Wednesday, November 28, 2007

"Klein," incidentally, is German for "small"

For those of you not following this story, the facts, in brief, are these:

Joe Klein, who is ostensibly Time magazine's "liberal" columnist but mostly seems to serve the function of giving the right ammunition for saying things like "even the liberal Joe Klein thinks Democrats are poopheads," wrote a column in the last issue of Time in which he alleged that the Democrats' FISA bill "would require the surveillance of every foreign-terrorist target's calls to be approved by the FISA court" and "would give terrorists the same legal protections as Americans." This proved, he essentially said, that Democrats are idiots who can't be trusted on national security issues.

The problem is that the bill objectively does not do this. It actually says something that is precisely the opposite of that:

(1) IN GENERAL - Notwithstanding any other provision of this Act, a court order is not required for electronic surveillance directed at the acquisition of the contents of any communication between persons that are not known to be United States persons and are reasonably believed to be located outside the United States for the purpose of collecting foreign intelligence information, without respect to whether the communication passes through the United States or the surveillance device is located within the United States.

This would seem simple, but Klein admitted he had not read the bill, and had gotten his information about what the bill did from a Republican source. Because, really, why should you doubt that a Republican operative who tells you Democrats are big pansies on national security is being truthful and fair?

The actual story is much longer. Glenn Greenwald, who has been both pushing and extensively chronicling the story, has pretty much the whole thing, here, here, here, here, and here, and I actually recommend the whole thing if you have 20 minutes or so to pore through it.

Klein initially wouldn't admit he'd done anything wrong, then eventually declared the whole thing too complicated to figure out and anyway, who's got the time (as if he had not considered it important enough to devote a whole column to it originally). Time, meanwhile, finally issued what it apparently (and remarkably) believes is a correction:

In the original version of this story, Joe Klein wrote that the House Democratic version of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) would allow a court review of individual foreign surveillance targets. Republicans believe the bill can be interpreted that way, but Democrats don't.

That's it. Seriously.

Apparently it doesn't matter, and isn't worth thinking about, whether one side is lying. They think their job is to spend half their time printing what Republicans say and half printing what Democrats say, and then go home. I would think it would be obvious that this is the opposite of how journalism should work, and gives a huge advantage to liars, but apparently not.

But I think it's significant and telling how this played out. For the longest time, the right was swarming with watchdogs looking for "bias" against them, and had an echo chamber it could use to destroy anyone guilty of said bias. As a result, the mainstream media seemed to develop a habit of slanting everything so as to be inoffensive to the right. We on the left were some combination of too passive and too disorganized, so bias against us and our causes was a total nonissue.

Now, of course, we on the left are energized, we have our own media watchdogs and our own echo chambers, as Time and Joe Klein are experiencing firsthand at this very moment. but that hasn't sunk in yet, so their first impulse was to just run with Republican spin, and everything would be okay.

The lesson they seem to take from this is, they need to print the spin coming from both sides, and then everything will be okay.

It would be fairer if they did, I guess, at least compared to just printing Republican talking points as news, but they seem to have missed the larger point: how about just printing the truth? If you're going to report on what a bill does, maybe you should actually smegging read it. And then, don't let either side spin you. It's not a matter of striking the right balance of spin. Journalism is supposed to be about facts.

And I may be biased, here, but I really think that's what most media critics coming from our side of the aisle want. We just want the facts reported. It's not that we want our talking points to replace, or augment, Karl Rove's. We want journalists to actually report facts instead of spin.

Honestly, why is that so hard?

Monday, November 26, 2007

More musings about patriotism

Liberal Eagle's post, On Patriotism, has been the subject of my thoughts a lot over the last couple of weeks. I agree with the post in all its detail, but I think there's a central kernel of truth that has to do with how American patriotism differs from the way other countries see themselves.

American patriotism is all about strength and superiority; both a belief that our country is the best in the world, and that part of what makes it the best is that we have the most powerful military. The idea, held by many patriots, that America is where it is because God favors us over other nations only encourages this belief.

To use an analogy, Americans love their country the way a young boy loves his dad; he just knows his dad is the best dad in the world, and can beat up anyone else's dad. Any kid who claims otherwise is likely to get a fist to the gut.

