I’m late to this story, but tech writers were all up in arms (rightly so) over the proud and willful ignorance displayed by members of Congress towards the now-defunct Stop Online Piracy Act. What they didn’t seem to realize is that this is par for the course, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Back to SOPA and Congressional idiocy:
It’s of course perfectly standard for members of Congress to not be exceptionally proficient in technological matters. But for some committee members, the issue did not stop at mere ignorance. Rather, it seemed there was in many cases an outright refusal to understand what is undoubtedly a complex issue dealing with highly-sensitive technologies.
When the security issue was brought up, Rep. Mel Watt of North Carolina seemed particularly comfortable about his own lack of understanding. Grinningly admitting “I’m not a nerd” before the committee, he nevertheless went on to dismiss without facts or justification the very evidence he didn’t understand and then downplay the need for a panel of experts. Rep. Maxine Waters of California followed up by saying that any discussion of security concerns is “wasting time” and that the bill should move forward without question, busted internets be damned.
The fact that there was any debate over whether to call in experts on such a matter should tell you something about the integrity of Congress. It’d be one thing if legitimate technical questions directed at the bill’s supporters weren’t met with either silence or veiled accusations that the other side was sympathetic to piracy. Yet here we are with a group of elected officials openly supporting a bill they can’t explain, and having the temerity to suggest there’s no need to “bring in the nerds” to suss out what’s actually on it.
Another tech commentator argued, “There ought to be a law, I think, that in order to regulate something you have to have some understanding of it.” But we saw this same staggering ignorance in the run-up to the Iraq War (and for several years after it), where the consequences were even higher. Most congresscritters, including those on the appropriate committees, didn’t even possess basic knowledge of the Middle East:
What’s more terrifying is that knowing if Hezbollah is Sunni or Shiite is the easy question. Then you actually have to apply that information:
To his [Terry Everett, Republican of Alabama, vice chairman of the House intelligence subcommittee on technical and tactical intelligence] credit, he asked me to explain the differences. I told him briefly about the schism that developed after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, and how Iraq and Iran are majority Shiite nations while the rest of the Muslim world is mostly Sunni.
“Now that you’ve explained it to me,” he said, “what occurs to me is that it makes what we’re doing over there extremely difficult, not only in Iraq but that whole area.”
This explanation happened in 2006. So, in 2002-2006, how could he possibly call bullshit on a guy like Bill Kristol, who knows the right answer and is very good at appearing to know what he is talking about? Answer: he can’t.
You should click through for the original links–it’s utterly terrifying.
There’s a simple reason why this ignorance is systemic–the effect of campaign contributions. It’s not just the corrosive effect of being paid to be ignorant either (boldface mine):
I think the problem is related to the absence of meaningful campaign finance reform, such as publicly funded campaigns. The primary qualification of the modern politician is the ability to raise money. That is simply the ability to cold-call rich people and ask them for donations. The ability to chat them up at a private fundraiser helps too. Unfortunately, these ‘skills’ are off-putting to many, otherwise qualified political hopefulls. They are also completely unrelated to the skills needed for governing. (Given that introspection and private reflection probably help with governing, fundraising skills might even be a hinderance to governing).
We are governed by sociopathic telemarketers.