Politics of Civility

We hear a lot about how politics is unnecessarily harsh these days. I was reminded of it recently via both Reddit and Digg. Both linked to reports of what happened during a debate between Al Franken and Ann Coulter. Here’s the opening of the speech plus discussion on Al Franken’s web site. You can read another account with discussion on Free Republic.

If you read the comments on each site, particularly focusing on the comments about Al Franken by Republicans or about Ann Coulter by Democrats, you’ll probably note that they can be intensely personal and rather nasty. I’ve seen (in other places) people of both sides note how the other side constantly uses personal attacks. Reading these discussions makes it pretty obvious that no side has a monopoly on that sort of thing.

I can come up with possible reasons pretty quickly. They might include:
1. The blending of the public and the personal that Joshua Myerowitz suggests that technological communication promotes in his book No Sense of Place. Personal attacks on politicians are a logical result.
2. It could simply be that online communication makes it easier to be rude.
3. it could be that political parties and activist groups demonize the other side too successfully, making rational communication hard.
4. It might be that harshness of political rhetoric goes in cycles and soon this too shall pass.

That being said, it may be that imagining our time is somehow abnormal in the harshness of the rhetoric that’s inaccurate. I always heard that a person should avoid discussing religion and politics if you want to have a pleasant conversation.

Anyway, here’s a list of what I like in a conversation about politics:
1. Discussing the pros and cons of an issue, but, allowing for the possibility that you might be wrong or haven’t considered certain aspects of a problem.
2. Avoiding excessive language. By this I’m not meaning swearing. I mean overly broad statements about the worth of an idea or the worthlessness of a particular perspective (“Well of course you think that, you’re a Republican/Democrat/Scientologist…” or “Bush/Clinton is evil/has no morals/has bodies buried under the East Lawn”).
3. Allowing people to save face. Saying “I told you so” or making it clear that someone with a particular perspective is an idiot means it will take that much longer (if ever) for them to tell you that they’ve changed their mind. Who wants to admit to being a fool?
4. Giving someone the benefit of the doubt. Politics is something people feel passionate about. Sometimes they say something stupid while promoting their beliefs. So does everyone.

I don’t write this under the illusion that it will change anything, but would very much like to talk about politics without having other people go into massive rants in front of me.

Online Comics: PVP and Race

PVP is a webcomic that generally focuses on interpersonal relationships, work, role playing games, geek culture, and computer gaming. It does not generally focus on social issues.

Last week Scott Kurtz did an interesting thing in that he let us into his head as he was trying to write a black character, something that he’s apparently not entirely comfortable with.

If you read the two comics I just linked in the preceding paragraph you’ll know exactly what I mean by that. If you didn’t you might want to because what follows will assume you did, possibly ruining the humor in the process.

Anyway, I can understand why Kurtz might feel uncomfortable writing a black character. I’m writing a novel–one that includes a black character–and I’ve sometimes felt a little nervous as I do it. There are a number of reasons that a white writer might feel nervous about writing a black character.

The first and best one is simply the need to have the character feel authentic and real to to the reader. If you’re black you will have experiences and assumptions that are different from those of your average white writer. If you are a white writer and you’re realistic, you know that you can only guess as to what those experiences might be. How are you going to avoid screwing things up and making the character feel fake?

Unfortunately for the realistic writer, however, there’s more of a risk than simply having the character feel not quite right. There’s also the risk of having the character come off as a racial stereotype. Having the character feel fake is merely a technical failure. Having the character turn out to be a racial stereotype (unintentional as it might be) opens you up for public humiliation.

To me this underlines something about current moment in the US experience of race and racism. As a society, we’ve come to the point where most people agree that racism is wrong, but it’s still such a raw wound that it’s hard to talk about it publicly.

The obvious and best solution is to write a person of whatever race (or gender) as first of all a person and hope that common humanity will carry the day. I think about Michael Bishop who included a gay AIDS patient in his novel Unicorn Mountain. Michael Bishop isn’t gay, doesn’t have AIDS and doesn’t obviously have a lot in common with the character.

