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Savage Rebuttal

You might have heard that Dan Savage landed himself in some hot water recently over comments he made during a speech at a high school journalism conference. Savage, a syndicated sex columnist and the founder of “It Gets Better” project, a collection of online videos offering support to gay teens, cut loose on the Bible while discussing bullying, referring to parts of it as “bulls–t” and calling it a “radically pro-slavery document”. Now, whether or not you think these comments were appropriate, let’s start by taking a look at whether they were advisable.

Ignore the debate about the anti-bullying movement for a second, as well as the larger debate about homosexuality. Ignore the fact that the leader of an anti-bullying group used his position as a guest speaker to attack a group of high school students about their beliefs. These topics are broad, and Savage’s words fail at a much more primitive level: basic pragmatism. Suppose you are Dan Savage and you want to reach out to a group of high school students. Your goal is to convince as many of them as possible to take a stand against bullying, in particular anti-LGBT bullying. The worst thing you could do for your cause, one would think, would be to alienate your audience. And yet Savage does exactly that.

You can see why this was a very stupid idea using two simple proxies. First, take the percentage of Americans in support of gay marriage as an estimate of the percentage of Savage’s audience amenable to his cause. As of 2011, according to Gallup, 53% of the US population believes that same-sex marriage should be legal, so we’ll say that roughly half of the listeners in a random audience side with him. Second, use the percentage of Christians in America as both the pool of potential bullies Savage is tagetting with his attack and the percentage of his audience that he risks losing. Again according to Gallup, as of 2009, Christians make up 77% of the US population, or about three-quarters of a random audience. Thus even in the worst case, assuming every person in the US who is opposed to same-sex marriage is Christian, that still leaves about one-third of the Christian population, one-fourth of the US population, and fully one-half of the pro-gay marriage population as aligned with Savage yet maligned by his attacks. That is not an insignificant number, even using rough numbers.

There are mitigating factors, of course, and severe ones at that. The proxies do not provide a categorical match with the groups affected by Savage’s speech, necessitating several broad generalizations, and they are an imprecise indicator of Savage’s intended high-school audience. Support for same-sex marriage skews heavily towards the young, but remains low among Republicans and conservatives. Opposition to same-sex marriage does not necessarily indicate opposition to homosexuality or, in particular, support of bullying. Many self-described Christians would not object strongly to Savage’s words, and many Americans of other faiths might be turned off by them. Most importantly, would-be journalists who attended Savage’s speech seem more likely to share his opinions, both regarding religion and bullying. The mix of factors makes broad statistics ineffective at speculating about the breakdown of Savage’s intended high school audience, but they can say something about the thousands or millions of people who have now heard his remarks.

The point I’m trying to make is that Savage is painting with a very broad brush here. Either directly or indirectly, he hits nearly every faith that holds to a biblically-enumerated practice, denouncing the Bible’s rules, customs, and ceremonies in an effort to get at its proscriptions against homosexuality. Not only is this a slap in the face of every listener who holds to a biblical practice regarding shellfish, farming, masturbation, or nearly any other tenet of the Bible still practiced today, but it also denies that there are any reasons to oppose homosexuality other than simply quoting the Bible. He targets the people who use the Bible as justification without further backing, yet insults the faith of those who can present deeper arguments, without giving them so much as a mention in his rant.

How many minds—old, young, Christian, Jewish, atheist—have been turned away by Dan Savage’s hateful speech? How many people who might have supported It Gets Better as a weapon against teen suicide now oppose the project based on the vicious words of its founder? For a man ostensibly concerned with teen suicide and bullying, he has proved himself quick to throw the cause under the bus to chase personal grudges. If he truly thinks a minority of Christians are responsible for such bullying, why not clarify this distinction? If he is critiquing a small group, why tar others’ faith to get to it? If he is accusing Christians of being hypocrites, why attack high school students for their beliefs while making a speech about bullying? His speech serves only to rally those sympathetic to him; it does nothing to change minds or diffuse the animosities he claims he is trying to prevent.

Now, based on the crowd’s reaction to the video, perhaps he read his audience correctly. Most of his punchlines about the Bible and the GOP receive laughter and applause. Aside from a steady stream of students walking out towards the beginning of the video, hardly a negative reaction is recorded, and certainly Savage had no specific reason to believe a video of the speech would find its way online, where it could spread. From what I’ve heard and from his own word choice, Savage lives and breathes controversy. Even if he thought better of his words, I doubt he would go on to court Christians, even if they might support his cause.

