I'm very pleased to announce that Kat at The Middle Ground is back from her hiatus, and keeping an eye on those Copperheads. Go check out her latest posts. And don't forget to bookmark The Middle Ground on your browser!
There is only one issue in this election that will matter five or ten years from now, and that's the War on Terror.
And the success of the War on Terror now teeters on the fulcrum of this election.
If control of the House passes into Democratic hands, there are enough withdraw-on-a-timetable Democrats in positions of prominence that it will not only seem to be a victory for our enemies, it will be one.
Unfortunately, the opposite is not the case -- if the Republican Party remains in control of both houses of Congress there is no guarantee that the outcome of the present war will be favorable for us or anyone else.
But at least there will be a chance.
I say this as a Democrat, for whom the Republican domination of government threatens many values that I hold to be important to America's role as a light among nations.
But there are no values that matter to me that will not be gravely endangered if we lose this war. And since the Democratic Party seems hellbent on losing it -- and in the most damaging possible way -- I have no choice but to advocate that my party be kept from getting its hands on the reins of national power, until it proves itself once again to be capable of recognizing our core national interests instead of its own temporary partisan advantages.
To all intents and purposes, when the Democratic Party jettisoned Joseph Lieberman over the issue of his support of this war, they kicked me out as well. The party of Harry Truman and Daniel Patrick Moynihan -- the party I joined back in the 1970s -- is dead. Of suicide. ...
As you already know if you've been reading for any length of time at all, this is a pro-feminist, pro-gay-rights, pro-war-on-terror site. What that means in practice is that I will often be too liberal for some people and too conservative for others. Deal with it.
There are some things I write about here at Dreams Into Lightning, and there are some things I don't write about. My range of subjects is pretty eclectic, I think, and I like to try to keep the site interesting and informative. But I don't have unlimited time or energy, and I cannot be all things to all people.
I don't post on sports simply because I don't follow sports. Sometimes I wish I did, but I don't. I generally avoid celebrity gossip and I don't usually spend a lot of time on what stupid celebrity said what stupid thing. I do not write about who is wearing a bra or who isn't wearing a bra or who should be wearing a bra. I don't do flame wars and p***ing contests.
I don't write about Adrienne Barbeau, but maybe I should start. Adrienne Barbeau fan club, anyone?
I occasionally write about movies but I resist getting into discussions of the politics of a film, simply because it's really easy to get in over one's head in those debates.
As a rule, I try to avoid debates about very broad or very abstract subjects. I am not going to get into an argument about whether liberalism is better than conservatism or conservatism is better than liberalism; whether feminism is good or bad or whether Islam is good or bad; whether one group is "more oppressed" or "more privileged" than another; and so on. Debates about broad classes (of people or of ideas) are by definition very broad, and this type of argumentation is way outside the scope of what I feel competent doing and what I am interested in doing. Also, I am not going to get into debates where there isn't enough common ground for a meaningful discussion. If you are really looking for an argument, please go here.
Generally I avoid posting on individual terrorist attacks or gay-bashings, unless the event is particularly egregious or raises an important issue.
I do aim to provide timely and accurate information about the war against fascism and dictatorships in the Middle East and elsewhere, and about the continuing struggle for mutual respect and understanding among members of the diverse societies of the Western world. I endeavor to make a positive contribution to the debate when I think I can.
I will be happy to discuss specific, relevant issues with anybody. Of course I am always open to factual corrections. Thanks for reading this post, and I apologize if it sounds pedantic and obnoxious.
In my info page and in index listings, I usually describe Dreams Into Lightning as "culturally liberal, politically neoconservative". What do I mean by "culturally liberal"?
Two things in particular. In one sense, "culturally liberal" refers to the cultural milieu of self-identified liberals, that is, the culture of political liberalism. If you grew up liberal and hung out with liberals most of your life, you know what I mean - the social circle, the music, the food, the clothes, and so on. And in another sense, I'm referring to cultural pluralism - I'm carefully avoiding the term "multiculturalism", which has come into well-deserved contempt, but I do mean respect for multiple cultures in a genuine and ethically positive sense. (As opposed to the shallow, value-neutral foolishness that excuses Islamic fascism as just another "cultural expression".)
