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Category Archives: Philosophy

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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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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