Savage has shown as much in his subsequent post on the incident, and the reaction from the right has been strong. Savage did walk back the language used in his attack, but he continues to stand by the main thrust of it, that Christians who cite the Bible to defend bullying are hypocrites. Though he comes closer to drawing a valid point, using more specific language than the broad strokes he used during his speech, he fails to address any argument deeper than a direct quote from the Bible. Not only does he ignore more thorough critiques of homosexuality that have nothing to do with bullying, he also manages to grant cover to would-be bullies by reducing the argument to one of hypocrisy. No church in the world has remained static for two thousand years, and to imply that the only argument against homosexuality consists of citing the Bible is both unimaginative and ignorant. One does not have to agree with such arguments to acknowledge their existence, but Dan Savage opts for neither, instead setting up a one-note Christian strawman to lob charges of hypocrisy at from a safe distance. It is sloppy, lazy thinking, and it discredits the organization whose founder stoops to such rehtorical depths. I am convinced that there was an opportunity here to preach acceptance and promote dialogue. Instead, Savage opted for an attack that will close minds to his cause and make life more difficult for the teens he says he cares about.

Incidentally, Teresa Koch has a few words on the topic that I think are spot-on. Beyond the controversial topics Savage raised in his speech, he fails to pass the simple test of manners. If he can’t respect his audience, why should they listen to him? Whatever good that might have come out of his speech was lost when he decided to insult his listeners.

 
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Posted by on May 3, 2012 in News

 

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Reduction and Inclusion

Over at Ace of Spades HQ, Ace hits the nail on the head talking about conservative groupthink and how to go about winning hearts and minds:

If you want to move someone to the conservative side, you must first convince them that conservatives are not, as the media claims, crazy or weird. That is 90% of the battle, actually, as Breitbart knew, and as he made it his life’s mission to prove.

The next 10% is to offer up the smallest buy-in possible. Here’s what we believe, basically: freedom, respect for citizens in their capacity and wisdom to manage their own affairs, modesty of government ambition and modesty in the government’s appraisal of its own ability to manage large ventures, and the basic idea that the government exists to keep the order so that men and women may face each other as free citizens in the public square and make voluntary transactions and decisions between each other, with as minimum government intrusion and “oversight” as possible.

I’ll try to add a thought or two to Ace’s excellent summary of the problem. As long as you’re drawing the line of conservatism through a specific issue, particularly a contested one, you’re excluding your allies rather than including them. If you’re judging someone by their stance on a single topic rather than their underlying principles and intentions, you’re doing yourself and them a disservice. That’s one more friend, ally, or teacher you threw away because you couldn’t look past just one point of contention. Have faith that their intentions are as noble as yours, and that underneath the differing opinion is something common to both of you.

Take national defense as an example. As a freedom-loving individual, I can conclude that a strong and carefully-deployed military is crucial for our national security and support the continued and perhaps expanded funding of our armed forces. I can also conclude that the military poses the risk of federal overreach, domestically or abroad, and advocate a reduction in permanent military spending and engagement. Both arguments stem from the same starting point, yet reach vastly different conclusions. The judgment and logic differs in each case, but simply choosing a different opinion in support of the same broader point is not sufficient grounds for fighting.

As Ace says, criticizing someone you think is wrong remains fair game for you, even a welcome critique. The worth of ideas cannot be proven without test, and there’s no surer way to test your ideas than to discuss them with one willing to buy your premise but not your conclusion. The points I make here are certainly not the attempted stifling of speech. I am only offering encouragement not to let petty disputes result in fragmentation or attempted groupthink.

I have witnessed the unnecessary infighting within the right, but I have also seen signs that at least some of the participants are aware of the big picture. Stacy McCain blogs regularly about his relationships with other conservative icons and their ups and downs. Professor Jacobson consistently comes back to the big picture—Congressional races—when the web seems filled to bursting with dark talk of the presidential primary.

These examples, and others I read of in passing, give me faith that the discussion is constructive and that we’re not losing sight of the long-term goals we share. No one should be excluded who gives their heart freely and without reservation to the cause of liberty. And that brings me to the other half of Ace’s post: recruiting new conservatives from the ranks of the moderates, the liberals, and the unaffiliated.

Again, inclusion wins out over exclusion. My limited experience with people of other political stripes has shown that much of the difference between their thinking and mine boils down to a lack of information. I may not be well-versed in news, history, or politics, but I’ve picked up enough knowledge to place myself half a head above the average uninformed citizen. Just a few basic facts are often enough to change someone’s mind on some truly important topics. That change comes when they are encouraged to seek common ground with you, not to attack you as the representative of something they’ve been conditioned to hate.

