Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The End of Roy's Weekly Wingnut Roundups

Alas, after six years, the Village Voice has canceled Roy Edroso's brilliant weekly column looking at conservative bloggers. The columns were anthropologically fascinating, historically valuable, politically insightful, and damn entertaining to read. Roy would cover the sincere, rabid and crazy conservative base as well as the professional conservative hacks (and the former auditioning to join the latter). Dissecting insanity and bullshit is always valuable (and a good work in too short supply), but to also make the whole endeavor not only funny but genuinely witty is quite the feat. It's also a difficult act to sustain, but Roy did it, and made it look easy. Although he's continuing to post great stuff at his site, alicublog, the Village Voice columns were a concentrated and thorough examination of "rightbloggers" and their manufactured scandals of the moment. It's the kind of feature that some other outlet should pick up and fund.

"In "#EmployRoy: The ‘Employ Roy Edroso Because He Is A National Treasure And Not The Girl In This Picture’ Project," TBogg makes the case for just this (and supplies a hatchtag). Quoth the Bogg:

Needless to say this is a national disgrace because Roy is a Fucking National Treasure, who should have a regular paying gig writing commentary somewhere, slipping his rhetorical shiv in between the 7th and 8th rib of a conservative and giving it a delicate twist and wiggle.

While the secret leftwing email listserv, DestroyAmerika!!!AbortBabiesList, will no doubt get the word out, please see your way to maybe possibly sorta kinda dropping a hint here and there at one of those websites you visit when you’re at work and you’re supposed to be working on next years budget or awaiting for the launch codes in order to destroy mankind as we know it.

Some good political bloggers have managed to acquire decent-paying gigs, but that number remains relatively small. There's not a robust liberal counterpart to conservative wingnut welfare or the conservative Wurlizter. It's also far more common for conservative hacks to be given lucrative gigs over genuinely insightful analysts, even at supposedly legitimate media outlets. The commentators at alicublog ("the alicurati") are trying to pressure Roy to install a donation button at least, but it'd be great if some other outlet picked up his canceled feature. (I can think of several other writers on my blogroll who deserve steady gigs as well, but any progress would be welcome.)

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Robin Williams (1951–2014)

I wanted to post something, however belatedly, for Robin Williams. His death is a tremendous loss, and I know several people who were more affected by his passing than by any other celebrity death. If it felt like we knew him, it was because, as several of Williams' real-life friends put it, we kind of did – Williams put a tremendous amount of himself into both his comedic and dramatic performances. He was astonishingly, breathtakingly funny, but also possessed considerable depth. His mind simply worked at a faster pace than those of mere mortals, and his intelligence was stunning – some of the tossed-off jokes he would improvise – witty, slightly esoteric, biting – were jaw-dropping. If ever there was a living embodiment of Albert Einstein's observation that "creativity is intelligence having fun," it was Robin Williams.

Other performers such as George Carlin stuck to standup comedy more than Williams, but Williams definitely makes the short list of best standup comics ever, and he'd periodically come back to the medium even after making it big as a TV and movie star. The only comedian comparable to Williams in style was his idol, Jonathan Winters, but while Winters would do goofy humor, and was similarly playful, Williams' toolkit added some scathing political comedy. In terms of a comedian earning mainstream praise as a serious artist, the closest analogy would probably be Charlie Chaplin, who was wildly successful but also became respected as a filmmaker. Williams did some dumb movies, of course, but his comedic chops were never in doubt, and he earned several Oscar nominations for roles that were primarily serious (finally winning Best Supporting Actor for Good Will Hunting).

There's a saying that clowns make the best tragedians, and there's some truth to that. I've long been fascinated by the intersection between tragedy and comedy, where they mix, where they switch, where one can transcend the other. Robin Williams really understood those dynamics, far better than most people. His best performances all display that understanding – in The Fisher King, Dead Poets Society, Good Will Hunting and Good Morning, Vietnam (among others). It was that depth that I found so captivating and admirable – coupled with his lightning-fast wit. (I inadvertently had entire sections of some routines memorized from watching them so much.)

I would have liked to have thought that Robin Williams had conquered his demons, that he had an adequate support network in place, that he had some way to handle his depression and avoid suicide. After his death, countless stories emerged about his generosity, and many of his acts of kindness were done in private. To paraphrase his friends, it's tragic that he wasn't able to give himself (or otherwise receive) what he so selflessly gave to others.

Salon has a great set of 13 memorable moments.

Slate collected some Hollywood reactions.

Here are obituaries from the Los Angeles Times The New York Times and The Washington Post.

His friend David Letterman gave a lovely tribute.

Conan O'Brien remembered Robin Williams, " The Best Talk Show Guest In The World."

His daughter Zelda wrote a moving, public goodbye. (A story from Williams about Zelda is also pertinent.)

"Michael J. Fox Reacts to Robin Williams's Parkinson's Diagnosis."

Jerry Leichtling, GottaLaff, Lizz Winstead and Joel Silberman have remembrances.

"Terry Gilliam Breaks Down a Particularly Hard Night With Robin Williams on The Fisher King."

NPR: "What Robin Williams Taught Us About Teaching."

PBS: "Robin Williams Hones his Craft."

"Broadway's Cast of Aladdin Pays Tribute to Robin Williams."

Questlove on Robin Williams: “Ain’t no way this old white dude knows my entire history and discography!”

"Norm MacDonald May Have Just Written the Best Tribute To Robin Williams Yet."

"Lewis Black Responds Perfectly To Rush Limbaugh" (Limbaugh, being an asshole, used Williams' death as an opportunity to attack liberalism).

"Ethan Hawke on Robin Williams: It Was Obvious He Was in Pain."

Williams was an avid fan of video games, and World of Warcraft is heeding fan requests for an in-game tribute.

Colin McEnroe: "Robin Williams burning brightly: There was just one human being who could do this thing."

Balloon Juice had an open thread remembrances.

Robin Williams on addiction and comedy back in 2009 or so.

Finally, there's some hilarious footage of Robin Williams outtakes from some promotional spots in the early 80s (about 14 minutes long).

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Blogiversary IX: Nine and Half Posts

I don't have much time for writing, alas, but yeah, this blog is still going. It turned nine back in late July. Thanks to those who have stopped by for my infrequent posts.

As usual, I'll give a (brief) retrospective of posts since the last retrospective.

"Our National Political Discourse" is an attempt to "visualize how our national political discourse should work, and discus how it does work instead."

"The Dogs of War," a piece on the vanity that drives blithe cheerleading for war, was my post for Armistice Day last year.

I can blame guest-posting for Digby for most of my activity. The VS versions of the significant posts are "Lucky Duckies and Fortunate Sons," "Artificially Equalizing Unequal Views on Inequality," "The Fallacy of the Golden Mean" (a "both sides" reader) and "You're Intolerant of My Intolerance!"

My annual post-Oscar film roundup (a pre-blog tradition that continues) appears in parts One, Two, Three and Four.

My post on Pete Seeger is probably the most significant in the too-full Obituaries category.

Finally, on the good karma front, I've done my usual stints for Mike's Blog Roundup over at Crooks and Liars, and there's the 2013 Jon Swift Memorial Roundup.

Peace, good art, and happy blog reading and writing.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Banned Books Week 2014

Banned Books Week is drawing to a close, but that doesn't mean we have to stop celebrating banned books and the ability to read them! As usual, the best resources are the official Banned Books Week site, the American Library Association and the National Council of Teachers of English (its related anti-censorship page is good, too). The Banned Books YouTube channel has some great read-out videos. The links on the ALA's Frequently Challenged Books page are highly useful. (I'm always interested in reading the reasons books have been challenged or banned, although the sites could do a better job of making that information accessible.) Meanwhile, my archives on banned books feature some extensive posts.

The ALA provides some useful statistics:

Background Information from 2000 to 2009

Over this recent past decade, 5,099* challenges were reported to the Office for Intellectual Freedom.

  • 1,577 challenges due to "sexually explicit" material;
  • 1,291 challenges due to "offensive language";
  • 989 challenges due to materials deemed "unsuited to age group";
  • 619 challenged due to "violence"' and
  • 361 challenges due to "homosexuality."

Further, 274 materials were challenged due to "occult" or "Satanic" themes, an additional 291 were challenged due to their "religious viewpoint," and 119 because they were "anti-family."

Please note that the number of challenges and the number of reasons for those challenges do not match, because works are often challenged on more than one ground.

1,639 of these challenges were in school libraries; 1,811 were in classrooms; 1,217 took place in public libraries. There were 114 challenges to materials used in college classes; and 30 to academic libraries. There are isolated cases of challenges to library materials made available in or by prisons, special libraries, community groups, and students. The vast majority of challenges were initiated by parents (2,535), with patrons and administrators to follow (516 and 489 respectively).

*We receive challenge reports after the top ten list has been published. This number reflects all the challenges we received since July 31, 2013 for the 2000-2009 time period.

One of my favorite pieces this year comes from Dav Pilkey, creator of the Captain Underpants series:

This makes some key points I've attempted to make before. There's a huge difference between saying "I don't wan't to read that book" or even "I don't want my kid to read that book" and saying "No one should be able to read that book" or "No one's kid should be able to read that book." These are not equivalent positions.

