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More on Obama

Lawrence Lessig recently posted this calm, engaging presentation on his site: 20 minutes or so on why I am 4Barack (Lessig Blog).

I’d like to add a note or two…
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I’ll be the first to admit that I can fall for hype. Not more than most people, I’d say, but I know I can do it.

But when it comes to politics, it’s very hard to believe any hype at all. I’m terribly jaded about it.

I’m voting for Obama in spite of the hype.

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Moral Dimensions

Without going into a lot of detail about it (no time!) I wanted to quote from this article discussing the ideas of Jonathan Haidt. It’s actually supposed to be a review of George Lakoff’s writing on political language, but it gets further into Haidt’s ideas and research as a better alternative. He’s not so kind to dear Lakoff (whose earlier work is very influential among many of my IA friends).

Essentially, the article draws a distinction between Lakoff’s idea that people act based on their metaphorical-linguistic interpretation of the world and Haidt’s psycho-evolutionary (?) view that there are deeper things than what we think of as language that guide us individually and socially. And Haidt is working to name those things, and figure out how they function.

Oddly enough, I remembered once I’d gotten a paragraph into this post that I linked to and wrote about Haidt a couple of years before. But I hadn’t really looked into it much further. Now I’m really wanting to read more of his work.

Haidt maps five major scales against which we can categorize (or measure) our moral responses. One of those is the one that seems least changeable or approachable by reason, the one that describes our visceral reaction of elevation or disgust in the presence of certain things we find taboo, without necessarily being able to explain why in a purely rational or utilitarian way.

Will Wilkinson — What’s the Frequency Lakoff?

Most intriguing is the possibility of systematic left-right differences on the purity dimension, which Haidt pegs as the source of religious emotion. In a fascinating chapter in his illuminating recent book, The Happiness Hypothesis, Haidt explains how a primal biological system—the disgust system—designed to keep us clear of rotten meat, expanded over our evolutionary history to encompass sexual norms, physical deformations, and much more. …

The flipside of disgust is the emotion Haidt calls “elevation,” based in a sense of purification and transcendence of our animal incarnation. Cultures the world over picture humanity as midway on a ladder of being between the demonically disgusting and the divinely pure. Most world religions express it through taboos of food, body, and sex, and in rituals of de-animalizing purification and sacralization. The warm, open sense of elevation and the shivering nausea of disgust are high and low notes in the same emotional key.

Haidt’s suggestion is partly that morally broad-band conservatives are better able to exploit the emotional logic of religiosity by deploying rhetoric and imagery that calls on powerful sentiments of elevation and disgust. A bit deaf to the divine, narrow-band liberals are at a disadvantage to stir religious Americans. And there are a lot of religious Americans out there.

I like this approach because it doesn’t refute the linguistic approach so much as explain it in a larger context. (Lakoff has come under criticism for his possibly over-simplification about how people live by metaphor — I”ll leave that debate to the experts.)

And it explains how people can have a real change of heart in their lives, how their morals can shift. Just this week, the mayor of San Diego decided to reverse a view he’d held for years, both personally and as a campaign promise, to veto any marriage-equality bill. Evidently one of his scales changed the other — he was caught in a classic Euthyphro conundrum between loyalty to his party and loyalty to the reality of his daughter. Unlike with Euthyphro, family won out. Or perhaps the particular experience of his daughter convinced him that the general assumption of homosexuality as evil is flawed? Who knows.

Whatever the cause, once you get a bit of a handle on Haidt’s model, you can almost see the bars in the chart shifting in front of you when you hear of such a change in someone.

And you can see very plainly how Karl Rove and others have masterfully manipulated this tendency. They have an intuitive grasp of this gut-level “digust/elevation” complex, and how to use it to get voters to act. I wonder, too, if it helps explain the weird fixation “socially conservative” people of all stripes had with the “Passion of Christ” film? Just think — that extreme level of detailed violence to a human being ramping up the digust meter, with the elevation meter being cranked just as high from the sense of transcendent salvation and martyr’s love that the gruesome ritual killing represented. What a combination.

The downside to Democrats here is that they can’t fake it. According to Wilkinson, there’s no way to just word-massage their way into this emotional dynamic with the public on the current dominant issues that tap into it. In his words, “Their best long-term hopes rest in moving the fight to a battlefield with more favorable terrain.”