True political changes don’t happen overnight. They happen one realization at a time, and that crucial first step is to open a mind to your way of thinking. That doesn’t come by stuffing doctrine down their throat. It comes from openness and acceptance. The rest will follow—free markets, morality, you name it—given time and exposure to those who think such thoughts. The person you introduce to conservatism will not reflect your beliefs in every way, just as a brother isn’t your perfect mirror. But they will be a friend, an ally, and a pupil, and they will carry their realization to others.

So the next time you find yourself arguing over a candidate, a policy, or any other divisive issue, take a deep breath and remember that the person you’re fighting with is on the same side as you are. The same goes for the friend, neighbor, or acquaintance who’s missing something from their political arguments. Speak up and work to include people wherever possible. You’re fighting for a cause, not a movement. Never forget that.

 
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Posted by on March 3, 2012 in Philosophy

 

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RIP, Andrew Breitbart

Today the world lost a light. Andrew Breitbart, journalist and New Media entrepreneur, passed away late last night due to heart problems, leaving behind a wife and four children. He was age 43. I can’t tell you much more about him than what I’ve heard and read over the last several months. A year ago, I didn’t know who he was; I didn’t pay enough attention to politics to know public figures even a stone’s throw beyond my own limited circles of information.

Gradually I found out. He was at the heart of the scandal surrounding Anthony Weiner, fighting against lies, condemnation, and slander by the media and the representative himself to bring out the truth. I later found out about his involvement in reporting Shirley Sherrod’s NAACP speech and in demolishing ACORN using James O’Keefe’s sting tapes. I discovered Breitbart.com and his network of Bigs a little later.

And as long as he was at the helm, I could rest easy knowing that somebody out there, somebody capable and honest, was fighting diligently for truth in journalism. He was one of the loudest, most persistent voices in the fight for limited government. I could never do what he did, and I know of few people who could even venture close. He made himself a player on the national stage through grit and tenacity, and his passing leaves an enormous hole to fill.

In the wake of this tragic news, the right is mourning, the left is rejoicing, and somewhere in between there are countless numb people who have found that they have lost their voice. My deepest condolences to those who knew him and loved him, those for whom he was husband, father, or friend. May the pain of his passing be short, and may the memory of his life be lasting. Together we will pick up where he left off and make sure his call does not go unanswered.

His last book is currently sitting on my shelf. I haven’t read it yet, but I plan to. For now it is an unopened time capsule. Someday soon I will sit down and learn about the man who moved mountains. Until then it’s time to get back to my life and continue the work he started, in whatever small way I can.

RIP, Andrew Breitbart. You will be missed.

 
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Posted by on March 1, 2012 in News

 

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Merry Christmas

This morning I did something I should have done long ago: I looked up the origins of the phrase “Merry Christmas”. There are two notable historical instances of the phrase’s use before Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The first came from a 1565 document published in Hereford county, England. The Hereford Municipal Manuscript includes the blessing, “And thus I comytt you to god, who send you a mery Christmas & many.” A quick search revealed no more information about this manuscript, but both The Phrase Finder and Wikipedia make mention of it as the first recorded use of the phrase.

The second instance comes again from England, this time from an informal letter written by an admiral. This admiral has been cited by some (two instances here and here) as the first to wish someone a Merry Christmas in writing, but if Wikipedia is to be believed, he was notable, rather, for using the phrase, “Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year”, which derived from a familiar sixteenth-century Christmas carol, “We Wish You A Merry Christmas”.

Then, of course, was Charles Dickens’ famous use of the phrase in A Christmas Carol, which helped spread “Merry Christmas” popularly just as Christmas was beginning to take on its modern form. It’s worth noting that up until this time, the word “merry” had not taken on the meaning it has today. Rather than implying cheer and joviality, it pertained to peacefulness and agreeability. A Christmas Carol further helped the word change into its modern form.

So with that history in mind, Merry Christmas to all of you!

 
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Posted by on December 26, 2011 in History

 

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Subjective Terminology

There is no truth so clear that it cannot be distorted in the telling.

I learned this from the controversy over Politifact’s 2011 Lie of the Year. Representative Paul Ryan’s budget proposal, passed by the House in April, included sweeping changes for Medicare in an attempt to curb the budget defecit. Democratic politicians and activist groups claimed that the bill would harm seniors and would eliminate Medicare within a decade. Politifact lists nine such claims by eight groups or individuals in its Lie of the Year article.