He made the person feel like a real human being and his gay character seemed as real to me as Samuel R. Delany’s various gay characters (Delany, incidentally, is gay). Of course, I’m not gay so I may have missed something there.

I am, however, a US citizen of Dutch descent and though that’s far from a persecuted minority, it has been interesting to read books in which people of Dutch descent appear. For example, at least in the books I read, the primary association with being Dutch is sailors and traders. Farmers and immigrants to the US barely ever appear–and when they do it seems that they turn out to be sailors.

I remember being particularly irritated by one alternate history which imagined that England never conquered New York City/New Amsterdam. It irked me that in an alternate version of the US with a strong Dutch presence I found little awareness of Dutch Reformed thought or much of a sense of Dutch history other than “sailors and traders.”

There were also structural problems with the novel, but I won’t get into that here.

Making your characters human doesn’t always quite work either and Scott Kurtz is right to be uncomfortable, but as my comments about the above book indicate, writing about white Europeans isn’t as easy as you might assume either. I’m hoping Scott sticks with the character. Even if he makes mistakes in the process, I think he’ll eventually get the character right.

Of course, if he sticks in a character who’s descended from Dutch sailors, I’ll be cranky.

Summit on Racism 2006

I just thought I’d link to what I’ve been working on for the last week of so. Summit on Racism is a yearly conference devoted to changing the experience of race in Grand Rapids and the surrounding area.

It attempts to do more than just talk about race. The Summit is designed to promote action. People get into groups and then sign up to do things during the coming year. Mind you, not everyone continues to be involved for the year, but that’s okay too.

In any case, this year the speaker’s Bobby Moresco, the writer of the movie Crash. Also, (and more importantly) we’ll be deciding the direction of Summit on Racism and GRACE’s Racial Justice program for the next few years.

It should be interesting.

Happy Holidays, Bill O’Reilly! Or, Yet More War on Christmas

I’m pretty sure that the the world can survive without another blogger commenting on the “War on Christmas,” but I have an irrestible urge to do it. For those of you who successfully managed to avoid knowing what this semi-controversy is (and I congratulate you on that), I’ll give a quick summary. From what I understand, Steve Gibson, a reporter for Fox News wrote a book arguing that Christmas is under attack, pointing out that there’s a movement toward saying “happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”. From what I’ve seen in a clip from Bill O’Reilly’s show, they link this to the decline of religion in Europe, saying that once you push religion out of the public square you get things like legal prostitution and other social ills.

I don’t agree.

Personally, I think that the source of the decline of the European church can be traced to state sponsorship of religion. In Europe, the state sometimes owns the church buildings, pays the clergy, and generally makes it possible for the state sponsored church to be completely disconnected from public wants.

By contrast, the US has a more “free-market” approach to religion. We give churches no support other than tax exempt status. Our churches have to be dynamically engaged with the culture they live in or die. And they do die. Where are the Shakers now? They used to be huge. By contrast, Pentecostals have grown immensely and so have other religious groups.

It seems to me that what Bill O’Reilly and Steve Gibson are advocating is more akin to state sponsorship of churches than anything else. In this case, of course, it’s more pressuring companies than passing laws, but, what’s the best case scenario if the general culture listens to them? Employees of various stores will say “Merry Christmas” whether they are Christian or not. More stores will have “Merry Christmas” signs instead of “Happy Holidays” signs. This won’t represent an honest desire to honor Christ. It will just be a realistic approach to avoiding a boycott.

I’m trying hard to think of anything good that can come of it.

Honestly, I don’t think anything bad is going to come of it either since I suspect this issue will evaporate once Christmas passes just like the whole “Christmas is getting too materialistic” concern seems to evaporate every year.

At core, the whole “War on Christmas” thing points to a larger anxiety that Christianity is disappearing from our culture. I don’t know if that’s true. Assuming that church attendance represents some level of commitment to Christianity, I’m told that the percentage of people attending church (around 40%) and the sex ratio (trending female) has been roughly the same for much of the country’s history.

If this is true then the “War on Christmas” is more perception than reality.

