Saturday, July 12, 2014

Manufacturing Outrage

Someone on Facebook pointed me to a political blog called IVN, written by a published author and retired professor named Michael Austin. His blog entries are balanced and well-written. If you perceive a bias in any of his articles, bear in mind that it's an opinion, and a logical and well-supported one at that. You may or may not agree with his opinion, but that is precisely why you need to read this article.

The July 11 article, "Manufacturing Outrage," points out how the continuum between agreement and disagreement no longer exists. If you don't like someone's viewpoint or behavior, you slip past all the socially-accepted degrees of disagreement and go straight to outrage. This causes serious problems, as he explains.

I wish everyone who goes into spasms of outrage at the slightest provocation would read this article. Because blogs occasionally disappear or become unavailable, I am reposting it here in its entirety, with Mr. Austin's permission.

Manufacturing Outrage

Here’s an interesting little fact: to the best of my ability to recall, I have never seen one of my conservative friends post anything on their Facebook feed by Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, or Pat Robertson.

But my liberal friends post something outrageous by one of these commentators every day. When Ann Coulter wrote a column denouncing soccer as a symbol of America’s moral decline, I probably saw a hundred links to it. I forwarded it on myself.

But every single person who forwarded it did so with the intention of mocking it. A million people probably read Ann Coulter’s column that day just so they could laugh at what a Neanderthal she was. To my knowledge, nobody read it and agreed with her.

So Ann Coulter gets a million readers and makes a big pile of money so that liberals can smile smugly at their superiority, even as they drive another million readers to her site by forwarding her posts. Outrage, as it turns out, is kind of fun.

It’s fun for everyone, liberal and conservative alike. Though none of my conservative friends forward things by Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh, quite a few of them forward nearly everything that President Obama says or does or is rumored to have done—normally with a statement like “there he goes again.”

I read, dozens of times a day, descriptions of Obama as a “tyrant,” a “dictator,” a “communist,” a “traitor,” and, of course, “the worst president we have ever had.” I don’t think I have ever heard anyone say that he is merely a bad president, or even one in the bottom quartile. Come to think of it, I have never even heard him described as the “second worst president we have ever had.” Millard Fillmore and James Buchannan get a pass—outrage only works with superlatives.

And this pretty much sums up our political environment today: we are outraged. Everything is outrageous. Obama is outrageous. Benghazi is outrageous. The Tea Party is outrageous. Ann Coulter is outrageous. Immigration, health care, contraception, the Supreme Court, Russia, Israel, Egypt, and the World Cup—it’s all outrageous, and it all proves that things are worse than they have ever been.

I suspect that this narrative prevails on both sides of the aisle because we really do enjoy being outraged. It makes us feel smart and special, like we are actually doing something noble by reducing everything to the most vile proposition we can imagine and then getting outraged about it. If we feel especially noble, we will go out on the internet and call people stupid. That’ll show ‘em.

And, at the same time, the political parties know that outrage works. It gets people to the polls, and, more importantly, it convinces them to donate to politicians and their causes. Not many people will donate to defeat a “mediocre manager with left of center positions.” But make them believe that they are donating to defeat “the most liberal, tyrannical dictator in our nation’s history,” and they will take out a second mortgage to support you.

Actual political argument is hard, while recreational outrage is easy. As long as we can fool ourselves into thinking that we are participating meaningfully in the political process–when all we are really doing is stoking our own outrage and that of people who think exactly like we do–then we will be at the mercy of people who know how to use our outrage to their advantage and our intellectual sloth as a way to make sure that nothing significant ever changes.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Common Core opponents are irrational - and ignorant

Forgive me getting a little overheated about this.

Right now, it's fashionable to trash the Common Core State Standards Initiative - or Common Core, as it's more generally known. However, after having read a lot of anti-CC articles (and comments on articles) on the Web, I have reached an important conclusion. Two conclusions, as a matter of fact.

1. Common Core opponents are irrational.
2. Common Core opponents are ignorant.

To illustrate their irrationality, I will point you once again to "Frustrated Parent." He couldn't figure out his son's math problem, and so he and the entire world blamed it on Common Core. I looked at the math problem in question. It simply presented another way to learn subtraction. As I explained in my posting about it, there are many different ways to teach subtraction.

