Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Freedom fighters

The picture alone is enough to make you weep: the five Sullivan brothers, all of whom were stationed together on the USS Juneau, and all of whom died together when it was sunk in November of 1942.

Varifrank has posted the photo as the springing-off point for his thought-provoking essay on the nature of sacrifice, noble causes, the military, and the attitude of the left towards all three.

I agree with a great many of Varifrank's points, although not all--although perhaps our differences are merely a matter of emphasis. He writes:

The left has decided that democracy is not worth fighting for, much less dying for, all the while protesting at the top of their lungs those who are bringing freedom and liberty to those who were once oppressed...We live in an interesting time. We stand within a generation of living in a world where not just the lilly-white privileged people of the western world but all mankind can be free of oppression and live in some form of democracy. There are those who are working to see that day soon come into being, and there are those working to see that it never comes. Don'’t let the left and Cindy Sheehan fool you, they couldn'’t give a damn if the rest of the world is enslaved or not. Remember--they don'’t believe in freedom and democracy in the first place.

I see this a bit differently, because I think the left is not a unitary group. I would make a distinction between what, for want of a better expression, I will call the "hard left" and the "soft left," and certainly between the hard left and most liberals I know. The hard left is a much smaller and more vocal group than the liberal/soft left, but it's the latter who constitute the bulk of Americans who oppose the war. Many on the hard left probably fit Varifrank's description of their position, but those on the soft left and those who are liberals (the two groups shade into each other) are operating somewhat differently, in my opinion.

Most liberals and those on both the soft and hard left have acquired an attitude of great cynicism and distrust towards their own country and the motives of its politicians. This has led them to have a virtually automatic assumption that the government (especially any Republican government) is guilty until proven innocent. Motivated by this belief, which is held as an article of faith, most on the liberal/left side of things totally discount all the rhetoric of the Bush Administration as just that--rhetoric--and believe that the real motivation for the war is greed and power, rather than freedom and democracy.

This belief system of distrust (the template of which was formed, for a great many people of Sheehan's generation and older, during the Vietnam and Watergate eras) is the operative one for most liberals and soft leftists, rather than any real antipathy towards the concepts of freedom and democracy themselves. The government (again, most particularly Republican governments) is not seen as allied with those abstract notions, but as deviously and clandestinely antagonistic to them, and thus betraying them.

Of course, there are some, mostly on the far left, who really don't believe in freedom and democracy. But it's not my impression that they constitute the majority of the opposition, although they may at times be the ones pulling the strings, and the ones most in the media (I'm not yet clear whether Cindy Sheehan is one of them, or is simply someone whose strings they are pulling at the moment).

In addition to this distrust of the government and its motives, there seems to be a knee-jerk negativity towards military action in general on the part of many liberals. Most people--even on the right--tend to see military action as a last resort; but those on the right regard the military as a necessary and integral part of keeping us free, rather than an incidental one. How is it that liberals, on the other hand, can believe (or believe they believe) in freedom and democracy, and be so reluctant to fight for it?

In addition to the aforementioned distrust that freedom and democracy are what we are fighting for, I think that many liberals have a sort of a blindness to the way that freedom and democracy actually work. The hard truth of the famous quote (often attributed to Orwell but whose origins are actually unclear), "Good people sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf," is one most liberals and leftists, as well as all pacifists, would prefer to deny--too messy, tragic, sad, and morally compromising. The quote is, once again, considered to be "mere rhetoric"--and inflammatory, bloodthirsty rhetoric, at that.

What is the sort of war a hard leftist might support, if a leftist was going to support a war? Again, the answer flows from distrust of our government (and in the case of hard leftists, the west in general), so the answer is pretty simple: any war waged by a third-world nation against a Western one, especially the US or Israel, with the leftists taking the side of the third-world nation.

But a liberal is different; liberals sometimes support US military action, provided it is waged by a Democratic administration (inherently more trusted by liberals to be telling the truth about its motivations for the war) and is waged for strictly and solely humanitarian aims, and thus presenting less messy moral ambiguity.

I believe that Varifrank's analogy of soldiers in this war to police or firefighters is a correct one. But firefighters, police, and soldiers are distinct from each other. To liberal eyes, each occupies a different point on a morality continuum, with the firefighters the most "good," the police next, and soldiers much less "good." Why? It has to do with how much killing each group is expected to do in the service of their supposedly worthy and selfless causes--in other words, how morally "pure" their actions are.

Firefighters only rescue; they never kill, although they do sometimes die in the act of rescuing others. That makes them the most "pure" in the minds of the liberal, and the least morally compromised. Police don't kill all that often, but it is a part of their jobs, and they have to know they may be called upon to do so. In addition, although the work police do is certainly protective, it is less clearly and directly involved with rescue than that of firefighters, and more connected with the taint of possible corruption. (At times, the radical left has not been averse to regarding police as the enemy. Anyone who was alive during the 60s and early 70s is well aware of name-calling--the oft-used epithet "pig"--and politically motivated attacks on policemen during that era.)

Soldiers are far more closely and frequently involved in the act of killing than even the police--there is simply no way around that fact--and, although they are often involved in rescue and rebuilding efforts (as Varifrank quite rightly points out), this is not their main job description. Whatever rescuing and protecting they may do (and, once again, they do plenty), these motives are less clearly and obviously related to their main activity of waging war. Unless the military is engaged in a response to a direct attack and invasion of this country, those protective and defensive functions of the military can be easily denied, ignored, or twisted by those on the outside looking in.

The hard left is, in my opinion, playing against the soft left and attempting (quite successfully, so far) to manipulate it. For those on the hard left who don't want people to support the war and thus give the Replubicans, or the US government, any credit at all, all hint of defensive and protective war activities must be suppressed or minimized, or we run the danger of having these "soft" leftists/liberals crossing over to support the Iraq war effort.

These hard left groups who want to prevent that support from ever occurring were handed a great gift in the failure to find WMDs. The WMD argument was considered by many on the soft left to be the only proper defensive and protective argument for the war, and therefore their absence is so important, underscoring this group's pre-existing sense of governmental betrayal. It's also why the word "lie" is used so often in relation to Bush and the WMDs--it's important that Bush be portrayed as mendacious (a la Nixon and the secret bombing of Cambodia) rather than merely mistaken, in order to make sure there is no sympathy for his efforts.

The failure to underscore the rebuilding efforts in Iraq is another example of the a suspicion that, were the public to know the extent and success of such efforts, sympathy for the war and the military would increase among those on the liberal/soft left side of things. So it's all-important to the hard left that such news be supressed.

Maybe I'm naive and giving liberals too much benefit of the doubt--after all, I used to be one, remember? But I truly believe that most, if they knew some of these protective/defensive facts, would be more sympathetic to the war effort. I also believe that the hard left (and some hard left supporters in the MSM) is well aware of that, and acts accordingly.

[Linked to Mudville Gazette's open post.]

Reading TeaV leaves in Iraq

Some would call this development just further evidence that Iraq is going downhill, fast. But I consider it an encouraging sign (via Dr. Sanity).

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Therapists and liberalism

It's no real surprise that therapists tend to be politically liberal in overwhelming numbers (therapist-bloggers notwithstanding). I can't find a poll to back up my statement, but I don't think too many people would seriously question it, and my own personal observations support it.

It's funny, but until my own "conversion" and self-outing, I never really thought much about this fact. After all, most of my friends and family were also politically liberal. One thing about moving through life in a bubble is that you don't tend to notice it that much until the bubble bursts. And then you wonder what it was that sustained that fragile, self-contained world.

So I've been thinking about what it is that accounts for the overwhelming liberality of therapists. It's true, of course, that those in the social sciences, literature, and the arts generally tend to be of the liberal persuasion more often than those in the hard sciences or business; and therapy--despite assertions to the contrary--resembles an art far more than a science, I'm afraid. (It is also a business, but some therapists are in a certain amount of denial about that fact.)

In addition, there are elements within the training and belief system of most therapists that reinforce liberalism of students already predisposed to it anyway. In general, therapists--particularly those who specialize in treating individuals through talk therapy--are taught that they cannot be effective with clients if they start off with a judgmental approach. So they learn to exercise a certain suspension of judgment, a tolerance that even amounts at times to moral relativism, in order to gain the trust of clients and be able to work effectively with them.

It isn't always easy to do this, because every person we meet triggers some reaction in us. Therapists try to understand these reactions and be aware of them in themselves (traditionally, these reactions are called "counter-transference"), and to block expressing them in a way that would hinder the therapeutic relationship. Imposing the therapist's own ideas of what's right and what's wrong in the moral sense can be too directive and disruptive, and could easily trigger resistance to therapy in the client. Besides, the task of therapy is not usually seen as guidance towards some objective standard of "right" behavior; it's seen as guidance towards self-actualization and self-expression.

Naturally, though, there are some basic and global notions of right and wrong that therapists adhere to, and that can't help but influence the way they talk to clients and try to subtly shape behavior. To use an extreme example, no client would be encouraged to murder someone, and in fact at times the therapist would need to inform the proper authorities if the intent to murder were deemed serious.

