Saturday, April 05, 2003

Fighting Words

I'm not throwing in with any of the Democratic Presidential candidates just yet, but this made me give a snarl of joy:
"I'm not going to let the likes of Tom DeLay question my patriotism, which I fought for and bled for in order to have the right to speak out."
Keep talking like that, Mr. Kerry, and I just might have to give you a closer look.

Anyone who puts the screws to DeLay gets serious points in my book.

After getting home late this evening, I sat down on the couch and started flipping through the channels.

For some reason, I stopped on Fox News for a few minutes, watching an interview with some Colonel that seemed vaguely interesting.

I watched for a few minutes, only giving it half my attention.

After ten minutes, something suddenly hit me.

In between each segment, Fox has taken to playing military-sounding music, a lone trumpet moan accompanying a low drum roll. While this somber music plays, they switch to two different screens. The first is dominated by the words "Operation: Iraqi Freedom." The second consists solely of the words "Never Forget" in huge letters.

Thinking about it, I remembered that I had seen that screen numerous times before, and had never paid it one second's worth of attention. It had slipped under my perceptual radar.

Now that I actually thought about it though, a question and its answer suddenly came into my head.

What is it we're supposed to never forget?

The answer, of course, is September 11th. That's why I hadn't given it any thought; over the last year and a half, I've seen so many variations of "never forget" so many times that I now completely filter them out. At this point, such sentiments are background noise.

The interesting thing about this instance, however, is that it is being overtly linked to the war in Iraq. I watched for a few more minutes to make sure that they weren't just doing an extended piece about 9/11. They weren't. It was all about Iraq. September 11th wasn't mentioned once. But, two more times, the screen admonished me to Never Forget.

I have never before had as intense an experience of Orwellian vertigo as I had as I watched this.

"Holy Christ, it's brilliant," I thought, "It's overt subliminal advertising."

In big white letters, Fox News is telling me how to feel about the war. I am supposed to directly link what I am watching on the screen with the events of September 11th.

It strange how subtle six-inch letters can be.

Am I overreacting? Well, no. I'm not freaking out, I'm not suddenly re-evaluating everything I know or think I know.

But I do think that the way in which such a blatant manipulation, even though it didn't officially "work" on me, completely slid under my radar is creepy as hell.

Thursday, April 03, 2003

The French Are Evil

~In Which We Meet Jack, The All-Purpose Straw Man~

Hi Jack.


How are you?

"Fine. Boy, do French people suck."

Yeah they do.

"Wait, you agree?"

Sure I agree.

"No, I mean the French are evil."

They sure are.

"You don't really believe that."

Sure I do, if you mean evil in the vaguely cartoonish way that I believe my mailman to be evil.

"No, you don't seem to get it. I mean evil like Hitler."

Weren't the French conquered by Hitler?

"Yes! I mean, no. They surrendered to Hitler."

All of them?

"Well, no...only the ones who were adults at the time."

Most of those people are dead.

"Yes, but they still surrendered!"

All of them?

"Well, their government did!"

You mean their elected government?


Like their Prime Minister?


That would be Paul Reynaud?

"Yes! Yes!"

Reynaud wanted to move the government to Africa.

"See? He was a coward. What did he want to go to Africa for?"

Because the German offensive could not be stopped, and the only way the government could continue to fight the Nazis was to keep out of their reach.

"Well, if he didn't surrender, who did?"

Petain. He was a war hero who was made vice premier to boost French morale and help fight the Nazis. He took over the government when he forced Reynaud to resign."

"So, the French thought he would fight the Nazis, but he surrendered to them instead?"


"Then the French are stupid!"

All of them?

"Stop saying that."


"Besides, don't you know the French are ungrateful that we saved them from evil?"

I thought the French were evil.

"They are!"

So we saved evil?

"Of course not! We are good! We fight evil."

Have we ever fought the French?

"Not yet."


" French weren't evil then!"

They weren't?

"No! Just cowards."

All of-

"Shut up! The point is, they're ungrateful. Don't you know that the French just vandalized a memorial cemetary dedicated to British soldiers who died in the war?"

Is America a violent atheist nation?


Is America a violent atheist nation?

