Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Queer Love and Ultimate Terror

"Isn't that the ultimate homeland security, standing up and defending marriage?"

-- U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., on the floor of the Senate, July 14.

Sunday, August 22, 2004

How to be Respectful of Privileged Cells

Kassoid Eric Cohen pipes up predictably on stem cells in the LA Times:

"This brings us to the heart of the matter - the human embryo. These "clumps of cells" and the powers of development that make them useful to researchers are also reasons to accord them profound respect. These embryos are microscopic - but size should not determine their fate. They lack higher consciousness, but consciousness should not be the exclusive determinant of humanness; otherwise, we'd treat whole classes of living people as less than human."
Do please explain to me again, Mr. Cohen, just why it accords so much profounder a respect for this "clump of cells" that so preoccupies your attention to throw IVF "embryos" into a trash can -- as routinely happens now without your protesting it (knowing full well you have already decisively lost that battle) -- than it is to extract from them stem cells that might ultimately save the lives or at any rate ameliorate the suffering of countless fully-fledged living people struggling with Parkinson's Disease and a host of other devastating medical conditions here and now? Who is it exactly that is treating "whole classes of living people as less than" others, here, Mr. Cohen? Yes, we have indeed arrived at "the heart of the matter."

More Cackles from the Balcony

Eric offers up a few choice pieces of snark.

First, he notes this morning's Yahoo! News headline "Bush Campaign Expects Small Convention Bounce" marks the inevitable lowballing of expectations that the Repugnicans have employed interminably to make their chronic underperformer (history will be considerably less kind) seem adequate to his task. Liberals absolutely cannot let that happen this time. Rather than wringing their hands about protesters outside, they need to be hammering the "this is the most important speech in Bush's lifetime" line that becomes the well-nigh impossible demand that freights every damn public speaking engagement that Kerry steps up to. Bush is a stammering idiot and rather than coddling his incompetence for once the media needs to relentlessly demand that he rise to the occasion.

Second, we were talking about how odd it is that over the course of this disastrously failed Administration pundits have regularly suggested that Bush and Co. were staking their fortunes on risky gambles: that the tax cuts will bring about a recovery, that the War of Choice in Iraq would bring democracy to the Middle East with little cost in lives and money, that Hispanic Americans would flock to the conservative banner, that "Compassionate Conservatism" would redefine the movement and attract women and centrists. Okay. Where are those pundits now? If these were gambles with consequences show the consequences. Bush can't win if tax cuts fail to stimulate the economy? He presides over greater unemployment and insecurity than any President in memory. So, he must lose then, right guys? Bush can't win if his risky war of choice in Iraq fails? A thousand Americans are dead, thousands more maimed, countless thousands of Iraqis wounded and killed, countless billions of dollars squandered in the midst of recession, the Taliban resurgent in Afghanistan, two terrorists arising for every one killed, chaos, quagmire, sanctioned corruption and torture in Iraq, spiralling violence and hopelessness across the Middle East. So, he must lose then, right guys? Hispanic Americans overwhelmingly are shifting their support to Democrats. "Compassionate Conservativism" is exposed as a threadbare cloak over the bloating zombie corpse of crony capitalism, unfunded mandates, and religious zealotry. So, he must lose then, right guys?

At what point is the media held accountable for their interminable shilling for this crappy crime ridden gangland Administration? When Bush makes a reckless gamble with lives and livelihoods that are not his own and then the gamble fails -- the failure is a story, not the dispute over the spin on the failure. When Bush lies the story is the lie, not the dispute over the lie.

Third, Eric forwarded me a list outlining the rates of crime in large American cities. One can't help notice how many so-called Blue States are among the least crime-ridden, while so many Red States seem to struggle interminably with crime. At what point will Democrats receive recognition as effective crime-fighters rather than "soft on crime"?

Blue States are the engines of the economy, centers of culture and education, most effective in the provision of services and security, and all the while forced to subsidize the ignorant, ill-mannered, unproductive, uncooperative atavisms of the Red States.

