Tuesday, November 25, 2003

The Political and the Personal

I'm going to simply without comment say this is a must read, and captures a perspective I largely think is on the money. I'll say more when I'm not getting the every-five-minute phone calls from my spouse asking me to come home & babysit kids. That said, it's an excellent read.

Revolution Is Not An AOL Keyword

A most cool update of the classic Gil-Scott Heron tune, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. Enjoy.

Grand Old Porkers

Remember when the GOP was against porkbarrel spending by those "tax and spend" Democrats? Well, take a look at what's happened since the Republicans gained control of Congress. In a nutshell: there's more bacon to pass around than ever before.

Read the whole report here. Note it's a pdf document, and you'll need Adobe Acrobat Reader to view it.

Terrorist Logic: Disrupt the 2004 Election

This one also deserves a read. Interesting to note that the author of the column is familiar with game theory (a theory originating in the work of John Nash), and notes that by allocating the bulk of our resources in one location in the "war on terror" we make ourselves more vulnerable to attacks on remaining exposed locations. The author also notes something that on the surface would seem paradoxical: terrorists actually want hard-line authoritarians to win elections or otherwise take power. Why? For terrorists it's a win-win situation. Hard-liners strike back more broadly, making it easier for terrorists as they attempt to justify their causes and their methods.. From a justification and recruiting standpoint, hard-liners are a bonanza for them. The author then goes on to state that a measured public response is more effective than an impulsive or ill-conceived military response (however emotionally satisfying) that is likely to produce unnecessary collateral damage, political or otherwise.

Again some food for thought.

Prisoners of war

Or, a journey into the mind of the right-wing authoritarian, part one.

First a quote from an excellent post:

The reports earlier this week of the preparations by the British and the many incredible demands made by the Bush people on their British hosts betrayed the extent that Bush has become his own prisoner - a prisoner of his own invention.

His admission to British journalists of being required to do his "traveling in a bubble" is not so much a reflection on any physical danger to the president, but more the emotional damage and the ensuing political danger should Bush or the American people actually witness the hostile dissent roiling outside that bubble.

Those who represent this country live in constant fear Americans might actually come to the conclusion that Bush and his handlers have really screwed up if we were free to witness dissent - especially dissent among our allies. Theirs is the desperate need to increase the boundaries of the sterile zone which they and the media have worked so hard to create here at home. This is just more evidence as to how America, too, has become prisoner to Bush's war.

There is something rather interesting about right-wing authoritarians. They tend to run away from any news that is contrary to their beliefs or which would show their actions had been wrong. Social psychologist Bob Altemeyer has been researching right-wing authoritarianism for the last three decades. Just to give you a taste of what his work is about, I wish to describe some experiments Altemeyer has conducted that betray something peculiar about the authoritarian personality that I think has some direct bearing on our understanding of the mentality of the White House and its enablers.

In one set of studies, Altemeyer gave participants bogus feedback regarding their scores on a self-esteem test (they were either told they had high or low self-esteem; this was the independent variable) after receiving an exaggerated account of the test's ability to predict future behavior. High self-esteem as measured by this test was purported to predict future success at college, career, and marriage. Low self-esteem as measured by this test was purported to predict future failure in these endeavors. After receiving their "scores", participants were told that information demonstrating the validity of the self-esteem test would be provided to those who requested it, and asked participants to either write down "yes" if they wanted the validity info or "no" if they did not want validity info on the test (the dependent variable), and to turn those responses back with their original feedback sheets.

As it turns out, the low-right-wing-authoritarian participants were fairly equally interested in learning about the validity of the self-esteem test, regardless of their presumed scores on the self-esteem test (67% of those told they had high self-esteem versus 63% of those told they had low self-esteem). On the other hand, the high right-wing-authoritarian participants only requested validity information if they had been told that they had high self-esteen (73%)...if they had received bad news about their self-esteem they were less interested in learning about the validity of the test (only 47% of them requested validity information). In summary, it looks like the highly right-wing authoritarian types wish to shield themselves from any evidence that would distress them, such as evidence that would validate unpleasant test results.

Altemeyer ran another set of studies asking participants to imagine if they were more prejudiced and less tolerant than most of the other students, and were then asked if they would want to find out. An overwhelming percentage of the low right wing authoritarians wanted to know the truth even if it were unpleasant (76%) compared to a lower percentage of high right wing authoritarians (56%) who were willing to find out the truth. If the secenario were turned on its head and participants were asked to imagine being less prejudiced and more tolerant then most other students, equivalent percentages of low and high right wing authoritarians were wanting to be told the truth (71% for low authoritarians versus 74% of high authoritarians).

