Thursday, July 24, 2008

I and thou

In my experience, Christian fundamentalists view themselves as more moral than those who are not religious. In fact, in many cases, it seems that Christian fundamentalists believe that they have adopted a high moral standard and that non-religious people live by no moral standards at all (hence their frequent references to terms such as "anarchy" and "moral relativism"). But here's where it gets interesting -- it seems to me that not only do Christian fundamentalists believe this about themselves -- they believe that other people (i.e. non-religious people) also share this same view (that Christian fundamentalists live by a higher standard and that non-religious people have no moral standards).

I'm here to dissuade them of their smug self-assurance.

In fact, as I showed in my earlier post, "Why Secular Society Makes Better Moral Decisions than Organized Religion" not only does secular society have a moral code, on the three biggest moral issues over the last 200 years -- slavery, equal rights for women, and equal rights for people who are LGBT -- secular society has displayed a HIGHER moral code than traditional fundamentalist religious society. What is more, in my experience when people in secular society look at Christian fundamentalists -- they don't see people adhering to a higher moral code -- rather they see people loudly practicing bigotry, intolerance, and hatred in the name of religion.

To put this in perspective, perhaps it's best to use an analogy from the world of sports. Let's take golf. By analogy if you will, Christian fundamentalists think they are the greatest golfers in the world. And not only that, they think that no one else even plays golf and that the rest of the world admires their golf prowess. This self perception is fueled by the fact that they only read Christian Fundamentalist Golf Digest, only watch the Christian Fundamentalist Golf Channel, and only play against other Christian Fundamentalist golfers. Meanwhile, in reality the world is filled with really great (secular) golfers. Millions and millions of people play it, there is a highly competitive televised pro tour, and the rules of golf are understood well and widely. And when the rest of the world looks at the way Christian fundamentalists play golf they see a bunch of hacks who repeatedly call mulligans, fail to replace their divots, cheat on their scorecard, are boorish in the clubhouse, and are exclusionary in their membership. That's the gap we face as a society.

While it is true that are some truly amoral people in society -- I believe they are a tiny fraction of the population (and represent a pathology rather than the natural state of humanity). Indeed, recent evidence from the world of the animal sciences shows that morality and ethics are likely hardwired into our DNA (see for example Primates & Philosophers by Frans de Waal, The Moral Animal by Robert Wright, and The Evolution of Morality by Richard Joyce). Adherence to some sort of moral code is nearly universal -- atheists, agnostics, soldiers, teachers, hit men, and religious followers of all varieties all operate according to a moral code. The question is not (as Christian fundamentalists would have you believe) moral code or no moral code. Rather, the question is which moral code is truly best for society.

I think it's all well and good that the Democratic Party and the progressive movement in general have made efforts to reach out to evangelicals and other religious conservatives in recent years. But I have a different proposal. Let's not reach out to religious communities simply for the sake of diversity. Rather, I suggest we have a battle of ideas and that we start a conversation about what exactly constitutes a higher moral code and why. I will gladly put my 21st century secular moral code -- developed through thousands of years of religious and philosophical debate, scientific discovery, and social efforts to overcome intolerance and hatred -- up for comparison against a moral code developed by an ancient tribe that was always calling for god to rain genocide down upon neighboring tribes.

The Republican drill and burn lie

Timothy Egan in today's New York Times destroys the Bush-McCain drill and burn energy plan in one sentence:
The number of oil and gas permits on federal land doubled in the last five years, with no effect on price or supply.
Pretty much says it all.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Giant panda center in China after the earthquake

Okay I promise this won't become a panda blog (or a LOLcats blog either). But a friend sent me these pictures of baby giant pandas and they are so incredible I had to share them. Apparently, the huge earthquake that recently struck China occurred in the area where giant pandas live and so in addition to rescuing people from the rubble, there was also a need to make sure the pandas survived as well.

Right after the earthquake...


Usually this blog is dedicated to releasing one relentless progressive meme after another (along with the occasional otter video). But today I wanted to present a few thoughts that run counter to traditional progressive thinking. In each case I would ask you to kindly hold your ire until after reading my explanation.

1. From an individual perspective, the case can be made that perhaps Hummers were a rational choice for some people during the era of $2 gasoline (and inexpensive steel). If you lived in LA (or NY or Chicago) where you rarely drive more than 5 miles an hour and are stuck in traffic for hours at a time, it made a certain amount of sense to travel around in a little mobile house. In LA traffic everyone basically occupies the same square footage in length -- Hummers just build vertically on top of that. Furthermore, given the ever present danger of death or disability from a collision (which we all assume every time we get in a car) it made a certain amount of sense to travel around in a little steel fortress. From a collective perspective they probably never made sense -- they started a vehicular arms race that introduced ever bigger and heavier (and more lethal) cars to the road while also increasing pollution. And the era of cheap gas is over so Hummers will probably never make sense again (even on an individual level) -- better to get out of the car altogether and take public transportation (which was always the better solution all along). So I guess I'm saying they made short term sense on an individual level for some people during a brief period in history -- which really isn't much of an argument at all.

