When that happens no one pays attention, no one cares; and
one more politician or one more law is just the same as any other.
People tell themselves they're powerless, that they can't know anything,
that nothing makes any difference. And the result is that all of
those things, by virtue of those beliefs, become true. The right
and left create their own self-fulfilling prophecies, 'solidifying
the base' by doing so. Unfortunately, both turn 'the base' away
from the one thing that unites all of us, and gives us our ultimate
power. If either the left or right want to know why a self-interested
'elite' runs this country, they have only to look to their own rhetoric
to find a good portion of the answer.
The CitizenSource page about voting (http://www.citizensource.com/Elections/Voting.htm)
begins with a rather moving (IMHO) several paragraphs about whether
or not your vote matters. One would have to be ignorant to think
that elections aren't tampered with to some degree (at least in
our jaded opinion here at Echopraxia.org), but do you think:
1.) That elections are being manipulated in a
more blatant or aggressive manner than in the past?
Thanks for the 'moving' comment
As for the question, it depends on what you mean by 'manipulated'.
In one sense, elections are inherently manipulative in the sense
that all product advertising is manipulative. That said, I think
elections likely are more manipulated now, because the campaigns'
handling of their candidates as commodities is so much more sophisticated
than in the past. Unfortunately, the whole point of politics - policy
- gets lost when the 'advertisement' is no more than calculated
fear-mongering and anodyne banalities. That is what politics has
become. And what is worse, that paradigm has bled over from campaigns
into actual governance. On the other hand, if you mean actually
tampering with the voting process and ballot boxes, maybe, maybe
not. I don't know if it's worse than in the past, and frankly I
worry less about that than the corruption of the message. Face it,
you can prohibit and actually prosecute vote tampering; but what
can you do about candidates who talk and say nothing, who are for
things no one is against, who's promises never have a down side,
and who have no decent respect for the truth?
2.) That there is any need for election reform,
and if so, what?
Yes, there obviously is need; but it would take knowledgeable
people asking hard questions in public and expecting real answers.
It would also take a public that would not only listen and consider,
but choose to act somewhere beyond individual self-interest. It's
been said that people get the government they deserve. The truth
is, we get the government we settle for. Election reform first has
to take place between the ears of the American public.
What's your favorite color?
Color is contextual. How's that for politics?
If you could have one hour with anyone in the
present administration and ask them anything you want, what would
you ask of whom?
Nothing and no one. What would be the point? It would
be very unlikely I'd get a straight answer from anyone in this,
or any other administration. Even if I were to assume that everyone
in the Bush administration were honest and well-meaning, there is
too much risk-aversion in politics for those who practice it to
be candid. With rare exceptions, it simply doesn't happen.
And if you could pick any figure from American
Again, no one. It may be my own limited imagination,
but I suspect most of them have left us with the best they had to
say. I'm content to leave it at that.
I can't help noticing (especially after you pointed
it out off the record) that you sound a little cynical here. Do
you even vote? Are we in some hopeless cultural downward spiral?
Are we in some neo-Constantinian decline? From digging through all
this government information, DID YOU LEARN SOMETHING CRUCIAL YOU'RE
NOT SHARING WITH US? Is there a secret Cabal that picks our leaders
no matter which chad we poke? Are we being beamed by satellites
that make us crazy and ignorant?
The answer to to your first question is 'yes', to
the rest - so far as I can determine - no. (Neo-Constantinian decline?
What the Hell is that?)