Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Resuscitating Ragdoll Reaganomics

"Within the context of an election year where self-deception and nostalgia run both deep and wide, and where the economy is wickedly tragic, and where the party machine has provided conservatives with arguably the most ridiculously absurd candidates advocating the most extraordinary of cockamamie ideas, it’s not at all hard to see why trickle-down economics has been resuscitated – even against conservative’s own better 'meantime' judgment."

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Friday, May 28, 2010

The media is biased... and so are you.

Neutrality is obsolete... if it ever truly existed. Journalistic neutrality is a tough sell, really. It always has been. But this shouldn't be at all surprising. Neutrality is difficult to understand, if for no other reason than the fact that neutrality is so foreign, being little more than an abstraction for well-wishers and daydream believers. 

Truth be told, bias happens to be one of those unavoidable realities very few journalists and readers are willing to admit, either to or of themselves. Journalists convince themselves that they are just looking at the facts, reporting things as they are. They are just "telling the story." So long as the story remains unread, separated from the context of a biased reader, neutrality is fair game as a fair claim. But the rubber hits the road with the reader. The moment a story is read by those unable to divorce themselves from themselves, neutrality is suspect. Stories made of facts and opinions are suddenly subject to a complex grid of presuppositions and convictions, all relative to the reader. Bias, in the end, turns out being as much perceived as a reality, unwanted but unavoidable.

It always struck me as odd that journalists would be surprised by this. For example, Justin Hinkley of the Battle Creek Enquirer recently wrote a blog on this very issue. "I and several of my colleagues have had a number of conversations about what might have caused this distrust, this anger and perceived bias," he admits, "We haven’t been able to lay a finger on it." Really? Here is a guy neck deep in the biz at a total loss as to why readers have a general distrust of news reporting, perceiving bias in the pages of the paper. Is he unaware of the fact that storytelling requires writers to pick and choose? Are his colleagues oblivious to the harsh reality of emphasis and tone? Has the entire gatekeeper concept alluded them? If so, we have a lot more to worry about than "perceived bias."

Consider for a moment the gatekeeper. Any given paper could report on a great number of things, all from a great variety of angles. Choosing which stories to cover, and deciding from which angles to cover them, is difficult, but it must be done. Hence, the gatekeepers. Some stories are given prominence, others are excluded altogether. Writers choose which facts to reference, which statistics to emphasize, and which people to quote. Such are the tough calls made by the gatekeepers, both big and small.

While doing as much is necessary for the journalist, each and every one of these decisions lend credibility to complaints of bias. Writers know as much. For this reason, journalists have their own checks and balances. One such mechanism is the effort to "report both sides of the story." But is this satisfactory? Of course not.  Doing as much forces journalists to portray most differences as neatly divided along oversimplified lines. The truth of the matter, and most matters for that matter, is much more complex because people and issues are much more complex. Dualism may "keep it simple, stupid," but disagreements are rarely simple and those involved are hardly stupid. 

It would be horribly unfair to hurl all the blame on an admittedly biased paper and its staff. Believe it or not, readers and journalists have plenty in common, particularly when it comes to bias. Complaints about the bias in others typically flow from the same font: personal bias. Journalists are railed against for limiting space to certain perspectives, covering one story rather than another, omitting some details in exchange for others, or even for the placement of quotes and statistics within the story. It's a lose-lose situation, really. More than that, its unrealistic... and horribly biased.

There we have it, the crux of the matter. Demands or even expectations of neutrality, in its most idealized sense, are horribly unrealistic. The issue, then, ought not be one of neutrality, but fairness. Tell the story. Read the story. Do your best to inform. Do your best to be informed. But accept from the get-go that bias is an unavoidable reality, and that while admitting as much won't assure perfection, it will allow us to reasonably enjoy an imperfect daily for 50 cents.

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Friday, May 14, 2010

Economics for the Average and Ugly

Reporting from the front lines of everywhere puts me in tough spots on a regular basis, but this particular story made me very uneasy. Some huckle-chuck at Paleo Headquarters thought it would be funny to send me off to some fictitious high-brow convention of good-looking tall people scheduled to discuss newly discovered reasons for their political, economic, and cultural dominance. Were I to have realized this before getting on the train, I would have rejected this imaginary mission outright. But here I am, choking to death on Clive Christian No. 1 in the midst of the Vicodin nation's Anglo-American wonderkids swapping stories about squash, sex and stocks.

