Category Archives: Social Justice

News Has Become a Geico Commercial

cavemanGreat advertising works because the advertisers uncannily understand the psychological dynamics of the moment even before it is commonly recognized. Take for example the “Great Answer” series of Geico commercials. In these commercials, a person is put in an impossibly tough spot to which they reply that Geico can save you 15% or more on insurance. This is comically accepted by everyone as a “great answer.”

In “Objection,” faced with insurmountable evidence against him in a courtroom, a thief defends himself with the line (see here).

And in “Undercover Agent” an inept undercover agent avoids certain death at the hands of the mob using a similar line (see here).

Then in “He-Man vs Skeletor” the villain escapes amid gleeful laughter after delivering the punch line (see here).

Finally in “Meteor Crash,” when faced with the imminent destruction of the Earth, the General in charge proclaims that Geico is the answer (see here).

Silly as these are, I sometimes I feel like I’m living in a Geico commercial. When we watch news interviews, we essentially see an unending stream of farcical Geico  commercials. The Geico advertising team gets this at some level. That’s why these commercials are not merely funny but they relate, they resonate, they ring true.

Except being subjected to an endless stream of Geico-esque answers to real, important questions that affect our lives and affect the planet is not funny.

When watching news interviews during the day, the nightly news shows, or shows like Meet the Press or Face the Nation over the weekend, the hosts try to ask meaningful and important questions. But the guests invariably reply with “Geico can save you 15% or more” type answers.

Host: Given all the incontrovertible evidence that your tax plan is designed only to benefit the rich, how can you justify it?

Paul Ryan: We are giving the middle class a huge tax cut.

Host: Every independent analysis concludes that your tax plan will explode the deficit which you claimed is the biggest threat to our nation. How do you respond?

Kevin McCarthy: We are giving the middle class a huge tax cut.

Host: You claim that by giving huge tax breaks to big business and ultra-rich individuals, your tax plan will create jobs and increase wages. Yet this promise has been made many times before and it has never proved true. Why should it work this time?

Sarah Sanders: We are giving the middle class a huge tax cut.

Some people would simply call this “good messaging.” But at some point, good messaging becomes formal or informal collusion in a campaign of misinformation. We are way past the point of innocent and healthy message discipline now. We are moving into carefully crafted propaganda territory.

Here’s the thing. If the person you are interviewing has no shame, no compunction about misrepresenting and “spinning” to absurd extremes, no trace of integrity with regard to facts or truth, then you really cannot and should not talk to them. It used to be that most politicians had some baseline of integrity and self-respect, some desire to be truthful, and some capacity to be embarrassed or ashamed. But no more. While this lack of intellectual and moral integrity has been growing for a long time, particularly on the Right, Donald Trump has normalized this to such an extreme that even the most disingenuous scripted politicians can rationalize they are being relatively forthright and reasoned.

Today we are confronted by immediate and immensely important threats like climate change, wealth inequality, automation, and guns. Yet just like the General in “The Meteor” commercial, even when faced by existential challenges, all that our politicians are willing to respond with is the equivalent of “Geico can save you 15% or more.”

My message to Chuck Todd, John Dickerson, and all the rest of you news interviewers is … just give up already. Your guests have just gotten too good at avoiding answering anything fully or honestly. You are wasting your time and our time. You won’t catch them in a candid moment or a self-contradiction any more. I appreciate that you cannot push harder than you do, so you should just focus on reporting facts and providing independent analysis. Yes, independent analysis may not rate as high as partisan vollyball matches in which canned messages get knocked back and forth. Nonpartisan analysts may not draw the audiences of big-name politicians and spokespersons who cackle like Skeletor as they deflect your questions. But at least you would be using that otherwise wasted airtime with real reporting with real value for the nation and the world.

Or you can just continue to serve as the straight-men and women for those “Geico will save you 15% or more” punch lines. Just know that we are not laughing.

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Cosby, Weinstein, Trump and Other Sorry Excuses for Men

Let’s be totally clear right up front. Neanderthals who disrespect, harass, mistreat, or abuse women in any way are despicable. “Men” like Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, James Toback, and yes Donald Trump should be exposed, humiliated, and ruined. If I believed in hell, I’d sentence them to eternal demonic torture right alongside priests who molest children. The people and institutions who enable and protect these men should also suffer debilitating punitive repercussions.

pussyOn a political digression, Trump voters as well as politicians who do not denounce him are every bit as guilty of enabling, protecting, and promoting an unashamed pussy-grabber as those who rationalized that there was some greater good achieved by aiding and abetting Harvey Weinstein or Bill O’Reilly or that it would be improper of them to criticize their behaviors. No difference at all.