Stan Lee also has a good video on the value of comic books:

(More comic-related links are below, but the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund site remains one of the best.)

Slaughterhouse-Five and Kurt Vonnegut

As it so happens, I recently finished reading a banned and challenged book, Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut. I've read a fair amount of science fiction, but somehow missed most of Vonnegut's work, so this had been on my "overdue to read" pile. I've seen the (superbly edited) film adaptation multiple times, so I knew the premise and plot. (Protagonist "Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time." Very mild spoilers to follow.)

Vonnegut's writing style is smooth, clear and uncluttered, rarely drawing attention to itself. This makes Slaughterhouse-Five a quick read. Vonnegut pens some memorable lines, but his focus is on telling the story, not dazzling us with a turn a phrase; he's more interested in character, plot and structure, and ideas. Structurally, the novel jumps around in time with Billy Pilgrim, who often seems blas̩ to some of those around him, because he knows both what's going to happen and that he can't change it. (The effect is a bit Brechtian.) My one major criticism of the novel is that Vonnegut overuses a key phrase, 'So it goes," which is supposed to sum up the absurdity of life. It does so effectively, but sometimes he'll use it three times on two pages, or twice in a single paragraph, which undercuts its strength. That said, Slaughterhouse-Five is an ambitious novel, mixing meditations on the horrors of war and mass destruction with the arc of a human life with time travel and aliens. It's to Vonnegut's credit that what was surely seen as genre-hopping when the book was released in 1969 goes down so smoothly. Among other things, the book explores how human beings cope with mortality and trauma, hardly light subjects, yet Vonnegut's satirical, slightly removed outlook and brisk prose ensures that the affair isn't ponderous, despite its weight. Part of Vonnegut's artistry lies in hiding his craft, because the structure of the novel is fairly intricate Рwhen and where it jumps in time, and what is doled out versus hinted at versus withheld, is quite deliberate. We're not supposed to notice all this during a casual reading, but there's a fair amount going on below the surface, hinted at by the slightly open ending.

Slaughterhouse-Five has been banned or challenged multiple times. The Banned Books Timeline states that:

In 1982, a sharply divided Supreme Court found that students’ First Amendment rights were violated when Slaughterhouse-Five and 8 other titles were removed from junior and senior high school libraries. The Island Trees (NY) School District School Board removed the books in 1976 because they were “anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic and just plain filthy.” In Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico, the Court found that “local school boards may not remove books from school library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books.” Vonnegut’s satirical novel, published in 1969, considers themes of war and human nature, and is widely regarded as his most influential work.

The ALA has a more exhaustive list:

  • Challenged in many communities, but burned in Drake, ND (1973).
  • Banned in Rochester, MI because the novel "contains and makes references to religious matters" and thus fell within the ban of the establishment clause. An appellate court upheld its usage in the school in Todd v Rochester Community Schools, 41 Mich. App. 320, 200 N. W 2d 90 (1972).
  • Banned in Levittown, NY (1975), North Jackson, OH (1979), and Lakeland, FL (1982) because of the "book's explicit sexual scenes, violence, and obscene language."
  • Barred from purchase at the Washington Park High School in Racine, WI (1984) by the district administrative assistant for instructional services.
  • Challenged at the Owensboro, KY High School library (1985) because of "foul language, a section depicting a picture of an act of bestiality, a reference to 'Magic Fingers' attached to the protagonist's bed to help him sleep, and the sentence: 'The gun made a ripping sound like the opening of the fly of God Almighty."'
  • Restricted to students who have parental permission at the four Racine, WI Unified District high school libraries (1986) because of "language used in the book, depictions of torture, ethnic slurs, and negative portrayals of women."
  • Challenged at the LaRue County, KY High School library (1987) because "the book contains foul language and promotes deviant sexual behavior.”
  • Banned from the Fitzgerald, GA schools (1987) because it was filled with profanity and full of explicit sexual references:' Challenged in the Baton Rouge, LA public high school libraries (1988) because the book is "vulgar and offensive."
  • Challenged in the Monroe, MI public schools (1989) as required reading in a modern novel course for high school juniors and seniors because of the book's language and the way women are portrayed.
  • Retained on the Round Rock, TX Independent High School reading list (1996) after a challenge that the book was too violent.
  • Challenged as an eleventh grade summer reading option in Prince William County, VA (1998) because the book "was rife with profanity and explicit sex."
  • Removed as required reading for sophomores at the Coventry, RI High School (2000) after a parent complained that it contains vulgar language, violent imagery, and sexual content.
  • Retained on the Northwest Suburban High School District 214 reading list in Arlington Heights, IL (2006), along with eight other challenged titles. A board member, elected amid promises to bring her Christian beliefs into all board decision-making, raised the controversy based on excerpts from the books she'd found on the internet.
  • Challenged in the Howell, MI High School (2007) because of the book's strong sexual content. In response to a request from the president of the Livingston Organization for Values in Education, or LOVE, the county's top law enforcement official reviewed the books to see whether laws against distribution of sexually explicit materials to minors had been broken. "After reading the books in question, it is clear that the explicit passages illustrated a larger literary, artistic or political message and were not included solely to appeal to the prurient interests of minors," the county prosecutor wrote. "Whether these materials are appropriate for minors is a decision to be made by the school board, but I find that they are not in violation of criminal laws."

The mention of book-burning raised an eyebrow for me – somebody burned copies of a book that, among other things, depicts Germany during WWII. No irony there! The site Letters of Note reprints a letter by Vonnegut responding to the incident, and provides more context:

In October of 1973, Bruce Severy —a 26-year-old English teacher at Drake High School, North Dakota — decided to use Kurt Vonnegut's novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, as a teaching aid in his classroom. The next month, on November 7th, the head of the school board, Charles McCarthy, demanded that all 32 copies be burned in the school's furnace as a result of its "obscene language." Other books soon met with the same fate.

On the 16th of November, Kurt Vonnegut sent McCarthy the following letter. He didn't receive a reply.

Vonnegut's letter is remarkable:

November 16, 1973

Dear Mr. McCarthy:

I am writing to you in your capacity as chairman of the Drake School Board. I am among those American writers whose books have been destroyed in the now famous furnace of your school.

Certain members of your community have suggested that my work is evil. This is extraordinarily insulting to me. The news from Drake indicates to me that books and writers are very unreal to you people. I am writing this letter to let you know how real I am.

I want you to know, too, that my publisher and I have done absolutely nothing to exploit the disgusting news from Drake. We are not clapping each other on the back, crowing about all the books we will sell because of the news. We have declined to go on television, have written no fiery letters to editorial pages, have granted no lengthy interviews. We are angered and sickened and saddened. And no copies of this letter have been sent to anybody else. You now hold the only copy in your hands. It is a strictly private letter from me to the people of Drake, who have done so much to damage my reputation in the eyes of their children and then in the eyes of the world. Do you have the courage and ordinary decency to show this letter to the people, or will it, too, be consigned to the fires of your furnace?

I gather from what I read in the papers and hear on television that you imagine me, and some other writers, too, as being sort of ratlike people who enjoy making money from poisoning the minds of young people. I am in fact a large, strong person, fifty-one years old, who did a lot of farm work as a boy, who is good with tools. I have raised six children, three my own and three adopted. They have all turned out well. Two of them are farmers. I am a combat infantry veteran from World War II, and hold a Purple Heart. I have earned whatever I own by hard work. I have never been arrested or sued for anything. I am so much trusted with young people and by young people that I have served on the faculties of the University of Iowa, Harvard, and the City College of New York. Every year I receive at least a dozen invitations to be commencement speaker at colleges and high schools. My books are probably more widely used in schools than those of any other living American fiction writer.

If you were to bother to read my books, to behave as educated persons would, you would learn that they are not sexy, and do not argue in favor of wildness of any kind. They beg that people be kinder and more responsible than they often are. It is true that some of the characters speak coarsely. That is because people speak coarsely in real life. Especially soldiers and hardworking men speak coarsely, and even our most sheltered children know that. And we all know, too, that those words really don’t damage children much. They didn’t damage us when we were young. It was evil deeds and lying that hurt us.

After I have said all this, I am sure you are still ready to respond, in effect, “Yes, yes–but it still remains our right and our responsibility to decide what books our children are going to be made to read in our community.” This is surely so. But it is also true that if you exercise that right and fulfill that responsibility in an ignorant, harsh, un-American manner, then people are entitled to call you bad citizens and fools. Even your own children are entitled to call you that.

I read in the newspaper that your community is mystified by the outcry from all over the country about what you have done. Well, you have discovered that Drake is a part of American civilization, and your fellow Americans can’t stand it that you have behaved in such an uncivilized way. Perhaps you will learn from this that books are sacred to free men for very good reasons, and that wars have been fought against nations which hate books and burn them. If you are an American, you must allow all ideas to circulate freely in your community, not merely your own.

