Back from our Sabbatical?

September 29, 2006

If, like me, you saw President Clinton’s performance on Fox News (1, 2, 3), you may have been surprised by many of things he said. Further, you may have been subsequently befuddled by the focus that his emotional state, in exaggerated and distorted detail, had in the media coverage of the event, rather than refutation or confirmation of the startling facts that he enumerated. If so, you’ll be happy to know that Keith Olbermann has a few things to say about it.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that, while I don’t watch Countdown or MSNBC at all, the clips I have seen of Keith Olberman have routinely been anti-rightist in nature, whether in the form of incisively dressing down Bill O’Reilly for some idiotic comment, or the even more ludicrous Ann Coulter. I don’t know this is selection bias on the part of people who select the clips, or whether this is his general tone, but in any either case, it hasn’t been my experience that anything he’s said has been false or not corroborated by fact. Quite the opposite, in fact — he seems ready with an army of documented facts to bolster his own position, and I think that this clip in particular channels more of Edward R. Murrow than his signature sign-off. It energized me to see a mainstream journalist going to task on what others seem either too cowed or too much in thrall, as Olbermann meta-quotes, to be frank and open about. I hope you find it refreshing, or at very least thought-provoking.


Audience Participation

April 30, 2006

Two somewhat related requests:

  1. Despite my relative certainty about the things I’ve discussed so far—the value and necessity of human reason, above all else—there are quite a few issues about which I don’t have ironclad opinions. In that vein, if there are any topics, specific or general, about which you would like me to post, please feel free to leave a comment here to that effect (or email me). I’ve got no scarcity of things to write about (he says, adding a twelfth post to his queue), but I’m genuinely curious about what sorts of things you’d like to see me write about, if you have any particular preference.
  2. Speaking of issues on which I haven’t come to a decisive conclusion, I’d like to get a bit of conversation going about the concept of hate crime legislation. The ‘sensible’ position, at least in the circles in which I run, is that such laws would by definition be thought legislation, in that they place an additional criminal burden on anti-[group] thoughts above and beyond already-prohibited violent actions, thus violating the principle of freedom of conscience. The suggestion of this argument is that hate crime legislation would be on principle no different from a legal prohibition against bigoted thoughts—the only difference being that bigotry would be a secondary violation, so to speak. The obvious rebuttal here is that intent and mental state are already considered in the law in quite a few places, most notably in the various distinctions between degrees of murder/manslaughter. This seems to be more a matter of the absence or presence of intent than about the content of that intent, I suppose, but hate crimes could be represented similarly–the absence or presence of anti-[group] intent in the committing of a violent crime.

    My instincts here run in two different directions. On the one hand, I am very receptive to the hesitance to regulate thought in any way, and to the theoretical dangers of encoding a sort of prohibition of certain beliefs, even if those beliefs are idiotic and hateful. I recognize that the burden rests on those doing the regulating, and that rights are assumed to exist unless otherwise specified. On the other hand, the “hate crime legislation -> thought crime” argument seems to me somewhat misleading; I’m not entirely ready to say that enforcing hate crime legislation would be the same in principle as enforcing a prohibition on bigoted thoughts. It should be noted that the desire to kill someone because of their sexual orientation/gender/race/etc. can and should be distinguished from the belief that someone is inferior because of those characteristics, though obviously they are fundamentally linked. The question there, I guess, would be whether there is something to the willingness to commit a hate crime besides the belief in the inferiority of the victim’s group and a willingness to kill in general, and I’m not really sure how to answer that. Society has a definite interest in decreasing the number of violent crimes committed, and this is one of the main functions of the legal prohibition on violent crime: to create a state where the cost of committing a certain crime (imprisonment, etc.) is greater than the perceived benefit of committing that crime (material gain, emotional satisfaction, etc.). Hate crime legislation would seem to act to create such a state of affairs by targeting one of the potential impulses towards violent crime. The other function of law is protection in a more direct sense, i.e. removing dangerously violent people from the general population so that they won’t kill people, and it seems to me that the thought crime argument is more relevant to this dimension of law. As a deterrent, though (see desire utilitarianism), it doesn’t seem to me entirely out of the question.