There are so many schools of therapy--almost as many as there are sects and divisions within the major religions--that this generalization most definitely does not hold true across the board. For example, there are pastoral counselors whose "guidance" is most definitely couched in terms of traditional religious concepts of right and wrong. And over the years therapist/client confidentiality has become less absolute than it once was, since all therapists have come under the force of certain rules and regulations governing their duty to disclose or report to the proper authorities situations of abuse or threats to harm. But still, in general, I believe that I'm describing the basic attitudinal stance in which the majority of therapists are trained.

So therapists are specifically taught to practice non-judgmental openmindedness, as well as to exercise the obviously necessary skill of putting themselves imaginatively into the heart and mind of another person. This emphasis on empathy further extends the idea of openminded and nonjudgmental acceptance of the other person's point of view.

For talk therapists, this practice is not only recommended, it's actually required in order to effectively do the work they do. It's one of the main things that distinguishes a therapist from a friend, a relative, a hairdresser, a bartender, a teacher, a member of the clergy, or anyone else to whom a person might turn when in need of an ear in a crisis.

Advice is easy to come by; anyone can give it. But the special thing a therapist offers is ordinarily quite different from advice. It's an oversimplification, but ideally a therapist guides the client to see the patterns and connections in his/her own life and then to make choices that lead to a better life. But a therapist only rarely gives direct advice or makes judgments, because that thwarts the ultimate aim of therapy, which is not to tell people what to do, but to foster autonomy in clients. The goal is that clients will graduate from therapy able to solve future problems with the skills they've learned there.

But the nonjudgmental stance is an artificial one, adopted by therapists as a tool to be used during the therapeutic hour for the purpose of therapy. I believe some therapists make the mistake of overgeneralizing, and elevate this tool to a way of life and a generalized goal. Originally, the tool was meant to be a corrective for what was ordinarily found "out there"--harsh and punitive judgments galore from family and friends. Originally, therapy was an oasis from all that, a place where, in the absence of harsh judgment, a person could feel free to explore that which could not be explored elsewhere, and to tell truths that could not otherwise be told.

But over the years, as therapy has gone from a relatively obscure activity to a fairly common one, and therapists have become ubiquitous on television, radio, and in the self-help book business, what originally was a limited and circumscribed tool seems to have seeped into our culture and become a prescribed and generalized value. Many people have come to believe that making judgments or expressing any opinions at all about the behavior of others is a form of intolerance, almost as bad as bigotry or racism. Or they think, since negative judgments from others could harm a person's self-esteem, and self-esteem is considered all-important--that anything that harms self-esteem (even a corrective dose of reality, or of warranted self-doubt or self-questioning) is prohibited. In a sense, the culture has become "therapized."

I'm not saying this is all bad. But it's an overcorrection. Opinions and judgments have their place, and without them, self-esteem can become runaway narcissism, and society can become anarchy.

In addition, in order to do the work they do, therapists have to maintain certain general beliefs. They need to maintain an attitude of hopefulness about the human condition, an ability to believe that there is good in almost everyone and that it is not so hard to create the proper conditions to activate that goodness. Once again, it's not the attitude itself that is at fault, or its application to the therapeutic relationship; it's the overgeneralizing that causes problems. Sometimes people are too far gone to be helped by such an approach; life, and the world, does not mimic the conditions of the therapeutic hour.

Depending on the school of therapy, some therapists (so-called "insight therapists," for example) believe that human behavior and feelings can be understood, and, once understood, can be changed for the better by dint of that understanding. So "understanding" can be elevated to much more than an exercise in intellectual curiosity--it is sometimes considered a solution in and of itself, even to something as multifaceted and political as terrorism.

As all therapists are well aware, not everyone is what is known as a "good candidate" for therapy. Even in the very controlled situation of the one-on-one session, some people don't respond and don't change. There are sociopaths and psychopaths out there, to name just a few of the many who don't do well in therapy. Even most therapists acknowledge that jails have to be built to house them and protect society from them. But the dream--of talking, leading to understanding, leading to change--dies hard.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Heroes: security guards

The news is terribly familiar: a suicide bomber in Israel, at a Beersheba bus stop this time. We breathe a sigh of relief to hear that the death toll so far is limited to the bomber himself, although two security guards were seriously injured, and forty to fifty others were slightly wounded.

This has become good news, compared to those bombings in which scores die. I guess it's all relative.

Here are a few details:

A Palestinian suicide bomber tried to board a bus at the central station in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba during morning rush hour at the start of the work week. But he aroused the suspicion of the bus driver. Police say security guards chased the bomber, and he blew himself up.

In those terse words "security guards chased the bomber, and he blew himself up" lie unimaginable heroism as well as terrible horror. We've grown accustomed to the players in this story, both the destructive bomber and the guards who give pursuit. The actions of all are astonishing, although the former and the latter stand on opposite ends of the moral spectrum.

By his actions, the bomber courts--even embraces--almost certain death in the service of his goal: to destroy the lives of a maximum number of innocent people. In contrast, by their actions the security guards risk somewhat less certain--but still very likely--death or serious injury in the service of their goal: to save the lives of a maximum number of innocent people. When all instincts of self-preservation would tell most people to run away, the guards run, willingly and deliberately, towards the person who is suspected of having the determination and the ability to blow himself up and take those guards with him. And yet still they approach.

It's hard to think of a more heroic occupation than that of these guards. There are many heroes in civilian life--firefighters, police, rescue workers of all kinds--who regularly risk their own lives for those of others. But I can't think of any other category of civilian worker who regularly takes on the sort of risk that security guards in Israel are accepting every time they approach a person suspected of being a homicide bomber.

Who are these guards? Some, such as those who work the El Al counter at the airport, are highly trained and respected professionals. But since the second intifada began, Israel and its businesses have faced the necessity of employing an unprecedented number of new security guards to meet increased security needs.

A great deal of this increase is in the category of private sector security guards--those who patrol theaters, restaurants, stores, and the like. And it turns out, according to this very troubling article, that these guards are not only courageously risking their lives, but they're doing it for long hours and low pay.

The article appears on the website of a group dedicated to defending the legal rights and improving the working conditions of Israeli guards in the private sector. As such, I suppose the information continued therein should be taken with a grain of salt. Perhaps it's an exaggeration--but somehow I doubt it's very much of an exaggeration (I welcome opinions from anyone who is familiar with the situation).

It's not all that different in this country, although our needs are not nearly as great and the risks not nearly as high--so far, that is. Here's an article describing the generally poor pay, training, and working conditions of security guards in this country.

The problem seems to be endemic in the security guard industry, no matter what the country--so much need and such a rush to train. The wonder, really, is that the guards still perform so well in so many circumstances, despite their relative lack of preparation. And none of this detracts at all from the heroism of the Beersheba guards; if anything, it intensifies and enhances it.


In the King of Swaziland/AIDS thread, commenter "anonymous" (another one? or the same? who knows?) writes (and, by the way, in case you're interested, here's the latest update on King Mswati of Swaziland's newest shady antics):

I've always wondered why AIDS is such a "hip" and "cool" cause. Malaria kills 3 times as many and there are very effective ways to prevent and cure it. I hear nothing but crickets chirping when mentioned as number 4 on the list of "worlds deadliest killer". So pardon my skepticism at the tears shed for AIDS victims. It has nothing to do with caring. I guess Bono or Elizabeth Taylor don't have friends with malaria.
10,700,000 children died in the world last year and 57% were from causes incident to malaria. That's just the children.

I haven't checked on anonymous's statistics, but it's my impression that the general point he/she is making is correct: fighting the scourge of malaria is not particularly chic or popular in this country as compared to combatting AIDS. So, what goes on here?

I'll take a stab at an answer. My take on it is that a new disease will always gets more attention than an old one because people are accustomed to the latter, and the new one grabs their interest at first merely because it is new. And I am in agreement that a disease that affects the US and western Europe instead of mainly Africa or other third-world countries (AIDS, as opposed to malaria) will definitely provoke more interest, because in the case of the former, "the bell tolls for thee." It is just human nature to be more upset about something that can potentially affect you and your loved ones rather than strangers in a far-off place.

I think there's something else going on as well. The idea of a disease spread by the type of sexual behavior that was championed during the sexual revolution of the 60s is particularly threatening to the generation that grew up during that time. There was supposed to be no downside to such liberation, and it's a bitter and difficult pill to swallow when the dreams of the 60s die (sometimes it seems as though there are no dreams of the 60s that haven't died). The fact that AIDS first appeared, at least in the western world, in the gay male population--which had so recently undergone its own liberation--was also highly ironic and difficult for those who had championed that cause. So it's no surprise that the anti-AIDS campaign would be especially well-supported among people who believe in those other causes.

Furthermore, a disease such as AIDS would seem to have almost no natural limits (unlike malaria) in terms of how widespread it could become in an area such as Africa where it is spread primarily heterosexually, and where sexual practices favor it and don't seem to be changing any time soon. Although in the West the transition to heterosexual spread has not kept pace with early predictions, that transition is still the unspoken (and sometimes spoken) fear of many who believe conquering that AIDS is of the utmost importance for us, too. One has only to look at Africa to see a demonstration of how bad things could get if this spread were to occur. Although sub-Saharan Africa has many special characteristics (read my previous post for a description) that make AIDS particularly likely to spiral out of control there, the great fear is that it could also happen here.

