What Makes Sulzberger Tick?


What Makes Arthur Sulzberger Tick?

He is the publisher of the New York Times, yet we know very little about him. His newspaper tells us every detail about elected political figures, and especially conservatives and Republicans. Yet it doesn’t discuss, let alone cover the political philosophy of, the unelected Mr. Arthur Sulzberger.

Personality, values and political philosophy all help us understand individuals who wield power and influence policy. This is especially the case relevant to the individuals who command the media elite. Ordinary people have a right to know as much as they can about policy relevant media elites, because just as we rely upon these individuals to inform, so too must we be aware that they can misinform.

Many policy relevant elites try to hide themselves, and especially their power, from public view. But elites, and especially opinion-making elites, ought to reveal their philosophies about politics to us, so that when we select our leaders we can genuinely understand not just the candidates, but also the prisms through which we are shown the candidates.

We find out, on a daily basis, about conservatives and Republicans in the coverage and editorials of the New York Times. At every opportunity, they are labeled — sometimes explicitly, sometimes through insinuation — as incompetent, authoritarian, racist, sexist and vast right-wing conspirators, and in November during election years the New York Times endorses their political opponents.

But what about Arthur Sulzberger? Relentless attention to the Republican record in the editorials and reportage of the New York Times has helped the party’s poll numbers decline, while the Sulzberger record has been entirely ignored. Will we come to know him and his politics, so that we can understand the prism through which we are shown his political opponents?

To understand the intellectual constructs that underlay the thinking and practices of Arthur Sulzberger and the Times, we look to the works of three scholars who were pioneers during the publisher’s formative years: John Dewey, B.F. Skinner and C. Wright Mills. Dewey, Skinner and Mills all hue with a Statist ideological tint, and wrote of the possibility and desirability of having an elite that could shape mass opinion. Their ideas were authoritative in campuses throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

John Dewey, Democracy and Education. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1959.

Philosopher and educational thinker John Dewey was born in Burlington, Vermont, and taught philosophy at Columbia University. His theories on education were widely taught, and he was the leading proponent of educational reform over the first half of the twentieth century. The nucleus of his ideas is that educational is a communal process.

Dewey published Democracy and Education in 1916. In the book Dewey says education is something based in community, consensus and communication — the dynamics of individuals as they live not as individuals but in groups. Dewey says education is best understood not as the direct conveyance of knowledge from one individual to another, but in terms of the interaction of the individual with his environment, or with the social conditions in which he lives. Individuals learn by being a member of, and participating in, and learning the habits of, society.

Dewey said that the educative process should prepare young people as they grow to take their place in the larger group to which they belong. Dewey is skeptical of the traditional view that the human mind has the ability to think and analyze. He says “the supposed original faculties of observation, recollection, willing, thinking, etc. are purely mythological.” What others take as the analytical mind, Dewey sees as “native tendencies … based on the original connections of neurones in the central nervous system.”

To Dewey a democratic society is characterized by two features: equality of members within and across groups, and freedom of each group to associate with other groups. He believed individuals possessed distinct personal qualities, but he did not believe them to possess individual will or freedom. There was no “inner” person to Dewey. He wrote:

“The idea of perfecting an ‘inner’ personality is a sure sign of social divisions. What is called inner is simply that which does not connect with others — which is not capable of free and full communication. What is termed spiritual culture has usually been futile, with something rotten about it, just because it has been conceived as a thing which a man might have internally — and therefore exclusively. What one is as a person is what one is as associated with others, in a free give and take of intercourse. “

Dewey doesn’t seek the subordination of the individual. But he also doesn’t see individuals as free or inventive, or as creatures that seek to be free of the fetters of convention that are imposed on him by society and its “Establishment”. On the contrary, he sees the Establishment as necessary for individual thinking. He doesn’t conceive of society or the Establishment as imposing “restrictions”; left as an individual without guidance from authority, he believes a person might seek an education only to better himself, which would be a bad thing. “Education,” he writes, “proceeds ultimately from the patterns furnished by institutions, customs and laws.”

B.F. Skinner, Science and Human Behavior. New York: The Free Press, 1965

Psychologist Burrhus Frederic Skinner received a doctorate from Harvard College in 1931 and in 1948 joined the  faculty there. Skinner is known best, perhaps, for his Walden Two, which describes a fictional community where the people live happy — and socially engineered — lives.

In Science and Human Behavior Skinner writes that human beings are caught between philosophy, which holds that the individual can think and act independently and has a will, and science, which posits that man more reacts to stimuli in his environment than engages in deliberative activity on the basis of free-thinking and free will.

In this debate between philosophy and science, between free will and determinism, Skinner comes down on the side of science. Science and Human Behavior argues that human beings are so much controlled by environmental factors that it is appropriate to talk about a science of human behavior. It contends that man may be studied as though in a laboratory setting. It says that enough is known about the human being to be able to say that there are uniformities in human behavior, and that these uniformities are observable and may be subjected to treatment according to the scientific method. The book says:

“Fairly extensive control of conditions relevant to human behavior is maintained in industry in the form of wages and conditions of work, in schools in the form of grades and conditions of work, in commerce by anyone in possession of goods or money, by governmental agencies through the police and military, in the psychological clinic through the consent of the controllee, and so on. A degree of effective control, not so easily identified, rests in the hands of entertainers, writers, advertisers and propagandists. These controls, which are often all too evident in their practical application, are more than sufficient to permit us to extend the results of a laboratory science to the interpretation of human behavior in daily affairs — for either theoretical or practical purposes.”

