aTypical Joe: a gay New Yorker living in the rural South
Thursday, January 12, 2006
The Smoking Gun stresses how the graphic, four-letter, vomit-saturated nature of the book makes it not the usual Oprah fare, but Oprah and her disciples have no problem with rough stuff as long as the sinner or victim find a rainbow of redemption at the end of the alley. They wanted to believe the worst in the book because it made for a steeper arc of ascension. That’s my problem with the whole victim-survivor literary genre, apart from the iffiness of accepting anyone’s memory as an accurate account of events that happened ten, twenty years ago. (Memories blur and blend and are reshaped by the rememberer into the narrative of his or her life that s/he have adopted. People incorporate things that happened, things that didn’t happen, things they wish had happened, and things that happened to someone else into a too-smooth storyline in which everyone’s character is fixed, except the sensitive narrator’s.) I’m just automatically suspicious of every tale of woe that’s peddled as a tale of redemption. The whole concept of redemption seems fishy to me, another form of sentimentality. How many people do you know have found redemption? What does “redemption” really mean? It’s got a lofty religious sound, but the vast majority of people improve or worsen in varying degrees over time, and even those who radically turn their lives around or pull themselves out of the abyss still have to go on doing the mundane things we all do, often suffering relapses or channeling their sobriety and sadder-but-wiser maturity into passive-aggressive preening of their own moral goodness. Most change for better or worse is undramatic, incremental, seldom revealed in a blinding flash or expressed in a climactic moment of heroic resolve.
I read and I quote this in the context of my thoughts on a return to the oral tradition and my statement that I don’t mind the loss of technical accuracy. Wouldn’t that mean I have no problem with Frey?
I agree with Wolcott’s observations of people and their memories, but I believe the template for modern exaggeration and embellishment - the place where we learn to construct those too-smooth storylines - is fed by our national media. Our tales are just a variation on the theme of what good producers and writers do too; including non-fiction writers and news and documentary producers.
I read nothing but non-fiction and have watched more than my fair share of non-fiction television and I am aware of how stories are constructed and colored and how some facts are chosen to be included and others left out. Some facts must be but you’d leave out different ones than me and I think it’s good and legitimate and reasonable for an individual to have the opportunity when telling their own story to put their own version of their history out there too.
But back to Frey. He is not a function of the oral tradition I praise. Rather, his tale of woe was bought and peddled by publishers and sold to all of us by the modern media machine. He fits into this observation because he is a consequence of the “objective” and now the “balanced” press tradition, not the oral history tradition.
If more of us - why not all of us? - had the opportunity to tell our own stories, listeners would learn how to put them in the context Wolcott describes, and appreciate the stories for it. And, too, when we’re the tellers of our stories, tell them with an authentic voice rather than an exaggerated one that cries out for attention. And book sales.
Sunday, January 08, 2006
Human beings are not ants
I have yet to read The Wisdom of Crowds. I did buy the book - you may too - after listening to James Surowieki’s 2005 O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference talk recorded last March, via ITConversations. In it he discusses some of the issues raised by collective intelligence, collaboration and collective action.
He begins with the observation that “not all forms of collective action are created equal” and that “if you use the wrong kind of collective action or if some of the perils of collective action are not dealt with you can actually end up with worse solutions.”
He describes a model of collective intelligence [clip] then goes through a number of examples. His last example is ants, which very effectively mobilize “dumb agents” who individually act with very little intelligence, yet by following very simple rules and paying attention to those around them they come up with stunningly intelligent outcomes. [clip]:
So interaction [for ants] is the key to intelligence. Now, the message of this talk if there’s one line you can take away from it is that human beings are not ants. And the reason we are not ants is that we do not have the biological programming in us...that ants have which allows this kind of interaction to produce intelligence…
In fact for human beings, interaction for us is incredibly problematic, especially when it comes to group behavior. Under certain circumstances...if there is too much interaction among human beings and if it’s the wrong kind of interaction, groups end up being less intelligent than they would otherwise be.
So the more we talk to each other, the dumber it is possible for us to become.
Saturday, January 07, 2006
Thank you Gene Shalit
GLAAD objects to his Brokeback Mountain review:
For the most part, the critics agree that Brokeback Mountain is one of the year’s most commendable films.
Then there’s Gene Shalit’s point of view.
The veteran Today show critic has been taken to task by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation over his negative review of the gay cowboy western, in which he referred to Jake Gyllenhaal’s character, Jack, as a “sexual predator” who “tracks Ennis down and coaxes him into sporadic trysts.”
I’m glad for Shalit’s review; it’s another reason this film is important. There is broad, deep misunderstanding about this subject and Shalit, who has written lovingly about his own gay son, has hit upon one of the most frequent and insidious of those misunderstandings. He has given voice to what others - evidently even some of those who identify as supportive - believe to be true.
Now we can discuss it.
Those who think being gay is a choice, but don’t make the distinction between a gay identity and homosexual acts, frequently hold the deeply homophobic belief that the individual has given in to the queer evil and is out to recruit.
In What’s Their Real Problem with Gay Marriage (It’s the Gay Part), Russell Shorto writes:
I found no one among the people on the ground who are leading the anti-gay-marriage cause who said in essence: ‘’I have nothing against homosexuality. I just don’t believe gays should be allowed to marry.’’ Rather, their passion comes from their conviction that homosexuality is a sin, is immoral, harms children and spreads disease. Not only that, but they see homosexuality itself as a kind of disease, one that afflicts not only individuals but also society at large and that shares one of the prominent features of a disease: it seeks to spread itself.
Shalit may (or may not) believe that even if Jack is predatory in his pursuit, Ennis is free - like any and every man or woman pursued by an unwanted suitor - to turn him down. But what his review reflects is the sentiment above, that having been infected by Jack he’s left powerless to resist. The guilt is Jack’s alone.
It’s worth noting that the same people who hold Jack guilty are the ones likely to, in another context, object to the concept of date rape and are not sympathetic to legal efforts meant to protect women from coercive heterosexual sex.