Another commenter, Huck (who, if I'm not mistaken, is an "anonymous" who came in from the cold), points out that public health authorities have not been allowed to use their resources fully to combat AIDS in this country because of concerns about invasion of privacy and the like. Coincidentally, back in the early 90s when I was in graduate school, I researched and wrote a paper on that very issue. I am old enough to remember the use of such tools as contact tracing against venereal diseases, and in the earlier days of the AIDS epidemic, when there were fewer victims, I was wondering why the public health system wasn't employing the old tried and true weapons to combat the new threat before it increased exponentially. The answer boiled down pretty much to "politics," although there were other and more practical reasons (or in some cases, excuses) given, too. Some day I might try to exhume that old paper of mine and summarize it here--my recollection is that it contained some interesting nuggets of information.

Never mind

Longer life? Apparently not; it just seems that way (via Instapundit).

I first heard about the possiblity of extending lifespan by stringent caloric restriction some years back. It always seemed to be a terribly ill-conceived concept to me. And I think those who embraced it wholeheartedly might be candidates for a diagnosis of obsessive compulsive personality disorder. But now it turns out the whole thing is one of those Roseanne Rosanna Danna things--never mind!

[CORRECTION: It takes a big person to admit to being wrong. So, here goes: I was wrong. There, I've said it, and that wasn't so hard at all. A reader points out it's Emily Litella, not Roseanne Rosanna Danna at all. Oh, well--never mind.]

Sunday, August 28, 2005

See you tomorrow

Busy with out-of-town guests, so I took the day off. See you tomorrow!

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Not an operetta, not by a long shot

When I read the first paragraph or two of this article (via Norm Geras), I thought perhaps it was from the Onion. The King of Swaziland, banning sex thoughout the realm? A ceremony of dancing girls, burning the tassels that signified their chastity?

It also brought to mind a certain comic operetta, "The Mikado," the Gilbert and Sullivan masterpiece featuring a mythical Japan in which flirting was a capital crime; and a musical comedy from my youth, "Once Upon a Mattress," a retelling of "The Princess and the Pea," set in a fairy tale kingdom where no one could marry until the crown prince was wed.

But as I read on, I discovered that it's not a joke. It's real, and it's no operetta, despite the following:

As [the girls] arrived at the Queen Mother's palace on Monday, before taking off their tassels, they sang in jest: "At last, we can now have sex."

But after the strangeness--as well as the musical comedy overtones--of the story recede, we are left with a horrific human tragedy, that of AIDS in Africa and what to do about it. And the truth is that no one really seems to have all that much more of a clue than the King of Swaziland, a country in which 40% of the population is HIV positive.

Think about that for a moment: 40% of the people HIV-positive, and the mechanism of spread is heterosexual sexual contact. This is a prescription for the death of a country, and a region, unless something happens soon. But what is that something?

I've read many articles on the subject of AIDS in Africa, and there's no shortage of earnest proposals to help the situation. But most of the people who work in the field express a deep despair about the nature and scope of the problem.

I don't pretend to be an expert on this, and I'm most definitely not knocking those who are. But at the moment the problem seems virtually insurmountable. The AIDS situation in sub-Saharan Africa is so complex and terrible because the disease intersects with myriad other problems that have long plagued the area--poverty, malnutrition, other diseases, political and institutional corruption on a widespread scale, and the breakdown of tribal societies--particularly ancient marriage customs--with the coming of urbanization.

Although it may be un-PC to admit it, part of the picture are sexual mores (some of them connected with the exploitation of women) that have helped the AIDS epidemic run rampant in sub-Saharan Africa, along with official denial of the enormous extent of the problem. The King of Swaziland may indeed be a hypocrite, and he may be utterly unrealistic about human nature, but at least he's not in denial of the magnitude of the AIDS epidemic in his country.

Here's an article that offers a good summary of the AIDS problem in sub-Saharan Africa. It contained the following list of the elements that need to be in place to effectively prevent the spread of AIDS there. See how likely you think it is that most of the items on this list could be instituted any time soon, especially the final entry:

Widespread knowledge about HIV/AIDS and HIV prevention measures, such as safe sex practices and the use of condoms

Adequate networks and personnel for HIV/AIDS testing, counseling, education and care

Adequate funding for HIV prevention/treatment

Massive campaigns to remove the stigma of HIV/AIDS

Stable networks for education and health care

Strong political and public health leadership to address HIV prevention efforts

Empowerment of women

Enforced prohibitions against rape

Strong infrastructure (roads, telecommunications)

Strong and stable economies and governments that are not engaged in war or civil unrest

The article goes on to state that cultural customs around sexuality impede the fight against AIDS. If you have the stomach for it (and I warn you, it requires a very strong one) you could also take a look at this Village Voice article, which offers a great many depressing details about these customs and how they further the spread of the disease.

The following is an example (from the Voice article) of how certain cultural practices that once made sense in pre-AIDS tribal cultures have become part of the problem, post-AIDS:

Like many cultures in East and southern Africa, the Luo practice what is variously translated as home guardianship or, more commonly, widow inheritance. When a husband dies, one of his brothers or cousins marries the widow. This tradition guaranteed that the children would remain in the late husband's clan—after all, they had paid a dowry for the woman—and it also ensured that the widow and her children were provided for. When the guardian takes the widow, sexual intercourse is believed to "cleanse" her of the devils of death. A woman who refuses to take a guardian brings down chira—ill fortune—on the entire clan. Of course, if her husband died of AIDS, she might very well pass on the virus to her guardian. Millicent Obaso, a Luo public-health worker with the Red Cross, says: "We have homes where all the males have died because of this widow inheritance."

There is little doubt that underlying social change on a vast scale is necessary--as well as economic and political change. But how to effect changes in sexual practices in the absence of these deeper changes? Most attempts to accomplish this by legislation would be as doomed to failure as King Mswati's, even if they were more sophisticated than his.

Well, Bush is pretty clear about it

Yesterday there was a lot of back and forth, both here and elsewhere, about what Secretary Rice may or may not have said and may or may not have meant about whether the Palestinians need to take the next step (or a next step) in response to the unilateral Israeli move of leaving Gaza.

As I wrote in one of my comments, reasonable people can certainly differ on what Ms. Rice said or meant. The question of whether the Times "Dowdified" her quote (and I continue to think there was a bit of that going on) is a side issue to the more pressing question of what it was that Rice actually meant.

But today President Bush has been quite clear on the subject. Reuter's reports (via LGF), that Bush, in his radio address:

...put pressure on the Palestinians on Saturday to respond to the Israeli pullout from Gaza and portions of the West Bank by cracking down on terrorism..."Now that Israel has withdrawn, the way forward is clear. The Palestinians must show the world that they will fight terrorism and govern in a peaceful way," Bush said.

So it seems that Bush--at least for today--is placing the ball in the Palestinian court. He seems to be demanding the quid pro quo about which Rice was somewhat equivocal.

As for Rice's previous remarks, and their correct interpretation? It's a bit like reading tea leaves, and there are quite a few possibilities. Either Judith of Kesher Talk is correct, and Rice is playing "bad cop" to Bush's "good cop," or Rice and Bush are not in agreement on this, or Rice is on the same page as Bush and has been misinterpreted by the NY Times, or the whole thing is in a state of flux and even Bush and Rice don't quite know what her position is.

Whatever Bush or Rice say, I would be extremely surprised if the Palestinians actually followed through with positive action. And if that doesn't happen, it's all "mere rhetoric." But rhetoric still matters somewhat, because it sets the tone of the policy expectations for the region.

You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink. The US can't force the Palestinians to abandon terrorism and hatred as a way of life. But we can stop rewarding it or ignoring it, and this type of statement from Bush (if he keeps at it), is at least the equivalent of "leading the horse to water." The rest is up to the horse.

I can only hope that the administration gets clear and remains clear on this score. And even if its a game of "good cop, bad cop," each cop should aim to be consistent about his/her message.

[ADDENDUM: By the way, I was pretty careful about this one. I didn't take Reuters' word for it; I went to the actual text of Bush's radio address to check up on them. They passsed with flying colors; he said what they said he said. Congratulations, Reuters!]

Friday, August 26, 2005

Okay, NY Times, so what have you got to say about this?

In yesterday's piece on press bias, I mentioned that one of the things that bother people who are sick of press distortions (the word I favor instead of "bias") is the use of the truncated quote. Quotes are often cut off prematurely, manipulated, and/or offered out-of-context, in ways that change their meaning.

And so today I read (via LGF) this post, which makes it crystal clear that the Times did exactly that with the recent Condi Rice quote for which she received so much criticism, "It cannot be Gaza only." Read the whole Rich Richman post and decide for yourself.

The wonderful thing about communications today is that it is easier than ever before to view transcripts of the actual interviews from which newspapers get the information which they summarize for those of us who have neither the time nor the inclination to "read the whole thing." Many of us (myself included) used to trust the MSM to get it right--after all, reading comprehension (or listening comprehension) ought to be one of the basic skills of any reporter, and not so very difficult to achieve. How hard can it be to summarize what a person has said?

Apparently, very very hard, if not impossible, at least for many reporters--oops, "journalists." I can think of only three explanations: either reporters are actually less intelligent than the average person, or they are negligently careless in writing their stories, or they are purposely shaping the quotes to make a propaganda point and relying on the fact that their reading public will never know the difference (actually, some combination of these three factors is also possible).

