Thursday, December 23, 2021

Chilean Déjà vu?

If Chile was the cradle of neoliberalism, it will also be its grave
 —Chilean president-elect Gabriel Boric upon being elected on Sunday
Is history repeating itself in the Land of Poets?

In Chile’s 1970 presidential election, the choice was narrowed down to extremes on the left and right. There was a popular, moderate incumbent president (a Christian Democrat), but under the constitution in effect at the time he was not allowed to run for re-election. Instead, his party’s standard-bearer was a weak candidate, so the choice boiled down to right and left. In those days Congress determined the winner of the three-man race, and the Christian Democrats threw their support to socialist Salvador Allende. His election was followed by three years of instability caused by (depending on your point of view) either Allende’s radical reforms and policies or by his opponents’ overreaction to them. In 1973 he was overthrown by a military coup, and a junta ruled the country for the next 17 years.

Superficially, something similar to 1970 seems to have just happened again. But there are key differences. Under a different constitution—one written originally under the Pinochet dictatorship—a first-round presidential election on November 21 drew several candidates from a variety of parties across the political spectrum. The largest single vote-getter was the Republican Party’s far-right nominee José Antonio Kast with 27.91 percent of the vote. Not far behind was the far-left candidate of Apruebo Dignidad (an alliance whose name means “I approve of dignity”) Gabriel Boric with 25.72 percent. Given the overall makeup of the first-round voting and the opinion polls, it was no surprise that, in the second-round vote held this past Sunday, Boric was the winner—although the margin of his victory (more than 11 percent) was indeed notable.

Boric’s party is the left-wing Social Convergence, and his coalition has the support of Chile’s Communist Party. Do we need to worry about a right-wing reaction as happened in 1973? Probably not. One major difference between Boric and Allende is that Boric actually received a majority mandate from voters. Perhaps even more significant is that there has been a huge generational shift in Chile. Protests in the streets in 2019 led to the election of a Constitutional Convention after a plebiscite in which 78 percent of voters chose to replace the country’s current charter. Given the makeup of the elected convention, the new constitution will be much more leftist-oriented than any in the country’s history.

Sometimes it helps us North Americans to draw comparisons between the United States and other countries. For example, we might say that electing Gabriel Boric as president of Chile would be comparable to Americans electing… who? Bernie Sanders? Elizabeth Warren? Comparisons like that are not ideal because, for one thing, what is considered left-wing in the U.S. is often much different than what the label represents in other countries. For another thing (and to be unkind) Sanders is as old as dirt, and Warren is no spring chicken either. It is a strange feature of U.S. politics these days that the American political duopoly keeps throwing up geriatric candidates to the voters. As a result, the de facto leaders of America’s left in government are dinosaurs from another age.

This is not the case with Gabriel Boric. At 35, he barely met the minimum age qualification to run for president. A former student leader while studying law at the University of Chile, he was in the forefront of the protests leading to the Constitutional Convention. He and those around him are of an entirely new generation which sees the world much differently than their parents and grandparents did. While the appeal and lure of socialism have long tantalized certain segments of previous generations, anyone who spends much time around young people these days knows that as a political philosophy it is much more mainstream among that age group than it has ever been before.

During his campaign, Boric repeatedly promised to “bury neoliberalism,” i.e. free-market capitalism. That is unsettling for those of us who associate free markets with democracy and personal freedom. On the positive side, though, he cites as his models Europe’s Nordic countries (which are firmly capitalistic, despite what some may think) and Uruguay—as opposed to Fidel Castro’s Cuba, which was Allende’s model.

Decades from now, will Chileans be happy with their political choice? Maybe. Maybe not. In any event, they will at least know it was their own choice and not, as in North America, a legacy bequeathed them by elderly leaders who will by then be long gone.

Thursday, October 7, 2021

Declining Post-sectarianism

President Higgins Formally Asks DUP Are They For F***ing Real
 —Headline on the Irish satirical newspaper web site Waterford Whispers News, September 16
Many of us worry about what looks like increasing rates of sectarianism or divisiveness or polarization or whatever you want to call it. It seems like every issue or challenge that arises—the pandemic, extreme weather events, elections—immediately requires people to go to separate corners and politicize the atmosphere.

Is it ironic or inevitable that the division appears to get worse when things are actually going relatively well. To be sure, there are plenty of things to worry about, but many of the things people are anxious about—climate change, economic collapse, failure of democracy—tend to be looming things which, in some cases at least, may not even happen. Many are concerned about racial and economic inequality, but these problems are by no means new and, when viewed from a long historical perspective, actually seem to be on a trajectory, even if much too slow for those concerned, for getting better.

What worries me, among other things, is the polarization. It seems to be a phenomenon that waxes and wanes over history. Paradoxically, major wars—or more specifically, their aftermaths—appear to foster unity. Long-lasting, prosperous peacetime seems to give people time and space to dig into their differences.

A big part of the polarization problem is that it is human nature to readily perceive prejudices in others but not to recognize them in ourselves.