There’s an odd consistency in that contradiction: Just as they might say that Jack should exercise the personal responsibility to choose not to be gay, the woman should exercise the personal responsibility to just say no.
I came away from the movie convinced that the personally responsible choice - the one that would have been less damaging for Jack and Ennis and, significantly, their wives and families and all of the people around them - would have been the difficult but honest choice to come out of the closet.
Here’s the GLAAD press release with the video.
UPDATE: Shalit apologized.
Wednesday, January 04, 2006
HOPE Homes. Again.
The last time I wrote about Georgia’s HOPE Scholarship was before I read Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt, the wunderkind economist known for looking at everyday things, digging through data, and turning convention on its head. (The writer Stephen J. Dubner is co-author.)
I have to wonder what Levitt would think of the unintended consequences of HOPE. Among them, a study from February of last year (PDF) found that families that get the HOPE scholarship buy more cars. What’s true for cars looks to me to be true for homes too.
School starts Monday. Right now in the driveway next door there are 4 pickup trucks and a sedan. It’s a just-sold single family home in a modest still-nice residential neighborhood close to campus. My friend’s house, the one that once flew the gay peace flag, was bought by parents for students. It now flies the stars and bars. When the last university president left her house it, too, was bought by parents. The university president’s house.
A banker here explained the impeccable logic to me: parents buy the house, rent it out to roommates of their child to cover the mortgage and maintenance, then sell it at a profit at graduation. From a public policy perspective, this seems problematic. The kid gets tuition paid, the parents pay none and make a profit on the house?
Nancy McDuff, association vice president for admissions and enrollment management at the University of Georgia said last May on Talk of the Nation:
Well, some days it seems like Lake Wobegon where all the children are above average in the state of Georgia. We actually have at the University of Georgia almost 100 percent of our in-state students qualifying for the HOPE Scholarship here. So our in-state students coming to the University of Georgia are basically paying no tuition fees and receiving a small book allowance.
And 90% of them would have gone to college even without the scholarship! Meanwhile the state cuts education funding and tuition goes up, a trend that’s expected to continue, while the cost of education is effectively shifted to the more regressive lottery-based funding, even as policy makers worry it can’t carry the load.
Like all middle class benefits programs, this one is not going away. It effectively keeps students in-state, so our college here will likely thrive. And when it comes time to sell my house, I don’t foresee a problem. Who knows, maybe my street will one day be, like Milledge Avenue up the road in Athens, our town’s fraternity row.
Monday, January 02, 2006
Barbie & The Transgender Menace
Martha Kleder, a policy analyst for Concerned Women for America and Bob Knight, Director of CWA’s Culture & Family Institute were tipped off “by one of our constituents” to “something rather disturbing” - a dropdown menu (pictured) used in a poll on the Barbie Website.
Bob sees the “bizarre” third choice as part of the transgender movement - “that’s a very big component of the homosexual activist agenda now” - and tells us that it is very dangerous for girls in particular. He reports that “they actually had surgeons there” at a transgender conference in Washington a couple years ago:
MARTHA: Well Bob obviously things could get a lot worse but we wanted to alert our listeners to the fact that the Barbie.com website might not be safe for surfing for young girls…
BOB: ...It’s really steering girls away from the idea of womanhood as predominantly, in terms of Christians, serving the lord, getting married, having kids, you know, building a home. You don’t see any of that with Barbie… Barbie’s suspect to begin with but once they start throwing this transgender question at little girls they’ve really crossed the line.”
My experience with programmers has me suspecting they used code from somewhere else and didn’t delete the third choice for no particular reason. I guess it’s possible that some pedagogue worried that the kid might not actually know so should be able to say so. Either way I assure you it’s not part of my agenda.
Via John at AMERICAblog.
UPDATE: The audio program repurposed for print, from the Christian Post which notes, “On the day after this article was published, the third option on Mattel’s Barbie Poll changed from ‘I don’t know’ to ‘Don’t want to say.’”
Thursday, December 29, 2005
Dover may be over, but the problem’s not
My reaction to the Dover decision is an increasingly firm belief that we should teach religion in the public schools.
Now I’m as happy as anyone that the George W. Bush appointed Republican Judge John Jones wrote the opinion he did, but it doesn’t solve our problem. Just a little over a month ago we were all told that half of those surveyed believe the president was right to suggest that Intelligent Design be taught alongside evolution in the public schools.
Nothing I’ve read - and I’ve read a good amount - suggests that any of those people have changed their mind. So what do we do about that? Call them names and gloat about winning? That’s not victory to me.
When I told my friends in New York of my reaction they were aghast. The first group trotted out the old war-horse argument that religion is the root of all evil, the cause of all wars and of all our current problems.
I quoted, as best I could, the philosopher Jonathan Glover from his book Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century:
[p. 405] Those of us who do not believe in a religious moral law should still be troubled by its fading. The evils of religious intolerance, religious persecution and religious wars are well known, but it is striking how many protests against and acts of resistance to atrocity have also come from principled religious commitment. (A handful of names: Bishop George Bell, Elizabeth Anscombe, Bishop von Galen, Pastor Braune, Bernard Lichtenberg, AndrÃƒÂ© and Magda TrocmÃƒÂ© and the villagers of Le Chambon, and the bishop of Denmark in 1943.) The decline of this moral commitment would be a huge loss.
Now this notion that we should teach religion in the schools was slow to dawn on me. A British expatriate who teaches high school biology here said to me at a party last year that he believes our problem is the constitution.
It was obvious to him that all of this was a side effect of the lack of religious education in school. He says religion should be taught in school. All religion. World religion. Christian, Muslim, Hindu, you name it.
More recently on a Radio Open Source discussion of Intelligent Design in Dover and Kansas, Dorothy Rabinowitz of the Wall Street Journal said:
[41:15] A lot of this passion has much to do with the effort to drive all form of religious public observation out of American life. And it has a lot to do with the kinds of resentments that smolder when you throw out every Hanukkah bush and Christmas tree and every religious observation and the ACLU is permitted, is impelled to file law suits and save us from postage stamps that have the remotest resemblance to any religious… This too is salted down into the consciousness of religious people and it creates a kind of antipathy to the culture. Which I think you see the product of right here.
