Friday, February 25, 2005

Pissing on the Dead

Well look who's got a blog! jimmyjeffguckertgannon - and he's trading on the late and truly lamented Hunter S. Thompson - "Fear and Loathing in the Press Room" declares the right's favorite rent boy! Meanwhile, he quotes some of his dimmer fellow travelers in their continued missing of the point:

They should propose performing the exact same investigation on all WH reporters. Send out a questionnaire that reflects the matters that find them in such breathless anxiety when it comes to Jeff Gannon/James Guckert. To wit:
1. Ask if any reporter is a homosexual.
2. Ask if any has ever exchanged sex for anything.
3. Ask them to list all web sites with which they have ever had any involvement.
4. Review all of their questions and articles for any bias, agenda, or tendentiousness.
4. Ask for a list of all political associations, involvements, activities, financial giving.
6. Once step five is completed, the same investigation must be performed on the organizations that employ them.
7. Report the results.

Now, it is very doubtful this would lead anywhere even if someone did it - the number of reporters serving or advertising themselves as prostitutes on the Internet is probably rather small - and even when something embarrassing does come up (ask Andrew Sullivan), it generally only ruins your career if you didn't really have a career.

But that aside - that isn't what happened to jjdgg. If you wanted to apply to the whole press corps the standards applied to him:
1) What kind of questions do they ask at press conferences? Do they make fools of themselves?
2) If so - where do they work? How legitimate is that organization?
3) Are they plagiarizing white house press releases?
4) How did they get their credentials, if they are plagiarists working for a news organization that appears to be a front for a partisan lobbying outfit?
5) And then - I guess the next step depends on whether they are a prostitute offering their services over the internet - but - do they have or have they recently had web sites offering their services as a prostitute on the internet? What about the nude photos?

It has to be admitted that the comedy potential of number five increases significantly if the reporter is conservative, gay, or both. Degree of closetedness is another parameter. Screaming that some bleeding heart liberal is gay is just not going to get much traction - less now, when just being a liberal is so often grounds for consignment to hell. But for right wing hacks - well! But going on the continuing efforts of righties to defend jjdgg by pretending to be outraged that liberals are mocking him for being gay - the comedy never really stops. Jimjeff is a walking ridikulus spell, that turns everyone who approaches into a figure of fun.

Monday, February 21, 2005


Hunter S. Thompson has left us. Majikthise offers a pessimistic reading:

Gonzo is dead because the mainstream media have abolished objectivity and subjectivity--the facts don't matter, but neither does the perspective of any individual. Like gonzo journalists, today's campaign reporters love to tell impressionistic yarns. Unlike gonzo journalists they don't want to talk about their own experiences. Enterprising reporters collect "gaffes" and "coups" and spin them into parables. The winner is the journalist whose just-so story becomes "The Defining Moment."

I am hard pressed to disagree. The Rude Pundit offers an excellent eulogy as well.

Meanwhile, hop over to Atrios and take a look at the new "Real AARP Agenda" ad he's got up - then read about it at Talking Points Memo. What the hell?

It's gotta be shit like that that drove the great man to despair - how can you make up funny shit that's weirder than that, or jimmyjeffguckertgannon?

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Burning Issues of the Day

I have been slow to comment on Ward Churchill - probably because the controversy is so obviously manufactured, and because there's not much I might say that hasn't been said already. It's boring! But I do want to put something up - here's Brien Leiter commenting at some length on the case, on Churchill's actual argument and whether any of it comprises a firing offense. And the Volokh Conspiracy, not surprisingly, has a very intelligent analysis fromt he conservative side. (Here, by the way, is the thing itself - and a more recent revision.)

I can't add much. I think this is mostly about intimidation. Kevin Drum runs down the chronology - a local story, an AP story, a New York Post story, Joe Scarborough, O'Reilly, The Washington Times, " the Scaife-owned Pittsburgh Tribune Review - and then the New York Times - and then the world. Sez Drum:

It's fascinating how a trivial story like this managed to spread so far, isn't it? The right wing machine pushed, the New York Times responded, and then the rest of the press followed. Within days, the previously insignificant Ward Churchill had become a household name and a virtual poster boy for lefty nihilism based on something that no one on either the left or right had cared a whit about in the three years since he wrote it. Truly an object lesson for us all.

