The lesser of 2.5 evils

Last year I pointed to the relationship between an Economist blog comment and a five-year-old clip from Real Time with Bill Maher. Specifically I pointed to the need for a third political choice and the general unhealthiness of reducing complex political acts to a binary Coke-vs-Pepsi race. I didn’t get into the whole moral complication of wanting to vote for a third choice (like Ralph Nader, in the 2004 example) but feeling the need to vote ‘strategically’ to keep the worst option from winning. I’ve never believed in voting that way; you should vote for who you think will do the best job.

However: I simply cannot have Peter Griffin running my city.

I want to vote for Joe Pantalone, I do. I don’t buy all the wailing about him continuing the horrible legacy of David Miller, mainly because I don’t think David Miller was a bad mayor. I see George Smitherman as benign and centrist, but I’ll gladly take inertia over the notion of regressing for the next three years.

Just think back. Nobody in America was excited at the idea of Al Gore being president, but look at where the other guy got them. And while they may have voted with their hearts, the Nader supporters inadvertently reaped a simple-minded whirlwind.

Tonight after work I’ll hold my nose and vote, and then go home for a stiff drink while watching the news.

"Our culture's secular version of being born again."

Here are a couple of excerpts from the book I’m reading right now, Empire of Illusion by Chris Hedges (amazon | indigo | kobo). I’m about 60 pages in and I’m wavering between “He’s overreacting, it’s not that bad.” and “He’s right, we’re fucked.”

Those captivated by the cult of celebrity do not examine voting records or compare verbal claims with written and published facts and reports. The reality of their world is whatever the latest cable news show, political leader, advertiser, or loan officer says is reality. The illiterate, the semiliterate, and those who live as though they are illiterate are effectively cut off from the past. They live in an eternal present. They do not understand the predatory loan deals that drive them into foreclosure and bankruptcy. They cannot decipher the fine print on the credit card agreements that plunge them into unmanageable debt. They repeat thought-terminating clichés and slogans. They are hostage to the constant jingle and manipulation of a consumer culture. They seek refuge in familiar brands and labels. They eat at fast-food restaurants not only because it is cheap, but also because they can order from pictures rather than from a menu.

This struck me as itself ignoring history, as surely the population has grown, by and large, more literate over the past few centuries. However, Hedges also makes the point that the medium has changed from the days when education and debate was written, and therefore targeted at the literate. Now, with television being the primary news delivery/debate medium, the content is being targeted at the illiterate:

In an age of images and entertainment, in an age of instant emotional gratification, we neither seek nor want honesty or reality. Reality is complicated. Reality is boring. We are incapable or unwilling to handle its confusion. We asked to be indulged and comforted by clichés, stereotypes, and inspirational messages that tell us we can be whoever we seek to be, that we live in the greatest country on earth, that we are endowed with superior moral and physical qualities, and that our future will always be glorious and prosperous, either because of our own attributes or our national character or because we are blessed by God. In this world, all that matters is the consistency of our belief systems. The ability to amplify lies, to repeat them and have surrogates repeat them in endless loops of news cycles, gives lies and mythical narratives the aura of uncontested truth. We become trapped in the linguistic prison of incessant repetition. We are fed words and phrases like war on terror or pro-life or change, and within these narrow parameters, all complex thought, ambiguity, and self-criticism vanish.

Anyway, like I said I’m still on the fence about whether this book is full of histrionics or insight. I’ll let you know when I get to the end. Or you can just wait for the movie to come out.


I don’t normally just re-post video, but I found these two TED talks particularly enjoyable and thought I’d share.

Sean Gourley: the mathematics of war

Clay Shirky: How social media can make history


On his blog today, Dilbert creator Scott Adams wonders why people get so bent out of shape about the likes of Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh.

During the peak ratings years of The Jerry Springer Show — an alleged reality show — a fight would break out among the guests during almost every episode. It seemed obvious to me that these fights were orchestrated by the producers. What are the odds that a fight would break out during every episode and yet no one would ever get hurt or arrested?

The surprising thing is that everyone I talked to about the show during its glory years believed the fighting was genuine and spontaneous. I found that level of gullibility to be mind boggling.

All of this gets me to Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. Both of them have been in the news a lot for their outspoken and controversial views. And once again, people don’t seem to understand that their jobs are entertainment, nothing more.

Talk show hosts have no legal or ethical obligation to do anything but entertain. And judging by their successes, Limbaugh and Beck are brilliant at their jobs. I find it mind boggling that anyone believes a TV talk host is expressing his own true views.