(PS: I dig Wilkinson’s blog name too — a nice oblique reference to Wittgenstein, who said the aim of Philosophy is to “shew the fly the way out of the bottle.” )

Edited to Add: There’s a nice writeup on Haidt in the Times here.

I haven’t been doing much political posting here for a while, in the interest of trying to keep a user-experience design focus, for the most part.

But things are getting weirder and weirder in this land of ours. Or, at least, it’s becoming more clear how weird it’s been for quite a while.

I think many of us already knew that Cheney was creepy and secretive, and that he’d managed to cultivate an unusual amount of power for a VP. But I don’t know that many of us suspected how deep it really goes, or how dark.

Hertzberg gets to the point in the New Yorker:

More than anyone else, including his mentor and departed co-conspirator, Donald Rumsfeld, Cheney has been the intellectual author and bureaucratic facilitator of the crimes and misdemeanors that have inflicted unprecedented disgrace on our country’s moral and political standing: the casual trashing of habeas corpus and the Geneva Conventions; the claim of authority to seize suspects, including American citizens, and imprison them indefinitely and incommunicado, with no right to due process of law; the outright encouragement of “cruel,” “inhuman,” and “degrading” treatment of prisoners; the use of undoubted torture, including waterboarding (Cheney: “a no-brainer for me”), which for a century the United States had prosecuted as a war crime; and, of course, the bloody, nightmarish Iraq war itself, launched under false pretenses, conducted with stupefying incompetence, and escalated long after public support for it had evaporated, at the cost of scores of thousands of lives, nearly half a trillion dollars, and the crippling of America’s armed forces, which no longer overawe and will take years to rebuild.

Of course, I’m sure there are plenty of very humane and decent things Cheney has done in the world. It’s perhaps not fair to judge someone solely on the negatives. But what a list of negatives … I suspect he’s hit a tipping point, pushing him from merely corrupt to, well, evil.

Am I being harsh? Is this rhetoric too strong?

The question then becomes: how bad does it have to be for the rhetoric to be necessary? How corrupt and destructive does a public leader need to be in order to justify demonic, polemical characterization — which is often necessary to jar people’s frames of reference enough to wake up and see this is not just another administration, that it’s not just garden-variety incompetence or greed?

So, really, that’s what this post is about. That question. I wonder, in history, how it felt for people living in countries that were doing just fine and seemed nice and moderate and sane, but that were on the brink of catastrophy? What did the signs look like?

It seems like, in all the narratives I hear from such situations, regular people kept making excuses for their leaders, or buying into some watered-down version of their leaders’ more extreme views. “Oh, I’m sure it’s not as bad as all that.” “Oh, come on, this is (insert year here) in (insert country or region here) — that could never happen here!”

I remember news reports from Somalia in the early 90s, when reporters walked around in the ruins talking to people who had been poets, artists, teachers, doctors. There was talk of how modern and sane and moderate Somalia had been, how it had been one of the cultural (in a Western sense, I’m sure) jewels of Africa. Turned to blood and rubble.

People want to believe their leaders aren’t “as bad as all that.” Even people who don’t like their current leaders tend to have a sort of boundary that keeps them from thinking their leader could truly be a dictator in the making.

How bad does our administration have to be in order for us to say, out loud, these are criminals, and they must be stopped? And then, even if we do, what then?

Fascinating post in Danger Room about a new War College research paper explains that insurgencies aren’t even a species of conventional warfare, but very different. Definitely check out the post, but here’s an interesting tidbit:

…the dynamics of contemporary insurgency are more like a violent and competitive market than war in the traditional sense where clear and discrete combatants seek strategic victory.

So here’s an interesting syllogism: If Markets are Conversations, and Insurgencies are Markets, then are Insurgencies = Conversations?

From what the report says, it might be the best way to think of them. The report essentially recommends playing neutral mediator — even if you think one side is better than the other.

