That’s the question I tackled in a recent essay at The Philosophers’ Magazine online, prompted by a conversation over coffee with Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at NYU with whom I’ve had a number of disagreements about the intersection of social science, politics, and philosophy.
Hollywood has broken two very different records this holiday season. Star Wars: The Force Awakens has become the first movie to reach US $1 billion in gross sales in just 12 days. This beats the previous record of the movie “Jurassic World” which had the additional benefit of sales from the world’s second biggest market, China. Star Wars opens in China in January and so it will likely push its sales to even more astronomical levels.
The other record however is one that the movie industry will not be so proud of. According to TorrentFreak, movie pirates have released 12 DVD quality movie previews, called screeners for download on the Internet. These screeners feature movies like the latest James Bond Spectre, the new Tarantino movie “The Hateful Eight” and a list of others that include: Suffragette, Legend, In The Heart of The Sea, Joy, Steve Jobs, Spotlight, Creed, Concussion, The Danish Girl and Bridge of Spies.
What is even more worrying for the movie industry however is that the group of individuals behind the releases, who go by the name of Hive-CM8, claim that they have 40 screeners in total to release.
Screener DVDs are typically sent to a range of movie producers, critics and movie awards voters under strict conditions to avoid the films being leaked. Security mechanisms are built in to the films that can theoretically tie a particular movie back to a specific person sent the screener.
The FBI are already investigating how a copy of The Hateful Eight, linked to Andrew Kosove, the co-CEO of film production-finance company Alcon Entertainment, wound up in the hands of the movie pirates.
Hive-CM8 are thought to be a loose collective of individual movie piraters associated with the
website crikeym8.com which makes money from early releases of the movies to subscribers of the site. The site appears to be run by an Australian(s) given the name, the Australian cultural references and the location of the Twitter account in Melbourne, Victoria. The site is allegedly not responsible for the process of producing the pirated movies, nor does it host the content.
For the movie industry, the problem of sending screeners out to reviewers and potential awards voters is a challenge that doesn’t seem to have any simple solutions. Previous attempts to stop sending preview DVDs was met with fierce opposition from many, especially the smaller independent film makers, who saw their chances of being noticed by reviewers being significantly affected by not being able to market their films in this way.
Technically, the pirates are able to remove security measures added to the films like digital watermarks that link the movie to a specific individual. There is little the movie industry can do to prevent this as all measures they could take come with the disadvantage of complexity and cost when the purpose of the exercise is to get as many key people to see the movie and promote it. As soon as a movie has leaked, the companies involved can issue “takedown notices” to Google and even to the “torrent” sites that link to the copies available for download. Thousands of links have been taken down since the latest batch of screeners hit the Internet over the last week. Despite the attempts to take down links, the movies are still readily available and Spectre is expected to see at least a million downloads over the few days since its release on the Internet.
Legal measures may have more effect. Last week, five of the UK’s most active movie pirates were sentenced to a total of 17 years in prison for their releasing over 2,500 films. Investigators from the Federation Against Copyright Theft (FACT), tracked the downloaders through slip-ups they had made with leaving traces of their identities on forums and posts. This is one of the weaknesses of people who engage in movie piracy that they often seek praise and thanks for their efforts and this requires the establishment of identities that are not always as anonymous as they think.
Other legal avenues have been far less successful. Attempts to go after the public who download movies and threaten them with huge fines has recently met with failure, at least in Australia. Other attempts to use new legislation to force ISPs to block sites associated with piracy of copyrighted content are also likely to have a very limited effect.
In all likelihood, movie piracy is going to be something that the industry will just have to live with as long as the incentives to use high quality previews still exist. It is no coincidence that Disney has chosen not to send preview copies of Star Wars to anyone. Disney also employed a range of special anti-piracy measures by issuing encrypted versions of the film to exhibitors with the keys to decrypt them being sent separately. Despite this, people have been able to record versions of the film using video cameras and there are copies already in circulation. It is unlikely that given the success of the film so far, that Disney will be too worried. There is also the fact that Star Wars is definitely a movie that should be experienced on a big screen.