Ireland, a relatively small country, makes for an interesting laboratory for the armchair amateur social scientist. A century ago the island lived through a violent rebellion and war for independence and then a bloody civil war. In the process, the island was partitioned and two communities settled into an uneasy co-existence. Much of the past century was marked by violence from paramilitary groups and from the British military. Thankfully, since1998 there has been a peace agreement. Violence has not been completely eliminated, but it has been vastly reduced. Free trade and travel within the European Union, if not exactly equivalent to reunification, fostered a sense of unity on the island. That progress has been challenged in recent years by a narrow majority of United Kingdom voters deciding to leave the European Union, taking Northern Ireland with it.

Tensions have risen over issues of trade between and among Northern Ireland, the Irish republic and Great Britain—as well as the prospect of the return of some form of border controls. All this has been going on against a backdrop of centenaries for the events that resulted in independence for 26 of 32 Irish counties and the island’s partition.

At the birth of the current century, there was much salutary rhetoric over respecting and celebrating the diverse communities on the island. With the advent of Brexit, however, there has been at least a partial return to the old recriminations back and forth between unionists/Protestants on one side and nationalists/Catholics on the other. To be clear, those labels are generalizations and simplifications. The sectarian division is more accurately described as being between those who bear residual resentment toward the old colonizers and those who identify with the old colonizers. In other words, this is people harking back to their tribal roots and narratives.

The latest flashpoint in the tribal divisions is an inter-denominational service scheduled two weeks from now in the Church of Ireland cathedral in Armagh. Described by the organizers as a “service of reflection and hope,” its purpose is to commemorate the island’s partition on its centenary and, thus, the formation of Northern Ireland. Among the various dignitaries invited were Queen Elizabeth and Ireland’s President Michael D. Higgins. The latter has politely but firmly—and in the face of some criticism, defiantly—declined.

Usually, it is the unionist politicians who come off looking like intransigent dinosaurs, clinging to their fundamentalist religion and traditions in the face of a changing world. This perception really doesn’t do justice to how far the late firebrand Ian Paisley and his Democratic Unionist Party came to make peace with Sinn Féin, the political arm of the insurrectionist Provisional Irish Republican Army.

President Higgins’s decision to rebuff the invitation has been supported by a large majority in the republic. There is no way the president should have to “celebrate” the partition of his country, say his defenders—despite the fact event organizers have been clear it’s not a celebration. Unfortunately, the same logic could be used to justify all manner of intransigence on both sides of the sectarian divide. If both sides had stubbornly and consistently clung to such logic, there would have been no Good Friday Agreement ending the North’s Troubles.

The fact that the president’s position looks perfectly justified and reasonable to most of the republic’s citizens is a useful illustration of how much easier it is to recognize prejudice in others than in oneself.

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Running for the Exit

I think he has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.
 —Robert Gates, Secretary of Defense under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, writing about Joe Biden in his 2014 book Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War

[T]he likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.
 —President Biden, discussing Afghanistan in a press conference on July 8

This is a foreign policy catastrophe, the likes we haven’t seen in decades, I’m afraid, internationally
 —Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney, commenting on the Afghanistan situation in a radio interview on Monday
In the lead-up to the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, there was much media speculation about how much it might, at the end, resemble the country’s chaotic retreat from Vietnam in 1975. As it happened, there were a lot of similarities. From panic at the U.S. embassy, among others, to desperate last-minute crowding at the capital’s airport, there was plenty of fodder for déjà vu for those of us who remember well the fall of Saigon.

For one thing, the endgame was set up by a peace treaty. In the earlier case, it was the Nixon Administration’s pact with North Vietnam, which resulted in a Nobel Peace Prize for Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho in 1973. In the current situation, it was the Trump Administration’s agreement with the Taliban a year and a half ago. In both cases, those pieces of paper were tossed aside once a subsequent U.S. administration pulled troops out suddenly. In 1975 it was the Ford Administration, which had little choice after Congress cut off all Vietnam funding. Today it is the Biden Administration, which announced four months ago the drawdown of all U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

One difference between the two situations is the reaction of America’s hard political left.

“Ho Chi Minh puts a lot of hope in our hearts,” declared a woman attending a spontaneous celebration in April 1975. “As we practice the philosophies we believe in we forget that there are other people who believe in the same thing but practice it differently because of their environment. The greater struggle lies ahead.”

Added a war veteran-turned-anti-war-activist, “It’d be so far out to be there right now.” He was referring to the capital of soon-to-be-absorbed South Vietnam, which had just been renamed Ho Chi Minh City.

The above quotes are from a 46-year-old event in Isla Vista, the densely populated student ghetto abutting the Santa Barbara campus of the University of California. They were chronicled in the student newspaper The Nexus, and yes, I was the hack scribe who reported them. A similar event had been held weeks earlier to mark Cambodia’s surrender to the Khmer Rouge.

Some of the people at the April event were there simply to express relief at the final end of the war and the U.S.’s involvement in the region. Others were wholeheartedly celebrating a U.S. defeat at the hands of Communists. For others, the celebratory mood may have been more about something more general: a former colony casting out a Western superpower.

I can’t imagine that very many on the political left today are celebrating the Taliban’s victory. I no longer have the contacts I did during my Seattle days, so I’m not really sure. If any are celebrating, though, it cannot be without mixed feelings. While the new rulers of Afghanistan have done their best to project a more presentable image as their return to power loomed, their track record and unabashed world view suggest their rule will be a disaster for anyone who cares about western liberal democratic values in general or the rights of women and minorities in particular. In my experience, though, the hard left tends to see such rights and social issues not as ends in themselves but mainly as issues to exploit tactically in their ultimate aim: to see the that right people end up in charge.

