Sunday, May 27, 2018

#147 / Free Speech And The Law Of Contracts

I would like to applaud David French's column in the May 26, 2018, edition of The New York Times. French is, among other things, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute. That means that French is what might be called a "right-winger," to use a well-known descriptor.

In his column in The Times, French took aim at what he denominated the "conservative hypocrisy" of the National Football League, which has recently promulgated a set of "anthem rules" that require N.F.L. contracted football players to stand for the national anthem or to stay off the field. Player and team penalties will be imposed for violations. 

Here is French's reaction: 

I want football players to stand for the anthem. I want them to respect the flag. As a veteran of the war in Iraq, I’ve saluted that flag in foreign lands and deployed with it proudly on my uniform. But as much as I love the flag, I love liberty even more.

French intimates, and I think correctly, that if the N.F.L.'s "anthem rules" had been promulgated by a governmental agency, the courts would find these rules to be a violation of the players' free speech rights, guaranteed by the Constitution. The Bill of Rights, however, only applies to prohibit governmental actions that contravene its guarantees. In the commercial marketplace, the rules are different. If you want to get the big bucks provided to N.F.L. athletes, you are going to have to toe the line set by the corporate owners who establish the contract terms. That's a generally accurate description of how the law differentiates between governmental and non-governmental actions. 

Let's get creative, though, in the face of what French calls a kind of corporate mob mentality. I teach a course at the University of California, Santa Cruz that covers, among other things, contract law. Here is a quick statement of basic contract law, pulled from the Internet (emphasis added): 

Contracts are legally binding agreements between two or more parties and are made up of six elements that must be present for a contract to be considered enforceable.

The six elements include: 
  • Offer
  • Acceptance
  • Consideration
  • Capacity of the parties
  • Intent of both parties
  • Object of the contract 
Our focus is on the sixth element, of object of the contract, and it says that a contract cannot violate law or public policy. Obviously, a contract cannot contain language that binds parties to perform an illegal act, like murder for hire or the sale of illicit drugs. But, a contract also cannot violate public policy, the set of unwritten societal laws that all citizens are expected to follow.

Shouldn't basic guarantees found in the Bill of Rights be considered to be important statements of public policy, and "unwritten societal laws that all citizens are expected to follow?" If so, isn't there a good argument that contracts that contravene traditional free speech rights are in violation of public policy, and that any such contractual provisions are, for this reason, void?

I don't know whether or not this argument has ever been made, but it's certainly an argument I would like to see made in this case. Maybe Colin Kaepernick should amend his current legal claim against the N.F.L. to make this point. Corporate power should be limited, just as governmental power is limited, to protect "liberty." What the Constitution requires from the government, in terms of protecting the right to free speech, should be required from the corporations, too, as a matter of fundamental "public policy."

Here's a last word from French: 

In our polarized times, I’ve adopted a simple standard, a civil liberties corollary to the golden rule: Fight for the rights of others that you would like to exercise yourself. Do you want corporations obliterating speech the state can’t touch? Do you want the price of participation in public debate to include the fear of lost livelihoods? Then, by all means, support the N.F.L. Cheer Silicon Valley’s terminations. Join the boycotts and shame campaigns. Watch this country’s culture of liberty wither in front of your eyes.

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Saturday, May 26, 2018

#146 / Let's Talk "Post Truth"

Michael V. Hayden is a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency. This is not an institution that I, personally, associate with any kind of significant commitment to "truth." The guys who head this agency, after all, think they have the right to arrange for the murder of people they judge to be dangerous to our "national security." They are not exactly forthcoming about the process, either! The intended victims of their drone strikes and secret killings don't have an opportunity to argue on their own behalf. Maybe you and I are on the list, and maybe not, but there isn't going to be any chance to confront and cross examine our accusers, if we do happen to be included.

At any rate, Hayden has written a long article for The New York Times, bemoaning the fact that we have, somehow, entered the age of "post truth." The CIA has lost leverage with the president because the president doesn't really think of "truth" as an actual category; therefore, the CIA operatives who are used to being able to get their way with presidents, because the CIA has "truth" on its side (they call it "intelligence"), are finding it harder to get the president to do what the CIA wants the president to do. President Trump says, in effect, "who cares about the truth?"

I do think Hayden is helpful in quoting historian Timothy Snyder

Snyder stresses the importance of reality and truth in his cautionary pamphlet, “On Tyranny.” “To abandon facts,” he writes, “is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power because there is no basis upon which to do so.” He then chillingly observes, “Post-truth is pre-fascism.”

The danger in failing to demand that we try to discover the "truth" of things, before decisions are made, is a  point worth making. Past, present, and current CIA Directors, however, ought to have this standard applied to their own activities. 