That said, I want to discuss the “90% stat.” What I mean by that is the constantly cited stats emphasizing that 80, 90, or even 98 percent of women report having experienced incidents of sexual misconduct at some time in their lives. Whatever the number presented, it is undoubtedly true that most women encounter some pathetic abuser at one point or another. Citing this number is obviously effective in building awareness, creating a sense of outrage, and stimulating action.

And yet it can also be terribly misleading and counterproductive.

When one points out that “90% of women have experienced abuse,” part of the reason this is powerful is because it creates the impression that 90% of men are running around abusing women 90% of the time. Sometimes this suggestion is explicit and intentional, but mostly it is just the unintended impression produced when one hears these statistics. This impression is reinforced when advocates follow up with general comments about how commonplace such conduct is among men and how all men need to receive awareness training and be re-socialized to show proper respect toward women.

But the truth is that most men do not act this way. Nor do they talk this way – no, not even in locker rooms. And since such language has been largely purged from acceptable society, most do not even think this way anymore. I have never acted, talked, or even thought this way. In my extremely wide-ranging life, none of the boys and men I have associated with have done so either. This misconduct is perpetuated by a subset of men and is not typical of men except within certain very dysfunctional microcultures.

Certainly 90% of men do not run around abusing women 90% of the time.

Think about the survey question “have you ever been the victim of road rage?” At least 90% of people would say yes. At some point some asshole on the road gave me the finger, or cut me off, or intentionally slammed on their brakes in front of me. Maybe someone even got out of their car in a traffic jam and came after me with a crow bar. Most motorcyclists – including me – will relate their horror story of that time a car intentionally tried running them off the road. Ask one. At least 90% of us have experienced road rage, ranging from annoying to scary to life-threatening.

But 90% of drivers aren’t running motorcycles off the road 90% of the time. 90% of drivers aren’t even flashing the bird out their window 90% of the time. These acts are mostly performed by a relatively small subset of drivers with anger and power issues who do this repeatedly. For the most part, most drivers are unfailingly courteous, patient, polite, cooperative, law-abiding, and even generous in their driving behavior. But yes, there are some angry, horrible drivers who should not be allowed on public roads in a civil society.

Likewise, reports of sex abuse are best understood as the acts of a relatively small subset of men who engage in this action serially and compulsively. Bill Cosby molested 60 or more women that we know of. Harvey Weinstein is catching up at over 40 so far. A few seriously depraved men can and do impact the lives of large numbers of women with unforgettable and even traumatic encounters. Therefore, a relatively small number of serial abusers can impact, at one point or another, a huge number of women.

But what’s wrong with well-meaning advocates creating the impression that most men engage in similar behavior? Well it isn’t just unfair, but more importantly it’s counterproductive and it lets those truly sick men off far too easily.

First, it just doesn’t ring true to the vast majority of men for whom this kind of behavior is unthinkable. It makes many conclude that the whole problem is overblown. It makes them less sympathetic and unfairly shamed with no call to personal action except to stop doing what they have never done. Exaggeration may in fact encourage some men to attempt some minor abuses that they see as nothing compared to the “rampant norm” they hear about.

Second, it dilutes blame. If Trump and his supporters can create the impression that his behavior is “normal and pervasive” amongst men, then seriously disturbed offenders like our President are shielded from personal criticism and from effective shaming. Trump and powerful perverts like him aren’t pathetic aberrations, they’re just normal guys who happened to get caught on tape. That impression only works to their advantage.

Advocates – Rather than normalizing and diluting bad behavior by focusing on this 90% statistic, focus rather on statistics that marginalize these perpetrators as exceptions – as outcasts, as neanderthals, as throwbacks, as perversions, and as the criminals that they are. Creating an impression that “all men” engage in such behavior may whip up a climate of fear and anger, but it is counterproductive to your cause. Don’t make these perpetrators typical, make them deviants. Continue to cite your 90% statistics, but follow up with commentary about how much damage a few sick individuals can do.