To be clear, when I talk about the “hard left,” I’m not talking about people who vote for Democrats. My experience with hard-core leftists is that they mainly vote for fringe candidates in protest or, more often, don’t vote at all. If they do vote for a Democrat, it’s usually grudgingly and/or tactically. They do, however, show up en masse at demonstrations and protests, which sometimes results in generating enthusiasm and motivation for Democratic-leaning voters.

While the hard left is definite minority in America, it’s hard not to notice that views once considered on the political fringe have infiltrated the mainstream. A sign of this is the ardent media coverage—both left and right—of the so-called “squad,” a half-dozen Representatives who, according to opinion polls anyway, are well to the left of most Democrats—let alone most Americans.

As for Afghanistan, those of us who have seen this movie before know pretty much what to expect. In North America and Europe there will be reflections and recriminations about how the occupation of the country began and why it turned out the way it did. In Southwest Asia there will be strife and misery and perhaps yet another refugee crisis. (For years after the fall of South Vietnam, waves of so-called “boat people” flooded out of the country.) There will be heartbreaking tales of people, mainly women, whose lives and opportunities will be set back to a previous century. One also has to ask if Taliban-controlled Afghanistan will go back to being a haven and base for international terrorists.

In the last presidential election, we were told a vote for Joe Biden was a vote for returning to normalcy, sanity and competency. Things are definitely back to what’s considered normal in Washington, and I suppose the capital is as sane as it’s ever been—for whatever that’s worth. Competency? Even if you think ending U.S. involvement in Afghanistan was a good idea, you still have to wonder if the terms of withdrawal couldn’t have been negotiated better and whether the actual exit could have been handled more competently.

Watching Biden on countless Sunday morning news programs in the 1990s and 2000s, it was always clear to me he considered himself a foreign policy maven. Yet, to anyone paying attention, it was also clear that his ideas—which were just that, since as a senator or even vice-president he had little discernible influence on actual policy—were always a little off from establishment foreign policy thinking. Whether it was his idea of splitting Iraq into three countries or advising President Obama not to pull the trigger on Osama bin Laden, he always seemed oddly contrarian.

Reportedly, Biden overruled his top military advisers in following through on the Trump Administration’s deal with the Taliban. You have to wonder what that says about his judgment as he faces upcoming crises with places like Iran and North Korea.

Biden’s real strength was always in domestic politics, and that probably tells us more about his handling of Afghanistan than all his years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Apparently, polls said that getting out of Afghanistan ranked as very popular among U.S. voters. If it remains popular after this fiasco—even after heart-wrenching footage of people clinging to taxiing aircraft in Kabul—then maybe the president will have succeeded on his own terms.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Bot and Sold

This is a cross-posting with my movie blog.

A funny thing happened on my film blog last month. No, it wasn’t something I wrote—or at least that’s not what I’m talking about anyway.

I have a page where each month I present a few statistics from the previous month. Mostly it’s to get an idea of who is looking at my blog but also to amuse myself. The page features a pie chart showing the various countries from where I am getting hits. Historically, about half the hits are from the United States with the next larger slices from places like the UK, Ireland and Canada. After that the slices get pretty fragmented into a few dozen other countries all over the world. I also list the ten weekly commentaries in my archive that have gotten the most hits. And then just for fun I list five of the most entertaining web searches that have found my site.

When I went to gather the numbers for May, I encountered something that hadn’t happened before. Ninety-seven percent of the hits were from one country, and that country was Indonesia. The U.S. came in second with two percent. Twenty-six other countries were tallied with percentages rounded off to insignificance.

Why did internet users in Indonesia suddenly take an interest in my movie reviews? The answer is that they almost certainly didn’t. Something else was going on. I think the term we’re looking for here is web bots.

While such a massive number of hits from one country is unprecedented for my humble site, this weird kind of bot activity is not. Only very belated did I realize that my site was prowled by Russian bots coming up to the 2016 election. During September, October and November of that year, 11.9 percent of my hits came from Russia (after Ireland at 34.13 percent and the U.S. at 20.45 pecent). That had never happened before. Historically, my hits from Russia had always been nil or negligible. Cluelessly, I just shrugged and thought it must have had something to do with a few movies I had reviewed that were made by an Azerbaijani filmmaker. He had contacted me through a Russian email address (Azerbaijan being a former republic in the USSR), and I figured that he must have just had a lot of friends and relatives checking out my reviews of his films.

It was an embarrassingly long time afterward that it dawned on me that it might have had something to do with the 2016 presidential election. In my defense, I was kind of oblivious to the Russian trolling thing because none of those political bot messages everyone talked about seemed to show up in my Facebook feed. Did you know that hidden in your Facebook settings is a profile page where Facebook displays all the information it think it’s found out about you—things like religion, political preference, etc.? From this I know that Facebook has never been able to figure out what political party I support, and maybe that’s why I somehow avoided all the bot propaganda that I kept hearing about in the wake of President Trump’s election.