"No! Of course not! We are One Nation Under God."

But two weeks ago, two churches in my town were broken into and vandalized.

"Well, that was probably just some kids being stupid."


"You agree with me?"

I do.

"Oh. Well good. So you also agree that the French are evil?"

I already said that I did.

"Yes, but I mean really evil. Like Hitler."

The French tried to conquer Europe?

"Well, duh. Haven't you ever heard of Napoleon?"

That was two hundred years ago.

"It's still evil! Conquering Europe is always evil!"

Well that seems reasonable.

"See? So Napoleon was evil. And the United States fights evil."

We didn't fight Napoleon.

"That's only because we weren't very big back then. We hadn't even expanded past the Mississippi River yet!"

No. Not until Napoleon sold us the western half of North America.

"Well...I...that doesn't matter. That was two hundred years ago."


"The point is, the French are evil."

Like Hitler?

"Like Hitler."

I didn't realize the French were killing large numbers of Jews.

"Uh...they're not. But don't you read the news? They don't like Jews in certain parts of France."

They don't like Jews in certain parts of Florida either.

"But at least we don't beat up Jews here in America!"

No, but we do tend to make life unpleasant for black people from time to time.

"Yeah, but the French have a long history of anti-Semitism."

I seem to recall reading somewhere that we have something of a history with racism.

"Are you saying racism is worse than anti-Semitism?"

Are you saying it's better?

"Well, no...but at least we never committed genocide."

Have you ever met a Native American?

"No, but that's not my fault. There aren't that many of them."

No, I guess there's not.

"Quit trying to change the subject. You just don't want to admit that the French committed genocide."

They did?

"Ha! Now I have you! The French helped the Nazis commit genocide. They sent thousands of Jews to Germany. And helping someone commit genocide is just as bad as doing it yourself."

That's true.

"So the French indirectly committed genocide."


"Stop right there! No, I don't mean every single one of them. But their government leaders did."

You mean the ones that surrendered?

"Yes! And it doesn't matter if they gained power by tricking the French people! They were never brought to justice by the French people."

Sure, if by "never brought to justice" you mean "executed for treason."

"Don't you get it?! The French are evil!"

So you've mentioned.

"Well, it's true! They like Saddam Hussein!"

They do?

"Sure they do! They sold him weapons!"

So did we.

"That doesn't matter. He was fighting Iran at the time, and Iran was our enemy!"

Well that's true.

"See? I knew you would understand."

So we stopped selling him weapons when he started being evil?


When did that happen?

"When he used chemical weapons against Iran."

That's evil?

"Yes! You are never, ever allowed to use chemical weapons. If you do, you are evil."

Then why did we sell them to Iraq?

"Because we wanted them to use them against Iran."

We wanted Iraq to be evil?

"No! We want them to be good! That is why we are going to liberate them!"

I see.

"You're just being difficult. The point is that France is evil."

You keep saying that.

"Because it's true! They want us to lose the war in Iraq!"

They do?

"Yes! Haven't you been reading the news?"

Why, yes I have.

"They wanted us to go to the United Nations before we invaded Iraq!"

So did a few other people, I think.

"But we all know the United Nations is a corrupt and meaningless bureaucracy that no longer has any relevance."

So why are we invading Iraq?

"Because they are in material breach of United Nations Resolution 1441."


"And the French want us to lose!"

Why would they want that?

"So they can control the European Union."

If we lose the war, they get to control the EU?

"Well...they'll be able to say 'I told you so' to us because they didn't want us to go to war."

By that logic, Mexico would get to control the EU. Quite a few actors too.

"Actors are stupid. They should just shut up and entertain us. No one cares what they think."

That's a common enough sentiment.

"Yeah. Lots of people think actors are stupid. Hey, you know what? A lot of people think the French are stupid too. You know what would be funny?"


"If the French elected an actor to be their leader! Ha ha! Stupid French people!"

Yes, electing an actor to be your leader would be pretty stupid.

"See? I knew you'd agree with me. What's so funny?"


"This isn't funny. The French could attack us at any moment."


"The French could be planning on attacking us."

Why would they do that?