Common Core does not tell you how to teach subtraction, but it allows for all those different teaching strategies.

To underscore the irrationality, I have been following the comments in another article about CC. One of the commenters was bashing CC because, to quote his words as well as I can from memory, it doesn't allow for the fact that there are many different ways to teach a concept, and it requires that the concept be taught in one way. Um, (a) nothing could be further from the truth; and (b) this directly contradicts the underlying notion behind the math problem that "Frustrated Parent" was bawling about.

As for ignorance, when I say "ignorant" I mean "stubbornly unwilling to learn (more) about a subject." I've read lots of comments by people who are spouting off authoritatively about something they know nothing about, when the truth is freely available, and easy to read, at the Common Core State Standards website. All they have to do is look it up. But they prefer to go on blabbering ignorantly about what they perceive as Common Core and all its shortcomings, unencumbered by facts or the truth.

Why are college kids so intolerant? Part Two

I have noticed that stuff on the Internet doesn't really last forever. It lasts until the publisher, copyright holder, or server administrator decides it's time to get rid of it. The Wayback Machine helps, but I doubt it can capture everything. Therefore, I decided to copy Matt Bai's excellent column and paste it right here.

I don't know if I can claim "fair use" for such a blatant copy. But I will include a link to the original: http://news.yahoo.com/don-t-blame-college-kids-for-intolerance--blame-us-085916423.html . And I will rewrite this posting to reduce Mr. Bai's essay to a bunch of acceptable excerpts, if he or the Yahoo lawyers ask me to.

Here, then, are Mr. Bai's words on the subject.


Don't blame college kids for intolerance. Blame us.
By Matt Bai
May 22, 2014 4:59 AM
Yahoo News

America's college kids are back and resting at home this week, which is a good thing, because during the long months away they seem to have gone completely out of their minds.

Last weekend, The New York Times' Jennifer Medina reported on the latest bizarre demand on campus: "trigger warnings" to let students know if the text they're about to study will expose them to some version of misogyny or homophobia, so they aren't unexpectedly traumatized by visions of things that can never be unseen – like, say, every novel written by a white man before 1960. That followed the public floggings of several commencement speakers whose invitations had to be rescinded, including such evildoers as former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the International Monetary Fund's Christine Lagarde and Robert Birgeneau, the former chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley.

All of this has provoked a torrent of eloquent condemnation from pundits and academics, who worry that our elite universities, in the words of an editorial published in Monday’s Washington Post, are being "impoverished by intolerance." Which is a reasonable concern, except that it misses the point. It's not the students' fault that they expect to laze around in a world of ideological comfort. It's totally ours.

There's nothing new about the basic tension between speech and sensitivity on campus. When I was at Tufts in the late '80s, at the height of what we called political correctness, we argued fiercely about whether the military belonged on campus or whether certain faculty members were denied tenure because of their politics. But, by and large, we were primed to have the debate, not chill it.

We'd grown up with TV news that tried to get at complicated issues (Ted Koppel's "Nightline" was the single most influential news program of the era) and op-ed pages that crackled with competing arguments. I remember meeting William Colby, the former CIA director, at a symposium. A lot of us were disgusted by the role he had played in Vietnam, but it never occurred to us that he shouldn't speak or that his beliefs weren't at least defensible.

It was reasonable to hope, with the sudden explosion of what we called cyberspace a decade or so later, that this kind of exchange would become more commonplace and more enlightening, rather than less so. Only that's not what happened. Almost from the moment the first iteration of political blogs appeared, not long after the 2000 presidential election that exposed a deep cultural rift in America, like-minded activists began to wall themselves off from any version of reality they didn't like. They set about building ideological silos in the space where virtual town squares might have thrived.

Our political leaders and our media might have recognized the danger here and done their traditional duty, which was to ignore all the noise, and focus instead on explaining the complex realities of a country in social and technological transition. With some notable exceptions, that didn't happen, either. Instead, politics in the past 10 years has become a perennial contest of the already converted, a constant pursuit on either side of "base strategies" and data sets that tell you exactly which voters you need to turn out in order to get and hold power.