As we know from practical experience, the "truth" about something can be discovered only in the process of free discussion and debate. Secret dossiers, unexamined by anyone critical of what they say, is not where "truth" will necessarily be found. I tend to think that when a past CIA director talks about how the president doesn't care about facts and truth, the complaint is based less on philosophy and political principle, and more on the fact that the president's approach to decision making has disempowered those whom we affectionately call "spooks." 

I am for truth, but what the "spooks" claim to be the truth, if not freely and publicly debated, is not a "truth" to which I think a president (or a citizen) should automatically defer.

Coupled with Hayden's article in The Times, is an article by Daniel A. Effron, an associate professor of organizational behavior at London Business School. Effron's article is titled, "Why Trump Supporters Don't Mind His Lies." Effron's point is this: what Trump and his associates claim to be "truth," when it clearly isn't, when, in fact, it's a "lie," is usually something that "might be true." Those who like president Trump excuse the lie, because the lie "might be true," and so that's good enough. 

I have a certain sympathy for the "it might be true" approach to truth, because my understanding of "reality" is not that it is fixed and immutable, but that we, ourselves, create the realities we inhabit. Thus, we can make both dreams and nightmares "come true." The social, human, and political world we most immediately inhabit depends on the realities we choose to create. 

This, to me, suggests the correct approach to the politics of the Trump Administration. Instead of pointing to the "lies," and calling them out (in other words, instead of "opposing" everything that the Trump Administration says or does) we need to articulate the alternate reality that we would like to establish. Our political efforts should be "propositional," not "oppositional." 

I think when "liberals," "Democrats," "progressives," whatever you'd like to call us, start applauding generals and the CIA directors, and fancy that they are on "our side," because they are opposing president Trump, that we are likely missing the point, and are putting ourselves on the wrong side of today's politics. 

The public doesn't want the CIA and its so-called "intelligence" to run the world. Let's not fall into the trap of arguing that it should!

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Friday, May 25, 2018

#145 / It's What You're For

Pictured is Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams. Abrams is a Democrat, and she just won a primary contest against another "Stacey," also a Democrat. The Nation calls Abrams' victory "revolutionary."

Joe Garofoli writes a column for the San Francisco Chronicle that he titles, "It's All Political." Garofoli's column on Thursday, May 24th revealed that there was a "major Bay Area connection" behind Abrams' success: 

Long before liberal pundits and MSNBC jumped on Abrams’ bandwagon, she was getting strategic help and money from a small crew of Bay Area political operatives and wealthy donors. She’s about to get $10 million more for the general election from that group, headed by San Franciscans Steve Phillips and his wife, Susan Sandler.
To them, Abrams represents what the Democratic Party should be doing to win back red states like Georgia as a way to take control of Congress and the presidency. 
The plan: Forget chasing working-class white voters who backed Donald Trump in 2016. Instead, appeal to a coalition that includes people of color, young voters and progressive whites. 
Or, as Abrams said on a 2017 episode of my “It’s All Political” podcast: Democrats need to spend less time convincing “Republicans to be Democrats instead of getting Democrats to be Democrats.”

Let me agree with Abrams on that strategy. Explaining to voters how bad Donald Trump is doesn't win elections. Hillary Clinton tried it at the presidential level, and it clearly didn't work. It won't work for state or congressional campaigns, either. 

It is not who you're against that will be persuasive; it's what you're for! 

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Thursday, May 24, 2018

#144 / Depending

An article in The Washington Post published on May 22nd was advertised in an email alert that bore this headline: "So much depends on Robert Mueller." The actual article, by columnist David Von Drehle, had a slightly different headline: "Mueller has no room for mistakes." The Post, in other words, is giving the impression that the future of Donald Trump's presidency will largely be determined by what Special Counsel Muller decides to do.

An article in The New York Times, also published on May 22nd, gives a somewhat different impression. The Times' article provides a roadmap to impeachment indicating that Muller's role in the future of the presidency, while important, is in no way going to be determinative.

Both articles are worth reading. My comment relates to the use of the word "depends" in the headline from the email alert sent by The Post.

Our democracy, if it is to survive, can never "depend" on the actions of any government official (including the president, by the way). We are tempted, always, to hope that one person (whether it is President Obama, Robert Mueller, or someone else) can "solve" our problems for us. That approach assumes that we are the "governed," not the "governing." Hoping that someone else is going to extricate the nation from the nightmare of the Trump presidency - and the nightmare of our failed government - is an illusion. WE, not someone else, are going to have to organize, strategize, and act.

Waiting for Robert (or for anyone else), is just delaying the inevitable. The future of our democracy will require political action by ordinary Americans.

That means "us."

