Sunday, April 23, 2017

A Cluster of Yellow

I hundred tiny yellow flowers, all in a bunch.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Silence Bubbles

Ann Coulter was scheduled to speak at Berkeley this coming Wednesday, but university administrators have cancelled the event, citing "active security threats." The Young America's Foundation, the Republican group that was to sponsor the event, is, unsurprisingly, crying foul, especially after it appears that the conditions that the university caved in to liberal students who wished to deny Ms. Coulter a venue.

Whether the university is being straightforward about their reasons for nixing the event or not, I don't know. But, let's presume for the moment that the Young America's Foundation is correct in their assertion that pressure from more liberal students lead the university to back out of the engagement. (And it's likely that at least a few anti-Coulter students and their allies will claim credit for this turn of events.) What has been gained?

Okay, so a speech by someone that many liberals consider hateful has been nixed. And that's really about it. The people who would have gone to hear what she has to say can still hear her speak - she planned to go to the campus and talk anyway, and I'm not certain that the school can prevent her from doing so. But even if she didn't go in person, she could always make the speech and post it on YouTube. Or summarize her remarks on television. She could send out the text of her speech in an e-mail to supporters and allow it to be passed around to other people who wish to read it. She could make it into an e-book or/and print-on-demand and offer it up for sale (or for free) on Amazon or another online bookseller. She could distribute it as a podcast for download.

I'm not the world's most creative thinker, and so I'm sure that there are lots of other ways that Ms. Coulter could get her words out to any and everyone who is willing to listen - and this could be a much larger audience than just the members of the Young America's Foundation. But even if the goal was to simply come between Ms. Coulter and expansive news coverage of her remarks, the coverage of her being denied the chance to speak during the formal event would seem to have rendered that moot. So... I don't really understand what has been gained here.

The only concrete effect of all of this seems to be that Ann Coulter will not be speaking at Berkeley as part of a formal event sanctioned by the University itself. And I don't really understand how that changes anything. It's not as if Berkeley formally places its stamp of approval on everyone who sepaks there or everything they say. And, as I noted above, nothing about this new situation prevents anyone from actually hearing what she has to say. About the only effect that I see is that some number of students can go about their day secure in the knowledge that speech they disapprove of is being given outside of any sort of official university channels. Which may be of some comfort to those individuals, but it doesn't seem to move the needle in any other way.

If one presumes that the things that Ms. Coulter is planning to say are legitimately a clear and present danger, that danger has not been mitigated. Her words can still reach a receptive audience, and if the fear is that those people will take those words to heart and act on them in unacceptable ways, nothing has been done to educate them in a different direction or convince them that their actions would be harmful. If the worry is that the in-person interaction carries some increased influence, little more than slight inconvenience has been added to overall situation - there are other places where the talk could take place that are easily reachable by the students who want to hear her.

And if the point is really as narrow as simply not having the talk at Berkeley, that smacks of NIMBYism, and all of its accompanying concerns. Simply preventing conservative speakers from formally coming to campus isn't going to get rid of the conservative students who attend the school. Even "safe space" arguments seem to be weak here. If the very presence of conservative speakers prompts one to feel unsafe as an 18 year-old freshman, it seems unlikely that college will do enough to defang the world that it will be safe for that same person when they graduate at 21 or so.

(As an aside, this was one of the things that I was dubious about when I worked with children. As much as I understood the goal of protecting them, or even sheltering them, from the nasty aspects of life in the broader world, without some experience in engaging them, all we were doing was delaying the day when they had to deal with them unprepared.)

I understand the appeal of closing oneself off from a world that seems to legitimize one's dehumanization. But that doesn't make that world go away. Sooner or later, the bubble will go away. And that world, warts and all, will be waiting.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Progress and Falsehoods

"On the left if you're consuming fake news you're 34 times more likely than the general population to be a college graduate," says [Jeff] Green[, CEO of internet advertiser Trade Desk].

If you're on the right, he says, you're 18 times more likely than the general population to to be in the top 20 percent of income earners.
The rise of left-wing, anti-Trump fake news
This was, of course, only to be expected. While "fake news" has become a buzzword for deliberate misinformation designed to mislead, in the end, the entire phenomenon is less about taking in the public than it is about taking in advertiser dollars. For those of us who don't earn money this way, the fact that even relatively obscure websites can generate enough traffic to enable someone to make a living from advertising revenue may be something of a surprise. But that's the reality of the situation, and that reality places a premium on one of the Web's primary forms of currency, the pageview.

