Friday, February 24, 2017

Giving Wisdom

Reading McKay Coppins' piece on Tucker Carlson in the Atlantic, two things stood out for me. One was what made him angry:

“It was the unreasonableness … It’s this assumption—and it’s held by a lot of people I live around—that you’re on God’s side, everyone else is an infidel, and by calling them names you’re doing the Lord’s work. I just don’t think that’s admirable, and I’m not impressed by that.”
The second thing was something he said he'd learned from his father:
“The beginning of wisdom is to know what an asshole you are.”
I wonder if he realizes how the two go hand in hand. I've met a lot of people who stand by the practice of calling other people names. And generally speaking, they don't see that activity as “doing the Lord’s work.” Instead, they see it as imparting wisdom to someone who may not realize that they're being an asshole.

There appear to be a lot of philosophies that work on the idea that to make someone a better person, the first thing that you have to do is tear them down, or otherwise have them hit bottom. And I think that speaks to a lot of people because it allows them to go around telling people what assholes they are - but shields them from the understanding that they, too, might be assholes who just happen to have found a justification for behavior that they find unimpressive in others.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

To Know the Truth

Instinctively by Trump, perhaps strategically by Bannon and others, the Trump moment has promoted the idea that there are no facts, no reality, no authorities, no actual truth. There’s only us and them.
James Fallows ‘With Such a People You Can Then Do What You Please’ The Atlantic.
As much as I like James Fallows, I must wholeheartedly disagree with this conclusion. What the Trump moment, and broader Conservative thought has pushed back against is the idea that if there is a disagreement between "the press" and any other entity or institution as to what the facts, reality, authorities or actual truth are, then it must be the press that has it right. As much as various personalities within and commenters on the media and the press may say that the sole function of the press is to get us to facts, reality, authorities and actual truth, the simple fact that they have one job does not, in and of itself, mean that they are doing it properly or in good faith. To claim otherwise is an appeal to authority that may be wise, but is no less a fallacy for that.

What the Trump moment is instead promoted is that they are honest speakers of the facts, reality, authorities and, yes, actual truth. And that those who say otherwise are at best instinctively biased and at worst, strategically dishonest.
Do you believe that the mainstream media has been too eager to jump to conclusions about rumored stories? Mainstream Media Accountability Survey
Once you postulate that facts, reality, authority and actual truth are real and objective things that can be discovered and known, they become independent of any particular persons or institutions. And if you postulate that these things are self-evident to anyone who cares to look at them, it is easy to conclude that you can judge a person's intellect, observation and/or honesty by how they describe them.

It is a common facet of human nature to believe that "ought" can be just as objective as "is." And that one can, and should, flow from the other. We are no less likely to see what we think the world ought to be like as objective and self-evident as we are to think of our everyday reality that way. And in a society large enough to have major cultural groups operating at cross-purposes (if not direct opposition) to one another, it's easy to see how "us versus them" comes into the picture. If I control the narrative of the past and the present, I can influence what someone thinks the future should be. And we often use the present to dictate to people how to bring about the futures we want. If you see someone's vision of what ought to be as damaging to you and based on certain information about what currently is, sometimes one's first impulse is to dispute what is, rather than question the necessity of the connection. And in a regime where what is, in the form of everyday reality, is thought to be self-evident, disputing someone's account of what is lies only a short step away from questioning, or impugning, their rationality, knowledge and/or morality.

And from there, you have Us, the rational, knowledgeable and moral - and thus ready, willing and able to accurately understand the world around us; and Them, the irrational, ignorant and immoral, who see what they think they see, what they've been told to see or what they want to see in order to justify their wrong-headed, if not dangerous, ideas of what ought to be.

The problem with common conceptions of facts, reality, authorities and actual truth is that we don't often distinguish between the objective and the subjective; but we often link the two. Consider the statement, "It's cold outside today." Now consider the statement, "It's 40° F outside today." Are both of those statements facts? Let's say I make the second statement "It's -20° F outside today." Now are both statements facts? And if 40° isn't cold, but when I go outside it is, can I question my thermometer? These are the sorts of questions that we deal with day after day, as we sort our sensations and perceptions of the world into information and knowledge. Is the legitimacy of a government ever a fact? Can it be linked to vote totals? Is popularity a fact that flows from polling numbers? We know that polls can be wrong. Is "You are (un)safe," a fact?

