"As long as we are not chased from our words we have nothing to fear. As long as our utterances keep their sound we have a voice. As long as our words keep their sense we have a soul." -- Edmond Jabes, from The Book of Yukel, Return to the Book

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Trolling for conspiracies

I generally like and admire Glenn Greenwald's work. But his Jan. 31 piece in The Intercept on the so-called "Bernie-bro" phenomenon -- while largely on point -- is far from his best effort.

Let's start by saying that I agree with his take that attacks on Sanders supporters as sexist and misogynistic by their Clinton counterparts have been overblown. There no doubt are Bernie-bros -- young, white male Sanders supporters who act like entitled frat boys and have attacked mostly female Clinton-backers. But to say they represent a massive wave, a trend, or that they represent Sanders or the bulk of his supporters is absurd and reductive.

I also think he's correct that much of the pushback by Clinton supporters is political in nature – as is pretty much everything related to a presidential campaign. As Greenwald writes, the "last thing" supporters of the former Secretary of State should wish to discuss is "her record in helping to construct the supremely oppressive and racist U.S. penal state," or "how she’s drowning both personally and politically in Wall Street money."
You sure don’t want to talk about what her bombing campaign did to Libya, or the military risks that her no-fly zone in Syria would entail, or the great admiration and affection she proclaimed for Egyptian despot Hosni Mubarak, or revisit her steadfast advocacy of the greatest political crime of this generation, the invasion of Iraq. You don’t want to talk about her vile condemnation of “superpredators,” or her record on jobs-destroying trade agreements, or the fact that she changed her position from vehement opposition to support for marriage equality only after polls and most Democratic politicians switched sides.
Clinton is, from a progressive standpoint, an imperfect candidate (at best), well to the right of Sanders on most issues that matter to the left. She's a raging centrist and establishment to her core. Supporters argue that makes her better equipped to wrangle with a Republican Congress or more likely to win in November. I'm not convinced that's true -- but that's what the primary debate is about.

The Bernie-bro narrative, however, is something else entirely. It shifts attention away from these differences and centers the entire debate on gender, without actually addressing gender-dependent issues. It is built on an un-provable notion -- that anonymous social media trolls venting their spleen somehow can be said to stand in for the entirety of Sanders' backers. Logically, the argument just doesn't hold up. And that is Greenwald’s point.

Still, I have significant issues with his Intercept piece -- primarily with its tone and length (which are related issues), but also with its reliance on some of the same logical fallacies he decries.

First, the tone is overly strident, a result of both word choice (accusations of intention that cannot be proven) and repetition. Greenwald hits the same target over and over, well beyond what is necessary, creating the impression that his argument is personal and ultimately lessening its impact and causing the piece to be overly long.

As for the logical issues, he bases much of his argument on the “intention” of Clinton supporters. The assumption of intent on the part of others is a fallacy. We can only know what people say or do, not what they think, intend or feel in their hearts. In this case, Greenwald writes as though there is a broad conspiracy by a set of connected surrogates he describes as the Clinton press, whom he says are using attacks on the Bernie-brow to deflect from Clinton's flaws. His fears may be accurate -- perhaps it is a concerted effort that can be linked to Clinton on some level, but absent specific evidence we can’t know for sure. The “conspiracy” being implied here ultimately detracts from his legitimate critique -- that the Bernie-bro attacks on Sanders deflect attention from the real differences between the candidates and make it all about gender.

More troubling, I think, is his treatment of the abuse allegedly directed at Clinton supporters. He argues that the abuse is not so much about Clinton or Sanders as it is about the Internet. While it is true that the greater freedom of both speech and anonymity created by the web has made it easier for trolls to operate, blaming Consider this passage:
The reason pro-Clinton journalists are targeted with vile abuse online has nothing specifically to do with the Sanders campaign or its supporters. It has everything to do with the internet. There are literally no polarizing views one can advocate online — including criticizing Democratic Party leaders such as Clinton or Barack Obama — that will not subject one to a torrent of intense anger and vile abuse.
The Internet, as he says, has allowed this kind of behavior to prosper, but the behavior is not new, nor is it divorced from the context in which it happens. This is not random abuse, but targeted – it comes from someplace and is directed at specific targets. It should not be seen as a reflection of any of the candidates (Donald Trump is probably an exception because he courts these kinds of trolls both online and in person), but it cannot be completely divorced from the gender dynamics in play during this election (there remain far too many on both sides of the aisle who are uncomfortable with women in power), nor from the stakes faced mostly by Clinton and her supporters (losing likely ends her political career). The abuse has everything to do with the Internet AND with Clinton and Sanders.