2. McMansions can be a rational choice. It seems to me that the biggest costs in construction are the land and labor of bringing a crew out. If you are going to be building on a site anyway, one may as well build two stories as just one. I gotta figure the marginal cost per square foot of the additional story is less than the cost per square foot if one just builds one story. Furthermore, in many neighborhoods -- after one or two generations -- single story houses are often converted to two story houses. I bet one could even make the case that building a two story house in the first place uses less materials and costs less over time than building a single story and then later adding on to it.

3. I wonder if the rise of the iPod is actually a worrisome sign. Yeah we love the sleek little iPod. But it's a shift from the collective to the individual. Back in the day people invested in stereos. Stereos are, by definition, collective music devices. Stereos are designed for collective gatherings like parties or simply sharing music in the presence of other people. iPods by contrast are individual listening devices. iPods seem to make sense if one is on public transportation or in a shared living space or in a shared work space. And yes I know that increasingly manufacturers are making devices to play iPods out of larger speakers. I just feel like iPods give us a sense of being able to hang on to the music (and our way of life) even as, in fact, our standard of living is shrinking all around us -- as we live in smaller and more crowded spaces and feel increasingly isolated and disconnected even in the midst of community.

4. The rise of twitter perhaps is also an indicator of a decline in our standard of living. It seems to me that twitter makes sense if you are chained to your desk in a job that takes all of your time (which is incredibly common these days). In that case, twitter is a way to stay connected to friends virtually even though you don't have time to connect with them actually. Twitter is also great for cell phones -- but the irony is that it creates a situation where we are out and about -- with the chance to interact with real people -- and we're still chained to a device that takes us out of the potential for human action all around us. I love some of these tools but I've yet to find a tool that makes me feel anywhere near as good as I do by being around people.

Okay I guess points 1 and 2 contradict points 3 and 4 (Hummers and McMansions also increase isolation and disconnection -- so I should not have given them as pass on that). Duly noted. I'm prepared to be proven wrong on each of these other points as well (I guess that's how growth happens). Just for the record, I hate Hummers, want a McMansion (there, I said it!), have an iPod, and don't use twitter (so it's not like I'm consistent either).

Now we return to our regularly scheduled programming.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

The wisdom of the crowd

I've been getting some great comments on my blog in the last few days -- mostly because several great sites have linked to me and driven some really thoughtful readers to my site. I wanted to highlight one comment in particular. A while back I posted "A Progressive Guide to Framing." Recently, Soshann discovered it and commented:

Excellent thinking here. I would add my vote for using the terms Progressive & Regressive to describe two opposite sides of the political spectrum. Progressives are forward looking ie we are concerned about the effects of current actions on the future and believe that we can make a future better than the past. In order to do this we are happy to critique the past and find areas on which we can improve. Regressives are backward focused ie they venerate the past and see it as their duty to defend it and attempt to ensure it continues into the future. This gives them a very narrow view of the future as a basically Disneyfied world of sanitized replication of "traditional" values and practices.

Another useful point of disparity which can be used to positively frame the debate is the distinction between Authoritarian & Libertarian. I know that in the US this distinction has to some extent been colonised by corporate apologists arguing for liberty for corporate players but if used intelligently the terms fundamentally underpin a core distinction between the regressive & the progressive ends of the spectrum.

Progressives are generally against the use of force to impose our political views on others and we refer to rationality and reason as justifications for our policies & actions. We are naturally suspicious of the blind obedience to authority handed down from on high advocated by regressives. Liberation of the human condition from the dictates of received authority and a determination to see the world as it is and attempt to act in the interest of the greatest good for the greatest number are fundamentally good and attractive motivations to be highlighting an aspiring to for us all.

I think those are all excellent points and really helpful ways to frame the political debate.

I also want to give a shout out to Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism for linking to my last post. If you haven't read Naked Capitalism it's definitely worth checking out. It's chock full of insight, analysis, data, and thoughtful commentary on current economic news. Progressives are really good at understanding labor and social forces -- but I've often felt that we need to do a better job of understanding capital and markets. If you have any money in the market or are thinking of investing or just want to be informed about how capital and markets work -- you should definitely read Naked Capitalism. I've added Naked Capitalism to my blog roll as well.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Hey progressive bloggers -- Stop carrying the Republican's pollen

I had an interesting experience recently. I was advising a non-profit in the midst of a fierce battle against a well-funded industry opponent. We knew that approaching a crucial vote, the other side was going to launch all sorts of scurrilous attacks against our policy positions. We knew all of their arguments and had a counter argument for each one.