But none of these, as Martha Stewart would say, is "a good thing." Take your pick on which is actually operating here. Whatever it is that is behind it, thank goodness the internet is affording us the opportunity to see the process in action, and to adjust our beliefs accordingly.

[ADDENDUM: The Unknown Blogger makes an interesting point here, which is that, during a conference on June 20 at the American University in Cairo, Ms. Rice made a similar statement. See this. The quote in question is the following:

I think we have much work to do in the Middle East. We have the work of reform. You have much work to do in the Middle East, the work of reform. We have the work, of course, to do with the Palestinians and Israelis. The day that there is a democratic Palestine living side by side in peace with a democratic Israel is going to be a day that this region clearly has a new sense of hope and a new sense of unity. And so, of course, we need to work each and every day toward the resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

I can just say I was just in Israel and in the Palestinian territories and I found that the leaders there are very conscious of the special nature of this moment, that the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza can be a first step. And I want to say very clearly, Gaza -- it cannot be Gaza only. And we have said this to the Israelis and I think you heard Prime Minister Sharon say yesterday that this can reenergize the roadmap. And so we look for the Gaza withdrawal to be successful. We're working very hard with the parties on that. That means peaceful and orderly. And then to use the momentum and the trust and the confidence that will have been built over that period to possibly even accelerate our progress on the roadmap, which is, after all, the reliable guide to an independent Palestinian state. And President Bush, who was the first American President to make it policy that there should be a Palestinian state, and a democratic Palestinian state, is very personally devoted to using this moment of opportunity.

I think in all fairness that this quote does cast some doubt on exactly what Ms. Rice was getting at in the first interview, the one the Times was referring to, in which her remarks were more ambiguous. So, the Unknown Blogger does make a point that needs to be taken into consideration.

However, I still have a problem with the Times, although it is a problem of far lesser magnitude than before. In the interview on which they were relying--the one in which the full Rice quote seems to be saying something ambiguous--and also in the June 20th speech in which she seems to be clearer, the context is all-important. And it is that context which the Times has failed to properly emphasize.

Looking at the original NY Times article, available here, I think the failing is not as bad as Richman stated, although it does exist. It is twofold: the quote is truncated in a way that somewhat distorts it, and it is highlighted more than it should have been in the context of Rice's actual remarks, which focused a great deal on the reciprocal obligations of the Palestinians (to its credit, however, the Times certainly does mention these obligations.).

The all-important context is this: Ms. Rice is speaking of a future in which the Palestinians have performed some act (or acts) indicating a quid pro quo on the way to becoming a reformed, democratic, Palestinian state as part of Bush's "roadmap." She is not demanding a further move of unilateral withdrawal by Israel. I believe she makes this fairly clear in other statements she makes on both occasions.

Right now, Israel's Gaza withdrawal is unilateral. It is akin to the opening move of a chess game, a match played with real people, real lives, and real territory. The Bush administration has never backed the idea of Greater Israel, at least as far as I know. But ever since it drew up its new roadmap, it has insisted that moves by Israel must be met with countermoves by Palestine before any new moves would be expected of Israel.

At the beginning of this piece, I wrote that distorted quotes are ones that are "cut off prematurely, manipulated, and/or offered out-of-context, in ways that change their meaning." I agree with the Unknown Blogger that the June 20th interview is certainly relevant here. It also now seems that the Times article in question is not one of the truly blatant examples of distortion that it appeared at first to be, although I think it is nevertheless an example of the problems inherent in truncated quotes. But it is an even better example of some much more subtle aspects of the problem of distortion: the effects of emphasis, placement, and context.

For an example of a different type of emphasis and context that might have, and should have, been provided, Richman suggests the following:

...the Times might have informed its readers that Rice emphasized the dismantlement of Palestinian terrorism four times -- in response to questions from the Times that sought to emphasize next steps by Israel..."So the answer to the question, what comes next, is . . . the Palestinian Authority is going to have to deal with the infrastructure of terrorism, that's one of its obligations"”...That would have been news that was fit to print.

The key phrase of Rice's here is "what comes next." "What comes next" will fall to the Palestinians, not the Israelis, according to Rice. What happens beyond that--including "It cannot be Gaza only"--is a projection into an imaginary future in which the Palestinians have gone a long way towards dismantling its terror apparatus.]

UPDATE: The plot thickens. See this by Omri Ceren. He seems to have followed the matter a great deal more closely for quite some time than most of us have, including myself, and he makes some good points. I am busy tonight with guests, so I can't give this a lot of attention, but I suggest you read his post and the links and decide.

My quick take on the matter, however, is that the Bush administration, and Rice, have long given such mixed signals about the "roadmap" and what it means that I hereby give the Times a pass on this one.

He's baaaaack!

I've just noticed (via Gates of Vienna) that one of my favorite bloggers, the Religious Policeman (the title is ironic), is back after a long hiatus.

Part of the beauty of blogging is in its diversity of voices (there, don't I sound like the liberal I used to be?), and the Religious Policeman presents a point of view so rare in the blogosphere that I believe it's unique. He's an outspoken Saudi who used to blog from his home country. Now he resides in the UK, where, as he writes, "the Religious Police no longer trouble him for the moment." A fascinating read.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Sorry to inconvenience you, but I'm afraid it's the only way

I've analyzed them, humored them, charted their development, and tried to understand them, all to no avail.

So now, no more Ms. Nice Guy. It's war.

Unfortunately, in war there is always sacrifice. And so, all commenters here will be ever-so-slightly inconvenienced in the war against spambots by having to copy a word that will automatically be generated by our helpful host Blogger each time you comment.

Sorry to have to do it, but I don't think it will be too big a deal, and it should eliminate the wretched spambot infestation. If I get too many complaints that people are having trouble with it, I can always change my settings again and eliminate it.

Press bias: having the conversation

Okay, back to Jay Rosen. And for those who think the whole thing to be a tempest in a teapot, I respectfully disagree; because it really comes down to some larger issues about the role bias might play in the press, whether that subject is even worth discussing, and, if so, what might be done about the phenomenon.

In Rosen's new thread on the subject--the opening of which, as I've said before, was a good idea--he provides some links to previous posts of his. I have not read them all, but I have just read the two essays on press bias.

In Rosen's original Austin Bay/Rollback post, he most definitely should have linked to these two essays of his if he didn't want the "bias" argument to dominate the comments, especially since he should have foreseen that his Austin Bay post would attract people who are not ordinarily readers of Pressthink and hadn't read his previous discourses on the subject of press bias. If somehow he failed to see this coming at the beginning, he certainly should have understood what was going on by the time of his first comment. The professor was trying to give a seminar with required reading first, and he didn't supply the reading assignments and then got angry at the class.

The tone of his remarks was both impenetrable and profoundly condescending. Neither furthers the aim of having a productive conversation, nor does cutting off comments do so--it ends it.

So I'd request that he abandon the use of the word "dumb" in this context as being needlessly inflammatory and insulting hyperbole. It's not dumb to have what Rosen calls "the bias discourse," although in some ways he is very correct in the point I believe he is actually trying to make, which is that it is often unproductive or even counterproductive. But there's nothing dumb about those who are annoyed at what they see as evidence of press bias in a press that so often claims to be objective, and who want to talk about this--even if such arguments (like most in politics, or perhaps even in life!) don't tend to change many hearts and minds, or to lead to solutions, at least right away.

I have always been upfront about my position on the press--at least, I've tried to be. But I'll attempt to clarify it here and expand on it, and in the process make a stab at responding to some of the questions Rosen's poses in his two "bias" articles.

Keeping in mind that "you can't always get what you want":

I want an objective press, but since I recognize it's an impossible dream, humans being what they are, I accept that the press will always be biased.

If that be so, then I want that bias to be represented by reporters from both sides (using here, for the sake of simplicity, the somewhat misleading dichotomy of left/right) who are roughly equal in number; but I recognize that this will never happen without some sort of crazy unenforceable and undesirable quota system for reporters.

If that be so, then I want journalists and the papers they write for to drop their obviously false claim of objectivity and to be upfront about their general political affiliations, much as many bloggers are.

And I also want journalists on all sides to labor mightily to achieve far more accuracy than many of them display at the moment in their reporting--specifically, perhaps most especially, that they strive to quote people correctly and to fact-check more rigorously.

I also want members of the press to respond more vigorously when they are found to be in error, printing retractions and corrections that are prominently featured and highlighted.

I don't think I tend to use the word "bias" much anyway when critiquing the press--although I certainly haven't gone back and reread my pieces on the subject to make sure, so I could be incorrect on that. My impression is that I tend to use the word "distortions" to describe those things I see in the press that I dislike. I believe that the vast majority of what is usually called press "bias" constitutes such distortions, and that they are an unconscious result of the political viewpoint of the journalist skewing his/her selection of the facts, a process that is inevitable and can occur on both sides. I think, however, that the more scrupulously a journalist is aware of this phenomenon and tries to be as evenhanded as possible (knowing of course that complete evenhandedness is impossible), the better. I think that the journalists who succeed the best in this endeavor (IMHO, of course) are the ones I most admire. This success would include the ability to admit when one is wrong, and not to defensively cling to the original distortions and try to justify them.

