Tuesday, January 31, 2006

A gift of pain

(If you come to this blog for political commentary, I have to warn that I am not in that mode today. Look at other posts.)

I spent 8 hours during last night helping a friend get admitted to a big university hospital. This could be a rant about Medical/Medicare; she is disabled, indigent and covered by both programs; certainly if she'd had private insurance it wouldn't have been such a struggle to get attention to her. But, confronted by her insistent demand for care, the hospital staff eventually responded with professional commitment and some ingenuity.

The experience moved me to write this:

Yesterday my friend gave me the gift of participation in her pain. She is sick and she hurts. I cannot help her, but I can be with her.

Thanks to a practice acquired when young, I know the discipline of "being with." This is not a sentiment, or a virtue if virtue is understood as a choice. It is just an acquired habit.

I believe that being with each other's pain is what love is. It is how we know that underneath it all, somehow existence is good.

None of this makes it hurt her any less. Sometimes she knows she is blessed.

It also hurts me. That proves to me that "being with" is not an illusion.

Darned if I know what that is doing on this blog, but there it is.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Dangerous dingbat alert

Some people say stuff so wacko it is hard to figure out how to start thinking about it. Take this gem from an advocate of allowing medical personnel to refuse treatments on religious grounds:

"This goes to the core of what it means to be an American," said David Stevens, executive director of the Christian Medical & Dental Associations. "Conscience is the most sacred of all property. Doctors, dentists, nurses and other health care workers should not be forced to violate their consciences."

Let's see: our deepest values are "property." And having "our property" is "the core of what it means to be an American."

Maybe he is right. Can I buy some conscience at Walmart? Oh, perhaps not...

Well, at least he didn't say having property goes to the core of being a Christian. Jesus wouldn't have recognized that.
. . .

Dr. Stevens doesn't seem to be a dentist. They have been notorious for this stuff. As recently as 1999, Dr. Gillian McCarthy reported that 16 percent of dental practices in Ontario, Canada refused to treat persons with HIV. The refusal was not just because of fears of infection but because "Many of the unwilling dentists said they did not feel they had an ethical responsibility to treat HIV patients." In the U.S. this would be treated as a form of discrimination against persons with disabilities -- at least until the likes of Judge Alito get through remaking the law.

The legal effort Dr. Stevens is fronting for is very broad:

About half of the proposals would shield pharmacists who refuse to fill prescriptions for birth control and "morning-after" pills because they believe the drugs cause abortions. But many are far broader measures that would shelter a doctor, nurse, aide, technician or other employee who objects to any therapy. That might include in-vitro fertilization, physician-assisted suicide, embryonic stem cells and perhaps even providing treatment to gays and lesbians.

Can this happen here? Only if we let it.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

SOTU quaint?

The "State of the Union" speech is a ritual I don't look forward to. Every year the same script -- a big talking heads' build up, thorough leaking of contents (are these trial balloons to see what catches on?), Presidential entrance with amiable greetings to Congresspeople he distains the rest of the year, a sea of dark suited old white guys with a tiny number of women and non-whites mixed in, predictable applause, shots of carefully placed celebrities in the galleries, vast self-congratulation -- and then they all go back to fuddling the business of the nation as usual. Does anyone care?

I asked how many actually pay attention on The Next Hurrah this morning and DemfromCT was kind enough to point me to an answer: the WaPo reported that in 2005 "about 38 million people watched President Bush's State of the Union address ... across four broadcast and three cable networks -- his worst SOTU [share] ever." That is a lot of people, though not overwhelming. For example, it is about 3 million more than watched American Idol or the NFC football championships last week (and those programs were only on one channel.) On the other hand, next Sunday more than 130 million people plan to watch the Super Bowl. According to the Harris poll website, about one third of U.S. adults say they'll look in on Bush's speech.

The SOTU fulfils a Constitutional requirement that:

The President shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient." (Article II, Section 3)

Come to think of it, given the reluctance of this Administration to consult Congress at all, maybe it is a good thing that tradition has made this snippet of law into an annual custom.

Of course, the President is no longer really talking to Congress; he's pitching his program to that large, but not enormous, TV audience. The set up plays to Bush's preferences: a carefully screened audience, two transparent teleprompters, a set script, no questions. But I still have to wonder, does anyone really care? According to that Harris poll, only 47 percent of Republicans plan to watch.

I suspect in a week we'll have forgotten about the SOTU except possibly GWB's impending proposal for health savings accounts. That may limp on for a month or so. The big concerns of the nation are not the stuff of well-spun set pieces; they are intractible realities -- war, our prosperity or lack of it, the competence of government to do its job. The Administration will continue to barks its shins on reality. No, it can't just make it up.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Of hostages, journalists and hope

(AP Photo/Al Jazeera)

Christian Peacemaker Team (CPT) members, James Loney, Harmeet Singh Sooden, Tom Fox, and Norman Kember, kidnapped in Iraq on November 26 have been shown alive on Al Jazeera. The video made a demand to U.S. and Iraqi authorities to "release all Iraqi prisoners in return of freeing the hostages, otherwise their fate will be death."

At least they apparently are still alive. This is good and hopeful news -- the long silence had seemed to presage a bad end.

CPT Canada issued a press release:

This news is an answer to our prayers. We continue to hope and pray for their release.

... James, Harmeet, Norman and Tom are peace workers who have not collaborated with the occupation of Iraq and who have worked for justice for all Iraqis, especially those detained. We continue to believe that what has happened to our teammates is the result of the actions of the U.S. and U.K. governments in their illegal attack on Iraq and the continuing occupation and oppression of its people. We continue to call for justice and human rights for all who are detained in Iraq. The innocent should not suffer in the place of those who have done wrong.

This news comes the same day as new reports that the ACLU has unearthed documents showing the U.S. military took its own hostages, the wives of men they were hoping to seize as "insurgents." There seems to have been just the sort of cowboy mentality at work that we might fear in a guerilla war:

A U.S. lieutenant colonel e-mailed, "What are you guys doing to try to get the husband -- have you tacked a note on the door and challenged him to come get his wife? ... or something more sophisticated, I suspect, from the 'not necessarily the cool guys, but the guys with the cool stuff?'"

A later e-mail stated, "These ladies fought back extremely hard during the original detention. They have shown indications of deceipt (sic) and misinformation."

I guess we should be glad that "our" guys didn't broadcast videos of their captives after "interrogations."