"Because they hate the United States. And because they are afraid we will find evidence that they gave nuclear weapons to Iraq."

They gave nuclear weapons to Iraq?

"Nuclear materials, yes. Probably. I think. Maybe."

Why would they do that?

"Because they hate the United States."


"In fact, we might have to pre-emptively attack them. They are no longer our allies, after all."

They aren't?

"No. They did not agree to join the Coalition of the Willing, and so they are our enemy. They will be held responsible."

Wouldn't attacking France cause the rest of Europe to come to their defense?

"We might have to conquer the rest of Europe as well. Especially Germany. They're almost as bad as the French."

Oh. But I thought it was evil to conquer Europe.

"Not when we do it."


"You know what I'm afraid of?"

What are you afraid of?

"France has nuclear weapons. Do you know how dangerous that is? You cannot trust the French."

Because they are evil?

"Because they are evil."


"We need to use every bit of influence we have to counter the growing power of France. We need to contain them and limit their ability to attack us, because they present a clear and present danger to us and our way of life."

That sounds rational. So what should we do about North Korea? They have nuclear weapons, and missiles that can hit us.

"That's a regional problem that needs to be dealt with by the nations in the region including Japan, China, and South Korea."


"Also, we need to- Hey! You were making fun of Ronald Reagan earlier, weren't you?"


"What's wrong with you? Don't you know he single-handedly defeated the Soviet Union?"

Consider me rebuked.

"I bet Reagan knows the French are evil."

I'm sure he does.

[Contemplative Pause]

"You know, the French really suck."

They certainly do, Jack. They certainly do.

Wednesday, April 02, 2003

Moderate Geometry

I've been thinking about the "moderates vs. extremists" issue some more, and trying to punch as many holes as possible into my provisional definition of extremism: Within any group, the extremists are those who sacrifice principles held by the majority of the group in order to advance a single set of favored beliefs that the larger group considers of equal or lesser importance.

The two biggest problems that I've come up with so far are:

1) The difference between perception and reality. This is where you get into issues of people being seen as extreme who are actually fairly moderate and vice versa. This is actually a much larger issue than it appears to be on the surface. In order to really be able to distinguish the extremists from the moderates, you need to decide what question you're asking: are you talking about the people who really are extremists, or just those who the group in question views as extremists? Again, I'll bring in the issue of industrial regulation as an example. If massive deregulation is stated solely in terms of economic growth and the free market, then, by the above definition, it is a moderate position (as the majority of the group likes economic growth and the free market). However, if it is stated in terms of health, safety, and environmental impact as well as growth and the free market, then it can be seen as an extremist position (because the majority of the group may not like economic growth if it means dumping carcinogens into the water supply).

Then, of course, you have to address the question of objectivity and to what degree it is possible to achieve it. After all, depending on the level of objectivity it is possible to achieve, there is no real definition of an extremist; it's all a matter of point of view.

2) The essential uselessness of the conventional representation of the entire political spectrum as a continuum between anarchy/communism and totalitarianism/free market fundamentalism (or more commonly, communism vs. fascism) in determining moderation vs. extremism.

As number one is a rather complex issue (again, depending on what question you're asking), and raises a thesis-level philosophical question ("to what degree is objectivity possible?"), I choose to ignore it for now.

Number two, on the other hand, is something that's bothered me for awhile.

Setting aside the ridiculous nature of defining every conceivable political position based on where people sat in the French National Assembly two hundred years ago, dividing the political spectrum into "Left wing" and "Right wing" provides a seriously flawed view of any given person's political beliefs. It also presents a serious obstacle to identifying extremists.

To understand just how skewed a picture the Left-Right continuum gives of any particular person's beliefs, it is helpful to look at basic geometry.

Suppose you have two three-dimensional objects, a sphere and a cylinder. As long as they are viewed in three dimensions, the difference between them is obvious.

However, if one of the dimensions is removed, and the shapes are translated into two dimensions (in mathematics, this is called projection), you lose information related to the lost dimension, and the two shapes appear identical.

When the sphere and the square are projected onto plane xy, they can both be represented by circle A. What this means is that, given only the information available in plane xy, it is impossible to tell if the object is really a sphere or a cylinder.