Women – Don’t let well-meaning advocates make you doubt and even fear your husbands, fathers, coworkers – or even construction workers on the street. Be wary and alert of course, but call upon men to help you if needed. Most will take a bullet if called upon for help by a woman. When commenting on an abusive man, rather than saying and thinking “you’re just as bad as all men,” say and think “you’re a sorry excuse for a man!” The latter attitude will not only be far more effective in dissuading bad behavior but it will also make you feel less besieged and endangered and angry in a world with lots of men.

Men – While it may be unfair and even unhelpful to suggest you personally engage in these behaviors, it is not unfair to be tarnished by and held responsible for the actions of the worst members of whatever groups we are part of.  Therefore, I call on you to denounce these sad, moronic losers whenever you encounter them. Defend victims of sexual abuse – or any form of bullying – actively and aggressively. Whether the perpetrator is your best friend, or your boss – or your President – don’t stand by. Don’t look the other way. Don’t excuse. Don’t walk away. Don’t be a cowardly weenie. Step up and step in. Be a man by showing sexual abusers that their behavior is not acceptable and will not be tolerated in your presence.

 

Proud Member of the NRA (National Raptor Association)

BirdOfPreyI am a proud card-carrying member of the NRA. My father and my grandfather were members of the National Raptor Association as well. My great-granddad owned several hawks and a falcon that he used for hunting back in the day so it is a matter of tradition in our family. My collection currently includes a goshawk, a kestrel, two owls, and a buzzard as well as several dozen other magnificent predatory birds.

It makes me so frustrated to hear people who know nothing about birds of prey continually bash those of us who care so deeply about them. I truly love my birds and handle them responsibly. I should not be punished if some less responsible owners allow their birds to prey on cats, dogs, and other house pets. The answer to raptor attacks is not more regulation, but better enforcement the regulations we already have on the books. Raptor owners should voluntarily take classes on raptor husbandry, learn how to handle their raptors responsibly, and keep them well-secured in an approved aviary when not hunting. But families should take responsibility as well and protect their infants and young children with natural cover. Or else they should obtain their own protective birds of prey to repel hungry attacking birds.

VelociraptorI also own three velociraptors that descended directly from the line that were rescued from the destroyed Jurassic Park facility – the first one. These are the original birds of prey. Wingless, yes, but ancient raptors nevertheless. They are potentially dangerous but that is why it is so important that they be kept only by responsible owners like myself.

Our founding fathers owned raptors and they never specifically said that velociraptor ownership should not also be a cherished, protected right. They knew that all raptors are an essential part what makes our American culture so exceptional. Raptors are the only thing protecting our citizenry from housebreakers and totalitarian governments. If we allow the bleeding heart liberals to restrict our velociraptors today, they’ll come after our American Eagles tomorrow. The claim that my velociraptor is far more likely to rend the flesh from me and my family is as absurd as are false beliefs in global climate change or evolution.

Of course I feel tremendous sorrow for the thousands that were lost in the original Jurassic Park massacre. I also pray for all those devoured in Jurassic Park 2, 3, 4, 5, and the many people shredded every day by velociraptor attacks across the country. But this is a small price to pay to protect my god-given right to bear raptors. Such unfortunate events should not be politicized to push for onerous and unnecessary raptor-control legislation. Raptors aren’t the problem. Velociraptors don’t kill people, people kill people. If those intent to do harm didn’t use a velociraptor, they’d just gut hundreds in mere minutes with their own teeth and claws.

In fact, statistics show that murder by raptor is actually higher in states and countries with strict anti-raptor laws. This proves that the only answer to a crazy person releasing a hunting party of raptors into a concert venue is a true American hero with his own raptors – like Chris Pratt in Jurassic World.

Look, I’m not crazy or unreasonable. I do support some commonsense restrictions to keep raptors out of the hands of those who would use them to do harm – like the mentally disturbed, Blacks, and Muslims. But just don’t try to pry my beloved velociraptor’s jaws from my cold dead hand, or I’ll sig em on you!

Thank the lord that the NRA is here to safeguard our god-given rights as true patriots and god bless the United States of America!