When the 2020 election rolled around, I was more savvy, so I kept an eye out for any more bot funny business. Sure enough, the numbers went screwy again. In the period from September to November 2020, the second and third most hits (after the U.S. at 36.09 percent) were from Hong Kong (20.26 percent) and China (7.56 percent), respectively. Nothing like that had ever happened before. Does that mean Chinese bots were working mischief during the election? People who had screamed bloody hell about Russian interference four years earlier did not seem concerned about it anyway. After all, the right candidate had won.

What does it all mean? Beats me. I don’t mind all the extra hits, but it would be nice if, while the bots are at it, they’d click on some of ads and maybe buy something.

We’re definitely in a strange time when it comes to the internet. A few times lately our broadband service has been disrupted by denial-of-service attacks by malicious cyber actors. Also, the entire Irish healthcare system has been forced to go retro because of a ransomware attack (traced by the authorities to Russia) that put its online systems out of commission. That points up the risks in having systems that are overly centralized. There may be other lessons as well. More than one acquaintance who happens to be a nurse has said that they love having the system down. It means a lot less time filling out online forms and more time actually working with patients. It also means fewer statistics on Covid ‑19 cases and death and on progress with vaccinations on the nightly news—something the government may not be all that unhappy about.

Okay, I can understand all the Russian bot activity in 2016 and all the Chinese bot activity in 2020, but what the heck is the deal with Indonesia in May of 2021? That one has me completely confounded. I can only hope the bots are aimed directly at me because one of the characters in my most recent novel Searching for Cunégonde happened to have an Indonesian father.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Dates with Destiny

This is a cross-posting with my book blog.

Coming up with titles for a book or a story can be either easy or frustrating.

In the case of the first two installments of the Dallas Green trilogy, the titles came fairly easily. In fact, I had the title Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead in my head for a long time before I seriously tackled the book itself. It was something a good friend of mine quipped during a discussion about Mexico, and it stuck in my head for years. When it came time for the sequel, the idea of Lautaro’s Spear came to me fairly easily, keeping consistency with the mention of major historical figures of Latin America. The third book, though, was a real struggle. I considered all kinds of figures from Irish history and legend but found them all unworkable. I ended up on settling for Searching for Cunégonde, which referenced a fictional character from French literature.

As for the fantasy books, I had had The Three Towers of Afranor in my pocket since high school. The Curse of Septimus Bridge was likewise straightforward, and I had the title of that book’s sequel settled (for now anyway) before I even started writing.

When coming up with titles for books, I try to come up with something that hasn’t been used before and which aspires to being unusual or unique. The goal, which may or may not be misguided, is to have something that would be easy to find in a web search.

Interestingly, coming up with a title for my recent short story proved to be one of the more frustrating experiences in coming with a title. I liked the idea of having a French word in it since one of the two main characters is French. Since the plot essentially consists of a meeting, the word rendezvous lent itself. As a title, though, it is hardly unique. If you search that title on the Internet Movie Database, you find there are no fewer than 150 feature films, short films, TV episodes that have the title Rendezvous, Rendez-Vous, Rendez-vous or some other variation as an original title or alternative (e.g. foreign language) title. The good news is that titles cannot be copyrighted, so there is nothing to stop writers like me from reusing them. The drawback is the risk of having one’s work overshadowed by a better known one with the same name.

It’s not just films and books that have titles though. Something one may not think about is that political cartoons can have titles. I was reminded of this fairly soon after I released my short story as a small e‑book. One morning I glanced at The Times of London to see a cartoon by Peter Brookes lampooning U.S. Special Envoy for Climate John Kerry’s high-level meeting on climate in Shanghai in mid-April. Provocatively, it portrays Kerry and his Chinese interlocutor meeting cheerfully over the body of a Uighur while power plants belch out smoke in the background. The title is “Climate Change Rendezvous.”

This cartoon is a blatant homage to the famous Evening Standard cartoon by David Low which appeared in September 1939. That one was called simply “Rendezvous,” and in that context the word harkens back to its original meaning (before the French began using it to mean appointment or date): a place for troops to assemble.

Low’s cartoon depicted Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin meeting with exaggerated gestures of politeness over the body of a fallen Polish soldier. The cartoon was published 27 days after the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact containing a secret protocol dividing Poland into “spheres of influence” between the Soviet Union and Germany; 19 days after Germany invaded Poland; and three days after the Soviets invaded the country. This joint military action was the official beginning of World War II.

It seems harsh to draw a parallel between talks over climate change and a cynical accord to carve up a sovereign nation, but if political cartoonists know anything, it is that subtlety and nuance are not friends to those trying to get a point across in a single image. Also, shock has a certain value when it comes to attracting eyeballs—and hopefully, brains. In the end, the cartoon is not really about climate change.

The plight of the Uighurs, referenced in Brookes’s cartoon, has been ongoing since the region was forcibly incorporated into China in 1930 but has escalated since 2014 when the Chinese government began the internment of more than a million Muslims, mostly Uighurs, in state-sponsored camps. Testimonies have described suppression of religious practices, political indoctrination, forced sterilizations and abortions, and infanticides. Critics have labeled Chinese policy both ethnocide and cultural genocide and have compared it to the Holocaust. So the cartoon’s comparison to the Hitler and Stalin regimes is not that far off after all.