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Wednesday, May 23, 2018

#143 / You Make The Choice

On Tuesday, May 22, 2018, the Mercury News ran a front-page article on the $3 toll hike proposed in all nine Bay Area counties; Bay Area voters will be deciding this June. The headline on the article, in the hard copy edition of the paper, reads as follows: "Traffic or higher tolls? You make the choice." Here is the first line of the article:

Voters in all nine Bay Area counties next month will face a difficult choice: endure bridge tolls reaching as high as $9 by 2025 or continue to suffer through seemingly constant traffic gridlock with few viable alternatives.

The article and its headline suggest that raising tolls will eliminate or significantly reduce the "seemingly constant traffic gridlock" that we all know so well. It's a simple choice; one thing or the other. You decide! To use a phrase often encountered in the courtroom, this conclusion "assumes a fact not in evidence."

There is no solid evidence that spending more money on road widening and related efforts will actually reduce traffic congestion. In fact, there is a lot of evidence that such new expenditures actually increase traffic congestion because of "induced demand." The article notes that transit advocacy groups, like TRANSDEF, oppose the toll hike, and that the voters and commuters quoted in the article are wary of the claims that the proposed toll increases will reduce congestion. Read the article to understand the debate. 

Read a related article to consider another important issue. The headline on that related article is this: "Who backs $3 toll hike? You might be surprised." The key issue raised in this article, though not explicitly, is "who pays?" If it does make sense to spend lots of money to decrease traffic congestion (and there is no proof that the expenditures planned will achieve that result), it is obviously important to decide who should pay for the proposed improvements. The current proposal is that commuters should pay, through a toll increase. As it turns out, the big backers of the proposed toll increase are the major Silicon Valley corporations whose workers are the ones stuck in the traffic.

In other words, large corporate employers, like Facebook, Google, and want drivers to pay for the traffic improvements that will result from the toll hike. 

Why not the companies?

We know why not. The proposal that ordinary drivers should pay for the improvements will let the giant corporations off the hook, and our political system, from the local level to the national level, is structured to make sure that these corporations never have to pay their fair share.

I suggest that a fundamental breakdown in our politics is evident in the toll hike proposal. Should you vote for it? As the Mercury says, "you make the choice."

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Tuesday, May 22, 2018

#142 / Assigning Blame

William T. Vollman, pictured, a prolific author, is writing books about climate change. The books are part of a series called Carbon Ideologies. The first book in the series, No Immediate Danger, was published on April 10, 2018. The second book in the series will be called No Good Alternative, and is scheduled for publication on June 5th.

In an interview published in Boston Review, Vollman says, among other things:

I think it is important to assign blame to people who have the power to do better and cut safety corners in the interest of making a buck. The people who delay and refuse to talk—all to our detriment.

I can't disagree with that! Did somebody just say, Scott Pruitt?

Can't disagree with that, either!

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Monday, May 21, 2018

#141 / Transparency

I am not a big fan of Julian Assange. I am more of an Edward Snowden kind of guy.

Still, the picture above, showing Assange with a message about privacy, is right on target, in my opinion. Let's give credit where credit is due! I tend to think that Edward Snowden would agree.

Incidentally, the picture above comes from an article in TruthDig. The article is titled, "Why the DNC Is Fighting WikiLeaks and Not Wall Street." That's a good question, right? Click the link to read the story.

I am not much of a DNC fan, either!

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Sunday, May 20, 2018

#140 / Censorship For Selfies?

Here is Ai Weiwei, a Chinese artist known for his commitment to freedom and free speech. Who is that with him? Well, that is Dr. Alice Weidel. Weidel is a German politician who has served as Leader of Alternative for Germany (AfD) in the Bundestag and a Member of the Bundestag (MdB) since October 2017. For those not closely following German politics, the AfD is a "right-wing" party, espousing populist, anti-immigration, nationalistic, xenophobic, and homophobic positions.

Ai Weiwei was criticized for allowing himself to be photographed with Weidel. Here is his response:

"I don’t believe that differences in political views or values between people should act as a barrier in communication,” the artist said. “My efforts are in tearing down those boundaries. Alice Weidel is a democratically elected politician and has the right to freely express her political views. Although her views are completely the opposite of mine, no one has the right to judge her personal life. 
“At the same time, no one has the right to judge who I choose to take a photograph with,” he added. “If you cannot tolerate free expression, your political views are even more terrifying.”

The idea that you should not even talk to someone with whom you have political disagreements (especially when those disagreements are significant) is just the opposite of what democracy requires.  Ai Weiwei got it right!

Those of us who live in Trumpland, or meet people from there, should remember the lesson!

Below, two pictures from the Ai Weiwei exhibition at Alcatraz, taken in March 2015. The exhibition celebrated political prisoners and prisoners of conscience:

Image Credits:
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(2) and (3) - Gary Patton personal photos

Saturday, May 19, 2018

#139 / What Soldiers Think

On April 15, 2018, The New York Times ran a story on the first page of its "Sunday Review" section that was headlined, "The Warrior At The Mall." The author of this opinion piece, Phil Klay, has written a short story collection called Redeployment. Klay is a veteran of Dartmouth College and the United States Marine Corps. 