Similarly, American patriotism often takes the form of a cult of personality around our President; a good American patriot, it seems, ought to be willing to follow the President anywhere as long as he's focused on keeping America strong, and as long as he never, ever admits that the U.S. has been wrong about anything. To question such a President is to risk being publicly accused of treason, as has happened to many Iraq War critics.

This sentiment is not unique to America, but other countries where it's found tend to be ones we'd prefer not to compare ourselves to.

People in less jingoistic countries love where they live, too; but often it's a love born of preference and familiarity. They love their countries while acknowledging their faults; they don't feel they have to prove their love by angrily denying that those faults exist. They love their countries not in the unquestioning, prickly way that a kid loves his dad, but in the sort of exasperated way you might love an eccentric relative who does a lot of nice things for you but also sometimes embarrasses you in public.

Americans have always been prickly about their country's status in the world, and our sense of patriotism reflects this. This isn't surprising in a new nation, but maybe after 231 years it's time we grew up a little.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

I, Content Provider

Jaron Lanier has an op-ed in the New York Times in which he admits, as a onetime member of the 1990s "information wants to be free" crowd, that in fact he was wrong and we'll all be better off with people actually getting paid for "content providing."

There’s an almost religious belief in the Valley that charging for content is bad. The only business plan in sight is ever more advertising. One might ask what will be left to advertise once everyone is aggregated.

How long must creative people wait for the Web’s new wealth to find a path to their doors? A decade is a long enough time that idealism and hope are no longer enough. If there’s one practice technologists ought to embrace, it is the evaluation of empirical results.

To help writers and artists earn a living online, software engineers and Internet evangelists need to exercise the power they hold as designers. Information is free on the Internet because we created the system to be that way.

We could design information systems so that people can pay for content — so that anyone has the chance of becoming a widely read author and yet can also be paid. Information could be universally accessible but on an affordable instead of an absolutely free basis.

How profoundly annoying and offensive did I find the "information wants to be free" mentality, during the dotcom bubble period? God. I shouldn't get started on it. But I will.

At the time, I was a college student with dreams of making a living drawing comics, who sort of got diverted onto the internet because it was there, because it was someplace to find an audience and get feedback. And boy did I get tired of being told that my desire to be paid was some sort of second-wave old-media dinosaur fascism.

I got this lecture repeatedly. Information wants to be free. Intellectual property is an outmoded concept. Why, I, from my job as a silicon valley software engineer making six figures, sometimes write open source software! So you, as a content provider, have no right to ask anyone for a dime ever for your work.

It never seemed to occur to these people that the quality of art and literature was inevitably going to plummet if we created a society where nobody could ever make a living at them. I'd point this out, then be accused of an "irrational bias against new media."

And I'd walk away sort of stunned at any ideology that considers the desire to be paid a living wage "irrational."

That Jaron Lanier is writing something like this ten years on is interesting. I actually had no idea it was still an article of faith in the Valley that people like me have no right to expect a dime for our hard work. I kind of thought that idea had died, or at least receded, when so many of its advocates got a big dose of reality in 2000/2001.

I suppose the lesson here is the usual lesson. Don't trust futurists. They're not trying to screw you over, it'll just take them ten years to notice how badly they have.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

On patriotism

It's a simple enough word. Patriotism: Noun. Love for or devotion to one's country.

But it's a slippery idea when you actually try and get your hands on it. The definition itself is full of words that are themselves hard to define.

So, when you start asking who's more patriotic than who else, you have to know what love is, and what devotion is...and it's really an art, not a science, at that point.

But my point in writing this is to say something I've been afraid to say for years. We on the left are always saying we're just as patriotic as people on the right, and getting indignant when they insist they're more patriotic than us.

But you know what? I'm simply not as patriotic as your average chest-beating right-winger.

I don't believe America is infallible, or that its actions are inherently good. The things America does are no better or worse than they would be if some other country did them, and it does nobody any good to walk around assuming otherwise.

I also don't believe that God favors America over other nations, or that America is God's chosen nation in the world. I don't believe in God anyway, and even if I did I'd find it impossible to accept that God would feel uncritically favorable toward a nation that, for a large percentage of its history, committed genocide against the native inhabitants of the land it was built on.

I think America is probably one of the ten best countries in the world to live in, and as long as the Republicans don't get yet another term in the White House I'll probably never move away. But I don't believe America has the best system of government ever devised. Nor do I think we here in America are the freest people in the world.