If you and your board are now determined to show that you in fact have wisdom and maturity when you exercise your powers over the education of your young, then you should acknowledge that it was a rotten lesson you taught young people in a free society when you denounced and then burned books–books you hadn’t even read. You should also resolve to expose your children to all sorts of opinions and information, in order that they will be better equipped to make decisions and to survive.

Again: you have insulted me, and I am a good citizen, and I am very real.

Kurt Vonnegut

Why, it's almost as if the letter's author is a good writer and reading his work might have value! (The section about "civilization" and how books are "sacred" is probably my favorite.) The funny thing is, Slaughterhouse-Five seems relatively tame compared to some other banned and challenged books. How repressed and authoritarian does someone have to be not only tp ban a book, but to burn it, over a little profanity?

(I've posted earlier about a superb term paper assignment Vonnegut gave out when teaching at the Iowa Writer's Workshop.)


(A graphic by Reading Addicts.)

io9: "The 12 Weirdest Reasons For Banning Science Fiction and Fantasy Books"

Publishing house Simon and Schuster, at Buzzfeed, provides "11 Quotes From Authors On Censorship and Banned Books" (including Vonnegut).

The Columbus State Community College Library, at Buzzfeed, provides "20 Life Lessons Learned From Reading Banned & Challenged Comics."

The Huffington Post supplies "10 Gorgeous Quotes From Banned Books" and a neat set of infographics.

Reading Addicts' poll of readers' 15 Desert Island Books contains several banned or challenged titles.

Meanwhile, in a piece of good news, the public schools in Rochester, Minnesota voted to keep a "controversial" book in the curriculum, The Painted Drum by Louise Erdrich.

If you wrote a post celebrating reading banned or challenged books, feel free to link it in the comments.

Monday, September 01, 2014

Labor Day 2014

Happy Labor Day! I've featured Billy Bragg before, but via Blue Gal, here's his rendition of another classic:

Here's Robert Reich from last year, about celebrating labor on Labor Day:

Digby has clips of Barbara Kopple and her Oscar-winning documentary Harlan County U.S.A. (I met Kopple years ago, and she's a cool person in addition to being a great documentary filmmaker.)

Digby also passes on "The True Story Of How One Man Shut Down American Commerce To Avoid Paying His Workers A Fair Wage" by Ian Millhiser and "Anti-Labor Day" by Ed Kilgore.

ThinkProgress also offers "Conservatives Protest Labor Day by Staging a Work-In" and Daily Kos Labor gives a reminder of what unions do.

At the Campaign for America's Future, Dave Johnson provides "Why Fight For Unions? So We Can Fight An Economy Rigged Against Us."

At Pharyngula, PZ Myers has posted Sarah Palin's incoherent Labor Day video (Pailn tries to portray herself as pro-labor but opposed to union leadership, and drops entire words in addition to her "g"s. The comment thread is fun, though.)

Erik Loomis' series, This Day in Labor History, is well worth a look.

The PBS series American Masters recenty aired an episode on Depression-era photographer Dorothea Lange, and Yale's site, Photogrammar, in collaboration with the Library of Congress, is "a web-based platform for organizing, searching, and visualizing the 170,000 photographs from 1935 to 1945 created by the United State’s Farm Security Administration and Office of War Information (FSA-OWI)."

At Balloon Juice, Anne Laurie and Kay have good posts for the day.

My most in-depth post for Labor Day was this 2011 post.

If you wrote a post celebrating the day, feel free to link it in the comments.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

You're Intolerant of My Intolerance!

Discussions about gay marriage and other LGBT rights, as well as the recent Hobby Lobby decision with its issues of religious belief, have occasionally featured an argument that amounts to 'you're intolerant of intolerance.' Sometimes that argument appears verbatim, or almost so. For instance:

"I should be able to express moral views on social issues, especially those that have been the underpinning of Western civilization for 2,000 years — without being slandered, accused of hate speech, and told from those who preach 'tolerance' that I need to either bend my beliefs to their moral standards or be silent when I'm in the public square."

Kirk Cameron in 2012

"But you're saying we need to tolerate the intolerant!" — I see that objection every time I write something critical of liberal dogmatism and bigotry.

To which my stock response is: Yes, that's exactly what I'm saying — because that's what liberalism is, or should be, all about. Toleration is perfectly compatible with — indeed, it presupposes — disagreement. That's why it's called tolerance and not endorsement or affirmation.

Damon Linker in 2014

Although such arguments are often sincere, I'd contend they don't survive close scrutiny. John Holbo recently wrote a good post responding to Linker, and pieces earlier in the year from Henry Farrell, djw and Scott Lemieux (one and two) also cover the subject nicely. (The Cameron link above goes to a solid rebuttal by John Aravosis.) Here's another crack at the issue myself (cribbing from some older pieces), on the off-chance a different framework helps. Basically, I'm suggesting that the 'you're intolerant of intolerance' argument stems from a semantic disconnect, ignoring power dynamics and failing to distinguish between beliefs about personal conduct and beliefs about how the overall system should work. There's also confusion about a tolerant system (legal rights) versus public manners (social and cultural norms).

These issues have broader applications, but for the purposes of this post, I'm going to concentrate on gay rights and opposition to them, especially when that opposition is justified by citing religious beliefs. Meanwhile, Linker supports gay marriage himself, but views criticism of anti-gay social conservatives as "intolerant." For the purposes of readability, when I mention anti-gay social conservatives, I generally also mean defenders such as Linker (there will be some obvious exceptions), but the difference is duly noted.

Power Dynamics and Levels of Belief

A tolerant person says, "I will live my life the way I like, and you can live your life the way you like." An intolerant person will say, "I will live my life the way I like, but you must also live your life the way I want you to." These are not equivalent. Both people have beliefs, it's true, but one is seeking power over the other. This distinction is clearest in the private sphere. For instance, compare the viewpoint that whatever consenting adults choose to do in the bedroom is fine versus the notions that homosexuality should be criminalized or birth control should be outlawed. Power dynamics shouldn't be ignored, but in debates over "tolerance," they often are. We can visualize a tolerant society, with equal rights for all, like so:

(Click any image for a larger view. These groups aren't drawn to scale, of course, and most of the graphics in this post are pretty simple, but I hope they do the trick.)

Meanwhile, an intolerant society is hierarchical; one group can imposes its will on others (at least in some areas), and looks something like this:

A 2012 post offered a framework for discussing this further, and although it focused on claims about religious persecution, the same dynamics hold true for many arguments against gay marriage even when religion is not invoked, or really any issue involving some form of social conservatism or cultural dominance:

Most of the time, when conservatives say "freedom," they really mean "privilege." Typically, they do not recognize this, because they view their preferred power structure as the natural order. Theocrats and other religious authoritarians will raise a great hue and cry about their religious freedoms being violated. Most will honestly believe this, but they do not truly seek freedom of religion, which they already possess. What they seek is power and preferential status, the ability to impose their religious beliefs on others. Consequently, to use a shorthand, it's important to recognize the difference between personal beliefs – for instance, an individual's specific religious beliefs or lack thereof, that affect that person – and system beliefs – beliefs about how our overall system should be organized, including whether religious faiths (as well as no faith) should be treated equally and neutrally, or whether a particular faith or faiths should be given precedence. These are not equivalent, and when we discuss "belief" and "tolerance," we must put them in context. Individual, personal beliefs that affect that person primarily are categorically different from shared, public policies that affect everyone. The First Amendment contains both an exercise clause and an establishment clause regarding religion; theocrats consistently ignore the latter (in fact, that's one of the defining characteristic of theocrats). While the law makes a number of accommodations for religious beliefs (and individual communities may make far more), as a rule religious beliefs do not trump the law; a murderer could not successfully argue that prosecuting him was a violation of his First Amendment rights because he belonged to the Cult of Kali. Understanding these distinctions is crucial.

For a slightly silly example, "Vanilla ice cream is the best" and "Strawberry ice cream is the best" are both personal beliefs, and a fair system that's ice-cream-flavor neutral (as the Founding Fathers intended) treats them as equivalent. There are no legal repercussions for preferring one flavor over another, and people are free to argue about the best flavor. However, "Vanilla ice cream is the best, and all other flavors must be outlawed" is not equivalent to "Vanilla ice cream is the best" or "Strawberry ice cream is the best" – it's a system belief – and if it were allowed to dominate, would result in an unfair system. Likewise, to turn serious, "We should all have equal rights" and "You should be treated as a second-class citizen" are clearly not equivalent. Unfortunately, we keep on seeing arguments that they are, as well as arguments that objections to bigoted system beliefs are a form of intolerance.

Here's another way of visualizing the situation. Let's start with a basic setup:

For demonstrative purposes, let's say that Person B's intolerance is bigotry against gay people; he's a homophobe. Now let's add each person's desired influence:

In our example, everybody agrees on some issues and society considers them settled (murder should be illegal, etc.). But Person B doesn't just want to decide his own private conduct or to have a say in the public sphere; he wants to dictate what others do privately, too, even when it doesn't directly affect him. (Whether he obsesses about others' private conduct is his choice, but he has no automatic rights over them.) Although Person A and Person C both desire some basic influence in the public sphere, including shaping social and cultural norms – for instance, perhaps they don't want bigoted slurs shouted at a gay couple in a restaurant – they're not seeking to dominate Person B's private conduct. He's free to rail against gay people in his home. If he belongs to a house of worship that believes that homosexuality is morally wrong, he and his fellow congregants are free to inveigh against it there. He's also free to express his opinion in more public places that he shares with Persons A and C – but he doesn't have a right not to be criticized. Other people can exercise their own First Amendment rights and disagree, including calling him a bigot.