What say you, dear readers, on either of these counts?


On the purpose of copyright

April 13, 2006

Discussions of copyright and patent law have been coming into the sights of internet news sites with greater frequency of late. The DRM copy protection schemes supported by the RIAA and MPAA, the changing of copyright terms, and the questionable enforcement of the DMCA affect all of us as consumers and as free citizens.

The first thing I'll ask you to understand is that public domain is the natural state for information and ideas to be in; things are said to 'fall into' the public domain, which certainly does make it sound like a default state. In the interim between an idea's or work's conception and its becoming truly 'free,' legal restrictions can be placed on its distribution and use.

One important thing to note about these restrictions is that they are temporary. There is no such thing as permanent intellectual property. Both copyrights and patents expire after a set span of years. This changed with the passing of the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, a piece of legislation bought and paid for in campaign donations from Disney. Here's a good article on the subject by Chris Sprigman of Findlaw.

Perhaps the most important thing everyone involved needs to recognize is the purpose of copyright is advancement itself. This point is well made by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, so I'll borrow her words:

"The primary objective of copyright is not to reward the labor of authors, but ‘[t]o promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts.' To this end, copyright assures authors the right to their original expression, but encourages others to build freely upon the ideas and information conveyed by a work. This result is neither unfair nor unfortunate. It is the means by which copyright advances the progress of science and art."

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor

Feist Publications, Inc. v. Rural Telephone Service Co.

499 US 340, 349(1991)

The law ultimately places the public good over the compensation of the individual. A challenge to the CTEA made the argument that the statute infringed on the First Amendment because it "placed a limitation on free speech without advancing any important governmental interest." (Sprigman)

Further reading:

  • A lot of these points draw from Sprigman's article from Findlaw, which is certainly better written than this post.
  • Paul Graham's interesting entry on software patents, a phrase that is synonymous with litigious nonsense to the Slashdot crowd.

Clooney on dissent

March 14, 2006

Just a quickie:

George Clooney (whose Oscar acceptance speech was phenomenal in brevity, poignancy and relevance) has a post up on the Huffington Post entitled: “I’m a Liberal. There, I said it!” It’s a really quick read, but it says interesting things, mostly things I’ve always believed about our duty to dissent, and the requirement for it from both sides of the aisle.

My only complaint is that I don’t really grant that acknowledgement “that Saddam Hussein had no ties to al-Qaeda and had nothing to do with 9/11” is a liberal idea. Hopefully that one has traction in many camps. It’s not liberal in the progressive or bigger government senses, only in the sense that it’s opposed to the standing administration.

Other than that, I say good job, Mr. Clooney. (Everybody go out and see Good Night and Good Luck. It’s worth it.)


February 26, 2006

In response to Urizen’s response on my own post, I felt the need to explain myself to those of you who came away with similar impressions as Urizen did.
My intent was not to dismiss the problem, and I never claimed to. In fact, my post was meant to stress the importance of combating the problem, not writing it off as offsetting penalties. My point was that one should not come away from the Mahablog post with the mistaken impression that there is something inherently rightist about hateful rhetoric. I acknowledged and even accepted the post’s point that the current political climate is such that the most egregious examples are coming from the right. (“I do, however believe that at this juncture the fundamentalist far right … is much stronger, much more vocal, and much more mainstream than the fundamentalist far left.”)

My point was (and is) that hateful rhetoric and action always exist, and they easily attach themselves to extremism. The fact of the matter is that in modern America, extremism on the right is far easier to attach to than that on the left. This was not true, though, during the Vietnam war, or more illustratively, in any bloody revolution you care to name. Mahablog claims that “the Right works a lot harder at cultivating hate than does the Left.” I disagree – I believe that the hate from the right has simply caught on better than hate from the left. In particular, I think that it’s not case of working harder, but rather of one having an easier time of spreading hate than the other.