While the information loss in the translation from three dimensions to two is bad, the transition from two to one is even worse.

Without that extra dimension, both triangle t and square s are represented by a single line segment, which comes nowhere near describing each shape.

Again, you can see how two different objects -- t and s -- are indistinguishable when they lose a dimension.

The implications of this for the one-dimensional conception of the political spectrum are obvious. Indeed, when it comes to the conventional method of dividing the spectrum, we are forced to overlay several different value ranges one over the other, the end result being two categories -- Left and Right -- which can, at times, give a seriously flawed picture of an issue.

Take, for instance, a person who supports large tax cuts but also strongly believes in gay rights. Because that person believes in both Right and Left wing positions, they would generally be classified as a centrist, as if gay rights and deregulation somehow canceled each other out.

The Left-Right axis forces everyone to shoehorn themselves onto the line somewhere with only one or two major issues, ignoring complexities and making positions that are very different appear to be the same.

The solution, then, is to add a dimension to the traditional Left-Right axis.

While there are a number of different ways that the Left-Right divide can be split into two dimensions, it seems the most useful way is to separate economic stance from social stance.

Instead of superficially lumping Communism and anarchy together in their opposition to laissez faire Capitalism and totalitarianism, a more useful representation would have two axes, one representing the range between Communism and laissez faire Capitalism, the other representing the range between anarchy and totalitarianism.

This method of dividing up the political spectrum is more accurate than a single Left-Right axis, while not being so complex as to cause confusion. Rather than simply being "Left wing" or "Right wing," a particular issue can in this way be described as belonging to quadrant one, two, three, or four.

This has the benefit of dividing up groups that are often incorrectly lumped together. For instance, libertarians would tend to be classified as quadrant II, because of their dual beliefs in personal freedom and the free market. A lot of non-libertarian Republicans, on the other hand, would be quadrant I, because of their increased emphasis on issues like stricter drug laws and additional powers for law enforcement.

It also removes certain contradictions in the extremes of the Left-Right axis (Anarchic Communism? How exactly does that work?)

The dual axis also correctly separates Stalinism, which belongs in quadrant IV, close to corner d, from what we now call progressivism, which would fall into quadrant III.


All of this is relevant to the question of moderates vs. extremists because it allows us to more easily spot those who tend toward one or two of the four extremes than does the standard Left-Right axis. After all, there is no good reason why someone who supports budget-busting tax cuts should be labeled as a moderate just because they also happen to believe in gay rights. The two positions are not related, and should not be made to look as though they are by an artificial model.

This is actually another one of the key problems with today's Democratic party, one which can be at least partially attributed to the way we see the political spectrum: no matter how corporate-friendly a Democrat is, they will always be considered a moderate because of their stances on social issues. This flawed perception has allowed the Party to move more and more to the Right (or, more properly, to migrate from quadrant III to quadrant II) without much outcry until just the last couple of years.

Could this kind of alternative classification scheme catch on? Probably not. The old scheme is too firmly entrenched in people's minds for there to be a chance of it changing for at least a generation. However, it can be a useful tool, for people from all sides of the spectrum.

And, really, what other endeavor can simultaneously remove the rhetorical burden of Stalinism from liberalism's back and stop "gay Republican" from being a contradiction in terms?

Sidenote: The quadrants are labeled counterclockwise from the upper right because that is how they are labeled in geometry (trig makes a lot more sense that way). Also, the corners are labeled a through d for reference purposes only (to avoid confusion). The letters have no significance and can be safely disregarded. Additionally, the three lines in the third image are labeled 3a, 3b, and 3c because when I made the image, I thought I was going to label the images themselves figure 1, figure 2, figure 3, and figure 4. (you know, "Please refer to fig. 3...") So the line labels refer to the fact that they are each a part of figure 3. However, when it came time to insert them into this post, I decided that labeling the images figure 1, figure 2, etc. was way too pretentious. So I didn't.