The next six hours of my so-called life were particularly cumbersome. Gregory N. Price, an economist at Morehouse College, spoke of how many economists and politicians have begun to see a correlation between anatomy and financial success. Price had been involved with a study that found that every additional inch an individual may have over his or her associates may very well result in a two percent increase in personal earnings.

This segment was followed up by a strategy session for stallions wishing to further monopolize the market. "Recruiting Ugly People" was of particular interest to those in attendance. The data seemed to indicate that those beat senseless with the Ugly Stick made nine percent less, on average, than average people, and nearly 14 percent less than long-legged lounge cougars. This was succeeded by straight-talk about the benefits of teenage bulimia, with charts slapped together by Erdal Tekin, an economist at Georgia State University. Tekin pointed out that a national survey of 15,000 high school students spanning from 1994 to 2002 found that "ugly kids" embodied sure recipes for social disaster, being far more likely to be average in every way. The fallback here was a poll that seemed to indicate that the vertically and gravitationally challenged children were more likely to commit crimes, or to at least to get caught in the act. Try though they may, and they most certainly do try, the overly unfortunate common man will have to make do with promises from those both naturally and socially determined for success insisting that all it takes for the average soul to succeed is time, effort and a little magic... or a nonexistent reset button for their all-too-average existence.

Everything concluded as fast as it began, with the attendees racing to the door as they would were someone to yell "fat girl" in the country club bathhouse. There I stood, alone. As I picked up a balloon with the words of New York Time's cultural reporter Patricia "This isn't really 10th century social Darwinism" Cohen written on it, I couldn't help but to wonder how I fit in to this picture? Short, fat, and average looking at best. Were the statisticians and economists present at the convention correct, then I was destined for a life of moderately blissful mediocrity.

Then, like lightning out of clear skies, it hit me! I'm normal. This was neither a bust nor a boon, it just was.

The more I began considering the rubber-hitting-the-road application of all I'd heard at the convention, the more apparent it became that those in attendance were (and continue to be) bona fide weirdos, all birthright members of some cockamamie class cult! I mean, think about it. Should we freak out over the fact that the "better looking" make, on average, two percent more than the majority of people? Would I, as a parent of four, tell my sons or my daughters that their academic struggles may be on account of their looking "average" or their being the fruit of a mother and father with a median height of 5 foot 5 inches? And what if my children should ever find themselves in trouble, heaven forbid? Should I blast into them for their being all-too-plain and not-so-tall? Seriously, these people must have been high out of their minds, drunk with self-aggrandizement, or both!

In the end, while life may not be perfect for the marginalized majority, it sure as hell beats being a card-carrying member of the Cool Kids Club... whatever that is.

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Friday, May 07, 2010

Oh Yes, Economic Insanity! That'll Do!

It was the mystical dogma of Bentham and Adam Smith and the rest, that some of the worst of human passions would turn out to be all for the best. It was the mysterious doctrine that selfishness would do the work of unselfishness.”
GK Chesterton

The day and age of prudence and sanity is long gone, if in fact it ever did exist. We live in a time where money gurus babble on about how the most radical deregulation will mysteriously perform the functions of regulation, how an absolutely unfettered economy will bring about order, and how “the virtue of selfishness” (as Madame Rand was fond of calling it) would result in nothing short of the economic Utopia finding its home in the wildest fantasies of men like Mises and Bastiat. To be quite frank, the entire ordeal is a tad bit overwhelming for those who, like me, have a sensitive gag reflex.

I wish these were the musings of a madman who hasn’t the slightest clue of things as they really are, the ravings of things far-fetched. Unfortunately, one has only to fetch the remote. Market mystics are commonplace, and like a bad case of herpes they show up in predictable places at just the worst times. Hucksters in tight suits and cheap cologne spouting off what Betty Crocker would consider a sure recipe for economic disaster.