The important distinction (and one that I will expand upon in an upcoming post, though not in this context) is that the empiricial evidence presented in the Mahablog posting are symptomatic, but care must be taken to infer the correct diagnosis. While I’m never one to object to “examining the ideological roots of these strains of eliminationism and hatred”, I think it’s dangerous to jump to the conclusion that the ideals of the right are what cultivate hate before reasoned investigation. I am willing to guess that the real reason rightist hate is so much more prevalent is in the willingness of people today to embrace far right hate than far left hate, in large part because the right found a “righteous” cause to attach its (more hawkish) rhetoric to, which gave the unscrupulous on that side the opportunity to start the proverbial snowball rolling.

Eliminationism, Vitriol, and Partisanship

February 26, 2006

In case you missed it, on Friday Demosthenes posted a bit of commentary on Mahablog’s Patriotism v. Hate Speech post, the latter of which I found via the incomparable Dave Neiwert. Aside from strongly encouraging you to head over to Mahablog and check out the post in question (and whatever else you stumble upon—there’s a lot of good stuff over there), I’d like to say two things.

First off, I must confess to being a bit mystified by a couple parts of Demosthenes’ response. The allegation that the post in question is “heavily slanted towards “rightie” examples” seems to me to miss the point entirely, given that the thesis of the post is that a) hateful political rhetoric isn’t something we can dismiss by saying both sides do it in equal measure, and b) the difference between the hateful rhetoric on the two sides is qualitative, not merely quantitative. The original post notes, parenthetically:

One occasionally runs into some fairly ghastly examples of eliminationism coming from the extreme Marxist fringe — marginalized even by most of the Left — and from juvenile anti-Bush protesters with poor judgment and worse impulse control. […] I’m saying I don’t see eliminationist rhetoric from people who are prominent enough to have some following among liberals, progressives, or Democrats or who hold prominent elected office or positions in the Democratic party.

This is a more or less empirically-oriented point that cannot be reasonably dismissed as a product of slant or bias. It is both qualitative and quantitative, I suppose—there are demonstrably fewer instances of eliminationist rhetoric on the left, and what examples can be found of such rhetoric on the left aren’t typically from prominent voices (pundits, politicians, significant bloggers). Far from “[dismissing] certain classes of “marginal” “leftists” who contradict the argument at hand,” Mahablog rightly notes that there is in fact rhetoric on the extreme left that is probably as bad as that on the extreme right, but that the groups espousing such views cannot reasonably be considered part of the mainstream left in the same way that extreme right-wing views have taken hold of “mainstream” Republican politics (and even when such views are supposedly not part of the mainstream, the rhetoric is adopted by that same mainstream, such that the end result is pretty much the same).

Mahablog and Demosthenes are both right when they distinguish between the right wing and conservatism. Mahablog says:

I don’t want to put all conservatives in the same boat here. Traditional conservatives whose ideas are based in conservative political philosophy certainly can, and do, find much to criticize in liberal political philosophy and in many progressive policies enacted in the past (not many progressive policies around at the moment to take potshots at). What must always be understood is that the hard heart of our current political Right is not conservative.