Continuing with the First Amendment, the Establishment Clause can be regarded as a system belief that trumps the Free Exercise Clause, which covers personal beliefs. This is as it must be, given that personal beliefs on religion (including atheism) sometimes clash. The system belief of fairness is what creates the space for different personal beliefs and mediates conflicts. Although reasonable accommodations for personal beliefs can be made (and are, in the U.S.), when there's a significant clash, the Establishment Clause should win (not that the courts always agree – ahem). The opposite system is theocracy, where the "Exercise" rights of one group supersede the rights of everybody else. For the sake of argument, let's suppose that the system of neutrality expressed by the Establishment Clause occasionally causes harm; it certainly makes some people upset. It's possible to acknowledge such incidents yet still note that it's the fairest system possible; the tradeoff is worth it. (For another example, thinking a specific defendant is "guilty" or "innocent" are personal beliefs, but "due process" is a system belief. Things don't turn out well when someone tries to do an end-run around it.)

Pushing for gay rights, including marriage and protection from getting fired for one's sexual orientation, isn’t about seeking elevated status, but mere equality. This is a crucial distinction. Yes, the push for gay rights makes social conservatives upset, and yes, it entails a change from decades ago. It is not, however, an assault on their freedom, which has not changed, only a diminishing of their privilege, which they took for granted. Cultural norms have shifted and no longer support what they view(ed) as the natural order. The same thing happened with slavery and women's suffrage and Jim Crow laws – things changed, and frankly, progressed. To quote another old post that can apply to bigotry or cultural narcissism in general, "of course people of faith have a role in the public square, they just shouldn't have a privileged role. They can propose public policies, but they don't automatically get to have their way by citing their religion. They don't automatically get to win."

Real Life and Real Harm

It's easy to discuss these issues as "a low-stakes cocktail party argument" (to borrow a phrase from Jamelle Bouie on discussions about racism). In some circles, the notion that gay people deserve fewer rights than everybody else may be stated, um, "politely." (We’ll come back to that.) Regardless, plenty of places exist in the U.S. and the world where that is not the case, and public, negative statements about gay people create a hostile environment. In some cases, these amount to threats, bullying, and precursors to violence. The CDC states that:

A 2009 survey* of more than 7,000 LGBT middle and high school students aged 13–21 years found that in the past year, because of their sexual orientation—
● Eight of ten students had been verbally harassed at school;
● Four of ten had been physically harassed at school;
● Six of ten felt unsafe at school; and
● One of five had been the victim of a physical assault at school.

LGBT youth are also at increased risk for suicidal thoughts and behaviors, suicide attempts, and suicide. A nationally representative study of adolescents in grades 7–12 found that lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth were more than twice as likely to have attempted suicide as their heterosexual peers. More studies are needed to better understand the risks for suicide among transgender youth.

A 2010 study by the Center for American Progress estimated that 5% to 10% of youth are LGBT, but among homeless youth, that range shoots up to 20% to 40%, often because they are runaways from unsupportive homes. Some of the other estimates, about the "higher rates of abuse and victimization," are also sobering.

Exact numbers can be elusive, but the American Association of Suicidology summarizes:

Many studies have found that LGB youth attempt suicide more frequently than straight peers. Garafalo et al. (1999) found that LGB high school students and students unsure of their sexual orientation were 3.4 times more likely to have attempted suicide in the last year than their straight peers. Eisenberg and Resnick (2006) found LGB high school students were more than twice as likely as their straight peers to have attempted suicide.

Meanwhile, opposition to anti-bullying efforts in schools has been lead by the religious right and other social conservatives because they believe that "All of it is being used as an opportunity to force homosexual teaching into the schools." It is their belief, whether justified by religion or otherwise, that it's important to be able to bully gay kids to enforce what they see as social norms and the natural order. (It also ties into their "gay cooties" theory, that it's contagious.)

Personally, I'd call the anti-anti-bullying efforts dangerous, asshole behavior, not tolerance. Let's grant that certain prominent anti-gay pundits and their defenders don't condone such behavior. But let's also note that feeling upset about being called a bigot, while unpleasant, is categorically different from facing the real threat of violence. Even with shifting attitudes, in the nation as a whole, hostility toward LGBT people is not theoretical. Anti-gay social conservatives may be verbally chewed out in some arenas, but there aren't wide swaths of America where they're routinely beaten up for their views or identity. (Not to mention that being a bigot, unlike being gay, is a choice, even if one makes caveats about upbringing.) If publically calling out not only anti-gay behavior but rhetoric is necessary to create a less hostile environment for gay youth (as it surely is on some level), but this comes at the cost of making some social conservatives uncomfortable, that's not a remotely hard tradeoff.

Not long ago, Josh Barro, who's both Republican and gay, tweeted that, "Anti-LGBT attitudes are terrible for people in all sorts of communities. They linger and oppress, and we need to stamp them out, ruthlessly." The last part's a bit inartful perhaps, but as Roy Edroso chronicled, right-bloggers jumped on it as a call for violence versus a call to speak out, and started invoking Kristallnacht and making other Nazi analogies, with no fucking irony at all. (As those who weren't asleep through history class will remember, the Nazis killed homosexuals, and the pink triangle branding they employed was repurposed as a gay rights sign in memory of this. Also: Godwin!) So, for those of you keeping score at home, in right-wing land, speaking out against anti-gay bigotry is just as oppressive as gay people getting murdered.

We'll get to more polite expressions of anti-gay sentiment in a second, but while those have their problems as well, let's note the standards of tolerance and discourse here, and make no mistake, this level of animosity is more common than the "polite" stuff. This isn't just a sense of privilege – it's ideological and cultural narcissism. It's a sense of entitlement so deep that they can act like complete dicks to other people yet still insist that they're the victims. (In other words, movement conservatism. The politics of tribal aggrievement have made Rush Limbaugh very rich.)

The Public Sphere

Can someone believe that another group, by virtue of some immutable characteristic, deserves to be treated like second-class citizens, yet be truly "tolerant"? I believe that Cameron, Linker and Ross Douthat, among others, would argue that there's a relatively polite form of opposition to gay marriage and other gay rights that represents "tolerance." I would argue that no, that position – that someone else deserves fewer rights (justified because of religion or tradition or personal discomfort or whatever) is inherently and inescapably bigoted. (Use "prejudiced" if you prefer, and want to designate gradations.) Such people may be pleasant enough on other issues, but it doesn't change that they do not support a system of tolerance.

Here's where I think it's useful to distinguish between tolerance on a system level (especially involving legal rights) and tolerance on (inter)personal level, and what could be called "public manners." This chart is a bit tongue in cheek, but might be helpful:

("Liberal" is, as noted, liberal in the Enlightenment sense, which would include tolerant small "c" conservatives and the like, anyone who is committed in general to basic social equality.)

Using these definitions, both Cameron and Linker seem to be conflating (inter)personal "tolerance" in a social situation with support for a tolerant system. They can coexist but they are not the same thing. It's absolutely fine if they feel that, say, Bill Maher, Richard Dawkins or Josh Barro (or yours truly) is an asshole on a personal level. But their complaint is about a social interaction, about speech in the public sphere. This group ("smug hipster asshole" in the chart) nonetheless supports a tolerant system (unless I've missed some public statement otherwise). They support the right of Cameron, for instance, to speak out, and would oppose him being jailed for his views. In this sense, they are tolerant of him (on the system level). However, they also will exercise their right to call him out on his bigotry. Flipping this, Mike Huckabee has a pretty amiable manner, but he opposes gay marriage. He may be personally "tolerant" in that he wouldn't use gay slurs when meeting a gay person, but he still doesn't support a tolerant system (he'd be a "friendly but misguided authoritarian" on the chart).

Using these definitions, (inter)personal "tolerance" isn't always a virtue, either – imagine a teacher who witnesses one student making a bigoted remark to another – a good teacher would intervene on behalf of the victim, which would necessitate being personally "intolerant" to the student making the bigoted remark while simultaneously upholding a tolerant system that protects the victim. That wouldn't mean the insulter was an irredeemable kid, either, and the teacher could work with him later. But in the immediate moment, the teacher's duty is to uphold a community standard, a system, of tolerance. Those who speak out against anti-gay bigotry in the public sphere, whether gently or bluntly, gracefully or clumsily, are essentially trying to do the same thing.

"Tolerance" can be a somewhat ambiguous term, unfortunately. For someone ignoring the power dynamics involved, it's possible to sincerely view bigots who believe that other people should be treated as second-class citizens as "tolerant" and people who object to that view and speak out about it as "intolerant."