This makes me wonder if anybody involved in dealing with Iraq ever paid attention back in the 80s when Hill Street Blues was on. When I was a kid, I remember thinking how strange it was to see cops in a room with “bad guy” gang leaders, negotiating things like truces. I thought: “The bad guys are right there, why don’t you arrest them??” But I realized soon enough that they’d only be replaced by more bad-guy leaders, and that until they brought a modicum of peace between the gangs, they would never manage to reduce violent crime in the city.

Of course, that’s the somewhat idealized TV version, which is much less messy than real life. But isn’t it still a great idea that often works? Or at least, isn’t it an idea that should be tried first, before you just try crushing the bad guys?


Stunning article.

The last paragraph:

The New York Review of Books: A Country Ruled by Faith
There is a particular danger with a war that God commands. What if God should lose? That is unthinkable to the evangelicals. They cannot accept the idea of second-guessing God, and he was the one who led them into war. Thus, in 2006, when two thirds of the American people told pollsters that the war in Iraq was a mistake, the third of those still standing behind it were mainly evangelicals (who make up about one third of the population). It was a faith-based certitude.

I was looking for the verification of a quotation from Billy Graham (evidently it was in a David Frost interview in 1997) where he says, “We’re not a Christian Country. We’ve never been a Christian Country. We’re a secular Country, by our constitution. In which Christians live and which many Christians have a voice. But we’re not a Christian Country.” (Originally saw the quote over at Andrew Sullivan.)

And in looking, I ran across various mentions of Billy Graham and how his articulation of his faith has evolved over the last 10 years or so. Among them I found the page linked below, and its ensuing comments, where a certain Rev Josh Buice derides Graham for not having frozen his faith in amber at the age of 20 and kept it there until death. (I wonder which servant Buice would praise in Jesus’ parable of the talents, since Jesus didn’t seem to have much truck with the servant who buried the sum entrusted to him in the earth so as to avoid all risk…)

He maligns Graham as an apostate, doddering and weakening in his faith. This seems, to me, the absolute height of self-righteousness, that one might not learn a subtle lesson from someone he professes to be a lifelong ‘hero.’ It makes me wonder if he ever learned anything from Graham earlier, or if he just saw what he wanted to see in him?

The post and discussion are here: When a Hero Falls.

Here’s the ironic and funny part to me: the post is essentially an inerrantist making a statement on the motivation, meaning and intent of the statements Graham made in an interview with Newsweek back in the summer. Basically, he’s looking at a text, interpreting what he thinks Graham means by it, and reacting to that.

I think, personally, he gets Graham all wrong on this, but I can see how he’d read what he sees into it — but of course I would since I’m not an inerrantist and I think human beings read their own meanings into texts all the time. We can’t help it. It’s baked into how we process communication. Human language is as flawed as humanity, and our own mental processes are as unique and varied as we are as individuals — it’s simply impossible for everyone to understand a single text in exactly the same way. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have conversations about coming to shared understandings, but it does mean we can’t measure that kind of meaning the way we measure drill bits and shirt buttons.

Anyway, what then ensues is a debate among a bunch of people (who essentially agree with each other on inerrancy in general) over the various ways in which to interpret Graham’s apparent dismissal of inerrancy. It seems to me that the fact of their disagreement is itself proof against their assumption.

Well, I thought it was funny. Then I realized: these are real people, and they actually believe the tripe they’re typing. And they’re willing to essentially excommunicate Billy Graham for saying these things, and at least ignore him and be undeterred by his newfound understanding of the subtleties and complexities of scripture.

It’s that attitude I find horrific: the arrogance and dogmatic self-righteousness that says, “My faith is a good faith if it remains untouched, unchanged.” Because they really do believe that faith is equivalent to a list of codified ‘beliefs.’ When, to my thinking, any list of codified beliefs is essentially idolatry — a graven image not of a god’s face but of human words worshipped in place of the god they supposedly point to.

If these guys check their Gospels carefully, I think they’ll find a Jesus who reserved his most vitriolic condemnation (what little there was of it) for the self-righteous, those who judged others without looking hard at themselves, those who would have contempt at best and condemnation at worst, for those of a different point of view or place in life.

[Edited to add: yet more irony from the inerrantist camp — Albert Mohler, itching to further dismiss Richard Dawkins’ new book, The God Delusion, gleefully quotes at length from a review written by Terry Eagleton in The London Review of Books. I guess Mohler has no qualms swallowing the opinions of a Marxist literary theorist as long as they’re in the service of discrediting another heretic.]