The recently kidnapped Westerners (that we hear about), the CPT four and freelance journalist Jill Carroll, have been people who made a point relating to Iraqis on relatively equal terms, including in Carroll's case learning Arabic. They are quintessential "good people." They have been the focus of an extraordinary outpouring of support: many Muslim and Arab leaders in Iraq, Europe and the U.S. (even current bugaboo Hamas!) have begged for their release. Some thoughts:
  • Because these individuals lived closely with Iraqis, they were vulnerable to kidnapping, just like Iraqis. Journalists Brian Conley and Isam Rashid claim that "there have been two major types of kidnapping. The most common is for ransom. The second is the abduction of foreigners primarily for political reasons and to obstruct the occupation and reconstruction of Iraq." I have not even been able to find an estimate of how many Iraqis have disappeared in various abductions, but the number is certainly in the high thousands. Four hundred foreigners have been kidnapped of whom the fate of 40 is unknown.
  • More and more, people like the CPT 4 and the extremely audacious Carroll are the only foreigners in Iraq who are interacting with Iraqis outside of barricades.
  • Western journalists are leaving. Reporter Alissa J. Rubin writes in the LA Times that now there are "fewer than 75 of us, down from more than a thousand after the war ." She describes her fraught decision not to risk her own life or those of her Iraqi helpers in search of a story. She knows that the necessary decision marks a major change in her sense of her own journalistic professional creed.
  • Paul McLeary is writing a series of reports from Iraq for the Columbia Journalism Review about the work of journalists, so far mostly in Baghdad. "For reporters in Baghdad, death or abduction are very real possibilities every time they leave their protected areas.... the certainty of violence is woven into the daily life of Baghdad. And for anyone who criticizes the so-called 'hotel journalism' that they claim is practiced by the dwindling Baghdad news corps, I would invite them to trade in their morning Egg McMuffin and leisurely 30-minute drive to work for just one foray into the streets of Baghdad to get a story with one of these reporters."
  • Given all this necessary contraction of English-speaking journalistic insight into Iraq, it is brave and encouraging that Chris Allbritton of Back to Iraq has chosen to return to reporting from within the country.
So where's the hope?

The hope comes, as always, from popular resistance to continuance of violence by the powers that be. Since January 15, a group of folks coming out of the Christian Peacemaker Team orbit have been conducting Shine the Light pilgrimages to key Washington, DC institutions that support the war. They refuse, quietly, but insistently, to let their light be extinguished. For sometimes amusing, sometimes edifying accounts of reactions from workers, army recruiters, and various authorities, see Peace Talk.

The hooded prisoner was an unexpected sight in suburban Montgomery County.

Friday, January 27, 2006

For the soul of a church

bishop robinson taking a question!
Bishop Eugene Robinson

File this entry under promotion of admired friends' work. Ethan Vesely-Flad's article "For the Soul of the Church" in ColorLines has been nominated in the category Outstanding Magazine Article for the GLAAD media awards.

The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) promotes fair, accurate and inclusive depictions of gay issues and individuals in media. ColorLines reminds all that race matters: "in 1903, W.E.B. DuBois wrote, 'The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.' In the 21st century, the color lines are still drawn.... We read in between the lines. We question the lines. We cross the lines."

My church, the Episcopal Church of the U.S.A, is a party to a controversy that places it squarely in the intersection of those race and gay issues, with the added reality that today, all striving for truth is global, not just local. Using all its own lawful procedures, in 2003 the Episcopalians of New Hampshire chose a faithful, experienced priest as their bishop -- who happens to be a white, "out," partnered gay man. And all hell broke loose.

White conservatives in the U.S. church, supported by right wing money and think tanks, have teamed up with conservative African and Asian clerics to fight off what they experience as akin to blasphemy. And comfortable white U.S. liberals have often dismissed Third World opposition in terms that echo conventional European racism and imperialism. Meanwhile U.S. Episcopalians of color have largely been sidelined as the warring parties toss charges of homophobia and violating Scripture over their heads.

That is, the ECUSA chose to place itself at the nexus of many deep-seated global conflicts. Ethan's article is so thorough, nuanced and thoughtful, it eludes easy excerpting. Here is a little piece:

At this point, all the players are identifying as victims.

...Liberals believe that African bishops hold a level of power -- since, after all, they have risen to the elite status of the episcopacy (the order of bishops).

Conservatives in the U.S. also believe they are being persecuted, since they have lost the trappings of power they once held in the church.

International conservatives feel they lack power, since their explosive numerical growth has not translated into either increased leadership in the global church or financial resources, and they see gays and lesbians as being part of the U.S. power elite.

...Ironically, Anglican conservatives here and abroad differ significantly on war and economic globalization concerns: while U.S. conservatives tend to support American military and corporate interests abroad, many international Anglicans have seen sexuality issues as another form of U.S. imperialism and connect it to the government's foreign policy decisions vis-à-vis Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. They argue that the U.S. church's justification of its recent decisions was 'because we can do it,' the same way that they see the Bush administration's political doctrine.

Within the Episcopal Church, these questions will come to head again this summer at its triennial General Convention. International Anglicanism will grapple with them again in the context of a meeting to be called by the Archbishop of Canterbury in 2008.

Kudos to Ethan for trying to capture the situation's numerous complexities. Kudos to ColorLines for printing an article about Christians tripping and falling along a path that leads to unknown ends. Kudos to GLAAD for including an article about Christianity's blundering by-ways in their media awards.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Oh what a lovely little war

Tim Klimowicz has created an animation that maps IRAQ WAR COALITION FATALITIES across the dimensions of time and space. Click the link here and press the red button when the screen loads.

Thanks to A Lovely Promise.

No-fly lawsuit settled -- what we learned

Today you can celebrate that $200,000 of your tax dollars will be paid to the American Civil Liberties Union to help that organization continue to stand up for our freedoms.

Two federal agencies agreed Tuesday to pay the American Civil Liberties Union $200,000 to settle a lawsuit brought to uncover information about the government's no-fly list, which bars suspected terrorists from airliners.

The government will compensate the ACLU for attorneys' fees, settling a lawsuit initiated by two San Francisco peace activists who were detained while checking in for a flight three years ago....

The agencies at first balked at supplying any information to the ACLU. But U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer, after privately reviewing secret government data, said the government was making "frivolous claims" about why it could not....

One heavily redacted document says getting on a list is guided by two "primary" principles: Whether various intelligence agencies view an individual as a "potential threat to U.S. civil aviation," and whether the agency requesting a listing has provided enough information to identify the person to be flagged at check-in. Yahoo News-AP

I'm one of those activists and I'm pretty happy with the outcome of a long process. And no, the two of us who pressed the lawsuit don't get a penny.

