Category Archives: Social Order & Disorder

The Bully Pulpit

Theodore Roosevelt“I suppose my critics will call that preaching, but I have got such a bully pulpit!”

US President Theodore Roosevelt uttered those words in office (reported in the February 27, 1909, issue of The Outlook magazine), coining the phrase ‘bully pulpit’ in referring to the presidency as an ideal platform from which to expound his ideas and advocate his causes.

Of course, in his day, bully – a word with which Roosevelt was very fond – as an adjective meant ‘excellent,’ ‘first-rate,’ ‘jovial’ or just ‘good’ – a usage we still share when we say ‘bully for you.’ His bully pulpit, however, was a moral platform.

Roosevelt wasn’t commenting on having a platform of influence from which to bully people in today’s more common use of the noun to describe “a blustering, quarrelsome, overbearing person who habitually badgers and intimidates smaller or weaker people.”*

Both uses of the word bully come from the Dutch boele, meaning ‘lover’ and it was originally a term of endearment. They migrated to their odd, double meaning in the 17th century.

National Post reviewI came across the term recently in the title of Doris Goodwin’s book, “The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt , William Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journalism,” which I picked up last week, mostly for its references to the historical development of journalism.** But the politics also interest me and, since I am not as well-versed in American history and politics of that era as I am in other periods, I wanted to educate myself.

Roosevelt is fascinating in that he was a Republican and very progressive – yet it’s a party today we associate with backwardness, the entitlement of the 1%, racism, promoting anti-Christian policies while pretending to be devout and religious***, anti-environmental, anti-science, intolerant, corrupt, petty, mean-spirited spokespeople for whichever industry or corporation buys their votes.

Yet remarkably, in Roosevelt’s day, the Republicans were the progressive party, and it was under Roosevelt that the government put limits on corporate greed, stifled the robber barons, sponsored economic and monetary reform, protected the environment and created national parks, passed socially progressive laws for education and labour… quite the opposite of today’s narrow-minded and suspicious Republicans.

In part, I wanted to read Goodwin’s book to understand, if I can, how the GOP fell from such socially responsible heights to become the despicable, misanthropic and misogynistic party it is today. As the New York Times wrote in reviewing Goodwin’s book:

Let her transport you back to the turn of the 20th century, to a time when this country had politicians of stature and conscience, when the public believed that government could right great wrongs, when, before truncated attention spans, a 50,000-word exposé of corruption could sell out magazines and galvanize a reluctant Congress. The villains seemed bigger, too, or at least more brazen — industrial barons and political bosses who monopolized entire industries, strangled entire cities. And “change” was not just a slogan. “There are but a handful of times in the history of our country,” Goodwin writes in her introduction, “when there occurs a transformation so remarkable that a molt seems to take place, and an altered country begins to emerge.” The years covered in this book are such a time. It makes a pretty grand story.

In his career as a politician, Roosevelt had a very good, close relationship with the media. He engaged them in debate and discussion, created a separate room for the media in the White House, and challenged reporters over their stories – Roosevelt also coined the phrase ‘muckraker’. But it was a relationship based on mutual respect and civility. As Goodwin writes:

…Roosevelt had established a unique relationship with numerous journalists. He debated points with them as fellow writers; regardless of the disparity in political rank, when they argued as authors, they argued as equals. He had read and freely commented upon their stories, as they felt free to criticize his public statements and speeches.

Goodwin calls the relationship between Roosevelt and the media “collegial” – the New York Times suggests ‘symbiotic” as a better choice. As the NYT tells it, Roosevelt

…allowed reporters to question him during his midday shave. Editors and writers who caught his attention would be invited for luncheon conversations that might last until midnight. With his many favorites, Roosevelt exchanged voluminous correspondence, sometimes two or three letters a week. He shared early drafts of his major policy speeches and legislative proposals, and they briefed him on their reporting projects before publication.

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Bad Thinkers and the Unknown Knowns

Critical thinkingI came across an interesting piece on bad thinking online recently. In it, the author argues some of the points I’ve mentioned in the past about people who believe in conspiracy theories, gossip and other online codswallop:

The problem with conspiracy theorists is not, as the US legal scholar Cass Sunstein argues, that they have little relevant information. The key to what they end up believing is how they interpret and respond to the vast quantities of relevant information at their disposal.