 

Don’t Get Used to It

WeAreHereIn the early 1990’s, a group called Queer Nation came up with the “We’re here! We’re queer! Get used to it!” chant. It was wildly successful and contributed greatly to the phenomenal success of the Gay Rights movement. That movement was so successful that other movements still look to it as the gold standard for both inspiration and strategy. Many of them have adapted and adopted the “We’re here!” slogan-as-a-strategy in form, in spirt, and in attitude.

Arguably however, the slogan has jumped the shark. Even Lisa Simpson, longtime advocate for Gay Rights, eventually shouted in frustration “You do this every year, we ARE used to it!” (seen here). At this point, one could launch a counter-chant “You’re here! We’re used to it! Get used to it!

But the slogan is past its day in deeper ways. I’ll get to that shortly.

First let me point out that the slogan has become much more than a mere rallying chant. It reflects a worldview, an attitude, a tone, and an approach to relationships, both societal and personal that has influenced all of our culture. This message was so successful that it became deeply internalized and enculturated.  It permeated the very thinking of a generation of liberals and conservatives alike. It says, in the most uncompromising terms, that you get what you want by ultimatum. There is no room to negotiate. There is no shared responsibility nor shared blame. The burden is all on the other side. You had better change because I am what I am and I am not going to change or go back into any form of a closet. It is a problem when this no-compromise attitude is generalized beyond the bounds of movements like Gay Rights.

In addition, Liberals were particularly influenced in a much different way. The slogan enculturated the idea that we should not expect others to compromise. We must accept anything and everything no matter how distasteful we find it. We must never criticize other ideas or behaviors, let alone expect or demand anyone else to change. Good liberals chasten each other when they are insufficiently accepting of other viewpoints and differences. This is another unfortunate lasting impact of this movement which taught that it is wrong to judge or criticize.

If this seems confusing to you, I say good! It means you are paying attention! I am suggesting that the Gay Right’s movement in general and the “We’re here!” slogan in particular had two seemingly contradictory side-effects. One was to encourage a destructively uncompromising posture, and the other was to instill an attitude of principled acceptance. These actually reinforce each other.

In current culture this encourages us to assert an unwillingness to accommodate others in any way – even as we chide and criticize those who a do not accept the inflexibility of others. In practice, this is manifest by self-righteous “take me or leave me” declarations when the issue impacts us strongly, and at the same time preachy “you should accommodate others” admonitions when the issue does not impact us as personally.

While it was the right message at the right time for the Gay Rights movement, this confrontational get-over-it ultimatum it isn’t necessarily a good template for other movements. Moreover, it isn’t a particularly good attitude for society in general and it certainly is not a good approach to interpersonal relations. It is a strategy adopted even by the most vile and indefensible groups and individuals.

We’re here! We’re loud and obnoxious! Get used to it!

We’re here! We’re Confederates! Get used to it!

We’re here! We’re Gun-toters! Get used to it

Civilized societies have to cooperate, negotiate, moderate, and compromise if they are to survive. In most cases, an ultimatum strategy is doomed to result in unfortunate outcomes for both parties. When we can compromise and make changes, we can demand that both sides make some effort, some accommodation.

The same is true for interpersonal relationships. If one roommate declares “I’m a messy slob but I’m not going anywhere so you better just get used to it,” it leaves the other party no choice but to walk out. Love me or leave me doesn’t work. Unlike gender identity, most things are somewhat under our control and there are things we can and should do to improve our own behaviors.

In truth, this attitude is dated. Those still influenced by it are blind to the times we live in today. During this Era of Trump, uncompromising declarations and pious acceptance are not as appealing as they once were. People who are making a difference today are people who say “I am willing to change and I do not accept your assertion that you cannot change as well.”

WereHereWith radical crazies infesting the government and with Trump running a for-profit White House, we can no longer accept the “Accept the things I cannot change…” platitude. We cannot accept the fact that Donald was elected President. This picture posted like subversive graffiti on a telephone pole near my house. It reflects the new, more engaged attitude. It reads “I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.

We cannot simply accept evolution and climate change deniers in the Congress and Senate. We cannot simply accept a narcissistic lunatic in the Oval Office. We have to criticize. We have to fight. We have to demand change. We have to give up this “liberal principle” of polite acceptance that has lobotomized our brains since the Gay Rights movement launched its famous slogan. We must stop falling for the jiu jitsu logic of Conservatives who tell us that – as we told them about Gay Rights – we now must “get used” to Trump and everything he fails to stand for.