What to make of these various studies? It appears that those who score low in authoritarianism tend to be willing to face the truth, even if it is personally distressing. Those who score high in authoritarianism tend to be less prone to face potentially distressing truths, and perhaps more prone to simply avoid those truths altogether.

How does this relate to Bush? Think of a president who is so afraid of dissent that he has to shield himself in a "bubble" with supposed "free speech zones" that keep dissidents well out of sight. Think of a president who is so afraid of contradictory intelligence that he surrounds himself with yes-men and goes so far as to avoid reading newspapers. Potential bad news, potential evidence that his policies have done considerable damage, is avoided by Bush and cronies.

Say whazzup

to ReachM High Cowboy Network Noose.

Monday, November 24, 2003

Sorrows of Empire

By Chalmers Johnson. The following is a little teaser. If this whets your apetite, check out the above link, and his forthcoming book, The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic. And now for a quote:

Four sorrows, it seems to me, are certain to be visited on the United States. Their cumulative effect guarantees that the U.S. will cease to resemble the country outlined in the Constitution of 1787. First, there will be a state of perpetual war, leading to more terrorism against Americans wherever they may be and a spreading reliance on nuclear weapons among smaller nations as they try to ward off the imperial juggernaut. Second is a loss of democracy and Constitutional rights as the presidency eclipses Congress and is itself transformed from a co-equal "executive branch" of government into a military junta. Third is the replacement of truth by propaganda, disinformation, and the glorification of war, power, and the military legions. Lastly, there is bankruptcy, as the United States pours its economic resources into ever more grandiose military projects and shortchanges the education, health, and safety of its citizens. All I have space for here is to touch briefly on three of these: endless war, the loss of Constitutional liberties, and financial ruin.

Some more by Chalmers Johnson, may be found here, here, and here. Props to Bill Connolly of American Samizdat.

How to Win Elections

Makes for an interesting read, and I think there's some ideas offered that should be taken seriously into consideration. I like the idea of a Democrat Party is the Common Sense Party meme. I also like the emphasis on how progressive policies can make the average person more money -- simply put: make the top 1% wealthiest Americans pay their fair share in taxes (wow, now there's a concept), cut out wasteful spending of tax dollars on various boondoggles including military adventures that have no connection to national security, and focus on jobs here at home.

Anyhoo, some of what this cat has to say may seem a bit unrealistic for now, but I do think that politicians who are willing to run on a progressive platform and deliver the goods to the voters by appealing to their self-interest have a decent shot at success. Food for thought.

More on HR 3077

Academic freedom in the US is increasingly in jeopardy, as I've written before. The link above highlights what this recently passed legislation means for those of us who work in academe. Although the bill does not directly affect me, the courses I teach, or the research I conduct, I view it as a precedent-setter. Unfortunately, money talks, and most university administrators are hesitant to walk away from Federal funds in the name of intellectual freedom.

In the social sciences, as I recall, many of the great theorists and researchers of the mid-20th century were individuals who fled Germany in the 1930s as the darkness of Nazism and other forms of fascism swept through Europe. I think of Kurt Lewin, whose research on group dynamics and his keen interest in social issues still resonates in my field, a half century after his untimely demise; Fritz Heider, whose work had an enormous impact on our understanding of person perception (an impact that once again is felt to this day); and several Gestaltists who influenced the above two men: Wolfgang Kohler, Kurt Koffka, and Max Wertheimer, whose theoretical and empirical work influenced our understanding of perceptual processes and learning in humans and other animals. These men simply would not have survived the Nazi era, either because of their ethnicity or because they simply refused to go along with the prevailing nationalist mentality prevented them from engaging in scholarly activity unfettered by political considerations. I wonder if the actions of our congressional leaders honors the hard work and dedication to truth that these men had demonstrated during their careers. I wonder if American universities will continue to be viewed as safe havens for academic freedom, or if the light of independence and truth is about to be extinguished.

America to Bush: "You're Out of Touch...Out of Touch"

(with apologies to Hall & Oates)

Update: and speaking of being out of touch, here's a NYT article, How to Make the Deficit Look Smaller Than It Is that serves up a succinct warning about the consequences of continued fiscal irresponsibility as the Baby Boomer get ready to retire en masse.

Sunday, November 23, 2003

Terrorism Inc.:

Al Qaeda Franchises Brand of Violence to Groups Across World

A precursor to the theme "brand" for Dec. 1's Grid Blog (i.e., [grid::brand].

A Humorous Jab at Right-Wing Double Standards

I thought it was pretty amusing (in a fair and balanced manner, of course). There's some source material here that I want to tap into as I work in a few posts over the next several days regarding right-wing authoritarianism, and some of its psychological underpinnings and consequences.