“If anyone has the street cred and chops to comment on radical Islam, and on the shameful capitulation of Western liberals to the canard of “Islamophobia,” it’s Maajid Nawaz. Born in England, Nawaz became a radical Muslim early on, dedicated to establishing a caliphate with nuclear weapons. To this end he traveled in the Middle East to get converts for Hizb ut-Tahrir, a radical Muslim group. And for that he was ultimately jailed in Egypt. During his five years in prison, he became de-radicalized, and ultimately returned to England to found Quilliam, a think tank dedicated to fostering humanism and eliminating extremism. (I’m not sure whether Nawaz is still a believing Muslim, though I think he is.[JAC now: yes, he is]) Quilliam’s statement of purpose is…
Maajid Nawaz, a moderate Muslim, has been vilified by both Muslims and leftists for his efforts to harmonize Islam and Western values, and especially for engaging in both written and spoken dialogue with Sam Harris. For these acts, as I noted a while back, Nawaz has been called a “lapdog,” a “porch monkey,” and a “native informant.” All these are simply updated synonyms for “Uncle Tom.” Yet Nawaz was once a militant Islamist, jailed in Egypt for five years for organizing radical movements. Since then he’s become de-radicalized and has founded Quilliam, a think tank devoted to reinforcing moderate brands of Islam and to opposing religious extremism. And by his own account he’s still a believer.
Many of us believe that if Islam is to truly reform, purging itself of its violent and extremist elements, that change will have to come from inside—from Islamic moderates. In other words, from people like Nawaz.
One way to demonstrate the invalidity of this argument form is with a counterexample with true premises but an obviously false conclusion. For example:
If it is raining, then the grass is wet.
It is not raining.
Therefore, the grass is not wet.
The conclusion is invalid because there are other reasons why the grass could be wet at the time (someone could have watered it).
That argument is obviously bad, but arguments of the same form can sometimes seem superficially convincing, as in the following example offered, with apologies for its lack of logical rigour, by Alan Turing in the article ‘Computing Machinery and Intelligence’:
If each man had a definite set of rules of conduct by which he regulated his life he would be no better than a machine. But there are no such rules, so men cannot be machines.
However, men could still be machines that do not follow a definite set of rules. Thus this argument (as Turing intends) is invalid.
Non sequitur (Latin for “it does not follow”), in formal logic, is an argument in which its conclusion does not follow from its premises. In a non sequitur, the conclusion could be either true or false, but the argument is fallacious because there is a disconnection between the premises and the conclusion.
Denialism should not be confused with modern scientific skepticism, which is the challenging of beliefs that are unscientific, irrational or based on insufficient evidence. Instead of denying facts, modern skeptics test claims by analysing whether they are supported by adequate empirical evidence. Denialism is the a priorirejection of ideas without objective consideration.
The philosophical skepticism of the Academic Skeptics and Pyrrhonists in Classical Greece (which was quite different to modern skepticism) consisted of doubting whether there can be any knowledge or facts at all, rather than denying particular facts.
Science denialism is the rejection of basic facts and concepts that are undisputed, well-supported parts of the scientific consensus on a subject, in favour of radical and controversial opinions of an unscientific nature. For example, the term climate change denialist is applied to people who argue against the scientific consensus that the global warming of planet Earth is a real and occurring event primarily caused by human activity.
The term evolution denialist or ‘creationist’ is applied to people who argue against the fact that life on Earth has evolved from earlier forms, instead of having been created by a supernatural being in its current form.
The motivations and causes of denialism include irrationality, religion and self-interest (political, economic or financial), beliefs in conspiracy theories or even defence mechanisms meant to protect the psyche of the denialist against mentally disturbing facts and ideas.
Conventions are accepted practices that don’t have the authority of law but depend instead on the force of shared values and expectations. They are more fluid and contestable than legal rules and tend to evolve over time.
All political systems make extensive use of conventions as part of their political culture. But such conventions are particularly important in systems based on the United Kingdom’s Westminster model.
The United Kingdom has no formal, written constitution – though it does have much legislation that is constitutionally relevant. It relies on conventions to define some of its most fundamental constitutional principles. These include the democratic principles that elected governments should be accountable to their citizens and respect their rights.
Though the Australian Commonwealth has a formal constitution as part of its federal settlement with the states, it still follows Westminster in allowing key principles of democratic accountability to operate according to convention.