The problem isn’t so much their being large in number as it is their being professional ear-ticklers! They know the game, and they play it like champs. The masses are assured that if they just allow their cookies to crumble, then even bigger, better tasting cookie will appear from the heaped remains they let tumble to the floor.

It all sounds so simple! It sounds almost too good to be true. Like a good, old fashion pyramid scheme or bottle of snake oil. If only this bit of irony was any bit ironic.

What a pity to realize that we haven’t overcome our susceptibility to the charlatans of old. We should know better by now. Then again, there must be a reason why the adage “we rarely, if ever, learn from history” has stood the test of time. If only there were a generation that had the kind of moral resolve and intellectual fortitude to put that precedent out of commission. If only…

This was originally posted on Jan. 4, 2009.

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Thursday, May 06, 2010

American Life at 173 mph

What I wouldn’t give for a typewriter. A real nice vintage one. The kind you would see on Citizen Kane or in an old picture of Hunter S. Thompson. If my memory serves me well, and it rarely does, there used to be one tucked away in my best friend’s attic. Not at all sure what happened with it, but I wouldn’t put it past the poor saps to have slapped a $1 tag on it in their annual Spring garage sale. Unfortunate, to say the least.

My fascination with typewriters may be chalked up with a simple love for all things old. Cars, quills, clothing styles, black and white photographs, music, you name it. Or maybe it has to do with the fact that they require a relatively decent amount of finger coordination. Mistakes aren’t easily glossed over. Errors are obvious, smudged over with White Out. Were I to be tapping away on one of these typewriters at this very moment, this entry would be as mark-free as Henry Earl's wrap sheet.

But this post isn’t really about typewriters. At least not directly. Instead, as with most other things, it correlates to my obsession with all things socio-political.

Americans live life fast and furious, tapping away at their keys without but a care in the world. The delete key, unlike the White Out of old, provides the luxury of fumbling around without having to pay much mind to errors. A simple backspace and all is well. Most forget just how many times, and exactly on what words, they utilize this feature. This allows them to fumble through life while minimizing the number of visible cover-ups by which to recall their errors. Pounding out words and actions as if they bear no consequence. Easily out of sight, easily out of mind. This is the American way.

Life may be dandy when all is easily forgotten, but it's those very errors, as well as the reflections thereupon, that make us all the better. We see common mistakes, we notice redundancies, and we get a better grasp on where fine-tuning is in demand. It is here that we begin to more accurately realize our need for betterment, and where exactly these things are to be found. This is not so when all is blotted out with broad strokes and no visible remains.

While I may have a personal passion for the nostalgic, I am by no means encouraging all to return to the yesteryear of typewriters and quills. But maybe it would do us well to be more cautious, more calculated, and more willing to reflect long and hard on those areas in life where haste took precedence over prudence.

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Monday, May 03, 2010

No Peace in the Pantheon

The sign reads "Beware of Religious Fundamentalists." I first saw this warning sign on my walk from there to nowhere a few years back. It seemed then that most people fearing the fundamentalists were pot-smoking libertarians living in the free-trade district; that once-prestigious part of downtown that gave way to the sprawling fever once Americans exchanged their nationalist coffee for a free trade brew. But now these front door warning labels have become quite the trend. Books, billboards, and bumper stickers! I think I even saw a young lady with something like "Fundamentalists are Fascists" tattooed on her ankle... or was it her big toe? I am not sure anymore. What I am sure of, though, is that this new "peace in the pantheon" craze has spread like pinkeye in a culture hell-bent on giving everyone eye-to-eye butterfly kisses.

I needed to get to the bottom of this. Truth be told, I was freaking out! Most everyone in town knew I worked with Local 10:34, a Roman Catholic union named after the now-famous sword-text in St. Matthew's gospel. If fundamentalists were scary, then we were every child's nightmare!