Or as Majikthise put it, "brutal political theater. In a dazzling display of demagoguery Bill O'Reilly, Joe Scarborough and their minions spun a hackneyed 3-year-old essay by a nonentity into a scandal that culminated in death threats and demotion." I think that is what it has all been about - smacking down someone, not so much because of what he did (however loathsome - "depraved", says Eugene Volokh - it might have been), but in order to show their power.

Meanwhile - cramming All The Great Issues of the Day into One Lazy Post - this story is just mind boggling. (Beware! naked reporter pix within!) It's one thing when the guy lobbing softball questions to Scott McClellan and President Bush is an amateur hack, writing for a fake news site run by a partisan organization. It's another when he's using a pseudonym. And another when he's plagiarizing from White House press releases. And another when he has gay-themed personal ads up on AOL. But when he registers gay porn sites? No - he registers gay escort sites? No, he is a gay escort?

What the fuck?

And this guy had access to information about Valerie Plame?

Anyway, I imagine sooner or later the right wing might have to stop missing the point - like here, trying to turn Russell Mokhiber into a left wing version of Gannon. That can't work, can it? Gannon maybe got criticized for being a hack - but he got run out of town on a rail for being a criminal. (And, of course, for the hypocrisy - you know, the Bush White House, defenders of decency and traditional values and all, using a gay prostitute as a plant in the press. Oh, the irony! Oh!) It's not about his politics (though that is where it started - but it would have stayed as ridicule and abuse if that's all there was) - it's not about his personal life, per se - it's about the fact that his personal life turned out to be so incredibly disgusting.

Anyway - the best source of information has beena nd remains, Americablog.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Speaking of DIY...

Learning to Love You More is a web site I have just found, just now, while randomly clicking around stray bookmarks and such, updating all my home page links. It has some of the tone of the kinds of communal, participatory, art popular in the 60s and 70s - and, relevant to my previous post, a major part of the early days of video art. Description?

Learning to Love You More is both a web site and series of non-web presentations comprised of work made by the general public in response to assignments given by artists Miranda July and Harrell Fletcher and various guests. Yuri Ono designs and manages the web site.

Just glancing at it - this could be a source of days of joy.

Video Killed the Blogging Star

Blogging? I generally ignore blogging on blogging, which explains why I am only getting to Jack Shafer's week old article now - but reading it, I see some interesting comments on the Sony Portapak Video revolution. Now that's intriguing. Did the portapak change the world? at least, the balance of power in the media world? Did it? Shafer's got some good stuff from Michael Shamberg, one of the pioneers (at Raindance) of the video revolution. Shamberg proclaiming,

With portable videotape technology, anything recorded on location is ready on location, instantly. Thus, people can control information about themselves, rather than surrender that power to outsiders. ABC, CBS, and NBC do not swim like fish among the people. They watch from the beach and thus just see the surface of the water.

Did that revolution come? That is the question, but it's not time to answer it yet...

When it comes to blogs, there's plenty of the same kind of hyperbole. Quothe Shafer:

In language only slightly less fervent than Shamberg's, conference participants declared blogs the destroyers of mainstream media. (See this page and this page for a real-time transcription of the conference.) Others prescribed blogs as the medicine the newspaper industry should take to reclaim its lost readers: Publishers should support reader blogs and encourage their reporters to blog in addition to writing stories. Podcasts would undermine the radio network empires. "Open source" journalism, in which readers and bloggers help set the news agenda for newspapers, was promoted as a tonic for what ails the press. Reporters were encouraged to regain the lost trust of readers by blogging drafts of their stories, their notes, and even their taped interviews so other bloggers could dissect and analyze them for fairness.