As I understand the world, things like facts, reality, et cetera are not always truth-apt in the grand scheme of things, but only in regard to human experience. And from that comes the idea that there is no one singular, universal truth. But that is different, very different, from the idea that there no actual truth at all. (Of course, if I wanted to really meta about this whole exercise, I could ask if actual must mean singular and universal...) A worldview that posits that the actual truth must be an agreed upon item, sets us up for a conflict of truth versus lies, rather than the overlapping truths of different experiences. It is a conflict that can never be won, because unless truth only consists of items that are objective, in the sense that they are completely independent of the perceptions of the observer, different people can always honestly assert different truth. And even with objective truth, you still have the issue of incomplete knowledge - just as with blind men and elephants, partial knowledge may be mistaken for the whole.

And so I disagree with the idea that the Trump moment represents an attack on the idea of facts, reality, authorities and actual truth are real. Instead it argues against the idea that these are singular things and/or that only people outside of the moment have access to them. Kellyanne Conway's invocation of "alternative facts" as clumsy as it was becomes the first of those propositions, and the Trump moment's general disdain for media outlets they disagree with becomes the second.

Monday, February 20, 2017


So I came across the following on my social media feed.

Fake news as defined by the left and center:
A news story put out to intentionally deceive, that the author knows is wrong

Fake news as defined by the right:
Any news story that challenges my world view, or that I don't like.

Rather looks like the right is challenged in dealing with unpleasant realities.
Three guesses as to the political leanings of the author...

And it seems to me that this is what the discussion over "fake news" has devolved into - a partisan, and personal, sniping fest over who is more gullible. But that's not what the term was originally coined to describe.

Fake News, as it was encountered during the 2016 election cycle, is a form of advertising scam. I suppose that you could also call it fraud, but I'm unsure of a legal basis for that label. And it is, at heart, a form of clickbait, that, like most clickbait, is designed to take advantage of the way that online advertising is placed and that placement paid for. The goal is to drive pageviews, and thus, advertising revenue. Virality, not deception, is the primary goal.

What makes Fake News fake is not the veracity of the stories themselves, although many of them were made up out of whole cloth, or cobbled together by randomly lifting pieces of other items found on line. The fake aspect of Fake News derives from the fact that many of these sites were designed to look like legitimate, if small and/or local, news outlets. And this was designed to give the stories a certain level of credibility, again, to make them more likely to be shared. If I were to post something here on Nobody In Particular that claimed, due to some obscure 1920s law, that President Trump was guilty of some impeachable offense, it might garner some views. But, as it says on the tin, I'm Nobody In Particular, and few people are likely to take it as anything more than wishful thinking or a thought experiment on my part. But if that same piece were to show up on what people presume to be a reputable news site,, say, they might be more inclined to see it as something worth talking about, even if they were no more inclined to believe that it was accurate.

Given that virality is the goal, even people who click through to the page merely to pass along the URL with an incredulous comment serve the site owner's purposes - views, and the advertising revenue that comes from those views. The World Wide Web is a very big place, virtually speaking, and it's not worth most advertisers' time to verify each and every site where their ad might be seen. If people are going to a particular site, that's where they want to be, and their willingness to pay for the opportunity is what drove Fake News.

Much has been made of the fact that the American Right seemed to be highly susceptible to Fake News. This, in turn, fed a theory that Fake News, and the anti-Clinton animosity that it engendered, is was came between the former Secretary of State and the White House. But it's probably more accurate to say that anti-Clinton (and anti-Obama) animosity, and Republican desperation, that drove the Fake News cycle.
I would wager that this guy had it in for both Mrs. Clinton and President Obama long before he encountered Washington Star News. And note that this piece had generated 3 likes when I took this screenshot, but 36 comments. For everyone who clicked through before saying something, a website operator made a bit more money.
It's likely that as "Presidential Derangement Syndrome" (which is likely better named "Partisan Fear") cycles back to the American Left, we'll start to see a robust trade in Fake News designed to draw them in by appealing to the search for hope. And then it will be the Right's turn to cast their opponents as "reality challenged." And we'll see the same charge that the tern "Fake News" is being used as a cover for closed-mindedness.