Culture Clash: Conservative revolution?

No -- just dazzlingly effective PR.

By Neal Gabler

(I'm reprinting this in full from the Sunday Los Angeles Times. Makes for some very interesting reading.)

Neal Gabler, a senior fellow at the Norman Lear Center at USC Annenberg, is author of "Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality."

November 23, 2003

AMAGANSETT, N.Y. — All told, it has been a pretty good year for cultural conservatives. The New York Times, the primary target of conservative opprobrium, disgraced itself in scandal, the Fox News Channel continues to crush its cable competition, hipsters like Dennis Miller and Colin Quinn have defected to the right, corny Jay Leno is beating tart David Letterman in the ratings and a conservative revolt forced CBS into pulling a miniseries on the Reagans because its opponents said it was biased against the former president.

Not a bad run. But some conservatives think these events amount to more than just a winning streak. They see signs of a geological shift in the culture tipping the balance from the left to the right.

For decades, conservatives controlled the political agenda, even to the point of hijacking the nation for two years to concentrate on a popular president's moral lapses. The cultural agenda, however, was another thing. Though the country seemed to be tilting right politically, popular culture, if anything, seemed to be speeding toward increasing liberalization. Madonna and Britney Spears; Eminem and hip-hop generally; "The Daily Show," "South Park" and "The Man Show"; "American Pie" and dozens of other raunchy or violent movies that dominated the box office; even tattooed athletes — all testified to the power of America's free-spirited, contrarian strain. Conservatives could point only to the success of the now-canceled series "Touched by an Angel" as evidence of a largely untapped right-wing audience.

Not anymore, we're told. With the victory over CBS, conservative Internet gossip Matt Drudge boldly declared this to be the "second century of the media … where it's much more of a people-driven media."

One could certainly point to Sept. 11, 2001, as a cultural watershed that has transformed the nation. But American popular culture after 9/11 looks much like American culture before that fateful date. Still, there is unquestionably something new and important afoot in the culture.

The conservative declaration of victory is itself part of a large, complex process that gives the impression of a cultural revolution without actually effecting one. It is the phenomenon of a phenomenon — a great postmodernist gambit in which the buzz about something overwhelms the thing itself. It works, because what rivets and energizes the media doesn't have to be a real, measurable change in the cultural landscape, but the idea of a new phenomenon on that landscape. The media are in the phenomenon business, and if they turn the phenomenon into a revolution, so much the better.

One can see this postmodernist process at work nearly everywhere in the culture. Take "The Osbournes." Most everyone in America today knows who the Osbournes are, has read about them, heard about them or seen them on commercials or hosting award shows. But when you examine the ratings of their MTV television series that generated all the notoriety, you discover something remarkable. Even before its recent dip, almost no one watched the show. In a nation of roughly 280 million people, "The Osbournes" gets an audience of just about 3 million viewers, or slightly above 1% of the populace. So how does one account for the family's near-universal recognition?

One might conclude that the program existed not to be watched but to be written about or discussed. The show was an excuse to create a phenomenon, of which the Osbournes and those who marketed them were the beneficiaries. They were popular for appearing to be popular.

Frankly, one can say the same thing about almost everything in America today, save for films and television programs that do appeal to a sizable audience. Though this process is little remarked upon, it has profound implications for the culture, suggesting a psychological shift at least as important as the supposed one after 9/11: that watching entertainment now seems less gratifying than knowing about it.

In the context of cultural politics, the implications are no less profound. Everyone who follows the media knows that we live in an increasingly conservative society. Everyone knows that conservative talk radio is a dominant force and that Rush Limbaugh alone attracts 20 million listeners weekly. Everyone knows that the Fox News Channel — on which I am a contributor — has drained millions of viewers from the broadcast networks. Everyone knows that millions of Americans mobilized against CBS' Reagan miniseries.

Yet, everything that everyone knows in the preceding paragraph is absolutely false. In sheer numbers, conservative talk radio is still a relatively small phenomenon, and Limbaugh's aggregate audience of 20 million — if you assume that most of his die-hard fans listen to him daily — is probably closer to 4 million or 5 million. Fox News is unquestionably a cable success story, but, excluding major news stories, at best it attracts an audience of 2 million — not even in the same league as the least-watched broadcast news report and a blip on the larger demographic screen. After more than a week of constant, highly publicized agitation, CBS reportedly received 80,000 e-mails protesting the Reagan miniseries, not exactly a populist wildfire.