But I proposed a different strategy. I said, 'let's not wait for them to go first and then reply. Let's go on offense now. Let's clearly state what we believe and just put it out there and let the chips fall where they may.'

The argument against this approach was that it would give the other side the opportunity to try to rebut our best ideas. But given the opportunity to frame the debate from the start, the client decided to go for it.

And an interesting thing happened. Sure enough, the other side jumped all over our arguments. But in the process, they were repeating our sound bites and spreading our message. In explaining our position first (before attacking it) they were spreading our message for us. For free!

It was the most incredible thing -- and I developed a name for it -- they were carrying our pollen. Plants don't care about the bee's stinger. All the plant cares about is that the big ol' mean bee rubs up against their flower (message) and carries it to the next flower.

I realized that Republicans have known this and used this to their advantage for years. They say one scandalous, ridiculous thing after another -- BECAUSE THEY KNOW THAT PROGRESSIVES WILL REPEAT IT AND CARRY THEIR POLLEN FOR THEM.

Yeah, the Republican message machine is huge. But honestly, I think in many cases, it's the progressive media (including progressive blogs) who do the most damage by carrying the Republican message on the wings of their own (progressive) outrage.

The standard progressive blog post after the latest Republican outrageous statement is to:

1. Repeat the sound bite.
2. Say, 'oh my gosh can you believe that they said that!'
3. Make a joke by repeating the sound bite again but applying it to a different (probably Republican) example.

George Lakoff must be tearing his hair out by now. He has written like 100 books on framing and PROGRESSIVES STILL DON'T FUCKING GET IT.

The number one rule of framing is: YOU NEVER REPEAT YOUR OPPONENT'S FRAME. I know it's difficult-- Republicans say shit that makes us insane in the head. But anytime you feel like repeating a Republican sound bite, don't. Instead, try writing a piece on one of these topics:

  • John McCain twice tried to commit suicide when he was a POW. What do we actually know about his mental health in tough situations? Does he have PTSD? Which psychiatrists have treated him over the years, what treatments have they used, and is he still on meds? Why hasn't he released his mental health (psychiatric) records to the public?

  • What exactly did John McCain say when he confessed to war crimes as a POW? Does the fact that he presumably made a false confession under duress make his current support for torture all the more inhumane? What kind of blind ambition drives a man who has actually suffered torture to support torture against others?

  • How does Mother's Against Drunk Driving feel about the potential for a beer magnate to live in the White House? What percent of traffic fatalities in Arizona are directly attributable to drivers using products distributed by Cindy McCain's company? What percentage of the beer industry's profit margin comes from underage drinking? What percentage of the beer industry's profit margin comes from alcohol abuse? How many of McCain's houses are funded by these illicit gains from underage drinking and alcohol abuse?

Passing up their frame to reframe is a complicated art form. To be clear, I am not saying just allow attacks to go unanswered and only focus on the positive -- as Gore/Lieberman and Kerry/Edwards both did to disastrous results (fucking Bob Shrum has never read a book on framing).

In fact, perhaps the best reply to attacks is the one shown by the McCain campaign this week. Immediately gather a huge team of surrogates to shout down your opponent with "how dare you" as soon as a new meme is announced. It's a gamble but if you can snuff out a new meme and scare people into not repeating it, you've won. Karl Rove has turned this into an art form and now that his team is running the McCain campaign, you can expect to see it every week.

Anyway, sorry for the rant. But let's all quit carrying the other side's pollen for them no matter how clever we think we are or how outraged we are at the latest monstrosity from the Republican noise machine. And the easiest way to avoid carrying their pollen for them is to go on offense yourself.

For additional thoughts on framing see "Politics is like a hippie drum circle" and "A Progressive Guide to Framing."

Happy 4th ya'll.

Update #1. I believe all framing comes down to a simple question -- are you leading or are you following?

If you are leading your frame will consist of saying 'here's what I believe, here's why, here's how we're gonna solve the problem, follow me.'

If you are following you are responding to the other side, complaining, and asking someone else to solve the problem. Repeating your opponent's frame is -- by definition -- following rather than leading -- it's a tacit acknowledgment that your opponent is the one in the position of authority to solve the problem.

In elections (and really in most areas of life) people will side with a leader (even if he or she is wrong on the particulars of an issue) over a follower (even if that person has a better formed argument.)

Update #2. There is enough material in this one NY Times article alone for progressives to go on offense (and never have to repeat McCain's framing) from now until election day.