It's easy to mock that stuff, and all the shivery self-promotion bloggers indulge in. It's probably easier since it is, so often, a rehash of the shivery gushing advocates of portable film equipment, portable video cameras, the personal computer, the world wide web, etc. etc. have indulged in through the years. The problem with mocking it is, those things have changed the world. What is missing from the bloggers' version of the story, though Shafer has it, is that the change is usually absorbed into the existing structures of the media (since that is what we are talking about.) Electronic delivery (and creation) systems - like blogs - are absorbed by the existing media - or absorb it - or - this is not new. I have not had a newspaper subscription since, I think, 2000. I read the same papers - read more papers, actually - online. For this reader, blogs, the New York Times, online database sites (IMDB, AMG), academic journals - are part of a continuum of internet material.

Video did the same thing - changed everything, but did it without seeming to change everything. Those portapak cameras are directly responsible for huge swaths of what is on TV right now - reality shows? the way news is reported - the way movies look? the way video games look? The internet has already done much the same thing with text information - it is the delivery system of choice for quite a few people (even people who still read books and magazines). It chas changed the way information is organized, the way we conceptualize information. It has not eliminated old media, or the power structures of old media - though it undoubtedly will change them.

Finally, getting to the bloggers, getting to blog "triumphalism" as it is called: the idea that somehow blogs replace television or newspapers or magazines is somewhere between ridiculous and rather terrifying. Or let me rephrase - replacing television, as a source of news, is almost all good - blogs are deeper, more interactive than TV. Going from TV to blogs for your news is undoubtedly a step up. But newspapers, magazines are still the defininitive sources for information. Blogs don't compate, and can't compete. Blogs - at least the kinds of political blogs that political bloggers think are the only kind - are, really, not about producing content at all. They are pointers - they are records of what someone has read, and has thought other people should read. This tendency seems to get stronger the more political the blog is - the less political blogs tend to be more interestingly written. But there you go.

I'm a Day Late and a Dollar Short

...but check out Slacktivist's post on Groundhog Day. (Check out Ebert as well.) Slacktivist has the moral and philosophical musings and the broader context to put it in.... It's one of those films - and there aren't many (It's a Wonderful Life, and - ?) - that are popular, loved, and seem, if you think about them a bit, to get deeper and more interesting.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Makin' It Up

It's been a while since I've made fun of Doug Giles. It's a cottage industry in some corners of the blogosphere - god knows, the "Motel Messiah™" gives you enough material. But I'll leave the ridicule to TBogg and company, and just comment on the history.

This week's column is called Packed, Stacked and Ready to Whack - it has nothing to do with gay porn - it is another defense of the 2nd amendment. Alas, only the title is in rhyme, though Doug maintains his usual command of the English language. That aside, let's get to the history. Here's Doug, explaining the second amendment:

One of the basic human rights that constantly has to be defended is the right to keep and bear arms.  Why did the original founders of this great American experiment toss this given, no-duh, entitlement into the Constitution?  Well … it wasn’t so that we would be guaranteed that we could hunt squirrels and woodchucks without serving time, as great as that is.  It was for the purpose of defending ourselves against perps when the cops are running a little late, and for the purpose of protecting ourselves against the government should the system go south.

Alas, no, the right to keep and bear arms was not (originally) about protecting yourself from "perps" or even overthrowing the government. It is guaranteed for the fairly obvious purpose of maintaining a "well regulated militia" - so there would be no need of a standing army. Standing armies lead to tyranny, went the argument - an argument rooted in the English Civil War and the unfortunate example of Oliver Cromwell - an argument given plenty of fuel in the 1760s and 70s, as the redcoats made their presence felt in the colonies. Mr. Giles here makes a fundamental mistake - the right to keep and bear arms is guaranteed not to protect the citizens against an army out of control - but to take the place of that army.

The rest of the column is typical nonsense - claiming that if the German citizens had been armed in the 1930s they wouldn't have voted Adolf Hitler into power -ignoring the fact that most of the free world has quite restrictive gun laws - and generally showing no sign of a clue as to how politics works. If he thinks arming both sides will prevent civil wars and genocides, he hasn't been paying attention.