"Best Large Cities for Crime (More than 500,000 pop.) [a somewhat unfortunate way of describing large cities with the least incidence of Crime]:

New Jersey boasts three of the nation's safest and most secure cities.
1. Nassau-Suffolk, NY*
Nassau-Suffolk has the second-lowest overall crime rate in the nation, thanks to extremely low violent and property crime rates.
2. Middlesex-Somerset-Hunterdon, NJ
The Middlesex-Somerset-Hunterdon area has one of the lowest murder rates in the nation, in addition to a very low rate of larceny.
3. Ventura, CA
Ventura has a very low property crime rate and one of the lowest larceny rates in the country.
4. Monmouth-Ocean, NJ
Monmouth-Ocean has one of the lowest auto theft rates in the country and an overall low rate of property crime.
5. Bergen-Passaic, NJ
Bergen-Passaic has especially low rates of forcible rape and larceny.

Worst Large Cities for Crime
Although Arizona has two of the most crime-ridden cities in the nation, their violent crime rates are relatively low.
1. Tucson, AZ
Tucson has one of the highest property crime rates in the country, especially larceny. On the bright side, Tucson has a low murder rate.
2. Memphis, TN-AR-MS*
Residents of Memphis contend with the nation's second-highest violent crime rate. In addition, the rate of robbery and burglary are among the nation's highest.
3. Miami, FL
Miami's violent crime rate is the highest in the nation, with especially high incidences of robbery and assault. Thankfully, the murder rate is relatively low.
4. Phoenix-Mesa, AZ
Phoenix-Mesa has one of the highest rates of auto theft in the nation.
5. Little Rock-North Little Rock, AR
The Little Rock area has a high rate of property crime, especially larceny.
Best Medium Cities for Crime (200,000-500,000 pop.)
New England seems to be an especially safe and secure region.
1. Danbury, CT
Danbury has lowest overall crime rate in the nation, as well as the lowest property crime rate.
2. Stamford-Norwalk, CT
Second only to its neighbor Danbury, the Stamford-Norwalk area has one of the lowest property crime rates in the U.S.
3. Johnstown, PA
Johnstown has an especially low rate of property crime. The murder rate is a bit higher than one might expect but is still well below the U.S. average.
4. Dutchess County, NY
Dutchess County has a very low burglary rate, which helps contribute to low overall rate of property crime.
5. Portsmouth-Rochester, NH-ME
The Portsmouth-Rochester area has low rates of property and violent crime, but there is a significant rate of forcible rape.
Worst Medium Cities for Crime
The South seems to be particularly challenged with crime.
1. Myrtle Beach, SC
Myrtle Beach has the highest total rate of crime in the nation, due to a high rate of violent crime and the nation's highest rate of property crime. In particular, the rates of assault, burglary and larceny are particularly high.
2. Montgomery, AL
The murder rate is significantly high in Montgomery, as are the rates of robbery, burglary and larceny.
3. Laredo, TX
While the larceny rate is high in Laredo, residents can take comfort in the relatively low rates of murder and forcible rape.
4. Waco, TX
Like Laredo, violent crime is less of a concern in Waco than property crime. In particular, burglary and larceny are a problem.
5. Wilmington, NC
Wilmington has the second-highest rate of burglary in the country. On the other hand, the rates of forcible rape and assault are low.
Best Small Cities for Crime (Less than 200,000 pop.)
1. State College, PA
State College has low crime rates across the board. In particular, the burglary and auto theft rates are among the nation's lowest.
2. Steubenville-Weirton, OH-WV
Property crime is especially low in the Steubenville-Weirton area, especially the rate of larceny.
3. Wheeling, WV-OH*
While property crime is extremely low in Wheeling, the rates of murder and assault are a bit higher than might be expected.
4. Pittsfield, MA*
Pittsfield has not only one of the lowest murder rates in the nation, but also an exceptionally low rate of larceny. However, the rate of forcible rape is significant.
5. Wausau, WI
Like Pittsfield, Wausau's rates of murder and larceny are among the nation's lowest. The violent crime rates are also low.
Worst Small Cities for Crime
1. Topeka, KS
Topeka has the highest rate of property crime among cities with fewer than 200,000 residents. The rates of larceny and robbery are especially high.
2. Pine Bluff, AR
Pine Bluff has a high rate of murder and the ninth-highest rate of robbery in the nation.
3. Monroe, LA*
Monroe suffers from significant property and violent crime, especially assault and larceny.
4. Alexandria, LA
Alexandria has the fourth-highest violent crime rate in the nation. Murder and assault are a problem, in particular, but the rate of forcible rape is low.
5. Florence, SC
Assault and larceny rates are high in Florence, but the murder rate is low.