[Ken Miller, author of Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution and professor of Biology at Brown University 42:50] I think she’s hit it dead on. And I think she’s absolutely right. And the shame of all this is the shotgun that has been fired at educational standards in Kansas hasn’t just blown away evolution it’s blown away all of science by corrupting the very definition of science. And I think the point that I would make in all of this… I think Pat Robertson is distinguished in this debate by his piercing honesty. By his willingness to see this very, very clearly and I think he’s done a great service to Dover and the national debate by saying, look this really is about religion and there’s no question that it’s a backlash, a deep unease with scientific modernism. And I think the ultimate solution is to frame science and frame scientific education in ways that are not hostile to religion, and as you know I certainly believe that can be done, and also to create a climate where religious diversity is welcomed as much as a political racial and ethnic diversity in this country and I think we can do that.
My friends’ reaction: outright rejection. More on that later.
Friday, December 23, 2005
Being gay is a choice
A homosexual proclivity may not be.
Homosexual and gay are not synonymous; all homosexuals are not gay. Homosexual acts may be circumstantial - a man in prison, a drunken evening - or experimental and do not mean an individual is homosexual by nature. But experimentation can lead to the discovery of a homosexual inclination.
Once that inclination is realized, how it is addressed matters to all of us. Because then there is a choice to be made: to accept homosexuality or to resist and fight it. To embrace it is to become gay. To resist it leads to all kinds of trouble.
In Abraham Lincoln’s day, a more agrarian time when the family was the economic unit, gay was not a choice. Had it been, I’m persuaded beyond all reasonable doubt that Lincoln might have chosen it. And that he’d have been happier if he had.
Urbanization and mobilization - particularly World War II which brought women into the workforce and men together as it took them around the world - brought with it the beginnings of a gay identity. That identity is rooted in the collective experience of those who have gone through the difficult process of making the choice to embrace their homsexuality.
I saw Brokeback Mountain yesterday. Its peculiar achievement is to show straight America the cost to all of us when someone chooses not to be gay. For Ennis’s torment was not his alone; he shared it with Jack and Alma and their daughters and every woman he dated and every random person that fell victim to his wild outbursts of rage against the world.
Jack had a choice too, one that would not have made as tragic a movie.
Ennis was right when he said, “If you can’t fix it, Jack, you gotta stand it.” The heartbreak was in the way he chose to “stand it.” Ennis didn’t realize he had a choice. In the final shot, alone in his trailer, Ennis looks at a postcard of Brokeback Mountain tacked to a closet door. He closes the door.
What we must see, all of us gay and straight alike, is that it’s in our interest to help open the closet door. We must make the choice to come out of the closet and become gay an easier one; the obvious one. Because that’s the right choice, the good choice, the healthy choice, for our society and for all of us living in it.
RELATED: Here’s the full text Annie Proulx short story.
Monday, December 19, 2005
Sick monsters should be hung II
Justin’s dark coming-of-age story is a collateral effect of recent technological advances. Minors, often under the online tutelage of adults, are opening for-pay pornography sites featuring their own images sent onto the Internet by inexpensive Webcams. And they perform from the privacy of home, while parents are nearby, beyond their children’s closed bedroom doors.
The business has created youthful Internet pornography stars - with nicknames like Riotboyy, Miss Honey and Gigglez - whose images are traded online long after their sites have vanished. In this world, adolescents announce schedules of their next masturbation for customers who pay fees for the performance or monthly subscription charges. Eager customers can even buy “private shows,” in which teenagers sexually perform while following real-time instructions.
A six-month investigation by The New York Times into this corner of the Internet found that such sites had emerged largely without attracting the attention of law enforcement or youth protection organizations. While experts with these groups said they had witnessed a recent deluge of illicit, self-generated Webcam images, they had not known of the evolution of sites where minors sold images of themselves for money.
This story must be read in full; to answer the Romenesko reader’s question, this is the Times at its very best. It’s exposed a problem that we must address but one where I’m afraid that because of our distorted dealings with the myriad issues raised effective action is unlikely.
For the nightmare here is not only child sexual abuse. It is parental abuse and neglect, law enforcement targeting the wrong people and using the wrong strategies - egged on, significantly, by our sensationalist pundocracy - businesses large and small, legit and illegit cashing in and, most significantly, the problem of pornography.
I have resisted coming out broadly and completely against pornography, buying into liberal adult freedom of speech arguments. Today I let that go. I am against the closet because of the shame based damage it does. I am against pornography for many reasons, but shame based damage is high among them.
As to my headline, I don’t actually believe the people doing this are sick monsters; I believe it would be an easier problem to address if they were. This story suggests the USA Today article I quoted the other day is sadly wrong, and that each of us is going to have to come to terms with the monsters in our midst.
Modernism, here and there
I am a I was a New Yorker who looked up. I love the skyline; I’m dazzled by it. I want to look at it, appreciate it, stand there and be awed and overwhelmed by it. A proud amateur who once gave his own walking tours - to friends, family and anyone else who tagged along - modeled on those I took with… was it Mosette Broderick while a student at NYU? Oh, the memory lapses.
I also interviewed Paul Goldberger (then at the Times, now The New Yorker architecture critic) for a student documentary on the Times Square redevelopment plan. In those days I absorbed both an admiration for modernism’s intentions and the critique of it as an assault on the American cityscape - cheap architecture masquerading as modern architecture undermined modernism’s moment. I’m still inclined to like the postmodernist design guideline development of, for example, a Battery Park City.
The building I work in now is the only modernist building - by a New York architect no less - within a 40 mile radius of our town. It reflects modernism’s aspirations. It tries, it has elements I like and that the students like and in some instances it comes close to achieving its aspirations. But it is considered by many who are born and raised there as an architectural assault on the town and the campus.
No columns, no culture.
