Sunday, September 2, 2012

Idiotic Election Argumentation

I had a friend who got himself into horrible economic trouble.  Hell, I’ve been in horrible economic trouble before as well.  He was desperate to do something, anything.  I told him some advice I’d received when I needed help.  Essentially, we should plan for it to take anywhere from fifty percent to one hundred percent as long to get out of a financial crisis as it took to get in it.  A decade of overspending, under-earning, and no savings isn’t going to be fixed with a refinance, a month of heavy budgeting work, or anything like that.  That makes perfect sense, right?  Sure, it may not be that way in every single case, but in general, that’s the way it works.  Sometimes a windfall changes everything, but in general, real changes in our lives generally take discipline and time. 

So why, when it’s politics, do we throw all logic out the window?  For as long as I’ve been politically aware, pundits have thrown blame around for long term problems as though they were short-term problems.  In addition, we manufacture crises all the time.  I once saw a worker for an NGO speak.  He said, “If you have any change in your pocket.  Any at all that isn’t already committed to something; you have more economic wealth than the majority of people on the planet.”  We complain about urban families not able to afford cable or a laptop for each student in school.  The brilliant economist, statistician, and business consultant, who’s generally credited with creating Japan’s wealth, Dr. W. Edwards Deming, advocated a cost of life index rather than a cost of living index.  The cost of living judges based on what everyone is spending.  The cost of life judges based on what it takes to stay alive and sheltered.  Having lived in the seventies when interest rates for homes were equal to what people today call robber baron rates for credit cards, I find it amazing that anyone can call our situation an “economic crisis” in the first place.

That’s the nature of politics, though.  It’s not about argumentation and issues.  It’s about buzzwords and sound bites.  It took twenty years after the end of the Soviet Union, at Ronald Reagan’s funeral, before most media outlets acknowledged the role he played in ending that totalitarian situation.  It’s not surprising, really.  We can’t really understand the impact of a particular policy until years after it’s been in place.  When Southern Democrats predicted the downfall of civilization after the Brown vs. The Board of Education decision, they could hold onto that prediction for a decade or two, I suppose, but I find America to be alive and well right now.  When Republican’s predicted an immediate descent into absolute immorality because of the Clinton/Lewinsky affair, it was equally ludicrous and certainly not borne out.

That’s the nature of politics, though.  Nobody argues ideas and philosophies.  We’re so busy attempting to assign blame over a policy or a situation that there’s never a discussion about what government should or shouldn’t be doing and which candidate will best fit with the conclusions.  Can I tell you a secret?  Are you ready?  Jimmy Carter isn’t evil.  Ronald Reagan wasn’t evil.  George Bush Sr. isn’t evil.  Bill Clinton isn’t evil.  George Bush Jr. isn’t evil. Obama isn’t evil, and Mitt Romney isn’t evil.   We watch our candidates assaulted by ad hominem attacks so often that it seems we can’t disagree with Obama’s policy on medical care without calling him a totalitarian committed to autocratic rule. 

We can’t disagree with Romney’s position on abortion without saying he’s a misogynist pig.  It’s amazing to me, too.  The country is pretty much evenly divided on these issues, but both sides tend to act as though the other side is on the far extreme and radical edge of the issue.  The truth is, we haven’t had an extreme right wing or left wing candidate in decades, but each side defines moderate as heavily favoring their position.  We call Republicans racists forgetting that it was the party formed to end slavery and problems during the civil rights movement were caused primarily by Democrats.  We act as though only Republicans are tax conscious though John F. Kennedy reduced the high end of the tax rate from 91% to 65%. 

The bottom line is that most people don’t really have opinions about anything political.  Instead, they have repeated slogans.  Way back when I was in college, a group campaigned for the ban of Coca Cola on campus as a protest of Coca Cola’s business in South Africa.  None of the group bothered to do their research.  Coca Cola had already complied with their demanded course of action…nearly two years prior.  That’s the nature of politics.  We get so used to hating the other side that we’ve stopped actually arguing, if we ever started.  I have a lot of respect for Bono in that regard.  He fought long and hard for aid to Africa.  When President Bush gave it, the very liberal Bono thanked him.  When reporters tried to get him to say it was symbolic or something like that, Bono said that it was stupid to make demands and then not give credit.