Sidenote the Second: For intellectual snobs who dismiss this as first year poli-sci stuff: get over yourselves. I'm just trying to get everyone on the same page here, and come up with a good answer to the moderate vs. extremist question. This seemed like a pretty good way to do it. For the record, I don't claim to have invented this particular scheme; I've never seen it before, but that probably says more about my experience in political science than it does about political science itself. Anyway, the Left in general doesn't seem to be winning hearts and minds with the way things are currently classified, so I figured what the hell.

Monday, March 31, 2003

The Crazies

Well now. Kevin Drum seems to have kicked up quite a stir in certain portions of the blogosphere.

There are a number of issues that this mini-debate has touched on, but I think the most significant among them is the question "what is a moderate and what is an extremist?" Specifically, as it relates to liberals and the Democratic Party.

Well, let's start by saying that moderates and extremists (and here I'm talking about the Left wing; we'll get to the Right later) believe in a lot of the same general principles. The difference between them is that the extremists, in promoting one set of principles, compromise other principles that are equally or more important.

Stated as a definition: Within any group, the extremists are those who sacrifice principles held by the majority of the group in order to advance a single set of favored beliefs that the larger group considers of equal or lesser importance.

Examples of this include:

  • PETA and similar organizations that take an admirable abhorrence of cruelty visited upon creatures that cannot defend themselves, and go so far in fighting for this principle that they dismiss the basic distinction between human suffering and animal suffering. A lot of people would be disturbed by the treatment of animals in industrialized farming operations if they knew about them; however, anyone with even a basic acquaintance with reality is horrified to see such treatment compared to the Holocaust.

  • Organizations such as EarthFirst! and ELF that take legitimate concern for the environment and place it ahead of concern for the safety of other people (lumber workers) through practices such as tree spiking. Many people are concerned about the environment and the impact of various industrial practices upon it, but reasonable people understand that putting innocent people at risk is not an acceptable method of dealing with the problem.

  • War opponents who break into military bases and sabotage equipment. No matter how well-intentioned such people may be, sabotaging military equipment, especially now that the war has started, directly affects the safety of troops in the field. Such people place their desire to stop the war at all costs above concern for the individual soldiers whose lives depend on their equipment.

  • War opponents who channel their aversion to the horrors of war into a disdain for, or active hostility towards, military personnel. These are the people that shrug their shoulders and say "What did they expect?" in reference to the families of soldiers killed in action. Again, this is a placing of one set of principles (in this case, opposition to war) above another, equally important set (concern for soldiers -- who are, after all, individuals with just as much right to life as anyone else -- and their families). As the demonstrations of the past month have proved, many people oppose this war; excepting only the extremists, the vast majority of them also (correctly) support the troops.

Additionally, it is important to distinguish between "extreme" and "radical." In this context, a radical is someone who advocates ideas and policies that are different, new, or unusual. Therefore, while it is certainly possible to be a radical extremist (such as someone who advocates a violent Communist revolution), just because someone is a radical does not necessarily mean they are an extremist (the Civil Rights movement, for example).

This definition also takes into account the migration of a position from extreme to moderate. Fifty years ago, a Democrat advocating equal rights for gays would be considered extreme because, for a majority of Democrats, the belief that homosexuality was immoral outweighed the principle of equality for all. Now that that has been reversed, gay rights advocacy is a moderate position.


What are some of the implications of this?

The first, and easiest to address, is one of the side arguments between CalPundit and various heavy hitters on the Left side of the blogosphere. Kevin asserted that "part of their reaction to [his] post might be a result of not fully understanding just how far from the center some of us liberal bloggers are." In this he is absolutely correct.

I heard a term for the first time the other day, "incestuous amplification." It's a military term used to describe the situation you get when a commander only listens to the advice of those who agree with him. No matter how insane his plans, without getting dissenting opinions, said commander is likely to think that his plans are perfectly reasonable and likely to succeed.

This immediately made me think of bloggers in general; by their very nature, blogs tend to create communities of fairly like-minded people who read each other's work and, by linking back and forth, reinforce each other's ideas. This can have some amusing effects- witness the increasingly fanciful scenarios Right wing bloggers are coming up with to justify the more-than-slightly-psychotic fear that France might attack the United States. But it also has the effect of reinforcing various beliefs about what "common" opinion is. This leads to false assumptions about how representative various sections of the blogging community are of larger real-world groups.