Send me an e-mail.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Morning quote: Poetry edition

From C.D. Wright:

The Poet, the Lion, Talking Pictures, El Farolito, a Wedding in St. Roch, the Big Box Store, the Warp in the Mirror, Spring, Midnights, Fire & All, p. 70

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Surprise! NY Post & Newsmax fail the sourcing test

The New York Post is reporting -- via Newsmax TV -- that Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton is about to be indicted on charges stemming from her use of a private email server when she was secretary of state.

This is a bombshell that could rock the presidential campaign -- or it would be if the story wasnt something that would get an "F" from most any journalism professor I know.

Forget the partisan conspiracies -- I know there are those who will assume I am writing this because I'm a Clinton supporter (I'm not, just to be clear). My criticisms are not about politics, but about journalism.

Consider the first four paragraphs of the Post story:
The FBI is seeking an indictment of Hillary Clinton in the ever-growing email scandal that has dogged her Democratic presidential bid, according to a former US House majority leader. 
“I have friends that are in the FBI and they tell me they’re ready to indict [her],” former Texas Republican Congressman Tom DeLay told Newsmax TV. 
DeLay then clarified his statement, saying that if the Justice Department does not hand down an indictment, the FBI will revolt. 
“They’re ready to recommend an indictment and they also say that if the attorney general does not indict, they’re going public,” DeLay warned.
Let's start with the sourcing: Tom DeLay, a former Republican House majority leader who has no obvious ties to the Justice Department. DeLay's history is problematic -- he was indicted on and convicted of election law violations that were later overturned. But we could live with this. The problem is that he is relating information from unnamed "friends that are in the FBI" -- unverifiable hearsay that has no business serving as the primary sourcing for a story about the local dogcatcher, let alone one about a presidential candidate. If one of my reporters came to me with such a loosely soured story, I would have sent him back to do more work -- or I would have killed it outright.
There are other issues with this sorry -- the biased lede paragraph, which proclaims with certainty that an indictment is coming, and the choice of photos chief among them. Clinton is pictured in a "crazy-eye" photo, while DeLay gets a flattering headshot -- choices that leave the reader to assume one is unhinged and untrustworthy and the other is rational and believable.
I know that expecting more from the Post is asking a lot, but we should as a lot of our news sources.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Warning about what is supposed to be my home page

Consider this a public notice: I just found out that the url hankkalet (dot) com has been hijacked and now hosts some kind of sex site. (Yikes!)

My rights to the site apparently expired in November, which left it open to whoever wanted to own the rights. While my name is in the url, it is not my site and we are attempting to figure out how to have the content removed and the site shut down.

This apparently is not an unusual circumstance -- there are trolls out there who watch for urls to expire, buy them up, and then post content designed to embarass former owners into ponying up payments to get the site back. It is a form of blackmail and morally and ethically repugnant.

In the meantime, use kaletblog.com, channel-surfing.blogspot.com and kaletblog.wordpress.com to get to my content.

Sorry for the inconvenience.

Send me an e-mail.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Notes on the humanities

The above quotation is from Martin Luther King Jr.'s Where Do We Go From Here, as excerpted in The Radical King. King's point is simple -- and may be more relevant today than it was in 1967 when he wrote this.

We have lived through -- and continue to live through -- a technological revolution that has altered our means of interacting and our relationship with the world.  Everything is now seemingly available and yet also made distant by digital communications. We live longer, thanks to changes in medicine and the spread of technology designed to prevent the spread of disease. But it is questionable whether we are living better.

Science is king -- as evidenced by the move away from education in the humanities and the expansion of so-called STEM curricula. The theory is that expanding our focus on STEM -- science, technology, engineering, and mathematics -- will make us more competitive in the world, lift our incomes, and return the United States to a position of economic power.

This assumption ignores the facts that we remain one of the largest economies in the world and that we have experienced growth in recent years, modest though it might be. The issue isn't continued growth, so much, as it is who gets to benefit from this growth. It is a question of distribution, which is an ethical and moral question that science and technology are not equipped to answer.