Klay tells us what soldiers are saying, as they carry out their duties in postings to dangerous places like Afghanistan and Iraq: 

We're at war while America is at the mall.

While we are at the mall, this is the kind of world we are creating, in the places where American troops have been deployed: 

This kind of obscene destruction will stop when soldiers currently assigned to places like Iraq, Niger, Syria, and Afghanistan are redeployed to the mall, and when ordinary men and women are drafted and sent off to kill and be killed in these dangerous places.

I was a draft resister. I hate the military draft, but if the United States is going to deploy soldiers to foreign countries to destroy their shopping districts, and that's the choice our nation wants to make, then ordinary men and women should be removed from our own shopping districts and sent to do the job. 

That, I think, would end a shameful era of American military intervention, because ordinary men and women would rather be at "the mall" than in Afghanistan. Or in Iran. Or in all the other places where soldiers like Klay are thinking just what Klay has reported. 

It is popularly thought that the War in Vietnam was finally ended by public opposition to the idea that young American men could be drafted, against their will, to go kill people in a battle that virtually no one in the country, including the President, could justify or even explain. 

I feel pretty confident that the same approach, if implemented again, would have the same result. Congress receives no pressure to end the unjustified military interventions in which America is engaged, because constituents are "at the mall."

If we had to do our own killing, we would not choose to do any killing at all.

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Friday, May 18, 2018

#138 / A Warning To My Fellow Liberals

Pictured is Annafi Wahed, a self-described "bleeding heart liberal," who has been mentioned in this blog before. The headline on today's posting is Wahed's advisory to liberals (not mine). These words of warning are the headline to Wahed's recent column in The Wall Street Journal.  

Wahed has created a political website called The Flip Side. Its mission is to "help bridge the gap between liberals and conservatives," by providing what the website claims to be "smart, concise summaries of political analysis from both conservative and liberal media." A subscription is free. I have not, as I write this, actually sampled the analysis Wahed is providing, but I do plan on seeing what The Flip Side has to offer.

Wahed's past affiliations include a stint on the campaign staff of the Clinton For President campaign. Allow me to say that this does not, automatically, translate into credibility with the kind of "liberals" who supported Bernie Sanders, just to take one example. Wahed's column, for the most part, bemoans the fact that her credentials as a "card-carrying member of the liberal elite" has not insulated her from hostile encounters with liberals.

Frankly, this should not be surprising to her. As you can probably tell, I am rather skeptical of Wahed's claim to be a voice for the "liberals," many of whom, myself included, see income inequality as the issue that should be front and center for "liberals" at this time. Wahed's past "six-figure salary at a Big Four accounting firm" is not translating into the kind of respect from liberals that she so evidently craves. 

The main point Wahed makes is, nonetheless, worth taking seriously. I wouldn't phrase it as a "warning," so much, but as wise counsel for anyone who wants to be effective in politics. I do have some experience in that arena, and my "Five Simple Rules" for elected officials includes a "Rule #3" and a "Rule #4" that speak to this topic: 

Rule #3: “Remember Who Elected You.” On many of the big issues, there are at least two responsible and reasonable positions if not an even greater number. Presumably, if you're an elected official, you were elected because of the positions you took. If you were elected as an environmentalist, be an environmentalist. Do what you said you would do. After all, you got the majority vote. That's why you were elected.  
Rule #4: “Go Where You're Invited.” In other words, never be afraid to open up a dialogue and discussion with the people who didn't elect you. You might learn something. This is an antidote to Rule #3.

"Liberals," "progressives," and everyone in general, should definitely pay attention to what the "other side" has to say. In a democracy, our politics is built on the diversity and differences that reflect who we are. 

You don't have to have had a six-figure salary to be able to figure that out!

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Thursday, May 17, 2018

#137 / Nothing To Hide?

Glenn Greenwald, is "an American journalist and author, best known for his role in a series of reports published by The Guardian newspaper, beginning in June 2013." These reports detailed global surveillance programs being operated by the United States and Britain, and were based on classified documents disclosed by Edward Snowden

Greenwald makes a great case for privacy. You can watch his persuasive TED Talk on the subject by clicking the link I have just provided, or by watching the video I have inserted at the end of this blog posting. 

A comment by Willie Brown, in Brown's "Willie's World" column in the April 15, 2018, edition of the San Francisco Chronicle, reminded of Greenwald's rather clever way of demonstrating the hypocrisy of those who take the position that privacy doesn't matter if you have "nothing to hide." See the Greenwald video from minute 2:50 to minute 5:45.

