Thursday, June 10, 2010

Pundits on both sides

I often end up playing devil's advocate when talk turns to politics.  The usual reason is that the people I hang out with tend to be relatively left leaning politically but they sometimes end up supporting people and ideas that conform to their ideology without being critical of the specifics.  I lean pretty strongly to the left myself on most political topics but I end up being frustrated by people's unwillingness to seek truth over success and I end up arguing against people who in theory are on my side.

I think the most obvious example is Fox News vs. Michael Moore.  Fox presents an outrageously warped view of the news slanted to the right.  It supports strong military, 'family values', punishment based criminal strategies and unrestricted free market capitalism among other right wing values.  I don't like the values Fox News tries to support by and large, which isn't surprising since I find the right in the US to be not at all consistent with my views.  Sometimes people end up being really angry at the things that right wing pundits like Fox News or Anne Coulter say and go on rants about how bad the right is and how they wreck everything.  This is often accompanied by the assertion that on the left people don't do this sort of thing and bemoaning the lack of morals of those on the right.


While I don't agree with Fox News' interpretation of events I don't agree with Michael Moore's either, and I think that he presents just as ridiculous and warped a viewpoint.  The big difference is that Michael Moore holds many viewpoints in common with me as we are 'on the same team'.  That doesn't change the fact that his tactics are no less outrageous and his arguments no less reasoned that pundits on the other side of the fence - watch his videos carefully looking for emotional exhortation in lieu of fact reporting and you will see what I mean.

I regularly end up defending Fox News not on the basis that they are right, but rather on the basis that they aren't actually any worse morally than pundits on the other side.  It is all too easy to ascribe people disagreeing with you to a lack of morals instead of admitting that the issues are complicated and people genuinely do have different goals and beliefs.  When summarizing a vast landscape of organizations, people and ideas it is very common to use broad moral statements to describe them but this is one of the surest signs of falsehood.  Summaries of political ideologies that include "is extremely complicated and intricate" and "it is difficult to be certain that" tend to win my support while "everyone who believes X does Y" statements can pretty much invalidate an idea on their own.

It is important to discuss issues and to expose agitators and charlatans with political agendas for what they are.  Noticing that a particular source of information is incredibly biased to the point of being useless is good but we must be careful not to paint everyone on a side with the same brush.  Just because someone agrees with many of your political views does not mean they are somehow more moral, nor does disagreeing with you imply immorality.  While it does require more effort it is critical to the establishment and maintenance of dialogue and compromise that we consider those who disagree with us mistaken rather than evil - until they have earned that moniker with individual actions, of course.


  1. How did "they aren't any worse than..." become a defense of somebody? Fox News is an organization that is specifically dedicated to reducing the level of political discourse down to simple us vs. them. If you don't like that kind of political discourse then they should really be at the top of your hit list.

  2. Penn from Penn & Teller gave a talk in his web video series that I believe you may find interesting on this subject, and it's worth a good listen. In case you do not know his views, he is very strongly libertarian, but in this video he makes some excellent points about the problems with the Democratic party. (He despises the Republican party as well.) I will provide a link if you are interested in watching the video, I strongly recommend viewing it.

  3. Sorry, went and did something foolish and forgot the link, here it is:

  4. Sthenno: It is less that I defend Fox News as 'they aren't so bad' and more that I defend them from being painted as the *only* bad guys. In particular I end up fighting against the idea that just because a pundit says what you want to hear you have to accept their methods as positive.

    If you want to complain that Fox News is terrible, fair enough. If you try to claim that Republicans/right wingers/Conservatives as a whole do evil things and Democrats/left wingers/Liberals do not based on Fox News being terrible then you are wrong.

  5. Joel: Unfortunately I can't view that video in Canada. Sony has blocked it on copyright grounds, or so youtube says. Unfortunate.

  6. Here are a couple of non-youtube links that may work for you:

  7. Perfect, thanks. I heartily recommend the link, Penn really has a lot in common with me in how he views these things.

  8. I think you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who thought that Fox News being terrible meant that right wingers were evil. But there is a very reasonable connection between political and moral judgments. Many political issues are tied to moral ones.