More on Summers

Following up on my post on the Larry Summers controversy - Ezra Klein points to this response from Zoe Vanderwolk. She defends Summers, suggesting he was "set up" - that he was invited to speak off the record, but that his remarks were reported in the Boston Globe anyway, and out of context ("he summarized the contents of a paper that was about to be presented at the conference, which had valid statistical findings with regards to women underperforming in the sciences" she says). That seems reasonable enough, I guess, though I think it's unrealistic to expect anything someone in his position says to be taken apart from his position (and thus related to tenure issues at Harvard) - and I think the broader issues still tend to make Summers' remarks wrong-headed. In fact, Vanderwolk concludes the post with an argument that gets at what I was hoping I said:

Conclusions: many girls can do maths very well. Some can't. Some boys do maths extremely well. Many don't. However, schools shunt girls out of maths to concentrate on the small percentage that do extremely well, because that's how teachers are evaluated, and also because girls are routinely pushed out of maths at all levels. I think girls need more encouragement in general to do stuff, although I don't know if this is a nature or a nurture thing. A study I read last year showed a similar imbalance in women seeking office - once women actually run for office, there's no inherent bias against them, but many fewer women even bother to run initially because they are far less likely than men to get support and endorsement from political parties. . . .

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Do Conservatives Think You're Stupid?

A particularly inspiring post on democracy and conservatism at Body and Soul. Taking off from this article (by Philip Agre, a UCLA professor.) Agre takes a dim view of conservatism:

Q: What is conservatism?
A: Conservatism is the domination of society by an aristocracy.

Q: What is wrong with conservatism?
A: Conservatism is incompatible with democracy, prosperity, and civilization in general. It is a destructive system of inequality and prejudice that is founded on deception and has no place in the modern world.

Jeanne D'Arc agrees. She adds:

Traditional conservatism is the polar opposite of democracy. It assumes people can't -- or shouldn't -- think for themselves, and that they have to be lead, either by fear or p.r. (or a combination) to accept the natural order in which some people  rule and others are ruled.

What leaves most progressives, even centrists, banging our heads against the walls and mumbling about pharisees and hypocrites is that this is obviously as true of modern conservatism as it has been of conservatism for thousands of years, and yet an astonishing number of people think that the nature of conservatism has changed, and that now it is somehow all about freedom and allowing every individual to achieve everything he or she can.

This is a significant point. The right has been selling itself as the party of self-reliance - of freedom, of indepenbdence for some time now. They do this in the face of the facts - they have never been the party of self-reliance, they have always been the party of protecting the positions of those who have the power and money, now. That has not changed, and indeed, the current administration has dropped a lot of the pretense - they still use the words, but they seem barely able to contain their laughter at the rubes who still think they are a party of anything other than fuck you.

Anyway, Jeanne goes on to note - relevantly in the wake of the disatrous election last fall, with all the gnashing of teeth and searching of souls indulged in by the left, the seeking of positions to abandon and images to create - that copying the tactics of the right - "Where's the money for our p.r. machine? How do we create the mechanism to make our mindless drivel as much a part of the common wisdom as theirs? How do we learn to do this propaganda thing?" - is a losing game:

Which is not an unreasonable reaction, but it's based on the disturbing -- and conservative -- notion that most people are so deeply stupid, or at least so uninterested in the world, that they can only be reached in the dishonest and patronizing ways conservatives have been reaching them.

God help us if that's true, because if it is, we've already lost.

Conservatism thrives on ignorance (which is not, by the way, to say that all, or even most, conservatives are ignorant; if you're one of the elect, conservatism is quite rational). It's not just that conservatives are better at exploiting innate ignorance, but that conservatism itself -- the idea that if we let our superiors make the tough decisions, and generally do what they think is best and in their interest (oh, wait, we're not supposed to think about that) all will be right with the world -- depends on cultivating  lazy habits of mind and a sense of personal ineptness when it comes to understanding the world.

I can't disagree. Under all forms of conservatism, even the libertarian varieties, is that assumption - that people - the mass of people - really can't make rational decisions, so we - who can make rational decisions - must at least make sure that they can't touch us, and at most actively make those decisions for them. And given that pattern, those assumptions - she is right as well, that if we adopt their methods - simplifying the message, trying to argue with sound bites and image, then we will simply play into their hands. That approach assumes the stupidity of the people - and since conservatism shares that assumption, it will benefit from it.