The Chronicle inserts a powerful paywall on its online offerings, so non-subscribers might not be able to view Brown's column. The headline, online, is "Facebook’s Zuckerberg smooth-talked Congress. Only 1 senator got to him." 

That Senator was Senator Dick Durbin, from Illinois, and here's what Brown reported about Durbin's dialogue with Zuckerberg: 

The only time Zuckerberg got nicked was when Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois asked the tech titan if [he] would be comfortable revealing the name of the hotel where he’d stayed the night before.

“Um, no,” Zuckerberg said after a pause.

“Would you share with us the names of the people you’ve messaged?” Durbin asked.

“Senator, no, I would probably not choose to do that publicly here,” Zuckerberg said.

Then Durbin made his point: That’s exactly the sort of information people fear is being sold on Facebook.

Maybe that’s what all the fuss was about, Durbin said. “Your right to privacy. The limits of your right to privacy and how much you give away in modern America in the name of quote, connecting people around the world.”

It was a soft but effective hit that both got a big laugh in the committee room and at the same time went [to] the heart of the issue.

Durbin's challenge to Zuckerberg was not unlike the point that Greenwald makes in the video below. 

Forget about the statement that your privacy doesn't matter to you, if you have "nothing to hide." 

Our privacy matters to each one of us, even including Mark Zuckerberg, who famously claimed, several years ago, that privacy was "no longer a social norm."

There are lots of good reasons we value privacy. Let Glenn Greenwald tell you all about it:

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Wednesday, May 16, 2018

#136 / Now Here's A Concept!

Vancouver, British Columbia has an "Empty Homes Tax." Click the link to find out about it. The basic concept is that a tax will be imposed on any residential property that is vacant, as a way to make housing available for real people. In Vancouver, as in my home town, Santa Cruz, California, there are a lot of "vacant" homes, because a very large number of properties have been purchased as second or third homes for the wealthy. Local working families, in the meantime, can't afford either to rent or buy.

As for the headline, I think it is undoubtedly accurate. Those with second homes must either rent them, or pay the tax. They would rather not have to do that. 

On the other hand, the Empty Homes Tax helps those caught by the kind of vicious affordable housing crisis that plagues both Santa Cruz and Vancouver. I think there is a famous song about this

Which Side Are You On?

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Tuesday, May 15, 2018

#135 / Financial Strip Mining

Pictured is Les Leopold, cofounder of the Labor Institute, a non-profit organization that designs research and educational programs on occupational safety and health, the environment, and economics for unions, worker centers and community organizations.

Recently, The Sun Magazine ran an interview with Leopold, titled as follows: "An Embarrassment of Riches: Les Leopold on Forty Years of Runaway Inequality."

Leopold calls what has been happening to our economy "financial strip mining." If you would like to know how that works, and how it has happened that the three wealthiest people in the United States control more wealth than the bottom fifty percent of the entire population (approximately 163 million people), you should read the interview. I don't think I have ever seen a clearer explanation of the various mechanisms that have devastated the lives of so many ordinary Americans. 

Of course, knowing what has happened, and is still happening, is only step one. As Karl Marx has so accurately observed: "The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it."

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Monday, May 14, 2018

#134 / Customer, Client, Consumer, Community

Carina Chocano is asking, "Can people form a real 'community' when someone else is making all the rules?" The question comes from Chocano's "First Words" column in The New York Times Magazine. The hard copy version of the column is titled, "Group Think." 

One of the main points that Chocano makes is that the word "community" is now being used, in politics, to "convert huge groups of people into neat, undifferentiated units." The designation of a named "community" is now being utilized to denote what might actually be called a "segregation" of society at large into a series of separate entities. The "Black community" is really "black people;" the "Gay and Lesbian community" refers to gays and lesbians. 

Genuine community is the very opposite of such congregated categorical designations. "Community" includes everyone, across all the categories, and the key thing to realize about any community is the incredible diversity that is always present. 

Finding a way to make collective decisions in a community characterized by diversity and difference is what a healthy politics is all about. 

A healthy politics requires the exact opposite of "group think," now sometimes called "identity politics."

Think about that!

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Sunday, May 13, 2018

#133 / Another 1,000 Words Picture

There you have it. This image is from The Nature Conservancy.

Pretty much does say it all.

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Saturday, May 12, 2018

#132 / Wisdom From Rosie Revere

Marissa Mayer, the former CEO of Yahoo, is "still standing, and planning the next act." This is what we learn from David Gelles in his "Corner Office" column in The New York Times

What do we learn from Mayer? Among other things, Mayer cites to a children's book, Rosie Revere, Engineer, as a source of essential wisdom. 

I have to admit that what Rosie says, is right on target: 

Life might have its failures, but this was not it. The only true failure can come if you quit.