I'm bringing this up because both of these ideas will figure into my response to the much-discussed study by Robert Putnam on cultural diversity which was recently linked at The Belmont Club. As might be expected, social conservatives are reading the study's findings as a broad indictment of diversity, but I don't see it that way. I'll post more fully on it later, but I think commenter American Fool gets it right:
These results are common sense... who isn't more comfortable around like-minded people? It would be rather lonely to be the only family celebrating Christmas... or the 4th of July. On the other hand, growth derives from stepping outside of our confort zone. The point I think is that our society has, in a simplistic manner, pushed for a semi-valid "end" without appropriate discussion of the "means". I like people with different backgrounds; but I do want to watch the Superbowl with my buds... and maybe a new friend or two. And I'd like to see the World Cup with new friends that are soccer enthusiasts. That's called assimilation, and reciprocity. It's building a community. What I don't want is to be forced to watch the Tour de France in a room full of strangers from different cultures (I might on many occasions choose to do this, but I don't want it forced upon me. No matter how enthusiastic one is to experience other cultures, it is an inherently stressful experience for most people.) Multiculturalism as it has been practiced in western societies has resulted in the latter situation. It does not account for the natural distrust and fear of the unfamiliar we all experience, and that we all need a safe space to call home...
Go to the Belmont Club link for the rest of AF's comment. Also, another commenter refers us to Norm Geras for a responsible, liberal understanding of the study.
On September 11, 2006, a reader in Los Angeles, running Firefox on a Linux system and apparently looking for an e-book download of "Redemption Ark" by Alastair Reynolds, became the 50,000th visitor to DiL on Blogger according to SiteMeter.
Also on September 11, a reader in Tucson, running Internet Explorer on Windows XP and looking for information on Ghazal Omid, became visitor number 6,000 to DiL on TypePad and spent almost 12 minutes perusing the site.
TypePad is back up. Of all the days they could have picked for the site to crash ... never mind, I'm just glad we're back in business here.
New readers, remember that this site is just the tip of the Dreams Into Lightning iceberg. I've been blogging since spring of 2004, and all of my old posts - as well as most new ones - can be found at the Blogger site. And it's for occasions just like this one that I maintain it as a backup and archive site. So if you are interested in catching my latest posts, it's not a bad idea to keep Dreams Into Lightning - Blogger on your browser bookmarks.
And what a busy day it's been. If you want to start getting caught up, you can check out my latest posts at DiL Blogger. And pay Kesher Talk a visit, too - there are some great new posts by Judith, Van, and Alcibiades, and I'm posting there now as well.
Just a few words on the recent reports - apparently untrue - of proposals to require Jews and Christians in Iran to wear some kind of distinguishing mark or item of clothing. Understandably, this triggered associations with the infamous "yellow star" that Jews in Nazi Germany were required to wear.
Here is my response, edited from an e-mail I sent to a friend:
I've been following the Iranian "yellow star" story pretty closely on the web. I am a dyed-in-the-wool neocon hawk, and I follow Iranian events almost obsessively.
From everything I have seen in the last 24-48 hours, it appears certain that the story is incorrect. Amir Taheri offers the following response: Regarding the dress code story it seems that my column was used as the basis for a number of reports that somehow jumped the gun. As far as my article is concerned I stand by it.
The law has been passed by the Islamic Majlis and will now be submitted to the Council of Guardians. A committee has been appointed to work out the modalities of implementation. Many ideas are being discussed with regard to implementation, including special markers, known as zonnars, for followers of Judaism, Christianity and Zoroastrianism, the only faiths other than Islam that are recognized as such. The zonnar was in use throughout the Muslim world until the early 20th century and marked out the dhimmis, or protected religious minorities. ( In Iran it was formally abolished in 1908). I have been informed of the ideas under discussion thanks to my sources in Tehran, including three members of the Majlis who had tried to block the bill since it was first drafted in 2004.
I do not know which of these ideas or any will be eventually adopted. We will know once the committee appointed to discuss them presents its report, perhaps in September.
Interestingly, the Islamic Republic authorities refuse to issue an official statement categorically rejecting the concept of dhimmitude and the need for marking out religious minorities. I raised the issue not as a news story, because news of the new law was already several days old, but as an opinion column to alert the outside world to this most disturbing development. "
Some have claimed that either Taheri or some other party deliberately fabricated the story. I do not believe this is the case. I do think it's very unfortunate that someone of Taheri's caliber allowed himself to be associated with a highly inflammatory story that could not be verified.