In the piece, the author, Quassim Cassam, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Warwick in Coventry, argues that the fault lies in how these people process information, not the quality or quantity of that information. They are, in other words, bad thinkers. They have intellectual vices or intellectual bad habits:

Gullibility, carelessness and closed-mindedness… negligence, idleness, rigidity, obtuseness, prejudice, lack of thoroughness, and insensitivity to detail. Intellectual character traits are habits or styles of thinking… Intellectual character traits that aid effective and responsible enquiry are intellectual virtues, whereas intellectual vices are intellectual character traits that impede effective and responsible inquiry. Humility, caution and carefulness are among the intellectual virtues…

Cassam uses a fictional character, Oliver, and his obsession with 9/11 conspiracies despite evidence that all of his conspiratorial notions can be proven wrong.

Oliver is gullible because he believes things for which he has no good evidence, and he is closed-minded because he dismisses claims for which there is excellent evidence. It’s important not to fall into the trap of thinking that what counts as good evidence is a subjective matter. To say that Oliver lacks good evidence is to draw attention to the absence of eye-witness or forensic support for his theory about 9/11, and to the fact that his theory has been refuted by experts. Oliver might not accept any of this but that is, again, a reflection of his intellectual character.

But 9/11 is only one of so many of these conspiracies and bad ideas that are like pond scum on the internet. Their following can’t all stem from bad thinking. Some might be from laziness – after all, assessing a claim properly can be hard work and our brains are our body’ biggest energy user. Some people may not have the energy (couch potatoes, for example) to expend. So it’s easier to accept a claim – no matter how fatuous – than investigate it (something the media are prone to do).

Some are actual cons and deliberate hoaxes that hook the gullible. While others – like angels and ghosts – may be superstition or wishful thinking (aka faith). Other examples may simply be eccentric expressions of our personality.

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Manufactured Terror: Bill C51

Stephen Harper wants you to be afraid. VERY afraid. If you’re frightened, you likely won’t question his and his party’s destruction of the country, the decaying economy, job losses, homelessness, the ignored murder of aboriginal women, the muffled and cowed bureaucracy, hobbling the CBC, undermining Canadian science and scientists, and our waning credibility on the world stage.

And if you’re scared, you certainly won’t challenge him or his party over the introduction of Bill C51 – ostensibly an “anti-terrorism” bill but one that threatens to take away your rights and advance Harper’s private agenda.

And, of course, it’s his tactic for winning the next federal election: by appearing Canada’s sole defender against the boogeyman of terrorism, while tarring his opponents with the epithet “soft on terror.”

But while all Canadians are concerned about the threat terrorist post to our society, our institutions and our way of life, it seems few of us think Harper’s Orwellian, Big Brother state is worth the trade. Some of us even wonder why the bill seems to ignore the growing cyber-security threats from Asia and Russia, and focus so much on Islamist extremists.

Harper has been accused by opposition leaders of fostering intolerance towards Muslims:

Tom Mulcair accused him of fostering “intolerance” and helping create “Islamophobia.”
Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, who began the attacks earlier this week by accusing Harper of spreading “fear” and “prejudice” of Muslims, jumped into the fray again on Wednesday.

But in reality, all Canadians should be worried by this bill. As the Globe and Mail noted in an editorial in February, “Anti-terrorism bill will unleash CSIS on a lot more than terrorists…”

Why does the bill do so much more than fight terrorism? One part of Bill C-51 creates a new definition of an “activity that undermines the sovereignty, security or territorial integrity of Canada” that includes “terrorism,” “interference with critical infrastructure” and “interference with the capability of the Government in relation to … the economic or financial stability of Canada….”
So what is this other class of security-underminer the bill refers to? A political party that advocates Quebec independence (there goes our “territorial integrity”)? Indian activists who disrupt a train line? Environmental activists denounced as radicals by a cabinet minister?
… if Bill C-51 passes, CSIS will be able to disrupt anything its political masters believe might be a threat. As the bill is currently written, that includes a lot more than terrorism.

But it’s not just Bill C-51 that’s a threat to civil liberty. The government also has Bill C-44, the Protection of Canada from Terrorists Act, in the wings. As the Huffington Post notes,

The bill would allow CSIS to seek a judicial warrant to investigate a security threat — “within or outside Canada.” The warrant could be issued “without regard to any other law, including that of any foreign state,” the legislation states.

An editorial on Rabble noted,

Bill C-44 is a systematic attempt by the government to circumvent the limits Canadian courts have placed on its investigative and surveillance powers, through legislative amendments. It expands the powers of CSIS to allow for surveillance activities in Canada and abroad, consequentially allowing CSEC to intercept, or allow other foreign agencies to intercept, telecommunications of Canadian citizens when travelling abroad.

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Why Elvis Matters to Collingwood

Elvis festival

There are some things that are pointless to argue, it seems. Creationism with a fundamentalist. Anti-vaccination with a New Age wingnut. Reason and logic with local  bloggers. The value of the Elvis Festival to Collingwood with a closed-minded resident.