Still, it may be unfair to imply, as the cartoon seems to, a moral equivalence between the U.S. and China, given that the Chinese government bears the responsibility for its brutal treatment of the Uighurs. Still, the suggestion that the U.S. government may be turning something akin to a blind eye to the atrocities in pursuit of a possibly quixotic climate deal with the Chinese is arguably fair comment. A century from now, will history celebrate John Kerry’s efforts at climate negotiation—or will the question loom larger of why the world left Uighur men, women and children to their fate?

That recalls another use of the word rendezvous. Politicians as dissimilar as Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan have at critical moments memorably invoked a moral crossroads with a common phrase—rendezvous with destiny.

Monday, April 12, 2021

Personal Truth

Study Finds Connection Between Believing Russia Rigged 2016 Election and Believing 2020 Election Was Foolproof
 —Headline on the satirical newspaper web site The Babylon Bee, November 17
Ages ago during my thrifty student days in Europe, I found it beneficial to be open-minded and flexible when traveling.

Transportation was kept cheap by holding out my thumb on the side of a road. For a two-month period I used a Christmas gift from my parents, a Student Rail Pass, for both transportation and shelter by scheduling overnight train journeys whenever possible.

One thing I learned was that a free bed could be had for a night or two if I was willing to undergo a bit of proselytization. My diverse array of friends included young born-again Christians who were firmly convinced I belonged in their community. The problem was that I was raised with no religion and my analytical nature found it impossible to accept one religion over another (or atheism for that matter) without some sort of hard objective evidence. My friends’ response was to recommend various clergymen and lay people who might be able to help me sort out my thoughts. An extra enticement was that some of these people would kindly lodge truth-seekers for free.

I took advantage of a couple of these offers, and to be clear, I did so with a completely open and curious mind. One was an Anglican minister and his wife who had a lovely, large apartment in the city center of Paris between the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower. Another was a community called L’Abri which was operated out of the home of its founder, American-born theologian Francis Schaeffer, in a picturesque spot in the Swiss Alps southeast of Lake Geneva. I spent several days there, reading, discussing and asking all manner of questions.

In the end I did not have the life-changing breakthrough my friends were hoping for, but I did come away with a huge appreciation for the science of epistemology. That’s a branch of learning which poses the question, how can we actually know anything? When you start thinking about it deeply, you find it’s a lot harder than you’d think. A lot of what we “know” is really belief accepted on faith. A lot of self-described atheists like to attribute their rejection of religious doctrine to science, but one of the most profound insights I gained from my brief time at L’Abri was the realization that it takes every bit as much blind faith to believe there is no God as it does to believe God exists.

A clear understanding of the limits of knowability is relevant these days when we have media outlets and pundits accusing others of willfully ignoring the truth. In fact, the manner in which some groups, parties or publications proclaim that they are delivering The Real Truth reminds me of nothing so much as the history of my ancestors in 16th-century Europe when the Christian church split into multiple sects, each certain unto death what the nature of God was and what He wanted. As I listen to what passes for political discussion today, I sometimes wonder if we are not in such a time again and if politics is not merely the modern equivalent of religion.

An article I read in The New York Times in February has become stuck in mind. It is a detailed piece requiring 14 minutes to read. It recounts an incident at Smith College in the summer of 2018 when a woman ate her lunch in a lounge of a deserted dormitory. A janitor noticed her in the dormitory, which was closed for the summer, and did as he had been instructed. He notified campus security that he had seen an unauthorized person there.

“A well-known [unarmed] older campus security officer drove over to the dorm,” continues the article. “He recognized Ms. Kanoute as a student and they had a brief and polite conversation, which she recorded. He apologized for bothering her and she spoke to him of her discomfort: ‘Stuff like this happens way too often, where people just feel, like, threatened.’”

The piece goes on to tell how the student, whose family had immigrated from Mali, subsequently made accusations of racism against the cafeteria worker who had provided her with lunch, even though the cafeteria was only supposed to be serving students in a summer camp program at the time; the janitor who had called security; another janitor who whose shift had not yet begun at the time; and the security guard.

After a lengthy investigation the college president “released a 35-page report from a law firm with a specialty in discrimination investigations. The report cleared Ms. Blair [the cafeteria worker] altogether and found no sufficient evidence of discrimination by anyone else involved, including the janitor who called campus police.” The janitor who had made the call had been put on leave for three months. The other one left his job after his photograph was circulated widely on social media. The cafeteria worker was later furloughed because of the coronavirus pandemic and found that notoriety over the incident hindered her search for a new job. Accusations of racism against her continued to be posted by visitors to Smith College’s Facebook page.

The incident is clearly unfortunate for all involved. What struck me was this paragraph from the Times article: “This is a tale of how race, class and power collided at the elite 145-year-old liberal arts college, where tuition, room and board top $78,000 a year and where the employees who keep the school running often come from working-class enclaves beyond the school’s elegant wrought iron gates. The story highlights the tensions between a student’s deeply felt sense of personal truth and facts that are at odds with it.”

Personal truth? I do not judge or question what went through the student’s mind and heart when confronted alone by a man in uniform, but isn’t there a logical disconnect in speaking of “truth” together with “facts that are at odds with it”? If the facts are at odds with it, in what sense is it truth? If something feels deeply and personally true to someone, does that qualify as truth?