There's something to be said for the more polite forms of bigotry – it's definitely better than violence, or bullying. It's the relatively, um, enlightened bigotry of a certain breed of missionary, that "you people are inferior, but you still deserve some degree of decent treatment." Social conservatives who adopt "the missionary position" can still screw things up royally, but admittedly, they're much better than their side's more belligerent and hateful wankers.

It might help to delve further into the concept of public manners. One last chart might prove useful:

(Click the image for a larger view, or you can read a text version here.)

The main points here are that some people will recognize prejudice in themselves, but nonetheless realize it's their own hang-up, trust "the better angels of their nature" and support equality for others. No one is really giving such people grief. On the contrary, activists for gay rights appreciate the support.

Other people will be prejudiced as well, but will oppose equality. They'll also keep this largely to themselves and only talk about it with a small few. Their bigotry, typically of a more mild form, is restrained in the broader sphere by their sense of "public manners." They might feel uncomfortable from time to time, but no one's really giving them grief either, because their discretion prevents it, as intended. Eventually, their side will probably lose the vote. Some may eventually change their mind.

The real conflicts arise from the more vocal opposition, when social conservatives bring their views into the public sphere but also expect them to dominate and go unchallenged. Basically, this is what Linker, Cameron, and others are asking for – special privileges for anti-gay activists in the public sphere. (Obviously they don't see it this way.) They want to define "public manners" in a way that allows anti-gay activists to express their bigoted views (sorry, there's no honest way around it) yet simultaneously prevents gay rights advocates from criticizing them on those grounds. Hey, they're free to make that pitch, but the boundaries of acceptable public discourse are an ongoing negotiation between different groups. (djw's post is especially good on these points. I'll add that "We get to win because of religion" isn't a convincing argument – it's not a good system belief – about how public discourse should operate.)

The Overdue Finale

As Henry Farrell points out:

Bigotry derived from religious principles is still bigotry. . . .

And if [Conor] Friedersdorf wants to defend his sincerely-religiously-against-gay-marriage people as not being bigots, he has to defend the sincerely-religiously-against-racial-miscegenation people too. They fit exactly into Friedersdorf’s proposed intellectual category.

The standard, the "system belief," proposed by Linker, Friedersdorf and others as an alternative to the liberal one of equality, where instead bigotry justified by religion gets special treatment, is fundamentally unworkable. As Scott Lemieux puts it, "I am not arguing that the religious beliefs are trivial; I am arguing that the burden on these beliefs is trivial."

Gay marriage makes Ross Douthat, Kirk Cameron and their fellow social conservatives uncomfortable, and they believe it harms society somehow. Okay, duly noted. Now let's weigh that against the happiness of gay couples and the sometimes significant financial burden that not being able to marry imposes on gay couples. That's not a hard tradeoff. Similarly, Kirk Cameron, Damon Linker and others don't like that social conservatives are called bigots, or intolerant – also noted. Let's weigh that once more against bullying, violence and general hostility against LGBT youth, and the value gained from challenging such behavior and attitudes. Again, it's no contest. It's not that the social conservative position hasn't been given a fair hearing – it's that it's not a good one, and an increasing number of people don't find it convincing. As this trend continues, and cultural and social norms shift, the freedom of social conservatives remains the same, but their privilege is being diminished. This is not a bad thing. But of course they don't like it, and not all of them are dealing with it gracefully.

Apologies for a long and somewhat repetitive post. (As it is, I didn't address some arguments, but I think the posts I linked at the start handle other points extremely well.) I do hope some scrap of this helps break through those recurring arguments about "tolerance," especially from the 'you're intolerant of our intolerance' crowd. It's vital to remember – they're not being oppressed. They're simply losing a fair fight (and some are whining about it).

(Cross-posted at Hullabaloo.)

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Fallacy of the Golden Mean

(A "Both Sides" Reader)

The bad argument's natural habitat is the political talk show. (Well, it's one of its natural habitats, anyway.) Nourished by a steady supply of moist bullshit in the studio and the heat of the 24-hour news cycle, bad arguments flourish, thrive and proliferate. Many a breed of bad argument can be spied, but one of the most common and pernicious inside Beltway blather pits is the fallacy of the golden mean (also known under other aliases). Basically, it entails that in any dispute between two parties, the truth must lie somewhere in the middle (generally roughly halfway).

Obviously this could indeed be the case, but the problem is that this conclusion is repeatedly forced onto situations where it doesn't apply, facts be damned. (It's a socially predetermined conclusion versus a logical deduction.) Calling things accurately to the best of one's ability and letting the chips fall where they may seems to be a foreign concept. Moreover, the fallacy of the golden mean – often expressed as "both sides do it" or "both sides are equally to blame" – and preferably delivered with a sage, thoughtful look or amused, knowing cynicism – is almost unfailingly invoked as a means of shutting down greater scrutiny and deeper discussion. It’s a beloved, go-to move of lazy pundits who don't want to spend their time studying those pesky facts or who desire to appear worldly and above it all. (It's also a useful maneuver for party hacks seeking to avoid accountability for their side. In such situations, it's not unusual to also see the superficial brand of tu quoque arguments beloved by conservative rearguard action specialist David Brooks.)

This position conveys the image of wisdom, but closer inspection almost always reveals it to be shallow and overly simplistic. One party could be mostly right and the other mostly wrong. Both could be mostly in agreement and also mostly wrong. One could take a position that's 40% corrupt but 60% useful, while the other position might be 10% useful, 50% corrupt and 40% insane. Other valuable points of view, beyond the binary opposition of establishment figures in the two major parties, might be excluded. (For instance, back during the Iraq War and the run-up to it, many news outlets represented the full range of opinion from the pro-war New Republic to the pro-war National Review, as Atrios and others noted.) When the goal is discussing real problems and actually trying to solve them, versus conjuring bullshit to fill air time, an amazing world of facts, substance, nuance and complexity opens up.

In the U.S. context, the fallacy of the golden mean is particularly misleading because the Republican Party has grown so extreme, in both its policy positions (see DW-NOMINATE scores) and its unwillingness to compromise. (It bears mentioning that prominent conservatives have long held similar views, but merely lacked the power to impose them.) "Centrist" and "moderate" tend to be viewed as positive labels among the pundit class, but what each actually entails tends to be defined in relative terms as a midway point between shifting poles. (For instance, retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, appointed by Republican Gerald Ford in 1975, came to be regarded over time as one the most liberal members of the court, if not the most liberal. Yet he's never seen himself that way, remarking, "I don’t think of myself as a liberal at all. . . .I think as part of my general politics, I’m pretty darn conservative." He didn't change much; the power dynamics in his party did. )

It's hard to watch the news for long without spotting misleading false equivalencies, and the shallow, knee-jerk nature with which they're offered can be maddening. Recently, Roy Edroso chronicled the remarkable phenomenon of conservatives calling for Obama's impeachment, then pivoting and claiming they never did any such thing – it was Obama's fault! From "Rightbloggers to Obama: Why're You Impeaching Yourself?":

And here's where the real "sordid sort of genius," to steal from Douthat, comes in: As crazy as rightbloggers may seem to you and us, when their thinking correlates this perfectly with the conservative-Republican mainstream, there will always be thumbsucking MSM types who will look at it, pull their chins, and think, hmm, both sides seem passionate, and that the obvious solution is to split the difference and call it a draw. Thus, nutcases whose credibility should have been shattered around their three-hundredth call for impeachment are ridiculously afforded a place at the table, leaving advocates for common sense at a massive disadvantage, since most of their energy must be devoted to restraining themselves from screaming, "this is fucking bullshit."

Driftglass has been exploring the "both sides" dynamic for years, and a recent post, "Both Siderism Remains The Last Refuge of The Morally Bankrupt," quoted an older post from 2005, addressing the media (emphasis in original):

In your weird fetish to be “objective”, the Republicans learned the little trick that makes [the media] dance like organ grinder monkeys. Whatever goofy-assed idea they came up with, you’d reflexively cede them half the distance between the truth and their goal.

There was a book I loved when I was a little driftglass called, “Half Magic” by Edgar Eager, about a talisman that granted the user exactly half of what they asked for. Wish to be ten times stronger that Lancelot, you’ll get five. Wish for a million in cash, you get 500K. In the Mainstream Media, the Right Wing of the Republican Party found their Half Magic Charm. And each time you met them halfway, they moved the goalposts another twenty yards again...and you jogged right on along behind them, ten yards at a time.

Fred Clark offers a similar diagnosis in "Third Way-ism and Hegel’s Bluff":

Most of the time, when someone invokes a “Third Way,” they’re simply committing Hegel’s Bluff:

Simply find two extreme views roughly equidistant from your own along whatever spectrum you see fit to consult. Declare one the thesis and the other the antithesis, and your own position the synthesis. Without actually having to defend your own position, or to explain the shortcomings of these others, you can reassure yourself that you are right and they are wrong. Your position, whatever its actual merits, becomes not only the reasonable middle-ground and the presumably correct stance, but the very culmination of history.