We weren't looking for money. We just wanted to know why Big Brother was looking over our shoulders. We are glad that as a consequence of our detention in an airport three years ago, and the subsequent court case, everyone found out a little more about how the government is watching us.

In 2001, the no-fly list named a mere 16 people. Post 9/11 it grew rapidly, reaching 594 people in December 2001. By December 2005, the list included some 30-40,000 names.

There is still a lot we didn't learn, but we hope more information will gradually seep out. We don't really know what makes the government choose to single out a mixed bag of folks including babies, commercial pilots, vets who are "mentally defective", and Teddy Kennedy. The government says they remove names all the time and there is a bureaucratic procedure people can use to try to get delisted. But the TSA will not confirm that any particular individual has been removed. "National security," you know.

One of the documents released during the lawsuit suggested that names on the list might be transmitted to U.S. government agencies all over the world -- a chilling thought, indeed.

We do know the same day the government settled our lawsuit, they also removed a Cape Air pilot from the list. Robert W.G.M. Gray can return to his job after being grounded for months.

From the beginning, we've found it hard to believe that airport "security,"-- the lists, the ID checks, the perfunctory hand luggage searches -- had much to do with actually keeping us safe from terrorist attacks. The 9/11 attacks showed that the attackers were very smart; they could certainly find a way around scatter-shot precautions and aren't likely to use the same tactics twice. The exaggerated security we encounter at airports is largely a Theater of Fear designed to keep us scared out of our wits. Only when not fully in possession of our right minds will we give away our rights to a secretive, arrogant, lawless regime.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Time to GET OVER IT!

BBC photo

When London subways were bombed last summer, one of the most discussed and most frightening things about the attack was that, according to London police, the suicide bombers were "clean skins," anonymous young British Muslims who no one had ever suspected of terrorist connectons. The Home Secretary Charles Clarke said they had "simply come out of the blue."

On top of 52 people randomly getting killed and 700 more injured, the shocking anonymity made for a chilling atmosphere. Terrorists could be growing up in odd corners, unknown to the police and unsuspected by their neighbors. The enemy lurked among us, we, the good people, the safe people.

Now it comes out that the British intelligence service had bugged Mohammad Sidique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer, a second bomber, for two months as they talked about Khan’s desire to fight in what he saw as the Islamic holy war." They dropped the surveillance because they thought Khan was a con man.

So the idea of the "clean skins" was a myth -- and the police very quickly knew it. Who knows why they hid the real story (maybe to protect their funding?) but that concealment served the purposes of governments on both sides of the Atlantic.

Rachel, who was aboard one of the trains when it blew up, is understandably pissed off:

The Government listened into the plotting of the 7th July cell, knew that the bombers were NOT 'unknown' as was originally claimed. The Government went into an illegal war to 'defeat terrorism' and because they said terrorism + WOMD = Your Worst Nightmare (TM) - yet knew there were no WMD and Iraq was 'no threat'.

Meanwhile by a hideous yet predictable irony, the terror risk of course increased. In Iraq, and at home, resulting in carnage, carnage and more carnage in Iraq, and finally in my city, on my train to work, last summer. And the wretches in power knew this, they knew the war was based on a lie and that being involved in Iraq increased the risks of terrorism, and they even listened in to Khan and his associates planning murder and mayhem.

The dirty secret of both the U.S. and British governments is revealed: they'd rather keep us afraid, than prevent terrorist acts. They thrive on keeping us afraid. Our fear of terrorism facilitates Bush trashing of the Constitution. Brits don't have a constitution, but they are seeing huge erosion of civil liberties by Blair's government.

It is time to take a deep breath and propose some radical rethinking of our recent history. It is time to let go of 9/11.

Yes, that was a horrible day; the terrorists made us all extras and victims in their made-for-TV movie. But life in the U.S. goes on -- very well thank you, compared to much of the world.

Terrorists can certainly hit us again. Vigilance is good. But this isn't a bad movie; there is not the slightest possibility that terrorists can overturn the U.S. -- even if they nuked a major city! Hell, we saw a major city sink out of existence without any terrorist complicity at all last September. Though hundreds of thousands still suffer, did that make more than a ripple in the fabric of society?

It is time to tell the irrational fear mongers to take a hike, to figure out what kind of country we really want, and to build it. For a start, we can stop thrashing around in other people's countries and try to make some friends again.

People who can't recover from trauma spread their victimization over the lives of everyone they encounter. So do countries. Time to get over it.

Hat tip to Bloggerheads for the Times story.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Heroes or crazy men?

"I'm seeking justice," said Yasser, 33, who had a Web site design business in Brooklyn before he and Hany, 29, a deli worker, were delivered in shackles to the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn 19 days after 9/11. "It's from the same system that did us injustice before. But I have faith in this system. I know what happened before was a mistake." NY Times*

Hany and Yasser Ibrahim are two of the 1200 immigrants -- Arab, South Asian, Muslims and the simply unlucky -- swept up by U.S. authorities in the post 9/11 frenzy of fear. Like many immigrants, they had overstayed their visas.

They were locked up for months in “ADMAXSHU,” the maximum security isolation jail cells. Many have reported they were brutally abused. None were ever charged with participating in any attack on the U.S. After varying lengths of time, they were simply deported to their home countries.

Today the brothers returned to the United States from Egypt, kept "in the constant custody of federal marshals." They face 12 days of depositions in a class action lawsuit seeking monetary damages for their mistreatment. The Center for Constitutional Rights which represents the plaintiffs hopes the courts will recognize that the sweeps led to vicious violations of the plaintiffs' rights.

Most of the abuse the Ibrahims allege should be easy to prove. Larry Cohler-Esses who broke their story in the New York Daily News explained in March, 2005:

The Inspector General of the Justice Department, Glen Fine ... got a tip leading him to a room way back in the Metropolitan Detention Center, and there was a stack of 400 of these videotapes just sitting there. He looked at them and found out that many of the accounts that the guards had given them of their treatment of these prisoners were demonstratively untrue. There they were on videotape being beat up. They were chained at their feet and chained with their hands behind their backs, being smashed headfirst into walls. They were being stripped naked with women around these -- I don't want to say it's proper for any prisoners, but these were Muslim and Arab prisoners who had a keen sense of the humiliation of that. This was also on videotape.

So this is one more test of whether the courts will curb the lawless Bush crew.