The crucial point here, I think, is that the right has been effectively divorced from political conservatism. Rather than being at heart a political philosophy, the right has become a monolithic cultural machine, based on manipulative and hateful rhetoric for the sake of political expediency (and, y’know, advancing the causes of big business and evangelical Christianity—the other big business). This disconnect is relevant in all sorts of ways, from the abandonment of fiscal conservatism and small, efficient government to the embrace of jingoistic foreign policy and the erosion of individual rights. These are all things worth pondering, but the point I want to make here is simply this: right-wing political orthodoxy of the 21st century has only a remote connection to conservatism as a political philosophy. It is, more than anything, about the sort of overly reductive, “you’re with us or you’re against us” dogma that has been so prevalent since 9/11. It is about nationalism over patriotism, to the point where any position of criticism can be dismissed as unpatriotic and treasonous. In this way, there is an ideological connection between the right and eliminationist rhetoric. As long as political conservatism has been so completely abandoned in favor of neoconservative/theocratic “culture wars” nonsense, it’s just not enough to say that there’s no connection between rhetoric and “underlying attitudes.” Yes, the hateful rhetoric is primarily a product of “the current political climate,” but when genuine political philosophy has been replaced by dishonest and combative fear-mongering, we must examine the ideological roots of these strains of eliminationism and hatred. We can agree, I think, that any sort of fundamentalism is objectively bad by definition (being an abandonment of reason in favor of orthodoxy), whether it comes from the left or the right, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t hold the right culpable for being the source of the overwhelming majority of hate-masked-as-politics.

Secondly (and more succinctly), I want to embrace something Demosthenes said in his closing paragraph:

Our phenomenal access to information is simultaneously unprecedented access to disinformation, and indeed the positive deluge of information makes it all the more easy to shut down and pay attention to only the most reductionist viewpoints.

A lot has been said about the information age and the paradigm shift it ushered in (and may still be in the process of ushering in). The ubiquity of the internet and the other mass media has made it amazingly easy for almost anyone to access an overwhelming number of facts and opinions, more than one person could ever hope to sift through on his or her own. Often the facts are misrepresented or the opinions masquerade as facts, and with the breaking down of traditional media hierarchies, there is an increasing amount of uncertainty about who to trust. The sad reality is that most people don’t have the critical thinking skills to weed out the bad information and the misleading rhetoric—and many of them don’t really care to try, so they trust the first or the loudest voice they come across. As it turns out, the loudest voices are usually the least credible.

This is all the more reason for us to embrace rationality and the teaching of critical thinking skills. It is also a reason for us to stand up to the politicization of science, the gutting and manipulation of education, and the dishonesty of media pundits. People need to have some basic ability to evaluate the credibility of information and opinion, especially these days, else democracy goes down the shitter. And we should, as a society, be doing everything in our power to weed out bad information and dishonest commentary.

Informed participation, not just participation, is the name of the game.


Hate speech

February 24, 2006

So, I have yet to post anything since my introduction, and for that I apologize. Rest assured, Party faithful (all, um… two of you), I have a few things in the works. Once other things settle down a little in my life, they will be attended to quickly. However, in the interest of getting the juices flowing, so to speak, here’s a quick link for your perusal.

Urizen forwarded me a link to an interesting indictment of “righties” hate speech, as opposed to “leftie” rhetoric. Now, I’m not quite ready to declare that the fundamentalist right is inherently more hateful, even in rhetoric than the fundie left. The post itself, annoyingly, dismisses certain classes of “marginal” “leftists” who contradict the argument at hand. I do, however believe that at this juncture the fundamentalist far right (which the post rightly distinguishes from “conservatism”, in any real sense of the word) is much stronger, much more vocal, and much more mainstream than the fundamentalist far left. Personally, I don’t feel this inherent in the underlying attitudes, as much as with the current political climate.

The main reason I’m mentioning the post, though, is that it does give some excellent examples of the mentality that the Intelligent Party was created to combat (albeit heavily slanted towards “rightie” examples). It cites some very intelligent talk about “eliminationism” and the dangers inherent in eliminationist rhetoric.

I believe that we live in a time where, more than ever, the free flow of information is possible. However, let us all take care to remember that as the great philosopher Stan Lee said, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Our phenomenal access to information is simultaneously unprecedented access to disinformation, and indeed the positive deluge of information makes it all the more easy to shut down and pay attention to only the most reductionist viewpoints. Whether these viewpoints come from the right or the left, and no matter what pretense they enter under, be it “patriotism”, “revolution”, “security”, or “equality”, we all share a responsibility to take things at more than face value.