The Gay Rights movement did not intend to teach us acquiescence. Quite the opposite – it was all about boldly fighting for your cause. But it also did not intend to teach that any assertion of an absolute position on any issue must be completely accepted. If both sides take absolute positions of ultimatum, we can only have division and dysfunction.

Apart from basic human rights issues, we do NOT have to accept every card we are dealt. No one should be allowed to build unassailable walls around their intransigence and we should not be pressured by our own peers into respecting and accepting those artificial constructs. “Get used to it!” should not be a principle that we apply in an uncompromising and self-destructive fashion.

Ultimatums are not a strategy, and neither is Zen-like acceptance. In most things, engagement with others and compromise on both sides is how we find win-win solutions.

In realms of faith, many of us conclude that my need for you to respect my crazy belief forces me to respect and support any crazy faith you may have. Truth and belief become inextricably blurred. It’s kind of the same thing here. If we want others to accept our ultimatums, we must then accept the ultimatums of others – no matter how crazy.

We have to exert more nuanced and fact-based judgement in both areas. It’s time to deprogram ourselves away from the old ultimatum-based “We’re here!” thinking of the Gay Rights era and adopt more sophisticated strategies to win hearts and minds and make real change. That starts with not accepting ultimatums or wisdom that tells us to accept what those who profit from the status quo tell us we cannot hope to change.

 

Healthcare is a Limited Right

PrivilegeIt is obscenely immoral when Conservatives argue that healthcare is a privilege reserved only for the privileged few who deserve it, especially when the only criteria that determines whether the privileged few deserve healthcare is whether they happen to be rich enough to afford it. For Conservatives, wealth is the only measure of merit and the wealthy are the only ones meriting healthcare.

Conservatives have a wide range of specious logical arguments and appeals to emotion that they invoke with great fervor to support their petty shortsighted selfishness. Here is just one horrible article in the Washington Times that regurgitates much of this vomitous bile (see here). Among these arguments are 1) the Constitution does not explicitly enumerate any such right, 2) why should others pay for your healthcare, 3) this right to healthcare would have no limits, 4) it would lead to government death panels, 5) it would ration healthcare and slow it down, 6) it would stop all new research, 7) the free market is the best solution, 7) healthcare is a commodity like any other, 8) free healthcare would disincentivize work, and 9) we don’t consider food, shelter, or clothing to be rights, so why should healthcare be one?

Of course these all have relatively simple and well-known rebuttals so I won’t go into them all here. I won’t repeat the overall cost savings or make further appeals to basic humanity and decency. I will only point out that Conservative claims that healthcare as a right cannot work are all empirically proven wrong by the fact that every other civilized country in the world manages to make it work. And their claims that national healthcare in those nations leads to worse outcomes is empiracally proven wrong by actual metrics of healthcare outcomes.

The most popular recent argument worth singling out is “why should young people pay for the healthcare of older people?” Well, not ONLY because when today’s younger generation gets old, tomorrow’s younger generation will subsidize THEIR healthcare, but also because today’s older generation helps to pay for the colossal medical bills incurred when young people break their neck while skate-boarding or bungee-jumping.

Religion does not help us out much in this debate. As with pretty much every issue, religion only rationalizes and provides justification for whatever position one wishes to take. For progressive Christians, the Bible demands universal healthcare. But conservative Christians manage to find passages to justify their healthcare Darwinism. Representative Jodey C. Arrington, Republican of Texas, defended work mandates at a Congressional hearing for food stamps by quoting the Bible: “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.” This “Bible logic” has been applied to healthcare as well (see here).

Look, the answer is not that complicated. It is only made complicated by Conservatives who strive to make it seem murky and fraught with practical and ethical problems. The answer is simply reasonable moderation. No one suggests that a “right” to healthcare would not be a limited right. No right is unlimited. We should and could provide basic public healthcare that would do immesurable good. Just as we should provide a minimum wage and, yes, a minimum amount of food, clothes, and shelter to our fellow humans.

Rich people could still buy whatever elective or costly life-extending healthcare they like, just as they can still buy all the expensive food, clothes, or homes they can afford. But Conservatives won’t abide even reasonable moderation. They don’t want those good for nothing, undeserving poor people to have one penny “handed out” to them, whether it be food, clothes, shelter – or healthcare.