I wish more people thought things out.  I don’t care how you vote, but I hope to hell you vote because you’ve thought and weighed issues.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Mr. Ed Koch, You're Wrong about Pussy Riot

Virgin Mary, Mother of God, put Putin away

Рut Putin away, put Putin away

Black robe, golden epaulettes

All parishioners crawl to bow

The phantom of liberty is in heaven
Gay-pride sent to Siberia in chains

The head of the KGB, their chief saint,

Leads protesters to prison under escort

In order not to offend His Holiness
Women must give birth and love

Shit, shit, the Lord’s shit!

Shit, shit, the Lord’s shit!

Virgin Mary, Mother of God, become a feminist

Become a feminist, become a feminist

The Church’s praise of rotten dictators

The cross-bearer procession of black limousines

A teacher-preacher will meet you at school
Go to class – bring him money!

Patriarch Gundyaev believes in Putin

Bitch, better believe in God instead

The belt of the Virgin can’t replace mass-meetings
Mary, Mother of God, is with us in protest!

Virgin Mary, Mother of God, put Putin away

Рut Putin away, put Putin away

I wanted to make sure you read the lyrics to the song Pussy Riot, the Russian punk rock protest band, performed a few months ago.  It was that performance that led to three of their members receiving a sentence of two years in prison and worldwide protests demanding their release.  Ed Koch disagrees with the near universal opinion that Pussy Riot is a victim of oppression.  In fact, he published an Op-Ed piece on the very subject a few days ago.  I was floored by it.  It wasn’t that he held a different opinion than I hold.  It wasn’t that at all.  There’s a simple reality in this world, and that reality is that all questions of action and philosophy boil down to opinion, which is by its very nature anything but static.  What floored me was that this “Elder Statesmen”, a lawyer, former U.S. Representative, and former Mayor of New York (three terms no less), and maybe most telling, People’s Court judge, used incredibly flawed reasoning to justify his position.

The editorial begins innocuously enough. 

The graveness of the charge was described by The New York Times on Aug. 18: "The case began in February when the women infiltrated the Cathedral of Christ the Savior wearing colorful balaclavas, and pranced around in front of the golden Holy Doors leading to the altar, dancing, chanting and lip-syncing for what would later become a music video of a profane song in which they beseeched the Virgin Mary to rid Russia of Mr. Putin."

When I started the editorial, I assumed the word graveness was intended as satire.  I thought it was sarcastic, intended to ridicule Putin.  Koch was serious though.  He actually believes the charges against Pussy Riot represent a grave transgression.  I take exception to the word profane within the quotation marks, but that was from the New York Times, not Koch, and I can’t hold him accountable for it.  I do, however want you to take note of what Pussy Riot asked for in the song.  Read the lyrics again.  They asked for the removal of Putin.  That’s the critical issue here.  They didn’t ask for the downfall of the Orthodox Church.  They asked for the removal of Putin.  Sure, they accused the Church of hypocrisy, but it was in relation to Putin, not the religion.

In fact, I count seven mentions of Putin in the lyrics.  If you include the KGB as a reference to him, you get eight.  The only mention of the Church is in relation to its support of Putin.  In fact, they call on the leader of the Church to believe in God rather than Putin.  What Pussy Riot did was no less of a protest against Church policy than what Luther did when he nailed his Theses on a church door so long ago.  To the Church it was profane, but it was intended to point out the contradiction between the activities of the Organization and the God it claims to serve.  (Of course, Luther was less concerned with the Catholic Church’s involvement in government and produced a long list of grievances, but the purpose was still to hold the leadership accountable for actions claimed to be on behalf of God.)