The problem with what she says is that, first - the left has been (and is) perfectly capable of authoritariamism. And has been, often enough in its history, as simple minded and paternalistic as the right. It is probably begging the question to say that leftist authoritarians and paternalists are "really" conservatives - but it's not an approach I would want to abandon. But that is a topic for another day - today - I'm with Jeanne.

The most basic liberal belief is that people can and must challenge what they're told, and figure things out for themselves. And at the heart of that is a faith that ordinary human beings are capable of that action. To me, the best thing about blogs is that they feed that faith. Every day they provide proof that the country is full of people with no power, and no pretensions to expertise, who nevertheless have things to say that trump most of what you hear from those whose job it is to pretend they know what they're talking about.


Women and Science

In my neverending quest to not blog more, I have not bothered to post anything about the Larry Summers controversy. Summers, if you recall, made a speech a couple weeks ago in which he suggested that there were innate, biological reasons why more men than women work with math. This went over badly, as one may expect. And so, a couple days later, he apologized.

So last week, in the Boston Phoenix, Harvey Silverglate responded to Summers’ apology. He was not pleased. Unfortunately, his response is not edifying. Claiming that Summers was "merely stating the obvious" - that "it is no longer acceptable to speak honestly or intelligently about gender, race, sexual identity, or any other issue that has already been "decided" by entrenched orthodoxies " just is not going to work here. Others, who know what they are talking about more than I do, have already addressed the substance of Summers’ remarks - see Majikthise and Pharyngula) in particular. I’ll have to stick to more general remarks.

First - I do not think there is anything particularly intelligent or honest about Summers' remarks. They sound to me to be aimed at irritating people - establishing an image of provocation, of being willing to challenge sacred cows - without the benefit of any thought whatsoever. They are provocative in the sense of provoking people to complain, not provoking people to think. And - perhaps a more important motivation for his remarks, in context - they are self-justifying. At some level, they seem to be aimed at denying his (or Harvard's) responsibility for fixing the gender disparity in the sciences. By suggesting that there are inherent, immutable differences between the sexes which no amount of political and social change can fix, Summers' arguments certainly suggest that at some point, there is no more good to come from social and political change. Where that point is can remain vague, but when someone in his position makes a speech like that, the implication is that the point isn't all that far away.

To defend either of those arguments in the name of academic freedom is cheap and lazy. Some of this is for essentially political reasons: Summers is not an expert on questions of gender, and as president of Harvard, what he says carries great weight - so his amateur opinions are magnified, and - again because of his position - are read as politically significant. (Some discussion of this can be found at the 800 pound gorilla of academic blogs, the Becker-Posner blog.) But beyond that, I think there are some fairly serious reasons why the whole issue is misleading.

Back in the first round of commentary on it, Matthew Yglesias posted something that, I thought, got around the obstructionism that mostly characterizes these debates. "Empirical research into genetics is only a red herring" said he - whether there are genetic differences or not, there are too many societal differences in the treatment of men and women for the genetic differences to be significant. (The Pharyngula link posted above has some similar thoughts - Myers arguing that even the differences that are detectable between men and women are too narrow to be related directly to academic positions.) Even Richard Posner, I think, falls into some of this trap, writing

It seems unlikely that all sex-related differences in occupational choice are due to discrimination; and therefore someone who explores alternative explanations should not be excoriated.

The problem, as Yglesias suggests, is that to speak of "innate" or "genetic" differences is to speak about something well beyond where we are now. That is - Posner (for instance) suggests that while discrimination declines, gender differences remain - this (he adds) suggests that there is something - else - at work. The argument presented by Summers is that the "something else" is biological - when the "something else" could be anything, from biology to social norms, role models, etc. Discrimination can't be defined as exiting only in the jopb market, or even in classrooms, in a simple way. It exists in what boys and girls are encouraged to do (for example) as much as in what they are prevented from doing. In short - I think it is unwise to talk about the genetic roots of social conditions, when you have nowhere nearly exhausted the possible social explanations.