The false choice that Conservatives try to force us to accept is either to provide no base level of public healthcare whatsoever – like mindless animals – or to grant everyone an unlimited right to medical care. That is an intentionally paralyzing false choice. We can provide reasonable healthcare and retain an elective healthcare market and retain all the advantages of a private market with a public safety net. No one would turn up their nose at life-saving healthcare because it will not pay for their boob job.

We should not let Conservatives engage us in this false choice arguement, rather insist upon a sane and humane universal public system that ensures reasonable basic healthcare for all. The only debate should concern the extent and limits of healthcare that is covered under the public system. But that debate should not endlessly paralyze us either. Tweaks to specifics can be made at any time as needed.

And as to paying for all this… I say what I say about all social funding. Cut the military to a fraction of its current budget and tax the rich far more progressively, then we can talk about how much, if any, we still need to limit social programs.

We are Townsfolk in a Spaghetti Western

ClintAre you old enough to have watched those wonderful old Spaghetti Westerns? The typical story went something like this…

When the townsfolk people of some poor dust bowl are abused and impoverished by a gang of ruthless cutthroats, they elect an unsavory drifter as “sheriff” to protect them. A bloody shootout ensues, involving lots of gratuitous gunfire and dynamite explosions.  When the smoke finally clears, it never ends all that well for the townsfolk. Most of them are dead or wounded and their ramshackle town is pretty much reduced to a smoldering wood-heap. Their “sheriff,” having done what they asked of him, rides away from the dead bodies and the smoking rubble with saddlebags overflowing with their life savings.

None of those townsfolk were crazy extremists. They were just regular folk, farmers and shop owners, out of options and fearful for their futures. They were driven by desperation and circumstance to put their faith in the toughest, meanest, bad-ass Alpha male they could find.

Many of us lament that we vote so many arguably dangerous people into high office. Not only into the Presidency, but into the Congress and the Senate and even into the Supreme Court. Too many of these office holders hold frankly crazy views on science, on climate change, and on evolution. They advocate for policies rooted in their faith in the twin religions of capitalism and god. They take extreme positions on guns and militarization. They hold crazy Libertarian and Free-Market views on health care and social programs and racism and sexism and sexuality and abortion and deregulation. They seem to have no scruples whatsoever and will make any ridiculous argument, propagate any lie, to pursue their self-interest and ideology.

No wonder chaos ensues.

We generally blame the crazy extreme of our population for this situation. We argue that our lunatic fringe, driven by their zealous energy and amplified by Gerrymandering, have disproportionate power over electoral outcomes. If only we moderates could take charge, then we’d elect sane, reasonable, and compassionate leaders!

But I want to suggest that moderates are culpable as well. It’s human nature, or at least American nature. Even moderates, like the townsfolk in a Spaghetti Western, turn to crazy and dangerous individuals when they are looking for someone who can make a difference in their lives.

Look at it this way. Most of us are understandably concerned about our physical security and economic self-interest. When we’re worried about home security, we don’t hire someone like ourselves to protect us. We hire a bad-ass body guard, or maybe we adopt a vicious pit bull and buy a deadly semi-automatic pistol. If we are worried about going to jail, we don’t want the most reasonable and knowledgeable lawyer to represent us. We rather want the most aggressive and unscrupulous lawyer possible. We want a lawyer who is willing to say or do whatever it takes to protect our interests, law be damned.

Similarly, to protect our physical and economic security, we elect representatives that are far more extreme than we are. We find the nastiest, most crazy representative we can to fight for us and defend our interests. Even if our head tells us to hire someone smart and reasonable, we are overwhelmingly attracted to the brutal, unreasoning Alpha male (or female).

Part of our decision process is our calculation that no leader can be fully successful. So for example if we believe it would be good to eliminate fat from social programs, we elect a leader who says he wants to dismantle all social programs. We figure that maybe at least he’ll be successful in getting rid of that waste and abuse we are so outraged by. When our elected leader ACTUALLY dismantles vital social programs that we value, we are shocked and outraged. Even though the crazy candidate campaigned on throwing out the baby, we figured he would really just get rid of that dirty bathwater.

