Category Archives: culture

You Can Stop Donating to the NC GOP Now, Please

Following the firebombing of a Republican campaign office in Hillsborough, NC over the weekend. Shortly thereafter, a group of self-identified Democrats (but not part of the Clinton campaign) set up a gofundme campaign to raise funds to help them reopen, and within a few hours, they had raised $13,000.

The impulse to donate to something like this seems honorable on the surface. It’s a way of rising above partisan politics to condemn political violence. It’s also bullshit.

There is exactly one legitimate reason to donate to a campaign like this: to disrupt the media narrative of “Democrats firebomb GOP offices”. Sort of a show-don’t-tell version of #NotAllDemocrats. Mission accomplished. This fundraising campaigns will now be part of the news story, which will blunt attempts by Republican operatives to make this a campaign issue, or, worse, to encourage and justify things like voter intimidation at the polls.

So, I’m glad the gofundme campaign happened. But you can stop now, and maybe pause to consider the ways in which donating to the NC GOP is a bad idea, and how the decision to do so maybe does not reflect so well on you as you might think.

1. We don’t know what happened, yet

Despite Trump’s claim that the firebombing was perpetrated by “Animals representing Hillary Clinton and Dems”, we don’t actually know who did this or why. Yes, one option is that it was people associated with the Clinton campaign and/or the Democratic Party. A more likely possibility is that is was some pissed-off, disenfranchised kids who are fed up with Trump’s hate-fueled campaign.

It’s also possible that this was a false flag attack as part of an attempt to undermine the emerging narrative of Trump supporters being particularly violent. I’m not saying that this is particularly likely, but it is certainly not unprecedented. The most famous case, of course, is the Reichstag fire, which at least some historians believe was ordered by the Nazis to create a pretense for curtailing civil liberties. Certainly if any group were predisposed to do something like this, it would be hangers on of the Trump campaign.

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There’s also the issue of the graffiti left at the scene: a swastika and the message “Nazi Republicans Leave Town Or Else”. What seems strange to me is the inclusion of the swastika. Most liberals perceive writing a swastika as an act of violence in itself, similar to using the N-word. I think your typical anti-Nazi activist would tend to shy away from drawing a swastika, even in the context of calling someone a Nazi. I’m not generally inclined towards conspiracy, but this, more than anything, makes me think that it’s a possibility in this case.

2. They don’t need the money

I assume that the NC GOP had insurance, and that the losses suffered in the fire will be fully covered. And I know that they have the financial resources to open another office, even if it takes some time for that insurance check to come through. So, while donating to “reopen the office” seems like fair play, in practice, your money is actually going to go to fund general operating expenses, that is, to elect Trump and down-ballot Republicans.

And if, for some reason, the NC GOP is not insured (or “self insured”, as the parlance goes), keep in mind that this is the party of personal responsibility. The libertarian argument against insurance mandates is that you should have the right to assume your own risk. The second half of the argument, for non-hypocrites, anyway, is that you should not expect anyone else to bail you out once you’ve made that choice.

3. Other charities exist

Donating to the NC GOP as a way of “not condoning” the firebombing makes a lot of sense, if you view the act in complete isolation. But the implication, of course, is that you are condoning every disaster – man-made or natural – that you did not donate to. And, in North Carolina, the NC GOP bears direct responsibility for at least some of the disasters befalling poor people, minorities, and LGBTQ folks.

If you’re a Democrat who was moved to open your wallet because some Trump/Pence signs got burned and the NC GOP is going to need to rent office space in a different strip mall, but you were not moved to open your wallet by the flooding of poor communities by Hurricane Matthew, or the systemic disenfranchisement of minorities, or the regressive anti-trans policies, maybe you need to take a good long look at what your actual motives were.

 

Twitter Killed The Nightly Show

Last week marked the end of The Nightly Show, the Daily Show spinoff hosted by Larry Wilmore. It was a real shame, both because the show had great potential and moments of brilliance, and because its cancellation meant a real blow to the already meager diversity of late-night TV. So what went wrong?