I think most people who are angry at what they call press bias (and I believe it is still the best shorthand term around for the phenomenon; I would submit "press distortion" to replace it, but somehow I don't think it will catch on) are especially angry at the uses the press makes of techniques such as truncated quotes that misrepresent the actual point of the speaker, mistakes of fact, subtly shaded shaping of opinion in the choice of "unbiased" [sic] words such as "militant" instead of "terrorist" when the latter would seem more appropriate in many cases, neglecting to provide background and context, the overuse of the anonymous source (see this for my take on solutions to this problem), and opinions stated as fact without backup or documentation (that is, editorializing presented as news). I don't like either side using these techniques, and their use is a big part of whatever "bias" does exist in the press, and it's the thing that makes most people who criticize the press hopping mad.

I believe that most journalists believe themselves to be honest brokers who are striving for objectivity. But most of them need to be made far more aware of the ways in which the above (and other) tools creep into their work and cause the charges of bias to stick. Bias is very rarely conscious in a journalist (although on occasion it is). That's what often makes the protestations of most journalists that they are not biased, and their anger at the charge, take on so much strength. Journalists need to look longer and harder at what is going on here--even if they think they've already looked at it long and hard--and try to correct it as best they can, knowing that the corrections will always be flawed and inadequate. But at least improvement is possible, if the will is there and the effort is made.

So I don't believe--to try to answer Jay's question couched in his own words--that "wanting from journalists what is also impossible for journalists" (i.e. objectivity) is unfair, although it may indeed seem to be a confused and oxymoronic request when stated that way. I would rephrase the request, however, in the following way: wanting what is impossible doesn't mean we shouldn't strive for the closest approximation to it, as long as we realize the ideal is not achievable in absolute terms. We humans always strive for things that are impossible: truth, justice, fair play, perfect love, etc. But the impossibility of their achievement has nothing to do with the fact that these goals are always worth pursuing, and that in fact the effort towards those goals may help us come closer and closer to them. That they recede forever from our grasp is actually true and worthy of stating and acknowledging, but it is largely irrelevant to the fact that they must be pursued nevertheless, and that every millimeter closer we can get to them is still an achievement.

(ADDENDUM: A question Rosen posed in the comments section of the new thread goes as follows:

If you had the opportunity to advise Jim Lehrer just before he moderated and asked questions at a make or break Presidential debate, in addition to telling him to be careful not to take sides, would you say something like, "and remember this, Jim, you are not an actor in this event." And if you did say something like that, would it be true?

My answer? I would say to Lehrer, "Remember, Jim, you are an actor in this event whether you like it or not and whether you intend it or not. But the performance for which you should be striving is to be as evenhanded as possible in your manner and your questions, in order to try to prevent, to the best of your ability, your actions tilting the results in either direction."]

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Update on the update: Rosen redux

I noticed that Jay Rosen has opened up shop on comments again, which is, IMHO, a good thing.

I am going to be very busy (with non-computer things) until fairly late tonight, and won't have a chance till then to take a good look and do some thinking about what he's actually saying. Maybe I'll respond later, if I have more to say on the subject. But I just wanted to direct the attention of those who are still interested in this subject to the new thread at Jay Rosen's Pressthink.

Grieving parents, revisited

Dymphna at Gates of Vienna has posted a very personal and utterly heartrending essay on the loss of her daughter. It's couched as a letter to Cindy Sheehan from one child-bereaved mother to another, and demonstrates great compassion. I urge you to read it as a testament to Dymphna's much-loved daughter Shelagh, and as a description of the profound grief that flows from such a terrible loss.

I've recently written on grieving parents in wartime, but of course parents can lose their children in other ways. Every time a child dies and a parent survives it seems as though the natural order of the world has been upended. As Dymphna writes to Ms. Sheehan:

But the condition you and I share is unnamed because since time immemorial parents have dreaded this loss. It is the worst. There is nothing else that can be done to us. A motherless child is a pitiful creature and carries a life-long emptiness he or she tries to fill with other grown-ups. A childless mother is a crazy person and nothing can fill the hole, not if she had a baby a year for the rest of her life.

"Time heals all wounds." Facile words, and sometimes incorrect. I quote Kathe Kollwitz once again, the artist featured in my previous post on the subject: There is in our lives a wound which will never heal. Nor should it.

Time may not heal, but something happen over time to most parents to allow them to live with their grief. I don't know what name to give this thing; perhaps it's wisdom. It comes slowly, if at all, and I don't think it ever feels like recompense for the loss.

Kollwitz's art expressed some of her grief--expressed it, not extinguished it--and in that process I believe there was some small bit of healing. Likewise, bereaved poets turn to their art, as Cindy at Chicagoboyz discusses in this post concerning one of my favorite poets, Robert Frost, and his wonderful poem "Home Burial."

The poem deals with a couple's reaction to the death of a child (the post contains the full text of the poem). It is no accident that Frost himself suffered the loss of a child, an event from which it is said that his marriage never recovered. The poem describes the same sort of phenomenon that Dymphna touches on, the contrasting forms grieving sometimes takes between men and women, and the anger and rift that difference can engender. (You can also discern a subtle contrast between the mother and father in Kollwitz's statues of the bereaved parents, featured in my first "Grieving" post; the father is more stoic and rigidly controlled, although he still grieves.)

In "Home Burial," the man takes refuge in action, the woman in feelings. This causes estrangement:

God, what a woman! And it's come to this,
A man can't speak of his own child that's dead.'
'You can't because you don't know how.
If you had any feelings, you that dug
With your own hand--how could you?--his little grave;
I saw you from that very window there,
Making the gravel leap and leap in air,
Leap up, like that, like that, and land so lightly
And roll back down the mound beside the hole.
I thought, Who is that man? I didn't know you.

There's another famous poem by a bereaved parent, one I discovered as a teenaged high school student when I was assigned to write a paper on it. I remember that experience as being one of the first times--perhaps, in fact, the very first time--I truly understood that famous people of long ago had not just been statues or icons or entries in the encyclopedia, but had actually once been living, breathing people, just like us.

Until I read this particular poem, written on the occasion of the death of his first son, I'd thought of Ben Johnson as a fusty old guy who had written some fusty old play that I'd been forced reluctantly to read. This poem made Ben Jonson seem almost alive himself. Despite the poem's archaic language, I instantly recognized the voice of a real person, an anguished cri de coeur:

Ben Jonson - On My First Son

Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
My sin was too much hope of thee, loved boy.
Seven years thou wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.

Oh, could I lose all father now! For why
Will man lament the state he should envy?
To have so soon 'scaped world's and flesh's rage,
And if no other misery, yet age!

Rest in soft peace, and asked, say, Here doth lie
Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.
For whose sake henceforth all his vows be such
As what he loves may never like too much.

In this poem, Jonson struggles mightily to take the high road and accept his son's death with grace and equanimity. He struggles, but he fails--and in this futility of effort lies his tremendous humanity. "Oh, could I lose all father now!" cries Jonson, overwhelmed by the almost unbearable weight of the burden he carries and the hopelessness of ever shedding it. All he can do is to say of his son's grave, "Here doth lie/Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry." The laurels of fame, everything Ben the Elder had written and had given him pride, were as nothing compared to the son and namesake who now lay buried in the earth, along with Jonson's joy.

But Jonson still had his next-best piece of poetry, the poem itself, and the transforming task of writing it. As did Frost. Kollwitz had her art. And in that written and plastic art we all are reached--and some are comforted, if only briefly.

Others turn to different efforts. John Walsh dedicated the rest of his life to finding criminals. MADD founder Candy Lightner fought to reduce drunk driving. And Cindy Sheehan wants President Bush to pay.

What do most people think about and feel in such circumstances? Memories, love, faith, despair, guilt, anger. Sometimes they turn to drink, sometimes to divorce, sometimes to both. Sometimes they try therapy; there are therapists who specialize in dealing with grief and loss, and groups for the bereaved, including special ones for grieving parents. Sometimes faith gets them through; sometimes they lose their faith. But it's a rough journey for all.

I will close with another poem, a sonnet by a lesser-known contemporary poet named William John Watkins. The poem appeared in the Spring/Summer 1996 issue of the poetry journal Hellas, and is dedicated to his son Wade. It's about the weariness of such loss, and the carrying on despite that weariness.

We Used to Take Long Walks, My Son and I
for Wade 1963-1993

Footsore on this road of sour surprises
whose sole consistency is going down,
this road of dips and sharp but lower rises
that lead like stairs back up toward the crown

I did not know for summit when we crested,
as far behind as now it is above
the strength I had when I was young and rested
and thought all mountains flattened out by love

that now I know makes mountains only higher
and fills the road with rock-bruised barefoot hurt
and sun that sets the shuffled dust on fire
and hides the sharp shard buried in the dirt.

I'd lay me down and join the roadside dead,
but that I see you walking on ahead.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Spambots: the next generation

I just spent several minutes of my life that I'll never get back again cleaning up after the spambots. They come in clusters and apparently are only able to hit the top thread of the day (in a few minutes, therefore, I may have to tidy up this post).

There were six of them this time, arriving in the span of approximately one hour.

Why mention them--other than to vent my spleen? Well, I noticed that they seem to be evolving even as we speak, becoming ever more creative, chatty, and conversational.

I subtitled my previous post on the topic "the invasion of the comments snatchers," after the movie in which the aliens looked so much like humans that it was difficult for mere humans to tell the difference. At the time I was joking, but now I wonder if this isn't the way spambots are going--trying to sound so much like a real live human that they will end up fooling us stupid bloggers into thinking that's what they actually are.