The growth in STEM classes has been accompanied by the lessening of the influence of humanities. President Obama has focused extensively in his higher education policy -- which is targeted at community colleges -- on STEM, and he has said little about the humanities. Others -- like this Florida commission or the Republican governor of North Carolina-- have gone farther, calling for students to pay more for humanities classes than those classes that supposedly produce useful, employer-desired skills. Literature, history, the other social sciences, under this approach, would be treated as frill classes, while business/finance and STEM courses would be considered the core of a good college education.

The impact is already being felt at community colleges. At Middlesex County College, one of the schools at which I teach, it is rare to come across students interested in writing, history, or philosophy. There are some, to be sure, but they are an extreme minority. There are few 200-level English courses offered in a given semester, and little appetite on the part of the college to sell students on the importance of the non-STEM, non-business curricula.

In recent years, some humanities professors have published op-ends offering defenses that essentially go like this: English classes will make you better at science, or music improves math skills. These notions maybe true, but they miss the larger point -- which is what King was getting at in 1967.

Technology and science are value-neutral endeavors. New discoveries, new machinery, new devices are not necessarily good or bad (itch some exceptions like nuclear and chemical/biological weapons).  What matters is how the new discoveries are used, and that "how" is a moral and ethical question that cannot be answered purely through the use of science. This is where the humanities come in, or what King calls the "internal" or the "soul."

King, writing 48 years ago, described it as a "gulf between our scientific progress and our moral progress."
One of the great problems of mankind is that we suffer from. A poverty of spirit which stands in glaring contrast o our scientific and technological abundance. The richer we have become materially, the poorer we have become morally and spiritually.
This "moral and spiritual 'lag' must be redeemed," he continues, because
When scientific power outruns moral power, we end up with guided missiles and misguided men. When we foolishly minimize the internal of our lives and maximize the external, we sign the warrant for our destruction.
I don't want the religious language to obscure my point. King, obviously was a Christian minister, but he was speaking for something that is broader than organized religious belief. His point is that we need to nourish the contemplative and creative aspects of our lives, that we need novels and poetry, history and philosophy, religion and film and art and so on to remind us what it means to be human and -- this is key -- that we live in a world of uncertainty.

(I)t is precisely because science is so powerful that we need the humanities now more than ever. In your science, mathematics and engineering classes, you're given facts, answers, knowledge, truth. Your professors say, "This is how things are." They give you certainty. The humanities, at least the way I teach them, give you uncertainty, doubt and skepticism.
He follows with my favorite line from his piece: "The humanities are subversive. "
They undermine the claims of all authorities, whether political, religious or scientific. This skepticism is especially important when it comes to claims about humanity, about what we are, where we came from, and even what we can be and should be. Science has replaced religion as our main source of answers to these questions. Science has told us a lot about ourselves, and we're learning more every day.

But the humanities remind us that we have an enormous capacity for deluding ourselves. They also tell us that every single human is unique, different than every other human, and each of us keeps changing in unpredictable ways. The societies we live in also keep changing--in part because of science and technology! So in certain important ways, humans resist the kind of explanations that science gives us.
And they prepare us to be better citizens, to disobey, as Erich Fromm would say. Part of the reason that our politics have become mired in nonsense is that we have come to expect easy answers. The citizenry has ceded its agency and now expects the a savior to arrive on the scene, whether it be Barack Obama on the left (we stupidly assumed everything would be fine when he was elected and, therefore, stopped the hard work of organizing and arguing) or Donald Trump et al on the right (it is true that the conservative movement is skeptical of science, but it is even more skeptical of questions and gray areas; it wants the certainty that a bloviator like Trump offers).

As Horgan says, the "humanities are more about questions than answers," and students in a humanities class are "going to wrestle with some ridiculously big questions."
Like, What is truth anyway? How do we know something is true? Or rather, why do we believe certain things are true and other things aren't? Also, how do we decide whether something is wrong or right to do, for us personally or for society as a whole?
In my classes in recent years, we have discussed nonviolent protest and how King might have responded to Baltimore and Ferguson, whether responsibility to one's community or family requires an obedience to authority, and how power should be used. My students are criminal justice majors, science majors and those seeking two-year technical degrees. Does someone who plans to be a dental hygienist or even a pharmacist need to read Martin Luther King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" or Gary Soto's poetry? Not for their technical work, but not reading and not discussing these works -- and many others -- will leave them poorer intellectually and spiritually.

We are more than our scientific parts, and if we are to respect humanity we have to find ways to understand what it is that makes us human, what it means to be alive. The arts and humanities do that better than almost anything. Or, at least, that is my take on it.