Obviously, the proximal cause of the cancellation was low ratings. But why weren’t people watching? A part of the explanation is probably that there is simply not a large enough audience of people who are interested in / comfortable with the explicit emphasis on issues of race. But I’m not convinced that that is the entire reason.

I watched The Daily Show since forever, I loved Larry Wilmore’s segments, and I enthusiastically tuned in to The Nightly Show when it started. After a few weeks, though, I gave up, because it was boring. The problem wasn’t a lack of subject matter. Unfortunately, our country generates plenty of material to support a satirical news show with a focus on race.

The problem, in a word, is twitter. In a phrase, it’s the rise of short-form social media. Let’s rewind. For a long time — especially the ten or so years after 9/11 — The Daily Show offered some of the smartest takes on both news events and the traditional media coverage of those events. The format followed the standard topical-news satire formula of SNL’s Weekend Update and every late-night opening monolog: basically a series of one-liners. Even the correspondents’ segments were dominated by a series of thematically related one-liners. They were funny and intelligent, which is particularly impressive when the topics are actual news items, where the cycle of event to writers’ room to filming happens in less than a day.

For the last few years of Jon Stewart’s tenure, though, the show started feeling a little flat. Maybe Stewart was running out of steam — it’s certainly an exhausting schedule — but part of the story was the maturation of the ecosystem of twitter, facebook, and the like. When something newsworthy happens, the internet hivemind explores the space of one-liners with ruthless efficiency. A culture of appropriation and plagiarism means that a hundred minor variations emerge from the best takes, leading to fine-tuned joke optimization.

Over the past few years, when The Daily Show would cover a story that I had been following, I had often already heard some version of a lot of the punch lines. It’s not, I assume, that the writers were cribbing off of twitter, it’s just that the collective efforts of a million amateur comedians desperately vying for attention will outstrip any writers’ room.

Of course, if you weren’t following the news obsessively, The Daily Show was still great, it’s just that it was no longer special. There’s a limit to your show’s specialness when its content can be replicated by a Buzzfeed listicle of the 17 funniest takes on Trump’s latest gaffe. Trevor Noah’s Daily Show has been fine, but continues to suffer from this same fundamental problem: what it is offering is something that you can find a lot of places on the internet.

Contrast that with The Daily Show‘s other recent spinoff, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, which feels vital in the way that The Daily Show did ten years ago. The key difference is its move towards longer-form pieces. It does the standard one liner–based news recaps, but this is a small part of the show. Each episode also features a deep dive on one topic. That deep dive features a lot of one-liners, but the featured topics are chronic societal problems, so they haven’t been freshly digested and regurgitated all over the internet.

Unfortunately, The Nightly Show went the other direction. Each show started off with the standard topical one-liners, but the show’s format centered around a round-table discussion among Wilmore and a mixture of guests and staff writers. The result was basically the equivalent of the sort of brainstorming session that might lead to a great topical news show. The results were occasionally brilliant, but more often resembled a comedy Before photo. The Daily Show‘s relevance declined when it became possible to replicate its comedy and insights with a well curated twitter feed. The Nightly Show is similar, but with less curation.

If there had been a network executive ten years ago with the courage to put The Nightly Show on the air, it might have been one of the most important shows of the decade. But now, the space of snarky news commentary and skepticism of traditional power structures is crowded — even after the demise of Gawker. The Nightly Show simply had too much competition for the limited number of eyeballs available for an in-depth look at race.

Launching The Nightly Show in a world with fully weaponized twitter is like launching a luxury rickshaw service in a city overrun with uber drivers. I hope someone figures out how to make this work. The combination of long-form investigations and elaborate stunts favored by Last Week Tonight is one option. (Next Week Tonight? Last Week Tomorrow?) But there must be some clever folks with other ideas. After all, people keep telling me that this is the golden age of television. Right?

Balter / Science Update

Previously, we talked about this weird situation where Science Magazine cut ties with Michael Balter after 25 years, due to something or other having to do with his recent article on sexual harassment in academia, and on allegations against Brian Richmond in particular (here and here).

Balter has a new blog post up where he shares some of the information that he had gathered for the article, but that did not make it into the final version. Most of that additional information seems to back up the version of events presented by Richmond’s accuser.