I’m a big believer that money talks and bs walks. I used to be more idealistic: that money wasn’t everything, and that (outside of very healthy friendships and family relationships) how someone values you wasn’t necessarily dependent on the money they were willing to give you or trust you with.

But the older I get, the more I believe that unless someone is willing to put up, they should shut up. This goes for employers, for example: they can talk all they want about how great a place theirs is to work and how much they want your talent. But if they aren’t willing to pay the price for your talent, they don’t value it as much as they say.

The same goes for talk about political “values” stuff. Which points to what I think is the Bush administration’s biggest lie exposed in David Kuo‘s book “Tempting Faith.”

Kuo is coming under massive fire from all fronts, including the supposedly ‘liberal’ media. Personally, I believe the guy when he says that he really wanted to believe in the administration, and was disillusioned by the machinations he found within. He keeps trying to tell people that this isn’t a gossip book, but a memoir reflecting on what it meant for him to mix faith and politics and to grapple with that question.

I haven’t read the book yet, but I keep hearing things about it, like this post on Faithful Democrats that explains how the administration, while it wouldn’t shut up, definitely didn’t “put up.”

Faithful Democrats – Slings and Arrows

When it came time to send the budget up to Capitol Hill, however, “those charity tax credits weren’t listed by the White House as must-haves,” writes Kuo, so they were left out. Senator Charles Grassley put them back into the Senate version, because “he assumed that the White House had omitted the charity provisions by oversight.” Alas, no. During negotiations over the final budget bill, Bush’s chief congressional liaison told Grassley “to get rid of the charity tax credits….The White House didn’t want them anymore.”

To make things even worse, the tax credits were bumped aside in order to make room for elimination of the estate tax. One popular way of getting around the estate tax for many wealthy individuals has been to donate money to charities and write off the gift. Eliminating the estate tax not only prevented $16 billion of new giving from being stimulated, but it cost more than $5 billion per year in charitable giving by those wealthy Americans who could keep their money to themselves now.

I wonder where, in the Gospels, Jesus says to take promised money from the poor and give it to the rich — and to do so in a way which discourages the rich from giving to the poor either?

I’m pretty sure it’s not in there. Neither is any mention of homosexuality — and yet the Republicans have managed to galvanize such fear of sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular over the last eight years, they’ve had scared Americans voting in droves.

I suppose championing the poor with your dollars and not just your mouth doesn’t motivate people to vote?

Edited to add: Here’s a good interview with Kuo at Newsweek. In it he says the following, which I think sounds very sensible, and like the kind of thing Christians I’ve looked up to all my life would say:

The Christian political leaders have been seduced. If you look at their comments that they know what they’re doing, I’m not quite sure how to read that—is it wonderful or a little troubling? That’s one of the reasons I call for this fast from politics. I’m not saying that Christians shouldn’t vote, which is going around on Christian talk radio. But for a period—I personally think it should take two years from after this election to the presidential election—evangelical Christians should take a fast from giving their money to political causes and from giving much of their time as well. Take that money that is currently fueling all those wonderful hate-filled ads, the hundreds of millions being spent, and spend that money on the poor and inner-city kids. Instead of spending time lobbying, spend your time with your neighbor, saying love your neighbor as yourself.

How can you argue with that?

HBS prof and Enterprise 2.0 thinker/blogger Andrew McAfee back in July, commenting on the implications of people being fired for what they say on personal blogs or otherwise (as in the Axsmith case).
Andrew McAfee

Smart organizations will accept and embrace the fact that Enterprise 2.0 tools will be used to voice dissent within the community. And they’ll realize that this is more than just OK; it’s important.

Let’s close this post with a quote from Theordore Roosevelt, who wrote about dissent and the American President in a 1918 Kansas City Star editorial:

“… it is absolutely necessary that there should be full liberty to tell the truth about his acts, and this means that it is exactly necessary to blame him when he does wrong as to praise him when he does right. Any other attitude in an American citizen is both base and servile. To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public.”

I’d love to hear a presidential candidate quote that in the coming months.