Those of us who cover and analyze the news – whose central purpose it is to challenge our own preconceptions about the world, and yours – haven't really performed much better, and I'm not just talking about the partisan rehashing on Fox News and MSNBC. Many of our most respected columnists and academics, too, occupy the predictable extremes, where they can always rely on the clicks of a comforted audience. They use a smokescreen of empiricism to prove to you, over and over again and without fail, that everything you already believe is borne out by some selective poll or study.

What's happened is that we've effectively left behind the Age of Persuasion and ushered in the Age of Confirmation. It sometimes seems the whole world exists to re-affirm our conceptions of it; you can get through days, even weeks, without being at all discomfited, if you know which sites to visit and which channels to watch.

This isn't confined to politics. We target self-help books and superhero movies at consumers whose habits we know, rather than do the hard work of trying to convince anyone to broaden their minds. (Did you like Sheryl Sandberg's book? Then you'll love Arianna Huffington's version, which is pretty much the same thing, right down to the catchphrase title and cover photo.) Log on to Amazon.com, the supermall of the confirmation culture, and you will instantly be introduced to all of the books, movies and songs that are exactly like all the others you've purchased recently.

We have more options and access to information than any society in human history, and less inclination to avail ourselves of it. Maybe we're just overwhelmed.

So tell me this: What exactly did we think the effect of all this was going to be on the generation after ours? Today's college senior was born around 1992 and developed a political awareness just as blogs and social media were bursting into the American consciousness. Did we really expect these kids to emerge from the moment with a sense of intellectual adventurism? Were they supposed to just know that the entire point of literature is to discomfort you with no warning at all?

Did we think the characteristic that F. Scott Fitzgerald cited as the hallmark of first-rate intelligence – "the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and retain the ability to function" – didn't have to be taught by example?

Here's the good news. First, while the loudest students have been grabbing the attention lately, anyone who spends any time on campus these days (or who reads some of the better polling of the so-called millennial generation) can tell you that a lot of younger Americans appreciate that something is wrong with the way we talk to each other, or don't. They're distrustful of old political and media institutions and eager to build a more tolerant, less fragmented society than their parents have to this point. That's to their credit.

Second, it's worth remembering that for all the missed opportunity around us, we're still in the infancy of the Internet culture, a moment roughly analogous to where television was in 1960. Our instinct has been to retreat into safe communities online that reinforce our convictions and banish all doubt. But media evolves, and political dialogue with it, and I'm betting we will figure out how to hear alternate (and even odious) worldviews without need for a trigger warning.

To paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr., the arc of technology is long, and it bends toward enlightenment.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Why are college students so intolerant? Why so closedminded?

It used to be that universities and colleges were intellectual greenhouses, where all sorts of ideas could be explored, and could grow and develop together - even opposing ideas. Now they seem instead to be intellectual concrete mills.

Normally, I don't find anything on Yahoo to be deep, well-written, or insightful. Also, normally, I find navel-gazing to be tedious and unproductive. Here's an opinion piece from Yahoo that is deep, well-written and insightful - also interesting and worthwhile.

It's a good read. It slaps down the narrowminded, shallow-thinking, intolerant individuals on both the extreme left and the extreme right. It frames the discussion by taking a look at the intolerance (what?!) manifested on college campuses today. It makes the intolerant students look like little kids with their fingers in their ears, chanting "Na na na na, I'm not listening, I'm not listening."

The scary part of the article is the thought that the closedminded individuals will grow up and run the country, and that they will marry and have children of their own. Let's hope that their children are more openminded than they are.

I'm not going to give Yahoo credit for this excellent piece of writing. Not yet. This is just one data point, and probably an aberration. I will, however, applaud the author, Matt Bai. I don't agree with everything he writes, but he's consistently thoughtful and well-written. Matt Bai is good; Yahoo is just lucky.

UPDATE: I was afraid of the article disappearing from Yahoo, so I reprinted it right here.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

This guy Evan is my hero

Soooo ... this guy, Evan? He's my new hero.


Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Common Core: the backlash against "Frustrated Parent"

Well, I'm not the only person who stood up in defense of Common Core, or who put "Frustrated Parent" in his place. The Huffington Post, which has admirably refused to jump on the anti-Common Core bandwagon,
published an article that I missed - way back around April 1 - quoting many of CC's defenders and calling out "Frustrated Father" for his lack of ... common sense? understanding? ability to follow directions? comprehension? The article also pointed out very clearly - yet again - the difference between Common Core and all the stuff being passed along by CC opponents and the popular media as "Common Core."