Like Norman Foster‘s ”shiny missile shooting out of [its] stone launching pad” - the Hearst Headquarters building in New York - our new building is attached to a beloved old campus structure, but Paul Goldberger’s not there to interpret this for us. Me, I can’t do it either. And that’s because, frankly, I don’t get it.
I’m enough of a post modernist fan that I agree with those in my town who want, at least, some gesture towards the rest of the campus. Or maybe it’s just that the building is not a strong enough modernist accomplishment to persuade me on its own.
Foster is at his best when solving puzzles like this one; unlike most ÃƒÂ©lite architects, he isn’t obsessed with creating his own pure forms. His gift for building a meaningful conversation between new and old architecture became apparent six years ago, with the unveiling of the renovated Reichstag, in Berlin: Foster placed a glass dome atop an ornate nineteenth-century masonry structure, reinterpreting the building’s monumentality in modernist terms. And, in 2000, he enlivened the courtyard of the British Museum with a steel-and-glass canopy that casts a delicate geometric shadow on the floor.
Foster’s gift is one the ÃƒÂ©lite HHPA architect assigned to our project may not have. In our building, there’s no conversation between new and old. If anything, there’s an argument; though I am quick to add that students do love a good argument.
When I looked up at the Hearst Headquarters building last night it wasn’t immediately clear that the building worked for me. It’s an awe-inspiring structure, fascinating to look at and in an awesome setting. The AOL Time Warner headquarters is just a block away, with its 95’ illuminated prow light sculpture (this was the first time I’d seen it working).
I’ll be eager to come back when it’s open and I can see it alive in the city and walk through what Goldberger calls “one of the most dramatic entrances of any tower in New York.” And back home in my town where a culture of conformity is the norm, I will welcome our modernist argument. It’s exactly as it should be that this is the building I work in.
Friday, December 16, 2005
An argument for the noble loss
I am not entirely inexperienced in the area of federal court cases. During my 8 years on the Board of Directors of Manhattan Neighborhood Network we went to federal court a time or two. We were threatened with court cases regularly.
You’ve undoubtedly heard of some of them, extremists of every flavor arguing that by changing their program’s timeslot, or enforcing an allocation intended to give equal access to all, we were trampling their individual rights. Of course, the way that you heard these stories, through the media filter, was that some outrageous group was on television when the public had just assumed that such views could not be.
I spent a good amount of time with our top-shelf legal team.
In these cases I consistently advocated that we should argue a Cass Sunsteinian view of the First Amendment: That the privilege afforded to my right to say whatever I want to say is rooted in the democratic desire for a polity informed through exposure to a multiplicity of viewpoints. That our role as a public access television center was to give as broad a range of people as possible access and, significantly, to serve the broadest community possible as well.
This is not an argument for any individual viewpoint or for any specific range of viewpoints, and the details of implementation could - and should - be endlessly discussed. But I never got there. I could never get by the First Amendment case law and entrenched dogma that the only element to be considered was the individual’s right to say whatever.
So why did I want to put that argument out there and lose? BECAUSE IT WAS RIGHT! And it might, just might, find its way into a dissent and one day be picked up and turned into law.
Now we on the left (and increasingly these days they’re doing it on the right) are always strategically deciding our moves rather than going right out there and arguing for what we believe. I’m in favor of the noble loss. We’re scared of that right now with same sex marriage. I’m not. If we lose I’m going to be worse off than I am right now? If we lose maybe we’ll know we lost and fight harder!
Google Book Search is the subject at hand. The case lays bare how literally technical the copyright claim is: that the technical need to copy - rather than use, say, some artificial savant intelligence that could read and absorb the full text content then call it up from memory - obliterates our ever-shrinking fair use claim that we have a legal right to index and access these snippets.
If Google looses, we all lose. But I for one am not going to blame Google for trying. I will, on the other hand, blame them if they - like Clinton with Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell - sell us out in settlement.
If Google settles
There was a Google Book Search debate at the American Bar Association in New York on Wednesday night. Ben Vershbow at if:Book has a good wrap-up. He discusses the point where Google apparently lost the crowd.
Allan Adler of the Association of American Publishers said Google betrayed the weakness of its fair use claim in the way it has continually revised its description of the program:
Almost exactly one year ago, Google unveiled its “library initiative” only to re-brand it several months later as a “publisher program” following a wave of negative press. This, however, did little to ease tensions and eventually Google decided to halt all book scanning (until this past November) while they tried to smooth things over with the publishers. Even so, lawsuits were filed, despite Google’s offer of an “opt-out” option for publishers, allowing them to request that certain titles not be included in the search index. This more or less created an analog to the “implied consent” principle that legitimates search engines caching web pages with “spider” programs that crawl the net looking for new material.
In that case, there is a machine-to-machine communication taking place and web page owners are free to insert programs that instruct spiders not to cache, or can simply place certain content behind a firewall. By offering an “opt-out” option to publishers, Google enables essentially the same sort of communication. Adler’s point (and this was echoed more succinctly by a smart question from the audience) was that if Google’s fair use claim is so air-tight, then why offer this middle ground? Why all these efforts to mollify publishers without actually negotiating a license? (I am definitely concerned that Google’s efforts to quell what probably should have been an anticipated negative reaction from the publishing industry will end up undercutting its legal position.)
Now here’s a scenario I imagine. The brash hubris of the billionaire founders who want to “do no evil” and “organize the world’s information” means they really thought they could do things differently; be a different kind of corporation.
In an effort to be more quick and nimble than any giant corporation can reasonably be, there was indeed naivetÃƒÂ© when they put this ambitious project out there. And so yes, they’ve had to “clarify” as they’ve gone forward. The tragedy will be if that undermines their position.
Now I would have preferred if they had never used the implied consent privilege as their model. Opt-out was a mistake; Fair Use Abeyence was the best I could come up with, and I’d have no problem with such an arrangement with publishers.
But now the concern implied by Susan Crawford, one of those arguing in favor of Google’s position on the ALA panel in her wrap-up - “I very much hope that Google won’t settle this case. We need these issues decided.” - that Google might settle, is one that worries me too.