[Although, as I argued at some length, even if we were to completely disregard those allegations, taking Richmond at his word, his behavior was still egregiously inappropriate.]

Also, when you’re over at his blog, note the Bob Simon quotation in his sidebar: “There are not two sides to every story.” It’s something that reporters who cover topics like this — or anything having to do with climate change, politics, vaccinations, or the New York Yankees — should keep in mind.

What Hillary Clinton’s AIDS Comments Reveal About Her Worldview

On Friday, while attending Nancy Reagan’s funeral, Hillary Clinton gave an interview to MSNBC in which she made the following statement:

It may be hard for your viewers to remember how difficult it was for people to talk about HIV/AIDS in the 1980s. And because of both President and Mrs. Reagan, in particular, Mrs. Reagan, we started national conversation when before no one would talk about it, no one wanted to do anything about it, and that too is something that really appreciated, with her very effective, low-key advocacy, but it penetrated the public conscience and people began to say ‘Hey, we have to do something about this too.’

This was a very strange and dumb thing to say, even for someone who seems to make as many unforced errors as Clinton does. As social media and news outlets quickly reminded her, the truth of the matter was much closer to the opposite of what she said. The Reagan administration, including Nancy, was legendarily silent on the issue.

The Clinton campaign’s initial apology seemed almost as bad:

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“Misspoke” seemed like a bizarre and dismissive characterization of a full-paragraph of revisionist hagiography that was clearly part of her prepared remarks for the interview, and this terse apology did not do much to stem the criticism.

However, on Saturday, Clinton posted a much longer apology that explicitly denied the credit she had given to the Reagans. And, importantly, she explicitly gave credit to the many, many activists who did start our national conversation about AIDS in spite of the depraved indifference of the Reagan administration.

To be clear, the Reagans did not start a national conversation about HIV and AIDS. That distinction belongs to generations of brave lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, along with straight allies, who started not just a conversation but a movement that continues to this day.

The AIDS crisis in America began as a quiet, deadly epidemic. Because of discrimination and disregard, it remained that way for far too long. When many in positions of power turned a blind eye, it was groups like ACT UP, Gay Men’s Health Crisis and others that came forward to shatter the silence — because as they reminded us again and again, Silence = Death. They organized and marched, held die-ins on the steps of city halls and vigils in the streets.

One can quibble, of course. While walking back her praise of the Reagans, it ignores the gut-churning cruelty that characterized much of the administration’s response. And there’s the fact that much of the rest of her statement is basically about how she, Hillary Clinton, is the actual hero of the story. But, it was a political funeral in the middle of an election, so those omissions and that spin are not surprising. And, as far as apologies from politicians go, this was was really pretty good.

So, my anger has subsided somewhat, but I have continued to be puzzled as to why she possibly made this statement in the first place. The theory that makes the most sense to me, as bizarre as it is, is that this was actually Hillary Clinton’s perception of the events of the 1980s.

Garance Franke-Ruta (storified here) makes this argument:

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(And a bunch more interesting points. Well worth reading, and clicking through the links.)

There was also this article, published in the Advocate on March 6, shortly after Nancy Reagan’s death, and several days before Clinton’s comments. The article presents the Reagans’ relationship with AIDS in the most generous possible light, with several passages of this flavor:

Nancy Reagan is sometimes credited with pushing her husband to do something about AIDS, and he eventually supported some funding for research. The death of their friend, actor Rock Hudson, is often referred to as a pivotal moment.

So there is a very specific perspective from which Clinton’s original statement can be seen as, well, sort of true. It’s sort of a Great Man Theory perspective. Sure, there were lots of things happening, people saying things, protesting, and so on, but the important part of the history is what happened within the walls of power. If by “national conversation” you mean “conversation among the nation’s elite”, and if by “the public conscience” you mean “the public consciousness”, and by “the public consciousness” you mean “the consciousness of the political establishment”, maybe Nancy Reagan was a key driving force.