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Friday, May 11, 2018

#131 / The Twitter Mob

The picture above illustrates an article in The Wall Street Journal entitled, "When the Twitter Mob Came for Me." The article was written by a conservative political commentator, Kevin D. Williamson, and bemoans the fact that Williamson was, as he sees it, hounded from his new job at The Atlantic by swarms of unfair and largely unjustified comments relating to one of his long ago statements that was taken out of context. He suggested (not seriously, he claims) that anyone involved in an abortion should be hanged until dead.

Another example of how an online "mob" might cause real grief, to real people, in the real world, is the story related by Jesselyn Cook, a Canadian-American journalist, who writes for HuffPost, and who seems to be of a more or less "progressive" persuasion, politically. Cook relates her experience with Facebook, not Twitter, and tells us about an online reaction to a picture, which made her look rather attractive, and an accompanying invitation to comment on whether she should be "smashed" or "passed." Cook identifies the comments made in response to this invitation (completely unprovoked by anything she said or did) as "sexual harassment." Her story is truly distressing.

If you click the links, you can get the details of both Cook's and Williamson's experiences. It appears to be pretty clear that neither Williamson nor Cook were treated fairly by the online commenters who attacked and demeaned them. Is there something we can, or should, be doing about that?

Basic tort law might well allow both Cook and Williamson successfully to sue those who harassed and demeaned them. Suing Facebook and Twitter directly, however, would not be a successful legal strategy, since such online platforms are legally shielded from liability for what persons who use these platforms say. 

The situation is analogous to the problem that you or I would have if we attempted to sue the telephone company because someone harassed us over the telephone lines. You can't successfully sue the telephone company for what someone says on the phone, and you can't sue an online service provider for what people say as they use their online service. Click right here for an outline of defamation law and social media.

While the kind of attacks that Williamson and Cook suffered are genuinely distressing, and the power of social media to amplify such personal attacks is obvious, there isn't any easy way to provide additional help for those who have been attacked online, though we do need to be working on the problem. 

An article in The New York Times on April 22, 2018, indicates the horrors that can follow when untrue and inflammatory stories are disseminated on social media. Reporters Amanda Taub and Max Fisher document how inflammatory postings on Facebook led to arson and murder in Sri Lanka, stoking fires of ethnic cleansing. As The Times headline writer put it: "Where Countries Are Tinderboxes and Facebook Is a Match." A presidential adviser in Sri Lanka, commenting on the story told by Taub and Fisher, said it this way: "We don’t completely blame Facebook. The germs are ours, but Facebook is the wind, you know?”

Considering how quickly the winds of contagion and outrage can disseminate hatred online, in a way that causes real world consequences, from personal attacks to murder, this might be another good reason to live more of our lives offline.

In the real world, I mean!

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Thursday, May 10, 2018

#130 / Form 9

Yesterday, I advanced the idea that most of the time people will do what they think they are expected to do. People get a "tip" on how they should behave by looking around. They then conform their behavior to what they understand to be the social expectation. 

Of course, that doesn't always work, but it does in a lot of cases.

An article in the April 22, 2018, edition of The New York Times, entitled "What Hospitals Can Teach the Police," provides an excellent discussion of the phenomenon. I encourage you to read it. The article, about how health care facilities have learned to deal with "crazy" people, is interesting in and of itself, and police agencies should, as the article suggests, start trying to utilize similar practices.

Here is one of the stories in the article that I found particularly compelling: 

At the Boston University Medical Center, security staff members teach a kind of tactical pause to residents and fourth-year medical students who do home visits. Constance L. Packard, executive director of support services for the center, told me, “Sometimes if the patient gets too anxious we’ll teach a person to say, ‘Let me get right back to you, because I need to go get a Form 9.’ There’s no such thing as a Form 9,” Ms. Packard continued. “It’s just a way of stopping the action.”

There is no Form 9, but going to get one can be, to use an old advertising slogan, the "pause that refreshes." The agitated person calms down, as he or she waits for the arrival of that vital Form 9!

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Wednesday, May 9, 2018

#129 / Heroics 101

Dr. Philip Zimbardo (pictured) is sometimes thought of as "Dr. Evil." At least, that is how the San Francisco Chronicle characterizes him in a story that ran in its April 21, 2018, edition.

Zimbardo has had a long and distinguished career as a psychologist (he has written sixty books), but he is still best known for his "Stanford Prison Experiment," carried out at my alma mater in 1971. 

If you don't know about this famous demonstration of how quickly ordinary people can be cajoled into barbarism (in other words, if you don't know anything about Hitler's Germany, or Abu Ghraib), just click the link I have provided. There is, in fact, a movie about the experiment that recreates the horror provoked by Zimbardo's role-playing exercise in the basement of Stanford's Jordan Hall

Click the link for the trailer. You'll get the idea!