    Michael Moore says that American health care is shameful and that prisoners in Guantanamo bay receive better health care than many Americans. Fox News says that Obama wants to bring in health care reforms because he is basically a Nazi and that the new health care system will be used as an excuse to murder people you care about. Both of these statements are deceptive, and for both it is plausible to believe that the speaker really believes what they are saying or that they are intentionally misleading people.

    But lying is only a part of the problem. If I lie to save a person's life then I may well have done a good thing. If I lie so that I can commit a racially motivated murder then I can't think of any circumstances in which I would not be doing a bad thing. Sure, when you call yourself a news agency or a documentary film-maker intentionally misleading people itself is a bad thing. But the effect you have by lying can be a much worse thing.

    If you think that it's inexcusable that thousands of citizens of the richest nation on earth are driven into bankruptcy, seriously disabled, or just straight out killed by easily preventable health problems then you are going to think the moral order is either:

    True, supports health (HC) > False, supports HC > True, against HC > False, against HC


    True, supports HC > True against HC > False, supports HC > False against HC

    If you think Obama is a Nazi and his healthcare bill is a secret government plot to seize control of the citizenry then you are probably going to think

    True, against (HC) > False, against HC > True, supports HC > False, supports HC


    True, against HC > True supports HC > False, against HC > False supports HC

    Since political policies affect life and death, it is kind of hard not to moralize about them.

  9. I personally have a preference for healthcare being supplied by the state, and that preference is bolstered by the fact that it is much cheaper to do it that way. However, when you paint everyone who wants a certain thing in a moral light and assume they do what they do because of evil instead of honestly different opinions on things you lose out on the ability to compromise and see all sides of an issue.

    Saying that you value healthcare so much you would support lying to get it is one thing, and I can understand it. Hell, I even support it. However, saying that people who do not support healthcare do evil things and those that do support healthcare do not do evil things is delusional - no such easy dividing line exists. The people that do not support healthcare are wrong, but that distinction does not make them evil, and those that do support healthcare are right, but that also does not qualify them as good.

  10. One other thing about Obama's healthcare bill: It is nuts and terrible. Not because it won't make things better, but because he is trapped into having the country pay the insurance companies instead of simply having the country run healthcare.

    When I heard that Obama was going to implement healthcare universally I thought it was great until I heard that he was simply going to pay for everyone to have insurance and then I was sad. Better than the alternative but still terrible.

  11. I agree. No major push for 'Single Payer' was a bad way to start. An improvement in many areas (denial of coverage, denial for preexisting conditions etc) but a handsome gift to the insurance companies nonetheless. A regulated free-market system works well to sell ipods.... not so much for health care.

  12. I guess the problem I have with Fox (as opposed to the right as a whole) is that they're deliberately lowering the level of discourse and promoting causes for profit which kill people and destroy lives.

    The lack of rational healthcare in the US kills people, lots of people, and causes extreme stress in their families, and those who survive. The demonization of Islam drives a wedge between the american and the moderate Islamic majority which could speak on behalf of peace. The extreme prejudice against homosexuality is why gay teens in the ten "reddest" states are over twenty times more likely to commit suicide (one every 5 hours!) than gay teens in the ten "bluest".

    If they truly believed these things, it would be more forgivable. But they use these as flashpoint issues, because they're especially irrefutable and moralistic, to whip their viewership into a frenzy. They destroy productive discourse by turning the left into a political "other". And they do it in the guise of news.

    Basically, they lie about something (politics) which the average viewer does not have the sophistication to recognize, and indirectly through those people do great harm. Sure, we could say that it's the responsibility of the listener to parse out their own truth; but there's also something to be said about the incitement of hatred and violence..

  13. First of all, as Snidely says, I don't believe that the people behind Fox News are people with honest and heartfelt opinions that they need to express, they are crass manipulators who believe that whipping people up into a hateful frenzy will get the money.

    But as I said, if you think that providing healthcare is a moral issue, and it would be hard to argue that choosing whether we save people's lives with known and relatively cheap treatments is a decision with no moral component, then it makes sense to think of people who are in favour of it as more moral than people who are against it. Automatically deciding that because you have the moral high ground your opponents are evil and there is no room for compromise is exactly what Fox News is all about.