I’m thinking, “Once burned, twice shy.”
As much as I suspect that the lawyers weren’t driving this project at its start, I’m guessing their currency has risen considerably since. And you just know they want to settle. I only hope Page and Brin can stick to their guns, do no evil, and take this fight to the end. Even if in the end they lose, I will applaud and support their ambition.
Thursday, December 15, 2005
A friend tipped me off to Bill Maher’s comments on Larry King. A caller asked whether he believed that child molesters could be rehabilitated:
MAHER: Santa Claus? Child molesters. Probably not. I mean, they themselves admit that they can’t. They themselves. I’ve heard this many times, read it that a child molester will say, you know what? If you let me out, I am going to do it again.
It’s such a sick thing that that kind of makes sense. I mean, if that is what you really want to do, it doesn’t seem like that is something that is going to go away. It’s much like the right wings thinks that you can reform homosexuals, that if you send them away to camp and get them to pray enough about Jesus, that they’ll start to like women again.
That’s just silly. People have these—I mean, that’s a tough question. Because what do you do with a child molester after they’ve served their time? If you send them back into society, you’re almost asking for it.
He’s got the anecdotes and public opinion right, but he’s wrong on the facts and the prognosis.
On the National Institute of Corrections website they have Myths and Facts about sex offenders which states, “It is noteworthy that recidivism rates for sex offenders are lower than for the general criminal population.”
In May, John Q. La Fond, author of Preventing Sexual Violence: How Society Should Cope With Sex Offenders said on NPR’s Science Friday that studies have shown a 20% recidivism rate 5 years out.
And in August USA Today reported sex crimes against children have dropped dramatically. Our perceptions don’t match the facts.
But Mahr caps his mistaken perception with the unfortunate parallel of sending gay kids to Christian camps, thereby linking - by his association - gay people and child molesters.
Personally, I’d like to send Mahr off to a camp to teach rich libertarian comedians to think before they speak.
The faith-based book
Scholar Bart Ehrman’s new book explores how scribes—through both omission and intention—changed the Bible. Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why is the result of years of reading the texts in their original languages.
An interesting show, worth a listen. In the context of our discussion of the accuracy of Wikipedia, dare I point out the huge percentage of folks in this country who read the Bible as technically accurate literal truth?
Now, I’m no Bible scholar, not even an amateur, but I know that the technology of the day required that it came down to us either as oral stories, or it was hand written and copied. Then we toss in the vagaries of translation.
But still today I live in a country where 45 out 50 states prohibit legal recognition of my committed life-partnership based largely on people’s faith in the accuracy of that book.
And we’re upset that Wikipedia is badly written and has errors?
Whose Faith-Based encyclopedia?
Robert McHenry, a former Editor in Chief of the Encyclopedia Britannica, calls Wikipedia a faith-based encyclopedia:
A little more than a year ago I first wrote about Wikipedia. In that article I attempted to make two points: that the basic premise of the project is fatally flawed and can only be embraced as an article of faith, and that the project lacks a proper concern for ordinary users, those who are not in on the game.
I’ve already addressed his notion that the word encyclopedia “carries a powerful connotation of reliability.” And disputing the notion that the expert hands down wisdom to the amateur - rather than that it is a process that works the other way around too - is a recurring theme of mine.
Here I’d rather discuss his take on the editorial process:
I was once an encyclopedia editor, but I wasn’t one just because I said so. It’s not like being an artist, after all. When I began I first learned to proofread, then to fiddle about with galleys and page proofs, then to fact-check, then to write clearly and concisely, and so on; at length I learned (so we agreed to say) editorial judgment. Late in my days I took a hand in training others. There really is something to the job—skills, knowledge, experience, and maybe even a touch of talent.
My bottom line is that today we all have to develop our own “editorial judgment;” that technology gives us the tools and we no longer need accept the fiction that there is one definitive authority. In my view, Britannica was the faith-based encyclopedia, and they, steeped in their belief system, are upset that they will no longer be.
I see Wikipedia as part of a welcome return to an oral tradition. In that argument, I say that I won’t miss the lack of technical accuracy. To be clear, I won’t miss it in the oral tradition, or the Wikipedia entry, because I agree with Ray Kurzweil that old paradigms don’t die. We’re not talking about replacing the encyclopedia. We’re talking about an additional information source that can inform the others.
I don’t want one definitive source. I don’t need one definitive source. George Orwell described a world with one definitive source. I want to be empowered to make my own decision. And the freedom to choose the consensus choice or the popular choice or the contrary choice or to propose my own choice!
You know what, I’m wrong. I DO WANT A DEFINITIVE SOURCE. Unfortunately, I can’t have one. I can’t impose mine on you. You can’t impose yours on me. And that’s as it should be. Now given that, I want as much choice - and INPUT - as possible.
Via James Joyner.
Sunday, December 11, 2005
Christmas day worship in your living room via DVD
The megachurch goal of an “innovative” and “family friendly” approach is achieved this Christmas by canceling the Christmas Day service and distributing a DVD instead.
This, says Willow Creek Community Church Communications Director Cally Parkinson (a “community” church needs a communications director???) will facilitate a “more personal and maybe more intimate Christmas message.”
God, she says, “is with us wherever we are.” How convenient.
For me it confirms Fareed Zakaria’s observation in The Future of Freedom that there’s a decline of religious authority in American life. In a compelling and well argued chapter entitled “The Death of Authority” he suggests that the notion of evangelicalism thriving because of its strictness is flat-out wrong.
Rather, he explains, today’s fundamentalism has undergone a profound populist transformation; the focus is on attracting the masses. Today we have faith as therapy; a populist evangelicalism that coddles its flock. “People are praised, comforted, consoled, but never condemned,” he writes:
[p.214] What remains of the old Protestant fundamentalism is politics: abortion, gays, evolution. These issues are what binds the vast congregation together. But even here things have changed as Americans have become more tolerant of many of these social taboos. Today many fundamentalist churches take nominally tough positions on, say, homosexuality but increasingly do little else for fear of offending the average believer, whom one scholar calls “the unwashed Harry.” All it really takes to be a fundamentalist these days is to watch the TV shows, go to the theme parks, buy Christian rock, and vote Republican.