Another plaintiff is Javaid Iqbal, a Pakistani immigrant whose Long Island customers knew him as "the cable guy." Like the Ibrahims, he is almost unbelievably hopeful about the outcome of the case:
"I am not afraid," Mr. Iqbal wrote last week in an e-mail message about his return. "I am also sure that justice will be served because peoples of U.S.A. are justice-loving people regardless of race and religion."
How many of us who have U.S. citizenship have this kind of faith in the underlying goodness of this country? Should we?

*Times reporter Nina Bernstein wrote today's story. The photo is by Shawn Baldwin.

Help the government keep track of us all

Just click on this link: PATRIOT Search. Fully operational and waiting for your input.

Thanks to Biz Stone, Genius.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

What's that hanging in the tree?

Today was lovely in San Francisco, sunny, clear, with a hint of spring in the air. My partner and I took an early morning walk. And this is what we saw on a neighborhood street:

Naturally, we came closer.

What are those red things?

Click on the picture below to visit artist Nina Rosenberg's description of her art project and the many knitters who made it possible.

Or if you prefer a more conventional link, try this.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

On the verge of Alito, anti-choice meets pro-choice in San Francisco

Today, thousands of anti-abortion marchers, predominantly white suburbanites, were bussed into San Francisco by Roman Catholic churches. Hundreds of San Francisco and East Bay pro-choice activists greeted them as they walked several miles along the edge of the city. It was a surreal intersection, to say the least. If women's freedom were not at stake, it might have been almost funny. As it was, the scene was sad and frightening. The two groups could not have looked more different. This was contemporary culture clash on display. Here are a few images from the anti-abortion side. (Further reflections follow the pictures; scroll down if interested.)
This was how the anti-abortion folks wanted to appear: led by bright, clean-cut, mostly white young women. And they did have some; the front row was full of them.
After that, this guy was a more common sort.
This set were more or less on message.
While this woman probably didn't carry the message organizers sought.
And this guy certainly was off message

Then there were those who protested what seemed to them (and to me) an invasion from another country.
The anti-choice folks certainly had no monopoly on young women. 8PC-youdecidewhenIdead
Pro-choice women, too, believe this is an issue of life and death.
Without buses, pro-choice women straggled in, but they came.
The pro-choice people weren't all young.
Many had a lot of energy! This really is about our lives.
They weren't all countercultural either. This pair could have fit in with the anti-abortion women -- well, maybe not.
After much milling around, the anti-choice march proceeded down the Embarcadero, separated from protesters by a police gauntlet.
The good women of Code Pink jumped into the street in front of the anti-abortion march briefly, but were chased out of the street by the SFPD, as were several anarchist groups at various points on the march. I saw no arrests or even any confrontations that verged on violence by either side. (They may have happened; this was a big, spread out event.)

It took the anti-abortion march several hours to make its way to Marina Green. Pro-choice protesters left them for a speakout in Aquatic Park.


Watching this clash of cultures, I was reminded of an essay from a recent American Prospect. According to Garance Franke-Ruta, working class folks in the U.S., a group that includes many who believe themselves "middle class," feel victimized by "the onslaught of the new nihilistic, macho, libertarian lawlessness unleashed by an economy that pits every man against his fellows." The right, embodied in the Republican Party, encourages them to fight back against insults from authoritarian corporate management and increasing economic insecurity by asserting "traditional values."

Here's the money quote:

... in today's society, traditional values have become aspirational. Lower-income individuals simply live in a much more disrupted society, with higher divorce rates, more single moms, more abortions, and more interpersonal and interfamily strife, than do the middle- and upper-middle class people they want to be like. It should come as no surprise that the politics of reaction is strongest where there is most to react to. People in states like Massachusetts, for example, which has very high per capita incomes and the lowest divorce rate in the country, are relatively unconcerned about gay marriage, while those in Southern states with much higher poverty, divorce, and single-parenthood rates feel the family to be threatened because family life is, in fact, much less stable in their communities. In such environments, where there are few paths to social solidarity and a great deal of social disruption, the church frequently steps into the breach, further exacerbating the fight.

Looking at the anti-choice marchers today, I felt I was looking in the faces of folks who were ripe to blame social disruption in their lives on the big, bad city and its unruly inhabitants. San Franciscans don't look like the anti-abortion marchers (even if they also don't look like many of the pro-choice protesters.)

Both crowds today were predominantly white. Both had a significant number of quite young people, though I'd say the anti-choice set had more teenagers (members of "Respect Life" clubs at Catholic high schools?) while the pro-choice young folks seem to consist more of young 20s, living independently of their families. Both had a sprinkling of older people. The huge difference between them was the presence among the anti-choice of lots of white men in middle age. These men's expectations for their lives and roles have been torn apart by social and economic forces they cannot control. They are ripe to be led against someone.

Their churches lead them against women's freedom. Several contingents apparently had been taught that mumbling continual "Hail Marys" would prevent contamination as they passed protesters. As a Christian believer, it was painful to watch folks praying the rosary as an incantation against other people who believe differently. This is not my faith. (Okay, I might was well say it: I'm not wild for abortion, but I figure that after millenia of old guys making the rules, we need at least a few hundred years of women's autonomy before we can sort out the ethics related to giving birth.)

Two young lesbians told me of having been set on by a man who wanted to exorcize Satan from them. I wasn't surprised.
15aAA-exorcist- 15AA-guysincollars
Meanwhile the pro-choice demonstrators, many of them, are refuges from the world of the anti-choice. I actually heard two discussing how they had "recovered from religion." They are intentional city folks; many are gay; many look at U.S. society and "just say no." They have no truck with Christianity that they think of as either unfounded nonsense or the stalking horse of fascism. One final sign said it all for me:

Anti-abortion ads on Bay Area subway

I had read about them but I didn't actually see them, that I know of, until this week.

On my way to not be on the jury (more when I get through with "jury duty" if the experience is interesting), across the subway car, about 8 feet away, I noticed the image at the left. It was just about as legible at that distance as it is here.

Naturally, I leaped to the conclusion it was an ad for an aerobics class.

Then I remembered the Chronicle story. Oh, it was the forced pregnancy people at work again.

Wonder what they think they are doing putting these up in the SF Bay Area where their point of view is marginal to say the least? They claim the ads are an "effective pro-life educational tool in our area, too." Doubt it, since they are illegible. This kind of advocacy advertising mostly serves to confirm to the faithful that they are not alone. The faithful know perfectly well that in this area, on this issue, they are alone.

The ads have managed to piss off some pro-choice women. Some have complained to Bay Area Rapid Transit for running them. That's silly -- we may need to pump up progressives about something some day; we need BART on record as allowing issue ads.