Koch goes on to quote the public statements of the Orthodox leadership (as quoted in the Times) claiming what Pussy Riot did was analogous to the “militant atheism” of the Soviet Era and Nazi aggression.  I’ve come to expect Facebook comment strings to be filled with accusations of Nazism and Communism, but really?  Seriously?  Five women in masks singing a song compares accurately to the state-sponsored murder of tens of millions?  Koch seems to agree with the church’s statement.  He doesn’t even comment on it except to later claim that what Pussy Riot did was religious hatred.  I find it bizarre that he didn’t comment on it, that he didn’t point out the obvious stupidity of comparing the holocaust to women in masks protesting a near totalitarian regime.  In fairness, he didn’t write, I AGREE WITH THE RUSSIAN ORTHODOX CHURCH ON THIS, so maybe I’m overreacting.

He goes on to describe the judge’s conclusion, that Pussy Riot was guilty of “religious hatred.”  Again, he doesn’t elaborate, just states the fact of the ruling.  However, the rest of his article indicates he agrees.  Take a look at the lyrics again.  It’s clear Pussy Riot hates Putin.  It’s clear Pussy Riot believes the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church supports Putin.  It’s also clear that Pussy Riot believes that’s wrong.  If you read the lyrics, you’ll also see that Pussy Riot believes God is opposed to Putin, that God is opposed to corruption within the Church, and that the Church does not stand for God but for money and influence.  This is hatred?  Pointing out perceived corruption is hatred? 

Koch then goes on to say that it’s the “Western Cultural Elite” that immediately took note.  What the hell does that even mean?  I’ve heard right wingers use that to describe college professors.  I’ve heard left wingers use the term to describe business leaders.  My experience with the Pussy Riot situation has nothing to do with elitism.  In fact, I heard about it from a friend who heard about it from a tweet from a porn starlet.  That might say something about our culture, but I have a hard time imagining elitists pulling any strings.  It’s an incendiary term, an equivocation; a labeling of anyone with a different view as a means of avoiding the argument.

Koch rightly points out that some have praised the band for denouncing Putin and some have praised the band for denouncing the Church and that all believe it is an issue of free expression.  Then, he lays down the bombshell…

All cited characterize the issue as one of free speech. 
I do not.

Okay.  I kind of like when somebody takes a contrary opinion.  After all, I’m a big fan of argumentation.  I love the idea of two opposing views meeting and both sides trying to understand. 

Okay, lay it on me, Mr. Koch…

I would assume that many of the band’s supporters would take a different position, and rightly so, if here in the U.S. a black church were invaded and three men or women engaged in comparable conduct insulting holy places within the church and the pastor.

Huh?  You’re serious?  You’re comparing these two situations?  You might just have well said, “I would assume many of the band’s supporters would take a different position, and rightly so, if here in the U.S., three men or women shot beloved child actors Dylan and Cole Sprouse” and the logic would be no worse.

It’s one of the faultiest analogies I’ve seen in a very long time.  First off, the idea of it being a “Black” church was only included to further Koch’s claim that Pussy Riot’s protest was hatred based.  For the analogy to be correct, a number of factors would have to be present.  First of all, Koch would need to have pointed out that the three or four women who entered the church would be black, not white.  There would be no racial motivation in the conduct.  Pussy Riot are Russian and entered a Russian Church.  Second, Koch would need to have pointed out that the “black” church in question was vocally supportive of an oppressive government and claimed those who did not support the corrupt government were heretical. 

The analogy is also incorrect because of the statements, “insulting holy places within the church and the pastor.” [I’m going to throw Mr. Koch a bone and assume he means insulting the pastor and not that there are holy places within both the church and the pastor.]  This begs the question of Pussy Riot’s behavior.  (I mean that in the logical sense—begging the question, assuming facts not in evidence.)  Pussy Riot didn’t walk in and say, “This church is crappy, the altar is crappy, and the leadership is fat and ugly.”  They pointed out in an artistic way that the leadership’s position was contrary to the professed doctrine of the church.  It may have been offensive to the church leadership, but it all comes down to the truth or falsehood of the charges leveled.

Then comes Koch’s second analogy, another poorly chosen and horribly misguided attempt to compare ACT UP in the U.S. and the organization’s actions in regard to Cardinal O’Conner to what’s happening in Russia.