These questions are important if, as a society, we are going to get the shared understanding of reality that is necessary to coexist and work out our differences. If The New York Times accepts that something deeply felt is a form of truth, then what are we to say to the 47 percent of voters who told Rasmussen in December that “it’s likely that Democrats stole voters or destroyed pro-Trump ballots in several states to ensure that Joe Biden would win” and, in particular, the 36 percent who said that voter fraud was “very likely.”

Doesn’t that highlight the tension between millions of people’s deeply felt sense of personal truth and facts that may be at odds with it?

The more our politics is based on diverging tenets of blind faith, the sooner we are likely to find ourselves in a new epoch of religious wars.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Broadcasters in a State

RTÉ Documentary Makes Public Really Sad About Homelessness For A Whole Hour
 —Headline on the Irish satirical newspaper website Waterford Whispers News, January 19
In my previous post I vented my frustration with the increasingly polarized and fragmented media landscape when it comes to broadcast journalism. I was speaking specifically about the United States, but what about other countries? I attributed the U.S.’s partisan environment to the sheer size of the country combined with technology that rewards narrowcasting. Surely, those would not be such prominent factors in other countries?

What is distinctive about the States as a country, besides its size, is that it has no dominant national broadcaster. That’s an institution pretty much ubiquitous throughout the rest of the world. Canada has the CBC, the United Kingdom has the BBC, France has France Télévisions, Russia has RT, and Ireland has RTÉ. Many countries also, unlike the U.S. and Canada, exact a household license fee for the purpose of subsidizing the national broadcaster. In Britain, for example, this means BBC viewers do not have to watch commercials—apart from the BBC’s own adverts touting BBC programs. Ireland has the worst of both worlds with viewers (and actually non-viewers as well) required to pay the annual license fee but still having to sit through commercial advertisements. Despite its hybrid viewer/corporate revenue stream, RTÉ has long been unable to balance a budget, although it has just been announced that it finally does have a surplus—thanks to the fact that for the past year people were literally forced to stay at home with little else to do but watch telly.

Technically, the U.S. does have a national broadcaster through the taxpayer-funded non-profit Corporation for Public Broadcasting which supports the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and National Public Radio (NPR) networks, but these do not have anywhere near the dominance in America that other countries’ public broadcasters have. Also, because PBS’s and NPR’s taxpayer funding meets only a small part of their budgets, they rely largely on voluntary viewer contributions and corporate underwriting. In fact, one could make the argument that, due to their heavy reliance on corporate underwriting, PBS and NPR actually constitute one more facet of the U.S. corporate media landscape, albeit one with a very specific educated and affluent viewer demographic.

Shouldn’t the national broadcaster be the answer to polarized political reporting? Shouldn’t a public or semi-public entity with a mandate to serve the entire nation and, ideally, independent or semi-independent from corporate money be an antidote to all the partisan stuff? Maybe in theory, but not in my experience.

This is where I again get to mention my Master of Arts degree in journalism from Ohio State University. I did my studies in that fine institution back when the idea of a journalism school in college, particularly at the graduate level, was a new one. Most of my teachers had gotten their professorships bestowed on them honorarily in recognition of many years of working in the profession rather than through any academic qualifications. They were mostly well up in years because the teaching gig was basically their semi-retirement. These were old-school guys—and yes, they were mostly, if not exclusively, male—who experienced journalism as a blue-collar profession, pounding city streets and banging on manual typewriters, and who at the end of a workday unwound in smoky bars. They had a hard-nosed, practical and yet refreshingly idealistic idea of what journalism was. You were supposed to keep digging until you got the story, and you never took sides. In writing a story, you assumed nothing and took no one’s word at face value. Skepticism was the watchword.

If your mother says she loves you, went the rule, check it out!

I would love to find my old professors now—if any of them have lungs and livers that have survived this long—to find out what they think of the current state of journalism. I think I kind of know. They were basically newspaper guys, and even way back in the 1970s they looked down their noses at television. Of course, the internet was not even a thing yet. One principle they were clear on was that the government should have no role in the news business except as something to be covered aggressively. In many countries, one needs a license or an institutional qualification to practice journalism. In the U.S., by contrast, the First Amendment has always meant that every citizen is born a journalist. The government cannot pick and choose who is qualified to do the job.

My old professors’ main concern about state media in general was that it could not be objective when covering politicians who approved their budget and paid their salaries. Ironically, after a couple of decades of getting my television and radio news from state broadcasters, I find that the problem is nearly the opposite. Safeguards are in place in countries like the UK and Ireland to insulate state news organizations from government pressure. Significant public funding also tends to insulate them from advertiser pressure. That sounds like a good thing—until you cop on to the fact political and corporate pressure are often actually extensions of general public sentiment.

In practice, I find, state news organizations tend to become detached from the general public they are meant to be serving, not unlike the way political reporting at student-run college radio stations often goes off in its own idealistic direction. On top of that, state broadcasters are de facto gatekeepers of information in the way that the three big corporate network news organizations in the U.S. once styled themselves. In RTÉ’s world, if it determines something is not worthy or salutary for public consumption, it simply does not get reported. Yes, there is a much smaller commercial rival TV broadcaster here as well as several newspapers, but by practical necessity most people have to rely on RTÉ for their daily news.