People understand that even when the facts are the same, the framing of Who, What, When, Why and How can lead people to different conclusions as to the nature of the world around them.
In that sense, it's worth pointing out that a) people tend to be sensitive to items that they understand are biased (especially when that bias operates to the detriment of themselves or people they like), b) the modern media landscape is littered with items that people can and will seize upon as being biased and c) to the degree that people tend to understand their worldviews as both objective and self-evident, negative biases will often be seen as intentionally perverse. Openly anti-Obama stories from eight years ago weren't characterized as Fake News at the time simply because the term wasn't in widespread use. But I can recall stories from that time that openly questioned the former President's suitability for office that were called out as being hit pieces, rather than items of genuine newsworthiness.

Understanding what Fake News really is, as a concept, independent of the label attached to it, is important because it's not going to go anywhere. As long as there is an online advertising model that pays people for the number of people that view a page where an ad is placed, people will turn to clickbait to draw people in. And playing on the hopes of frightened people has always been an excellent way to do that.

Saturday, February 18, 2017


Thursday, February 16, 2017

Going Without

Today was to be "A Day Without Immigrants." I didn't notice it, personally. Not because I don't work with immigrants, but I'm in the tech sector, and the immigrants I work with on a regular basis are all making salaries in the upper-five to six figures. They're not feeling the heat in the way that restaurant workers and other people lower down on the income ladder might be. Not, to be honest, that it appeared that any of the immigrant-run restaurants I drove by this evening appeared to be closed.

There is a difference between "A Day Without Immigrants" and "A Day Without Immigrants From Latin America Who Are In the United States Illegally." And I don't know that it does anyone any good for those two groups to become conflated in the public consciousness. Immigration policy in the United States is, and will always have to be, based more broadly than the interests of Latin Americans. Programmers, managers and other white-collar workers have different interests than "cooks, dishwashers, busboys, cleaners, carpenters and delivery workers."

I'm typically unimpressed with street protests, mainly because I understand protest to be the last resort of the politically powerless. And when we're talking about those people who are in the country without documentation, they are more or less by definition politically powerless, since they cannot vote or run for elected office. Therefore, they have no way of influencing the system from the "inside." This necessitates that they attempt influence from the outside. And while I understand the goals behind the protests, I don't know that I think the tactics are the best ones.

If we don't produce, if we get deported, and don't show up, what's gonna happen? This country will collapse, because who's gonna do our kinds of jobs? No one.
The problem with this sort of thing (which mirrors the problem I have with "No justice, no peace") is that it is, at it heart, extortionate. And I'm not sure that is a good way of making friends and influencing people. The bluff is unlikely to be called; the United States is a very large nation of people who don't get along all that well in a lot of things - I can't see the nation as a whole saying "Okay. Challenge accepted. Show me what you've got." But even so, threatening people and effectively calling them out as weak strikes me as an unlikely path to convincing the public that they should either continue to tolerate the blind eye that's often turned to immigration or opt for another Reagan-style reset. I also think that it seems likely to alienate people who came to the country legally, who generally speaking, couldn't bluster their way in.

Hostility to immigration tends to be a pocketbook issue, at least in perception. The understanding is that the large pool of immigrant labor lowers wages and leads to job losses for "natives," without doing anything to materially aid the displaced. The fact that one might be able to buy berries at 50% of what they would otherwise cost is slight consolation to someone facing long-term unemployment. The fact of the matter becomes that many Americans are not compared to compete with many of the world's poor people on standard of living. Trinidad Macias may be convinced that most Americans would not do the jobs that immigrant workers perform, but the simple fact is, that to the degree that she's right, it's because the work is poorly paid, and many Americans would be unwilling to sacrifice the America Dream enough to make the math work out. I don't know that rubbing their faces in that will drive the impetus for change.