When I was mayor in 1989 and the AIDS activist group Act Up — unjustifiably angry with John Cardinal O'Connor — invaded St. Patrick's Cathedral and interrupted mass, throwing communion wafers — which for Catholics are the actual Body of Christ — to the floor. 
 Some were arrested.
As far as I can recall, no one was punished. But I think the decision of the Russian court to punish a hate crime was just and something to be applauded rather than condemned and ridiculed. 

First and foremost, this is again a faulty analogy.  ACT UP was not protesting the influence of Cardinal O’Connor on the state or his ties to government.  They protested something specific to the church, its position on homosexuality.  Pussy Riot, on the other hand, is specifically arguing for the separation of church and state, the renunciation of the establishment of a theocratic linking between Putin and the Orthodox Church.  None of that was evident with the ACT UP situation.  Further, it’s debatable if ACT UP was wrong or right.  Certainly O’Connor was opposed to homosexuality, but he was also one of the first to minister to homosexuals with AIDS.  Once again, it’s a matter of opinion.  The interesting thing is that Koch points out that although some were arrested, no one was punished. 

His next sentence suggests that Russia would have handled that situation correctly, that Russia was punishing a hate crime and we ought to applaud them.  Where did that come from?  It’s a non sequitur; the conclusion doesn’t follow the premise.  Is he saying that what ACT UP did was a hate crime and that because Pussy Riot did something superficially similar they must have committed a hate crime as well?  None of those conclusions are supported by anything preceding, and when someone throws words like “hate crime” around, the real graveness of the accusation ought to demand real argumentation.

The primary and most important distinction between ACT UP and the Pussy Riot situation is that Pussy Riot chose to protest Putin and secondarily the Church’s support of him.  It was political dissent, pure and simple.  ACT UP protested the Catholic Church’s position on an issue independent of policy making.  ACT UP said, “Love homosexuals before they’re dying of AIDS.”  Pussy Riot said, “Worship God and not Putin.”  The difference isn’t even subtle, and our own concept of free speech is entirely wrapped up in the difference.  The same amendment, the First, which prohibits the establishment of a religion, is also the one that guarantees us free expression.  Pussy Riot may have insulted the Church, but they did so as part of their criticism of the Government.  In the United States, private citizens can sue other private citizens for making certain remarks.  They are burdened by the law in that they must prove statements made caused harm and were decidedly false.  I have the constitutionally protected right, however, to say anything about the government whether it be true or untrue.

Bizarrely, though, Mr. Koch doesn’t expound on whether it was hate or free speech.  Instead he suggests a policy issue—the consequences, if you will, of doing anything about it on a governmental level.

I also believe it is not in the interest of the U.S. to support the actions of the band. At a time when the Iranian nuclear threat grows by the day and we are fighting Islamic extremists around the world, we should be seeking to enlist President Putin to join the West in our effort to prevent the Islamist fanatics from achieving their goal of destroying Western civilization, not making him the enemy and this band the victim.

What?  Believing Putin’s actions were wrong and evil will result in the downfall of Western Civilization at the hands of Islamic terrorists?  Did you just say that, Mr. Koch?  The Obama Administration’s statement that although “the group's behavior was offensive to some, we have serious concerns about the way these young women have been treated by the Russian judicial system” is opening the door to Jihad against the United States?  Did you really just suggest that our position on a two year sentence for what is at most trespassing and at worst disturbing the peace is the straw that will allow a Nuclear Iran to finally succeed in killing all of the infidels in North America?  I’m not even going to analyze this one.  It’s patently absurd, and it suggests that every other spat our two governments have had is irrelevant but this one, the Pussy Riot one, is the one that will drive Putin to the edge.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Sad Truth: Poor Argumentation Often Works

Why?  Because it's not really argumentation when you're reciting talking points for people who already agree.