I recently heard complaints about the cost of the 2014 festival: $74,000. More than double what the Integrity Commissioner cost taxpayers to investigate bogus, politically-motivated claims last year.

And what did we get for that $74,000? International recognition and widespread media coverage, more than 30,000 visitors, increased revenue for our hospitality sector, a full downtown, busy restaurants and hotels, people shopping in the stores…

One cannot help but be reminded of the Monty Python skit in Life of Brian on “What have the Romans ever done for us?”

All right… all right… but apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order… what have the Romans done for us?

And what did we get for the almost $33,000 we spent on the Integrity Commissioner last year? Aside from humiliation, puerile finger pointing, adding another smear on our reputation and titillating the sycophant bloggers? Nada.

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Bad News For Balderdash

Truth is truthA recent story on New Scientist gives a glimmer of hope for those of us who bemoan the swelling tsunami of claptrap and codswallop that fills the internet:

THE internet is stuffed with garbage. Anti-vaccination websites make the front page of Google, and fact-free “news” stories spread like wildfire. Google has devised a fix – rank websites according to their truthfulness.

What a relief that will be. Of course it may spell doom for the popularity of pseudoscience, conspiracy theories, fad diets, racist, anti-vaccination fearmongers, yellow journalism, Fox News, celebrity wingnuts, psychics and some local bloggers – all of whose sites have an astronomically distant relationship with fact and truth, and depend instead on the ignorance and gullibility of their readers.

Page ranking has historically been based on a complex relationship of several, mostly superficial factors: links, keywords, page views, page loading speed, etc.  – about 200 different factors determine relevance and where a page appears in a search – it’s in part a worldwide popularity contest that doesn’t measure content.

Fact ranking  – knowledge-based trust – would certainly make it more difficult for the scam artists who thrive because their sites pop up at the top of a search – which many people assume means credibility. But people would actually have to pay attention to trust rankings for them to have any effect. If you’re determined to have your aura read, or communicate with your dead aunt, or arrange your furniture with feng shui, you’ve already crossed the truth threshold into fantasy with your wallet open. Fact ranking won’t help you.

A Google research team is adapting that model to measure the trustworthiness of a page, rather than its reputation across the web. Instead of counting incoming links, the system – which is not yet live – counts the number of incorrect facts within a page…its Knowledge-Based Trust score. The software works by tapping into the Knowledge Vault, the vast store of facts that Google has pulled off the internet. Facts the web unanimously agrees on are considered a reasonable proxy for truth. Web pages that contain contradictory information are bumped down the rankings.

Garbage online affecting our decisions, our lifestyles, our pinions, our ability to make appropriate judgments, our voting and our critical thinking? Not news. Back in 2004, the Columbia Journalism Review ran a story on the ‘toxic tidal wave’ of lies and deceit affecting the US presidential campaign. One of the points it makes is that we’re awash in digital content, so much so that our ability to sort it out has been hampered by the sheer volume.

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Marx, Darwin and Machiavelli

The Age of IgnoranceWhat do these three men – three of the world’s greatest thinkers – have in common? Science? Economics? Politics? Their impact on culture and society? Their foresight or insight? Their importance to the development of modern thought? Their continued relevance today? The depth and breadth of their wisdom? The quality of their writing?

Yes, they are or have all those things, but the answer is simpler: they are among the least read authors that people attempt to speak knowingly about. All three of these authors are frequently demonized or misquoted by people who have never read their works, nor do they intend to do so, lest actual knowledge prove their preconceived ideas about them wrong.

Yet here we are in a world of complex, challenging politics at all levels where the sage advice of Machiavelli is most needed. A world where pseudoscience is spreading like a virus, and there is a rising tide of vocal anti-vaccination idiots and creationists; where the keen observations of Darwin can help us understand the scientific facts of biology. A world where the gap between the rich 1% and the rest of us grows obscenely wider every day and Marx’s insight into capitalism and wealth would surely give us some guidance on stemming this trend.

I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of people I know, or whom I have some reasonable acquaintance, who have demonstrably read Machiavelli’s shortest work: The Prince. The number I personally know who have read The Discourses? None. Art of War? History of Florence? None. Yet many people, even those I know, confidently say that Machiavelli wrote “the end justifies the means” (he didn’t) and have called politicians “Machiavellian.”

The number of people I personally know who have read Origin of Species – arguably the single most important scientific work in the last two centuries – none. Descent of Man? Voyage of the Beagle? None. Yet some people confidently scoff at the notion of species evolving, and dismiss his ideas as “mere theory.”