It is important for Left wing bloggers to understand this, because "moderate" and "extreme" only have meaning in relation to a group. By inserting different groups into the equation, you end up with different definitions of "moderate" and "extreme."

If, when considering moderate vs. extreme, you substitute "leftie blogs" for "all real-world Democrats," a lot of extreme positions are going to suddenly seem moderate. If you then take these newly-moderate ideas out into the real world, you'll be in for quite a surprise when a good chunk of the Democratic party views you as crazy.

Is this a good thing, or a bad thing? It doesn't matter. It's reality.


Another major implication addresses the issue of good liberalism vs. good politics. In order to be seen as moderate, and therefore attract the most support, one must properly frame an issue in terms of the fundamental values of the electorate. One of the primary reasons that the Right has ascended to power in the last twenty years is because they are much better at doing this than the Left. Take, for example, industrial deregulation. Instead of talking about health, safety, and environmental concerns, the Republican party (and, increasingly, members of the Democratic party) simply presents it as an economic growth issue. People who understand that massive deregulation has a detrimental effect on community health, worker and consumer safety, and the environment know that the those who advocate it are actually extremists. However, by minimizing those issues, such advocates are able to promote deregulation without appearing to compromise other values. Hence, they appear to be moderates.

And in politics, appearance is everything.

This does not mean that the ends justify the means and that Democrats should do or say anything in order to win elections. That is a significant part of the reason why the Democratic party is in such trouble- as the Right redefined the arguments to appeal to the voters, the Democrats, instead of fighting back, simply went along with what the voters seemed to want and said whatever was necessary to win. The end result of this is the current epidemic of quasi-Republicanism among the Democratic party.

The conventional wisdom is that the country is more conservative than it was thirty years ago; I'm not so sure. I think that there is a very good chance that, underneath the surface, core values haven't changed. What has changed is that a lot of conservative positions have been repackaged to seem more in tune with those values, and so more and more people are adopting them.

The good news is that this means liberals do not have to sacrifice their beliefs in order to regain power.

The bad news is that it means liberals do have a huge task in front of them: to reframe the debate in the face of thirty years of Right wing marketing.


So how should moderate liberal Democrats deal with the extremists on the Left? That seems to be the million dollar question.

The entire CalPundit vs. Apparently Everyone dust-up really picked up steam when Kevin listed several groups that he considers extremist which he thought hurt their own causes more than they helped them by alienating moderates. A discussion about the value of extremists ensued.

Extremists certainly have desirable qualities- it is the extremist groups that are among the most passionate and well organized. Beyond that, if all the extremists could ever rally around a single cause, they would make up a not-insignificant voting bloc. The Republican party realized this a long time ago, and set about consolidating all of its extremists under one tent. It seemed to be a mutually beneficial arangement; the GOP was reinvigorated, and the various fringe groups suddenly had access to real power.

It is important to remember, though, that in bringing the extremist elements into the tent, the Right wing moderates essentially ceded to them control of the GOP. The evolution of the Southern Strategy is a very good illustration of how this occurred.

So, in the end, it seems that the Left wing extremists should be brought into the fold, but on our terms- meshing with existing liberal causes while tailoring their rhetoric to better reflect mainstream liberal values.

The PETA types can come in if they alter their approach; instead of focusing on animal rights for the animals' sake and using such offensive over the top rhetoric, they can join the consumer protection crowd in yelling about unsanitary conditions in livestock facilities.

The environmental loonies can come in if they modify their rhetoric and stop committing arson.

The socialist/communist crowd can join up if they focus on specific areas where the state should have a bigger hand, rather than trying to kill off Capitalism; industrial regulation comes to mind.




How well would this work? I honestly don't know. But as it is, all we're doing is throwing tomatoes at the crazies while the Right does its damnedest to make it look like they represent us. If we can get them to work for us -- and shut up and quit making us look bad -- maybe we should make the effort?

Update: This post is so unwieldy because there's an argument going on between my gut and my brain. My gut says, "Screw the loonies! We don't need 'em!" but my brain thinks otherwise. So this was an attempt to reconcile the two with some sort of logic. I leave up to you to decide how successful it was.