Here, for example, are portions of the text of two of the spambot comments I just deleted. I'm eliminating the links, of course, because I don't want to do their nefarious work for them. As you will see, they are now making political comments and other observations about the world (it appears, by the way, that even spambots aren't too keen on CBS):

Black Rock Discovers Blogging
You have to hand it to those little troopers at CBS News. After a year filled with what we'll delicately call, uh, crap, they're doing their best to make a precious little bounce back towards respectibility.

Great input, you have a great blog here! I'm definitely going to bookmark you! [Link follows]

This one is less political, but it has a rather pleasant personality, don't you think?:

10 Years That Changed The World
A decade ago, Netscape went public, blasting the Web into everyday life. Now, Wired talks to the inside players - from Marc Andreessen to Shawn Fanning to Steve Jobs - about 10 years of boom, bust, and sock ...

It's nice to read blogs and learn about other people. I'm just discovering all this - guess I should bookmark your blog, eh? I have a rose gardening site. You wouldn't guess that by the title, would you? LOL - lots of rose gardening related things. Come and check it out if you get time :-)

Notice the clever "and learn about other people" [italics mine]. Wants us to think it's "people." Well, spambot, you didn't fool me--yet.

Update on Rosen's rollback: be careful what you wish for

[Note: the following is an update to this post from yesterday.]

Reader Rick Ballard has kindly let me know that Jay Rosen has pulled the plug and closed comments on the Bay/Rollback thread. Rosen's reasons for doing so remain somewhat murky to me. But there is no doubt that he had an unusually intense reaction to the discussion there--a discussion that I have to say seemed rather mild and decorous to me compared to some I've seen in the blogosphere.

Although I am somewhat at a loss to know exactly what is going on with Mr. Rosen, it is clear that he is embarrassed. Very very embarrassed.

He tells us so himself, in the final comment he lodged before closing the thread down:

I'm embarrassed that this thread appeared at my weblog. I'm embarrassed that something I wrote and edited was the occasion for it. I embarrassed that the letters "edu" appear in the Web address at the top of this page, since most of this is the opposite of education. I'm embarrassed for having entertained, even for a second, the notion that Austin Bay, a Bush supporter and war veteran, might get a hearing for some of his warnings from those who agree with him on most things.

And I've had enough of anonymous tough guys with their victim's mentality raging at their own abstractions...

Those who wish to continue can head over to Austin's thread, where the story is pretty much the same. But four days of this pathetic spectacle is enough for me. Thread closed. My advice: Go home to your wives and children, and breathe some truth.

The entire thread plus its comments section is so long that I hesitate to ask you to go over to Rosen's blog and read it, but without doing so it's hard to get the full flavor of the discussion that so angered Mr. Rosen. But fortunately blogger Neuro-Con has done us all the service of summarizing it extremely well in this post. Neuro-Con's analysis of the back-and-forth exchange is very much in accord with my own, so rather than reinvent the wheel, I gratefully direct you to his post.

The entire situation becomes increasingly puzzling once one learns more about Mr. Rosen. On the face of it one might think his reaction is that of an elitist ivory-tower academic, resistant to hearing from readers, and interested only in controlling the discussion. His behavior on the thread in question certainly points in that direction.

But that has hardly been Rosen's profile in the past. In fact, for more than a decade, Rosen has been a vocal champion of "people-first, bottom-up 'public journalism'."

And that's not all. Just two short months ago Rosen won the Reporters Without Borders 2005 Freedom Blog award for "outstanding defense of free expression" (see here).

And then there's this October 2003 interview with Christopher Lydon. Here is Rosen speaking:

The terms of authority are changing in American journalism...Blogs are undoing the system for generating authority and therefore credibility of news providers...And the one-to-many broadcasting model of communications--where I have the news and I send it out to everybody out there who's just waiting to get it--doesn't describe the world anymore. And so people who have a better description of the world are picking up the tools of journalism and doing it. It's small. Its significance is not clear. But it's a potentially transforming development...I like [it] when things get shaken up, and when people don't know what journalism is and they have to rediscover it.

Is this the same Jay Rosen who shut down the comments section with the stern and vaguely archaic (not to mention sexist--which is actually the least of its problems) "Go home to your wives and children, and breathe some truth"? (By the way, the expression had such an odd tone that I Googled it, thinking Rosen was quoting some famous saying of which I wasn't aware. But I couldn't find a source. Does the phrase ring a bell with anyone?)

Here's another conversation in which the Jay of old was a participant. He was actually the interviewer in this one, speaking about a year ago with Dan Gillmor, a syndicated technology columnist who does most of the talking. Note the extreme relevance of the following passage, and Rosen's responses:

Gillmor: The first thing we'd need to do is listen, pay attention to what is being said. To really get out of the lecture mode that we've been in and to recognize that something new is going on that will benefit not just our journalism--which of course we want to do--but benefit the people who are reading or listening to or viewing our journalism. Those are the people who we say we want to serve. So, the conversation part of it--the listening part, the responding part--is not just for journalists. It's for all of us, it's for everybody. And it comes back to what I've made a kind of a cliche in my own world, which is that my readers know more than I do.

Rosen: I want to ask about that cliche, because I don't think it's a cliche. I think it's a major insight. First of all, tell me what happened to make you realize "My readers know more than I do." And why didn't it just freak you out?

Gillmor: Well, it did freak me out at first. But what happened was, I went to Silicon Valley in 1994 to write about technology. And I wrote about it in a place where most of the people I was writing about were already on email. And invariably they knew collectively much more than I did. You know, you write about tech in Silicon Valley, by definition your readers know more than you do. And I saw that happening, and I thought, "Hmm, this is really different." And then I thought about it and realized that it wasn't different at all, that it had always been true. That whatever the subject I was writing about, the people who cared enough about it to read it knew more than I did--collectively. It was only now, however, that there was a quick-response mechanism --this feedback loop established through email at first and then later through other tools, that made it possible for them to let me know, in a hurry. And I can assure you that people in the Valley are never shy about letting you know when they think you're wrong or when you're missing something.

Rosen: So, it's not just, "My readers know more than I do." It's, "My readers know more than I do and I can tap that because they will tell me."

Gillmor: Exactly. The ability to find out things that you don't already know and then to incorporate them into what you do in the future--it's a great advantage for any journalist. I think all journalists on any beat need to understand that this is an opportunity. It's not remotely a threat. And journalists have skills that the people writing to us may or may not have. And why don't we, in the best sense of the expression, all take mutual advantage of this situation to do a better job?

Rosen: Well, let's cut a little deeper into that. Because even though what you say is logical, and good advice, I can think of lots of reasons why "My readers know more than I do" might be resisted by journalists. For one thing, the basic transaction in mainstream journalism is understood to be--I'm the journalist. I know things because I've done my reporting. I've inquired, I've asked questions, and I've hunted down documents. And you don't know. You weren't there. You're not a reporter. You don't have the time. You're off living your life. And so the whole idea of informing the public, informing the readers, assumes that the news organization knows and its customers--as it were--don't.

And secondly, the authority of the journalist--the way it has evolved in the United States--is very much tied up with the journalist knowing things that others don't. Having access that others don't. Witnessing things that others can't--a press conference, etc. And it's almost like in the deep grammar of American journalism, the assumption is that knowledge moves from the news organization to a public that lacks it. So, it's not surprising to me that "My readers know more than I do" is hard to grasp.

So strangely enough, in this interview of about a year ago, when Rosen described so well the thought process of journalists who try to exercise authority over their readers--a sort of intellectual snobbery on their part--he also ended up describing the tenor of his own response to the comments in that recent thread. His insight was both eerie and prescient--applied to himself. The very thing he noted in so many journalists seems to have worked its irresistible siren call on him.

So this is my question for Jay Rosen: have you forgotten this interview? If so, could you perhaps read it again, and review the idea of the new journalism as a conversation, a conversation that you cannot control by the force of your authority?

My guess is that Rosen is an idealist who truly does believe (or thinks he believes) in extending the principles of democracy to the institution of the press--what he calls "public journalism." Ideally, that is; in his head. I'm not sure, though, that he has the stomach or the heart for the results--the sometimes messy and unwieldy reality of a truly public forum such as blog comments, in which the press is often accused of bias.

If Rosen wants a conversation, he certainly got one on his blog. It may be a demonstration of the old saying: be careful what you wish for.

[UPDATE: Dean disagrees.

Here's a copy of my response to Dean, which I posted as a comment there:

I certainly agree that any blogger has the right to cut off comments for any reason, any time, on his/her blog. You have that right, I have that right, and Jay Rosen has that right, which he exercised.

However, to those who haven't plowed through the comments section in question, I'll say that that particular thread didn't seem to feature a high volume of nasty attacks on Mr. Rosen himself. Nor was it even a particularly rabid group of comments in general, especially considering its great length. Comments threads sometimes degenerate into mindless name-calling, but this one had quite a bit of substance--and, in the main, I think people were trying to be relatively polite (especially for the blogosphere) and to discuss the issues. That's why Rosen's behavior seemed so puzzling to me.