Hegel’s Bluff is usually an exercise in self-reassurance. It’s a way of telling oneself that one is being reasonable. It works for that, well enough — well enough, that is, that Third Way-ers applying this bluff seem genuinely confused when others fail to perceive them as being as eminently reasonable as they perceive themselves.

But persuading others isn’t really what the Third Way of Hegel’s Bluff is designed to do. It rarely persuades. It fails to offer a persuasive argument mainly because it fails to offer any argument at all. That’s not really what it’s for. Arguments are made in support of particular conclusions, but this bluffery is more about just trying to reach that state in which any given dispute is concluded. That’s what it values most — that the unsettling argument be settled, not that it be resolved. It’s more about conflict-avoidance than about conflict resolution.

Having said all of that, please don’t misunderstand me as saying that no truth can ever be found “somewhere in the middle.”**

Back in 2000, Paul Krugman coined the phrase “Views Differ on Shape of Planet" to mock these dyanmics. In a 2011 op-ed, "The Centrist Cop-Out," he applied it to the media's unwillingness to call out Republican extremism and inflexibility on the debt ceiling. It's worth reading the whole thing, but his general critique remains sadly relevant:

The facts of the crisis over the debt ceiling aren’t complicated. Republicans have, in effect, taken America hostage, threatening to undermine the economy and disrupt the essential business of government unless they get policy concessions they would never have been able to enact through legislation. And Democrats — who would have been justified in rejecting this extortion altogether — have, in fact, gone a long way toward meeting those Republican demands.

As I said, it’s not complicated. Yet many people in the news media apparently can’t bring themselves to acknowledge this simple reality. News reports portray the parties as equally intransigent; pundits fantasize about some kind of “centrist” uprising, as if the problem was too much partisanship on both sides.

Some of us have long complained about the cult of “balance,” the insistence on portraying both parties as equally wrong and equally at fault on any issue, never mind the facts. I joked long ago that if one party declared that the earth was flat, the headlines would read “Views Differ on Shape of Planet.” But would that cult still rule in a situation as stark as the one we now face, in which one party is clearly engaged in blackmail and the other is dickering over the size of the ransom?

The answer, it turns out, is yes. And this is no laughing matter: The cult of balance has played an important role in bringing us to the edge of disaster. For when reporting on political disputes always implies that both sides are to blame, there is no penalty for extremism. Voters won’t punish you for outrageous behavior if all they ever hear is that both sides are at fault. . . .

Many pundits view taking a position in the middle of the political spectrum as a virtue in itself. I don’t. Wisdom doesn’t necessarily reside in the middle of the road, and I want leaders who do the right thing, not the centrist thing. . . .

So what’s with the buzz about a centrist uprising? As I see it, it’s coming from people who recognize the dysfunctional nature of modern American politics, but refuse, for whatever reason, to acknowledge the one-sided role of Republican extremists in making our system dysfunctional. And it’s not hard to guess at their motivation. After all, pointing out the obvious truth gets you labeled as a shrill partisan, not just from the right, but from the ranks of self-proclaimed centrists.

But making nebulous calls for centrism, like writing news reports that always place equal blame on both parties, is a big cop-out — a cop-out that only encourages more bad behavior. The problem with American politics right now is Republican extremism, and if you’re not willing to say that, you’re helping make that problem worse.

Lastly, here's one of my cracks at the subject, from 2012:

Both Sides Do It

As we've explored before, in most cases:

…saying "both sides do it" is a form of trolling. In almost every case, when a Very Serious Person says "both sides do it," "both sides are to blame" or any of its variants, it is to shut down discussion, not to bring it to a deeper, more nuanced level.

Among honest, sane, reasonably intelligent and well-informed adults, the following are taken as givens:

1. Neither major party is entirely pure or entirely corrupt. You can find despicable and honorable people in both parties.

2. There is an inherent level of bullshit in politics. All politicians lie to some degree.

Naturally, the same crowd also holds that:

3. Nevertheless – actually, because of this – it's very important to take a closer look at politicians, parties, and their policies, and try to make an informed, comparative, qualitative judgment. Responsible citizenship and basic voting depends on it. Policy matters.

Strangely, most Beltway political commentators will endorse #1 and #2, but reject #3. The same media figures who sagely inform the public that politicians lie, as if this a revelation... will also refuse to fact-check their political guests. Instead of #3, they tend to hold the following views:

A. Wisdom lies precisely between the parties. One side cannot be significantly better/more correct than the other. It's impossible that one side can be overwhelmingly better!

B. It is rude to call out liars, or not invite them back after they lie.

C. Giving both parties a fair hearing necessitates judging that both arguments have equal merit.

D. Anyone saying harsh things about conservatives/Republicans clearly is closed-minded, hyper-partisan and not a Serious Person, regardless of the evidence.

All of this also entails:

E. Policy doesn't matter.

This mindset, whatever you want to call it – faux centrism, "sensible" centrism, centrist fetishism, establishment groupthink, bourgeois authoritarianism, the world view of Very Serious People, the Emperor's New Clothes, the ol' ruling class circle jerk – is absolutely fucking imbecilic. The people who shill it are often highly educated and have sterling pedigrees by Beltway standards, but they are shockingly shallow.

Saying "both sides do it," "both sides are equally to blame," or anything similar doesn't always spring from the exact same motives, however. There are three general categories (a future post may delve into more detail):

1. Social: The old maxim is that, in polite conversation, one should avoid discussing politics and religion. Beliefs on them can be strongly-felt and deeply personal (and sometimes irrational), so it's easy for people to fight. When this happens, a host or other peacemaker might offer "both sides do it" as a way to change the subject, de-escalate the situation and placate whoever's agitated. The person (more) in the right on the political dispute is expected to play the adult and let the matter drop in the name of comity. Strictly speaking, "both sides are equally to blame" is almost always bullshit, but it has its place in friendly social situations, where it can be well-intentioned, defensible, and useful.

All that said, politics and religion can be discussed among honest, sane, reasonably intelligent and well-informed adults. It has to happen somewhere, and at gatherings whose express purpose is discussing politics (or religion), it's pretty ridiculous and childish to try to shut down adult conversation by insisting that "both sides do it." The issue is knowing the venue and the participants, and how candid and in-depth one can be.

2. Bullshitting: When someone says "both sides do it" or the equivalent on a political show, it's nearly always bullshitting. This does come in different flavors, however. Cokie Roberts will say "both sides do it" to fill time and collect her paycheck; it's insipid Beltway conventional wisdom, but to her fellow travelers and a certain audience, it sounds smart and will receive approving nods. The benefit is that you really don't need to know anything (certainly not any policy details) to say it, so it's a wonderful gift to lazy pundits. Thomas Friedman says "both sides do it" to affect the persona of a Very Serious Person and Sensible Centrist. It supplies the illusion of being independent and thoughtful to middle-information voters, even if anyone who knows the subject well knows you're talking out of your ass. (More on Friedman's shtick here.) Meanwhile, David Brooks and other conservative propagandists will say "both sides do it" as a rearguard action to minimize the damage to their party. The conservative movement and Republican Party have become so extreme and so irresponsible, it's hard to justify their actions. (This increasing extremism is why Brooks' hack arguments to defend his side have grown more obviously ridiculous, and have become more widely mocked.) The best tactic for this type of bullshitter is to hit the false equivalences hard, cherry-picking and pretending some minor incident or minor player in the Democratic Party is as bad as some glaring offense by conservatives/Republicans. It's possible to find Democratic hacks doing similar spin on individual news items, but they're simply not operating on the same scale. The rules of polite Beltway discourse, mirroring some of the "social" motives mentioned above, dictate that it is terribly rude to point out that Republicans are the (chief) problem.

3. Serious Analysis: This is the rarest form of saying "both sides do it," but it does exist, most often as a criticism of both the Republicans and Democrats "from the left." A good example is Matt Taibbi's work investigating Wall Street corruption and reckless greed, and political complicity with it from both major parties. Taibbi has been criticized for occasionally going slightly overboard in blaming both parties equally. (After all, the Dems passed relatively weak Wall Street reform in a climate where the Republicans wanted none at all, the Republicans have steadfastly opposed the Consumer Protection Agency and related appointments, conservative justices delivered the horrible Citizens United decision, and Republicans have twice blocked campaign disclosure requirements designed to minimize some of the damage from Citizens United.) Still, Taibbi and similar figures are qualitatively different from the bullshitters in that they want to stop corruption and encourage good policies and responsible governance, and they are willing and able to discuss detail and nuance. While saying "both sides are equally to blame" may be sloppy and overstated to make a point, for this group, it's normally meant as the start of a deeper conversation, not a trite conclusion to end it.

Another important note, related to bullshitting and serious analysis on political shows: pointing out significant hypocrisy in a politician or party generally isn't the same as a serious "both sides do it" assertion, although bullshitting pundits on the same panel will try to twist it as such. For instance, Paul Krugman has often pointed out that Republicans are not serious about deficit/debt reduction. The David Brooks of the world might pretend otherwise, but this does not mean that neither party is serious about deficit/debt reduction. (Pointing out bad faith, bad policies and bullshit in one party does not magically transfer those to the other party, just to make anxious wannabe centrists feel better.) While some individual Dems might be fairly criticized, colossal bad faith on the deficit/debt is a distinctly Republican failing – in fact, it's one of the defining traits of the party. If Krugman brings something like this up, it's to have a deeper, more accurate conversation, whereas a Brooks will try to shut it down.