On the other hand, it might be that numbers don’t tell the whole story. It may be that Christianity is getting less influential and less important to the people who profess it. If so, pushing stores to continue saying “Merry Christmas” strikes me as more of a band-aid than a solution. If people believe in Christ, then it doesn’t matter whether the religion’s holidays are part of public life or not. If people don’t believe, you’re doomed from the start.

It’s in reference to things like this that I envy Orthodox Christians. They use a different calendar for determining when they celebrate religious holidays. As a result, there’s no confusion between what’s going on in public life and what they celebrate religiously. They get to have a Santa Christmas and a “real” one a few weeks later.

It makes obvious what I think is the real truth of things–the public Christmas has little if anything to do with Christianity. It’s a civil, commercial holiday that piggybacks on the religious holiday. I’m inclined to enjoy it for what it is and try not to confuse it with the celebration of Christ’s birth that goes on at the same time.

A History of Not Eating

Here’s a book I’d like to read if something like it exists:

A book that traces eating and not eating through history and pays attention to the cultural and resource related reasons that people eat or don’t eat. In an ideal world, it would attempt to relate food taboos (for example: keeping kosher), vegetarianism, diets, anorexia/bulimia and fasting. It might also consider the Temperance movement.

What’s interesting about the topic:
1. For example: In the past, when people were often only just barely above starvation, fasting was a common religious discipline. Today, in an age of excess food (at least in the US), fasting is uncommon.
2. Is anorexia/bulimia a modern problem or did it happen throughout history and only now has become recognized? Also, are the people most likely to diet a different demographic group than the people most likely to have anorexia or bulimia? Is the process of a person becoming convinced to go on a diet similar or different from the process of developing an eating disorder?
3. In the past, food taboos came about for various reasons, some of them cultural/religious, some of them related to available resources. For example, people refusing to eat meat dedicated to a god not their own would be a cultural/religious reason. Refusing to eat snake because catching a snake uses more calories than the actual snake provides would be a resource related reason.

By contrast, today’s food taboos are totally individual. These range from losing weight (by avoiding carbohydrates/fat/only eating special soups/only eating cabbage and beans…) to attempting to change the world via your change in diet. Examples of the latter can include vegetarians of all stripes (vegans, raw foods, macrobiotic diets…), but can also include people who don’t eat processed sugar or other foods with labor practices they disapprove of.

Similarly, in the relatively recent past, the Temperance movement pushed people not to drink alchohol. Part of the reason for this was reasonable: in an industrial society (one with factories) drinking causes accidents with heavy machinery. Also, alchoholism can cause people to waste money that could be spent on rent or food. Of course, that’s not the only reason people were into the Temperance movement. There’s a lot of evidence out there that the push to stop drinking was also an effort to control immigrants (Irish, Swedes, Norwegians, Polish…) of the period as they were percieved to be likely to drink a lot.

There’s got to be a way to pull this together into an interesting, popularly accessible narrative.

Paul Graham’s “Inequality and Risk”

In reading Ed’s blog today, I ran across a post that raised some issues that I can’t help but respond to.

So let’s think about Graham’s essay. The gist of it seems to be that high taxes on the rich makes start-ups not worth the risk for venture capitalists because they just don’t pay off well enough. Thus we shouldn’t overtax but we should make the use of wealth transparent so that wealth doesn’t result in great power.

I’ll take the second assumption first and make a couple comments. First, the idea of logging all transactions sounds pretty good. It allows a person to see what wealth affects and it’s already in practice in the form of being able to check who gave what donation to which politician. So presumably we’d take this a little further. I’m curious as to how far though, and, who does the watching. The government? Private firms? Also, what’s transparent? Is every ATM transaction open to everyone’s inspection? Is it limited to people with wealth or am I included?

In all honesty, I don’t really think it’d be possible to monitor financial transactions to the point that everything’s transparent. Even if we could, I’m not convinced that living in a society where everything’s transparent is automatically desirable (I’m open to it though).