We said some pretty crazy stuff, I guess. We were pretty bold, saying things like "outside the Church there is no salvation" and that the modern ecumenical movement is tantamount to institutionalized religious whoredom. Many fundies had backpedaled over the years, but not us. Benedict XVI apologized to his "Muslim brothers and sisters" after quoting Byzantine emperor Manuel II Palaiologos during his now-famous Regensburg lecture. Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell both apologized for connecting the obvious dots between national immorality and national disaster. Billy Graham and Mel Gibson wept before the bright lights after being busted bad-mouthing Jewry and its Lobby. These fellas were diminished to bootlicker status. We weren't like them. We said what we meant, sure. But we went further and meant what we said. The audacity of conviction!

But yesterday's boon is today's bust, or so it appears. And if Dr. "Scary" Gary North was in hot water, then members of Local 10:34 were in hellfire!

A few days later I found myself talking to someone who appeared to be part of the opposition. I don't recall what it was that gave her away. Was it the fact that she had "COEXIST" detailed across the hood of her car? Maybe it was her "I Luv thePrayer Summit of Assisi" T-shirt. No, it was probably the "Got Questions? Ask me!" button. I guess it really doesn't matter. What did matter was that I spoke to someone in "the know" about this.

"These fascists are so intolerant," she said. "They are so full of hatred."
"Who are they?" I asked.

"Them!" she shouted. "All the fundamentalists. Not just Muslims."

Not just the Muslims? What??? This terrifying group of foaming-at-the-mouth "Islamofascists" who tear their beards out every time someone mentioned voting machines in their presence?

The entire conversation was quite confusing. It all appeared to be so hypocritical. We needed to hate hatred. We had to be intolerant of all intolerance. Freedom of religion for everyone but not for everyone. Freedom of speech protects blasphemy and porn, but "fundie talk" must be forbidden. Confusing to say the least.

But the Tolerance Tyrants are a pretty complex herd.

The more radical libertines advocated playing arm-chair eisegesis, finding in every religion and sacred text some super-secret hidden proof of hyper-inclusivism. Reading between the lines would result in discrediting the plain-as-day exegesis of yesteryear. These folks have mastered the arts of reading between the lines and the invisible writing on walls.

The "Agree with us or die" handbook from the First Church of Americanism is quite helpful for those exclusivists trying to understand the ecclesiastical structure for this unpleasant tribe of New Worlders. A woman at the gas station up the road from my home gave it to me along with a pack of American Gold cigarettes and handful of peanut gallery cashews. It appears that America's founding fathers are high priests who had magical insight into the way things ought to be. Thomas Jefferson, who penned "The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth," a gospel gutted of supernaturalism, is the chief guru. Jefferson is accompanied by George Washington, the Grand Master of the Freemason's Alexandria Lodge 22, whose own pastor at Christ's Church questioned the legitimacy of his confession after years of Washington's refusal to take part in communion services. The works of Mr. "The bloody Christian faith" Thomas Paine are prominent, with Common Sense and Rights of Man being treated like Chick tracts. Apologists for this "second Israel" see in the Bill of Rights what Paul VI saw in the United Nations: the last hope for mankind and for world peace. It's even ready-made with its own Magisterium, the Supreme Court of the United States. The devil couldn't have penned a better catechism!

A few hours ago, right before penning this, I noticed a number of city folk parking in front of the house. I wasn't exactly sure what it was all about, so I went to the door. Bad idea! Turns out that one of their more vocal apologists, a certain Jay Batman, wrote a piece entitled "The Problem of Violent Fundamentalism: Religious Freedom and Responsibilities Thereof." A harmless little blog, really... or at least it was until it got into the hands of radical inclusivists. Now they are chanting outside my home! Some even have signs reading, "Peer pressure him into submission!" They went so far as to hire a negotiator. "Mr. Bannister," he said, "fundamentalists can't hug their children with nuclear arms." I tried convincing him that I wasn't down with nukes and that I'm not a fan of the war hawks, but there was no convincing him. Mass hysteria set in strong, and it couldn't even wait until I was done with my evening walk.

I'm not sure how all of this will turn out. There is no saying, really. We are dealing with a strange breed; the type of person that will demand you hug your neighbor while aiming a gun at your head. There seems to be no exits, so I'm stuck having to fight my way out of this nonsense. I'll leave you, then, with my favorite line from my favorite propaganda film, Flight 93: "Let's roll..."

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