Monday, August 16, 2004

MundiMuster! Call Wal-Mart and Demand Change

Call Walmart at 1-800-966-6546 and demand they help extend unemployment benefits or you will not buy from them until they get the Republicans in Washington DC to extend unemployment benefits for those whose benefits ran out as far back as August 2003 and increase the minimum wage to 9 dollars an hour.

Thursday, August 05, 2004

Off to Toronto

I'm off to Toronto for the next few days to participate in a Conference for which, among other things, I am delivering a paper I have not yet written. Well, I suppose, after all, that's what long transcontinental flights are for!

Cackles from the Balcony

There is of course a whole cottage industry in the liberal flogosphere devoted to the interminable analysis of Bush's many wacky and wonderful slips of the tongue, but Eric points out that this is an inevitable response to a President who seems to speak the truth only accidently. Eric's latest favorite example of a stumble that speaks volumes:

"They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we." - George W. Bush

The Random Wilde

The difference between literature and journalism is that journalism is unreadable and literature is unread.

Not Shaken, but Stirzed

[via optima digitalis] Martin Stirz over in the great green state of Kentucky (where your humble correspondent was born, as it happens) has blogged some nicely complementary thoughts about liber-techianism here and then, more delightfully still, has written some nicely complimentary thoughts about yours truly here.

Monday, August 02, 2004

More Cackles from the Balcony

In response to this Yahoo! News Headline yesterday, “Bush Plans to Reveal Intelligence Plan Monday,” Eric has helpfully proposed two words: “Read more.”

Dispatches from Libertopia (Another New, and I am Sad to Say Probably Recurring, Feature)

It is a source of ongoing perplexity for me that people with whom I regularly have some of the most useful and provocative conversations about technological development will often (especially if they happen, like me, to be Americans) tend to belligerently espouse some of the most appalling and naïve political perspectives imaginable. (In fairness, they would likely say the same thing about me.)

The Fight Aging! blog to which I used to link on my homepage is a case in point. It has been for me a valuable source of provocative and usually sensible speculation about the technical aspects of genetic and especially longevity medicine. Unfortunately, it also occasionally goes off on these rather breathtaking anti-political rants that bespeak what looks to me like a profound social alienation and even hostility to mainstream democratic institutions and norms. I’ve deleted my link to them, with misgivings, just because I feel uncomfortable at even tangentially seeming to endorse (on a page to which friends, colleagues, and students of mine will sometimes refer) what seem to me the anti-social and anti-political perspectives that feverishly upwell from there from time to time.

This should matter to the Fight Aging! bloggers, among many other reasons, because the normative and institutional landscape they so disdain will certainly constitute the ongoing context for the developmental pathways that otherwise preoccupy them, and will loom large in shaping the developmental outcomes they claim to desire. I provide some theoretical background for the market-libertarian perspective as well as some provisional suggestions as to what inspires the specifically techno-libertarian versions of it in an earlier Amor Mundi entry, “Trouble in Libertopia.”

“Politics is a black hole, it really is,” writes “Reason” in a blog entry that has inspired my most recent exasperation with the liber-techians. He goes on, “Politicians have no powers other than those of destruction, harassment and hinderance [emphasis mine] – and like classic thugs they use their power to suck everyone into circus events and fight over spoils.”

This is classic negative-libertarian rhetoric, as I wrote in “Trouble in Libertopia”: “Against the purported spontaneity and inevitability of ‘market’ relations, so-called, the negative libertarians array the countervailing and always-only coercive machineries of national states. They reduce all government to violence and see in governing nothing but violence, and then declare, practically as a matter of fiat, that ‘market outcomes’ (and typically market behavior will be treated as synechdochic with corporate conduct) non-coercive…. [N]ever mind that legitimate governments, of course, whatever their flaws, routinely engage in social administration that is the farthest imaginable thing from physical threat. Once one puts the negative libertarian blinders on every nice social worker and dedicated public servant suddenly becomes a jack-booted thug and every corporate titan, even if he is little better than a mafia don, suddenly becomes a Randian Archetype of boundless benevolent creative energy.”

“Reason” cites enthusiastically a piece in Reason Online (no relation, it’s a market fundamentalist rag) by Brian Doherty that characterizes politics as “the system of coordinated violence and threats designed to force other people to do what you want them to, and people's attempts to game that system in a usually futile attempt to ‘make a difference.’“ I consider it plainly wrong, of course, to characterize politics as “co-ordinated violence” when it looks more to me instead like the co-ordinated effort to ameliorate violence (including the violence of exploitation), and to create institutional alternatives to violence for the adjudication of disputes between people who differ from one another in their conditions, their views, and their desires.

But beyond this, I think it is interesting to see this wrong-headed somewhat sociopathic outlook conjoined so obviously to the cynical deflation of anyone who would hope or try to “make a difference” through political engagement or organizing (the scare-quotes are Doherty’s), even when so many who try to do so through politics include among their efforts projects to reform for the better the very institutions that market-fundamentalist types rail against for their imperfections.

What does it mean to reduce all the efforts of people working to make “the system” (so-called) better as nothing but attempts to “game the system”? Where honestly does that kind of blanket cynicism leave us? (My guess is, as often as not, it simply provides a nice rationale for acting like an asshole and screwing people over for a quick brainless buck, all the while disdaining anybody who tries to live and to do otherwise as “naïve.” Not to put too fine a point on it.)

Anyway, the Doherty piece is a reaction against what he calls “this week of all-Kerry-all-the-time Democratic convention coverage” and this is very likely the inspiration for Our Man “Reason”’s own reference to “classic thugs [who] use their power to suck everyone into circus events and fight over spoils.”

Given the shameful choice of the consolidated corporate media to show very little indeed of the Convention one has to wonder at the kind of Princess and the Pea hyper-sensitivity that would recoil from this impoverished non-coverage, as if it constituted anything like “all-Kerry-all-the-time” in the first place. And quite apart from my own sense that “classic thugs” would enjoy a considerably better reputation than they do if it were true that they were associated in any way at all with “circus events” (which are, after all, fun for the whole family), I must say that I am intrigued at the way the “anti-politics” button on the techno-libertarian emergency console seems so conspicuously to be pushed by the Democrats, of all people, in this historical moment when Republicans are dismantling domestic institutions, engaging in unilateral military adventures abroad, and running up unprecedented budget deficits.

The always-excellent Chris Mooney quotes from John Kerry’s speech accepting the nomination of the Democratic Party as Presidential candidate a passage that really moved me, too:

So much promise stretches before us. Americans have always reached for the impossible, looked to the next horizon and asked: What if?

Two young bicycle mechanics from Dayton asked, what if this airplane could take off at Kitty Hawk? It did that and changed the world forever. A young president asked, what if we could go to the moon in 10 years? And now we're exploring the stars and the solar system themselves. A young generation of entrepreneurs asked, what if we could take all the information in a library and put it on a chip the size of a fingernail? We did that and that too changed the world.

And now it's our time to ask: What if?

What if we find a breakthrough to Parkinson's, diabetes, Alzheimer's and AIDS? What if we have a president who believes in science so we can unleash the wonders of discovery like stem-cell research and treat illness for millions of lives?

This was, of course, just one of many moments in the Democratic Convention when science and scientific culture was championed on the podium to roars of approval and joy by the Democrats who thronged the Fleet Center. Technological progress was offered up as a source of emancipation, inspiration, and hope, and took its place together with the good fights against poverty, unilateral military adventurism, racism, and sexism as a cause Democrats consider to be at the heart of their vision of the world.

It is curious indeed that techno-libertarians would disdain as nothing but hollow so wide, so established, so dedicated, so resourceful a body of people and potential allies, devoted to aims that align so conspicuously with some of their own (at least their professed aims). If it is true that the Democrats concentrate on more near-term possibilities rather than the superlative and radical and longer-term technological outcomes that preoccupy “Reason” and the other liber-techians, does it really not matter at all that so many Democrats are so open to supporting with them at least the proximate early steps along the developmental roads that could eventuate in the outcomes they claim to desire?

“Little comes out of throwing your support behind candidates except further support for a system of petty controls and evil tyranny….. Progress, creation, good lives and better medicine don't come from politicians,” writes “Reason” wrongly. But I submit that mainstream political effort can accomplish in a lightning flash the kind of outcomes that a lifetime of work outside of politics cannot dream of. “[Politicians] do not create or build - all they do is shout, threaten, tear down, abuse the power we give them and lay down roadblocks on the way to the future.” But of course politicians can and do create and build and mend and support, whatever the shortcomings of many of them. And when they do a good job they facilitate the creative and constructive efforts of others, too, by channeling funding, providing stability, promoting safety, co-ordinating energies, ensuring that costs, risks, and benefits are all more fairly shared by all the stakeholders to that creativity.

Is there corruption and ignorance and ambition that all too often stands in the way of the optimal functioning of the political shepherding of technological development? Certainly, there is. But who is more naïve, the one who is driven by a recognition of these flaws into a process that would reform practices and institutions to better approximate best ideals, or is it the one who would use these imperfections as a pretext to dismiss these ideals altogether, to attempt to dismantle the unfinished institutional attainments of democratic societies whatever their accomplishments?

And, anyway, who seriously holds the view that politics is exhausted by one’s participation in partisan Presidential politics? We do more as good citizens than vote for good Presidents. But this hardly justifies a denigration of our power and responsibilities when we are voting for our President, either. We must organize, and advocate, and criticize, and educate, and vote, too. How can serious and otherwise bright people not understand these things?

"Reason" proposes, to the contrary, that “[w]e ought not, to the extent we can help it, live in George Bush's America, or John Kerry's.” But it seems to me that “the extent we can help it” is in fact vanishingly negligible.

What is it with the persistent social obliviousness and anti-political antipathy of so many technophiles? It's like the self-appointed “digirati” at the irrationally exuberant height of the dot.Bubble all over again, all blithely imagining themselves to inhabit the Cyberspatial sprawl rather than the territorial nation-states where their desktops happened to reside, all smug and snug in “the new home of Mind,” all contemplating not as citizens or agents but self-styled futurist gurus these fuzzy game-theoretical tableaux that were "evolving," "emerging," "mobbing," "swarming," "spontaneously ordering" themselves, but heavens forbid never organized politically, never regulated, never voted for, all of them breathlessly awaiting the “inevitable” arrival of crypto-anarchy, or nano-santa, or techno-rapture, or just content to loll forever lackadaisically in their “Long [and now Longed-For] Boom.”

Do these guys not notice that the Net is being domesticated from wilderness frontier into another corporate-sponsored and corporate-censored theme park even as they tap away at their keyboards? Do they not notice that genetically engineered foodstuffs are now wrongly reviled and repudiated by many of the people who urgently need them? Do they not see molecular nanotechnology being defined out of existence and pushed out of sight into the archipelago of secret military labs for who knows who to pursue without regulation or oversight? Do they not worry what it will eventually have to mean that the incredible gains in productivity associated with ever more ubiquitous automation are facilitating an ever more conspicuous concentration of wealth among the few rather than greater prosperity for everybody? Do they not observe that at this very moment cognitive technologies that could re-write the range available to human experience look instead to be enlisted now by Big Pharma in the ongoing racist War on [some] Drugs [by means of other Drugs]? Do they see hopes for the genetic medical address of countless diseases dashed pointlessly against the absurd fear-mongering hyperbole of social conservatives arm-waving about cloned armies of immortal super-babies and who knows what other nonsense? How many political defeats do the radical technophiles have to suffer before they are willing to grant that politics might matter after all and that possibly they might benefit from getting better at it?

Little in the world is more conspicuous in this moment than that we live in Bush’s America, and likewise little in the world more conspicuous than that we will all do better to live next year in John Kerry’s America. I don’t subscribe to the cartoon cut-out viewpoint that this is a contest between a monster moron and a soldier saint (the rhetoric's fun, but I fear the reality's more depressing than that), but I still know a difference that makes a difference when I see one. A Kerry Administration won’t solve the problems that confront us, but simply will provide the smallest space in which it will be possible again for serious people of good will to work on those problems with some real hope of making a difference. No scare-quotes there for me, you see. I do believe in making a difference and in making recourse to politics (partisan and otherwise) to do so.

Just because people derive much of the meaning of our lives from our inhabitation of particular moral communities and much of our power from our warranted instrumental beliefs, doesn’t remove or insulate us from our inhabitation of a world that includes others with whom we significantly differ.

“We should shun politics and the parasites who live in that world,” writes “Reason,” I think, unreasonably. “We should turn our backs on politicians and rent seeking. We should instead focus on our own lives - building the future we wish to see through our work and ingenuity. It is better that our dollars and time go to our own individual visions than to bolster one or other of the competing gangs in government.” But the truth is that we share the world with more than just our friends and allies, and this will remain true even in a world riven more and more conspicuously by the transformations incubated by radical technological developments. Politics is ineradicable, and so the choices are to get better at it, or to have those who are get the better of you.

Sunday, August 01, 2004

Signaling Secularization

This is a very belated impression from Kerry’s speech Thursday. It occurs to me that Kerry’s statement that he doesn’t “wear his religion on his sleeve” was really quite an important moment in the speech, and possibly a kind of turning point in mainstream liberal-progressive politics.

This is not so much because it is the moment when Kerry, as it were, “takes back religion” for the Democrats, as I heard many pundits commenting over the weekend. I mean, that is true in a sense and it does seem to play out in important ways in the contemporary scene and all. But I am an atheist myself, and “taking back religion” is hardly an enterprise that I can get too worked up about, honestly.

What seems really important to me now that I think about it is that Kerry signaled in that phrase (along with the powerful championing of science and technology he chose to close his speech with) his awareness that Americans live in a secular society. Even if it is true that America is a society that still has an important role for individual religious beliefs and spiritual practices, we all of us bear the imprint of a profound secularization.

Kerry’s reference to religion was very different in form, it seems to me, from Obama’s “we worship an awesome god in the Blue States” comment. I say this because Kerry’s affirmation of the religious does not assume such worship but merely welcomes it as part of the larger American culture.

We all know that the Republicans have become masters at insinuating their real minoritarian moral commitments -- racism, homophobia, misogyny, etc. -- to those who share them, or at any rate are eager to cynically exploit these divisive views in support of militarist corporate welfare cronyism they can’t sell any other way, but all without affirming these commitments in an explicit way that would alienate majorities who abhor them (or feel they should).

Kerry’s comment about refusing to wear his religion on his sleeve relies for its force on an awareness that American culture has grown more secular than it can easily admit to itself. In a way it provides a converse strategy to the Republican one: it insinuates a majoritarian commitment, but in a way that won’t alienate minorities.

Remember, it is because secularization has taken hold of America that social conservatives organize with such single-minded ferocity in the first place. Republicans feel forever embattled despite their control over every branch of government precisely because they sense the reality that they are embattled. They are a diminishing minority, maintaining their hold on power and the imagination of our public institutions only through sheer panicked force of will, unscrupulous single-minded determination, the fund-raising and organizational genius of a desperate army making its last stand, and the convenient accident of an electoral college that favors backward rural voters over progressive urban majorities (not to mention that the phalanx of icky white guys who espouse Republican bile managed to accumulate huge piles of cash before the world started to notice they were dinosaurs).

Kerry has signaled that he is aware of and part of the secular society that America has become, even for those millions of Americans like himself who still maintain a personal place for religious belief and spiritual practice in their own lives. That Democrats are offering an invitation to all Americans to participate as partners in making that America better was a master stroke and a luminously positive and encouraging sign of the times.

The Random Wilde (Weekend Edition):

It is dangerous to be sincere unless you are also stupid.

Cackles from the Balcony (A New, and To Be Recurring, Feature)

My partner Eric has pointed out to me that Bush’s stump speech has started to flog a line about judging a Presidency by “Results”. Eric’s considered response: Bwa ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

Salvation By Flip-Flop

Atrios posts a quote by Bush/Cheney Campaign Strategist Matthew Dowd from Fox News Sunday, “If you want change in this country, you ought to vote for President Bush." It is amusing to realize that Bush’s failures in both foreign and domestic policy have grown so undeniable and so vast at this point that the Bushites' only hope for election (for the first time, remember) may be to convince America Bush will be a flip-flopper on as many issues as possible.