Tag Archives: politics

Signs of a living religion and an addicted culture

I was very impressed with Bill Moyers’ recent interview with three progressive theologians, Cornel West, Serene Jones, and Gary Dorrien, about the state of the world, capitalism, even metaphysics, and the state of Christianity. I had somewhat despaired of seeing much from the corners of my former faith to indicate that it was still evolving and adapting while remaining true to itself as a religion. Where I had seen this the churches seemed in terrible decline, but these people had a vibrancy and a relevancy that expresses the best qualities of the faith without abandoning its precepts:

BILL MOYERS: What do you think is the story of America right now? If you had to write that story, very briefly, what is the story that’s unfolding, as we talk?

SERENE JONES: It’s a story about sin and grace, and it’s about the brokenness of human beings and our capacity to delude ourselves, all the way into the international collapse of all that we stand for. To get caught up in fictions that we write about the ways in which we should structure our lives together. We are seeing, played out before us, that classic Protestant claim that we can be caught up in sin and not even know we are in sin.

When Christianity is at its shining best it isn’t afraid to overturn the tables of the moneylenders in front of the temple, as well as looking after the poor and sick. Christianity, like any other faith, structure of thought, or pursuit of mind and spirit, needs to embrace the truth and tell it to the world to remain legitimate. And it’s in a rare position to point out certain behaviors that are ‘of this world’ because the cultural conditions of the New Testament map to our own cultural conditions so well. We live in a very Imperial Roman age, and a religion born of that age should have a lot to say to us- the Christian community has been tragically slack about this. Much of modern Christianity yoked to a dead theology that often seemed to require profound intellectual dishonesty, and falls into the same sick traps as the rest of the society.

But Serene Jones tells the story of what has made us sick beautifully:

SERENE JONES: But I think we can never underestimate the crisis of desire. That it wasn’t just that there was – it didn’t have enough social strength, or a good enough analysis. That what turbo capitalism does, is it – the biggest, sort of, war zone is interior to us – where it takes over your desire. It makes you into a creature who wants to buy the commodities. So you could have a great political analysis. But what you’re doing, on the ground every day, is you’re fueling this turbo capitalism. And it’s in the churches that another kind of desire should have been being crafted. That’s where you can get people in their bones and really begin to force the question of, what is it that you want? What makes you happy? What makes your life mean? What, you know, it’s those deep questions of want.

SERENE JONES: I think one of the reasons that it happens is that we are living in a very overwhelming time. And it’s always going to be the case that a conservative familiar neo liberal agenda sounds safer.

Because it’s what we know. But the truth of the matter is what we know is what got us in trouble in the first place. So it’s one of those moments that everybody faces in their own life. We happen to be facing it structurally right now. Is everything collapses, what do we do? In the midst of that fear, do we grasp for what’s most familiar? That’s what’s happening. But the very thing you’re grasping for is the thing that got you there in the first place.

That last line- “But the very thing you’re grasping for is the thing that got you there in the first place.” is an unmistakable description of addiction, and what’s more, addiction heading for its bottom. The signs and trappings of a culture surrendering itself to addiction, to the co-opting of want, are the water we swim in these days. They are our whole context, and the substance of choice we return to in our hours of need.

It always impresses me when the things I am thinking about come together, because I believe Infinite Jest is about the same thing, a culture heading for a bottom.

To paraphrase from AA and Infinite Jest, our best thinking got us here. I find myself agreeing emphatically with these people whose faith I do not share- it’s going to take a revival of love to get us out.

Tab dump

I was considering writing a whole post about this, but I’ll sum up: if, impossibly, she were to get her way I’d want to be a corrupt gov’t official or amoral story thief. I could get out of front of any scoop newspapers ever had, just by spreading around my story under something like a CC license while theirs was in its new copyright prison. An information spreading source that thinks it will benefit by keeping its information locked up is very funny.

I might be able to give some insight into this question, but I choose not to.

Watching Chris Anderson and Malcolm Gladwell argue makes me dizzy in a way only reading something rigorously peer reviewed can help.

I’ve thought about it, and decided I can live with that. I’m a brave girl.

More anti-news about how our lack of single payer or state run healthcare is making us poor as well as sick. Given the global financial crisis, it’s making everyone else poor too.

I’ve always had a deep and abiding hate for my home state’s system of direct democracy. It’s ruined the schools, taken away civil rights, and is at this point bankrupting the state.

Yes, me too. Ok?