First of all, I have to admit, it’s kind of fun to watch the Republican House chewing away at its own extremeties trying to free itself from the bear (elephant?) traps it’s found itself in since the weekend. Schadenfreude indeed.

But this story (here’s a bit of it, but pieces of it keep coming out and it’s everywhere) worries me too.

To some degree, the fact that Foley is gay is delicious irony that has short-circuited a huge piece of the Republican power to get people to the polls… although it’s arguable that their Gay-Scare tactics were starting to lose steam in the face of Iraq and other debacles. Still… even for lots of people who might quibble with the administration’s foreign policy and whatnot, if you just remind them that Democrats luuuuuv “the gays” and that being gay is essentially the same as being a pedophile and/or bestiality fan, it gets their people to the polls like nobody’s business. (I am, of course, parroting their bigotry, not agreeing with it … just to make that clear… it’s godawful ignorance at best but more likely just plain evil bigotry.)

The fact that Foley is gay, then, could just be used by his Republican bretheren as an excuse to excommunicate him and say they knew nothing of it and are ejecting a bad apple. But they can’t, because evidently tons of them knew about his antics. Because of their coverups, the GOP is in for a real sh**storm and probably a loss of power (unless Diebold can win the elections for the GOP again). Basically, they’re being hoist by their own petard — the petard, in this case, is their homophobia.

Great, right? But I wonder if all this press about Foley going after 16 yr old boys is only furthering popular misconceptions about homosexuality? You can hear it in the voices of the conservatives who are calling for his ouster — especially people like Bay Buchanan — who see this as nothing less than confirmation of their beliefs that homosexuals are out to “convert” and/or molest their perfect little churchgoing children. In fact, this backlash has already begun.

So I hope that the media makes a clear distinction between “gay” and “inappropriately stalking/wooing teenagers.” Not that the media are known for their grasp of logical nuance.

Still… my god the fireworks are fun to watch.

(Edited to add: I don’t want to sound like I getting sadistic pleasure from seeing individuals in personally wrenching, life-destroying situations. I don’t wish that on anyone … it’s the neo-puritanical hypocrisy being brought to light that I’m celebrating.)

Why on earth are more people not completely gobstoppered over the fact that we have an administration that is PRO-TORTURE.

Let me say that again … “Pro-Torture”…

If this were a movie, it’d be a very very dark political satire. Imagine the storyline if a political party got into power and continued (as everything else was falling down around their ears) to fight for the right to murder? Or to steal? “Hi. I’m Candidate Whatsis and you should vote for me because I’m in favor of murder. *big smile*”

But we’re living it now. With the incredible incompetence of this administration, and all the positive things they could possibly still do to pull this travesty of a foreign policy out of the muck, they focus their will almost completely on preserving the President’s right to torture other human beings, even though many in their own party are against it, all five former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have come out against it, and nobody has a convincing case that torture even produces trustworthy intelligence.

In spite of all of that, Bush & Co. can’t seem to stop thinking about doing awful things to other people’s bodies. (If intelligence were that important to our administration, you’d think they wouldn’t be firing so many Arabic translators from the military because of sexual preference … but I digress.)

The amazing thing is that this President claims to be a committed Christian. I wish someone would ask him outright how he squares his faith with torture — this bizarre, sick commitment to something that, even if it wasn’t completely destructive to the moral fabric of our country and our moral authority in the world (the little we have left), isn’t even a trustworthy method for learning facts.

Anyway, Andrew Sullivan put it better than I’ve seen it anywhere so far:

Andrew Sullivan | The Daily Dish

And yet so many seem to. Why? Torture is not a hard issue for any Christian. It is an unmitigated moral evil. There is no theology on earth which can make it a less grave moral matter than, say, gay marriage. And yet it has been enforced by this president for five years and where is the outrage? You would imagine that James Dobson would have organized a massive phone-in or email blitz to Capitol Hill on the detainee legislation. You would imagine that every theocon from Ponnuru to Neuhaus would be writing about this every day and night. But nah. Gays getting married in one state out of 49? Massive, coordinated outrage, sermon after sermon, direct mail blitz after direct mail blitz, and a threatened constitutional amendment. The president authorizing torture? You can hear a pin drop on the religious right. Tells you something, no?

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