So are the fundamentalist upset about canceling the Christmas service? Some. But the big deal even for them is not that they’re canceling the Christmas service. It turns out that’s the trend among evangelical churches; they make Christmas Eve the big draw instead. But because Christmas falls on a Sunday they’ll be canceling a Sunday service. That’s the upset.
The cancelation won’t upset my worship routine. Bedside Baptist is the church for me. And it looks like this Christmas, even here in the red, red, heart of the South, I won’t be alone in that.
SEE ALSO: Slate’s photo essay on the anatomy of megachurches.
Thursday, December 08, 2005
The demise of free use
So much of it is quotable and anyone who finds this subject of interest should listen to the whole thing. The single part I will mention here comes close to the end, in an answer to a question from Stephen Johnson.
Larry Lessig discusses the freedom to read - in a library; from a borrowed book or from a book you bought - as a “free use.” In the digital realm, he explains, because every use requires a copy, every time we engage in any use it must be justified as either a “licensed use” or a “fair use.”
Once there were three kinds of uses: “free use,” “licensed use,” and “fair use.” If the publisher’s view prevails, in the world they’d like to construct, one day soon there will no longer be “free use.” There will only be “licensed use” or “fair use.”
This, I agree, is a serious, significant and culturally tragic loss.
Wednesday, December 07, 2005
Siva, Libraries and the Google Book Search project
I’ve got substantial time off coming up; oddly enough I’m hoping to spend some if it sinking my teeth more deeply into the issues surrounding the Google Book Search project. And Siva’s critique of it, for his is unique.
It’s been a good long while now that Siva’s been saying libraries, not a giant corporation, should be doing the Google Book Search project (formerly “Google Print,” much to Siva’s chagrin). I’ve been aware of his critique but didn’t take in the complete argument until last week’s article in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
In general, I’ve not been won over by the arguments. Sure libraries should do it. And we should feed the hungry and house the homeless and stop war. The question is how?
Realistically, in the world I live in, I don’t see where the money’s going to come from. Government? Public libraries are generally struggling and would be hard-pressed to build support for such an endeavor. Academia is not that well endowed. Neither is in a position to go out and raise billions.
But generally the difference between Siva and me is, I think, distrust of the corporation. He’s worried, I’m less so. It’s not so much that I blithely trust corporations, but rather that I see them as the rising global power. And I don’t see that as all bad. (More here.)
There are good corporations and bad corporations just as there are good governments and bad governments. And in this age of wholly owned politicians, where dollars contributed count more than votes, where court victories like Brown and Roe are pyrrhic, where huge percentages of Americans for whatever reason don’t vote, it’s not entirely clear to me that consumers have less influence over corporations than voters do over governments.
Tuesday, December 06, 2005
Will Tom sue?
Could Cruise successfully sue “South Park”? And more broadly, should he continue his campaign of directly combating the claim that he’s homosexual, or rethink the ethics of bringing such lawsuits?
The relevant “South Park” episode—entitled “Trapped in the Closet”—self-consciously skirts the outermost edges of the First Amendment’s protection for parody. A court would probably deem it constitutionally protected, but only barely.
Defamation requires a “statement of fact”—and for this reason, most parody, because of its fictional nature, falls outside defamation law by definition. But this is the rare parody that, fairly read, does make a statement of fact.
In the episode, the animated version of Cruise literally goes into a closet, and won’t come out. Other characters beg him to “come out of the closet,” including the animated version of his ex-wife, Nicole Kidman. The Kidman character promises Cruise that if he comes out of the closet, neither she nor “Katie” will judge him. But the Cruise character claims he isn’t “in the closet,” even though he plainly is.
Read on, particularly for the question of whether or not courts should stop deeming claims of homosexuality defamatory. (She thinks so.) Tom can afford to loosen up. He should take a lesson from Elijah.
For the record, I’m not one of those who has ever believed the rumor.
Via SoVo Wire.
Monday, December 05, 2005
Wikipedia, Wikipedia, I still love thee
None of it dims my hope and respect for the project. Their handling of the situation is a model of how I’d like to see such things handled. They look at it, admit the problem and attempt to make reasoned changes to address it.
Wikipedia is an experiment. And a process. This is part of the process. And as participants in the process - whether readers, quoters or contributors - we must adjust to processing information in this information age just as we had to adjust to how we processed information in the media age.
I wrote recently about this time as a return to the oral tradition. When a spat between bloggers and the White House arose over just exactly what was said at a press briefing, the bloggers had the videotape. Thus they had their truth. But video can be manipulated and interpreted too. We can revel in our technical accuracy and still be lying. Politicians do it every day.
When a reporter - whether the Times or the local student paper - quotes our words, they choose the context those words are placed in. That context imparts meaning. Often the wrong meaning. When we tell our stories, we choose the context. With that choice the meaning can be more honest and more complete. Certainly it’s more authentic. Adam Curry was telling his truth. That’s legitimate.
An oral tradition is less technically accurate, but it is more whole and, I think, equally legitimate. In Alex Ross’s outstanding New Yorker article, The Record Effect: How technology has transformed the sound of music, Ross describes how music once was appreciated for the variations that came from live and more impromptu performance. Now, with recordings heard over and over, what we want and reward in a live setting is the precise technical replication of that recording.
Applying those notions to information, once the stories handed down to us by those who had gone before, those who were actually there, were told with their individual idiom and emphasis. That’s how we got our rich histories. Now those tales may be more technically accurate, but are they still just as rich? And are they any more honest? I don’t think so.
I like to believe that our broadening access to communications technologies means much of our individual rich authenticity can be captured, saved and shared. And if that means a loss of technical accuracy, I’m not convinced that’s a loss of anything worth saving.
So with Wikipedia I’ll stand by my wish for a new emergence of that old oral tradition. And enjoy its honest inaccuracies along with those presented each day by both the “objective” press and the “balanced” press.