Here's the truth: Even after 9/11 reputedly turned us into a nation of flag-waving patriots, even after Fox News Channel torpedoed the liberal media, even after the drumbeat of Limbaugh, even after Dennis Miller decided to forgo humor for attacks on Bill Clinton and even after the Reagans were saved from liberal calumnies, the country, according to both a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll and a Pew Research Center poll, is almost exactly evenly divided between those who lean left and those who lean right. Evenly divided. All of which means that the conservatives haven't made a huge dent politically and, again from the looks of things, have made less than a dent culturally, especially since political and cultural proclivities do not always lean in the same direction. There are an awful lot of Republicans, evidently, who like Eminem and "South Park."

So, why all this talk of conservative ascendancy? In a sense, it's pure invention. What conservatives have been able to do is deploy the same postmodernist techniques that celebrities have been using for decades, and for the same purpose: to make the buzz into the buzz. Like the Osbournes, conservatives take their little triumphs and package them as phenomena, which the media — including the conservative media — eagerly retail to the public. Blogger Andrew Sullivan, for example, calls the new cultural trend "South Park Republicanism" because "South Park" has taken its whacks at political correctness and other liberal shibboleths. But whether or not there is such a thing as South Park Republicanism, the idea is media-genic because it suggests something big is happening that the media want to be in on. You just whisper it into what critics of the right have called the "right-wing echo chamber" — of conservative talk radio, Fox News, various conservative publications and now conservative blogs — and it turns into a roar that the mainstream media cannot ignore. In short, the new cultural revolution is a sound-effects machine.

Nearly 40 years ago, historian Daniel Boorstin coined the term "pseudo-events" to describe things like premieres, photo ops and publicity stunts: They have no inherent value and exist only to be covered by the media. The right wing has now devised a pseudo-politics, of which the "conservative revolution" is a primary feature. It may look like the real thing, sound like the real thing and, most important, be covered by the media as if it were the real thing, but it is essentially just a way to gain media attention, which is usually enough to convince people that it is the real thing. If the objective of cultural politics is to win adherents, the objective of this postmodernist pseudo-politics is to convey the idea that you have already won adherents — that the revolution has already occurred and power has been transferred.

American culture is a constant, continuing transaction between new and subversive ideas, forms and entertainers that originate at the margins of the culture and then eventually get mainstreamed while the margins continue to serve up the new. This is a liberalizing process, but it isn't necessarily confined to a liberal audience because all but the most Neanderthal and anhedonic of conservatives are just as likely to enjoy these entertainments as left-wingers are. Still, it means that the popular culture, at least, is unlikely ever to become conservative in any meaningful way unless liberalism is so widely embraced some day that conservatism becomes the radical, subversive alternative to it.

Until then, a few conservative swipes at CBS or a few million viewers at the Fox News Channel or even a few "South Park" fans who identify themselves as Republicans won't signify a shift in the cultural balance of power. They simply provide excuses for the media to label it as one.

New Clergy Group Opposes Bush Re-Election

WASHINGTON - Aiming to become the Christian Coalition of the left, liberal and moderate religious leaders are founding a political group to oppose President Bush's re-election and try to turn their congregations into election-year activists.

I like the idea, especially if it helps to activate liberal and progressive voters at the grass-roots level.

Myths Over Miami

The secret stories of homeless children in Miami or rather late 20th/early 21st century folktales are the focus of this particular feature. It provides some rather keen insight into the minds of kids who are living under excruciatingly impoverished circumstances in the land of plenty.

This passage in particular caught my attention:

Research by Harvard's Robert Coles [note: Dr. Coles is a psychologist] indicates that children in crisis -- with a deathly ill parent or living in poverty -- often view God as a kind, empyrean doctor too swamped with emergencies to help. But homeless children are in straits so dire they see God as having simply disappeared. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam embrace the premise that good will triumph over evil in the end; in that respect, shelter tales are more bleakly sophisticated. "One thing I don't believe," says a seven-year-old who attends shelter chapels regularly, "is Judgment Day." Not one child could imagine a God with the strength to force evildoers to face some final reckoning. Yet even though they feel that wickedness may prevail, they want to be on the side of the angels.

On a fairly related note, remember that:

The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everyone

Grid Blogging

Check out the link above and see what you think. It's an interesting concept that I will be trying out. The thing I dig is the notion of a decentralized means of spreading information, ideas, memes, and so forth. To a large degree electronic media such as Usenet and the Internet have enabled us to access and propagate information in a considerably less centralized manner than ever before, to a potentially mass audience. The idea of Grid Blogging may very well take it to the next level. A worthy experiment.

Bush Lied and Three More U.S. Soldiers Died

Scroll down, and you'll see the following heading: "U.S. BULLISH ON OCCUPATION." Well, there is a lot of bull being spread by White House propagandists.