Even if we could monitor transactions to the point that wealth’s effect could be monitored, I don’t think that we could monitor the connections between wealthy people. As in “Bob” went to college/is related to “Joe” who’s sister is married to a senator or something. That’s the sort of connection that can get people favors. Monitoring that sort of thing would be hard or impossible.

That being said, let’s get back to the first issue then… I think Graham’s right in that if you tax too much, you do discourage investment and you probably do discourage innovation.


What I’m not sure about is what sort of policies he’s imagining when he talks about shifting money from the poor to the rich, or for that matter, what he means by poor. Is it using exorbitant taxation to move all the poor into a better economic bracket? Or is he against paying to move people off the streets and into homeless shelters? Or is it simply any policy that causes taxation of the wealthy to go past some magic number of return on investment?

Just for the record, I tend to think that exhorbitant taxation seems more likely to result from war and natural disasters for the near future. Even if Bush refuses to raise taxes, we’re going to either have to either pay more or spend less to get rid of the debt. Either way, social spending is likely to be less of a priority for a while.

As such, I’d like to balance the thought that exhorbitant taxation on the rich reduces innovation against another thought: Unmet physical needs also reduce innovation.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs posits that people need to met certain minimum physical needs before they can concentrate on education and creative, risky ideas. I think the theory’s likely to be right in its general assumptions even though I might want to quibble with what Maslow regarded to be the highest of human needs.

To my mind what matters is the kind of inequality. Inequality isn’t so bad if it means that Bill Gates is exceptionally wealthy but a large group of “poor” people exist that have enough to eat, have air conditioned apartments and can pay their bills. Inequality is very bad thing if it means that there is a large group of poor people living on the streets, having only emergency room healthcare, or digging through dumpsters for food.

The good news is that our proportion of the former sort of poor people is larger than the latter. The bad news is that the latter sort of poor people still exist.

We lose the potential innovation of all those people scrambling for basic survival as long as their basic needs aren’t met. When they don’t have food on the table, they aren’t coming up with the next innovation in online commerce.

What I wish I knew was how long people typically stay in poverty in the US. Also, what effects does growing up in poverty have on a person’s future ability to think and create?

What I’m saying is that taxes vs. profit is a very narrow window to consider the topic of economic inequality under. It may well be that once a person brings the damage of poverty on a person’s potential into the equation, you might find that higher taxes would be a better choice.

I’m not saying I know the answer, I’m just pointing out that there’s more to be considered than taxes and their effect on venture capitalists.

The Most Dangerous Corner in Grand Rapids

Ed went to Calvin College. I went to Hope. I ended up learning about the layout of Grand Rapids through visiting him at the various places he lived during college.

One year he lived in a big old house near the corner of Franklin and College. I’d visit him and Joe on some weekend night to hang out or game. Sometimes I’d discover something new about the inner city of Grand Rapids.

For example, I learned to avoid the corner of Eastern and Franklin. Not too far from Ed’s place, that corner teemed with people on weekend nights. In the summer, the sidewalks were full of teenagers and twenty-somethings, almost all of them African-American so far as we could tell.

We had no idea why anyone would gather there. The corner didn’t have any interesting shops. The only open business was a gas station.

Personally, we never had any trouble there, but we referred to it as “the most dangerous corner in Grand Rapids” anyway. It wasn’t totally unreasonable. I later learned that someone had stopped at that corner in his car, had his window broken, was pulled out, beaten and ultimately needed to go to the hospital.

Between college and my moving to Grand Rapids, the corner has changed. I’ve yet to see much of anyone there when I drive through on a weekend night. The only large group I’ve seen there was a church service going on at the carwash near the corner.

When I drive through there during the week, the only consistent presence there is a member of the Nation of Islam handing out copies of “Final Call,” the religion’s newspaper. The guy even holds it out for me to view, something I find interesting. From what I understand whites were regarded to be descended from or created by Satan according to the Nation of Islam–though that may have changed.

Whatever the case, Franklin and Eastern can be declared “just another corner” in Grand Rapids now.

Seeing What We Already Believe

Taking courses in social psychology strongly affected my view of the world. How? Mostly by causing me to distrust (and test) my own perceptions of reality.