What's the significance of it all, and why bother talking about it? Is Rosen "just a guy?" Well, of course he is. But he is also a guy who is a champion of the idea that journalists need to engage in a conversation with readers, of "people-first, bottom-up 'public journalism' ". When in that thread he seemed to cut off such "conversation" in an especially testy and condescending manner, and seemed angry that people were accusing the press of bias, his behavior was arguably both hypocritical and a microcosm of the larger issue of whether the press is guilty of arrogance and one-sidedness (the subject matter of many of the comments). So, although certainly not of earth-shattering importance, his act took on a somewhat larger significance than the simple and rather unremarkable fact that Jay Rosen had closed down comments on a particular thread.

Tidings to gladden a neocon's heart

Can it be? Hearts and minds changing in the Moslem world?

Monday, August 22, 2005

Rolling back with Rosen and Bay

[Note: I've posted an update to this article here.]

Jay Rosen and Austin Bay have recently posted an interesting exchange of ideas about Bush and the press. You can find it here on Rosen's blog, and here on Austin Bay's blog.

It began with a question Rosen, a professor of journalism at NYU and a press critic and reviewer, posed to Bay: whether the Bush administration is essentially stonewalling the press (Rosen calls the process "rollback") by giving it as little information and cooperation as possible; and furthermore, if so, whether this policy is wise or necessary.

Austin Bay answers in his usual insightful, straightforward, and thorough manner, and then Rosen responds to Bay.

I'm not going to enter into a discussion of the issues myself, since they've been well-aired by both Bay and Rosen, and in the voluminous comments on both blogs. Instead, I want to discuss Rosen's reaction to the discussion that ensued in the comments section of his own blog.

Many of the commenters there were about as fed up with the MSM as any you'll find anywhere, the consensus being that whatever "rollback" has occurred on Bush's part was a justifiable reaction to press bias and distortion. Here is Rosen's response:

This is depressing. Austin and I had hoped that perhaps we'd move the dialogue a tiny bit with this.

I'll let it go for a day or so, and see if anything changes. If not, PressThink will go on full vacation mode, and comments will shut down. Cheers, everyone.

Understand that the comments section on the thread had not degenerated into the sort of overwhelmingly vicious nastiness that sometimes occurs on so many blogs. Nor was it filled with bad language or racial insults or spambots any of the usual reasons bloggers might have for deleting comments; not at all. In fact, in general, the tone was unusually refined--at least, as blog comments sections go--rather than lowdown and dirty. Yes, some of the comments may have overstated the case (on either side), and the comments were certainly polarized. But that's hardly remarkable in a comments section; in fact, it is to be expected. On the other hand, many of the commenters made some excellent points. And yes, many accused the press of bias, but this would hardly seem to be off-topic in the discussion at hand, whether or not Rosen disagrees with the accusation.

I'm not exactly inexperienced in this arena; after all, I moderate a comments section myself that features a certain amount of lively argument, and plenty of commenters with whom I disagree. Rosen's response on his blog made me wonder what might move me to close down comments on a thread. Suffice to say it would have to be something a great deal worse than what Jay was experiencing (and please, commenters, don't take that as a challenge!).

It's Rosen's blog, so he of course is allowed to do whatever he wants with his comments section, including closing it down, either in a single thread or completely (so far, by the way, he has allowed the comments to remain open).

From later remarks Rosen made on the same thread, it appears that he is upset with the comments to the post in question because he thinks the claims and accusations of press bias are too extreme. But even if that were true, would the proper remedy be to shut comments off? Wouldn't it be to refute them himself--or to let other commenters refute them--with facts, argument, and logic?

I found Rosen's threat to close down comments disturbing, especially in someone who is dedicated--as I believe he would say he is--to the free and open exchange of ideas. I've read Rosen with interest every now and then, and I must say I've never seen this particular side of him before. He's always seemed relatively evenhanded to me--although he is upfront about his own liberal orientation--and he is certainly not above criticizing the press himself (remember, his bio bills him as a "press critic"). So something about this thread seems to have pressed his buttons--"big time," as Dick Cheney would say.

I hope I'm not being too harsh in stating that Rosen's reaction reminded me of some of my grade school teachers who would open a topic up for discussion and then, if the responses weren't to their liking for whatever reason, would purse their lips and tap their feet in exasperation, waiting for the right answer--the one that agreed with their own point of view.

What is most strange about this reaction of Rosen's is that his post contains a critique of the Bush administration for supposedly shutting off the flow of information to the press in retaliation for what it perceives as press bias against it. But in the very same thread Rosen threatens to close his own comments section for engaging in free speech that doesn't quite suit him, apparently because it doesn't go in the direction in which he wants it to go. There's a certain fearful symmetry there.

I didn't know Mick was a fan of mine

The nearly geriatric Rolling Stones have a new song out called "Sweet Neo Con."

“It is not really aimed at anyone,” Jagger said on the entertainment-news show’s Wednesday edition. “It’s not aimed, personally aimed, at President Bush. It wouldn’t be called ’Sweet Neo Con’ if it was.”

Not aimed at anyone? Right, Mick; I'll never tell.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

For tomorrow morning

I took the day off from heavy posting, and expect to return tomorrow.

But I thought I'd offer the following passage from one of my favorite authors, something to think about for tomorrow morning. For those of you who love snooze alarms and Milan Kundera as much as I do, here's an excerpt from his book Immortality (Chapter 2):

I'm in bed, happily dozing. With the first stirrings of wakefulness, around six in the morning, I reach for the small transistor radio next to my pillow and press the button. An early-morning news program comes on, but I am hardly able to make out the individual words, and once again I fall asleep, so that the announcer's sentences merge into my dreams. It is the most beautiful part of sleep, the most delightful moment of the day: thanks to the radio I can savor drowsing and waking, that marvelous swinging between wakefulness and sleep which in itself is enough to keep us from regretting our birth.

And here, from my archives, is the way to rescue yourself if you find that you are overindulging in the blissful pleasure of the snooze alarm.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Egyptian psychiatrist: on suicide bombers

Dr Sanity calls attention to a program that aired in July of 2005 on Al-Arabiya TV, featuring the wife and young children of a Palestinian suicide bomber named Salah Ghandour. The following text is taken from the MEMRI translation of the interview. Here is an excerpt:

Reporter: "Hizbullah filmed Salah's operation and final message, and the entire program was aired on Al-Manar TV, which belongs to Hizbullah."

Salah Ghandour's son: "This is the operation that daddy carried out. This is the convoy that came from here, from Palestine. This is his operation..."

Salah Ghandour's daughter: "This is the place of the operation in which he was gone."

Salah Ghandour's son: "This is the car daddy blew up."

Maha Ghandour: "Of course I miss him and remember his words. Sometimes it saddens me, but I love to watch him."

When the widow says, "I love to watch him," she is apparently referring to the film of his matyrdom "operation," which the children seem to have watched, as well.

As Dr Sanity writes, "Do you imagine that these children will grow up to be psychologically healthy and productive individuals in the new Palestinian state?" And a commenter on the thread asks Dr. Sanity, "As a mental health professional, what do you make of this woman's attitude?" Dr. Sanity's answer can be found here.

Unfortunately, such attitudes as those expressed by Salah Ghandour's family seem far from unusual among people in that part of the world; the fact that Palestinian culture seems to revel in and glorify death to an unusual extent has been remarked upon many times. Although it doesn't cut much ice with the PC "it's racist to judge any culture, with the exceptions of the US and Israel" crowd, the best evidence is that Palestinian society has some markedly unhealthy traits in the psychological sense--and, in addition, any already-existent emotional problems of Palestinians are eagerly exploited by those whose business it is to enlist new bodies for suicide matyrdom. One thing feeds into the other, and vice-versa.

One especially shocking aspect of this "cycle of violence" (and this time it really is a cycle of violence) is the cooperation of some Arab mental health professionals themselves in promoting the near-worship of suicide bombers by the society as a whole. MEMRI, the Middle East Media Research Institute, does an invaluable service by offering translations of Arabic texts of newspaper articles and television programs, giving us a window on a dark and inverted world, one in which famous psychiatrists act as shills for those who choose to blow themselves apart in the act of doing the same to innocent women and children.

Many of you are no doubt familiar with this MEMRI article, which received quite a bit of blogosphere publicity when it first came out. But, in light of Dr. Sanity's post, I thought I'd point it out again.

Here is what passes for psychological health, according to Dr. 'Adel Sadeq, whose credentials as a psychiatrist are impeccable--he is chairman of the Arab Psychiatrists Association and head of the Department of Psychiatry at 'Ein Shams University in Cairo, and a recipient of the 1990 Egyptian State Prize. During an April 2002 interview on Iqraa, a Saudi-Egyptian satellite television channel, Dr. Sadeq said the following:

When the [suicide bomber] dies a martyr's death, he attains the height of bliss. As a professional psychiatrist, I say that the height of bliss comes with the end of the countdown: ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one. And then, you press the button to blow yourself up. When the martyr reaches 'one,' and then 'boom,' he explodes, and senses himself flying, because he knows for certain that he is not dead. It is a transition to another, more beautiful world, because he knows very well that within seconds he will see the light of the Creator...

This war will not end, and anyone who deludes himself that there will be peace must understand that Israel did not come to this region to love the Arabs or to normalize relations with them. Anyone who thinks that peace will come, either now or in the future, has limited historical vision. Either we will exist or we will not exist. Either the Israelis or the Palestinians - there is no third option...