UPDATE: CNET roundup of trust and Wikipedia coverage. Video of Jimmy Wales and John Seigenthaler on CNN. if:Book observes that “In a historical moment when there’s so much distortion of ‘official’ information, there’s something peculiar about this sudden outrage over the unreliability of an open-source information system.”
Saturday, December 03, 2005
“Sick monsters should be hung”
Or every “sick monster” is somebody’s son. Or daughter…
In Freakonomics, Steven D. Levitt describes our experience of threat as a result of the interplay of risk and fear. He says we react disproportionately to fear. Where the risk is high but fear is low we don’t feel threatened. When the risk is low but fear is high, we do feel threatened. We scale threat to fear when it would be better pegged to the actual level of risk.
The problem of course is that our response to threat is therefore similarly skewed.
That fits sex offender policy pretty much to a T. Rounding up sex offenders at Halloween when children face a greater danger of getting hit by a car. Sex offender statutes that give the illusion of action but are all too often ineffective and based on faulty assumptions.
I raise the issue because a commenter on my Lafave v Limon post says that she can’t be rehabilitated; that she should be hung and quartered instead. And that I made the news somewhere for my statement that I have no problem with her sentence.
I stand by my statement. I still don’t know all of the details of her sentencing, but I know she plead guilty to a felony. She’s a registered sex offender. She lost her job and will have trouble getting another. And she’s made the front pages of the global media. It’s severe:
Even Hillsborough prosecutor Michael Sinacore said the road ahead for Lafave will be difficult.
“If somebody successfully makes it through sex offender probation, they probably deserve a break,” he said. after Tuesday’s sentencing. “More often than not, they do not make it.”
That sounds like enough punishment to me. I hope she makes it.
Sex offenders are not sick monsters. They are people - our sons, daughters, sisters, brothers, friends and neighbors. It’s easier to think of them as monsters but they are not. They are human beings with failings who have made mistakes. Sometimes darned big ones. They should pay for those mistakes, certainly, but their punishment should fit the crime and our legal remedies should be scaled to the actual threat.
Once all of this was left to social norms. Those norms had their shortcomings but I’m not so sure we’re any better off having criminalized these behaviors to the extent that we have. The culture I want to live in would balance law and norms and fear and risk. And it would prize rehabilitation and forgiveness over punishment and retribution.
Thursday, December 01, 2005
Blog Against Racism Day: Race here
I’d like to see the college I work at offer a Race Relations major. I want to stare down that stereotype of the South and prove it wrong. Because, you see, my experience is that the stereotype is wrong. It’s a stereotype. And it’s wrong.
Oh there are complex and difficult race relations here. There are racists here. There is racial ugliness here. But it seems to me to be an almost more authentic, more honest, manifestation of that same thing I knew in New York and Pennsylvania and New Hampshire and Massachusetts and California, and...in America. And it’s no more so here.
When I suggest the Race Relations Curriculum, people will often say, something like, “yes, Southern Studies.” I answer back, “No, Race Relations. Can you spell O-HI-O?”
When I told New York friends I was moving down here, they all brought up race. I don’t know what planet I was living on, but that wasn’t the first thing on my mind. And even as I have found that the Civil War did indeed leave more of a mark than I ever would have known, and race is heavy and real and hard here, I keep wondering if the people living in denial aren’t those friends in New York.
I live in an integrated neighborhood. Detroit is 81% Black or African American. Michigan is 14.2%; the US 12.3%. Want to guess what color the Detroit suburbs are? Greenwich Village in New York is 2.8% Black or African American. Bedford Stuyvesant is 87.5%. Where I live, 41.7%.
There are rural Blacks throughout the South. How many in New York? Michigan? The Black Commentator on the Ten Worst Places to be Black: (in order) Wisconsin, Iowa, Texas, Oklahoma, Arizona, Delaware, Nevada, Oregon, California, Colorado. Need I point out that not one of them is in the “Old South?”
Gay marriage advocates hope for judicial success. If the success of Brown v Board of Education is any indicator, I want to lose. Now I don’t mean to diminish Brown in the least. Rather, I mean to underscore the fact that our schools, public and private, north and south and east and west, our schools in America are segregated. That’s winning? Someone else can dig up the links, you know it’s true.
UGA wants a more diverse student body; the courts have stopped its efforts. And I know it’s a big challenge, but not just because there are racists here. It’s a big challenge because if I were a young Black or African American person here in Georgia, I’ve got a lot of good educational options. There’s not one historically black college in New York.
I’m not looking through rose-colored glasses. We got a problem here. A big bad ugly problem. But what we got here is what you got there. The question is what are we, you and me, here and there, going to do about it? Change the way we fund our schools? Look at our unconscious racism and address it by, say for example, putting a barrier between defendant and juror? Legalize drugs? Treat users and stop creating criminals? Open up avenues of opportunity for African American men beyond Hip Hop and sports?
Probably not. Because as far as I’m concerned too many of us are looking South at the problem. Look around you; that’s where the problem is.
UPDATED to make explicit that this post is part of Blog Against Racism Day.
Sunday, November 27, 2005
Matthew Yglesias, Atrios, Copyfighters!
When asked why copyright exists, a friend in New York - who once was a successful record company attorney - replied without hesitation, “to protect the copyright holder’s property.”
I argued the “Progress Clause” was to promote progress and that the expansion of “limited time” to the point where it is virtually an unlimited time and the restriction of “fair use” to the point where it is of virtually no use inhibits progress. He remained unmoved.
Today Atrios underscores the importance of this from Matt Yglesias’ Friday post:
Record companies and their movie studio allies have managed to convince a shockingly large swathe of opinion that the purpose of intellectual property law is to prevent copyright infringement. In fact, the purpose is to advance the general welfare of society.
Reacting to Yglesias’ commenters - too many of whom prove Matt’s point - Atrios quotes the constitution, Section 8, Clause 8, giving Congress the power:
To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.