I suspect that this fundamentally oligarchical worldview is behind a lot of Clinton’s political missteps. When she brags about being praised by Henry Kissinger, she seems genuinely surprised that there are people who don’t find that to be a compelling reason to vote for her. And it helps to explain her response to the protests that led Donald Trump to cancel his rally in Chicago on Friday:

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Her message seems to criticize the protesters as much as Trump’s rhetoric — a profoundly authoritarian stance that seems natural if you assume that politics should be a conversation among a very limited set of elites, and that all the little people just need to be more polite and deferential.

Fundamentally, to me, Hillary Clinton acts less like someone running for President, and more like someone applying for a job as Head Animal Control Officer. She has mustered the support of the town council, and she has a letter of recommendation from the Chief of Police. But she can’t for the life of her understand why all the dogs in the pound keep interrupting her, acting as if they should have a say in the decision.

Don’t get me wrong. I suspect that she would be a relatively benevolent dog catcher. Compare Donald Trump, who is campaigning on a promise that he will euthanize all the dogs and turn them into a plentiful supply of cat food.

Her second apology for her bizarre statements about Nancy Reagan was a huge improvement. It was as if, when sufficient pressure was placed on her, the hundreds of millions of people who are not part of the political, financial, and media elite came momentarily into focus for her. It was disappointing, however, that her ability to acknowledge the courage and importance of regular Americans did not even persist to the end of the statement.

Science Magazine Fires Michael Balter, Who Wrote That Sexual Misconduct Article

About a month ago, Science Magazine published an excellent long article on a sexual misconduct case involving Brian Richmond, the Curator of Human Origins at the American Museum of Natural History. The article framed the case in the context of the recent rash of high-profile misconduct cases at top universities and the culture of harassment throughout academia.

[Aside: If you’re an academic who is struggling to figure out when your behavior does or does not constitute harassment, I wrote this handy guide for you.]

It’s an infuriating issue, in part because it is typically so difficult to convince people in positions of authority to take it seriously. So, this very serious treatment in one of the flagship science journals seemed like a promising development, maybe even an indication that we — the academic community — were turning a corner of sorts.

Then, today, Michael Balter, the author of that article, announced on twitter that Science had fired him.

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Balter has promised a blog post to explain the details, but it sounds like yes, it was related to that article. Specifically, he says that his firing stemmed from conflicts in the run-up to the publication of the article, where he pushed back hard against the editors in order to not “water down” the article.

Update: Balter’s blog post is now available, as is my follow up.

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Hard to imagine what Science was thinking here. The only two scenarios I can make work in my head are 1) he really pissed the editors off, and was basically fired for insubordination, or 2) Science has been getting flack from somewhere, and had to appease someone. Presumably someone who does not

This little tidbit makes number 2 seem more likely

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Very much looking forward to that explanatory blog post — as well as whatever Science has to say for themselves.

Newspaper Misattributes Quote

The News-Enterprise of Lexington, KY published a story about a ceremony to celebrate local law enforcement. Here’s the opening (via):

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If that’s a little squinty for you, here’s the money paragraph:

Hardin County Sheriff John Ward said those who go into the law enforcement profession typically do it because they have a desire to shoot minorities.

The online version of the story was quickly corrected to note that Sheriff John Ward had been misquoted.

Presumably, the quotation should have been attributed to “stuff everyone knows, but no one is willing to say out loud.”

Yes, ALL Men’s Rights Groups are Responsible for Elliot Rodger’s Murders

On Friday, May 23, the nation was stunned by 22-year-old Elliot Rodger, who went on a shooting rampage in Isla Vista, California, where he murdered six people, sent seven others to the hospital, and eventually killed himself. Details about Rodgers emerged quickly, most notably a trail of extreme misogyny in the form of a 140-page manifesto, online videos, and participation in discussions on a site for failed pick-up artists. In his last video message, he said

You forced me to suffer all my life, now I will make you all suffer . . . All you girls who rejected me, looked down upon me, you know, treated me like scum while you gave yourselves to other men. And all of you men for living a better life than me, all of you sexually active men. I hate you. I hate all of you. I can’t wait to give you exactly what you deserve, annihilation.

Within a couple of days, though, the race was on to control the narrative, to define what, exactly, had caused this tragedy. Some people (e.g., at the New Statesman, the American Prospect), pointed to a misogynistic ideology, which is pervasive through much of our culture, and can be found in its most distilled form in the Pick-Up Artist (PUA) and Men’s Rights Activist (MRA) communities.

