Yesterday, the president tweeted a video which alleges that Google’s decision to promote Barack Obama’s State of the Union speeches, while failing to do so with Trump’s, amounts to bias.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 29, 2018
But the president’s facts are as wrong as his rhetoric is abhorrent. Google did promote the president’s first and only State of the Union in 2018. It did not promote his 2017 address to the nation, just as it did not promote Obama’s first national speech in 2009. The first speech the president gives after assuming office is not a formal State of the Union and generally receives much less off the pomp and circumstance treatment from the media.
Even supposing Google had decided to promote only Obama’s State of the Union speeches, this is something they, as a private business have a right to do. Customers who object to what they perceive to be political bias are free to seek out a search engine whose policies they find more amenable, leaving Google to bear the brunt of their own actions. Or, alternately, to bow to the demands of their consumer base. Such is the proper sequence of events in a free society.
What is not appropriate to a free society is for the chief executive to use the platform through which he most directly interacts with the public as a tool for bashing private businesses that pursue practices he dislikes, particularly when his facts are wrong. Taken in context with statements from Larry Kudlow, the president’s chief economic adviser, which suggest some in the White House are “looking into” regulating Google, the whole affair begins to look dangerously like Trump using the organs of power as tool to pursue a personal vendetta. The nationalist and protectionist sentiments that form the cornerstones of the president’s ideology–if such a term may be applied to the president’s emotionalistic sophistry—have promulgated a dangerous conception of the relationship between private and public actors, one that places emphasis on the environment in which people operate. Protectionists like to pretend the crucial element to success in life is government propagation of a national framework that creates a stable, resource-rich environment which affords individuals the ability to pursue their endeavors. Absent the guiding hand of government, society would be an unnavigable anarchic mess. Individual success, then, depends upon government stability under this rationale.
This rationale has a long standing but is presented nowadays with an inimitable Trumpian twist: the president has married his own interests with those of the nation, so he appears to literally believe American success cannot come without him. To denigrate Trump the man is to jeopardize the fabric of society itself, a justification which turns alarmingly despotic attacks on sovereign private actors into the apex of president.
But, no matter his desires, the president doesn’t get to set the terms oy which a citizen or business is considered in good standing. It is public action which is truncated, not private action. Rule of law exists to propagate a neutral playing field. And that neutrality comes from the law putting everyone on equal footing. But that neutrality does not extend to the private sector. Absent the threat of force which is inherent to even a government action that has the sanction of the people, action an interaction take on an entirely new meaning. One is not bound to obey a particular company the same way one is bound to obey government codes.
Bias is central to the organization that is in aid of personal achievement. Bias is the alarm bells in the back of your head that tell you the berries in the woods could potentially be poisonous and shouldn’t be consumed without verifying what plant they come from. Bias is standing before your closet in the morning and selecting clothing appropriate for the weather and activity with which you’ll be occupying yourself on a particular day. Bias is eschewing the national chain and patronizing the local corner store because you know and admire the people who work there and want to support their endeavors.
Bias is synthesizing information with an aim towards fitting actions towards a predetermined end. It is a process that requires reason and a system of value. To be sure, there are negative connotations of bias: denigration of people on the basis of some ephemeral quality such as skin tone or gender. But the problem with these kinds of bias is they fail to engage reason: they ignore the actual character of the individual in question and instead read it into surface characteristics that have no substantive relationship to value; they generalize. And value is a product of context; it cannot be generalized. This is exactly why Trump’s demonization of the media is so pernicious: he does not look to specific actions of journalistic malfeasance, but instead demonizes based on the generalization that all media has an agenda. His allegations of bias say more about the failures of his own rational processes than they do about those whom he attacks.
He is divorced from reality. Google’s search results are always biased: when you search for a certain term, the results are returned in a way that calls up information prioritized to respond to that search term. It’s not a random list of randomly-generated Internet links: because that’s what a non-biased search result would look like.
Context matters. The rational individual realizes that and constantly looks to orient his goals to the world around him in order to keep his values and motives aligned with the objective reality around him. This is a task, however, made impossible by a chief executive who attempts to orient the world around his own preconceived biases.
Also published on Medium.