I agree in principle with Adams: I highly doubt that these guys actually believe the shit they say, they’re doing it for ratings. The reason I get so frustrated with them is because they’re perceived as news men. Beck is actually employed by a (sort of) news organization: Fox News.

When stupid people watched Jerry Springer they might have thought the fighting was real, but it was limited to a one-hour show that was clearly nothing but cheap entertainment. When Limbaugh or Beck spray their views into the entertainmentsphere (as Adams puts it) with the intention of generating outrage and pandering to the lowest common denominator, some people might see through it and register it as showmanship. But many, especially because of the context in which entertainers like this operate (news radio, cable news) will treat it as fact.

Because my perception of Beck and Limbaugh is that they’re faking it, I don’t think they’re bad people. They probably think they’re no more dishonest than any other actor playing a part for money. I’m also long past the point of expecting much from the general TV or radio audience.

“No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.” –H.L. Mencken

My real contempt is for the media companies who try to dress this tripe up as news, and still have the nerve to tout themselves as pillars of journalism. “24 hour cable news” is an oxymoron. They’re never-ending entertainment and “entertainment news” shows (check out Alisa Miller’s excellent talk at TED last year about the American-centricness and entertainment focus of American news) which register on the seriousness scale somewhere between eTalk Now and USA Today.

If you watch the Daily Show (I’d include a clip here but the cross-border copyright issues with Comedy Central vs. the Comedy Network are beyond retarded) then you’ve probably noticed that in recent months Jon Stewart has unleashed a lot of venom at the news networks. He attacks Fox for their ridiculous slant and CNN for their glaring incompetence. He took Jim Cramer to task for being to finance what Ann Coulter is to political commentary, and doesn’t spare the whip for MSNBC when they actually do something noticeable. Crossfire — which seems oddly quaint now — irked him enough that he effectively embarrassed CNN into killing it. Here’s hoping he can manage a few more shows while he’s at it.

Interesting that an entertainer fronting an admittedly, proudly fake news show would be the one to most effectively skewer the bumblings and lies of the so-called “real” news shows.

At least I didn't land on Bono

A few days ago Joey DeVilla blogged about the OKCupid politics test and, well…I just can’t resist a blend of politics and charts.


Here’s the text the test spit out for me:

Social Liberal (73% permissive) / Economic Liberal (23% permissive)

You are best described as a: Strong Democrat (the test was quite American-centric)

You exhibit a very well-developed sense of Right and Wrong and believe in economic fairness.

I’d say that’s about right. I’d also wager I’m one of the very few people with the letters ‘MBA’ behind my name who’d come in under the 25% mark on economic liberalism.

The test also tries to tries to lump you in to a broad descriptive category:


Again, because of the American focus you could probably substitute ‘Liberal’ for ‘Democrat’ and ‘Conservative’ for ‘Republican’. That would put me on the border between plain old vanilla liberal and socialist, which feels about right.

Finally the test results plot you on a list of famous (mainly American) people, and I agree with Joey that it seems pretty skewed.


I would consider myself more socially permissive and less economically permissive than both Hilary Clinton or Barack Obama (or at least their policies or policy statements), and there’s no way Obama’s at the bottom right extreme. I mean, if the Unabomber and Stalin are corner-dwellers, I don’t think Obama (or Huckabee, for that matter) belong in the same range. Paging Dr. Marx…

Coke vs. Pepsi

Several years ago I watched an episode of Real Time with Bill Maher which featured among its guests Michael Moore, Ralph Nader and former Canadian prime minister Kim Campbell. In that episode Maher and Moore pleaded (literally) with Nader to not run in 2004 and dilute the Democratic vote, as he had in 2000.

I don’t know if it was intentional that they had Campbell on, or if she just happened to be hanging around the studio that day, but she brought some Canadian perspective to the discussion, specifically the benefits of having more than two parties.

American politics are so radically polarized that nuance and reasonable compromise seem hopelessly outdated concepts. There are two parties: Democrats and Republicans. You vote for one or the other. You believe one or the other, regardless of what they’re saying or doing. Many times even your preferred news network favours one or the other.

Based on my observations, rational political discourse in the US is all but vanished. Sound argument is a waste of time. Neither party spends time saying what they think is right; what’s important is contradicting the other guy. Politician A can spend his whole career saying the sky is blue; if their opponent politician B suddenly says the sky is blue (no doubt claiming some sort of unique insight for being able to make such a determination), politician A will surely claim the sky is red.