Oh the other hand, if some women are offended by the arrogance of a bunch of old Catholic guys in skirts trying to tell them what to do with their bodies, I imagine the signs won't survive very long. And the Chron confirms this has been the case. The forced pregnancy people are complaining about not getting value for their ad money. Try another city, guys.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Weapons of Influence: Friendship and Liking

"The motorcycle slipped; no, I didn't have a license."
Like him or loathe him?

(Part 6 of a series of posts exploring Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini. Part 1; Part 2;Part 3; Part 4;Part 5.Part 6.)

Professor Cialdini calls this compliance trigger "the friendly thief." It will surprise no one that this discussion will quickly get to fundraising techniques and political candidates.

We all know we are more likely to do things for friends, even things we don't want to do. And so, we have the political "house party." It goes like this: you send out 100 invitations to friends and acquaintances, make follow up calls to reinforce the invitation, get 12 people to come to the "party," speechify and feed, and they give 10 checks to your candidate or cause. Some more checks come in the mail. You will have raised approximately $1000, plus or minus. This works pretty much mechanically. (If interested in a book of fundraising recipes for this and much more, see here.)

The house party is the compliance trigger known as "friendship" in practice.

Another common variant is the political email that asks you to send on their spiel to people you know. I got two of these today about the Alito confirmation fight. Then there are the outfits that want to use your friendships to build their network. This one came today from a fledgling nonprofit (one I like by the way):

We're getting ready to send out our annual report. This year we're stepping it up a notch and putting it out as a newsletter. We're writing to you to ask a favor. We want to build up our base of donors even bigger this year and we want to get this newsletter out to people who would be excited about the work we do.

Are there people you know who we should send the newsletter to this year? People who you think would want to know about our work and people who might donate money to help us expand our work. People in your family, at your job, in your spiritual community or political network?

Smart question, and no, I didn't respond, but I'm a pretty hard nut. Some good people did, undoubtedly, and any leads will help the new nonprofit.

Cialdini wants us to know that the reliability of our response to these compliance triggers goes way beyond merely accommodating friends. We consistently will go out of our way to respond favorably to those we like -- but what determines "liking"?

The professor names physical attractiveness as a prime cause of "liking." He is disconcerted by its power:

Certain of the consequences of this unconscious assumption that "good looking equals good" scare me. For example, a study [in 1976] of the Canadian federal elections found that attractive candidates received more than two and a half times as many votes as unattractive candidates. ...[V]oters do not realize their bias. In fact 73 percent of Canadian voters surveyed denied in the strongest possible terms that their votes had been influenced by physical appearance.

This finding raises the further question of who finds who attractive. There may have been enough homogeneity in the Canadian population in the 1970s to skip over this issue, but that certainly isn't the case in contemporary U.S. electorates. For example, I find Arnold Schwarzenegger repulsive. And I was first convinced that Judge Roberts would be bad news when I saw a picture of his smug, upper class white guy mug. Others' criteria for attractiveness undoubtedly differ.

Apparently something else that reliably triggers "liking" is the provision of food. Seriously. Cialdini reports an experiment:

Using what he termed the "luncheon technique," [Gregory Razran] found that his subjects became fonder of the people and things they experienced while they were eating. ...Razran's subjects were presented with some political statements they had rated once before. And the end of the experiment, after all the political statements had been presented, Razran found that only certain of them had gained in approval -- those that had been shown while food was being eaten. ...[T]he subjects could not remember which of the statements they had seen during the food service.

Yikes, maybe candidates should be buying dinner hour TV instead of prime time? Actually, what is important in this is that the compliance trigger, associating pleasant sensations with unrelated arguments, works without our conscious knowledge or assent.

The professor takes his explication of the "liking" principle further. Because we know intuitively that being liked carries influence, we attach ourselves to those we consider likeable. The obvious example is the rabid attachment sports fans can feel toward "their" winning teams.

An interesting example of this crops up in political polling. In order to understand how people are likely to vote, pollsters often ask whether and how they voted in the past. The replies often yield claims that would point to higher participation and more votes for the winners than actually occurred. We know the real numbers; the election in question is over. Mystery Pollster explains:

The reason why some respondents falsely report past voting is something social scientists call "social discomfort." Some people are so embarrassed by not voting that they cannot admit it to a stranger on the telephone. For the same reasons, some respondents will avoid admitting they voted for the losing candidate. Combine overreporting and a reluctance to admit a Gore vote, and four years later, Gore's tiny popular vote victory turns into a retrospective Bush landslide.

. . .

The compliance weapons described in Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion are deeply embedded in our psyches. As I've tried to show throughout these posts, in addition to being means by which we are manipulated, they are behaviors that mostly serve us well. What I find upsetting about thinking about them is not that I am subject to such triggers. It does worry me that the necessary defenses against automatic compliance that I throw up will reduce the trust with which I interact and drive me away from community with others. Bowling alone comes to feel a rational way to try to preserve autonomy.

Friday Cat Blogging
I am not cute

See also Cat Haiku, number 15.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Acquitted but still jailed

Sameeh Hammoudeh, 42. Born in the West Bank, he was a teaching assistant and doctoral student at the University of South Florida and a director at the Islamic Academy of Florida. SP Times photo.

This doesn't seem right. The St. Petersburg Times reports:

Although a jury acquitted Sameeh Hammoudeh of terrorism charges, immigration officials are not convinced.

They want to keep him in jail, and on Wednesday a U.S. immigration judge denied him bail.

"Hammoudeh is being held because (immigration) still believes he has ties to terrorism," said Pam McCullough, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
McCullough acknowledged Hammoudeh's acquittal but said immigration officials don't agree with the jury's unanimous decision.
On Hammoudeh's legal limbo, [attorney Bill] Moffitt said, "A man who's acquitted can't find his way out of prison? Welcome to the war against terrorism."

Apparently "innocent" doesn't mean "innocent."

The guy is a not a citizen and will eventually be deported on an unrelated tax evasion conviction. When it comes to mere residents, apparently the judgment of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement service overrules all other law. Hammoudeh was acquitted of being a fundraiser for Islamic Jihad.

Guess we shouldn't surprised, since ICE is a branch of Homeland Security which is a branch of an executive branch led by a Preznit who holds that he makes up the law as he goes along. All for our wellbeing, of course.