People tend to perceive what they already believe to be the case. Give someone an essay about abortion with an equal number of arguments for and against legal abortion and they are more likely to remember the arguments that support what they already believe. Not only has this experiment been done, but it’s been reproduced.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact I’d argue it might even be useful, helping people to stay on a particular course in life even against contradictory evidence. Contradictory evidence is sometimes merely the exception that proves the rule.

A practical result of this and other tendencies is that there is a “web of plausibility” for each of us, a collection of beliefs that we have that determine what we see in the world around us.

Thus Christians might see the hand of God in something ordinary and I suspect that an atheist might be able to find the ordinary even in an “obviously” supernatural event. I know that when confronted with stories of psychic phenomena or situations in which horoscopes seem to be accurate, I’m skeptical. Though a Christian, I don’t assume stories of supernatural events are true and tend to regard tales of psychic phenomena as improbable.

Politics provides all too many good examples of people’s willingness to believe what already fits in their worldview. Within the last few weeks, Matt Drudge linked to a story about a 17 million dollar, government funded homeless shelter that contained a movie room, gym, and hair salon.

Now if you happen to believe that the government is generally wasteful and spends too much money on the poor (whether or not you’re right about that), that story would fit into what you expect to be true about the world. You might even write a blog entry about it.

Trouble is, it turns out that it’s not government funded. It’s privately funded. The “salon” is 3 barber chairs, staffed by residents. Far from being “posh,” the floors are concrete. You can listen to a NPR reporter’s account of a night there. It’s not exactly a luxury hotel.

I’m not saying that conservatives are particularly prone to this. Everyone is. To the extent that the media is biased, I tend to imagine it as being biased one reporter at a time. Where editors share assumptions with reporters, those assumptions aren’t questioned as much as they might be. Reporters, like the rest of us, have only their own perceptions to guide them.

Again, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Too much doubt about your abilities and perceptions and you miss opportunities and insights that might have helped you. Too much confidence and you miss the fact that the world doesn’t fit your preconceptions, but at least you’re trying something–the good point about disaster is that it does sometimes point out where you’re wrong.

And sometimes people even learn from that.

Between Life and Death

Not so long ago I was working on a master’s degree in sociology. Medical sociology interested me enough to take a course in it and also to work as a graduate assistant to one of the medical sociologists in the department.

Issues around human control of life and death (abortion, euthanasia, research into longevity) particularly interest me.

The Sociology of Technology and the End of Life
During the class I took, I had to write a term paper. I wanted to write about the effects of technology on the issue of euthanasia. For example, people in even the recent past could not be kept alive as they as they can now. You can keep a body alive long past the point at which consciousness ends. Similarly consciousness can still exist when the body is an utter wreck, incapable of communicating with the world around it. That sort of situation is bound to create new opportunities for society to develop its ideas about issues of life and death.

Alas, there wasn’t any research that directly applied. This would have been great if I were attempting to do a doctoral dissertation. Contributing new ideas to scholarship is the whole point of getting a doctorate. Unfortunately it’s not the point of a term paper. The point of a term paper is coming to understand other people’s knowlege. I ended up doing something more workable–a look at the demographics of who supports and who opposes euthanasia and comparing them to the predictions of sociological theory.

Euthanasia in Non-Industrial Societies
I won’t go into that here, but in the process of doing research I ran across an anthropologist’s article about issues surrounding human control of death. At the time, I found it interesting that non-industrial societies sometimes handled life and death in a very ruthless (if practical) way. Babies that made it hard for the tribe to survive were starved to death. Older people whose physical handicaps consumed too many resources were murdered, sometimes with their consent.

We don’t presently live that close to the edge of survival. We live in an age of relative plenty.

Modern Issues in Life and Death
For us the question isn’t “Will the effort of taking care of ‘Old Uncle John’ doom us to starvation this winter?” It is usually a question that’s more philosophical. We end up asking “Is this person alive or dead? Does turning off this machine end a charade of life or does it murder a living being?”