I suspect this will turn out to be the Iranian counterpart of the Iraqi "WMD" episode; that is, those who wish to accuse the "warmongers" of spreading deliberate falsehoods will seize on it with the ferocity of a pit bull. What's sad is that the real atrocities of the Iranian regime, like those of Saddam's Ba'athist gang, will be overlooked.
Let me say here that I unequivocally condemn any and all attempts to "embellish" the crimes of the Iranian regime. The reality is horrible enough and it does not need any help. If more people knew the truth of the atrocities committed by the sadistic gang of thugs in Tehran, the story of alleged "Jewish clothing" would seem very small indeed.
A few final comments:
Generally I make an effort to avoid or delay posting very sensational stories, precisely because there's a good chance they will turn out to be incorrect. I didn't post anything on this story for just that reason; but sometimes I do slip up. I'm taking this as a reminder to be extra careful about what I post here, because these are difficult and dangerous times, and people are getting killed. Writing about world events is a serious thing, and sometimes "PIMF" just doesn't cut it.
What are a source's biases? And why is it important to consider a source's biases?
I addressed the problem of media (and source) bias in an earlier post, "Poison Pill: The Media Today" where I quoted a New York Times editorial by Patrick Healy and a post by Neo-Neocon tracing the use of anonymous sources. The news media rely heavily on apocryphal sources - potentially biased, and anonymous, informants whose reliability and accountability are doubtful. As a first step toward correcting the problem, I echoed Neo's suggestion that
If the MSM really wanted to clean up their act, they might follow these sensible guidelines, devised by prominent journalists in a 2003 Poynter report:
• Anonymous sources should be encouraged to go on the record.
• We should weigh the source’s reliability and disclose to readers the source’s potential biases.
• The more specific we can be in describing the source in the story, the better.
• Anonymous sources should not be used for personal attacks, accusations of illegal activity, or merely to add color.
• The source must have first-hand knowledge.
• Journalists should not lie in a story to protect a source.
Now to the question at hand. Journalists are here being exhorted to "disclose to readers the source's potential biases". How would a journalist, or a layperson, make such an assessment? Well, I think it's mostly commonsense, but I'll throw a few ideas out there:
What is the source's ideological orientation? What are the person's political sympathies, their party affiliation, etc? This is not to say that people can't be objective or critical about a movement they belong to - but the potential for bias is certainly there.
What are the source's financial interests? I think this one is a no-brainer, but a person who owns a lot of stock in XYZ Corporation is going to have an incentive to promote pro-XYZ legislation and contracts. In the case of the MSM, we all know that "bad news sells".
Debts and favors. Is the source looking for a payoff down the road? If I go on record saying nice things about Candidate A, maybe I am hoping to get appointed to a nice comfy job if A wins the election.
The medium is the message. News stories go through news networks, broadcast networks, and publishers. Books go through publishing houses. In other words, somebody has to provide the materials for the message to be communicated. Somewhere, a network executive makes decisions about what gets on the air and what doesn't. Somewhere, an editor or publisher decides what gets printed and what doesn't. So if you're reading a book you have to think about not only the author's background and point of view, but also the publisher's orientation: for example, they might publish mostly liberal books or mostly conservative books. Knowing something about the background of a publisher or a broadcast network can help give you an idea of what to expect.
What are the source's own experiences? How might those experiences be relevant, and how might they affect the source's perceptions? First-hand knowledge of any issue is always helpful; on the other hand, a person might have had an experience that was atypical or unrepresentative. A soldier on the front lines is going to have a very vivid, detailed, and specific recollection of a battle. The general in a command bunker may not see the battle up close, but he will have information on the "big picture" of troop strengths, enemy positions, strategic decisions, and other things that the soldier will not know, and may not be allowed to know. The soldier's memory may be distorted by trauma, confusion, fear, or shame (of a real or imagined failiing on the battlefield); the general may ignore or suppress key information, perhaps with his career in mind. Both perspectives are valuable, both have their limitations.