UPDATE: On January 23, the St. Petersburg Times reports that Sameeh Hammoudeh and his family will be "removed" to Jordan this week. He muses: "Even if you are acquitted, the government is like wild wolves picking at you -- this in a country with people full of love and mercy." The entire story is worth reading, full of incidents in which U.S. authorities acted like fascist automatons and ordinary citizens of all backgrounds demonstrated their concern for legality and justice.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Weapons of Influence: Scarcity

An Ambivalent Images photo

(Part 6 of a series of posts exploring Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini. Part 1; Part 2;Part 3;Part 4;Part 5.)

When Cialdini names "scarcity" a weapon of influence, a compliance trigger, he is not talking about starvation. He is referring to the fact for most of us, most of the time, "opportunities seem more valuable to us when their availability is limited."

What is going on? As with the other weapons of influence, we're applying shortcut reasoning to avoid having to expend energy making choices:

...Because we know that the things that are difficult to possess are typically better than those that are easy to possess, we can often use an item's availability to help us quickly and correctly decide on its quality. ...

[Additionally,] as opportunities become less available, we lose freedoms; and we hate to lose the freedoms we already have....So, when increasing scarcity...interferes with our prior access to some item, we will react against the interference by wanting and trying to possess the item more than before.

The notion embedded in this that "freedom" equals the "opportunity to possess" certainly describes our capitalist culture of greed and maximized consumption of material goods. Cialdini insists he is describing a behavior pattern that governs our actions well beyond getting and spending.

He gives two interesting examples of how laws regulating people's behavior inspire scarcity-triggered responses. The city of Kennesaw, Georgia, passed an ordinance requiring residents to own a gun; local gun sales soared. But the buyers were not residents! They were out-of-towners attracted by the publicity about the law. Kennesaw citizens who had opposed the gun law remained quietly, but Cialdini says "massively," noncompliant. They weren't going to let some City Council make them own a gun.

Likewise, when Miami banned sale and possession of phosphate-based detergents, residents took to smuggling in supplies and hoarding. When their attitudes were surveyed and compared with those of people in Tampa where phosphate products were both readily available and legal, Miami residents also thought that phosphate containing products were gentler, more effective in cold water, better whiteners, more powerful on stains, and poured better.

I guess I now know why my Mother's generation was so insistent on the cocktail before dinner; they'd grown up under Prohibition.

A political consequence of the scarcity trigger is that people will react strongly against what they perceive as "censorship," if they perceive a denial of their freedom to hear all sides. The scarcity trigger encourages them to demand more of the "prohibited" speech. Intelligent design advocates peddle their creationist bilge as suppressed free speech. Holocaust deniers do the same.

Similarly, if the response to a political attack, however false or weak, can be framed as an effort to suppress speech, the attackers will be more than halfway to winning an audience. The Republican slime machine trades on this; think Swift-Boaters liars. We fiercely defend our right to be exposed to truth -- and lies.

Smart politicians and other manipulators work at not triggering the scarcity trigger. So the President defends his warrantless NSA wiretaps as only touching a few very "bad people" (by inference just Muslims) hoping the majority won't worry about his breaking the FISA law. Bush ran head on into the scarcity trigger when trying to privatize Social Security last year; people will fight tooth and nail for what they believe they already are entitled to.

Cialdini suggests that we can fight off the sellers of goods we don't want who invoke the scarcity trigger by learning to recognize our sensations when manipulated. When we feel an unfamiliar "arousal" as well as the desire for something we hadn't previously wanted, we should examine whether we are being had. How do we learn to recognize when politicians are similarly arousing our desire for freedom or security in order to use that desire against our better aspirations?

Why is Cory Maye on death row?

I've put a new button on the sidebar. When one has a blog and hears about simple injustices that just might be corrected if enough people knew, one feels one must do these things. This points to a story about small town police in Mississippi acting as a SWAT team, a confused father shooting at intruders, a local jury putting the black killer of the white police chief's son on death row, and, most recently, the town firing the public defender who is representing that defendant. The man has no criminal record, and police rather tellingly changed their story about drugs (rather, traces of drugs) in his possession at the time of the raid. It is ugly and not really very murky.

There is a nice effort to sort out truth from fiction here from Radley Balko.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

War with Iran?

It is hard to believe that some mistakes are innocent.

Iran lifted its ban on CNN on Tuesday after the U.S. network apologized over mistranslating comments by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Iran imposed a ban on the network and its reporters Monday after CNN misquoted the president as speaking of developing "nuclear weapons" when he actually referred to "nuclear energy."
In its apology, Atlanta-based CNN said Monday it had "quoted Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as saying that Iran has the right to build nuclear weapons.

"In fact, he said that Iran has the right to nuclear energy. He added that 'a nation that has civilization does not need nuclear weapons and our nation does not need them.'

Yahoo pointed to this story at CBC Arts Online from New Brunswick, Canada. Not the most prominent place for what seems an important piece of news. A little more digging did reveal that U.S. media is carrying it, but pretty obscurely.

Lots of people have laid out all sorts of good reasons why the U.S. is in no position to attempt another preemptive war. One such here. All this is probably true, but entirely too many wars have begun with stumbling and bumbling in the past.

UPDATE: I can't resist adding one more trenchant comment on Iran from Simon Jenkins in the UK Guardian:

Iran is a serious country, not another two-bit post-imperial rogue waiting to be slapped about the head by a white man.

Read the rest.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Weapons of Influence: Social validation

The owners of opera houses in Paris in the 1820s would hire "claquers" to applaud enthusiastically. A company called the Italian Claquers put this advertisement into the Musical Times newspaper, advertising their rates for various kinds of applause.

(Part 5 of a series of posts exploring Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini. Part 1; Part 2;Part 3; Part 4.)

We're all suckers some of the time. And many of those times it happens because we feel uncertain, look around, see what others are doing, and do the same. Cialdini reminds us that looking for what he calls "social validation" or "social proof" may lead us astray, but as with all the compliance triggers he discusses, this instinct can be helpful to us in times of uncertainty.

Usually, when a lot of people are doing something, it is the right thing to do. ...the problem comes when we begin responding to social proof in such a mindless and reflexive fashion that we can be fooled by partial or fake evidence.

His examples of minor occasions when we are manipulated by social validation includes joining in with sitcom laugh tracks, being moved to tip by the bartender who displays a jar full of dollars, and emulating the lists of donors thanked during pledgathons.

Following our instinct to base our behavior on social proof can however lead to genuinely bad consequences. Cialdini discusses the notorious case of the 1964 murder of Catherine Genovese: "for more than half an hour, thirty eight respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks." Why didn't anyone intervene or at least call the police? Newspapers agonized over the question for weeks, accusing urban society of becoming newly "cold" or apathetic. Social psychologists propose a different explanation: Genovese got no help because, in a confusing situation, all thirty eight witness thought first, someone else is doing something, and second, since I don't see or hear others intervening, I must be misconstruing that woman's screams, she must not need help. The search for social validation in an unfamiliar and threatening situation froze the observers.