When you’re committed to logical thought and rhetorical study, it can be frustrating to realize that the ends of the arguer are too often served by poor argumentation.  Note here that I didn't say the ends of society or the ends of proper decision-making, just the ends of the arguer.  Political analysts use terms like “appealing to the base” and “red meat” to describe a politician making a claim that is important to particular group but won’t ever really result in policy making.  Many times, an argument occurs that is really directed at those who already agree with the arguers—there’s no real attempt to explore the idea.  All of the debate is focused on providing ammunition for those who already agree.  This is part of why I say regularly that fallacious reasoning isn't about politics or social preferences.

I’ll give you an example from a couple of decades ago, give or take.  I studied  speech communications with an emphasis on (and I know this will come as a big surprise) rhetoric at California State University at Fullerton (Go Titans!) and was active on (another big surprise coming…) the Speech and Debate team.  There’s one particular event in competition that focuses on the study of communication.  It’s aptly named “communication analysis.”  There was a competitor, a great speaker by the name of Robin, who composed a winning speech analyzing the communication efforts against Martin Scorcese’s film, “The Last Temptation of Christ.”  Robin made an interesting point.  The whole point of the campaign by certain religious groups against that film wasn’t to get non-Christians to avoid it.  Although the arguments were framed in arguments against those defending the film, the critics were really speaking to those who already belonged to the Christian constituency.  Robin argued quite effectively that the communication successfully achieved its real goals, independent of its stated goals.

In recent news, Michigan Senate leaders have announced a plan to make Michigan a “right to work” state for teachers.  Essentially, that means a teacher won’t have to join the teacher’s union in order to teach there.  There are some fallacies in the article from the Associated Press, but I’m more interested in looking at the arguments of the players involved.  First, David Hecker, President of the American Federation of Teacher’s Michigan chapter says:

"This proposal doesn't create jobs. It doesn't address barriers to student success. It doesn't reduce class size," Hecker said. "It is a personal attack on educators, nothing more -- just another example of the power grab by extreme, anti-union politicians looking to weaken middle class families by undermining worker's rights."

These aren’t arguments.  More to the point, Hecker isn’t interested in making arguments here.  These are talking points.  They’re designed for the teacher’s union members and not for real engagement in argumentation.  It’s framed somewhat as an argument, but the words “power grab by extreme, anti-union politicians looking to weaken middle class families by undermining workers rights” point you in the right direction.  There may indeed be anti-union politicians looking to undermine worker’s rights, but can someone honestly say it’s an intentional attempt to hurt families?  That’s demonization of the opponent to strengthen the resolve of supporters, not to convince anyone of the truth of the position.  The first sentence listing all the proposal doesn’t do is just a restatement of the Union’s position of changes needed in education.  “This isn’t a real policy because it doesn’t address what you already agree with…”

Don’t be too harsh with the Union Side, because the other side is no better at all.  Senate Leader Randy Richardville admitted right from the outset that his plan is designed to keep money from the people who (his statement, not mine) keep real education improvements from happening.  He’s made it clear he’s not interested in the arguments about education reform at all.  He’s interested in keeping his opponents from having the political and economic power to oppose him.  He also speaks to his constituents rather than the opposition. 

Richardville, who's married to an educator, said MEA leaders are out to protect their own highly paid jobs, not those of teachers. He talks to many teachers "tired of their union dues going to someone making $250 grand a year up in Lansing who doesn't even know what a classroom looks like any more," he said.

There are issues here in the implied arguments, but I just want to look at who his audience might be, here.  Essentially, he doesn’t address any of the arguments—class size, etc.—that are discussed.  Instead, he appeals to his sides belief’s in the selfishness of the unions.  His audience is already anti-union, and probably includes some teachers who would choose to work union free.

Where are the arguments about fairness and freedom of choice that ought to be the hallmark of any debate on right to work issues?

Where are the arguments about practicality and educational success and failure that ought to be discussed in relation to this proposed change?

Where are the discussions about the ways non-union and union teachers, administrators, secretaries, and others would have to interact?

They’re not here.  Why?  It’s simple.  The sides aren’t talking to each other.  They’re talking to their own constituents.  They’re preaching to the choir and making sure everyone is singing the same note.