Here's another way to break it down:

If you argue that wisdom often resides outside of conventional thinking, I'll agree with you.

If you argue that wisdom lies precisely between two poles of conventional thinking – which are moving, no less! – I'll say you're a fucking moron.

(It's terribly uncivil to say all this, I know, but I still think there's some truth to it.)

(Cross-posted at Hullabaloo.)

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Artificially Equalizing Unequal Views on Inequality

The mainstream political press has a horrible tendency to rely on false equivalencies and to conclude, far too simplistically and without nuance or detail, that 'both sides are equally to blame.' It would take much more effort, and seem like taking sides, to call things accurately to the best of their ability, or discuss policy positions in terms of facts and likely outcomes, or contextualize negotiations and other matters for their audience. Even important issues can wind up being poorly covered. Some conclusions, no matter how well supported, are deemed unacceptable; others are essentially predetermined, regardless of the pesky facts. A Washington Post piece from July provides a good example.

The Article

"A think tank wanted to study inequality. It couldn’t get conservatives on board" by Jim Tankersley covers an interesting tidbit. (Its subtitle, "If most of the research on a big economic question comes from one political point of view, can Americans trust it?" seems like an awfully loaded and misleading question, however. To be fair, editors often choose the headlines, not the authors – but Tankersley is listed as the editor for this and other "Storyline" pieces.)

The setup—a new Beltway think tank (Washington Center for Equitable Growth) wants to study an important issue:

What she wanted, [Heather] Boushey said, was to fund an intellectually honest investigation of arguably the hottest issue in American economics right now: the widening gap between the richest Americans and everyone else. She wanted to learn more how and why that gap might hurt the nation’s overall economic performance.

The think tank has some members with a liberal background, but apparently it aims to be inclusive and is officially "non-partisan." Accordingly, it extends a wide invitation:

Boushey was hoping to sign up an ideologically diverse cross-section of thinkers to her effort. . . .

The grant recipients, she explained, would examine questions of inequality and growth from every possible angle, liberal and conservative. They’d report what was true and what wasn’t. Her think tank would live with the findings, whatever they might be.

The think tank's trying to be inclusive and strives to be empirical and data-driven. Sounds good so far. Next, proposals are submitted and grants are given:

There are no identifiably conservative economists among the grantees, however.

Uh-oh! That doesn't sound inclusive! What gives?

No conservative economists applied for grants, among the 70 submissions the center received, Boushey said.

...Oh. Well, it's rather hard to offer a grant to someone who can't even be bothered to apply. Not even one of the 70 applicants was a conservative? That seems remarkable. Why was this? Tankersley theorizes:

Perhaps that’s because the center has, in its early months of existence, engaged in some high-profile blog-and-social-media fights with conservatives over questions of data and policy when it comes to inequality.

Alas, no links are provided for this. This sounds a bit whiny, that the new think tank was mean, so conservatives didn't want to play. The think tank's twitter feed seems fairly anodyne and not combative. Back in May, Boushey did appear on PBS' NewsHour to debate Kevin Hassett of the conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI) about Thomas Piketty’s recent book, Capital in the 21st Century, but it's a pretty polite exchange of disagreements. The most charitable possibility (for conservatives) would be that they judged that their contributions would be unwelcome. (It's a paid gig, though. And wouldn't getting paid to skewer a liberal position be tempting?) But Tankersley's speculating anyway, so let's move on. He floats another idea:

Perhaps it’s because it’s relatively rare in Washington for liberal and conservative thinkers to team up to pursue big questions – especially ones that, depending on the answer, could shake party platforms or basic ideological beliefs.

This is a much more convincing hypothesis, especially if one's familiar with the usual conservative stances on inequality. Tankersley continues:

It’s also true, in this case, that a lot of conservative economists have already decided that inequality – as opposed to mobility or the even broader “economic opportunity” – isn’t a problem.

Aha! Yes, this is much stronger, more accurate stuff – conservatives have often stated that inequality is overstated, or that it isn't a problem, or that efforts to ameliorate it cause more harm than good, or all of the above. Tankersley's link is to conservative AEI and its latest 117-page collection of essays, which argue all of these positions. This is good context for the reader.

This is the real challenge posed faced by Boushey, and her center, and the work that will now begin thanks to their grants: If most of the research into an economic issue is being conducted from one side of a political debate, consumers of that research could – and should – look skeptically on its conclusions, until persuaded otherwise. The burden is on the researchers, on their data and the stories they tell from it.

It’s a heavy burden. It would help to have a more diverse group of thinkers shouldering it.

Umm… what? Where did this come from? How does this follow? And a "diverse group" needs to include people who explicitly don't want to study the issue? I suppose "until persuaded otherwise" and the mention of "data" soften this a bit, but this is quite the sharp turn. It also ignores that there's a great deal of solid research on inequality already. For example, Thomas Piketty's aforementioned book, Capital in the 21st Century, is a new, major work in the field, and it's earned praise for its extensive research and synthesis of previous studies. (It's also received plenty of attacks from conservative outlets.) This think tank story, and discussions about inequality in general, do not take place in a vacuum. Let's recap Tankersley's account and conclusion:

1. A think tank wants to study inequality. It invites conservatives to participate.

2. Conservatives completely decline to participate (zero of seventy applicants).

3. It's mentioned but isn't emphasized in the piece that the think tank is sponsoring data-driven work. (A chart of the grantees and their paper topics is included. The findings of previous major studies on inequality are not mentioned.)

4. The conservative position is that inequality doesn't matter. (It's not really explored that justifications for this tend to be ideological versus data-driven. More on this in a bit.)

5. Conservatives have their own think tanks upholding their position.

6. Somehow… the new think tank's conclusions will be suspect and the burden is on its members, despite conservatives rejecting their invitation and rejecting their entire endeavor (not to mention rejecting the findings of previous studies).

Tankersley sure seems to arguing that if conservatives don’t agree with something, it can't be valid (or at the very least, that it must be viewed with great suspicion). There are several glaring problems here.

It's completely reasonable and fair to let different political factions have their say. It's utterly ridiculous, however, to automatically judge that their positions are equally valid and sound – especially when the facts say otherwise. Serious policy discussions require some level of qualitative analysis and judgment. Tankersley offers a variation on the usual predetermined "both sides are equally to blame" conclusion – in this case, he essentially lets conservatives veto the propositions that inequality matters and that it should be studied. He doesn’t provide much context for the reader, but essentially, he's falsely equating an empirical approach (and extensive data from it) by one "side" in a debate with a conservative ideological position against it. (For instance, conservatives will indeed argue that efforts to lessen inequality are ineffective or counterproductive, but their central, much more common argument is that such efforts are morally wrong.)

But Tankersley's conclusion doesn't even follow his own account. He links AEI's collection of papers arguing that inequality doesn't matter (and is overstated, etcetera). How is this point of view not represented, then? Why does the Washington Center for Equitable Growth specifically need to represent it, too? (Especially when they tried to, and offered an invitation that was rejected?) How the hell is this their fault?

Put another way, Tankersley's stated concern is about "research into an economic issue . . . being conducted from one side of a political debate." Based on his own account, either the other side has refused to engage in research, or the other side is already engaged. Yet somehow, the conservatives are still blameless and the fault lies with the more liberal – in this case, the intentionally centrist – faction.

Realistically, the news business is based on sales, ads, and page hits – content is churned out, and some of its quality will suffer. A short, quickly written piece won't give a full account of an issue. However, it should give a roughly accurate account of an issue and some basic context, and Tankersley's piece is striking for its abrupt and ill-fitting conclusion. It reads as if he was writing up an interesting tidbit, then realized he had to end by blaming "both sides," so he took a sharp swerve. He could have tried a familiar Beltway gambit – holding this incident up as an example of political intransigence and then bemoaning the lack of bipartisanship in Washington – and he kind of does this briefly (the less context on the issue one provides, the easier it is to pull off this move). But that route is slightly problematic here, because one "side" is investigating the issue and the other is refusing to do so – so fault must be invented in the name of "balance." Basically, the piece offers a socially driven conclusion versus an empirical or logical one.

The Bigger Picture

Tankersley's piece exemplifies some persistent problems in coverage of policy and political disputes. Let's return to that loaded and misleading subtitle: "If most of the research on a big economic question comes from one political point of view, can Americans trust it?"

This asks for a simple "yes" or "no" in a polarizing fashion, not for deeper reflection. (As Neil Postman put it, poor questions "insinuate that a position must be taken; they do not ask that thought be given.") Why does any political point of view automatically possess virtue, insight and accuracy? The stated attitude is also a major problem in "debates" about climate change and evolution, among other things. What if one "side" rejects empiricism and facts? What if one side consistently lies? What if one side had obvious reasons for arguing in bad faith? In the context of the paucity of conservatives in academia, PZ Myers has tackled this issue (emphasis mine):

Of course if [Jonathan Haidt] believes there’s no real difference between left and right, it’s a problem that the right is poorly represented in academia.