And this isn't a new phenomenon.
Whatever the social effects of talk radio or the partisan agendas of certain hosts, it is a fallacy that political talk radio is motivated by ideology. It is not. Political talk radio is a business, and it is motivated by revenue. The conservatism that dominates today's AM airwaves does so because it generates high Arbitron ratings, high ad rates, and maximum profits.
David Foster Wallace ("Host" Atlantic Magazine, April 2005)

All too often the truth is often secondary to what people want to hear and what they want to enjoy getting worked up about, whether it's in a sexual or righteous way. Information finds its level and its target.
Yoz Grahame (Comment on "Banning blogging, 'Toothing, and Yoz" Many2Many, 5 April 2005)
(Given this, now might be a good time to re-launch liberal talk radio.)

This combination of information seeking its own level and the fact that the dissemination of information is a business, is what is driving the shift in fake news from stories designed to appeal to the American political Right to the American political Left. Okay, so consumers (and sharers) of Right-wing fake news might be individually wealthier than most of the general public, but an overwhelmingly college-educated audience is nothing to sneeze at either, given the general wage gap between the the college-educated and their less credentialed fellow citizens.

And this is important because it points to an important concept: Education is no defense against being told what you want to hear - or other wanting other people to hear it. Fake news poses as news because that gives it the appearance of a legitimate source, and that appearance makes it more likely that, once it resonates with someone, it will be passed along to someone else as "proof" of the correctness of the audience's political sentiments. This is independent of a person's level of education; anyone can want something to be true badly enough to skip checking its veracity when it's handed to them on a plate.

Because the American Left sees itself as educated, and thus, skeptics by default, it was easy to see people on the Right, who are typically regarded as uneducated, provincial, yokels as being taken in by fake news because the purveyors of the medium were smarter than their targets. And this sentiment was likely reinforced by the laughably poor quality of some of the information presented. But one thing that following media outlets on social media has taught me is that all someone needs to respond, positively or negatively, to a news story is the headline. And headlines are often enough at least somewhat inaccurate - and that inaccuracy will often allow someone who has read the article to quickly pick out which commenters haven't. And even when people do read the pieces to which headlines are attached, the desire to be proven right is often stronger than reading comprehension. I have found myself impressed by people's ability to conclude that the main takeaway of an article is something directly contradicted by the text; someone confronted only with vague innuendo or sketchy sourcing will have a simple time of things.

If it is next to impossible to get a person to believe something that their livelihood demands that they don't, it is quite easy to get someone to believe something that their sense of the world asks that they do. Politics, by itself, will never elevate people above that.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Polination

When the weather is nice on the weekends, I try to get out with my camera and take some pictures. I'll likely post one or two a week as an alternative to my usual griping about politics and whatnot.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Flipped

While a lot is being made over President Trump's changes in position on subjects like NATO and China, these are things that strike me as simple part of the normal process that presidents undergo when transitioning from presidential candidate to actually holding the office.

A lot of candidate Trump's campaign messaging could be boiled down to the idea that other nations in the world need the United States much more than the United States needs them, and this lopsided relationship placed the U.S. in a very strong bargaining position, one that previous administrations (especially the Obama administration) shamefully failed to take full advantage of. It's an appealing message on the campaign trail, perhaps because it frames the costs of globalization as unnecessary giveaways, when the nation could, in fact, have its cake and eat it, too.

But it seems likely to me that President Trump is learning differently. Namely, that while other nations may not hold all the cards, they do have workable hands that they can play, and this gives them a reasonable Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement, should they simply choose to walk away from the table. This may be a hard sell for the President, should his core voters begin to lose faith in him, because their losses then simply become the price of doing business; one that must be paid to reap the benefits of the global economy. And to the degree that those benefits flow unequally, they're simply out of luck.

One of the lessons of politics, especially partisan politics, is that during a campaign, cold, hard truths and the things that audiences want to be told are always much more in alignment then they are when the work actually needs to be done, because everything is achievable for the person who isn't actually accountable for the results. Of course, we as a society never learn that lesson because there's always going to be someone whose position is that the hard choices and difficult trade-offs of life are simply a cover for wrongdoing, and that idea is always going to be attractive to people for whom the luck of the draw is indistinguishable from being deliberately cheated of their just deserts.