Ditto with Marx’s Capital. Even my left-wing friends, with whom I hung out in the 70s and 80s, struggled to get past the first couple of chapters. Most had read The Communist Manifesto, to be sure, but I haven’t met anyone in the last three decades who can say he or she has (or can remember it beyond its opening line). Yet many people talk knowingly about Marxism and Communism.

And I’m not talking about the crazies, the conspiracy theorists, the barely literate bloggers, Fox ‘News’ or the venom-spewing wingnuts like Ann Coulter. I’m concerned about people we meet every day; friends, coworkers, family. People who should know about what’s happening in the news, understand the connections and consequences and the big ideas behind the events.

People who should be able to use their words correctly and not resort to bumper-sticker ideologies as substitutes for actual understanding. So instead of conversations and discussions about big ideas based on knowledge, we trade angry epithets, accusations and insults.

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Facebook, Likes and Big Data

GizmodoI suppose you could call it ironic. There was a story from a ‘friend’ on my Facebook news feed today called “Quitting the Like” all about escaping Facebook’s data collection processes by simply not “liking” items or comments you see.

Right below this ostensibly anti-Facebook story were three related links produced by one of the Facebook data-collection bots all about the same thing: breaking free from Facebook’s data mining. I suspect the FB programmers hadn’t planned it that way. But aside from the irony, it caused me to read them all.

The first story, fully titled “I Quit Liking Things On Facebook for Two Weeks. Here’s How It Changed My View of Humanity” is by blogger Elan Morgan who explains:

I no longer wanted to be as active a participant in teaching Facebook how to advertise to me as I had been in the past, but another and much larger issue was my real curiosity: how was my Facebook experience going to change once I stopped feeding its engine with likes?

Her conclusion is that by not feeding the bots through the automatic reflex of clicking “like” below a ‘friend’s’ (real or artificial) post or comment, and instead by writing something positive in a comment, you can increase the human interaction on FB and reduce the generated noise.

Quit the Like and experiment with amplifying a better signal. What will happen to your Facebook without your likes? What will happen to your perception of not only your Facebook friends but the world at large? What will happen to us?

That’s an interesting approach, one I had considered but never taken. It encourages me to try it, but I also wonder if sharing a post also generates the same sort of algorithmic reaction. Is a ‘share’ a formulaic equivalent to a ‘like’ or are they weighted in some manner? And I am not sure the algorithms don’t also track comment density and content: is replacing ‘like’ with a comment merely a cosmetic change, or does it have a significant effect?

Gizmodo reported FB is doing some automatic liking for you, behind the curtain:

You might think clicking “Like” is the only way to stamp that public FB affirmation on something—you’re wrong. Facebook is checking your private messages and automatically liking things you talk about.

What I’d really like to know is how FB’s bots manage all the content, beyond the like button. So they weigh keywords, track what we post, how we comment, share and so on? I suspect they do, but how they parse the results is a fascinating, sometimes a bit scary mystery.

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Heart of Darkness

Heart of DarknessHeart of Darkness can be a difficult read. Not just for its brooding setting and the sense of morbid inevitability. Conrad’s semi-autobiographical 1899 novel is replete with racism and breezy colonialism: the insufferable superiority of white, Western culture. The casual ability of so-called civilized men to commit savagery in the name of some higher cause is clearly expressed; a forerunner to the brutality of two world wars.

Listening to it as an audiobook, yesterday, as I drove again to Toronto, I almost flinched every time the reader pronounced the “N” word. No amount of rationalization about the times and the era made it less uncomfortable, less offensive.*

Yet once you have touched the sticky web of Conrad’s story, you find it hard to pull away. You are drawn inexorably inward, along the journey. So you listen (or read on), and realize the layers and the complexities he wove into the tale. It seems so simple at first, a mere nautical tale shared among friends, but it builds in layers and texture. His sometimes subtle, sometimes pointed criticisms of the politics and the imperialism. His observations, his piercing eye into human behaviour; his acidic comments on the nature of civilization. All, of course, expressed during the infinitely slow progress to find the mysterious Kurtz.

I can’t remember when I first read Heart of Darkness. Sometime in the 1970s, I think, around the time I was reading Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Achebe’s book is set in the same period as Conrad’s and might be considered a counterpoint: the evils of colonialism described from the native perspective. Achebe himself despised Heart of Darkness, calling it “deplorable.” Yet his 1975 criticism sparked renewed scholarly interest in the book. It was reprinted in mass-market paperback (my copy, printed together with Conrad’s Secret Sharer, is dated 1978).

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