Skinner believes that inner phenomena, or those involved with the neural processes, such as the brain or those termed “the mind” or “the psychological,” result in only an imperfect and inadequate understanding of human behavior. Rather, the variables more suitable for study, and that offer a better chance to explain behavior, are external to the individual, in his immediate environment. Behavior comes from stimuli, and since it does it is reflexive in nature. A conditioned reflex is a reflex that is induced by a stimulus that is controllable. And reflexes occur according to what Skinner called their “survival value,” or the extent to which a behavior, caused by an external stimulus, results in the well being of the individual.

To Skinner an individual’s behavior consists of doing those things which his environment rewards him for doing and not doing those things it punishes him for doing. Therefore, for Skinner, when a person deliberates or makes a decision, what he’s actually doing is simply going through variables that have been conditioned into him and his personal history.

So to Skinner there is no real Self, no free will, and no concept of the individual as an inner being. Individual behavior can only be explained in reference to external stimuli, and these act upon all individuals in a community together. Thus for Skinner the group, and not the individual, was the proper locus of attention. Agents that exercised control over the group — actors that set up the system of rewards and punishments for the community of individuals — include the government, law, religion, economic institutions and educational institutions. Education, Skinner says, “is the establishing of behavior which will be of advantage to the individual and to others at some future time.”

Ultimately, Science and Human Behavior says that human behavior is determined, and hence controlled, by the social community and its various “controlling agencies.” Skinner writes: “Behavior comes to conform to the standards of a given community when certain responses are reinforced and others are allowed to go un-reinforced or are punished.” He discusses a “culture” of control, and about how such a culture may be designed and brought into being. Such a culture offers the best chance that people may live effective and satisfying lives. “If we may judge from the application of science to other practical problems,” Skinner says, “the effect upon human affairs will be tremendous.” He follows this sentence with: “We have no guarantee that the powers thus generated will be used for what now appear to be the best interests of mankind.”

C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959

Charles Wright Mills was born in Waco, Texas. He taught sociology at the University of Maryland and Columbia University.

Mills’ The Power Elite is about power in postwar America and the elites who wield it. It is about the men who influence both events and other men. He identifies the components of this elite as the leaders of the corporations, the military, the government and the social structure. This elite Mills terms “The Power Elite”, or individuals who sit in the major institutions of power, or “those who are able to realize their will, even if others resist it.” These individuals, he says, are aware of themselves as a special social class apart from — and thinking themselves superior to — other classes. The elite expresses itself politically in the Republican Party.

This elite organizes itself according to three features: 1/It is tightly unified and its unity has psychological and social roots; 2/Its power is institutionalized; and 3/Its components sometimes work in tandem to achieve their interests. Mills says the power elite is unique in its ability to control:

“the men of the circles composing this elite, severally and collectively, now make such key decisions as are made; and that, given the enlargement and the centralization of the means of power now available, the decisions they make and fail to make carry more consequences for more people than has ever been the case in the world history of mankind.”

Mills says the new power elite has transformed the United States into a place where fashion and material wealth and prestige are the highest cultural values. And the upper class with its privileged status is restricted mostly to native-born white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants.

Mills says the United States entered a new epoch in the postwar years. In this new epoch business elites are more deeply involved in government than ever before, to the point that corporations essentially control the executive branch and the bureaucracy. The military is also firmly entrenched in what should be civilian decision-making. A byproduct of all this is that the American economy is now geared for war; the managers behind the economy benefit by war, so American foreign policy will presume the inevitability of war. The ordinary people have pretty much been shut out, as government is run by shadowy self-interested elites of the wealthy and the military. It is a class that rules according to what is good for it and not what is good for the common person. It is a class that has a code of honor, but only a code that is applicable within itself. It is also a class that doesn’t listen to public opinion; governance occurs only via elite lobbying. Elite lobbying — always conducted away from public view — explains what decisions are made and how they come to be made.

Mills says that what makes the power elite and its misrule possible is the false images about it the public is given and accepts. Opinion makers portray the very rich and corporate executives as go-getters who’ve made good, the military as the brave and self-sacrificing soldier, and the political directorate as down-home representatives who fight for the people. These images, which are fantasy and deliberately so, are possible because of what Mills calls “the conservative mood.”

The Power Elite is a call for a new activist liberal intellectual class to emerge to challenge the “conservative mood.” The legitimacy of the power elite — a reckless and irresponsible elite — is based on smoke and mirrors, and exists only because men who know better are not courageous enough to expose it:

“There is no opposition to public mindlessness in all its forms nor to all those forces and men that would further it. But above all — among the men of knowledge there is little or no opposition to the divorce of knowledge from power, of sensibilities from men of power no opposition to the divorce of mind from reality. Contemporary men of power, accordingly, are able to command without any ideological cloak, political decisions occur without benefit of political discussion or political ideas, and the higher circles of America have come to be the embodiment of the American system of organized irresponsibility.”

Dewey, Skinner and Mills: The Collectivist Temptation

Dewey, Skinner and Mills greet with skepticism the idea that individuals possess free will and carry out deliberative behavior that stems from rational and independent thought. They believe instead that human beings walk as collective creatures; they are comprehendible mainly according to their place in connection with other human beings. These men believe that societal-level mechanisms — those that operate upon the community as a whole — significantly influence, and even determine completely, how an individual will comport himself in a given situation. Also, these scholars see the presence in society of controlling agents, or emissaries that manipulate the mechanisms that influence or determine the behavior of the masses.