The key phrases being “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts” and “ securing for limited Times.” A lot of the commenters seem to side with Disney et al who, after having made tons of money ripping off fairy tales without paying any royalties, seem to think that copyright law should extend out to time infinity.
The business centered discussion of these and related issues often serves to obscure the point of certain institutions. For example, antitrust law exists solely for the protection of competition for the benefit of consumers, not to protect competitors. It’s a seemingly subtle distinction, but it makes a world of difference in how we think about it.
Right on Matt! Right on Atrios! Let’s move this issue up the Democratic agenda.
Sunday, November 20, 2005
NPR: The ethicist misses Fair Use
Randy Cohen, the New York Times Magazine and NPR Ethicist, did a segment on All Things Considered tonight about the “dilemma” posed by Google’s Book Search.
I was appalled and astounded to note that in the entirety of the segment they never once mentioned the issue of Fair Use, which of course is central to Google’s claim that it has the right to do the project.
Instead Randy notes that he’s not a lawyer but is happy to proclaim that “as an ethical matter ‘opt-out’ is a terrible idea.”
I agree, but he misses completely that - disputed though it may be - what we’re talking about here is an option which allows authors to choose not to make their work searchable under a Fair Use claim.
Thinking about it, Google changed the name from “Google Print” to “Google Book Search.” Similarly, they should stop saying “opt-out” and call it instead a “Fair Use Abeyance” provision.
The guy who wrote the ethicist on the issue, Tony Sanfilippo from Penn State University Press, made clear the objection was lost revenue. His concern, he said, was a potential loss of sales because Google’s “giving a copy” to the libraries they’re working with:
That of course means less revenue for us which hurts our bottom line and makes it less likely we’ll be able to publish scholarship in the future… All five libraries that are involved have our books and they’ve all either subscribed or purchased digital content from us in the past. Now that Google is scanning the entire libraries they won’t need to do that anymore and that’s our concern.
I agree with Lawrence Lessig that the issue is money, but not the “loss of sales” Sanfilippo describes:
[W]ould authors and publishers be worse off with Google Print than they were before Google Print?
To ask that question is to answer it - of course the authors and publishers are better off with Google Print.
Are they as well off as they could be, if the law gives them the power to extort from the innovator some payment for his innovation?
To ask that question is to understand why this case has been filed: Like Valenti with the Betamax, the publishers and Authors Guild simply want to tax the value created by Google Print. They are not complaining about any “decline in [their] property value” caused by Google Print. They are instead racing to claim the value that ancient law is said to give to them, despite the harm that claim produces for “progress.Ã¢â‚¬Â�
Saturday, November 19, 2005
How to tame your entertainment budget. Not!
Today the Times promises something - How to Tame an Inflated Entertainment Budget - but offers nothing:
The average American spends more on entertainment than on gasoline, household furnishings and clothing and nearly the same amount as spent on dining out, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Among the affluent, the 20 percent of households with more than $77,000 a year in pretax income, more money is spent on entertainment - $4,516 a year - than on health care, utilities, clothing or food eaten at home. [...]
Entertainment budgets will only grow larger. With a proliferation of electronics like giant flat-screen TV’s, video iPods and devices to send music, photos and video from room to room in your house, not to mention a proliferation of services to deliver entertainment on cellphones and laptops, you will be opening your wallet more often.
How do you get a handle on it?
Yes, how? “Consider Netflix.” Huh? Their own story says it only saves you if you up your consumption!
They go on with lots of statistics on price per minute of entertainment enjoyed, borrowing a page from cable providers who note your price per channel has gone down - even as the average person still watches only 12 to 15 television channels. Remember a la carte pricing? Now that would cut entertainment spending.
Instead of paying 99 cents to download a song on iTunes, Yahoo charges $5 a month, if you pay for a year’s subscription upfront, so you can download as many songs as you want onto your computer or MP3 player. [...]
But in Yahoo we also see just how costly the reliance becomes. Just a few months after starting the service, Yahoo doubled the price. If you don’t pay it, you lose the music. That may be one reason it has been slow to catch on despite being cheaper than iTunes.
Here’s a tip: If you want to put payment of your subscriptions on automatic, use a credit card rather than have payments deducted straight from a bank account. It’s easier to manage credit card payments and it may be easier to monitor for price increases.
Wow, thanks for the tip! That’ll save me, uh, nothing!
The shame of this story is that it uses a statistic that consumers find true and troubling - that the price we’re paying for the services we’re
getting actually using is going way up - to do little more than promote spending on those same services.
Wednesday, November 16, 2005
Politics over good judgment
That’s what Kenneth Y. Tomlinson says the inspector general is guilty of. And precisely how, as the inspector general documents, Tomlinson operated:
Investigators at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting said on Tuesday that they had uncovered evidence that its former chairman had repeatedly broken federal law and the organization’s own regulations in a campaign to combat what he saw as liberal bias.
A report by the corporation’s inspector general, sent to Congress on Tuesday, described a dysfunctional organization that appeared to have violated the Public Broadcasting Act, which created the corporation and was written to insulate programming decisions from politics.
The former chairman, Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, who was ousted from the board two weeks ago when it was presented with the details of the report in a closed session, has said he sought to enforce a provision of the broadcasting act meant to ensure objectivity and balance in programming.
The report has no teeth - “No sanctions or further action against Mr. Tomlinson will follow from the report’s findings” - and nothing will come of it.
The problem with public broadcasting from the beginning has been that without a dedicated and reliable public funding source it can not truly be public. Instead it has to grovel for annual appropriations, placate corporate givers and attract a wealthy audience. That’s public?
It’s done many things well, but I’m more and more thinking it costs too much for the little we get. And the cost I’m describing is not dollars and cents; it’s about allowing the Right to cast it as “liberal” and wail about our tax dollars while comprimising its journalistic standards and forcing a conservative shift.
My answer is to serve those audiences commercial television won’t, and to include a broad range of perspectives but most particularly those not found or under-represented on commercial television. Those of low-income, under-educated and working-class people for example.
That ain’t gonna happen.