A remarkable speech and political progress

I was quite moved and impressed with Obama’s Cairo speech. Quoting the Qur’an four times, and the Talmud alongside the Bible, invoking Cordoba, and confessing publicly our role in the 1953 overthrow of Iran’s peacefully democratically elected and legitimate government- it was all such a departure from the ideology of the last administration, and so much more courageous than even many before that. I think the significance of acknowledging the past may be lost on many of the listeners, both here and in the Middle East, where the past is so well known, but it represents a willingness to speak with candor that I believe will make a huge amount of difference. Before reconciliation comes truth. Now is the moment where the world reacts to the speech. That reactions seem to be largely positive- and even when it’s not in some of the Middle Eastern blogs I’ve perused it seems like there is as much avoidance of hope for fear of being disappointed as actual criticism. But the brilliance of the speech was how it enfranchised so many subtle points of view without taking away from others.

What struck me most in the post-speech commentary was this comment in an Al Jazeera story:

Ahmad Yousuf, a senior Hamas official, told Al Jazeera that Obama’s speech reminded him of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream speech”.

About Obama stressing on the legitimacy of Israel, he said the Palestinians must have a state of their own before being asked to recognise another.

I don’t believe one gets rid of a Hamas by driving them into the sea, by bombing them or starving them, or by threats, or even education or propaganda. One gets rid of a Hamas by giving it political legitimacy, putting it in charge of some roads, and saddling it with a bureaucracy. Yousuf is here framing that end to Hamas as it is- admitting the possibility of political compromise where none should be ideologically possible. ‘Let us have our nation,’ he seems to be saying, ‘and we’ll let you have yours.’ That the possibility of the promise being broken exists doesn’t matter- then it’s just politicians lying. They are one good asphalt trade negotiation away from doing it anyhow.

More Perfect Union still stands to me as the greatest political speech of my lifetime, but this could have been one of the more brilliant moves in psychohistory I’ve seen in a while.

How to take advantage of #Amazonfail

I’ve been watching the story of (probably) accidental censorship on Amazon with interest, and I think there’s a valuable sociological lesson in it. In short: Amazon de-ranked books with GLBT themes as adult over Easter weekend. People were outraged by the apparent moral prescribing censorship, a Bantown prole called Weev claimed he did it with a cross site reference forgery, and then Amazon said it was a cataloging error.

What’s interesting is that all these answers are pretty much equally possible. That’s just weird though- because it suggests that there’s not so much of an entry barrier anymore to the kind of book burning mind controlling corporate/state master propaganda stuff that the ruling class can use to dictate our punch clock existences. Is technology democratizing the tools of fascism? Why not? What’s so different about them? Here comes everybody indeed, whether they like it or not. We’re all going to be shooting mind control rays at each other, obeying Markov chain commands issued by our zombie army computers, living in an anarchist/fascist quasi state of cultural strange attractors, capable of free will only in topics of obscurity and total market failure.

Good times.

Then, just when I thought I’d mentally explored/perverted the scenario to its fullest, I received this ad: #powellswin: a 20% off book sale capitalizing on Powell’s not having (accidently) censored their search results. I like Powell’s, if I wasn’t in debt to my eyeballs (hey….) I’d be tempted to buy something. In the mean time, I’ll just have to let my phished cc do my opinion expressing for me.

Tab dump

…And yes, I wept. There was a lot about Lincoln at the moment, the moment being the 150th anniversary of his death on Good Friday. W.E.B. DuBois in two short passages explains best why Lincoln is one of my favorites of history, and my favorite president. Spoiler: Turns out he was flawed.

Robert Moses’ response to Robert Caro. I have not read all of it, just as I have not read the Power Broker, the book to which it responds. I like shorter books with more pictures.

UNITED STATES, v. NATIONAL CITY LINES – court docs on the group that shut down the world’s best public transit system – formerly in my hometown of LA.

Chatting with a botmaster. A security researcher at Cisco befriends a botmaster after tracing his command and control on IRC, and talks to him about how the botnet world works.

Never forget this, you ink stained wretches.

Andrew Brown speaks a great truth in the midst of the dissolution of the journalism we have known:

“If readers cannot change their lives as a result of what they read, they will not bother. In particular, they won’t demand accuracy; and when what they read seems to have no effect in the real world, they won’t demand kindness, either.”

I can’t think of a better explanation of what happened with CNBC.

He points to this post, which I record here because I am mentally scraping the links.

Interesting times

Imagine this falling through a time hole into the 90s

Imagine this falling through a time hole into the 90s

It looks like all of society as we knew it is kind of coming apart, something I hyperbolically declaimed would happen in my attention seeking drama laden way in the mid 90s, when I was trying to explain the internet to people like the California Banker’s Association.

I had no idea I was right. Or at least, if I had some idea intellectually, I had none emotionally, and certainly no idea what the implications of it were. Disruption is an intense thing to live through, and littered with casualties.