Psychological factors. There are basic psychological factors that operate in all of us to one degree or another. Resistance to change is one; Neo has written extensively and insightfully on the human reluctance to change familiar patterns of thought. There is a need for approval of others; there is also a need for a sense of autonomy and a belief that we determine our own destiny. And of course we all like to be thought knowledgeable, which is why we are often tempted to speak more than we actually know.
The centrally-managed and -edited traditional media (including radio, TV, print periodicals, and books) have nothing to fear from the internet ... provided they do not contribute to their own irrelevance by ignoring it.
The internet is anarchical, and therefore makes great demands on the individual user in terms of critical thinking skills. How do we know to trust a site? We compare information from multiple sources, listen to different analyses, learn to weed out irrelevant input and compare the picture with what we know from our own previous experience.
With the traditional media, this is all delegated to the editor, publisher, producer, or university. Often we have to do this, because the material is specialized or technical in nature, or because individual contributors don't have the credibility to reliably provide the information we need.
But centralized media can serve their own agendas at the expense of accuracy. That's where the supremely democratic world of blogging comes in.
Traditional media still play a valuable role. But they risk abdicating this role if they fail to recognize the democratizing effects of electronic communications.
Why do we believe what we believe? How do we decide what is true, and what is important? Consider the role of the following factors, and feel free to add others:
· internal consistency (details of the narrative agree with each other) · external consistency (details of the narrative agree with information previously verified) · insider details (information available only to an authentic source) · dialog and dissent (narrative welcomes questions and challenges; fosters better understanding among divergent opinions) · awareness of objections (narrative recognizes legitimate counter-arguments and seeks to refute them) · nuance (recognition that a proposition may hold true in general and still admit of exceptions) · the human voice (an intangible quality that may include a distinctive personality, awareness of ambivalence, self-analysis and self-criticism)
Finally, what does biased writing look like? Bias isn't necessarily bad, but you need to be aware of it and, if necessary, allow for it. Yahoo offers this:
Check for the tone of the publication - pick out opinion statements and check the publication's references (are all of the references from the same author or does the publication offer a variety?). What other articles has the author written - the topics of these may help determine her/his bias.
Does the author present both sides of the argument/topic? If not, which side is presented more often? What is the point s/he is trying to make? Ask yourself these questions and you should be on the right track!
That sums up the main points: variety of sources, obvious rhetorical slant, agenda. Going a little deeper, I'll offer the following ideas:
* Look for "snarl words" versus "purr words" - words that mean the same thing but sound bad or good. * See if you can tell what kind of overall picture, or "narrative", the writer is trying to present. * Sometimes an article will seem to present both sides, but will use better arguments to represent one side, and weaker arguments for the other, so that one side sounds more convincing; this is a kind of implicit bias. * Sometimes people will use bogus arguments (called "red herrings" or "straw men") to evade questions they don't have answers for; these are examples of fallacies or bad logic. Studying the types of fallacies can help you see when somebody is trying to pull a fast one on you; you can find out more about logical fallacies here, here, or here.
Another common form of potential bias is the use of "weasel words" - words or phrases that make a statement appear factual but really undercut the precision of the statement. They're called "weasel words" because they allow the writer to wiggle out of being pinned down to a specific statement that can be proved or disproved. Wikipedia's style manual has an excellent section on weasel words: Words and short phrases that make a statement difficult or impossible to prove or disprove.
Now go take a look at Wikipedia's list - better yet, print it out! - and spend some time looking for weasel words in your favorite media source. I bet you'll find a lot of them. (How many is "a lot"? Well, try it and find out for yourself!)
Make a game of it: print out a copy of this post, and go through your local newspaper with a pen or a highlighter. Look for anonymous sources, or people who might have an incentive to be partial, or examples of journalists possibly putting their own opinions into the mouths of the ubiquitous "some people". Look for snarl words, purr words, and weasel words. Try to spot logical fallacies. Check for internal consistency, external consistency, and awareness of objections. Ask yourself which analyses come from people who know what they're talking about - those who have first-hand knowledge of the relevant "facts on the ground" and who are prepared to respond to opposing arguments - and which ones are unsupported opinions from people with their own agenda.
I hope you have found this post helpful. But the most important thing in determining a source's biases is to do your own thinking! And that's important for students, too - so if you are a student, please take the time to come up with your own answers to this question. Remember, your instructor can use a search engine just as easily as you can.