Many of these conventions are contested. Even the most fundamental democratic convention underpinning the electoral process – that the governor-general acts only on the advice of the prime minister with the support of a majority in the House of Representatives – was successfully challenged in 1975.
The governor-general at the time, Sir John Kerr, acted on his own initiative and dismissed the Whitlam Labor government. That opened the way for the election of the Fraser Coalition government. This highly controversial decision influenced subsequent political attitudes towards the importance of constitutional conventions.
In general, the political left has tended to be in favour of strict observance of constitutional conventions as a matter of independent principle. The political right, though also respectful of established conventions, has shown itself less squeamish about breaking conventions in the name of the national interest as defined by the government of the day.
Polity and policy
Conventions of ministerial responsibility underpin the daily accountability of ministers to parliament and the public. Broadly speaking, ministers are obliged to take responsibility for the conduct of their portfolios in the sense of responding to parliamentary requests for information or imposing remedies when faults are brought to light. They are also required to answer directly to the public by taking questions from the media.
Ministers are expected to take the blame for actions for which they are personally responsible, but not for those that are clearly the fault of officials. Oppositions – and commentators – commonly claim ministers should resign both for their own mistakes and for those of their officials, but this has never been accepted practice.
By convention, misleading parliament is one of the few offences that can precipitate a ministerial resignation. This unfortunately encourages ministers to be evasive and economical with the truth. Otherwise, ministers decide how much information they reveal to parliament or the public – the only sanction being political accountability to voters.
As the Mal Brough case underlines, the convention is flexible in application, which largely depends on the prime minister’s judgement of the relative political costs of retaining or discarding a minister. Even if Brough remains in parliament, however, the damage he has sustained shows the continuing force of the convention.
The sacking of Gough Whitlam brought condemnation for its
clear challenge to previously respected political conventions. National Archives of Australia. NAA: A6180, 13/11/75/33
Ministerial responsibility has also been used to protect the anonymity of public servants, on the ground that only ministers should answer for their departments and agencies. A number of structural reforms, such as the development of Senate estimates committees and the establishment of the ombudsman, have opened public servants up to direct scrutiny of administrative actions, while maintaining ministerial responsibility for matters of “policy”.
The boundaries between “policy” and “administration” are inherently contestable and a common cause of friction. If ombudsmen or auditors-general venture into criticising the substance of government policy (instead of its implementation), for instance, they are likely to face objections from ministers on the ground that the elected government has the right to impose its own policy direction.
At the same time, ministers surrender their democratic accountability obligations when they choose to devolve responsibility onto others. An example is outsourcing implementation of controversial policies to private sector contractors not subject to the same accountability regime as government officials.
Relations between ministers and the public service are also subject to shifting conventions. Westminster-based traditions support a politically neutral public service appointed on merit and loyally serving the government of the day.
But since the early 1990s, heads of departments (secretaries), who are appointed by the prime minister, have been employed on limited-term contracts terminable at any time. In 1996, the incoming Coalition prime minister, John Howard, broke the convention that incumbent secretaries would serve out their terms under a new government, by immediately replacing six secretaries.
The convention was restored by the next Labor prime minister, Kevin Rudd, but broken again by the Coalition’s Tony Abbott. Labor seems to see the value of trusting the professionalism of the public service, while the Coalition, being more doubtful of the capacity and loyalty of public servants, seeks to vigorously impose its own political control over the machinery of government.
All recent governments have emphasised the importance of media management and have increased the number and influence of political advisers. This has weakened the close relationship with public servants on which Westminster public service conventions depend.
Other areas in which conventions are both important and controversial include relations between the executive and judicial branches of government, the extent of political patronage in government appointments, and the use of public funds for political campaigning.
While conventions have the general advantage of being free from legalistic rigidity, they can be open to abuse for partisan reasons. The fact that they depend on political sanctions for enforcement places a particular onus on conventions surrounding transparency of government information as a safeguard of democratic accountability.
This is the first in a series on breaking political conventions. Look out for more articles exploring various political conventions in the coming days.
Reader Ivar Husa offers some birds to fill the gap; do send me your good wildlife photos, especially if you sent them to me before last Monday and haven’t seen them yet (as I said, there was a computer disaster). Ivar’s note:
I trust many have offered fresh critter pics. Here are a few from me, all taken in lovely eastern Washington, along the banks of the Yakima River