Clay on newspapers, Ethan’s cute cat theory on government destabilization,
TAL on the giant pool of money, Cory at Microsoft, The zombie armies.

Ok, it’s not all about the internet, except it is. It’s about what happens when you hook a lot of computers to a telecom infrastructure. It’s what Skynet really looks like.

Looking back to Obama’s night

I have recently returned from the inauguration, but this was written the night he was elected. I am running behind, but more on understanding implications than just writing.

Nov. 5/6

Mccain conceded before the polls closed in Alaska or Hawaii; Obama gave his acceptance speech, and the honking and shouting in Cambridge, Massachusetts began. By 1am something frenetic was beginning to sizzle in the air. I walk down Mass Ave to Harvard Square. Encountering a jubilant group of well muscled students, my first (clearly compulsory) high five feels like it’s going to take off my right shoulder.

Cars go by honking, each with their own tattoo, a couple with a kind of car alarm like regularity. Then a Cambridge night bus goes by, driver pounding out his own song oblivious to any political sanctity of municipal on-the-clock time. Something is starting, and no one is starting it. My own footsteps take on a kind of involuntary musicality. I am happy, an infectious almost involuntary kind of happy, coming on like getting damp in a growing rainstorm. Everything around me is getting more musical.

Harvard Square is packed. Whoo hoo! woah! honk! Then the Yes we Cans begin, mixed with some yes we dids. (I thought it was the earliest concession speech of my life; my mom confirmed she was pretty sure it was the earliest of hers too.) People are feeling powerful, filling the streets and climbing the street furniture, dripping from the fences and climbing over each other, still waving campaign signs. Yes we did.

Pretty soon they are chanting Obama! Obama! But no cry lasts for long against the general exuberance. There is no rally here, no event, not even a party.

This is a riot of happy.

It was, said one bemused cop who was vaguely stopping anyone from heading even deeper into Harvard Square, like when the Red Socks won the World Series. “Did you expect this?” He snorted. “We probably should have.” What we didn’t know at the time was that this involved a lot more of the world than the World Series generally does. Pictures and videos were rolling in of spontaneous happy riots breaking out all over the US, all over the world. They were dancing in the streets in Canada, Jubilant in Europe, singing in Brazil. Everyone owned this election, even if just a little bit. A lot of the world was exhaling in relief. It’s more than relief here, something has broken free, and is riding the crowd every bit as much as the crowd is riding it.

They are happy when they block traffic. They are thrilled when they let it through. The price of getting through: you have to high five everyone beside your car. Another nightbus comes by, empty, to outrageous applause. All this goes for the police as well. An old grizzled black Cambridge policeman missing his front teeth demonstrates an almost magical power to move the crowd around by high fiving people and shouting “Yes we can!” with an honest if dual-purposed glee. He waves people back and frees up the road, while they stumble over each other to come high five him.

Yes we did! Yes we did!

As I walked into Harvard square a middle aged black man in a tatty suit jacket stopped me. He stopped me in particular because I had to know, he had to make me know something.

“I’m going to be a better man from today,” he explained in a thick accent, “I’m not going to cheat on my wife anymore.”

I laughed. I always laugh when a) surprised and b) buying time to make out people’s accents. He didn’t give up on me. “I’m telling you!”

“Yeah? Can I take your picture?”

In fact he wants the moment recorded for posterity, the birth of the new man. He wants the big glowing clock in the background to record the moment. He grabs a random stranger to be part of the picture, pressing him into his story rebirth from cynicism and lying into loyalty, but not actually telling him. They grin, I snap.

He’d cried three times that night, he’d told me. He hadn’t cried since his father died. Unsure what one says when the election of the first black president of the United States of America and a man so eloquent and inspiring as to put to shame two generations worth to come before him, who is overturning perhaps one of the most terrible and hated regimes of the post WWII western world reduces a middle aged black immigrant not only to sobbing but to a kind of religious remaking of character, I settle for “Wow.”

I cried when my father died too, but I also cry at particularly well produced 30 second ad spots. I didn’t cry Obama Night.

“I’ll be a better man,” he tells me again, clearly on his way to cry number four. We melted into the crowd and don’t see each other again.

Why didn’t I cry? I was still ineptly hiding my blubbering on my 4th viewing of the More Perfect Union speech. I care about race, I care about history. All the things that were moving people that night to hug and cry and whoop and honk were things that matter to me a lot, but not a tear. Nothing I can say about what happened in Harvard Square on Obama Night doesn’t sound like the Obama campaign, and that bothers me. I can say it was the kind of hope that hearing about the cure for a disease brings. Hope! Ew! I can say it wasn’t about Obama it was about the people making something different happen by their force of will, but Obama says that! No fair! If the Obama campaign detected what was out on the street and cynically used it to get elected, well, bugger.