The full text of the bill can be found at OpenCongress, and there are any number of statements on record from both Representative Ryan and the bill’s critics to check up on. Helpful explanations can be found online for laypeople like myself, such as an April article at The Christian Science Monitor or one at the New York Times. In theory, any claim about the bill could be fact-checked with just a bit of research.

A little examination shows that this isn’t the case. Glancing over the headlines presented at Politifact, most of the Democratic claims about the budget seem falsifiable, if a bit strong. Would the budget proposal “eliminat[e] Medicare” within 10 years, as Vice President Joe Biden claims? The answer is not a simple yes or no as one might believe, and Biden himself illustrates why. “Paul Ryan laid out [the Republicans'] budget. Their budget eviscerates – it eliminates Medicare. They say it doesn’t. It makes it a voucher program. I call that eliminating Medicare in the next 10 years.(Emphasis added.)

The dispute lies not in the facts of the bill, but in their interpretation. Vice President Biden’s claims are true if one assumes his language is correctly applied, and therein lies the problem. Unlike simple facts, subjective definitions cannot be searched up with a few keystrokes. They must be painstakingly laid out and agreed to by all parties. The difference between Biden’s definition of “eliminating Medicare”—changing it from its current structure—and a more general definition—cutting the program entirely—cannot be reconciled without careful use of the language on all sides of the debate.

Politifact’s article says as much, calling out Biden for referring to “Medicare” rather than “Medicare as we know it” or a similarly qualified term. This forms the basis of Politifact’s “False” rating for Biden’s statement, and similar logic underlies the site’s rebuttals of other Democratic claims about the budget plan, with a few exceptions for more serious errors. Politifact’s basic dispute with the Democrats lies in phrasing and presentation, not in direct claims.

Paul Krugman’s article at The New York Times from December 20th shows just the kind of rifts that can spring up over terminology. In it he denounces Politifact for naming “a statement that happens to be true” as its Lie of the Year. He explains: “Republicans voted to replace Medicare with a voucher system to buy private insurance. [...] The new scheme would still be called ‘Medicare’, but it would bear little resemblance to the current system, which guarantees essential care to all seniors. [...] How is this not an end to Medicare?” Again, the argument boils down to definition, and as long as Krugman’s definition of the end of Medicare remains unchanged, neither will his opinion of Politifact.

I have had little experience with Politifact in the past, but the centrality in this instance of disputed terminology over disputed fact leads me to be wary regarding claims of Politifact’s bias. Much of the controversy appears to stem from a study showing that 74 of the 98 statements that Politifact reported as false between January 2010 and January 2011 were made by Republicans, in contrast to only 22 false statements made by Democrats. Paul Krugman sees this as confirmation that “there’s a lot more lying on one side of the political divide than on the other”, with 2011’s Lie of the Year as a damaging ploy by Politifacts to avoid seeming partisan. Commentators on the right point to the same disparity as proof of Politifact’s Democratic bias, with the Lie of the Year a rare and possibly calculated exception.

Definite, if not unilateral, truths exist regarding both the nature of Politifact’s coverage and the veracity of the statements it evaluates. Subjective terminology, however, makes the finding of these truths all the more complicated. Seeing how so much of the recent controversy hinged on the difference between “Medicare” and “Medicare as we know it”, I am curious as to how many other proclamations of “false” are due to something so simple. How many statements did Politifact dismiss as groundless hyperbole compared to the number deemed factual errors? Would removing stretched definitions from the equation change perceptions of Politifact’s bias? It seems that the claims of bias cannot be evaluated without establishing a few concrete definitions, and so I will reserve my judgment for another time.

That leads me back to the quote that began the post. No matter the truth of an issue, its presentation can be altered simply by stretching a definition. In some cases these definitions are clear oversteps, but at times the difference between an impassioned turn of phrase and a gross exaggeration can be all that stands in the way of a meaningful discussion. Think carefully when public discourse devolves into bickering over terminology rather than facts. It’s a sign that the true problem lies elsewhere.

 
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Posted by on December 24, 2011 in Fact-Checking, Philosophy

 

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The New Media

Journalism is at a turning point. The rise of the New Media has given countless people around the world the chance to become journalists, no qualifications necessary. The only requirements are a computer with Internet access and the shred of an idea. While not every newly-minted journalist will provide the type of content a major news network or newspaper might require of its employees, every voice helps to spread ideas and stimulate discussion. With basic fact-checking made simple by Internet search, anyone can actively contribute to the news by pointing to facts that had been forgotten. These two most basic of functions, spreading and refining the news, provide the foundation on which the New Media is built. Every node in the network adds to its total quality, while the ease of entry into the network ensures that there are plenty of nodes. With this backbone in place, the New Media as a whole can truly excel. Not every blogger or Internet journalist stops at spreading and refining the news. Some generate it with their personal experiences or expertise. Others have the resources to launch more thorough investigations, deeper than a passive Internet search. Outposts of organized journalism emerge, collecting some of the brightest lights under one banner. Never has it been easier to find the news you wish to find, and never has it been more difficult for a single entity to control the narrative in whole.