Those who don’t find the state broadcaster reflecting their own personal reality inevitably look for alternative sources of information. Traditionally, stories have gotten passed around informally by word of mouth. Of course, these days finding alternative news sources is easier than it’s ever been, and there are no geographical limits.

Is there anything corporate broadcasters (in the U.S.) or state broadcasters (elsewhere) could do to better meet the needs of news consumers?

The reality may be that there is no perfect model for broadcast journalism and that the current state of information churn is the best we can hope for.

On one hand, after years of listening to measured, modulated and controlled news broadcasts from state broadcasters, the blaring and breathless style of U.S. cable news operations—with their all-too-frequent commercial interruptions—grates.

On the other hand, I often find myself wishing I could switch to a different Irish channel (sorry, Virgin Media, you’re not it) for a contrasting perspective or just to fill in the information gaps.

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Searching for Truth

Everyone Who Was Completely Wrong About Election Day Ready to Explain What Happens Next
 —Headline on the satirical newspaper website The Babylon Bee, November 5
Commentators sometimes like wax nostalgic about the good old days when everyone in America got their daily news from a handful of television network news operations which were generally trusted to supply accurate and unbiased information. Why can’t it be like that now? Why have so many news outfits picked a particular political world view and decided to cater to that view’s particular audience—instead of treating the whole country as its audience?

If you think about it, that question more or less answers itself, doesn’t it? Don’t all news consumers with favorite information sources think that theirs is the fair and objective one? It’s the other ones that are biased, right?

This situation was made possible by 1) the size and diversity of the United States and 2) the proliferation of news sources thanks to breakthroughs in technology. The latter cause is key. There was a time not that many years ago when “narrowcasting” to relatively small and geographically scattered audiences was economically impractical. Now, thanks to satellites and the internet, it’s a cinch. Arguably, a politically splintered society is good for corporate business. More than ever before, politics has become a team sport, and we all know how profitable professional sports teams are. Cable news networks even have an advantage that sports broadcasters don’t. In televised politics, when you pick your own channel, your team is always winning—at least the argument if not the election.

Still, people have a basic desire to think the information they’re getting is accurate. This would explain why, after the election of Donald Trump four years ago, The New York Times had an advertising campaign proclaiming simply and emphatically “The Truth,” and The Washington Post introduced the chilling slogan “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” In the media generally there was much bandying of words like “truth” and “facts,” largely in response to questionable assertions by the new president but also as not-so-subtle digs at rival news organizations. Despite all this focus on truth, though, the country is nowhere near a consensus on what is “true” when it comes any major issue.

Here is what seems true to me. If Republicans generally think they are getting the truth—or at least more of it—from Fox News and if Democrats feel similarly about CNN, MSNBC and/or PBS, they can’t both be right. Whatever news you listen to will occasionally omit stories that get played on the other side. Stories reported by both will get different spins and emphases. The only way to make sure you don’t miss something or don’t get misled is to try listening to everything.

That’s time-consuming, though. If you’re busy but still want to be informed, wouldn’t it be nice if, to get back to the lament with which I began, there were one or more news sources that simply reported the major news of the day with some kind of balance and fairness you could trust? Such a news provider might annoy Democrats sometimes, but it would also annoy Republicans sometimes. Is there a market for such a thing?

There are actually people out there who see that gap and are trying to fill it. One that I came across a while back is called Ground News, and it takes an interesting approach. Available through its website or its app, it delivers a stream of news items but also includes information on what other media are carrying the same item. Furthermore it breaks down the other media sources according to where they fall on the political spectrum and gives you a liberal/conservative percentage breakdown on each article’s overall media distribution. If nothing else, it tells you whether the stories you find interesting are mainly being seen by most people or by mainly conservatives or by liberals. They even offer a browser extension that pops up if you’re reading another news site, e.g. The New York Times, and gives you the same media breakdown about the article you are reading there.

The goal is not to eliminate bias but to clearly identify it and label it so that you know where your news falls on the political spectrum. News sources are rated on a scale from the far left (e.g. Palmer Report) to the far right (e.g. The Gateway Pundit). Sources it considers in the center include the Associated Press, Reuters, the BBC and France24. Obviously, not everyone is going to agree on these classifications, but at least it’s some kind of yardstick. The Ground News website is freely accessible, but if you want to support them or get more features, there are a couple of subscription levels. You can also get their weekly “Blindspot Report” email which highlights legitimate news stories missed by sources on both the left and right.

Ground News is based in Canada, which is also the location of another source of serious balanced discussion, the charitable-foundation-run Munk Debates. Originally staged as live events in Toronto, the debates—as well as dialogs and interviews—are now accessible as streams and through a podcast. They highlight topical issues argued by prominent speakers on opposite sides in a congenial environment. Recent topics have included “Be it resolved: Go Green! Go Nuclear!” with University of Michigan professor Todd Allen and former U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission chair Gregory Jackzko and “Be it resolved: The GameStop frenzy is good for investors and good for financial markets” with market traders Tom Sosnoff and Danny Moses. It is a nice change of pace from the usual stacked-deck panel discussions that proliferate cable news.