But I’m not sure if what I saw out there will let him. There’s an old story about a group of people getting in to see FDR and laying out a proposal. It impressed him, and he advised them “Now go out there and force me to do it.” Politicians are subject to the occult forces of societies. The demons of our collective moods possess them, and the best can mold their possession into something history judges kindly, but they certainly don’t defy it. Whatever strange spirit was traveling around Harvard square wasn’t summoned by the people, it was riding them, it is riding America, not the other way around. I wonder how much the next administration can resist, and how much it would be at their peril.

By late in the evening, people have worked out how to play the car horn. Someone is honking with their own unique stuttering song. Da a a aa da da. Da a a aa da da. Da a a aa da da.

An Iraqi man grabs me from the crowd to take his picture, pointing at a button on his chest that says “Iraqis for Obama”, he asks me to not put his face in the picture. I pause. “I don’t think it matters anymore.” We both hesitate, realizing that really, something has changed. I take the picture, button, hands, and face.

What Happened: The Problem with Journalism

I just finished Scott McClellan’s What Happened about his time in the White House and as the press secretary for the Bushies. It portrays McClellan as pretty much exactly the person I imagined him to be. Also, not a work of literature.

But when he talked about the state of political journalism he hit his stride, and a lot of what he said is worth keeping to hand:

To this day, I’m often asked about the “liberal media” critique. Is it true? Is the problem with Washing ton in part a result of the fact that left-wing journalist are, in effect, at war with conservative politicians and trying to bring them down?

My answer is always the same. It’s probably true that most reporters, writers, and TV journalists are personally liberal or leftward leaning and tend to vote Democratic. Polls and surveys of media professional bear this out. But this tilt to the left has probably become less pronounced in recent years, with the ascendancy of a wider variety of news sources, including Fox news, demonstrating the popularity and therefore commercial viability of conservative views. And more important, everything I’ve seen both as a White House press secretary and longtime observer of the political scene and the media, suggests that any liberal bias actually has minimal impact on the way the American public is informed.

The vast majority of reporters- including those in the White House press corps- are honest, fair-minded, and professional. They try hard to tell all sides of the stories they report, and they certainly don’t treat information or statements coming from a conservative administration with excessive harshness or exaggerated skepticism. And even when a bit of bias does seep through, I believe the public sees it exactly for what it is. We in the Bush administration had no difficulty in getting our messages out.

If anything, the national press corps was probably too deferential to the White House and to the administration in regard to the most important decision facing the nation during my years in Washington,the choice over whether to go to was in Iraq. The collapse of the administration’s rationales for war, which became apparent months after our invasion, should never have come as a surprise. The public should have been made much more aware, before the fact, of those uncertainties, doubts, and caveats that underlay the intelligence about the regime of Saddam Hussein. The administration did little to convey those nuances to the people; the press should have picked up the slack but largely failed to do so because their focus was elsewhere- on covering the march to war, instead of the necessity of war.

In this case, the “liberal media” didn’t live up to its reputation. If it had the country would have been better served.

I’ll even go a step further. I’m inclined to believe that a liberal-oriented media n the United States should be viewed as a good thing. When I look back at the last several presidential administrations- the two Bushes, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford- I see a succession of conservative/centrist leaders. either right of center or just left of center, who pursued mainstream policies designed to satisfy the vast bulk of middle-class American voters. All of these presidents were at least moderate on economic policy, generally pro-business in their orientation, and within the mainstream on most other issues, from foreign policy to education to the environment. And the congressional leaders they worked with were, generally speaking, from the same mold- conservative or centrist. Over the past forty years, there have been no flaming liberals in positions of greatest power in American politics.

Under these circumstance, a generally liberal or left-leaning media can serve an important, useful role. It can stand up for the interests of people and causes that get short shrift from conservative or mainstream politics: racial and ethnic minorities, women, working people, the poor, the disenfranchised. As the old saying goes, a liberal reporter ought to take up the cause of “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable,” speaking out on issues that otherwise would be neglected or ignored, exposing wrongdoing, and helping to keep the powerful in government and business honest.