To wit: Cash for Clunkers. In case you don’t know, Cash for Clunkers is an American program offering consumers rebates on new cars when they trade in a much older model. Essentially it’s an economic stimulus program which benefits troubled American car manufacturers and helps the environment (to a limited degree, anyway) by taking inefficient cars off the road. Now have a look at my last sentence, and the three key points therein: 1) economic stimulus; 2) supports big American business; and 3) benefits environment. Now, while this is a Democratic initiative, 2 of those 3 key points are the bread and butter of Republicans and fiscal conservatives everywhere. For the most part they don’t care about reducing carbon — or, at least, their talking points tell them not to care — but that form of economic stimulus is essentially a tax break for consumers and a free revenue boost to automakers, and Republicans love them some tax breaks. Unless it’s Democrats who suggest them.

To wit: this clip from The Daily Show. Watch from about 1:10, where news networks explain how well the Cash for Clunkers program has worked to date. Note the reaction from Fox News and house Republicans. All of a sudden the idea of tax breaks seem like anathema.

Rather than go on with more examples I’ll just quote a comment left on this Economist graphic:

The commenter’s name, by the way, is “The Other Guy” so five’ll get you ten this guy keeps a copy of Unsafe At Any Speed on his bedside table.

“American politics of Coke-vs.-Pepsi has been throwing off the stale stench of disfunction [sic] for quite some time. Dem-Rep bifurcation is slow, superficial, and has been predictably producing less than adequate results, and that’s a charitable phrasing.

A third party, even or perhaps preferably a small yet significant one, needs to step forward to inject a degree of instability.”

Now, I’m not suggesting the Canadian political system is perfect by any means, and certainly having too many political parties can have some frustrating side effects (constant minority governments, the Bloc Quebecois, etc.) but I’d have to think it’s healthier than the slapfight happening south of the border. Politics is a huge, hairy topic, far too complex to boil down to a binary choice between 0 and 1, let alone to declare that 0 or 1 is the only answer you will give for the rest of your life.

In closing, let me just say: Coke sucks, and you should never ever drink it.

"Recruited for moral judgments"

Earlier this week in the Toronto Star John Sakamoto (who I thought wrote music…but whatever) did a brief story about Cornell research entitled “Morality rooted in disgust“:

Researchers at Cornell University tested a group of people from politically mixed swing states for both their political ideology and their “disgust sensitivity.”

“Participants who rated higher in disgust sensitivity were more likely to oppose gay marriage and abortion, issues that are related to notions of morality or purity,” a Cornell news release concluded.

“People have pointed out for a long time that a lot of our moral values seem driven by emotion, and in particular, disgust appears to be one of those emotions that seems to be recruited for moral judgments,” said study leader David Pizarro, an assistant professor of psychology at Cornell.

I’d never thought of it this way, or rather never would have guessed that such a correlation existed, but it makes sense. I think this is a big reason why liberals get so frustrated when arguing with conservatives, and vice versa. If one side is arguing based primarily on emotional response, and the other primarily on logic (or, at the very least, less emotion; I took the inverse reaction to mean logic, but may have overstepped…in any case I consider logic by no means guaranteed to be any more “correct” than emotion, misused as it often is) then the two are not only unlikely to agree, but may have trouble even understanding where the other is coming from.

The lead researcher does, however, caution against using disgust as a core influence of morality:

“Disgust really is about protecting yourself from disease. It didn’t really evolve for the purpose of human morality.

“It clearly has become central to morality, but because of its origins in contamination and avoidance, we should be wary about its influences,” Pizarro said.

The authors explain a bit further:

As Martha Nussbaum has pointed out in her treatment of the topic, “… throughout history, certain disgust properties — sliminess, bad smell, stickiness, decay, foulness — have repeatedly and monotonously been associated with… Jews, women, homosexuals, untouchables, lower-class people — all of those are imagined as tainted by the dirt of the body.” (Nussbaum, 2001, pg. 347)…Whether or not moral disgust can be of value in keeping people from committing unethical deeds remains an open question, but given the amount of damage disgust is capable of inflicting on innocent people, at the very least it seems as if we should be careful to monitor its influence in the courtroom, in public policy decisions, and in our everyday interactions with others.

This makes the thought of conservative (socially conservative, not fiscally conservative) lawmakers and so-called “moral” leaders very worrying. Disgust is a very subjective concept, and says as much or more about the judges as about those who would be judged. I fear the consequences of laws and moral judgments with such dubious, irrational origins.

Only through the exercise of candor

Salon published an interesting piece today from Boston University professor of history and international relations Andrew Bacevich called Farewell to the American Century. Bacevich goes further than the WaPo’s Richard Coen — who declared the American Century ended — and suggests it could scarcely end…it was all an illusion in the first place.