Other, stupider people tried to point the finger elsewhere. In the Washington Post, film critic Ann Hornaday argued that it was because the “schlubby arrested adolecsent” in Judd Apatow films always gets to have sex. Fox News – presumably after having tried and failed to find some way in which Rodger was actually Black, or Muslim, or a secret-pro-gun-control-false-flag-sacrificial-lamb – ran a segment in which they brought in a psychotherapist / psychologist to speculate that the shootings were the result of his “fighting against his homosexual impulses”.

Obviously, guns were involved in the crime, and the shooting is already being used to argue for new gun control laws, but it appears that the first three victims were stabbed to death. Likewise, mental health was clearly an issue, as it almost always is in these cases. However, to the extent that blame for this crime can be ascribed to “gun culture”, or to the systematic deficiencies in our mental healthcare “system”, both of these causes pale in comparison to the normalization of an extreme, violent misogynistic ideology.

So how, exactly, are the MRA and PUA groups to blame here?  No one is saying that they are directly responsible for these murders. However, in the absence of these groups, and the broader culture of mainstream misogyny, I think it is unlikely that Elliot Rodger would have wound up where he did.

The key concept here is psychological priming. When we evaluate things, whether actions, or people. or values, we evaluate them in comparison to something else. Marketers know this, and they exploit it regularly: sales are attractive because they make us feel like we’re getting a bargain. The fact is, I have no absolute sense of how much a box of mac and cheese should cost. If I walk in to the grocery store and see that it costs $1.59 for a box, I’ll think, “Okay, I guess that’s how much it costs.” But, if I see that it normally costs $1.99, but is on sale for $1.59, I’ll feel like I’m getting a great deal.

Similarly, fancy restaurants often have one or two high-priced items on the menu, and wine stores will stock a handful of bottles of extremely expensive wine. Even if no one ever orders or purchases these high-end goods, it is worth their while to stock them, because their real value is in making the rest of the prices look more reasonable. If there’s a thousand-dollar bottle of wine on display, you’re more likely to spring for the hundred-dollar bottle.

There’s not much question that Elliot Rodger was mentally ill. Maybe it was inevitable that he was going to lash out against women in some way, that he was going to do something horrible that went three steps over the line. MRAs don’t bear any responsibility for that.

What the MRAs and PUAs are responsible for is where the line was. And they’re responsible for working to make it seem normal – even admirable – to stand as close to the line as you can get.

Like most poisonous ideologies, misogyny tends to get whitewashed with Orwellian double-speak and dog whistles. In public discourse, at least, MRAs are not “against women”, they are against “women getting special rights”, just as homophobic bigots are against “special rights for gays”.

More broadly, very few men would claim to have a problem with women, but a lot of men have a problem with women who are “stuck up bitches”, or who are “psycho”, just as most racist troglodytes “don’t have a problem” with black people in general, just the “lazy” or “criminal” or “entitled” ones.

Whether we’re talking about racism or homophobia or misogyny, there is a societal sense of what sorts of statements and actions are and are not appropriate – of where the line is. The finely carved rhetoric of most MRAs is an attempt to make sure that they stay on the right side of that line. In a way, that’s a good thing. The problem is that when you normalize behavior that is just on this side of the line, you make it that much easier for someone who is angry or mentally ill to cross over that line. Because that is how our brains work.

No matter what the societal norms are, there will always be people who are outliers. That means that if you work to create societal norms that are just this side of physical violence towards women, you all but guarantee that there women will be targeted with physical violence.

Imagine if we lived in a society where misogyny was not endemic. Maybe in that society, Elliot Rodger still winds up as a mentally ill kid with a lot of frustration and anger directed at women. Maybe he still steps way over the line of acceptable behavior. But maybe that means that when he goes to a party, hits on a girl, and gets turned down, he throws his beer in her face and calls her a bitch.

Imagine if that was what three steps over the line looked like, and calling a woman a bitch for not going out with you was national news, the sort of thing that would result in someone like Rodger receiving the psychological help he needed.