I want America to work well; I want all governments to work well because everyone deserves to be well-governed, and I want that for America especially because that's where I live, so I have a personal stake. But I think it's a stretch to call that patriotism. I mean, it's really just wishing everyone life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

I find those words inspiring. I find the ideals of the founders inspiring, especially given the historical context in which they were expressed. But that doesn't make me want to beat my chest and shout about how great America is. It makes me hope everyone, American or not, can one day enjoy those inalienable rights.

Likewise, I find questions like "do you want America to win in Iraq?" sort of baffling. I don't think of the Iraq war the way I think of the World Series, where I want my side to "win." It's a bloody mess, and I disapprove of bloody messes, which is why I was against the war in the first place--it seemed to me you should have a much better reason before you started killing people. What I want has nothing to do with whether America "wins" because I don't think of whether America will look good first and foremost.

Similarly, I don't want Americans to die in terrorist attacks because I don't want anybody to die in terrorist attacks, not because I consider it some sort of insult to "my country."

I guess countries are sort of funny concepts to me. I want America to be well-governed and to be a good place to live and generally to be a force for good--which is exactly what I want for every other country, too. I don't take personal pride in whether America "wins" or not.

And I guess I'm tired of torturing the word "patriotism" until it gives me a definition I can use. I'll come right out and say it. One, I'm just not that patriotic. Two, I think that's a good thing. I agree with Oscar Wilde in saying "patriotism is the virtue of the vicious." "Loving" an artificial entity like a country stands squarely in the way of making that country a better place, because you get your own ego all tied up in it, and you lose the ability to make good decisions based on reality. And the U.S. ends up invading Iraq because too many people are too "patriotic" to see (or admit) that the country has been hijacked, at least temporarily, by trigger-happy liars.

Those of us for whom "patriotism" is not a motivating characteristic saw it first. Maybe it's time we rethought our veneration of "patriotism" a little bit.

Monday, November 12, 2007

This will surely make me rethink my stance

'24' Creator: Clinton as Prez is 'Nuts'.

You know, I don't know what I would have done if I hadn't found out what the creator of a cheesy TV action show thought of a political nominee. Especially since he's been quoted in that bastion of impartiality, The Washington Times.

But it's all right, you know, because even though he's "probably going to get behind Rudy,":

Earlier this year, Surnow announced that actress and outspoken liberal Janeane Garofalo would star in the show's upcoming season. He has also said the president will be played by a woman.

He has hired an outspoken liberal to be an actress reading his scripts, and the president will be played by a woman. Thus, he is uniquely qualified whether an "outspoken liberal woman" could or could not be president. Doesn't that follow? No?

Today on bad analogy theater...

Donald Kerr, a top intelligence official in the Bush administration, has been saying appalling things about privacy lately -- mainly that we should give up the concept of anonymity. But this statement, from a recent AP article, should win some kind of prize for bad analogies:
Kerr said at an October conference in San Antonio that he finds concerns that the government may be listening in odd when people are "perfectly willing for a green-card holder at an (Internet service provider) who may or may not have been an illegal entrant to the United States to handle their data."

Setting aside for the moment that green-card holders are, pretty much by definition, legal aliens, this is a ridiculous analogy. People are more concerned about their privacy from the government than from other individuals, and for good reason. Another individual can, at worst, embarrass you or damage your credit rating. The government has the power to deprive you of your freedom, and the government can ruin your life, just like it ruined many lives in the McCarthy era. Apparently we've already forgotten lessons learned only 50 years ago.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Outsourcing takes the next logical step

First it was factory workers. Then computer programmers and tech support. Next to be outsourced: personal services, starting with tutoring. A company in India is offering unlimited on-line 45-minute tutoring sessions for a flat $99 per month. Their tutors take a 60-hour training course, followed by two months of tests and practice sessions. The wage? A little over $2 per hour.

It's becoming difficult to pick jobs where a worker is unlikely to be undercut by workers in low-wage nations. While there are still many jobs that require a physical presence -- construction and maintenance, for example -- it would seem most forms of intellectual work are vulnerable in today's connected world.

The parlance of our times

Ten words/phrases that will never be the same:

1. Mission accomplished
2. Bring 'em on
3. Weapons of mass destruction
4. Stay the course
5. Cut and run
6. Shock and awe
7. Terrorist
8. Swift boat
9. Last throes
10. Heck of a job

Hosted by KEENSPOT: Privacy Policy