The Chronicle article reports that Zimbardo has moved from the "dark side" to the "light side," in terms of his current work. He is, in fact, trying to find out how ordinary people can be turned into "heroes." In other words, since we now know that ordinary people can be turned into ruthless, sadistic killers with relatively little difficulty, could we move such ordinary people in the opposite direction?

So far, there is no documentation that any classroom exercise has been successful in converting ordinary students into replicas of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., or Mother Teresa.  Nonetheless....

It is my strong belief, based on my personal experience, and not based on any scientific study, that people will usually respond to any situation in the way that they believe others expect them to respond. This powerful principle of human behavior is what motivated the students who participated in the Stanford Prison experiment to turn into sadists. I don't see any reason that the polarity of this powerful principle can't be reversed. 

A long time ago, Thomas Carlyle wrote On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History. He wrote Sartor Resartus, too, which pretty much makes the point I have outlined above. 

As is true in every area of education, you don't actually need to take a college course to learn something. We can become "heroes," and inspire others in that direction, by starting to expect the best, not the worst, from ourselves and everyone we know. 

We need to do this, particularly, with those with whom we disagree, and those whom we don't like very much!! Assuming the worst about people is an almost certain guarantee we will get the worst. 

Let's try working in the opposite direction. 

Call it Heroics 101.

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Tuesday, May 8, 2018

#128 / Telegram

The United States government wants technology companies to provide a "backdoor" to any computer application, program, or device used in our country, to give government a guarantee that the government can always have access to everyone's data, even if a person has sought to encrypt that data, and to keep it private. 

As it turns out, the government of Russia wants exactly the same thing! In an article in the April 19, 2018, edition of The New York Times, Neil MacFarquhar reports that the Russian government went after Telegram, which has designed and marketed a popular and secure messaging application. Telegram's commitment to encryption is robust, and its corporate symbol is a paper airplane (see above).

See below for a street scene in Moscow, where demonstrators threw paper airplanes, as a protest, at the headquarters of Russia's secret police. 

It would be hard to overstate the importance of this issue. The information each one of us keeps, in digital form, on our computers and cellphones, is generally equivalent to a complete record of everything we have ever done, thought, or said. 

Even if you think you have "nothing to hide," Americans have always believed that the government can have access to our "persons, houses, papers, and effects," ONLY when we provide an affirmative consent to the government to have such access, or after a judge issues a warrant, based "upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized." 

That's quoting the Fourth Amendment, if you can't quite place the language. 

Telegram, Apple, and other technology companies are trying to make it possible to provide genuine Fourth Amendment guarantees in a digital world in which this is increasingly hard to do. 

I say, hats off to Telegram and all those companies fighting for secure encryption, with no "backdoor."

It is also nice to see that people in Russia are starting to figure out what we have known for something like 240 years!

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Monday, May 7, 2018

#127 / Some Advice For Voters

Pictured is Coyote Valley, located in Santa Clara County. As I learned from the latest edition of greenfootnotes, a quarterly bulletin published by Committee For Green Foothills, Coyote Valley is being threatened by an initiative measure sponsored by developers. 

Measure B, which will be on the ballot in June 2018, bills itself as a way to provide affordable housing for seniors. The sponsors of Measure B have a specific development project in mind, which Measure B would essentially approve, if the Measure is enacted by the voters. However, the language of the initiative goes further than this single project, and would allow the conversion and residential development of any land designated for industrial or commercial uses and not yet developed. If you would like to find out more, you can click this link for an explanation of Measure B by the Committee For Green Foothills. Here is a link that would allow you to express your personal opposition to Measure B.

As I read the analysis of the Measure, which is clearly designed to sound appealing to voters, I thought of a simple rule to apply whenever a voter is confronted by an initiative measure proposing some sort of land use policy change or project approval. 

Here is the rule: if the measure is sponsored by a developer, and focuses either on a specific project, or on land use policy changes, or both (as in the case of Measure B), you can be totally assured that the aim of the Measure is not to promote the public interest, but to promote the developer's interest. 

I have had a good deal of experience with inititive measures, and I think that the formulation just outlined is correct. 

Initiative measures sponsored by developers are intended to avoid the public hearing processes that allow significant public participation to affect the decision ultimately made. Where there are any problematic aspects to a development proposal, normal land use review procedures allow elected officials, after hearing from the public, to make changes to a proposed project. Utilizing an initiative, which asks for a direct vote of the people, is, oddly enough, a tried and true way for developers to avoid genuine public scrutiny. 

Basically, here's the rule: 

If a developer proposes and qualifies an initiative measure to approve a development project or to make a land use policy change, just vote "NO."

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Sunday, May 6, 2018

#126 / "They"?

I am not a fan of horror movies, and I don't think I have actually ever watched one. I do know, however, the name of a horror movie that some believe is one of the best horror movies of all time: A Nightmare On Elm Street. Click the link to read a "best" to "worst" ranking of all nine editions of this movie. Like real nightmares sometimes do, A Nightmare On Elm Street keeps coming back. 