    Obama's health care bill is pretty stupid alright, but basically he had to give up government-provided healthcare to appease people who thought that it was the first step towards Nazism. The reason Fox News was against it was because they would set up death panels to kill your grandmother (not to mention the fact that Obama is secretly a Muslim terrorist who is just trying to weaken our nation so they can destroy it, and anything he suggests must be wrong - Fox News employs the "I'm not saying he *is* a Muslim but it's curious that he's never proven he isn't argument).

    The American right has some very mean-spirited spokespeople on Fox News, on conservative talk radio (Rush Limbaugh, etc.), and in powerful positions in extremist churches (Pat Robertson, etc.). To the extent that the American right follows the model set by these people I would not hesitate to say it is a force for evil in the world. That is not the same as saying that people who earnestly believe that Obama is a terrorist sent to destroy America are evil, but they are sure on the road to doing evil things.

  14. I certainly won't argue with the "Fox News is awful" statements. They ruin debate, deliberately incite anger and frustration in lieu of inform and lie as much as they can get away with. My point is not that Fox News is fine.

    My point is that there are people on *both* left and right who make ridiculous, terrible arguments and rely on emotional appeal instead of rational debate. People on both sides place winning ahead of honesty or rationality and do terrible things to forward their agenda. I happen to mostly agree with the left wing agenda but that doesn't mean that I should allow myself to be blinded by that and judge the morality of actions based only on which party the person in question is part of.

    Fox News is terrible, but I would like to see responses to it that are more along the lines of "Fox News is wrong" and less along the lines of "Right wingers are so evil, they corrupt the system, why don't honest, good people stand up against them when they know they are wrong?" This sort of thing is not unique to the left, obviously. Plenty of people on the right paint those on the left in the exact same way, assuming that what they want is to set up a communist regime that rewards the lazy by forcing the hardworking to share until all are equal.

    More of "That statement is wrong" instead of "All of those people over there are evil" is what I am looking for.

  15. Ok, I'll bite. If people on the left and right both make equally incendiary and/or ridiculous claims, name the liberal Fox News analogue.

    It seems like part of the problem is that the left has a bias towards the middle-ground fallacy, and tries to give equal weight to both sides of issues, where the right just pulls the conversation more and more extreme.

    It could just be that Fox News has found a "winning strategy" in political discourse. Liberals tend to be more numerous, but less virulent in their opinions (consider the appeal of Obama's famous level-headedness).

    Appealing to the mass majority of the left requires at least the impression of balance and neutrality. Appealing to the right has become a game of violent demagoguery. Anyone trying to piece together an opinion based on the synthesis of others' is going to end up increasingly reactionary.

    Sigh... why is the right wing so good at being bad?

  16. It is possible that the presence of religion as a fundamental component of the right does change things. Religion is tied up with faith, essentially ignoring logic in favour of believing what you are told by people in authority. Is it possible that people who are more inclined and trained to be faithful are more willing to simply accept what an authority figure says as long as it is personally convenient than someone with that religious leaning? If that were true it could certainly explain how more outrageous demagoguery could take hold on one side of the political spectrum.

  17. It's also possible that having lived your adult life in Canada you don't actually understand how batshit insane it is in the flyover states.

    In my current job I spend a decent amount of time in semi-urban parts of Dallas and Memphis. It's not an easy thing to describe without visiting in person, but the prevailing views are so extremely reactionary (racist, homophobic, violently conservative) that it's surreal. The more civilized parts of the country really just look the other way and try to pretend it isn't actually happening.

    I find it extremely depressing.

  18. It's not that different in Canada. Some of the people I work with operate a call center. At this time everyone who works at the call center has a noticeable accent from their first language. Apparently they very regularly get people asking to speak with "a Canadian" when they call in.

    One of the black people who works here was describing when her work took her to a northern Ontario town next to a reserve. There were two kinds of people in town: white people and aboriginal people. They had their own parts of town and basically didn't talk to one another or interact with one another. People from both groups were visibly taken aback at meeting a real-live black person.