Another source I came across recently is the five-days-a-week email newsletter Tangle by journalist Isaac Saul whose main job is with the positive-news-focused digital media company A Plus. A 10-to-15-minute read, Tangle concentrates on the major DC political issue of the day—as well as a few briefer items—giving a meticulous examination of the positions on both partisan sides, as well as Saul’s own (generally middle-of-the-road) take. It is pretty balanced, although your own mileage could vary. Tangle is subscription-supported on the Substack platform—an increasingly interesting source of informed commentary for people willing to pay for it—but it can generally be read four days a week for free.

The funny thing about consuming reasonable, balanced and fair news sources, though, is that there always seems to be something missing. Human nature, especially when we are younger, craves the passion of being committed and involved on the right side of a grand ideological struggle. People used to satisfy that craving with religion. Nowadays they fill it with politics. In the current heightened environment, objective reporting can feel strangely bland.

Also, if you’re paranoid—and shouldn’t we all be?—there is the concern that these self-branded objective sources may be trojan horses that are trying to subtly and with sophistication nudge those in the political middle toward one side or the other under the guise of supposed neutrality. After all, can any individual or organization be truly neutral? Short answer: no.

In the end, that is the risk you run in trying to be informed. You might end up having your mind changed.

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Corporate Masters?

‘Skynet Is A Private Company, They Can Do What They Want,’ Says Man Getting Curb-Stomped By Terminator
 —Headline on the satirical newspaper web site The Babylon Bee, January 18
So which is it? Does democracy work because society has some kind of collective wisdom that leads it, over time, to elect good leaders who mostly rise to meet the challenges of the time? Or are citizens basically sheep who are led by slick charismatic politicians and campaigns with manipulative marketing techniques?

This question has been turning over in my mind since viewing the fascinating 2012 Chilean film No by Pablo Larraín. (That movie has already been fodder for my other two blogs, so why not a third go?) A fictionalized account of the 1988 referendum campaign that ultimately turned Augusto Pinochet out of power, the film tells its story from the point of view of a mostly apolitical advertising executive. It caused some controversy in Chile because it implied that the No side won mainly because of its slick campaign messaging, that a sober and serious debate of the issues was not sufficient to sway sufficient voters. Critics pointed out that the movie downplayed—if not outright ignored—the major voter registration drive organized by the political opposition.

Usually, it is the losing side in an election making the argument that voters are easily led and manipulated by campaigns with big budgets. When Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016, many of his opponents sought to explain the inexplicable by blaming his victory on disinformation disseminated on social media, mainly Facebook. Internet bots and strategic Russian advertising buys had swayed politically unsophisticated voters, they suggested. As a result of reporting on Russian election meddling, a lot of Americans were actually under the impression that the voting was or may have been tampered with and that the results were not completely legitimate.

With Joe Biden’s victory in November, the tables were turned. Trump insisted stubbornly—without producing any actual proof—that he was the victim of some kind of massive fraud and that he had actually won. The more rational among his supporters made a more cogent argument. They insisted that the election was essentially unfair because of media suppression of negative stories about Biden and social media companies’ newly aggressive approach to “fake news.” Exhibit A in their argument was suspension of the New York Post’s Twitter account just as it published a front-page article about information found on Hunter Biden’s laptop. The rationale was that the story was unverified and possibly Russian disinformation. Only after the election did the FBI validate the Post’s reporting. (That was in accordance with longstanding FBI policy, something it had disregarded four years earlier in James Comey’s pre-election discussion of Hillary Clinton’s email server.)

Did bias in the establishment media and among social media companies sway the election for Biden? While I think those players did show amazingly extreme bias, I doubt their favoritism tipped the balance. After all, details about Hunter Biden’s dealings with Ukraine and China were well known to anyone who was interested. They were a key revelation out of last year’s impeachment trial. I think voters just didn’t care about the younger Biden’s corrupt but apparently legal dealings—just as they didn’t care about all the salacious revelations about Trump’s dealings in business and with women four years earlier. Still, it was kind of jaw-dropping when a post-election survey showed that significant numbers of voters claimed to be ignorant of the Hunter Biden story and said it might have made a difference in their electoral decision-making.

If the people who believe that citizens are easily manipulated by the media are correct, that presents a huge problem for democracy—especially in a country as large and diverse as the United States. It would give a huge advantage to the side with the most money. In the 2020 election, Democrats (who once campaigned on election finance reform but never talk about it anymore) outspent Republicans by $6.9 billion to $3.8 billion. And those numbers do not include what many Republicans consider a virtual “in kind” donation—biased coverage by all the major corporate-owned media outlets (with the obvious exception of Fox News).

Is the lopsided coverage of the 2020 election an anomaly caused by the unprecedented nature of the Trump presidency? Maybe, but Republicans have been complaining of biased coverage for many, many election cycles. If you are a Democrat, of course, you do not see it as bias. It’s just that reality has a liberal bias, as some people like to say. Still, if big corporations have definitely picked a side and that side has a permanent significant funding advantage, what does that portend for democracy?

It means that we better hope that money and the power of corporate media are not completely determinative in election outcomes. Yes, you may have been quite happy with the outcome of the most recent election, but what about future elections when corporate interests and deep pockets go against what you think is right? Let’s hope that well-reasoned arguments and grassroots organizing still work. Let’s hope that corporate whims cannot silence your voice summarily.

After all, if the president of the United States can be banned from Twitter for all time, what does mean for you when your beliefs are not consistent with the agenda of major corporations?