I began thinking about recurring nightmares (and horror movies) when I heard that there is another book out that rehashes "What Happened" during the 2016 presidential election. That election did give us a nightmare president who has a certain Freddy Krueger-like quality about him, slashing away at everything decent and good. By the way, that is Freddy pictured at the top of this blog posting. He is the main character in A Nightmare on Elm Street. At least, so I am informed. 

Repeatedly trying to figure out how we could have ended up with a horror show president does seem like a recurring nightmare to me. How could this have happened? What went wrong? Why has this become our destiny? We keep asking ourselves about the election, and we keep trying to find some way to explain it. Hillary Clinton has written a book with her explanation, and there seem to be lots of other opinions, besides. 

The latest entry in the recurring nightmare of efforts to explain the 2016 election is a book titled, Chasing Hillary: Ten Years, Two Presidential Campaigns, and One Intact Glass Ceiling. This effort at explanation, by New York Times' reporter Amy Chozick, provides what Amazon calls "the real story of what happened in the 2016 election, told through the dishy, rollicking, deeply personal story of one New York Times journalist's career covering the First Woman President who wasn't."

As is so often true, I haven't read the book I am talking about, only a short summary, published in The Times and authored by Amy Chozick herself. Prominently featured in The Times' article is the following "pull quote," providing Hillary Clinton's bottom line evaluation of why she lost:

"They Were Never Going to Let Me Be President"

That pull quote headline definitely grabbed my attention. It is a great example of what makes the constant reevaluations of the 2016 election such a recurring nightmare for me. Time after time, Hillary Clinton simply refuses to "Move On," to admit that she lost the election, and that it is a lot less important to assign blame than to figure out how to go forward now.

As for this "they" who were never going to let Hillary Clinton win: what is that all about? According to former President Bill Clinton (if you credit Amy Chozick), "they" means The New York Times!

Since I haven't read the book, I can only comment on the summary. I do recommend you read the summary. 

Read it, and then pray with me that the recurring nightmare of trying to find some excuse for Hillary Clinton's loss of the election will go away forever, so we can stop rehashing the past, and start figuring out what to do now, as we face an ever more horror-inducing future.

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Saturday, May 5, 2018

#125 / Breaking The Bubble

A brief article in the online magazine Aeon defines an "epistemic bubble" as "an informational network from which relevant voices have been excluded by omission." "Epistemic" is defined as "of or relating to knowledge or knowing." When we are caught inside an "epistemic bubble" we only know what is inside the bubble. Other views and contrary information are simply not available. 

It may well be that our location within an epistemic bubble is wholly inadvertent. Without any specific or active effort to exclude information that might challenge the views we already have, we end up only hearing and finding out about information that is consistent with what we already think. Because we increasingly live within a "digital world," we increasingly find ourselves inside such epistemic bubbles. We only know what the Facebook algorithm tell us, and we get the news that we have programmed into our Google alerts to receive. 

If we are trapped inside an epistemic bubble, we need to break out.  

After talking about epistemic bubbles, the Aeon article goes on to distinguish these epistemic bubbles from an "echo chamber." 

Where an epistemic bubble merely omits contrary views, an echo chamber brings its members to actively distrust outsiders. In their book, Echo Chamber: Rush Limbaugh and the Conservative Media Establishment, Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Frank Cappella offer a groundbreaking analysis of the phenomenon. For them, an echo chamber is something like a cult. A cult isolates its members by actively alienating them from any outside sources. Those outside are actively labelled as malignant and untrustworthy. A cult member’s trust is narrowed, aimed with laser-like focus on certain insider voices. In epistemic bubbles, other voices are not heard; in echo chambers, other voices are actively undermined.

Whether we find ourselves in an "epistemic bubble" or an "echo chamber," we need to break out.

But how to do that? The only real way, I think, is by contact with "random" human beings, and particularly human beings with whom we can form trusting relationships, after we have met them, and talked to them for a while. By "random," I mean people who do not already come prepackaged, as either supporters or opponents, as either friends or enemies. Just "people," in the raw. 

When you think about it, our whole system of representative democracy is based on the idea that those to whom we have given the power to represent us will, inevitably, be continually meeting with their constituents and hearing from "the public."

The "public," all of us, is the ultimate repository of governmental power. We can't delegate everything to the politicians. That means that each one of us, like the politicians to whom we have officially delegated the work of representing us, must understand that we, too, need avidly to seek out "random" people, our peers in the public, to see what they think, and what they have to say. 

If we are trapped in a bubble, if we are trapped in an echo chamber, we do need to break out. We need to talk to people we don't really know.

We need to take very seriously what they think. 

We need to think, very hard, about what they say!

That's the way we break the bubble.

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