Is that scenario even possible? Well, just how far the line of societal norms could be moved depends on the answers to a whole lot of nature/nurture questions. But there is no doubt that we could achieve something closer to that scenario than what we have at the moment.

But the other problem is that we have gangs of the Men’s Rights Activists and Pick-Up Artists tripping over each other to position themselves just on this side of what is acceptable. It’s like that scene in World War Z, where the zombies pile on top of each other until some of them can make it over the wall. Elliot Rodger is the one who made it over the wall, but all the MRAs and PUAs who have been normalizing misogyny helped him over, and they absolutely bear responsibility for the murders he committed when he landed on the other side.

This Spam REALLY Doesn’t work right now

So, like you, I get a lot of spam e-mail, much of it some variant of the Nigerian 419 scam.

Here’s the one I got today:

Dear Sir
I want to invest in your country. Anyway, my name is. John Mark from Liberia presently staying in Ghana.Already, I have gone through your profile, and I considered you to be credible and competent enough to handle a big project of this nature,which is the reason why I decided to contact you.
Personally, I would like to go into business partnership with you, so that you can assist me to invest and manage my fund there in your country.
The only thing I am considering is the tax, I don’t know how much tax the Government of your country will take from the funds that I want to invest in your company and I don’t
know if there will be any other requirements from us. I intend to invest jointly with you.
The purpose of this mail is to open up communication with you to enable us know each other as regards to our plan to invest our money properly with you.
God bless you as we will be looking forward to hear from you urgently.
Yours faithfully,

John Mark

Here’s the thing. If you’re trying to scam an American right now, when the government is shut down as a result of a crazy-ass blood feud over Obamacare, and when we are just a couple of days away from defaulting on our Federal debt, when the fiscal practices that led to the 2008 crash have, if anything, intensified over the course of the recovery (which was only a recovery at all for the very richest Americans), you can’t lead with “I want to invest in your country.”

That opening pegs you as a scammer, or, worse, a moron.

Ellsberg: Snowden was Right to Run

So, this is reposted from Vermont Vigilance:

In 1971, Daniel Ellsberg leaked the “Pentagon Papers” to the press, thereby revealing that the Johnson administration had systematically lied to congress and to the American people about the war in Vietnam. He was charged with espionage. However, those charges were later dismissed following the introduction of evidence of illegal wiretapping by the government.

In yesterday’s Washington Post, Ellsberg wrote an opinion piece arguing that although he had stayed in the US to face his criminal charges, he thought that Edward Snowden was right in his decision to flee.

Why? Well,

Many people compare Edward Snowden to me unfavorably for leaving the country and seeking asylum, rather than facing trial as I did. I don’t agree. The country I stayed in was a different America, a long time ago.

Ellsberg notes that he was released on bail, and was able to continue his anti-war activism while awaiting trial. The treatment of Bradley Manning provides an indication of what Snowden would have faced had he remained in the country. He would have been isolated and tortured. Not waterboarding-level torture, as the US still reserves that for Muslims. But, torture nevertheless, in the form of social isolation, sleep deprivation, etc.

Ellsberg concludes with

I hope that he finds a haven, as safe as possible from kidnapping or assassination by U.S. Special Operations forces, preferably where he can speak freely.

What he has given us is our best chance — if we respond to his information and his challenge — to rescue ourselves from out-of-control surveillance that shifts all practical power to the executive branch and its intelligence agencies: a United Stasi of America.

So say we all, Daniel. So say we all.

Restore the Fourth (that’s an amendment, y’all)

So, here’s another cross-post from Vermont Vigilance:

Tomorrow is America’s 237th birthday. I mean, its 208th 29th birthday! (Lookin’ good, America!)

To celebrate, why not join your fellow Americans in protesting the government’s callous disregard for the Fourth Amendment — the one that protects you against “unreasonable searches and seizures”.

There will be a coordinated set of protests nationwide rallying under the banner “Restore the Fourth”. As of now, there are sixty of them, so there is probably one near you. To find your local rally, go to this site: http://www.restorethefourth.net/

Via reddit, here is a list of other things you can do to get involved and make a difference: