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Who am I?

You can look at my home page for more information, but the short answer is that I'm a dilettante who likes thinking about a variety of subjects. I like to think of myself as a systems-level thinker, more concerned with the big picture than with the details. Current interests include politics, community formation, and social interface design. Plus books, of course.

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Sun, 09 Jan 2005

Predicting 2008
A friend of mine commented that Jeb Bush was a strange emissary to send to southeast Asia to oversee disaster relief. My friend also wondered why Colin Powell was along, given that he left the administration recently. My immediate thought was that the Republicans were giving Jeb a higher profile statesmanlike image to boost his chances in 2008 if they needed him. Jeb has said he's not going to run, but given the current state of the field, they may want to keep around as a viable high profile candidate just in case. And I could totally see Powell being there as a possible vice-presidential nominee.

That started me speculating on who the possible nominees for 2008 are. I honestly don't know. Nor does anybody else. I don't really believe that most of the candidates that MSNBC mentions have a chance. It's been demonstrated repeatedly that Senators make very poor presidential candidates. The number of compromises made in any omnibus deal opens you up to too many attacks, as John "Soft on Defense" Kerry found out this year. Where you really want an experienced senator is in the VP slot, where they can knock heads together to achieve a legislative agenda (think LBJ to JFK). In fact, in retrospect, the ideal Democratic ticket this year would have been General Wesley Clark with Kerry as his VP. Alas. I'd hoped for Clark from the beginning to no avail. He never put together a decent campaign team and couldn't even win his own state.

So ignoring the Republican senators, who's left according to MSNBC? A couple low profile governors (Pataki is lower profile than the mayor Giuliani, for instance). Not looking promising. There's always Giuliani or Arnie as possibilities, but that would mean alienating the evangelical conservatives, since neither Giuliani or Arnie are exactly pinnacles of moral rectitude. It will be interesting to see which way the Republicans jump on this - continue moving towards being the party of the evangelical right, or move back towards the center (Senator McCain might fall in this category as well). It will depend in large part whether the Arnie Amendment goes through; I think they would decide that Arnie was popular enough to declare their independence from the evangelicals. They have a bonus in that the evangelicals, at worst, will just stay home - they would never defect to the other side.

On the Democratic side, the drums have already started beating for Hilary. I think it's a terrible idea. I don't think the Republicans could ask for a better candidate to unify all of their different factions. She alienates the big business guys because of her attempt at health care reform. She alienates the evangelicals pretty much by existing (Lakoff had a great bit in Moral Politics where he described how Hilary basically violates every single Strict Father precept). There couldn't be a more polarizing figure. Not that polarizing is necessarily bad, given Bush's candidacy. But if you have a polarizing candidate, they better be able to mobilize 100% of your voters, and I don't think Hilary can do that; too many left-wingers have felt betrayed by the Clintons.

Edwards is a hopeless candidate, because he's not only a senator, but he's an inexperienced senator, so he has all of the downside and none of the up. Barack is too far off. Basically, I hate all my choices. So I'm going to toss out one of my own.

Eliot Spitzer. In 2012. The high profile attorney general of New York is running for governor in 2006. In the modern era, governors make the best presidential candidates for taking back control of the White House; after Nixon, we have Carter, Reagan, Clinton and Bush as the candidates that won back the White House. Spitzer has hard core credentials for fighting for the little guy on his side, taking on multi-million dollar companies. He seems like a pretty intelligent guy. If he wins the governorship, and does as good a job of general administration as he has in running his cases, I could see him as a very viable candidate in 2012. Long way off, though.

What to do for 2008? I don't know. I expect the Republicans will try to get the Arnie Amendment passed and run him. If that doesn't work, their fallback plan is probably Jeb Bush in a "I will serve my country if asked" kind of deal. The Democrats will probably nominate Hilary, because they have no other viable candidates, and she'll have the best political machine for the primaries. The Republicans will win, because the Democrats are idiots. So, yeah, 2012. Spitzer. Here's hoping.

Of course, I'm going to be continuing to keep an eye on this. In one of my fantasy worlds, I'll spend the next year or so scouting out the candidates, call it correctly in 2006, join the right candidate's campaign early, ride the campaign to a position of prominence and then be set for life as a political advisor or commentator. Isn't dreaming fun?

posted at: 09:33 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/politics | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Sun, 12 Dec 2004

Conservative postmodernism
I was struck while reading Travels in Hyperreality a few months ago by the realization that the conservatives had appropriated the techniques of the Academic Left such as postmodernism and deconstructionism, and put them into the service of the conservative movement. I find this supremely ironic, given the utter disdain with which conservatives view postmodernism, a disdain which is almost required since the relativism inherent in postmodernism takes away the moral hierarchy which defines much of conservatism, the Christian God over Man over Woman over Child, that Lakoff details in Moral Politics.

So what do I mean when I say that the conservatives are using these techniques which are anathema to them? Let's start by analyzing the parts of postmodernism that I find relevant to the discussion. I spent some time this evening reading the Wikipedia entries on Postmodernism and Deconstruction that I linked to above. One of the core ideas of postmodernism is that the text is not final in and of itself. The text is just a series of markings on paper. What the text means is a cooperative construction between the reader, the text, the author, and the environment in which they all interact. Therefore, as Eco points out, "The battle for the survival of man as a responsible being in the Communications Era is not to be won where the communication originates, but where it arrives." You don't have to control the media if you control the viewpoint of the reader.

The relevance to the conservative movement should be obvious. The conservatives have decried the power of the "liberal media" for so long that it has become a staple of their discourse. To fight this power, they needed to attack somewhere else along the communication chain. They attacked the context. By planting the idea of a liberal media in the minds of their believers, they have systematically undermined the authority once associated with the media and the news. By giving them a well-defined filter to view the world through, one promulgated by the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage, they have eliminated the need to control the media; the only messages that will penetrate the filter are the ones they want.

It's even more insidious than that. Because the idea of a liberal bias is so firmly planted, there is no way to convince people in such a context to change their minds. Any counter-arguments that might be made are seen as evidence of the deranged liberal bias they have been told about. There is no such thing as "truth" any more. There is merely one side of an argument, and the other. And you choose your side based not on reason, but on faith. This is a scary development to anyone who believes that there is truth, that there is a reality separate from perception. But it is also a development that follows inexorably from the idea of a context inseparable from meaning. The conservatives just figured out how to leverage the idea first.

To take another example, one of the articles that Wikipedia points to has this criticism of deconstruction:

"Another objection to deconstruction comes from a different perspective on language. According to Wittgenstein, rather than representing a correspondence between propositions and reality (cf. our tenth article), language is a series of games or practices that enable us to achieve whatever goals we have in a situation; thus, as we said earlier, meaning is defined by use. On these terms, deconstructionism is simply beside the point: language adapts to its use and pulling a text apart fails to take account of this."

"...meaning is defined by use." This essentially means that language can mean anything you want it to mean. Apparently, Derrida and the other deconstructionists are infamous for using language in a playful, almost meaningless, way to reinforce this point. It's freeing one up from the literal definition of language, and using words however you want to use them.

This is one of the things that drives people, and especially conservatives, nuts about deconstruction. They are decidedly grounded in the literal. To them, there is no difference between the signifier and the signified, which is why they want to pass an amendment banning the burning of the flag. They believe that burning the flag is the same thing as burning America. And it's not. It's a signifier. To play with language, to explore alternative meanings, to construct wild symbolic pastiches, is similarly destabilizing to the conservative world view.

But let's look at this more closely. "... language is a series of games or practices that enable us to achieve whatever goals we have in a situation." This is an idea that Frank Luntz, among other conservatives, has taken to heart. Language is a means of achieving a goal. The conservatives have no qualms about twisting the language to mean whatever they want it to mean, as Lakoff points out:

This strategy has been adopted in how the Right talks about the "Clear Skies Act", which increases pollution and mercury contamination, and the "Healthy Forests Act," which permits clear cutting and the destruction of forests.

Yet again, the conservatives have taken a tool of the Academic Left, one they mock unrelentingly, and incorporated it as one of their most powerful political weapons.

I find it fascinating. It also points to a fundamental schism in the Left. There's the Academic Left, the Left of Derrida, Marxists, post-structuralists, etc., where social relativism, postmodernism, and deconstruction rule. Then there's the Enlightenment Left, the one that believes in reason and truth as our tools to achieve more. And the two are fundamentally incompatible. If there is no truth, no meaning, then reason is just another viewpoint. And the conservatives have zeroed in on this and used it to their political advantage, as the infamous reality-based community article indicates.

As usual, I'm torn. I like many of the ideas associated with postmodernism. I like the idea that context determines meaning. I think that framing is a very powerful tool for changing people's minds. However, I am also a strong believer in reason. I want to believe that people can analyze situations, and look beyond the framing, to see what's "really" going on. I want to teach people critical thinking skills so that they're not susceptible to such techniques. And given that the conservatives have taken our tools and discovered how to use them against us, I think we all need to put our minds to developing defenses against those techniques.

The other question I'd like to toss out there is whether there is any hope of pointing out the inherent hypocrisy of the conservative movement's use of these tools that they allegedly deplore. I don't think so, offhand. Hypocrisy is only a relevant motivator among those who can review their viewpoints in the abstract, and it's unclear to me that a lot of people have that capacity for self-reflection. I'd argue that this lack of self-reflection is more prevalent in the world of conservatives, but I think that's another post.

posted at: 22:28 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/politics | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Sat, 11 Dec 2004

Interesting discussion
Dave Policar has been having some interesting discussions over on his journal about religion and politics, thinking about some of the same issues I've been struggling with. The comments and discussion on yesterday's post were particularly interesting. Several people including myself got involved with a variety of viewpoints. There are some really tangled issues here which could use quite a bit of thinking about. We need more fora where people have such discussions, where they can take out their assumptions and look at them with a more critical eye. Reading and commenting on the discussion definitely helped me clarify some of my gut reactions. So take a look. And tell me where to find more such fora.

posted at: 10:39 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/politics | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Wed, 17 Nov 2004

Conservatives vs. liberals
I've been forwarded or seen a bunch of different websites from liberals bemoaning the results of the election, from JesusLand, to Fuck the South, to Sorry Everybody. I particularly liked the rant at Urban Archipelago, because it tied in with some ideas that had been percolating through my head. And even though those ideas are still in a somewhat disconnected form, I figured I would write up what I have and see what other people think. Warning - this is long and rambles around quite a bit. Hopefully I can figure out how to refine it later.

Part of what got me started was that in light of my recent post about coping and my decision to at least attempt to understand the other side, when I happened across a conservative site a couple days ago, I stuck around and read a bunch of it. This "discussion" about why the Left hates Bush is a good example. The editor of the site invites two liberals and two conservatives to have a discussion, and then joins up with the conservatives in beating on the liberals in a Crossfire-esque way. The "moderator" started the discussion with this statement:

The Bush administration has liberated 50 million human beings from two of the most barbarian, vicious and sadistic regimes of our modern time (Saddam and the Taliban). President Bush is leading the force of democracy and freedom against religious fanatics that persecute women, homosexuals and all other democratic rights that are at the core - supposedly - of leftist ideology. Yet the Left clearly sees Bush as a far greater evil than anything that Al Qeada and Islamic fundamentalism represent in the War on Terror and has taken the side of the enemy. What explains this bizarre phenomenon?

After reading that, I knew I was probably going to get really angry by reading more. And I did. I'm actually surprised with how patient the liberal representatives were, considering they were told they must support death camps and Stalin based on their support of the Left. The accusations and ad hominem attacks from the conservatives were bizarre, to say the least.

But reading the discussion made me realize a few things about why conservatives think what they do. One is that, like many of us, they believe what they are told (I commented to a friend today that a disturbing thing about America is that since the average American's critical thinking skills are minimal, they have no way to distinguish between real science and pseudo-science - both are the inscrutable pronouncements by experts). And the pundits at conservative foundations and think tanks have done a good job of coordinating their message over the last couple decades so that the average person hears something enough times to believe that it must be true (I have a whole other post lined up about how the conservative movement has appropriated the tools developed by the Academic Left such as the distributed authorship and deconstructionism of postmodernism as well as the concept of cultural relativism as it relates to facts and truth. I'll try to get to that one soon). The other is that because they surround themselves in media which reinforces that message (e.g. Rush Limbaugh, the Wall Street Journal, Fox News), they have no way of knowing that anybody thinks differently.

To a large extent, members of the left suffer from the same problem. I was talking to a friend before the election, and while talking about our disbelief in the looming re-election of Bush, he asked, "Do you know any Republicans? Because I don't." And after thinking about it, I had to admit that of all the people that I consider friends, and that I interact with enough to know their political leanings, I'm not sure I know a single person that supported Bush. Not one. I have a bit more experience with the conservative mindset than many liberals because I grew up in a town and county that was 95% Republican (home district of Dennis Hastert, current Speaker of the House), but since I left for college, I've lived in bastions of liberalism. We listen to NPR, read the New York Times or Salon, and send each other links like Fuck the South.

So both sides need cognitive tools to help understand the others' perspective. Otherwise, we are forced to treat them the way we treat anybody that is delusional - we declare them insane. Insanity is society's way of saying "Your way of viewing the world is not valid." When somebody says that space aliens are talking to them, necessitating an aluminum foil hat, we don't give credence to their thoughts, even if they are lucid in all other ways. When a conservative claims that "We had to invade Iraq to keep its WMDs out of the hands of Al-Qaeda!", a liberal often dismisses them in a similar fashion as the aluminum-hatted gentleman. I'm not sure what such cognitive tools for understanding look like. But they are clearly necessary as we drift further and further apart in our basic assumptions about how the world works.

I've also been thinking about the science of networks, as described in Six Degrees. One of the key parameters of a network is the balance between clustering (the likelihood that one of your connections knows your other connections) and long links (links between radically separated parts of the network, e.g. me knowing somebody that lives in Kansas City - the separation can be physical or ideological - knowing a conservative in this case would be a good example). I need to go back and read a bit more carefully, but I believe that it's safe to say that if there are too few long links, the network is prone to breaking into large chunks. It loses its cohesion. The analogy to our political situation is obvious.

I feel like that when links are few and non-diverse, the network consists of tight clusters widely separated from each other. Taking this back to the real world, what does that mean? It means that people who have minimal experience of the world, and of people different than themselves, are more likely to clump together into such clusters. To take a real-life example, when I went back to my high school reunion a few years ago, I was shocked to realize that the vast majority of my classmates had graduated from high school, gone to college in state, and returned to live and work within 30 miles of where we grew up in an identical cookie-cutter white upper-middle-class suburb of Chicago. It's no wonder they were all Republicans - they had lived in a Republican culture all of their life and probably had no idea that another mode of thinking even existed.

Meanwhile, among my friends, most of us have travelled internationally, or at least have lived in several parts of the US. We have a diverse group of friends, including people from different countries, different races, different cultural traditions, etc. We live in cities or college towns, which support a variety of experience that is unseen by most of the country. We are true members of the Urban Archipelago. And I think that this diversity of experience is the basis for our liberal values.

When you live in a city, you can't help but be confronted with people different than you. Even in a place like the Bay Area, where even the Democrats are considered conservative, there are people from all over the country and world who offer very different perspectives. That diversity of viewpoint is one of the strengths of the left, and is one of the reasons why the innovative people that I know are all liberal. To create new ideas requires being able to see things from different perspectives. And that is not something that the conservatives can ever understand. Their movement is based on seeing the world in black and white, good and evil, no alternatives.

As a side note, I think the liberal movement often takes it too far. We're so open to alternative viewpoints that we can't agree on anything, and are hopelessly disorganized when it comes to actual political action. But that's another story (yes, that's a foreshadowing of yet another post I have kicking around my brain).

The other danger of having a limited perspective, besides lowering innovation, is that it makes one more susceptible to manipulation. Among my friends, any new idea is often immediately attacked. But it's not attacked in the rabid way that conservatives would attack an idea, as evidence that one has gone insane. It's a probing of the idea, with questions asked about its validity and its scope. It's an attempt at understanding. We kick the idea around, figure out its strengths and weaknesses, and collectively come to a better understanding. This freedom of thought is one of my most cherished memories of MIT, where we'd spend hours just kicking ideas around, arguing late into the night. I believe that such an attitude harks back to the Enlightenment, where it was believed that reason would be able to answer all of our questions. As most of my friends are scientists and engineers, it's not surprising that we think that logic and reason can answer most questions in the world.

The conservatives come from a different perspective. Lakoff's Moral Politics goes into more detail, but one of the things that ties the conservative movement together, from the business end to the military to the evangelicals, is a belief in hierarchy. There are authorities, and they should be listened to and obeyed. An idea is not open to be questioned by anybody. It is handed down, like the Ten Commandments. Obey or be expelled. This quashes the natural impulse of humans to question everything, an impulse which is evident in children who ask "Why?" about, well, pretty much everything. This can lead to spectacular screwups when the leaders make a poor decision and everybody else falls into line. I think the invasion of Iraq is a prime example, of course.

Okay, one more tangent and then I'm wrapping this up. One of the main ideas I wanted to express when I started was that I think that monocultures are dangerous. Agricultural monocultures are particularly vulnerable to disease and the Microsoft monoculture has demonstrated its vulnerability to viruses. In a similar fashion, I believe that the conservative areas of this country are vulnerable to memetic infection, due to their lack of diversity. Because they do not have a broad range of experience to draw on, often having lived in the same area or culture their entire life, and because they are part of a hierarchical culture, with its attitude of not questioning experts, they can be easily influenced. Obviously, I'm trying to find a way to rationalize the fact that 40 percent of America believes Saddam Hussein was directly involved in 9/11, and that Iraq had stockpiles of WMDs when we invaded.

In a broader cultural sense, I think that diversity of experience is valuable in promoting liberal values. When you've interacted with people from a variety of backgrounds, it's harder to dismiss whole groups of people with stereotypes. You realize that gays or blacks or Indians or pick-your-group-to-be-demonized are really just people, like yourself, trying to make it through this complicated world of ours. And it opens your eyes. It certainly did mine. As mentioned earlier, I lived a sheltered childhood in a white upper-middle-class suburb. And it showed in some of my prejudices. Then I got to MIT, and TEP, where I lived with blacks and gays and all sorts of other weirdos, and realized they were all just people. I can't imagine that it wouldn't do the same for others.

So, promote the Urban Archipelago. Promote diversity of experience. Offer exchange student programs for kids in the suburbs and rural areas to come live in the city for a term. I guarantee it'll open their eyes, and hopefully their minds. Bring people together, and have them see each other as people, rather than demonizing the other side as ivory-tower communist liberal elites, or gun-totin' Bible-thumpin' redneck conservative hicks. Let's see where that takes us.

P.S. Man, re-reading this after finishing makes me realize how many loose threads I leave hanging around. I have so many ideas to pick up on and expand upon. Argh. Must. Write. More.

posted at: 23:36 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/politics | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Thu, 04 Nov 2004

The importance of message
I wrote this in an email discussion today, where people were debating why the conservatives are so much more effective than liberals at getting their message out. One guy said that the left doesn't lack for ideas, but thought that the messages was less important than making sure the ideas got out there, meaning we needed better organization for distributing ideas. I disagreed. Nothing new here if you've been reading my rants, but I think I was more concise in delivering the point this time. Maybe. You decide:

I think a good, simple message takes care of the dispersion of the ideas. Part of the success of the conservative movement is that they take very complex issues and boil them down to two or three word phrases (to use Lakoff's example, "tax relief") that can be parroted by anybody. Then they put those phrases and those ideas on Rush Limbaugh's show. Then everybody that listens to the show understands the message and repeats them at the local bar, or at work. By making the message simple, they let their footsoldiers do the work.

Meanwhile, the Democrats, with their emphasis on getting all the details right, make the message, if anything, more complex. They want to prove their mastery of the material. Gore was a wonk. Kerry had some of the same tendencies. The Democrats' idea of a position is a 20 page white paper. The representative of the liberals tends to be a college academic, who couldn't say 2+2=4 in less than 20 minutes. On election night, the local news in Cleveland interviewed an Oberlin professor about the turnout in Oberlin and he was just incoherent. They said "10 seconds to make your last point" and he rambled on for a minute.

The conservative pundits, meanwhile, have been trained in their institutes to keep it brief, keep it concise, and keep it on message. They are trained in going on camera and delivering sound bites. They understand the importance of putting ideas in a form that people can then pass on to their friends. Any wonder they're better at it than us?

Arianna Huffington had an amusing story about an encounter with a friend's kid (

"Arianna," he said with the enchanting optimism of a Greek-American boy, "I'm going to convince you that you should support Bush in November. Here are two questions you have to answer. The first question is: Are you for more or less taxes? The second question is: Do you want to fight the war on terrorism?"

Simple message. So simple that an 11-year-old boy can articulate the message clearly.

Can you sum up what Kerry stood for in two sentences? Or even twenty?

posted at: 19:36 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/politics | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Mon, 25 Oct 2004

Conservative selfishness
A couple weeks ago, I happened to hear Pat Buchanan on Fresh Air (scroll down). I don't recall all of the details, and I don't have the time to listen to the whole interview again, but I was struck with a thought while listening to him: the conservative viewpoint is all about selfishness.

The things that Buchanan emphasized were moral/family values, fiscal conservatism, low taxes, less government, and isolationism, or at least no nation-building in the neo-conservative form. Let's take these in reverse order and see where my thesis of selfishness comes in:

I think each of these core values of conservatism that Buchanan identifies essentially boil down to selfishness. Leave me alone, and don't do anything that might upset me. This relates to Moral Politics, where Lakoff extends the Strict Father model of American conservatism to include the idea that "Once grown, the self-reliant, disciplined children are on their own" to allow for this idea of being left alone. Anyway. I don't know if I'm being insightful, or just spiteful, but I figured I'd share my observation.

I also thought it was interesting that when Terry Gross asked him whether he thought that the term "culture war", which he apparently introduced at the 1992 Republican convention, was justified, and whether it made disagreements more violent than necessary by framing things as an all-or-nothing war. He felt that using the war frame was totally justified, saying that 40 million babies have been murdered since Roe vs. Wade, and that the "culture war" was a matter of life or death for the oppressed Christian religion. Yes, he actually felt that Christianity was under attack in America, which I find laughable. I think he feels that placing any limits on his religion is tantamount to wanting to destroy it, even when those limits are only to make it possible for others to have their own beliefs. Again, it's the selfish viewpoint that his way is the only right way, so any limitations on it are unacceptable.

As for the idea that Christianity is oppressed, I'd love to see the polling numbers if an atheist ran for office. They'd be essentially zero. Jews and Muslims are more acceptable, because at least they have some religion to keep them moral. We will see a black lesbian woman in the White House before we see an atheist. Not that I'm bitter or anything.

I'd also like him to consider how he'd feel if the situation were actually reversed, and his kids were forced to recite verses from the Satanic Bible in school. He'd find it unacceptable. But he thinks it's only right that students should have the Ten Commandments with them in class. Argh. Anyway.

I'm not sure what my point is here. Part of it is that I did think it was an interesting hypothesis that the theme of self-interest as an overriding priority is one of the things that ties together the conservative issues. Part of it is to help answer the question I posed at the end of this post: Why am I a Democrat (or at least a liberal)? And I think part of the answer to that is that I don't want to be selfish. I like trying to understand other viewpoints. I like realizing that I might be wrong. There isn't a one true way. And I think that believing in a one true way is fundamentally dangerous in this ever-more-interconnected world - we need to live in a reality-based community.

P.S. Yes, I know it's possible that you could find a way to spin all of my beliefs to make them appear selfish. But I'd like to think that helping others who are down on their luck, or who don't start out with the same opportunities as oneself, is less selfish than denying them help because they haven't "earned" it. Or that recognizing that others' beliefs might be as valid as one's own is not as selfish as asserting one's views as being the only way to view the world. But, hey, I'm just a biased selfish bastard that wants to be right :)

posted at: 21:54 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/politics | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Thu, 21 Oct 2004

The danger to ourselves
A flame war erupted on an email list I'm on when somebody decided to endorse Bush over Kerry, because Kerry wasn't going to stand up to the terrorists. He went on to mention Kerry's comment about 9/11 attacks being a "nuisance" (which is a mis-quote but never mind), and how awful an idea it was that we could treat such an attack as a nuisance. I wrote a response and posted it, and figured I'd post it here for the 4 of you that might not be on that list.

I'm going to ask a stupid question, for which I fully expect to get flamed, because I know I haven't thought through all the implications to the level necessary for discussions on eit. But it's one I always have when people bring up 9/11 as a "nuisance" as if it's unthinkable that we could allow that.

How many people died in 9/11? 3000 or so?

How many people are murdered in a year in America? 16,000 or so (using the FBI's Uniform Crime Report). Even when you break it down and only count crimes committed against strangers (not counting family arguments and stuff), it's up in the 8,000 range. Are those lost lives less of a tragedy than 9/11? Did those victims deserve their fate?

Approximately 42 thousand are killed in car crashes each year. Yes, many of those are due to people being idiots. But those idiots take out others, just as effectively and randomly as the terrorists.

650,000 die each year from heart disease. 150,000 die from lung cancer. (statistics from Admittedly, this is a choice issue - I think the consequences of smoking and poor eating habits have been made abundantly clear, so it's up to people to run their own lives appropriately.

Are these "nuisances"? I think that each of these cases demonstrates that we as American citizens are way more of a menace to ourselves than anybody else could ever be.

I know from a personal standpoint, I feel much more in danger of losing my life from a dumb-ass California driver talking on their cell phone while their SUV drifts into my car than I do from a terrorist. Or from the possibility of getting mugged as I walk home from BART late at night past a corner where there are several assaults and a murder a year.

If we took the $140 billion or whatever we're spending in Iraq (see Cost of War), and spent some of it (say, $40 billion or so) on security for our borders and better counter-intelligence, and then the rest of it on improving the lives of our citizens, giving them a better education, etc., thus hopefully decreasing the likelihood of us killing ourselves or each other, wouldn't it be worth putting up with the "nuisance" of the possibility of some crazy people in Afghanistan maybe (given the increased security) killing as many of us as are killed in car crashes in a typical month?

So somebody tell me why I'm crazy.

posted at: 19:53 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/politics | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Wed, 08 Sep 2004

Bush and Rove
A couple links about Bush and Rove today.

Link 1 was that I happened to catch Fresh Air on the radio today, and Terri Gross was interviewing Wayne Slater, co-author of the book Bush's Brain : How Karl Rove Made George W. Bush Presidential. Slater was apparently based in the Austin bureau for the Dallas Morning News, and covered Bush from the beginning of his political career. There were some interesting anecdotes about Rove's tactics, and how he planned Bush's path to the presidency from day one, even before he'd convinced Bush to run for governor of Texas.

Which brings us to link 2. A friend of mine had heard about a tape of the debates between George W. Bush, master of malapropism, and Ann Richards, when they were running for the governorship. I've heard Ann Richards speak on the radio, and she comes across as a very bright person, intelligent and articulate. And apparently, Bush destroyed her in the debates, outarguing her, and generally demonstrating a level of intelligence that most nationwide voters would be surprised by. My friend tracked down this report on the web which indicates the same thing - James Fallows, author of Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy, which I quite liked, wrote an article in the current issue of the Atlantic Monthly reviewing a tape of that debate, and talking over the implications with my favorite professor, George Lakoff. It's fun to speculate about the change in image that Bush is projecting now from then.

Also recommended to me recently was the book The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America, by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge. It traces the rise of the conservative movement over the last few decades. The friend of a friend that recommended it says that the authors claim that the conservative think tank movement is a reaction to the liberal university environment of the 60s and 70s. Since conservative thinkers had no place in the university, they created their own, one specifically geared towards politics. And, unsurprisingly, since they were oriented towards politics, they grew much more effective at turning thought into action than the liberal thinkers remaining at the universities. Lakoff is starting to fight this with his RockRidge Institute, but they've got a big lead.

Whee. Too many books to read. And that's not even counting the 5 books I currently have checked out from the library, the three books I bought from a used bookstore recently, or the 10 books sitting in my shopping cart at Amazon, not to mention the 81 books on my Amazon wish list. Argh. But Bush's Brain sounds really interesting, y'know, for studying up when I open my political consultancy. Yeah, right. I only wish.

posted at: 23:16 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/politics | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Mon, 06 Sep 2004

Is democracy doomed?
A friend clipped this New Yorker article for me entitled "The Unpolitical Animal", in which the columnist reviews the state of political science with regard to how voters making decisions. In particular, he discusses the article "The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics" by Philip Converse, which found that most people don't have a coherent political belief system. They don't have a sense of what issues mean, how they go together, and the consequences of certain decisions on other aspects of government.

When pollsters ask people for their opinion about an issue, people generally feel obliged to have one. Their answer is duly recorded, and it becomes a datum in a report on "public opinion." But, after analyzing the results of surveys conducted over time, in which people tended to give different and randomly inconsistent answers to the same questions, Converse concluded that "very substantial portions of the public" hold opinions that are essentially meaningless - off-the-top-of-the-head responses to questions they have never thought about, derived from no underlying set of principles. These people might as well base their political choices on the weather. And, in fact, many of them do.
There's a lot of good but scary stuff in the article. Well worth reading.

It's interesting because it demonstrates how ill-informed any of us are. And it makes me wonder about the viability of democracy. I've ranted about this before:

I guess the whole point of democracy is that the millions of people who are going to be affected make the decision. But does this really make sense for public policy decisions? If I were ill, I wouldn't want a million people to decide what's wrong with me, I'd want one qualified doctor. If my car's broken, I could probably figure out what's wrong with it by asking hundreds of people, but it'd be a lot faster to ask somebody who really knows cars. If society's broken, should this method change?
This is more a criticism of direct democracy, admittedly. I know I don't have the time to become familiar with the issues and tradeoffs associated with the decisions necessary to run a city, state or government. I can't imagine that most people do. So why should the decision-making power lie in the hands of people who aren't well-informed, and as the New Yorker article points out, probably don't care?

The United States Constitution set up a representative democracy for a reason. Okay, that reason was probably elitism and thinking that most people can't handle making decisions for themselves. But at the heart of it, I like the idea. I don't have the time to do all the analysis; therefore, I'll appoint somebody who will go do it for me. We do this in all aspects of our life, as the article points out:

An analogy (though one that Popkin is careful to dissociate himself from) would be to buying an expensive item like a house or a stereo system. A tiny fraction of consumers has the knowledge to discriminate among the entire range of available stereo components, and to make an informed choice based on assessments of cost and performance. Most of us rely on the advice of two or three friends who have recently made serious stereo-system purchases, possibly some online screen shopping, and the pitch of the salesman at J&R Music World.
It makes sense in theory. Unfortunately, in practice, by having a single representative, it gives special interests one place upon which to focus their persuasion. And with billions of dollars at stake, those special interests have a large incentive to distort public policy (see my review of Mancur Olson's Power and Prosperity). Unfortunately, direct democracy is subject to the same pressures. And since mass media techniques continue to evolve in efficacy, the uninformed and uninterested electorate at large may actually be more vulnerable to such pressures than an individual representative who has an electorate to whom they have to answer.

It's a hard question. Obviously, I don't have any answers. Most people want to have control of their lives, and that's a strong incentive for direct democracy. But most people don't want to have the responsibility of doing the research to make informed decisions with that control, and I think that's a problem. There's some merit to considering changing voting requirements from our current "any non-felon with a pulse over the age of 18". A lot of people think there should be intelligence requirements, or civics knowledge quizzes, or something like that. My theory is similar to that of Heinlein's in Starship Troopers (book, not movie), where he proposed that only people who served time in the government earned the right to vote. My less stringent version is that people should have to participate in local government to earn the right to vote. A few hours spent attending city council meetings each month would demonstrate the tradeoffs necessary for government to happen. You can't have everything, even if you vote for it. And the thing about time is that we all have the same amount, 168 hours in every week. It's non-discriminatory in that sense. And by demonstrating the responsibility to go to such meetings, it weeds out people that want to vote just for the sake of voting. I'm sure there are flaws with such a method. But it would be interesting, wouldn't it?

posted at: 09:34 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/politics | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Thu, 01 Jul 2004

Television ads
The American Museum of the Moving Image has put together a repository of campaign commercials, dating back to 1952. The commercials of most interest to me, of course, were the current commercials being run by Bush and Kerry. Since I live in California, which both parties are ignoring, I yet to see a single campaign commercial on TV. So I was curious to see what the voters of Florida, Ohio and Michigan are seeing. And now I'm distressed.

Bush's commercials are very well done. The campaign is basically the "stay the course" approach that's common for incumbent presidents, with the motto "Steady leadership in times of change". The attack ads against Kerry do a good job of targeting Kerry's weaknesses, in particular his voting record and his attempt to be all things to all people. The ads make their point dramatically, with technically excellent direction; when discussing Democratic attack dogs like Michael Moore, they zoom in on their faces to make them look like they're shouting crazily into the camera. When talking about hope for America, there's a lingering shot of a young girl looking up at the sun.

In contrast, Kerry's ads are absolutely terrible. Disastrously bad. What are Kerry's weaknesses? He has an image problem of being stiff and distant. So why do all of his commercials feature him droning into the camera? By the end of the first commercial, he sounded like the Charlie Brown teacher to me. Having that kind of focus on Kerry just emphasizes his lack of charisma. You'll note that Bush's team wisely kept Bush completely out of most of his commercials except for brief voiceovers.

What's another Kerry weakness? The perception that he waffles on the issues, chasing the votes. So statements like "My priorities are jobs and health care. And my commitment is defending this country" just sound ludicrous. It makes me want to smack whoever is writing his copy. Pick a focus. Certainly don't change focus multiple times within a single thirty second spot! Again, Bush's team does it right - each ad is targeted at a single issue ("Troops", "Weapons", "Doublespeak", "Jobs").

I just don't get it. How are the Democrats so incompetent at managing the media? If the media is really liberal, as conservatives like to claim, and if Hollywood is so liberal, then how come there isn't a single person on Kerry's team who knows anything about image management? It's boggling. I want to march into Kerry's headquarters and offer my services. Because I can't possibly be worse than what they already have.

Of course, having said that, I guess I should say what I'd recommend doing. The problem is that Bush has staked out his position nicely with his ads. He is appealing to people's innate conservatism to stick with the existing choice. He has identified Kerry's weaknesses and established them in the public consciousness. He even has guarded his own flank with an ad ("Attack ads") accusing Kerry of going back on his word, showing a tape of Kerry saying that he will not go negative (taken from the primary campaign), juxtaposed with the multiple ads attacking Bush. Basically, there's only two ways for Bush to fail at this point; one is for the economy to take a dive, and the other is for a major conflict in Iraq with significant American casualties. And I can't say I really hope for either of those.

I guess the best advice I'd have for Kerry is what I recommended at the end of this previous post. Let others such as focus on bashing Bush and getting out the liberal vote. Concentrate your effort on getting your positive message out there. Why should America change leaders? What is your vision? Don't give me a health care plan. Don't give me economic policy. Gore demonstrated what a turnoff that is for the voters. Give me a shining vision, something on par with Clinton's "New Democracy" that inspires me. The same old Democratic rhetoric will not win this election. Somebody needs to tell Kerry that. Soon. Or it will be too late.

posted at: 15:10 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/politics | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Sat, 22 May 2004

Colin Powell
I saw a link to this article about Colin Powell over at GQ. I was skeptical initially because GQ didn't really seem like a place to find an in-depth story, but I thought it provided a nice profile of Powell and his struggles within the Bush administration. Admittedly, I'm totally biased against Bush and his attack dogs, so it's not surprising that I'm sympathetic to Powell, but this article seems to realistically portray the struggles within the Bush administration, at least from Powell's perspective. Worth a read.

posted at: 02:39 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/politics | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Fri, 14 May 2004

The subject of Donald Rumsfeld came up while IM'ing with a friend a couple days ago. We were talking about the various accusations flying around, and my friend asked: "i wonder what bush's real agenda is in keeping rumsfeld around". My response was "He'd have to find another scapegoat when more allegations arise. He keeps rummy around, Rove makes sure everything sticks to rummy, Bush jettisons him to demonstrate his leadership in october. That way he gets both credit for loyalty (to rummy) and then leadership and making the hard choices. It demonstrates his character to the midwest."

No real point in posting this except that in the unlikely case that the world really is as cynical as I sometimes think, it'd be nice to be able to point to this.

It is interesting to talk about the importance of character, especially in a lot of the Midwest battleground states. I've been reading Moral Politics, a book by George Lakoff, on (to quote the subtitle) "How Liberals and Conservatives Think". Lakoff is a cognitive linguist and the book is his attempt to understand political thinking in terms of different cognitive models of reality. In particular, he concentrates on moral systems and shows that conservative and liberal thinking tends to cluster around two alternative family models which he calls the Strict Father system and the Nurturant Parent system. The Strict Father system takes as its basic assumption that the world is a dangerous place, full of evil, and therefore it takes a strong leader (the Father of the family) to protect his children, teach them the self-discipline and self-reliance necessary to survive such a world, and command their obedience until they grow up. It's a tough love, "spare the rod and spoil the child", reward-and-punishment system. The Nurturant Parent system is one where all children are to be supported and encouraged to find their fulfillment, a system of less hierarchy (both parents share parenting duties) and more inclusion.

Lakoff spends the book going into detail on how these different worldviews affect politics, but I'll get into that more when I finish the book and review it. The difference that I want to focus on here is that liberals tend to focus more on the issues, and conservatives tend to focus more on the man, when voting. In a world of strict hierarchy that is implied by the Strict Father model, it's important that the man in charge is of strong character, one whose moral beacon is unquestioned, and whose authority is undeniable. The liberal viewpoint is more encompassing and consensus-driven, so the person is not as important as the issues where everybody wants their say. So how does this relate to the election?

Let's go back to the example of Rumsfeld. Bush is essentially running his entire campaign on the character issue, as a strong leader who will stay the course, who will do what is necessary to protect his people from the evil around them. He is running as the Strict Father of Lakoff's system. That means he must demonstrate his character in a variety of ways to show that he is worthy of the people's trust. Rumsfeld provides a good opportunity to demonstrate two facets of character. By sticking with him now, Bush demonstrates his loyalty, his unwillingness to give up a comrade under fire. In October, Bush asks Rumsfeld to resign. He will have demonstrated his loyalty by that point, so Bush can use the firing as a chance to show his leadership and ability to make the "hard choices". If Rove does his job, then any other allegations that appear over the next few months will be diverted to Rumsfeld, making Bush appear squeaky clean, and able to use the whole incident as an electoral advantage in demonstrating his character to dubious Midwestern voters.

Viewing things through the Lakoff lense, we can see the several mistakes that John Kerry is making in running his campaign. I covered several of these before, but I never get tired of this stuff, so I'll go into more detail. One point is that Kerry has a reasonable grasp on the liberal population, given their fear of Bush on the issues, so he does not need to concentrate as much on them. But his failure to develop his personal narrative could be fatal in the Midwestern swing states. If Bush is running on character, Kerry needs to do so as well. And if Kerry focused on developing his own story and getting it to the voters, he should be in great shape. He's a decorated war Veteran, with years of public service, running against a former alcoholic drug-abusing draft dodger who hasn't earned a single thing in his life. Unfortunately, Kerry took the wrong approach. He concentrated on bashing Bush before developing his own story, which makes him look weak and negatively opportunistic.

If I were in charge of the Kerry campaign staff, I would punt on all of the issues and the getting out the liberal vote and Bush-bashing. There are plenty of grassroots organization who can and will do a better job of it (Moveon.Org is the best example, but there are many others, such as Howard Stern and Michael Moore). Kerry needs to be focusing his efforts on publicizing his personal narrative and putting it in terms of character and the "Great Man" theory of politics. His campaign can afford to stay positive, because there are plenty of other organizations that will do the Bush-bashing for him. And he needs to stay positive, to give people a real alternative to vote for, somebody whose character they feel they can trust. It's especially important in this election because if people feel that they are choosing the lesser of two evils, they will just stay home and not vote. And given the threat to their way of life, you can be sure that Bush's supporters will be out in force. So Kerry needs to get people excited to vote for him, to get that Clintonian buzz going. I remember being astonished in 1992 by how many people I knew were genuinely excited by Bill Clinton the man. Kerry will never be the natural politician that Clinton was, but he could stand to take lessons from him on ignoring the issues and selling himself as the product.

Anyway. I've wandered far afield again. Someday I'll get bored with ranting about politics. Maybe.

posted at: 09:24 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/politics | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Wed, 14 Apr 2004

Howard and Arianna
So, after yesterday's post which talked separately about Arianna Huffington and Howard Stern, I was amused to hear Arianna as a guest on Howard's show this morning. Politics really really makes the strangest bedfellows. They commiserated about the idiocy of Bush especially after the robotic press conference last night, before Stern got distracted by inquiring about Arianna's ex-husband, who came out as gay after the divorce. Then Stern started asking her what the sex was like and whether she had any clue, and she's asking whether they should talk about something more interesting, like defeating Bush. Stern would have none of it, saying that he was more interested in the sex at the moment. Arianna got frustrated and found something to get Stern back on track. She mentioned that she'd had dinner with Uma Thurman the previous night, and Uma had asked Arianna to ask Howard if she could come on the show and do a joint voter registration drive to help defeat Bush. Howard said "Okay, now you've got my attention!" And then he told Arianna to tell Uma, "Baby. I am doing everything I can to defeat Bush. I am begging my listeners to vote against him. I would love to help register voters with you." Absolutely hilarious stuff. And yet serious. Stern may be a wackjob pervert, but he can get people to listen to him. And just the idea of Arianna Huffington and Uma Thurman and Howard Stern teaming up because they all hate Bush makes me think that there's some hope that Bush could be defeated this fall. If these different people from these very different backgrounds are all anti-Bush, that has to mean something.

I can only hope.

posted at: 14:05 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/politics | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Tue, 13 Apr 2004

More thoughts from Alternet
First of all, George Lakoff's ideas are exemplified once again by this Arianna Huffington column, where she is talking to the 11-year-old son of a friend of hers:

"Arianna," he said with the enchanting optimism of a Greek-American boy, "I'm going to convince you that you should support Bush in November. Here are two questions you have to answer. The first question is: Are you for more or less taxes? The second question is: Do you want to fight the war on terrorism?"
Absolutely brilliant. George Bush and the conservatives have made their frame so widespread and so simple that an 11-year-old boy can articulate it clearly. If the Democrats had anything like that level of media savvy and attention to marketing, it wouldn't even be a close contest this fall. Arianna actually makes a good stab at starting to set appropriate liberal frames in the column, but they're too complex still. I'm thinking about buying her book though, to see what other thoughts she might have. She and Lakoff at least recognize the problem; it's going to take years for the cognitive machinery to be put in place to combat the conservative think-tank movement that Lakoff describes.

Another Alternet post does a great job of describing how the Democrats are being "Betamaxed", in the sense of having a superior product being destroyed by poor marketing. She cites poll numbers showing that when people are asked in isolation, they tend to support liberal positions like the environment, universal health care and gun control. But when they get to the booths, they vote Rebublican. She describes the brilliant branding the Republicans have done, such that they're still the party of smaller government and fiscal conservatives when it's been more than 30 years since a Republican president has passed a balanced budget or reduced government spending. Read the article. Good stuff. Falls in line with Lakoff's stuff beautifully.

Which brings me to my last topic, one that I've been meaning to write about for a few weeks now. A key influence in the upcoming election may be one that absolutely nobody would have predicted. And I'm talking about Howard Stern. Yes, the radio shock jock. For those of you who haven't been following the story, Howard Stern decided earlier this year that Bush was an idiot and that he was going to vote for Kerry. Two days later, his show got pulled off of Clear Channel, the radio station conglomerate, whose owners are huge Bush supporters. The show allegedly got pulled in response to the FCC cracking down in the wake of the Janet Jackson Super Bowl incident, but Stern hadn't changed his show in years. The only thing that changed was that he started bad-mouthing Bush on the air.

Clear Channel pulling his show off of their stations sent Stern ballistic. And he's dedicated what little time he has left on the air (there's allegedly a bill in Congress which would make radio personalities personally responsible for the six figure fines the FCC has started handing out for indecency) to railing about Bush. And while I may dislike Stern's preferred lowbrow humor, I do respect his media savvy. A lot. The man has built an empire of radio, film and books selling himself as the product. He knows how to get people talking about the things that he wants to talk about. And now he's talking about Bush being a liar, about Bush's destruction of the environment, about Bush being in bed with corporate lobbyists like Clear Channel. And he's a smart guy. He has regularly been taking calls from listeners who are Bush supporters and destroying their arguments on the air. He invited a conservative pundit and Al Franken to debate on his show, and he and Al ganged up on the conservative and made him look like a fool.

And this could be incredibly significant. Like it or not, Stern has a huge following nationwide. And it's a predominantly white straight male demographic that is anything but solidly Democratic. If he convinces his listeners to vote against Bush, that's a significant swing right there. But he's gone further than that. He's taking Bush's arguments and rebutting them on air. His listeners can now take those rebuttals and repeat them whenever somebody confronts them with a conservative argument. It's kind of weird, but Stern could be influencing the political discourse of this country at a grass roots level in a way that hasn't been seen outside of the conservative movement (Rush Limbaugh or Michael Savage perform that function nicely over there). And don't bet against Stern. He's got more media savvy than the entire Democratic party put together. And he's a compelling speaker - I've started tuning into his show occasionally in the morning to listen to his anti-Bush rants.

It's a fascinating story to me. It's the power of the media. It's controlling the framing of issues. It's understanding the importance of marketing a position. All issues of interest to me, all rolled into one story. I'm rooting for Howard Stern. And that's something I'm not sure I ever thought I'd say...

posted at: 16:14 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/politics | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Sun, 04 Apr 2004

Defining John Kerry
A friend sent me a link to this article over at Yahoo, describing how Bush has scored points by defining John Kerry with a series of negative ads since the end of the primaries. We then saw this article where Ralph Nader, of all people, tells Kerry to loosen up and be himself. As usual, I'm fascinated by the media wars, and by how image is defined in these political battles, as well as the strategies involved. So here's some thoughts on Kerry's campaign.

Kerry needs to figure out what he stands for and use that to define himself. Up to this point in the campaign, Kerry has been defined by what he is not. In the primaries, Kerry won because he was not Dean. So far in the general election, Kerry has been trying to run by being not Bush. But that's not enough. George Lakoff does a good job of explaining how "voters vote their identities, not their self-interest." (Lakoff's Second Law). George Bush has created a strong brand that defines who he is. He's a regular guy that's for national security, smaller government, and strong Christian values. The fact that each of these claims is patently false has nothing to do with the situation. Democrats can try all day to point at Bush's record and show that he's a Washington insider blue-blood, who's put Americans in more danger than ever and increased the size of government to a size not seen since Reagan. But people don't listen to facts. They have bought into the Bush image, the Bush brand, and that's what they vote for. That's why, as the first of those Yahoo article points out, Bush is trusted by 50 percentage points more than Kerry on national security, despite Kerry's vast experience in the Senate.

Kerry doesn't understand Lakoff's Second Law. He's trying to get voters to vote for him based on reason and logic. He needs to instead be spending his time creating a compelling story and publicizing it. For one thing, he needs to accept the term liberal and then start the battle to define it. By ducking the question and denying that he's a liberal, Kerry makes liberal look like a bad word. This is especially ludicrous when Kerry has one of the most sterling liberal voting records in the Senate. Kerry should shout that he _is_ a liberal. Follow Bush's strategy of solidifying your own flank before going after the middle. Bush is nailing down his religious right flank with the gay marriage amendment. Kerry needs to nail down his liberal left flank by agreeing to actually be a liberal. Then go after the middle by explaining how being a liberal means standing up for the environment, it means treating people with dignity, it means not giving your corporate buddies tax writeoffs worth hundreds of millions of dollars while they lay off 10% of their workforce.

Lakoff's right. The political process is all about giving yourself an image that aligns the voter's self story with yours. Interestingly, both sides of the campaign have so far failed to run ads in that vein. Bush's attack ads on Kerry are surprising in that by bothering to attack Kerry rather than stand on his record, Bush makes his own record look weak and makes Kerry look like more of a threat. But at the same time, Kerry's response ads have looked just as pathetic; they basically convey the message "Bush is attacking me! Waaaahhhhh!!!" Neither one of them is stating what they stand for. Bush doesn't have to. His brand is already established in the nationwide market. He can afford to go negative this early. Kerry still needs to define his image. He's a moderate with liberal social tendencies, with a strong background of supporting the military. That's an entirely electable position. If he markets it right.

And the first thing he needed to do on that front is take his weak points and pre-emptively strike to remove them from the debate. Unfortunately, he's too late to do that. His weak points, in my eyes, are his wealthy heritage (and heiress wife), his liberal record (which I think he should exploit rather than hide from), and his "flip-flops" in the Senate (which are mostly a result of actually doing politics rather than talking about it - Bismarck's quote about "Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made" seems appropriate here). Unfortunately, Bush has beaten him to the punch on both the flip-flopping and the liberal record. For a large portion of the country, Kerry is now defined as "one of them". And it's going to take a focused effort to overcome that. I just hope he figures it out in time.

Once Kerry establishes his image, and fortifies his weak points, that's when he can go back after Bush. That's when he discusses the tragic loss of life in Iraq. That's when he details the disgusting corporate kickbacks. That's when he points out the inconsistencies in Bush's 3 years in office (such as being for free trade, except when it affects the steel industry or other politically important constituencies). But by starting out with those points, Kerry is running the risk of defining himself purely as being not Bush. And defining one's image negatively is a guaranteed route to failure in American politics. We'll see what happens...

posted at: 12:06 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/politics | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Tue, 17 Feb 2004

George Lakoff and politics
I mentioned George Lakoff in my list of links a month ago, but somebody recently forwarded me a link to this interview with him, where I got a better sense of his thinking. That page also links to this other interview, which has some really great bits.

Lakoff was the guy who said frames trump facts, the "law" that intrigued me so much I linked to it before. These interviews apply that concept to politics. In particular, he points out how the conservative movement has spent thirty years developing a coherent conceptual structure that allows them to use a coordinated set of phrases that frames the debate in their terms. Tax relief is his common example, because relief implies an affliction that must be relieved, therefore taxes should be relieved. The liberal or progressive movement has not built up this infrastructure of framing, instead relying on the ideas to sell themselves:

Also, within traditional liberalism you have a history of rational thought that was born out of the Enlightenment: all meanings should be literal, and everything should follow logically. So if you just tell people the facts, that should be enough - the truth shall set you free. All people are fully rational, so if you tell them the truth, they should reach the right conclusions. That, of course, has been a disaster.
The problem is that as soon as you let the other side set the frame, you're arguing on their terms. The question "Are you for or against tax relief?" is similar to the linguistic trap in "Have you stopped beating your wife yet?" The question is inherently unfair, because how could anybody be opposed to relief? Questions like this are used in polls all the time to influence how people respond. But it's hard to fight your way out of such a frame, because very few people think about the implications of how things are phrased, so when you argue against the language, they say that you're just nit-picking and tell you to shut up and answer the question (any resemblance to Fox News is purely coincidental, of course). Another example phrase is "intellectual property"; Lawrence Lessig fights against this phrase because as soon as you call ideas property, then you bring a whole set of other connotations about property - property is owned, it can belong to only one person at a time, etc. It biases the whole debate.

Lakoff also points out that conservative politicians have all of these think tanks and institutes who coach them on this stuff (he says that Frank Luntz is the man who leads that effort - check out this Mother Jones article detailing one of Luntz's reports). The liberal movement has no such equivalent at this time, so they're essentially going into this battle completely unarmed. In response, Lakoff is one of the co-founders of the Rockridge Institute, a group of scholars coming together to "develop a vision, a strategy, and a moral language that can move U.S. society in a progressive direction." There's some really good thought-provoking essays on their website.

To bring this all back into the realm of things I've previously ranted about, the Democratic candidates are all terrible at the image game, something which has bothered me since the beginning. Lakoff agrees:

Do any of the Democratic Presidential candidates grasp the importance of framing?

None. They don't get it at all. But they're in a funny position. The framing changes that have to be made are long-term changes. The conservatives understood this in 1973. By 1980 they had a candidate, Ronald Reagan, who could take all this stuff and run with it. The progressives don't have a candidate now who understands these things and can talk about them.

A friend of mine sent me a great example of this yesterday. From the New York Times:
"This is not a time for photo opportunities, it is a time to create real opportunities in America," he [Kerry] told a town hall meeting at Northcentral Technical College in Wausau, Wisconsin, after touring a laboratory and posing for photographs with a 40-pound aluminum slab into which a computer-control machine tool etched the words "Wisconsin Backs Kerry in 2004."
He decries photo ops in the middle of a photo op. Unbelievable. Reuters undoubtedly helped by phrasing the story so that both concepts are in the same sentence. But these are the sorts of mistakes that will doom Kerry in the general election. He just doesn't understand how to play the image game at a master level. He's at least figured out its existence - the move to bring all of his Vietnam veteran friends on to his campaign was a smart move to help change his image - but he's got a long way to go before he can match up with Bush and Rove.

It doesn't help that it's pretty much impossible to figure out what Kerry (or any of the other Democratic candidates) stands for. They're pretty much against Bush. That's about it. The incoherence of the Democratic platform drives me nuts. Lakoff again:

Right now the Democratic Party is into marketing. They pick a number of issues like prescription drugs and Social Security and ask which ones sell best across the spectrum, and they run on those issues. They have no moral perspective, no general values, no identity.
Edwards has actually come closest with the Two Americas campaign, a nice succinct summary of what he stands for. Unfortunately, I think he's standing in the wrong place. As I noted before, too many people are convinced that they're going to vault into the upper tax brackets soon to think that the rich and privileged should be penalized (check out this survey by Luntz's group which shows that people oppose the death tax even though it only affects inheritances of more than $625,000, a figure which few of us are ever likely to see). [Update: An alert reader pointed out that my use of the phrase "death tax" was using the conservatives' framing. Oops. You can see how insidious such language is.]

Lakoff makes a lot of sense to me. The day before I read those interviews, I wrote this in an email to a friend:

I think that your point about the larger liberal discussion is a good one. Part of what the Democratic party and the liberal movement has suffered from is an inability to agree upon and communicate a core message. Oddly enough, the Republicans should suffer from the same fate since their party now covers a crazy patchwork quilt of alliances between the old-school fiscal conservatives to the neo-con hawks to the fundamentalist Christians, etc. But now that I think about it, I suspect that the commonality is that all of those folks agree upon the importance of order and hierarchy, so they fall into line when they have a strong leader (and are more likely to produce people able to be seen as those leaders) (and no, I'm not counting Bush as a strong leader, but he's got people on his team that are). Meanwhile, the liberals, by focusing on being all-inclusive and consensus-driven, often come across as ineffectual and ethereal.
The Rockridge Institute is designed to construct and communicate a core liberal message. This will be crucial to setting the debate in the years moving forward. I'm actually tempted to write Lakoff and ask if the Institute needs a part-time intern to help proofread and edit or something, because getting involved in these discussions is something that would interest me greatly. We'll see. For now, though, I should shut this down and go to the job that pays me.

posted at: 14:22 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/politics | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Sun, 01 Feb 2004

Dean's Last Stand
So I wanted to get one more entry in on politics before the Democratic primary race totally collapses this Tuesday when it looks like Kerry will take 5 of the 7 contested states.

One of the things that I previously observed about this race is that it's all about perception. In particular, I said a month ago about Dean:

Yes, he's got moderate policies, as Tom Tomorrow points out in his cartoon. But he's not known for that. He's known for angrily spewing on television against the war. That's the extent of most voters' knowledge of Dean. If elections were decided by a careful analysis of the issues, I would agree that Dean has a very good chance. But they're not. Elections are decided by personalities, by gut instincts, and by first reactions.
The perceptions are very popular. All people saw on television of Dean was him screaming about Bush (or yelling after the Iowa letdown). And that plays powerfully into what people think. This Online Beat column over at The Nation has an interesting observation that the one area of New Hampshire that got its news from a relatively independent newspaper was the one area that Dean won.

What do I think will happen? It looks like Kerry is heading towards victory right now. He's got the Big Mo' (mentum) going right now. Which is a pity, because I don't think he can beat Bush. For one thing, he's a New England liberal, which was part of the reason I was originally worried about Dean. Unlike Dean, he is a war veteran, which will help a little bit. But there's no way he can run believably against the Washington culture when he's been a senator for twenty years. He's had to make too many compromises, too many votes of expediency. And, yes, that's the way things actually get done in Washington. But it's too easy to pick at those compromises, and you can bet Karl Rove has teams of researchers on that task right now.

What disappoints me about the race is that Edwards and Clark have managed to split the "Southern Democrat outsider" vote in half, basically dooming both of them to irrelevancy. If you combined their tallies, they would be a force to rival Kerry, and one that has a much better chance of beating Bush for the reasons I outlined in that original post. But with neither seeming willing to back down and accept the vice-presidency, it looks like they'll hand the nomination to Kerry, and the general election to Bush. And that just sucks.

Why do I like Clark? I think he's electable. That's it. I understand that most of my friends disdain him because he's a total cypher. He has no positions of his own. He has taken no stands. He's a blank slate politically. But that's why he's electable. As soon as you take stands, you get judged by those stands. Kerry will get nailed for this now that he's the front runner, or he may hold it off until the general election. And I don't think being a cypher necessarily means nothing will get done. If Clark chooses the right advisors, he can get quite a bit done. I think Bush is primarily a figurehead, but he's got a crack staff, and they have accomplished far more than our worst nightmares when he became President four years ago.

With a little bit of massaging of his message, Clark could go right after the traditional wing of the Republican party. What should he be aiming for? A strong national security as evidenced by his generalship. Fiscal discipline. Balanced budgets. All of these are historically Republican issues. And issues that Bush is vulnerable on; his own party is rebelling against his egregious budget deficits. With the right strategy, I think Clark could hold the line on those issues and mix in enough socially liberal issues to attract Democrats. Yes, it brings the Democrats back to the center, which disappoints my more liberal friends. But the center is way better than wherever Bush is trying to take us.

Totally random observation. I was IM'ing a friend of mine, and he commented that "homeland security is such a sham". My response: "um, yeah. if they'd just admit that homeland security is a giant jobs-creation program, a la the New Deal TVA, I'd respect them more". It's totally a socialist economic stimulation package. If a Democratic president were in office, the Republicans would be screaming bloody murder about it. As it is, they're barely being held in check. If the Democrats put up a credible centrist candidate, there's a decent chance they can steal some protest votes from the Republicans which may be all they need; in the New Hampshire Republican primary, according to this Nation column, "One in seven Republican primary voters cast ballots for candidates other than Bush, holding the president to just 85 percent of the 62,927 ballots cast." But Dean is not that candidate, certainly not with the way he's been portrayed in the media. And I don't think Kerry will be able to escape his ties to the special interest groups that helped him continue to get re-elected to the Senate.

Edwards is a great liberal candidate. From what I've read, he's got the best stump speech going. But I don't feel that his "Two Americas" speech will play well with many Americans. Yes, there's outrage about the rich getting richer and getting benefits that others don't. But most Americans don't believe that redistributing income is a good thing. I think it's because America has the rags-to-riches story as one of its central myths, so many Americans believe that if they work hard enough, they could be the ones on top. And they don't want to risk their theoretical gains. Judging one's own competence is difficult, and we experience the Lake Wobegon Effect where "all the children are above average". So even though Edwards Southern outsider characteristics lend themselves to the general election, I think he will be too liberal for most (heck, his ads make me a bit nervous). His lack of leadership experience and non-veteran status are also big weaknesses against Bush.

Which brings me back to Clark. I wouldn't mind seeing a Clark/Kerry ticket. Or a Clark/Edwards ticket for that matter. Both have their advantages - Kerry would bring the knowledge of how things really work in Washington, while Edwards might be enough of a bone to keep the liberal wing of the Democratic Party from defecting to Nader or candidates further to the left. Unfortunately, until Clark gets better advisors and refines his message, this is all just dreaming. Unless something unexpected happens Tuesday (and there's still time - things shifted radically in the last 48 hours before Iowa and New Hampshire), Kerry will soon be on the express train to the nomination, especially because both Edwards and Dean have drop-dead points (Edwards said he'll drop out if he doesn't win South Carolina on Tuesday, and Dean's campaign would experience a severe blow if he loses in Michigan three days later since he's concentrating all his efforts there). After that, unless both Edwards and Dean shift their support to Clark, Kerry will be in charge. And Bush and Rove will be on their way to a Dukakis-like romp.

posted at: 16:28 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/politics | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Thu, 29 Jan 2004

Somehow the topic of unions came up at work yesterday, and, in particular, why unions have totally failed to become a force in the high-tech economy of the Bay Area. I had put some thought into this a few months ago when I made the mistake of deriding unions in front of a friend whose entire family was strong union members. After shamefacedly extricating myself from the situation, I tried to figure out why I didn't think unions were a good idea for somebody in my position. Here's my stab. You be the judge.

I postulate that unions are a necessary force in situations where there are few differentiating factors among workers. Taking the prototypical example of the assembly line, I would imagine that it may take a few months to learn your role on the line, but after that, your ability to do your job faster or more efficiently isn't going to improve significantly. In fact, no amount of natural ability is going to really differentiate one employee from another - the line moves at the same speed regardless of who's on the line. I've never worked in a factory, so this may be a total fiction, but let's take it as an assumption for now. In the absence of unions, it would make sense for the company to fire people after a few years as they demanded more money, because they don't get appreciably more economic return with the greater experience of those more senior employees. Unions, by enforcing seniority and by organizing the workers, provide a balance to the company's firing power.

Let's contrast this situation with software. There is a vast gradient in ability of software engineers. The estimates I've heard are that a superstar software engineer is 10 to 100 times more productive than an average software engineer. So this is a difference at the start - the best can truly differentiate themselves from their coworkers. Furthermore, experience matters in software engineering. You learn from your mistakes, and engineers with more experience will get things done faster and more efficiently because they won't make the same mistakes a novice would. I only have a few years of experience, but I'm several times more productive than I was when I started in terms of useful code produced. So there is a return on investment for the corporation in keeping more senior engineers around; the company may have to pay the senior guy double what they would for a kid straight out of college, but the senior guy is probably an order of magnitude more productive, so it's worth it.

In such a world, unions don't make a lot of sense. There is little incentive for the company to fire people as they become more senior, because their productivity goes up faster than their salary demands. Furthermore, a union would hold back the superstars, because unions are based around the idea that all workers are equal, whereas that is manifestly not true in the world of software engineering; again, the superstars are demonstrably more productive than their coworkers. In fact, superstars elevate the level of your entire team; for instance, they might design a more efficient architecture which the rest of your less talented software engineer team can fill in the details. And since software engineers are full of hubris (and laziness and impatience), they all believe that they're the superstars, so they look down on the concept of unions and all workers being equal.

That's been the state up until now. However, I think it's possible that things may change radically in the near future. Why? Because those "average" programmers don't necessarily have to be here. You could have your superstar software architect design things, and then outsource the actual implementation out to a firm in India. All of those less talented programmers are now out of work. Let's re-examine the two qualities to an employee pool that I said contributed to unions: (1) experience makes little difference, and (2) all workers are equal. In this new outsourcing world, (1) is less true than it was before, since if you're not a superstar, and are merely implementing the superstar's design, then your experience is not as useful. You have to know enough not to make dumb mistakes, but the learning curve levels off fairly quickly. And as far as (2), again, if you're not a superstar, you're equivalent to any of the other guys, so they may as well farm that work out to India. Thus, the conditions are now in place where unions might thrive.

I'm not saying this is necessarily an accurate picture of how the software engineering industry looks right now. For one thing, I'm exaggerating the difference between the superstar and the average programmer for the sake of this argument. Of course it's going to be more of a continuum. However, several companies already operate with this two-tiered model in place. Oracle and Sun are well-known for hiring hordes of kids straight out of schools as programmers to implement the software designed by their more senior folks. The kids generally last about two years before they realize they're getting overworked and underpaid and move on. And the next wave of kids rolls in. The two years is important, though, because it gives Oracle and Sun a chance to spot any potential superstars and find a way to keep them. Microsoft does the same thing on a grand scale; they generally try to hire the top graduates regardless of whether they need them. They figure that, if nothing else, they're keeping the superstars from their competitors.

So I think it will be interesting to see how the software engineering industry develops. Will unions or some other sort of collective employee bargaining be in its future? Regardless, I don't see a lot of future for any software engineer that is not of superstar quality; those implementation jobs will continue to flow to China and India where programmers get paid 10% or less of what they do here. This is why I currently specialize in instrumentation software, where developing the software requires physical presence. But long term I may have to consider whether software engineering is a field with a future.

posted at: 15:10 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/politics | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Thu, 15 Jan 2004

Michael Moore endorses Clark
I'm on Michael Moore's mailing list, and this morning he sent out his endorsement of Clark over Dean. Michael Moore, who most people know from his "documentaries" such as Roger and Me and Bowling for Columbine, is a bit of a wacko, but I think he does genuinely care about this country and its people. And after talking to Clark, and talking to many people while on his recent book tour, he's genuinely convinced that Clark is the Democratic candidate that should oppose Bush in the election.

It's interesting how the dynamics of the Democratic primary are changing almost daily. Time magazine has an article detailing how Clark has benefited from the Dean backlash. USA Today has this blurb, seen on Yahoo, about how Clark has closed in on Dean in New Hampshire, going from 20 points back a month ago to just 4 points down now. If Clark makes it that close in New Hampshire, which is Dean's home turf, there's a good chance Clark will emerge with the momentum before the next primary in South Carolina, where Clark should have the advantage.

As noted previously here, I'm torn. I've been saying Clark has a better chance than Dean of beating Bush for a while. I love Dean's organizational efforts, though. And one of my friends who's a true liberal points out that Clark is basically no better than Clinton, who he perceived as just barely better than a Republican. In fact, most of Clark's campaign staff were on Clinton's team. But while that sort of centrism may drive my friend nuts, Clark will at least pay lip service to ideals I believe in. Bush doesn't. I don't know. It's going to be a wild ride. I kind of hope that there's some potential Hunter S. Thompson out there chronicling it all in the style of Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail, so I can find out later what went down. We'll see what happens...

posted at: 00:07 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/politics | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Sun, 04 Jan 2004

John Perry Barlow speaks
After writing my post about the perils of extremism a few weeks ago, I just have to link to John Perry Barlow's thoughts on the subject. Despite being the author of the much ballyhooed Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, Barlow only recently started a weblog of his own. After one of his posts evangelizing about the importance of beating Bush this year (wow, it's 2004 now, so it's an election year), he was surprised to find an invasion of Bush supporters who'd been led there by a link from a conservative weblogger. But the post I reference above is his welcome to them, and a meditation on the importance of taking the other side's position seriously, and treating them as the intelligent and articulate people that they are. Since my post addressed similar issues, and took a similar position, I had to link to his as a sort of moral support. Or something.

posted at: 17:58 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/politics | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Wed, 31 Dec 2003

Dean Can't Win
In light of my speculation as to Dean's chances in the presidential election, I thought I should put up a link to the political cartoon, This Modern World, which published a cartoon this week, ridiculing the idea that Dean can't win.

I'm still torn on Dean. I like his position on several of the issues. I love his organizational efforts, and his leveraging the use of the Internet. In a lot of ways, Dean is doing the kind of grass roots organization for the left that Ralph Reed and the Christian Coalition did for the religious right in the early nineties (as detailed in Reed's book Active Faith). In fact, that's a decent comparison. While the Christian Coalition was able to drastically influence the direction of the Republican party, they were never able to fully take it over because they kind of freaked out the political center. I think that the Dean organization may end up in a similar position with respect to the Democratic party. And that wouldn't be a bad thing. The Green Party has held the banner for the far left recently, but has not been able to translate it into getting a seat at the policy-setting table (although some might argue that it was Nader's Green Party run in 2000 that convinced Gore to go with his disastrous populist campaign strategy). Dean's campaign might become a credible force within the Democratic party, and play the position of power broker among other candidates. But I don't know if Dean himself is electable.

Yes, he's got moderate policies, as Tom Tomorrow points out in his cartoon. But he's not known for that. He's known for angrily spewing on television against the war. That's the extent of most voters' knowledge of Dean. If elections were decided by a careful analysis of the issues, I would agree that Dean has a very good chance. But they're not. Elections are decided by personalities, by gut instincts, and by first reactions. Or did Schwarzenegger not just get elected governor of California?

posted at: 00:39 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/politics | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Tue, 16 Dec 2003

Last month, I was chatting with somebody who, upon finding out that I went to MIT, asked me if I had ever taken a class with Noam Chomsky. I said that I hadn't, but I'd read a couple of his books, so he asked me what I thought of them. I said something like "I think he's a little bit too extreme", which he pressed me to explain. Apparently, he was a big fan of Chomsky, and noted that Chomsky was able to document everything that he claimed, so he was just being a scholar, not an extremist. And I agree that his scholarship is generally impeccable, so I wasn't really able to clarify what I meant at the time.

After thinking about it some more, I think the problem I have with Chomsky's approach is that he's a true believer. And as a true believer, he tends to demonize his enemies, looking for ways to discredit them, calling them names, etc. I typed "Noam Chomsky terrorist" into google and turned up this talk, which demonstrates this tendency. While I actually agree with his viewpoint, I don't think that it's productive to call Reagan and his staff international terrorists. All it does is immediately polarize the discussion, and reduce it to a political firefight. And I don't believe anything productive can come of that.

We have all made choices and decisions about what kind of person we are, and we believe those choices are the right ones. We can't help but think that. Nobody can be perfectly fair-minded and accept all viewpoints equally. So we take our sides and we entrench them. The problem arises when we are so blinded by our biases that we can't accept input from the other side that might change our minds. And rantings like Chomsky's only make it easier to ignore all input from the liberal side, just like Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage make it easy to ignore input from the conservative side. So these voices are leading us towards ideological fortresses, walled off from outside influences, where we only get information that we already agree with. I'm thinking of talk radio and Fox News for the right wing, and NPR and the New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly for the left wing. And that's the wrong direction to move. But it's so tempting because nobody likes conflict, nobody likes argument, so just hanging out with people you agree with is so comforting that it's hard to get out there and deal with the abuse of the other side. So we don't.

And that's why I dislike Chomsky's approach. Rather than try to open up a dialogue with the other side, he gets so angry that he shuts them out and treats them as implacable monsters that are out to destroy people. But the important thing to remember is that nobody is evil in their own minds. They can't be. They have their reasons for what they're doing, and they believe in them very strongly. They may have a twisted perspective that is inconceivable to the outsider, but in their own minds, they think they're doing the right thing. And treating them as monsters will only convince them that you're a monster yourself, and then we're back in our ideological fortresses throwing metaphorical Molotov cocktails at each other (or in the case of Palestine and Israel, real explosives).

To make progress, you have to have a flexible enough mind to be able to simulate others' perspectives, at least enough to open a line of dialogue, to put things in terms that they will understand, to seek avenues of compromise. And we need more people that are willing to do that on the stage of punditry. Unfortunately, it's not encouraged. Pundits are hired to be outrageous, to grow ever more intolerant in their abuse of their opponents, because that increases ratings (as described in Breaking the News (my brief review) or News and the Culture of Lying (my brief review)). So moderates that are trying to reach compromises and move towards consensus lose their voices and their platform in the media. And I don't know what to do about that.

The only thing I can do is continue to read what I can from both sides, discounting the more inflammatory material, but seeing whether I can come to my own conclusions and my own mental compromises about which ideas to take from which sides. Not just in politics, but in all areas of life. I'm the type of person who likes playing devil's advocate, not because I necessarily disagree, but just to practice being able to think differently and argue the other side. By doing so, it helps me understand why somebody would take that position, and which of their values that might reflect, and that gives me an avenue for understanding how I can communicate with them if I have to. Of course, the fact that I like arguing all the time makes me somewhat of a pain to hang around with as well. But anyway...

So that's my long-belated answer to what bugs me about Chomsky. Now I finally have it in my head for next time, which, alas, will probably never come. Ah well...

posted at: 14:28 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/politics | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Sat, 15 Nov 2003

Question the assumptions
(written 11/14/03) A friend of mine offered up this piece of advice about how to deal with children, learned from experience with his own two-year-old: Offer them choices where you're happy with both outcomes. That way, they get to make a choice and feel in charge of their life, and you're happy regardless. Choices like "Do you want to wear the red shirt or the green shirt?" or "Do you want to eat your vegetables first or second?" The question is framed to eliminate the assumptions that the child may want to question, like "Why do I have to wear the shirt at all?" or "I don't want to eat vegetables."

This may seem like a non sequitur, but it occurred to me recently while considering the survival strategies of organizations, a point I touched upon in the last post. After all, isn't this the strategy used by the organizations in power to perpetuate themselves? ABC or CBS or NBC is the choice offered, not whether to watch television. Democrat or Republican. Catholic or Protestant. The dangers of the two-valued orientation should be evident (read Hayakawa's book for more discussion), but is often overlooked in our society. By giving people only two or three choices, it eliminates the possibility of throwing out the question entirely, much like my friend only gives his two-year-old pre-approved options.

It's interesting because people become so attuned to societal rules that they don't even consider what assumptions are ingrained in those rules. For some reason, it's very clear to me that the rules define a game, and define a world-view. So I speculate on the rules of the game, and how they serve to perpetuate power. And I feel free to step outside them when I think it's necessary. Not that I'm some sort of crazed outlaw or anything, but I know that the rules exist for certain reasons and certain situations. If I don't believe the rules apply, then why should I observe them? I liked Heinlein's expression of it in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Professor Bernardo de la Paz describes himself as a rational anarchist, one who understands that rules exist in society, but also understands that those rules apply to him only as long as he lets them. There are consequences to breaking the rules, of course, but that is factored into my decision as to whether to abide by them.

The difficulty comes in dealing with people who believe that the rules are the rules full stop. People who believe in the organization chart in a bureaucracy and are terrified of breaking the chain of command. People who are brought up as Republicans and will never question their allegiance. People who believe that homosexuality is wrong or birth control is wrong, when I think those are mostly rules that the Church put in to ensure that its followers would "be fruitful and multiply", thus ensuring the numerical and eventual political sovereignty of the Church.

How do you get people to question the rules? How do you get them to understand that the rules were put in place, often by a political aristocracy to preserve their power? How do you explain that they're just rules, like in a game, not laws of nature? You'd think it would be easy for Americans to understand this; our entire country was based on the idea that our forefathers broke the rules, and rebelled for the sake of universal principles that they believed took precedence. But at this point, many Americans are just happy to treat the new rules as handed down from above, like Moses and the Ten Commandments.

Points I want to pick up in later posts: How and why I think I ended up with a decidedly independent viewpoint? And whether I think everybody should be trusted with the empowerment of deciding whether the rules apply to them. Also, I'll see if I can come up with some ideas for encouraging the independent viewpoint I crave. But for now, I'm going to run off to a talk by Brian Eno.

posted at: 08:25 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/politics | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Joe "Bush" Millionaire?
(written 11/7/03) We were talking yesterday at lunch about the new Joe Millionaire. Apparently, it features a young Texas cowboy, who's pretending to be the heir to an oil fortune worth $80 million. The women wooing him are European women, who appear to be a gaggle of loud-mouthed, ineffectual, jealous moneygrubbers. My immediate thought is that this program must be sponsored by the Bush administration. Make Europeans (and particularly the French) look like they're just jealous of our wealth and want to grab it for themselves. Make a regular Texas boy the star of the show.

Of course, I'd extend the analogy further and say that the Texas boy in the White House is just as much of a pretender as the new Joe Millionaire. But that's another rant.

posted at: 08:19 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/politics | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Howard Dean and the South
(written 11/5/03) Just after writing my previous post about how Howard Dean is a hopeless case in the South, I read an article on Yahoo today, where he apologized for making an insensitive mark about the South. Apparently, "Dean got in trouble while defending his moderate views on gun ownership, saying Democrats need to address such cultural issue if they want to appeal to Southern white voters who drive pickup trucks with Confederate flags in the windows." The implication that all Southerners are white trash who worship the Confederate flag apparently offended many blacks and all of the other Democratic candidates.

The really crazy thing is that Dean was on the right track. They do need to find a way to appeal to those folks. Even though one South Carolina democrat disgustedly said, "My God. Couldn't he have simply said we need to appeal to the 'Bubba vote' or 'good ol' boy vote?'", that's exactly what the Democrats need to do to have a chance. But now that Dean handled it poorly, nobody else is going to try to touch it, which means that the South will be lost as expected, and the Democrats will lose. It's almost like the Democrats are trying to find ways to make their position worse. Crazy stuff. I'm more and more resigned to Bush having another four years in office to destroy the American economy and any credibility we have overseas, because the Democrats don't have anybody who can politick their way out of a paper bag.

posted at: 08:19 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/politics | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Why Howard Dean should leave the race
(written 11/3/03) As long as I'm ranting about politics, it's time for Howard Dean to get the hell out of the race for the Democratic nomination while he still has credibility, and throw his support to Clark. If he were serious about the priority being to get Bush out of office, that's what he would do. Why do I say this?

It's simple electoral politics. Southern states won't vote for a damn yankee, New England, upper crust liberal. Period. End of story. Dean can't win a general election against Bush. Same goes for Kerry, Lieberman, Kucinich and the rest. As my friend from Atlanta used to joke, "I didn't know DamnYankee was two words until I was in high school!" Since JFK, no Democrat has won the presidency without being a Southerner (LBJ, Carter and Clinton), and the ones that were New England liberals were subject to the worst landslides ever recorded (Dukakis anyone?). JFK is an exception, but he barely squeaked into office, and wouldn't have been elected if Mayor Daley hadn't rigged Chicago (see Ted White's The Making of the President 1960 for details - I'm going off somewhat foggy memory here). In fact, if I remember correctly, JFK's election was the event that turned southern states away from their traditional Democrat leanings and made them the staunch Republican stronghold they are now.

The only Democratic candidate with a chance is Clark, because he has the Southern gentleman thing going for him, and because he can pound Bush for being a Commander in Chief who ducked out of military service into the National Guard. I'd love to believe that people nationwide will realize the tremendous damage Bush has done to this country in the last four years and rationally vote him out of office, but since my state just elected Schwarzenegger as its governor, I have to believe that most voters vote by instinct. And expecting southerners to vote against instinct to elect somebody who's definitely not one of them seems unrealistic. Clark needs to be the Democratic candidate. Heck, it wouldn't surprise me if Karl Rove (Bush's political advisor) were doing his best to support the Dean campaign. There could be absolutely nothing better for the Bush campaign than a Dean candidacy. Rove would tear Dean apart. Anyway. These are the things I think about...

posted at: 08:18 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/politics | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Interesting quote by Thomas Jefferson
(written 7/30/03) I'm reading a book on the history of anarchism (Anarchism: a history of libertarian ideas and movements, by George Woodcock), because I've been interested in the political concept of anarchy for a while, but didn't really know anything about the historical and theoretical tradition of it. Plus the book was only a couple dollars at the used book store. Anyway, the book references an interesting quote by Thomas Jefferson:

The influence over government must be shared among the people. If every individual which composes their mass participates in the ultimate authority, the government will be safe; because the corrupting of the whole mass will exceed any private resources of wealth.
It's interesting because it's no longer true. In his time, reaching the entire electorate was impossible, due to travel and communication constraints. But with the introduction of mass media, it's trivial for someone to "corrupt the whole mass", and within the private resources of many people. Well, okay, some people. This is one of the things that disturbs me about direct democracy - it's far too easy for the electorate to be swayed on many issues by propaganda. Heck, I freely admit that most of the time I don't know what the "right" answer is on several of California's ballot propositions. So I'm dependent on trying to pluck the truth out of the TV ads and other propaganda going back and forth. It's a crazy system, and has led to the crushing deficit facing the state government, because the propositions have limited their discretionary spending to such an extent that they can't even make sensible choices any more.

I guess I'm not sure what my point is. Except that that quote is interesting. It makes one wonder whether Thomas Jefferson would even recognize our government today as a "democracy".

posted at: 08:17 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/politics | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal