Saturday, April 08, 2017

The Lone Ranger Rides Again

Attention boomers!  Or anyone who watched the The Lone Ranger in the early west of television.  Ask anyone who did and it's likely the first thing they will remember is the opening theme and the stirring narration that ends with "Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear--the Lone Ranger rides again!"

Well, if this is you, you may be surprised to learn that film of this opening is a rare artifact.  The Lone Ranger series shot only five seasons (one in color), though it was a staple all through the 1950s and for decades beyond, at first in early evening primetime and then on Saturdays.

At some point the series went into syndication, and minutes were cut from each episode to make time for more commercials.  So apparently was most of the opening narration.

At least that is the probable reason that the complete narration is missing from most if not all episodes now available, on YouTube or in various compilation DVDs.   Most DVD packages only re-package the first couple of seasons, with a different opening narration.  Episodes of subsequent seasons carry only a partial version, with slightly different visuals from the one we remember.

So after years of typically obsessive and cockeyed searching, I located this fragment posted by TeeVees Greatest on YouTube, which includes the full theme (music from the William Tell Overture) that ended as well as began each episode.

I know you want to thank me, but I heard you saying--who was that masked man? Hi-yo Silver Away!

Thursday, April 06, 2017

If You Bought It, You Own It

Whatever there is to say about liars and why they are believed, or those aspects of Russian interference in the election we know about or suspect--stealing emails, feeding them to the media, possibly microtargeting propaganda to specific voters identified by voting lists they stole--there is still the individual responsibility to defy the lies, learn the facts, discern the long-term implications of your vote.

But in 2016 a lot of American voters didn't.  That a majority didn't vote for Homemade Hitler and that he got installed on the basis of a few thousand votes in a handful of states, seems to mitigate.  But it doesn't.  Especially because in district after district, and state after state, enough voters installed reactionary Republicans, either by their votes or by not voting.  They kept the Senate and they did what they did today.  They kept the House.  They've got statehouses and governors galore, enough to gerrymander the future.

So once again you may weep, because you bought it, and now you own its dangerous fragments.  You own a reactionary Supreme Court into the foreseeable future. And in general you own a foreseeably grim future due to what's being done and not done to the environment and on addressing the climate crisis, as well as health and financial protections and emergency efficiency.

Even I was ready to toast our luck in surviving the first hundred days without cities in smoldering ruin, or a military dictatorship building in parallel to a new war.  But those hundred days aren't up for another few weeks, and the signs are growing.  Syria?  North Korea?  Both?

There may be reasons for the electoral outcome.  There are no excuses.  You--Democrats, Republicans, Bernie people and other self-styled 'revolutionaries', media and voters-- you bought it when it was obviously going to explode, it bragged it was going to explode. Now you own it.

Debate Made Not Simple

Kowincidentally, my last post--"The White House of Blue Lies"--appeared on what I have since learned was International Fact Check Day.  Of course, you knew that.

I only learned about it from this Washington Post piece, which also has some useful links to listicules about spotting fake news on the Internet, and otherwise fact-checking.

Apropos my piece, the LA Times has a more specific take on Why Trump Lies.  In my piece I also threatened to expound on what makes a fact a fact and related tests for what might reasonably be believed as factual.  Be forewarned that I'm about to do that now. That is, I'm about to explain how I learned to make those judgments.

First, formal education as it was in the 1950s and 1960s included explanations based on cause and effect in science and history--particularly American history-- along with narrative and propaganda.  By junior high we had a class called Civics, and in high school, social studies and Problems of Democracy.  A lot of it was sanctimonious crap but some of it was useful. It included definitions and examples of evidence and reasoning, and of propaganda , and the more common techniques or types of deliberate falsehoods such as as rumor and innuendo.

We also learned the different kinds of stories in a newspaper, which were easier to spot in those days.  News was on the front page, and all the pages of the first section, except a page or two near the front. On the left hand page, there were the editorials, most often set in a distinctive font.  These editorials were the official opinions of the newspaper, and generally were unsigned.  There would also be one or two editorial cartoons.

The remainder of the page contained letters to the editor and columns on topics in the news, written and signed by individual columnists, almost always journalists or former journalists.  In urban newspapers there might also be opinion pieces written by non-journalists, under their own names.  These are still called "op ed" pieces, because they commonly appeared on the page opposite the editorial page.

There was news later in the paper, including stories on pages devoted to business news, sports, community doings, social news, right back to the obituaries.  There were also feature stories, usually on entertainment or home-relates subjects, maybe a humorous column or two and of course, the comics and the want ads.

Admittedly, the newspaper structure made it easier to separate factual news from opinion, than in the free-for-all of the Internet.  But it was at least worth knowing that there is a difference.  Everyone is entitled to their opinion, as playwright David Hare points out.  But not every opinion is equal--some are based on demonstrable facts, and therefore are better.  You know, because the Holocaust really happened.

We learned the basic rules of objective news, opinion, columns and features which some of us would practice on the school paper.  We also learned the difference between these forms--grouped under the name of "editorial"--and advertising.  We even learned basic kinds of advertising, such as "transfer" (a celebrity transfers her fame by being seen with a product) and "endorsement" (the celebrity actually says to buy the product because he does.)

For hundreds of years, basic schooling included subjects called Logic and Rhetoric.  Elements of these were folded into our subject categories, generally in what we called English.  But these civics courses also included types of logic (especially false logic) and rhetoric (means of persuasion) that especially pertained to public issues.

I believe most of my generation was exposed to such an education.  Those of us who went to Catholic schools got additional experience in argument through the legalistic definitions of morality that made up the rules and regs of Catholicism at that time.  There were definitions of sins for example, and lots of caveats and special cases.  We also were unintentionally exposed to the contradictions of Church dogma and American democratic decision-making.

Some of us got further experience in argument and in testing facts through participation in debate.  I think about this often these days.  I continue to think that what I learned in debate was basic to everything I did in journalism and non-fiction writing, as well as how I judge public issues.

  The first task in every high school debate was to define your terms.  If terms were not understood and agreed upon by both parties, there was no way to engage on the question.  The debaters on opposite sides of the question could argue over the definitions, but they had then to offer their own definitions, clearly and in public.

So let me define my terms.  Interscholastic high school debate in the 1960s had a particular form that it probably doesn't have anymore.  We debated the same topic for an entire school year.  It was set by the National Forensic League, as were the structure and rules of the debates themselves. (We also participated in the Catholic Forensic League, but it had the same topic and followed the same rules.)

Debates went like this: a debater for the Affirmative of the proposition spoke.  Generally this student was supposed to outline the Need for the proposition to be enacted.  Then the First Affirmative was questioned by one of the debaters for the Negative.  Then the First Negative speaker gave a rebuttal, questioned by an affirmative.  Then the Second Affirmative, whose responsibility was to outline a Plan for how the proposition would work.  After questioning, the Second Negative spoke, and was questioned.  I think each side got a final statement, but I'm not sure about that.

What was tricky for a lot of students--and especially for conscientious Catholics, aware of moral positions--was that all debaters had to be prepared to argue both sides, affirmative and negative.  Generally, you didn't find out which side you were charged with arguing until just before the debate (and you often had three debates a day.)

It was considered part of the experience to be able to see an issue from both sides.  That was interesting, and there were ways to do that.  But basically the problem remained: how could you argue against something with the same persuasiveness as you argued for it without being a hypocrite?

One way was to agree with the Need but suggest your opponents' Plan was so flawed that it wouldn't work.  I recall that we used this strategy on the proposition in our first year, 1962-3, which was: Resolved: That the United States should promote a Common Market for the western hemisphere.  This wasn't exactly a hot button issue, although it was topical because of the European Common Market, established in 1958, that paved the way for the European Union, which became a reality in 1994.

Debating this topic required a lot of research into international trade, the economics and politics of it, and the little that was available on possibilities for free trade among North and South American nations. This was 31 years before NAFTA.  The obvious Negative strategy was to argue that free trade was bad, and protectionism was good.  But there was also the possibility for outlining a different Plan, and I believe we tried that, arguing that it could succeed only if it created a trading partner with the European Common Market.

Our topic the next year was much more topical: Resolved: That Social Security benefits should be extended to include complete medical care.  This had been debated in the U.S. Congress during the Kennedy Administration, when it was called "Medical Care for the Aged," and would result in a landmark law about a year later in the summer of 1965, now called Medicare.

(Since research--especially on poverty among the elderly--led me to strongly favor the proposition, when on the negative I believe we again resorted to arguing against the plan, or just sadly proving that the affirmative hadn't made their case.)

Opposition to providing this medical care in the real world was an object lesson, since it was largely based on scare tactics, especially ideological shouting about "socialized medicine."  That was often the Negative line of attack, along with assertions that it was unaffordable and unworkable.  (Arguments that, we found, had been made against Social Security itself.)

So research was somewhat easier in the sense that there was a great deal more information available, but that became a problem of organizing it.  You had to anticipate the various arguments of your opposition.  So we lugged boxes full of file cards, clippings and article reprints to every debate.  Why?  Because our opponents would demand evidence of the truth of what we said.

That evidence had to be accurate.  And it had to come from a credible source.
Was it truly a fact, or an opinion? Then what was the source? First of all, you had to have one. “Everybody knows that” or “the American people believe” didn’t cut it. Neither did "according to a famous study." You had to have names, dates and places, or you’d soon hear your opponent scream, ”What’s your source?”

Then the source had to be credible. What qualified the source to make that statement? Was the information tainted by self-interest? Was the source of asserted fact generally reliable and unbiased? Was the opinion by a real authority?

If the fact is from a scientific study, how was it conducted? Are there other studies of this phenomenon and what did they conclude? And if it was a statistic, what did the numbers really mean? For instance, if the rate of rabies incidence in the population of Argyle, Nova Scotia went from 1% last year to 2% this year, there are different ways of saying it. You could say the rate went up by only 1%, and I could say it doubled.

 That's the cry heard most often in rebuttals--"what's your source?"  We learned so much about facts this way.  Facts were only as good as sources--and providing the credibility of the source was vital.  (It was also helpful to have the very same evidence as your opponent, so that if their use of it was selective, we could say, "but your source goes on to say...")

We had to be aware of possible bias by the author, organization or publication quoted (or the basis of our opponent's accusation of bias) so we could defend or attack the source's credibility.  So we had to approach what we read partly as our opponent might, to anticipate objections or--better--to find support for our contention from an unlikely source.

So we might point out when a study was financed by a biased entity, or for example when a certain speculative statistic was supplied by the American Medical Association, a staunch opponent of government funding medical care.

I expect we used what we could from other countries whose government funded medical care, like the UK and Canada, to suggest that it worked and that scary predictions hadn't happened. (As indeed, they haven't in the US.)

We learned about statistics--how to frame them and how to question them for what they really said.  There is a big difference, for example, between "average" and "median," with median (income, etc) usually telling you more.  You had to show how they applied to what you were talking about--or (arguing about your opponent's numbers) how they don't.

We also learned about relevance.  A blitz of facts wasn't enough--you had to demonstrate how these facts support your assertions and your case.  How does historical precedent, and even broad assertions of purpose, actually apply?

Manipulating information was also the intent of various forms of argument. We ran into variations of the classic logical fallacies, like “poisoning the well” (invalidating all arguments on the basis of a single assertion,) “begging the question” (restating your assertion as the conclusion, as in “big government is oppressive because it curtails your freedom”) or relying on a "straw man" argument, as well as various ad hominem attacks, such as mud-slinging, name-calling and emotionally loaded language. The argument from precedent or the simple but colorfully described assertion that all will end badly, without providing actual reasons. But mostly we dealt with inconsistent arguments that didn’t justify the particular conclusion. We could spot somebody confusing categories, making false analogies

Another aspect of debating was the importance of listening to your opponent, and especially of listening critically.  Listening critically to yourself and your partner was equally important in preparing.  These habits served me well in journalism as well as in evaluating public issues and arguments.

By debating both sides of a question, we learned that few issues are one-sided, and that general propositions may sound great but you need a workable plan. But most of all we learned how to test evidence and argument for validity, relevance and meaning.

All of this was in service of principles, of a vision, of a moral question, usually with historical roots.  Articulating those was kind of my specialty.  They were essential, but so were the facts, the argument, the plan.

I learned other lessons (such as the arbitrary nature of success--I still have ballots in which I was rated the best and the worst speaker in the same debate by different judges.) But in any event, my partner and I (Michael D. Krempasky, both years) were effective enough to win both the National Forensic League and Catholic Forensic League championships for our district in 1964.

These high school debates forever exposed the flaws in the presidential debates, and in turn, public affairs debates in general.  Evidence for assertions is rare, and facts are not disputed but simply ignored or countered with other "facts" with no evidence.

They illustrate for me as well that merely "fact-checking" is inadequate.  Some facts may be accurate but irrelevant, in either a positive or a negative sense.  Facts can be blown out of proportion, or applied wildly, or they can be said to prove what they don't come close to proving.

Fake news is only the beginning.  Fake debate, fake discussion that isn't about finding solutions but only gaining advantage is rampant.  And it's killing us.

Sunday, April 02, 2017

The White House of Blue Lies

How can you explain the connection between Homemade Hitler and his voters?  How can the continual lies be told and believed?

Those questions have haunted every political moment since at least the election.  Some social scientists believe they have the answer, which is somewhat enlightening, sort of common sense, and overblown, all at the same time.

It's all about what reinforces the identity of the group you belong to.  The echo chamber of views you all hear, talk about and subscribe to, from the people and outlets you trust to give you those views.  Your own misgivings or doubts don't count as much as the rewards of being acknowledged as a member of the group.  It's an emotional bond, it's a rush, the common laughter, the warmth of belonging.

One article I saw gave it all an evolutionary spin--the human social animal's survival depended on being included and valued within a specific group.  Anything that got you exiled could mean your doom.

Well, maybe.  But it's not hard to understand social pressure.  It was there in 50s suburbia and it was strange but fascinating for me to watch it unravel in the working class culture of western PA during Vietnam and Watergate.

Think also of conversations in the workplace.  Relationships and acceptance in a group depend on gossip about people not part of the group, or at least not there at that moment, as well as on more general outside topics.  In all these cases, the information that binds the group need not be true.  Gossip gets its bad name because a lot of it isn't true, and is often invented or believed because it's a good story, and everybody who shares it is in the devilish warmth of a conspiracy.  In the same way, stories about politicians and how politics works etc. are just different forms of gossip.

That's more or less the positive side: stuff that makes everybody feel good, because everybody agrees and will support each other in other ways, it is assumed.  But people are also united in anger, and that's become more common.

They are often people with a grievance, and they join together based on who and what they blame, and what they see as the solution.  This definition covers some ecological warriors as well as rabid righticans,  people who rant on the Internet and people who become terrorists.  Anger may be only one of their motivations but it's prime.

Anger is hard to sustain, so it must be fed with stories, and they might be true but they need not be true. The anger may begin with experiences and stories that are true, but that quickly expand to dubious and even outrageously false assertions. But they are accepted because they mostly must fit the pattern of what is already believed.  Like gossip--each new tidbit must be consistent with what is already believed.

This leads naturally to the theory of Blue Lies.  They are defined (in the words of this Scientific American article that links them directly to the White House) as "
a psychologist’s term for falsehoods, told on behalf of a group, that can actually strengthen the bonds among the members of that group."

So there are white lies, which don't hurt anyone, and black lies, which are harmful to all.  Blue lies are told against a group that's not your own, but that support your group's beliefs.

This article again gives it that evolutionary explanation, and notes that researchers have found "that this kind of lying seems to thrive in an atmosphere of anger, resentment, and hyper-polarization."  (See what I mean about both overblown and Captain Obvious.)

But the important thing about blue lies is that the lies out of the White House aren't even meant to convince everybody--or very likely, you.  They are meant to garner favor and create credibility with particular groups.

None of this is actually new, not even the social science patina.  And like most social science truisms, the basic mechanisms are pretty familiar from novels and movies.  Even in politics, the Bush II propagandists were pretty clear about it, chiding the "reality-based community" for even thinking all of their stuff was meant for them.  It's about whose buttons to push.

It's not new but in the national public realm of the US (with a global audience) it's more extreme than ever.  It's gone from Reagan's hyperbole and glib fibs to escalating partisan nastiness to our apprentice dictator's obvious and extreme lies, his utter disregard for the truth.  The normal tests for truth that clash with the blue lies are just ignored as invalid and partisan.  But it doesn't matter, as long as the target group gets the message (and adversaries are thrown into burbling, helpless chaos and accusations of untruth that feed into the narrative of their partisan hostility.)  

There are still subtleties and complications, though.  On the minus side, there are the darker beliefs and prejudices and unconscious bias that bind groups, that might not be overt, but might be expressed say in the secret ballot.  On the plus side, there's the human capacity for contradiction.

In a much earlier time, psychologist Carl Jung (who never would make the kind of deterministic, blanket statements that today's psychologists do with their pretty flimsy and flawed information) derived two observations from studying the process of how a normal if precocious little girl figured out the facts of life, and having done so, merely added them to her own fantasy explanation of birth and death.

His first observation was the power of fantasy in the lives of humans of all ages.  Consider how much of our lives is devoted to fantasy and fantasy worlds, and our culture especially.  Our fantasy worlds themselves create a culture, a group that we belong to.  To a degree we could see these fantasy worlds include political parties.

 His second observation was that people could hold two contradictory beliefs at the same time, and find some way to reconcile them.  He cited as example some tribal peoples who knew very well how babies were made but insisted they were made in another way.

The theory of blue lies suggests that all facts are mere assertions that either please or displease members of a group, and accordingly are either true or false for that group.  This it has seemed to me for some time is the operating belief of Republicans, along with the belief that everyone in Washington is equally corrupt.

That facts as such may no longer exist really alarms people.  For it makes civilization impossible, let alone democracy.  Up until now, we have had accepted tests of what is a fact and what isn't.  Just as we have had accepted evidence of what is a crime.  One of these days I may rehearse what some of those tests are, as I understand them, since they may be slipping out of public consciousness.

But for the moment there are a couple of points to tie this all together.  As important as facts and reason are, they aren't everything.  There are values, beliefs, fantasies, aesthetics, a spiritual realm.  As well as what's bred in our bones from millions of years, and dancing in our unconscious.  Sometimes these facts and these fantasies or beliefs contradict each other in some sense.  Then we have decisions to make.

Sometimes we can reconcile them, even if it means living with a kind of contradiction.  But it also means that accepting new facts need not destroy everything.

There are plenty of stories about culture heroes--or even small, tragic figures--who asserted something that went against the crowd and were exiled, punished, sacrificed.  But then the crowd changed.

Groups do change, and facts can be part of that.  Blue lies become seen as lies. The process may be slow, and it may cause trauma.  What may yet happen to Homegrown Hitler is that he is seen as a traitor, a false messiah.  It may be happening now.  But I think the contradictions are growing, too.  Some people who say they don't believe in climate change,  may also believe in climate change, for example.  They may not say so yet.  But they may look at their leaders differently.  And they may, with their secret ballots, choose other ones.

Meanwhile, the White House of blue lies is also the White House of trying to save our asses lies, and when that becomes obvious, it's a different game.  It may take awhile, as it did in the Watergate era. But the regime seems already down to its core believers, so like a lot of things these days, it might not take long at all. Which in some ways may not be good, because without adequate preparation and a smooth way forward, when the dam breaks, it's chaos.