So when extremists vote, they tend to vote in someone much more extreme than they are whom they believe will fight hardest for them. They make extreme demands that they don’t necessarily hope to achieve. And then even those same extremists express shock and anger when that representative they worked so hard to elect actually does succeed in achieving what they demanded. I don’t think it is so much about voting against our own self-interest as it is about adopting a pit bull to protect our baby.

But moderates do the essentially same thing. Even moderates in large numbers buy guns as “reasonable” protection, then lament when they are used to shoot up a school-full of kids. Even moderates vote for the Alpha male to keep our country safe, then express outrage when he lies us into an unnecessary war. Even moderates vote for extreme “strongmen” (or strong-women) whom they foolishly believe will become reasonable and restrained and diplomatic upon taking office.

Just like in those Spaghetti Westerns, we moderates and lunatic fringe alike, have elected President Trump and a dirty dozen of tough, extreme bad boys to save us. One has to wonder what will be left of America when they get done protecting it. Or will Trump and the corporatist elite around him merely ride into the sunset of America with saddlebags packed full of our life savings?

 

 

Out of Context

Charles MurrayIn the Grey Matter section of the Sunday Review in the New York Times, Cornell Professors Wendy M. Williams and Stephen J. Ceci published an article entitled “Charles Murray’s ‘Provocative’ Talk.” In it, they described a small ad hoc study that they conducted to test whether the words of Charles Murray are objectively offensive and thus deserving of the level of resistance to his lecture at Middlebury College (see here).

In their study, the authors took a transcript of Murray’s actual talk and sent it without attribution to 70 college professors with a request to rate the words on a 9 point scale from very conservative to very liberal. They found that although “American college professors are overwhelmingly liberal,” those surveyed found Murray’s words to be “middle of the road” with an average score of about 5. Williams and Ceci interpret this finding as indicating that the protest over Murray’s invitation to speak was objectively ill-informed and unjustified.

This argument is deeply and fundamentally flawed. We often see similar tricks played when someone reads an excerpt from the Constitution or Mein Kampf and asks for an opinion about it – before the gotcha reveal when they identify the authorship.

One major study flaw is the premise that words stand alone. Context matters and the meaning and intent of words can only be fully assessed with due consideration of the person making the statement. Authorship is an essential part of that greater context. If PT Barnum claimed he had a Yeti in his house, I would have received it with tremendous skepticism. If Carl Sagan made the exact same claim, I would have been very excited about the potential of an important new anthropological discovery.

The reality is that Charles Murray has a long history of promoting what many consider to be highly destructive public policy research and analysis that has undermined valuable social programs and has attacked and divided us along gender and racial differences. For example, his statement that “We believe that human happiness requires freedom and that freedom requires limited government,” may sound perfectly reasonable to 70 of our professional contacts if unattributed. Coming from a known liberal speaker, this could be meant to affirm that we should not be forced to live in an overly-policed state. However, coming from Charles Murray it is clear that his intent is to promote the dismantling of social assistance programs. The same statement might mean something even more extreme if David Duke had said it.

Based on the work of Williams and Ceci one might argue that we should remove all bias in approving speakers by using a blinded, unidentified process in which presenters are approved or rejected based solely on the text of their planned presentation. That would be extremely foolish. The reality is that the larger views and history of any speaker plays an essential role in how we should interpret their statements. Reasonable but isolated statements can conceal a larger and very different agenda that is only apparent if we know the source.

I have no doubt that the authors would respond by saying that intellectually unbiased people should be willing to hear any reasonable speaker and make this assessment for themselves, without forced censorship. However, surely they would also agree that there is some limit beyond which a speaker would not be acceptable even to them. But reasonable people can reasonably disagree about where this fuzzy boundary should lie – and that boundary must consider not only the message but the messenger as well.

Clearly a determinative number of alumni, faculty, and students at Middlebury judged that the lifetime body of work by Charles Murray, as well as his very clear lifelong mission, crossed that fuzzy line for them. Williams and Ceci may disagree on their placement of this line and that is legitimate and fair debate. But it is not legitimate and fair to conduct what amounts to a gotcha stunt under the guise of objective science to prove that these people’s determination in this instance is illegitimate and irrational.

All that Williams and Ceci may have actually shown is that, without attribution, college professors don’t assume the worst or the best. They may merely fill the void with their own middle-of-the-road interpretation of unattributed quotations.