But what if there is a real difference, a difference of substance, in how left and right approach the evidence and how they respect the methods of science? I think the field of social psychology is suffering because they haven’t hired enough serial killers for their tenure line positions. They’d certainly do a good job of making psychologists question their assumptions about the importance of health, happiness, and security in human welfare, and also, someone would be around who could finally intimidate those prissy-pants on the Human Subjects Review Board. Should we complain about the deficiency, or should we recognize that some behaviors are antithetical to the cooperative and responsible pursuit of knowledge?

The problem isn’t that academia excludes conservatives. It’s that it is a rare conservative who doesn’t prioritize the moral foundations (to use Haidt’s own terms) of respect for authority and loyalty to the ingroup above breaking through conventions and assumptions to test the truth. Also, it’s the rare conservative who will accept a job with high admission requirements that also pays a pittance.

(As commenters in a Lawyers, Guns & Money thread on Tankersley's piece point out, conservative think tanks likewise probably pay much better than the new think tank's grants.)

Returning to the subject of inequality, it's not a secret that conservatives generally defend it and oppose efforts to lessen it; this is a core ideological principle. As conservative David Frum explained to Bill Moyers in 2009:

The Republicans are not the party of equality. They're the party of liberty and they're the party of efficiency. . . .

Liberty leads to inequality just as attempts to reduce equality lead to adoption of liberty.

The data don't always cooperate with the conservative position, however. Paul Krugman's written a great deal about inequality over the years, and a recent op-ed, "Inequality Is a Drag," summarizes some recent research:

It’s true that market economies need a certain amount of inequality to function. But American inequality has become so extreme that it’s inflicting a lot of economic damage. And this, in turn, implies that redistribution — that is, taxing the rich and helping the poor — may well raise, not lower, the economy’s growth rate.

You might be tempted to dismiss this notion as wishful thinking, a sort of liberal equivalent of the right-wing fantasy that cutting taxes on the rich actually increases revenue. In fact, however, there is solid evidence, coming from places like the International Monetary Fund, that high inequality is a drag on growth, and that redistribution can be good for the economy.

Earlier this week, the new view about inequality and growth got a boost from Standard & Poor’s, the rating agency, which put out a report supporting the view that high inequality is a drag on growth. The agency was summarizing other people’s work, not doing research of its own, and you don’t need to take its judgment as gospel (remember its ludicrous downgrade of United States debt). What S.& P.’s imprimatur shows, however, is just how mainstream the new view of inequality has become. There is, at this point, no reason to believe that comforting the comfortable and afflicting the afflicted is good for growth, and good reason to believe the opposite.

Specifically, if you look systematically at the international evidence on inequality, redistribution, and growth — which is what researchers at the I.M.F. did — you find that lower levels of inequality are associated with faster, not slower, growth. Furthermore, income redistribution at the levels typical of advanced countries (with the United States doing much less than average) is “robustly associated with higher and more durable growth.” That is, there’s no evidence that making the rich richer enriches the nation as a whole, but there’s strong evidence of benefits from making the poor less poor.

(Hullabaloo has covered inequality quite a bit. My most extensive post on the subject is this 2010 one.)

The conservative American Enterprise Institute's aforementioned work on the subject is a collection of essays entitled, Opportunity for All: How to Think about Inequality. I'm not going to go through all 117 pages in detail (you can read it for yourself), but I did want to note a few key arguments. In AEI President Arthur C. Brooks' introduction, he states:

The conventional wisdom on inequality is built on three assumptions: (1) Income inequality is inherently unjust; (2) it is bad for the economy; and (3) government redistribution is the best way to remedy it. According to this narrative, narrowing the gap between what wealthy and working-class Americans earn should be our top political priority, and policies such as raising taxes or increasing the minimum wage are the answer.

It's not encouraging when the opener offers such a huge straw man argument (and tinier ones). "Income inequality is inherently unjust"? As Krugman and others have noted, some inequality is necessary and useful, but beyond a certain amount it is indeed "bad for the economy." Direct government intervention can work, as can indirect intervention, and whether it's the "best" option or not, sometimes it's the only real option (see the New Deal). That's the practical argument. The moral counterargument to Brooks is that, if the political will existed, it would be relatively easy to have a system that still featured inequality but also much more "equality of opportunity" and a higher standard of living for everybody. Compared to other industrialized nations, the U.S. does relatively little social spending. Income and wealth inequality have increased over the past few decades, and the rich are being taxed at low levels by historical standards; U.S. taxes could become far more progressive and the richest 1% would still be left immensely privileged, if merely filthy rich versus obscenely wealthy.

In the same vein as Brooks, AEI author Aparna Mathur writes:

Like most Americans, I believe in equality of opportunity and not equality of outcome, which is clearly neither desirable nor attainable.

This is both a false dichotomy and a straw man. (Throw in appeal to the majority, too. What efficiency!) Of course, liberals (and the think tank centrists from earlier) don't seek "equality of outcome"; this is a wearily common conservative straw man tactic, essentially attacking communism and pretending that it's what liberals or European social democrats (or centrists) want. The goals are to reduce inequalities of both opportunities and outcomes, not to eliminate them altogether. In liberalism, governing is a balancing act, and theory and practice inform each other. Outcomes aren't the only concern, but they can't be ignored, either. The entire point of empiricism is to collect good data, which, among other things, entails – duh – looking at outcomes, measuring them and trying to determine causes with greater acuity. If the data show great inequality of opportunity, and also show great inequality of outcome – and the perennially preferred conservative policies to address the former have been shown to be insufficient or simply ineffective – perhaps something else is needed, hmm? If the data show that greater government spending does help, but conservatives oppose that, shouldn't they have to give a good reason and not just their position? If slightly higher taxes on the rich would help fund that spending, why not do it? (And do we really have to pretend that conservative arguments against even slight increases in taxes are always in good faith and with sound reason versus self-interest? Some conservatives are at least forthright about it.) It makes sense that most national political coverage avoids discussion of motives and bad faith, but it's not as if it sticks to the data instead – on inequality, climate change and many other subjects, it's been proven acceptable (for conservatives, at least) to simply say the data don't matter. Only rhetoric (which it would be rude to fact-check) can be allowed to prevail.

"Debates" about inequality do not take place in a vacuum – a long history and context exists. As Krugman observed in a July op-ed, "On Inequality Denial":

Not only do the usual suspects continue to deny the obvious, but they keep rolling out the same discredited arguments: Inequality isn’t really rising; O.K., it’s rising, but it doesn’t matter because we have so much social mobility; anyway, it’s a good thing, and anyone who suggests that it’s a problem is a Marxist.

What may surprise you is the year in which I published that article: 1992.

(Krugman's far from the only one writing about this stuff, but he's awfully good at it.)

That's a fine summing up of the arguments from AEI and other conservative outlets. In the same piece, Krugman also covers criticisms of Piketty's work:

At the risk of giving too much information, here’s the issue. We have two sources of evidence on both income and wealth: surveys, in which people are asked about their finances, and tax data. Survey data, while useful for tracking the poor and the middle class, notoriously understate top incomes and wealth — loosely speaking, because it’s hard to interview enough billionaires. So studies of the 1 percent, the 0.1 percent, and so on rely mainly on tax data. The Financial Times critique, however, compared older estimates of wealth concentration based on tax data with more recent estimates based on surveys; this produced an automatic bias against finding an upward trend.

In short, this latest attempt to debunk the notion that we’ve become a vastly more unequal society has itself been debunked. And you should have expected that. There are so many independent indicators pointing to sharply rising inequality, from the soaring prices of high-end real estate to the booming markets for luxury goods, that any claim that inequality isn’t rising almost has to be based on faulty data analysis.

Yet inequality denial persists, for pretty much the same reasons that climate change denial persists: there are powerful groups with a strong interest in rejecting the facts, or at least creating a fog of doubt. Indeed, you can be sure that the claim “The Piketty numbers are all wrong” will be endlessly repeated even though that claim quickly collapsed under scrutiny. . . .

This picture makes some people uncomfortable, because it plays into populist demands for higher taxes on the rich. But good ideas don’t need to be sold on false pretenses. If the argument against populism rests on bogus claims about inequality, you should consider the possibility that the populists are right.

Exactly. But then both sides aren't equally to blame, and there's no good reason to oppose policies helpful for the middle class (and poor) that powerful groups do in fact oppose. That's awkward for media outlets that traditionally toe the establishment line.

Moral arguments have their place (and can have great value), but the honest use of data is extremely helpful for cutting through biases and grounding those arguments. 'My ideology states that I don't need to care' is a position, not a true argument, and shouldn't cut it in serious discussions. Validating it amounts to empowering the fanatic's veto – it isn't even-handed; it's irresponsible. Having an open mind entails giving someone a fair hearing, not ignoring all evidence, judging all opinions equally sound or turning off one's bullshit detector. False equivalencies do not serve the audience (but unintentionally or not, they do serve other parties).

(Cross-posted at Hullabaloo.)