Actually, considering that my blog postings about "Frustrated Parent" and Common Core were published on March 26, and the HuffPo article was posted on March 28, it could be that they used my blog as uncredited source material. This is even more probable considering that the article says at the bottom, "This article has been updated."

I sort of jumped the gun (like, two months after the fact) and posted a comment to the article today without having read it completely. Shame on me. It's still a good article. I recommend it to you.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/03/28/viral-common-core-homework_n_5049829.html

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Donald Sterling's Rights Were Violated - No, Not Those Ones

In the recent Donald Sterling controversy, nearly everyone in the world (well, nearly everyone in the world who cares about it) has focused on the man's racist comments, and applauded the NBA for the way they rushed to judgement and punished the man.

But ALMOST NOBODY has raised a red flag about the invasion of this man's privacy that led to the airing of his racist comments. Sure, there's a right to free speech in this country, but there's also a right to privacy. This man's PRIVATE comments in a PRIVATE phone conversation were sold, without his knowledge or permission, to TMZ, who proceeded to broadcast them publicly.

I don't care how objectionable, racist, or misanthropic Sterling's remarks were. THEY WERE STILL PRIVATE.

Here's how two prominent black men weighed in on it: http://www.theblaze.com/stories/2014/04/30/two-prominent-black-voices-offer-a-very-different-perspective-on-sterling-punishment-mob-rule-is-dangerous/

The great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was one of those men. The article in TheBlaze merely quotes from his guest editorial in Time magazine. The Time article is worth reading in full. In a nutshell, KAJ slaps YOU, the reading and reacting public, around for two very good reasons:

1. Sterling's racist actions have been going on for years, and they've been a lot more public, and a lot more damaging than this recorded-and-leaked private conversation. People were actually being hurt in 2006 and 2009. It was in all the papers. To quote the man: "What bothers me about this whole Donald Sterling affair isn’t just his racism. I’m bothered that everyone acts as if it’s a huge surprise. Now there’s all this dramatic and very public rending of clothing about whether they should keep their expensive Clippers season tickets. Really? All this other stuff I listed above has been going on for years and this ridiculous conversation with his girlfriend is what puts you over the edge? That’s the smoking gun?"

2. Recording and then publishing that conversation was, indeed, illegal. If we allow that act to go unpunished, then in the future none of us should expect anything we say to anybody to remain private and confidential. And didn't we just all get up in arms about the NSA snooping on our telephone and email conversations? Again, in his words: "I hope whoever made this illegal tape is sent to prison."

KAJ summarizes it beautifully when he says: "So, if we’re all going to be outraged, let’s be outraged that we weren’t more outraged when his racism was first evident. Let’s be outraged that private conversations between people in an intimate relationship are recorded and publicly played. "

Edit: And here's a lawyer's opinion on it. The lawyer also says that Sterling's rights were violated. Moreover, says the lawyer, the recording, sale and publicizing of Sterling's private conversation, without his knowledge and permission, was illegal. He does a good job of pointing out the danger to all the rest of us if leaks like this are allowed to go unpunished - in other words, he says, Sterling may have deserved his punishment, but Stiviano should have been pilloried as well. http://www.cnn.com/2014/04/30/opinion/randazza-sterling-privacy/

Sidenote #1: Many people misinterpret this "right to free speech." The First Amendment says "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech ..." They think it means that you can say anything that you want, anywhere. That's not what it means. Objectionable speech still has consequences. Your employer can fire you; your coach can kick you off the team; your club can kick you out; your school can suspend or expel you. Get it? "CONGRESS SHALL MAKE NO LAW," but everybody else can make rules.

Sidenote #2: The "right to privacy," according to Wikipedia, although not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution or the Bill of Rights, is recognized by most states and includes protection against "Intrusion ... into private affairs" and "Public disclosure of embarrassing private facts." This also gets into ambiguous areas, because again it seems to be talking more about governmental violations of the right, and not personal violations. However, recent court cases have upheld the privacy rights of individuals who have been wronged by individuals and corporate entities.