The system is subject to the drawbacks one would expect when opening the microphone to millions of individuals at once. Pointless bickering, partisan spin, and outright misinformation are rampant throughout the system, but the result is a system that contains the truth. Bickering serves a point as a testing ground for arguments and ideas. Spin reveals the truth when enough voices add their own interpretations. Misinformation yields information when corrected. From chaos, order arises. The New Media is crowdsourcing at its most potent. The major flaws of traditional media stem from its centralized nature. At most, only a few major sources of information are available. Stories are relatively easy to control, and simple silence can squash even the most condemning of scandal. At the same time, centralization provides certain strengths that have allowed the legacy media to thrive. Large news outlets are offered special privileges not available to the general public, such as access to press conferences and coverage of exclusive events. They provide a reliable access point for politicians and celebrities, as they guarantee an audience and consistent quality of coverage. For these reasons, some form of large news outlets will always be a part of the media landscape. The question is what form they take and how they relate to the public and more democratic forms of media.

The reason print newspapers appear to be dying is not because of their physical format as is commonly believed. There are still people who prefer a newspaper to a computer screen for their morning headlines, and the newspaper has the advantage of being portable, disposable, and cheap. A newspaper has no load time, requires no Internet connection, and can be shared with a coworker or family member without fumbling around with hyperlinks. Whether technology advances to contest even these basic advantages is a , but for the time being, the newspaper remains a sound format inasmuch as the news it carries is worth reading. Herein lies the crux of the problem. Print news now faces competition from the Internet, and readers seem willing to abandon a floundering newspaper if they can find their news elsewhere. The print format provides certain advantages, but these can only be exploited when the newspaper is a polished, finished product, worth the paper it was printed on. Newspapers can no longer get by without publishing worthwhile content. They suffer in inverse proportion to their quality, and unless those that are suffering step up their game, they will continue to bleed readers to other news sources.

The differentiating factor, then, is quality. Legacy media institutions now face a minimum standard of quality they must keep in order to retain their advantages over the emerging media of the Internet. Factual errors, buried stories, and smear attacks decrease the credibility of these institutions. Once these smirches fully obscure whatever once held value in the media outlet, viewers will look to other sources for their news. The shared monopoly of print and network media has been turned into a free market, with competitors coming from all corners of the Internet. And ultimately this will increase the quality of the news, either through the revitalization of the legacy media or through the rise of its competition from below. That’s the beauty of the New Media: its legacy counterpart can only remain dominant by bettering itself. The truth will out. In time we will know who will tell it to us.

 
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Posted by on December 1, 2011 in Philosophy

 

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What To Expect

The idea for this blog came shortly after a heated debate over politics with a friend. What I learned from a lost temper, shouting, and a friend put off by my antics was that anger is an ineffective tool for communication. While I won’t say that my anger was unjustified—at the time I felt it was the only way to make myself heard—I will say that the costs of it greatly outweighed the benefits. This incident, coupled with several other, more minor ones, convinced me that there had to be a better way to conduct myself. I stumbled across the story of Horatio Bunce, and had an inspiration. My goal in creating this blog is to enact the change I wish to see in myself. I wish to grow into a calm, reasoned, and accepting person. I wish to gain knowledge and experience in the fields that engage me. I wish to become an active participant in the world around me. Maybe, if I am able, I can kindle light to bring to others.

The coming weeks and months will be a prototype of what this blog is to become. The graphical design may change as I get used to WordPress and maintaining a website, and it will take a little while to fill out the bits and pieces that round out the edges of a blog. More importantly, I will be experimenting with the content of the blog. My goal is to build this blog into a site for various news and opinions, uncovered facts, and stray philosophical musings, updated frequently. For now I will start with the content that has the least in overhead costs: philosophy. I will post essays as I write them, and gradually I will decide where to go from there. Learning to write quickly and clearly is an important first step for me, and my essays will help achieve me achieve that. I ask your patience in the days to come. With a bit of effort, perhaps I can make something of this place.

 
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Posted by on November 3, 2011 in Administrative

 

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