    But on the subject of the American right, the right is so much worse right now because they decided to adopt that strategy. People who run the republican party (and I'm not saying this is exclusively republican) think that the population is largely made up of the unwashed masses. Basically people are stupid and will believe whatever you tell them is the idea. Fox News wasn't created by accident, it was part of a strategy to turn stupidity to their advantage. If you think everyone is stupid, there is no point in trying to seem fair, just in making them angry.

    In C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters, Screwtape (a senior devil) advises his nephew Wormwood not to engage a man's reason while trying to tempt him from the faith. Why is this? C.S. Lewis was definitely a Christian, but he wasn't trying to insist that anyone who thought about things rationally would be Christian. Rather, what Screwtape says to his nephew is that once you engage a person's reason you don't know what they will do.

    When I used to work in sales I would try to explain to people why one product or another would help them with the problem they were describing. My boss would say, "Oh, this is a good one." She was twice the salesperson I would ever be.

    The republicans latched onto this strategy. Don't engage anyone's reason, just create outrage. As long as you control where the outrage is directed it works in your favour. You only have to get power once and then you rearrange the electoral districts so you will keep it.

    Canada is following the same route but the Conservatives here have two major problems. It's not that Canadians are any less stupid than Americans, we surely aren't that (in fact one could argue we are substantially more stupid since having seen what the neo-cons did in the states we elected our own). The first problem is that so many seats in the house are taken up by a party that isn't even trying to form a government that there is very little room to get a majority. The second is that our system for drawing riding lines is different and I don't think they'll be able to gerrymander the way they do in the states.

    Finally, it is worth remembering, in the words of John Stuart Mill, "Although it is not true that all conservatives are stupid people, it is true that most stupid people are conservative."

  19. All of that is true, and having had a little time to reflect on just what I was getting at let me rephrase (and put the comment in context).

    The reason I tend to have an almost emotional response when judging Fox news (and the culture of right-wing extremism it both spearheads and reinforces) is that it blunts one of the primary checks on civilized behaviour in more regressive parts of the country. It gives pseudo-intellectuals a way to be both "informed" and hateful.

    And as much as Canada may be bad, it's not as bad as (most of) the US south. Just as Tennessee isn't as bad as parts of Pakistan which still support honor killings.

    We have an employee who just recently moved from Memphis to California (and is now working remotely), because his gay son was beaten so badly during school hours he suffered a stroke. School administration called it a "he said/he said" argument and gave everyone (including the victim) detention, then suspended his son for being a disruptive presence. In California or New York this would be front-page news, in Memphis it didn't even seem wrong.

    Here's a more publicized issue, in case you think this is a one-off: earlier this year the school administration of a mid-sized town in Mississippi told a lesbian student she wouldn't be allowed to go to her prom. Not that she couldn't bring a (female) date, but that she couldn't come at all. She spoke up and took them to court ( and won, so the school cancelled the prom instead of inviting her. When Ellen called them out on national TV appeared to give in, and then sent her to a fake prom instead ( Consider for a moment that she had no idea, and that the entire school was in on the "joke", and the case already had national attention.

    Things aren't getting better, they're getting worse. We lost a great systems engineer (sadly, our only good one) from our Memphis office in June when she moved to Oregon. She's a Chechen Muslim immigrant, and her family (husband & daughter) were denied a lease renewal in their condo complex by a closed vote, which was apparently the last straw for them in a long series of indignities. She's the sweetest person you'd ever meet and not devout (no Hijab) but she wouldn't raise her daughter in Memphis.

    I didn't understand until I started spending time down there. I do now. Values and common decency we take for granted are being eroded, and what we see as one extreme of a spectrum is in fact the totality of their world view. The founder of the third largest evangelical ministry in the US (Lou Engle, TheCall, 400,000 active paying members and billboards _everywhere_) is the primary instigator of Uganda's new anti-homosexuality laws, which punish being gay with... um... death. Seriously, the fuck?

    I agree that Fox is whipping up a culture war, and it's a canny and effective way to get an audience. The forgotten externality in this is that as in any war there are victims, but in this fight only one side is armed. Canadians may be ignorant, or not worldly, or biased, but they have at least been spared an indoctrination into a culture of hate. Fox News may not be as blatant as Ernst Zündel, but it has one hell of a bullhorn.