Furthermore, I welcome a media that are skeptical and untrusting. The more so the better- as long as they are honest and fair. Those who are in positions of power should have to continually earn the trust of the governed. They should be constantly challenged to prove their policies are right, to prove they can be trusted, and to prove they are accountable. That is the way we are more likely to get to the important, sometimes hard truths. In today’s information-based society, if a media outlet or journalist goes overboard they will pay the price… (bit about Dan Rather) …

So I don’t agree with those who excoriate the “liberal media.” As long as they do their job professionally, I have no problem with liberal reporters, and I certainly dealt with them happily enough as press secretary. The real problem with the national media is the over emphasis on controversy, the excessive focus on who is winning and who is losing in Washington, and the constant search for something or someone to pick on and attack. These bad habits too often cause the larger truths that matter most to get lost in the mix.

Any and all typos are mine, all mine.

He’s quite right that there isn’t actually much evidence of a liberal bias. Most actual studies that have gone by in my time as a journalist have indicated something more like conservative bias in political reporting. Of course these things are impossible to measure realistically, because someone has to pick the center in order to figure out which side of center something is, and the political center is the ultimate subjective quality in the universe.

I do think conservative views get taken more seriously, and that once a voice is established, reporting doesn’t know how to get away from it. Journalists tend to develop a self reinforcing list of experts. When you do an interview you want someone gloriously authoritative, so some of that can rub off on your reporting. Once someone is interviewed, they have more of that prestige, and it becomes harder to get away from them. That’s how we ended up listening to the same idiocies about the war in iraq and the mortgage market, to name a couple, over and over again, then had to hear the same people come back years later to say no one could have foreseen what was coming.

What was coming was painfully obvious.

I think when McClellan says “They try hard to tell all sides of the stories they report,” he’s actually talking about the false balance problem, which worked out well for him, but makes me want to beat my head against my desk. False balance is like watching someone make terrible algebra mistakes through a one way mirror. A balanced report about the state of, say, vote fraud would define it, and then tell you who is doing it. If one side is stuffing ballots or purging voter rolls and the other isn’t, that’s what you say. You explain the context of the fraud, and the history that lead to it. Balance in this case comes from investigating all sides.

False balance is much less work. Once you have a story on one side, you look for something, anything, related on the other. It’s different from trying to find the same thing on the other side, but you have to notice that you changed the meaning of what you’re talking about to catch false balance happening.

You write them up as equivalent, claim the story is about one thing even though it’s truly about two things, and go home early. This is how bad voter registration cards becomes the same thing as ballot stuffing or voter purges. If you actually sit back and think about it, voter reg cards are no where near the stories that purges or ballot stuffing are, because they don’t involve actual voting.

If Mickey Mouse showed up on election day- that would be a story.

False Balance means you don’t have to dig around as much, and even better, no one yells at you.

That gets to the other thing I think McClellan missed in this analysis. People don’t like getting yelled at and punished, and the severity of the punishment doesn’t actually make that much of a difference in how hard people try to avoid it. I think this resulted in a much more cowed and self censoring media over the last eight years. It’s very similar to what we talk about happening in the repressive Chinese media environment- say the wrong thing and you get a phone call no one wants to get. Here, it came with nasty phone calls and public shaming. The ultimate threat in China was being taken away in the middle of the night. Here it’s losing access to sources. Turns out the Chinese may have been trying too hard- you can get most of the compliance you want with a well placed cold shoulder. This is pretty in line with what we know about the psychology of social defection. People don’t want to do it, and that’s all it takes to game the media.

But McClellan’s vision of a good journalist as (these days) being liberal, afflicting the powerful and constantly making the government prove itself goes to the heart of the social contract of the press. Our checks and balances lie in being contrarians. The center and the right should have faced a liberal media for 40 years. And Hugo Chávez should face a conservative media. We’re supposed to be pains in the ass with very harsh ethical standards to obey.

The other thing McClellan nails is the loss of perspective that comes from increasingly inside baseball reporting. News stories going in depth on polls are kind of ridiculous. A report on how progress is going on an attempt to get people to react to something rather than how they are reacting is so conceptually convoluted and naval gazing I might have to have a lie down. Hence things like “covering the march to war, instead of the necessity of war.”

Completely separate from journalism one other thing about the book struck me. McClellan does a spirited endorsement of school busing when talking about his own childhood in Texas. Listening to it I couldn’t help but think, where was the Republican conservatism in this? I noticed after that every time he expressed his values he completely failed to sound Republican. His political values were totally out of line with the people he served and what he was accomplishing. People constantly end up this deep in structures without noticing that kind of thing. It’s kind of Milgram but with cocktail parties.

The entirely of What Happened can also be read as one huge positive book review for a book called The Permanent Campaign and Its Future which seems to have been quite the come to Jesus for McClellan. And yeah, now I kind of want to read that book. So What Happened was a pretty successful book review, laid out in the patterns of the suffering Scott McClellan along the rest of the nation.