Cialdini describes finding himself at risk in such a situation: after an auto accident in a busy intersection in which both he and the other driver were injured, cars began to simply pull around their stopped vehicles. He roused himself, although bloody and disoriented, to point to particular drivers saying "You! Call the police;" "You! Call an ambulance." etc. He reports that "not only was [their] help rapid and solicitous, it was infectious. After drivers entering the intersection from the other direction saw cars stopping for me, they stopped and began tending the other driver." Understanding how to use the instinct most of us have to do what we see others doing got the professor and the other driver to the hospital promptly.

Following the prompting of social proof can also get people killed. Cialdini ascribes the willingness of 910 members of the Reverend Jim Jones' Peoples Temple to commit mass suicide in its Guyana colony in 1978 to their isolation in an environment where their only mooring was the behavior of other members.

So where do we see the weapon of social proof in contemporary politics? Everywhere. President Dubya only appears before audiences that have been carefully screened to remove skeptics and hecklers -- the resulting "film at 11" reinforces the false notion that everyone loves GWB. Pollsters churn out their results; candidates who show any promise in the polls run to potential donors with "proof" they are a good investment. Meanwhile, out at doors in neighborhoods, political field volunteers try to get across to reluctant voters that "everyone" is turning out for their candidate.

All this stuff works. A great deal of doing practical electoral organizing consists of using various techniques to help people believe "everyone is on board." The term for this is momentum. We make it. I sometimes teach this stuff for a living. Here are a few of the simple tricks I try to pass on:
  • Everyone working on the campaign wears a button or sticker at all times; this serves to remind everyone they meet that something is happening. And they give away or sell those buttons and stickers to everyone they encounter to magnify the effect.
  • You always collect as many names of sympathizers as possible. The tip about that is: on every sign-in list, petition, or whatever device you use to collect those names, fill in the first line on every page with all the information you want. All subsequent signers will fill it in fully, just like the first one.
  • You may be tempted not to call important people or big donors on your list when recruiting volunteers. Don't give in to that. They (probably) won't come out and work with you, but they carry a lot of weight with others; they are dispensers of social proof. A remark from one of them that such and such campaign called to ask me to work last night can get you additional volunteers or donors.
  • If there are more volunteers than can be used for targeted outreach to voters, do send them to public places to wave signs, blow horns, or whatever gets them noticed. This seems wacky, but once again, you are making living social proof for your message.
We all do it. Electoral organizing often amounts to "applied social validation."

Sunday, January 15, 2006

A peek into the Gitmo gulag

Defense Department photo

Brad Wizner, an ACLU lawyer, has been blogging from the U.S. prison at Guantanamo where he has been observing Bush's "military tribunals" as a human rights monitor. His writing gives a very immediate sense of this strange place, full of the trappings of law but containing no sign of any actual justice.

Here's a sample about the appearance of Ali Hamza Ahmad Sulayman al Bahlul who refused to cooperate with the proceedings:

Al Bahlul ... declared: "With these nine causes, I am boycotting all sessions, even if I am forced to be present." He lifted the paper that he had been scribbling on. "I will raise this paper, and this word is 'boycott.' I am boycotting every session. This boycott is the result of circumstances that I believe, and it doesn't matter if you believe them." Then, in English, he repeated the word "boycott" three times.

[Presiding Officer Peter] Brownback asked al Bahlul if he could make a copy of the "boycott" sign for the record. Al Bahlul said yes, but first he signed and dated it, and wrote "boycott" in English beneath the Arabic. (Later, when a Canadian journalist asked Commission staff if the press could obtain a copy of the sheet, he was told that it might be possible only after security personnel had reviewed it to ensure the absence of "subliminal messages.") "Please, before you boycott," said Brownback, "can I ask you one more thing?" Al Bahlul put his hands in front of his face, then removed his headset.

Despite his refusal, al Bahlul was assigned a military lawyer. That lawyer immediately attempted to have himself removed for the case on the grounds that his client did not want him as counsel. Legal ethics forbade him to play that role against his client's instructions. The court did not allow him to withdraw.

This episode points to one of Wizner's core observations on these bizarre proceedings. He writes:

Even in a terribly flawed legal system like this one, a skilled and dedicated defense lawyer can transform the nature of the proceeding. That's why the Administration attempted for so long to keep any lawyers from coming here. All of the defense lawyers who participated this week, military and civilian, are fighters, and they won't just throw up their hands at the injustice of the rules. The Administration may yet get the outcomes it wants -- after all, it selects the Commission members and makes the rules -- but it won't get the trials that it wants. The defense lawyers will make sure of that.

Since we seem to be living through a slow motion coup by the authoritarians in the executive, this sort of resistance based on professional tradition is important. It is not enough to break their power, but any friction in the system improves our chances of living to fight another day.

Wizner is also quite fascinating on what Gitmo is like as an environment for the U.S. forces stationed there. Like many prisons, but even more so because it is intentionally walled off from the mainland, it is also a controlled, brainwashing environment for its working class. Like any other military post, it is well supplied with McDonalds and Subways, as well as some better class restaurants and bars, much frequented. The troops have been given a reinforcing mantra:

The motto of the Joint Task Force Guantanamo -- the troops responsible for detention and interrogation operations here -- is "Honor Bound to Defend Freedom." When JTF members salute each other on the base, it's common for one to say "Honor Bound," and the second to reply "To Defend Freedom." This is jarring at first, then routine; one senses that the recitation has become rote even for the some of the troops, who occasionally mumble the words as they walk past each other. To much of the world, hearing "Guantanamo" and "freedom" so closely associated must sound ironic, but I got the sense that most troops here believe in the mission, even though they're not responsible for the policy decisions that brought them here.

Arbeit Macht Frei had already used up its punch, I guess -- besides, there is no indication that anything will ever set either inmates or jailers free.

Do read all about it at the ACLU blog. Thanks to Just World News for pointing me to Wizner.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Pondering Iraq

After three years of carnage and national disgrace, we still know next to nothing about Iraq.

From Brian Conley writing at Alive in Baghdad:

...The idea of a civil war in Iraq between Shiites and Sunnis continues to belie the deep entrenchment of inter-marriage and the diverse nature of Iraq. In fact, the New York Times article quoted above even quotes a Sunni fighter who opposed Al Qaeda when their “sectarian war against Shiites clashed with his loyalty to a Shiite relative of his the group had kidnapped and tortured.”