Oddly enough, we aren’t the first people to ever be in this situation. Death has been a subtle distinction from life for much of human history. In the past, of course, death was the more likely answer in cases of doubt. Lifesigns could easily go beneath a human’s ability to detect. It was possible to bury a living person and not realize it. On the other hand, someone whose lifesigns were that faint was unlikely to be healed at that level of technology.

One difference between the past and the present is that past societies often reached some sort of consensus about what death is, giving them a point at which they could stop worrying about a persons’s survival and move on to the process of grieving. Thanks to modern technology, however, we’ve opened up the process of death into a series of questions.

We can stop the process to a degree, giving a temporary resting point, potentially allowing people the time to heal, but also potentially uselessly delaying the inevitable.

And our well-intentioned medical professionals can only quote probabilities about what’s going to happen. They don’t really know for sure the results of this particular case.

Reaching a Modern Consensus

Thus the whole question moves out of science and into personal beliefs. Can you live with not giving this person who you love a week? Years? How long? At what point are you willing to give up? Are you ever willing to give up?

I suspect that our society will reach a level of knowlege and accumulate a series of traditions surrounding situations similar to Terry Schiavo’s, but we haven’t yet. Until we reach some sort of cultural consensus about the technological options surrounding death, we’ll be seeing families’ private struggles in the headlines.

Hopefully their struggles will help clarify the issues we face and bring us forward into clarity, but I’d rather they not have to face such tragic choices.

Safe Spaces, Social Movements and the Internet

Every so often my imagination returns to the subject of my last master’s degree–sociology.

Recently I’ve been thinking about social movements and the internet. This is no big surprise to those of you who know that my master’s thesis analyzed the content of the Promise Keepers website. My recent thoughts are just some basic ideas about a barely remembered article by William Gamson. William Gamson is a theorist in the area of social movements and social movement organizations.

Social movements are a collection of ideas/perspectives (conservatism, for example) that people attempt to implement. Social movement organizations are the organized method of implementing the ideas (the Republican party, perhaps?).

When I was working on my masters, I got a look at an article Gamson had written about safe spaces, social movements and the internet. I don’t know if he’s since published it, but he was nice enough to mail me a copy after I discovered that he’d delivered the paper at a conference.

The gist of it was that social movements could use the internet as “safe spaces.” Safe spaces are places that movement members could create their perspectives, refine their ideas, and do it without constant interruption by those who disagree with their premises. There are safe spaces outside of the internet obviously. Feminists constructed them in the form of “consciousness raising” groups. Black churches probably represent safe spaces for the civil rights movement.

I’ve got a few anecdotal observations about how this works out in practice. The first is that unless you’re willing to password protect your discussion forums/website, your safe spaces will be observed by people who are not within your group. This makes them a bit less safe.

Secondly, you may not know that you’re being observed even when you are. I often read forums of groups that I don’t agree with. This ranges from people of differing religions, differing political perspectives (more right/left than I) to differing intellectual interests. I never bother to post because I don’t particularly like being excoriated by random strangers. I suspect that there are other people like me. This might mean that the ideas of new groups are being disseminated more quickly. It might mean that arguments against their ideas are being formulated earlier in the process. Probably both, depending on the particular example.

Thirdly, I’ve often noticed that (particularly in the political blogs) people who violate the assumptions of the core group get pretty solidly flamed. I doubt that people would be as nasty in person as they are in print online. It reminds me of the Reformation period when Calvin (and other scholars) would write pamphlets that included calling one’s opponents dogs, swine, and worms in the course of a theological argument.

I don’t know whether this sort of insulting, no holds barred argument helps or hurts the creation of safe spaces or is an inevitable result of their creation. One might argue that it encourages it in that it creates a shared experience of removing “the jerk” from the room. It might destroy said safe space if the group becomes too aligned to certain ideas and persecutes even small variations from them.

It’d be interesting to study the process of the formation of safe spaces and see if there are patterns in the formation and destruction of such groups–and if online patterns differ from offline.

Thinking about it makes me wish I were getting a Ph.d in sociology with an emphasis on social movements.