In its classic formulation, the central theme of the American Century has been one of righteousness overcoming evil. The United States (above all the U.S. military) made that triumph possible. When, having been given a final nudge on Dec. 7, 1941, Americans finally accepted their duty to lead, they saved the world from successive diabolical totalitarianisms. In doing so, the U.S. not only preserved the possibility of human freedom but modeled what freedom ought to look like.

So goes the preferred narrative of the American Century, as recounted by its celebrants.

The problems with this account are twofold. First, it claims for the United States excessive credit. Second, it excludes, ignores or trivializes matters at odds with the triumphal story line.

The net effect is to perpetuate an array of illusions that, whatever their value in prior decades, have long since outlived their usefulness. In short, the persistence of this self-congratulatory account deprives Americans of self-awareness, hindering our efforts to navigate the treacherous waters in which the country finds itself at present. Bluntly, we are perpetuating a mythic version of the past that never even approximated reality and today has become downright malignant. Although Richard Cohen may be right in declaring the American Century over, the American people — and especially the American political class — still remain in its thrall.

While I agree with Bacevich that the myths of 20th-century America were well and truly exaggerated, I’m not sure his list of American shortcomings would remove from them the title of 20th century powerhouse. Even acknowledging the overblown role in WWII and the failures of Cuba, Iran and Afghanistan, I’m not sure another country could stake a claim to being the preeminent nation of those hundred years. Was it as glorious as Americans seemed to believe? No. But it may have been glorious enough.

Still, Bacevich’s contemplative advice is good medicine for any country who starts to fawningly buy their own patriotic press:

What are we to make of these blunders? The temptation may be to avert our gaze, thereby preserving the reassuring tale of the American Century. We should avoid that temptation and take the opposite course, acknowledging openly, freely and unabashedly where we have gone wrong. We should carve such acknowledgments into the face of a new monument smack in the middle of the Mall in Washington: We blew it. We screwed the pooch. We caught a case of the stupids. We got it ass-backwards.

Only through the exercise of candor might we avoid replicating such mistakes.

Strike my last; this is good advice for us all, countries or no.

How does a homeless junkie get a broadcast license anyway?

By now you’ve likely heard about the episode of the Fox News show Red Eye (if you haven’t seen it already, download the WMV) wherein late night panel show host Greg Gutfeld mocked the Canadian military. Predictably, this got the Canadian public, pundits and politicians all in a palaver. Today Gutfeld apologized…kind of. It was one of those “I’m sorry you got so offended by what I said” apologies. So Canadians are a little less pissed, but pissed still.

I’m not. Make no mistake, I would take great umbrage with anyone who questioned the dedication or sacrifice of our military, if I were inclined to respect their opinion in the first place. But this was five minutes on a 3AM panel show. On Fox News, which is a laughable network to begin with. Featuring four people no one’s ever heard of and a host who used to run Maxim magazine. Oh…my wounded pride.

Look, when the crazy guy on the sidewalk starts yelling at you as you pass him, do you get offended? No. He’s shown no signs of ever having been insightful, so you chalk it up to the fact that he’s batshit insane and you ignore him. Giving him attention will just make him act crazier.

So now a lot of people who were entirely unaware of either Greg Gutfeld or Red Eye before the weekend have heard of them, and know the time and channel they’re on TV. How sorry do you think Gutfeld and Fox News really are?

Let's get ready to rumble!

Welcome to this bout for the superheavyweight ridiculousness championship of the world.

In this corner we have the Canadian minister of state for science & technology, Gary Goodyear (who obviously missed his true calling: cartoon race car driver), who refuses to say whether he believes in evolution:

Jim Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, said he was flabbergasted that the minister would invoke his religion when asked about evolution.

“The traditions of science and the reliance on testable and provable knowledge has served us well for several hundred years and have been the basis for most of our advancement. It is inconceivable that a government would have a minister of science that rejects the basis of scientific discovery and traditions,” he said.

Mr. Goodyear’s evasive answers on evolution are unlikely to reassure the scientists who are skeptical about him, and they bolster the notion that there is a divide between the minister and the research community.

And in this corner, with a reach much greater than Mr. Goodyear’s, is Pope Benedict, who yesterday said that condoms won’t stop the spread of AIDS in Africa.

“You can’t resolve it with the distribution of condoms,” the Pope told reporters aboard his plane to Yaounde, Cameroon. “On the contrary, it increases the problem.”

While health workers — including some priests and nuns working with people with AIDS — advocate the use of condoms to curb the spread of disease during sex, the Catholic church promotes fidelity within marriage, chastity and abstinence.

More than 22 million people in sub-Saharan Africa have HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, according to estimates from the United Nations. Since the 1980s, roughly 25 million people have died from AIDS.

Come out, touch gloves. Let’s have a clean fight. Against reality.