I met few Iraqis who couldn't tell me about their relatives from an opposing sect, whether it was a Sunni woman married to a Shi’a husband, or vice versa, or a shi'a whose cousin was a Kurdish Sunni, this is a common refrain in Iraq. The division along religious and tribal lines was certainly beginning in the more desperate final years of the twentieth century in Iraq, however they were deeply exascerbated by the complete destruction of Iraq’s social fabric during the United States occupation and the ongoing war in Iraq."
By parroting the line that Iraq has deep-rooted "ethnic and religious tensions" the media works to absolve the United States of guilt as Iraq apparently spirals toward a civil war.

There's much more, informed, nuanced, thoughtful and questioning. From the point of view of the anti-war movement, the situation is simple: our job is to get the U.S. out of there. But if we want to know a little more about "there," this is helpful.

Also helpful is Salam Adil's history lesson on the why U.S.-supported Iraqi secularists have proved to have so little traction in their country. Writing on his blog, Asterism Adil explains his perspective:

In 1958 a group of military officers brought down the monarchy and so doing started a revolution in which the whole government of Iraq was rebuilt from the ground up. Much like the aftermath of this war. The significance lies with the broad response of the parties and the people. Without any foreign intervention the people did not start destroying their country or killing each other in a civil war. The parties formed a new government, agreed a new constitution and nationalised the oil industry to create a truly independent Iraq. The people, in their masses backed the Communist party - not the religious parties or the tribal parties or the nationalists.

And there lies the seeds of the fantasy that the pro-American secularists have built around themselves. They believe simply by being secular the people will once again flock around them.

The other problem is that certain elite Iraqi secular politicians have always felt the need to be a client for a more powerful state. After 1958, the Communist leaders returned to Iraq from exile in the USSR and were given power on a plate. They never had to earn it from the people - never really understood what power was about or why they earned it. The Communists could have taken control of Iraq in 1963 but, after an order from the Soviet Union, they did not. Following the coup which brought the Saddam's Baathists into power, the Communist party agreed, again at the behest of the Soviet Union, to serve in Saddam's government. When Saddam had finished with them of them he had them rounded up and executed. With the fall of the USSR the Communists simply transferred allegiance to America....

There's more, opinionated, and worth considering.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Weapons of Influence: Authority


(Part 4 of a series of posts exploring Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini. Part 1; Part 2;Part 3.)

Cialdini summarizes what he is his talking about like this:
  • Authority. People are more willing to follow the directions or recommendations of a communicator to whom they attribute relevant authority or expertise.
Concern about how authority works on us is certainly current, given ongoing revelations that we have an administration that encourages law-breaking, violation of civil rights, and torture of perceived enemies.

This author is clearly distressed by the consequences when people follow authority by rote. He describes at length the notorious Milgram experiment which revealed that most randomly selected subjects would "harm" another person if urged on by an authority. He also looks at the case of the train crew that followed an order to mow down protester Brian Willson, cutting off his legs -- and then sued Willson for causing them mental anguish by failing to get out of the way. But as with all the compliance triggers, this one exists because it serves useful social purposes:

Conforming to the dictates of authority figures has always had genuine practical advantages....Early on, these people (for example, parents, teachers) knew more than we did, and we found their advice beneficial....As adults, the same benefits persist for the same reasons, though the authority figures now appear as employers, judges, and government leaders. Because their positions speak of superior access to information and power, it makes great sense to comply with the wishes of properly constituted authorities. It makes so much sense, in fact, that we often do so when it makes no sense at all.

That's blunt.

Many of Cialdini's examples of when we comply with authority are much more ordinary than issues of torture or military orders. For example, we are swayed to buy products that carry "a doctor's" endorsement, even if we suspect the pitchman is really an actor or well paid for his opinion. We even accord medical people authority in politics: Bill Frist trades on his status as a physician -- if you look at his Senate website, you'll notice he hangs an "M.D." after his name. Presumably polling says we credit doctors above Majority Leaders.

Progressives appeal to medical authority too. One of the most successful campaigns I've worked on in recent years used the former Surgeon General Dr. C. Everett Koop as our spokesman. For all our complaints about health care, we trust doctors on subjects we don't know much about.

The blogosphere is full of folks who like to think we're immune to following authorities blindly, but I think we could do with some self-examination about how we choose to grant authority to particular people. A personal example: I know I don't know squat about Iraqi society -- until the U.S. decided to screw up the place, I'd barely thought about it. (I try to know about a lot of stuff -- there are practical limits to how much I can consider...yada yada yada.) So I tend to believe what Juan Cole tells me about developments in that unfortunate country. But what if he is wrong? Well, I can hope that someone else who knows something will call him out. And now that he has comments turned on, maybe correctives will turn up there. But mostly I have to monitor a din of opinions around the sphere and hope to notice if something significant starts breaking in. It takes a lot of work to try to avoid just going along once I accept the premise that someone is an authority.

Cialdini's proposed counterweight to the authority compliance trigger is simple: we need to learn to ask ourselves: "is this authority truly an expert?" That would often weed out actors pitching junk and maybe even a Majority Leader pontificating about judges.

The professor then suggests a second question, "how truthful can we expect the expert to be here?" Is a compliance professional/salesman/expert/authority aiming to trick us? The necessity to ask this question constantly is yet another reason more and more us approach community interaction cautiously or even infrequently.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Nomination, humiliation and ignorance

Maybe this is why we're threatened with a lying, white-male solipsist as a Supreme?

Only 59 percent of Florida adults surveyed by Harris Interactive for the Florida Bar could name the three branches of government (legislative, executive and judicial). Other popular answers included local, state and federal (18 percent), and republican, democrat and independent (16 percent).

Questions about the meaning of the terms "separation of powers" and "checks and balances" also yielded low percentages of correct answers, 46 percent and 61 percent, respectively, the Bar said. Yahoo.

I wonder how 2 percent more got the "checks and balances" right than could name the branches of government? Oh well...

Civic ignorance certainly isn't confined to Florida. Most people are not engaged with the Alito nomination because they either don't understand what the Supreme Court does or they fear that they'll feel stupid if they try to understand what the nomination means. The one certain thing most folks learn from schooling is to fear humiliation for not knowing the answer.

If enough people are kept ignorant or choose to rest in ignorance, democracy is impossible. Obviously that is in the interests of those who already hold power.

Hat tip to Facing South.