There are no Israeli civilians. They are all plunderers. History teaches this. Remove the Apache [helicopter] from the equation, leave them one-on-one with the Palestinian people with the only weapon [for both sides] being dynamite. Then you will see all the Israelis leave, because among them there is not even one man willing to don a belt of dynamite...

The goal of all of us is to liberate Palestine from the Israeli aggressors. To use words that some people no longer like to use today: "We will throw Israel into the sea." This phrase, by the way, is the truth. Either they will throw us into the sea, or we will throw them into the sea. There is no middle ground. Coexistence is total nonsense...

The real means of dealing with Israel directly is those who blow themselves up. According to what I see in the battle arena, there is no [other means] except for the pure, noble Palestinian bodies. This is the only Arab weapon there is, and anyone who says otherwise is a conspirator...

Remember, this man is chairman of the Arab Psychiatrists Association and head of the Department of Psychiatry at a major Cairo university. He is not on the fringes of Egyptian society nor of his profession; he is at the center of it.

Now, is it any wonder that Salah Ghandour's wife loves to watch films of her husband's suicide "operation?"

Friday, August 19, 2005

Light, heavy; heavy, light

I wrote two other posts today that are of what you might call the "light" variety--not about anything deeply emotional, or about politics or any earthshattering world events. Until yesterday I'd been doing "heavy" post after heavy post, and I realized I need to vary things a bit, both for my sake and perhaps for yours.

For those of you who prefer heavy, though, don't worry--more will be coming, soon.

And remember a while back I said I was working on the next post in the "A mind is a difficult thing to change" series? Well, I lied. No, actually, I didn't lie--I fully meant to work on it, and in fact I have been working on it somewhat-- in my head. But it's going to be delayed a bit more.

Part of the reason is that I'm still very heavily involved in dealing with my mother's illness. For those of you who are following that event, she is doing considerably better: her hand is about 85% back to normal, in my estimation, which is wonderful. Her leg has a great deal further to go, but she can move it quite a bit now, and the physical therapists are hopeful that some day she will walk with a walker or even perhaps just a cane. She finds that very hard to believe. But her spirits are better, and at times she even seems like her old self.

I've graduated to not visiting her every single day, although I still do go most days. She will probably be in the rehab facility for at least a month more. At some point I plan to write about that experience, too, which will be partly heavy and partly light.

Even if the shoe fits, I don't think I'll wear it

On beautiful days--and we've had an awful lot of them lately--I exercise by doing some fast walking at a local park that features a lighthouse, cliffs, and spectacular ocean views. All around me I can see people relaxing and having fun, or at least trying to--playing frisbee, pushing their kids on swings, flying kites, walking dogs (or being walked by their dogs).

Sometimes I take my radio headset, but sometimes I go without and watch the scenery and the people. If I get there around dinnertime, which I often do, there are invariably some picnickers who are using the grills near the wooden tables and benches, and the aromas of barbecuing meat reach out to tantalize me as I walk by.

Yesterday I was passing one of the playing fields and noticed a young Asian couple throwing a frisbee and speaking to each other in a language I couldn't place. The woman was the one who caught my eye first because she was nearest to me and, as I passed, she flipped the frisbee towards the man with an unusually smooth and practiced motion that it made it seem as though she'd been doing this virtually all her life. And perhaps she had.

He was a good frisbee player, but she was better. Very very petite, and dressed in denim shorts and a tank top. I watched for a moment as I drew near, thinking well, she can throw awfully well, but how's her catching? and the answer came right away: excellent. Very deft indeed. And that's when I noticed what she had on her feet.

What did she have on her feet? Something that looked pretty much like this (and thanks, Blogger, for making photos so much easier to insert now):

I could barely believe my eyes. She was running in them. She looked swift and agile. I don't think I saw her leap, but she didn't need to; she anticipated exactly where that frisbee was going and was there to meet it.

I don't think I could have walked in those shoes for more than a few minutes, even at her age. How did she keep them on her feet, how did she keep from tripping and breaking her ankle? And, more importantly and mysteriously, why hadn't she taken them off to play frisbee??

Astounding. It reminded me of that old saying about Ginger Rogers, that she did everything Fred Astaire did, only she did it backwards and in high heels. But I can understand why Rogers had to wear high heels to dance in stupendously glamorous evening gowns. And at least her high heels had backs.

The wheels of justice grind slow, but they grind exceedingly fine?

And exceedingly slow.

All I can say is, wow!

Via Scott Kirwin at Dean Esmay.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Spambots: the invasion of the comment snatchers

Every now and then there's a certain kind of message that's left on my telephone answering machine. I bet you get them, too: those cozy chatty little communications that try to get you to believe the person leaving it is someone you know, someone you've had dealings with before--perhaps at a bank, a credit card company, or maybe selling insurance. The Voice seems to be implying that he (and it's always a he) has promised to call you back, at your request, and well--here he is. Or perhaps it was you who had promised to get back to him. But no matter. All you have to do now is to call him back, and all will be well. And you'll get a great deal, too, on something-or-other.

There's a certain quality about the Voice that both riles me and amuses me at the same time. It seems to have mastered a tone of studiedly casual friendliness--not too eager, not too formal, just right--but is nevertheless totally and instantly recognizable as utterly phony (Holden Caulfield would be onto him in a second).

The Voice accomplishes this effect though a series of hesitations, trying to sound as though he's not reading from a script. Right. There's a liberal (pardon the word) use of "ummmm"s, many moments in which the speaker seems to hesitate and search his brain for just the right phrase. But the timing is always ever-so-slightly wrong--the hesitation is too long, or too short, or too choppy.

Spambots are the internet equivalent of the Voice, on a computer screen rather than a telephone answering machine. For those of you who don't know what spambots are--as I didn't know, myself, until quite recently, when they began infesting this blog like ugly little weeds in a garden--a spambot comment (or, to be technical, a UBS--an unsolicited bulk comment) is an automatically-generated message sent out to many blogs at a time and deposited, like little turdlike droppings (mixed metaphor, I know, having already called them weeds), in the comments sections of blogs. Spambots masquerade as real people making real comments, although they are no better at this task than the Voice is at seeming to be a person with whom you've already had dealings.

What is their purpose? Same as the Voice's--to make money for somebody, in this case by persuading you to click on a link and thereby inflate the hit counter of a commercial blog, or a blog front (if I'm explaining this poorly or incorrectly, forgive me and correct me--I'm new at this game myself.)

Do spambots work? Hard to believe that anyone falls for them, but apparently they do. And so the answer must be "yes," just as I would imagine the Voice must draw in enough people to justify its continuing existence.

The spambots--like the Voice--are very friendly. But they use a technique that I've never heard the Voice use, and that is flattery. Whoever designs the spambot program knows that we humans are suckers for praise. So the spambots give out a sentence or two that sounds enthusiastic and is apparently music to the ears of many a lonely blogger who's been waiting in vain to receive a comment or two: "You've got a great blog here! I've bookmarked it. Hope you visit mine, It's all about lawnmowers and other cool stuff like that."

The spambots don't always use the same exact phrases of praise in each post. They are far more clever than that; they vary them. But spambots do very much like the word "stuff," which appears in a great many of their comments. "Stuff" apparently has just the right air of casual inexactness to set the desired tone of seeming sincerity.

I once clicked on one of these spambot sites out of curiosity, despite knowing that the comment was spam and would probably lead me to a dummy site and make money for the spambot designers (my lips are sealed as to the URL of the site, but let's just say the blog had something to do with recipes for a certain dessert). It consisted of two posts--that was the whole blog--each with a short list of recipes.

But that blog had a very active comments section. There were over fifty on one of the posts, as I recall. So it was clear that the spambot had achieved its aim of getting a fair number of people to the site (note how I'm anthropomorphizing the spambot; it's hard not to do so, they seem so pesky and duplicitous). Quite a few of the commenters on the spam blog, however, were not pleased; they posted little messages on the order of "You effing a-hole spambot, get off my blog and never come back"

But a large number of the commenters seemed touchingly grateful. They said things like, "So glad you liked my blog! Come back soon. Thanks for the recipes."

At first I thought these might be second-generation counter-spambots, like in some sci-fi movie, evolving to make war on the original spambots and kill them with kindness. But no, they seemed to be real people with real blogs, seduced by flattery into thinking that finally, finally, they'd found a grateful and appreciative reader in the spambot, which of course they took to be a real person.

I'm not meaning to mock these people. I well remember the times when I was getting a grand total of five readers a day on this blog--and three of them were me, because I didn't know how to block my own IP address; and the other two had reached here in error. So I know what it's like to plod away in isolation and hope to be discovered. But I like to think that even in those days a spambot wouldn't have fooled me.

Now I have the near-daily task--not too onerous as of yet--of plucking the things from my blog. I like to weed the garden--that is, I don't really like it, but it's satisfying, and it feels (and looks) so good when it's over.

[ADDENDUM: As several helpful commenters have pointed out, spambots can be successful whether you click on their links or not. The link itself boosts the site's ranking in Google and other search engines. Ah, the ingenuity of humankind!

By the way, I've already deleted three spam comments on this thread. I let one remain in honor of the post's subject matter--couldn't resist having at least one good example of the genre right here.]

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