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

Monday, November 29, 2004

Framing Framing

I am very pleased to see Democrats slowly coming alive to the significance of rhetoric in campaigning, an awareness that seems to be attributable very largely to the efforts of George Lakoff (or perhaps his recent high profile is rather a symptom of this wider shift). But I think it is crucial that all the useful talk of "effective framing" not become yet another occasion for liberals to endlessly assume personal responsibility (and so indulge in a fantasy of personal control) for structural conditions that are not in fact susceptible to remedy this way.

It doesn't matter how compelling your frame when the owners won't let you put your art up on the wall. Conservative media are a hurdle that cannot be overcome by even the most perfect framing of liberal values, goals, and policies.

Conservatives largely drive the news cycle. Even if many reporters and columnists are at least notionally liberal (as is usually the case with educated people), the owners of most media are conspicuously not. And the short segments and infotainment-aesthetic of commercial broadcasting create structural impediments to the discussion of policy as opposed to the endless circulation of gossip and conjuration of dramatic "confrontations" between personalities -- a condition that favors the conservative personalities (typically yes-men figureheads for moneyed elites) over liberal policy-makers (who typically govern well but campaign badly).

What must happen, along with the new experimentalism and heightened awareness of the importance of effective rhetoric, is the creation of real alternative but mainstream media through which liberal framing can express itself in the first place. This means that Air America Radio needs to keep acquiring affiliates (in so-called swing states, in large markets like LA and Chicago, and especially in Washington, DC), the emerging liberal flogosphere and digital grassroots organizing archipelago need to continue networking together, the talk of a liberal television network (possibly involving Al Gore?) needs to bear fruit...

Also, it is important to remember that the conservative think-tanks progressives bemoan these days came into existence precisely because conservative intellectuals couldn't cut it in the academy, and that much of the fundamentalist Mega-Church grassroots organizing and social service provision happening now on the right is a pale contemporary reflection of the Union Halls, Labor programs and organizing that once invigorated the American left. These movements and institutions and resources are tattered and torn but they are a world awaiting re-invigoration and re-invention.

Those who imagine the left confronts thirty years of building a culture to confront the contemporary conservative leviathan mistake the extent to which so many of the pieces from which a fighting left can be assembled are lying around in wait right now. They also fail to grasp the extent to which conservative effectiveness has derived from the special discipline and urgency of a desperate minority fighting to retain their hold on power and wealth they can no longer justify except to themselves and to defend values that strain against the broad currents of global culture.

Cackles from the Balcony

[via Salon] Karl Rove assures the readers of Newsweek that the President will place "strict constructionist" judges on the federal benches. No doubt, as Eric has pointed out to me, the reinstitutionalization of slavery in the United States will make some "Hollywood-types" in our nation's Cities and Universities pout and whine, but after all who cares what they think?

Rove also said of the President, "he values life, and he means it." Given the President's ferocious lust for ever more guns, ever more wars, ever more pollution, and ever more executions in American life could anybody honestly doubt his deep love of the life thing? Don't worry, Karl, we know well by now what your boy really values and how he means it.

Fundamentalist Devils, Postmodernist Angels

The Blight of “values” discourse continues to spread across the punditocratic terrain. The Wittgensteinian "whereof/thereof" has never seemed more fitting. (I see that Michael Kinsley reliably seems to be in a similarly snarky mood on this subject these days.)

Anyway, Anthony Stavrianakis in Spiked-Online writes about the rise of so-called “intelligent design” arguments (that is to say, fundamentalist Christians and others with one foot in the twenty-first century and another in the thirteenth, who decry the teaching of the theory of evolution in high school biology classrooms either because they are unpardonably ignorant or stupid themselves, or because they are simply eager to cynically manipulate others who are unpardonably ignorant or stupid to tighten their grip on power to serve their financial or otherwise socially conservative agendas).

Stavrianakis has tired, he says, of all the “well-worn clichés about the 'deep' south and redneck fundamentalist Christianity” that come up when talk turns to “intelligent design.” No, Stavrianakis chooses to focus his ire instead on “the value relativism characteristic of twenty-first century political debate.” It’s not all about hicks banning Darwin, folks, despite all appearances to the contrary, it’s... wait for it... elite, academic “post-modernists” who are to blame!

Stavrianakis is right to suggest that “I[ntelligent] D[esign] is less a critique of evolution than a political agenda,” and he may be right that at least occasionally “it feeds off a trait in political and scientific debate today whereby differing opinions are considered equally valid.” But I doubly disagree with the significance of this latter claim.

First, as someone trained and working in the belly of the “post-modern” beast (I’m in the Department of Rhetoric at Berkeley), I think his characterization of the environment of contemporary literary and cultural studies as a kind of empty-headed value-blindness is mistaken -- as is, come to think of it, any suggestion that humanistic intellectuals exercise much in the way of cultural authority in the United States these days in any case -- a mischaracterization that is driven by its own “political agenda.”

Second, the problem in my view is not any ominous “value-relativism” holding sway in diverse liberal secular cultures (if only!) which is somehow eating away at the solid science of stolid scientists. Precisely to the contrary, it is the stubborn consolidation of incompatible faith-based fundamentalisms that is clearly the trouble here. The clashing beliefs among fundamentalists are simply not amenable to rational disagreement or peaceful reconciliation in the first place. Meanwhile, this welter of incompatibly diverse believers intimately co-habit a techno-cultural world that is far too complex and unstable for them to accommodate successfully without making a few key adjustments at least in their public outlooks and practices (just like everybody else). Of course, most of these adjustments will look quite a lot like precisely the kind of “value relativism” Stavrianakis is decrying here as the problem at hand.

Science is a vast social and cultural project in which human beings collaborate to produce descriptions of the environment that deliver ever-greater instrumental and predictive power. A number of standards, methods, protocols, and norms, as well as a vast archive of historical descriptions and tools have accumulated to serve these ends.

Literary and cultural criticism sometimes seems to want to re-write itself in the image of science these days. Usually this is because some scholars want to make practical contributions to political ends and think of their work as documentary projects exposing ideology and yielding educational benefits akin to those of muckraking journalism. Or sometimes it is just because university administrators often seem to value research that confers instrumental power over that which confers meaning, and so some humanities scholars try to adjust the language of their projects to attract adequate funding. But the truth is that there is all the difference in the world between describing the world and appreciating it, and all the difference in the world between the indispensable work of science and that of criticism.

“What is worrying is that politically conservative Christianity has leapt on the contemporary idea that criticism means disagreement, rather than evidence-based critique,” writes Stavrianakis, restating a cracked conservative chestnut. Criticism is interested in documenting and appreciating the different ways in which individuals and cultures have made their inhabitation of the world meaningful to them. Science is interested in proposing and testing descriptions of the world to see the use of which ones deliver the greatest powers of prediction and control.

These are two distinguishable enterprises.

A cultural critic might study the way in which a particular Christian fundamentalist poet or politician reconciles the practice of their faith with the implications of evolutionary theory. Over the course of this project the critic might even consider the ways in which the strategies of the fundamentalist might parallel those of a particular atheist in interesting ways. But it would be strange indeed for the critic to suggest that the resulting work should be taught as a candidate-description rivalling an evolutionary description for scientific belief, and fit for testing as such. That would be exactly as odd as thowing a poem into a beaker of solution and calling the soggy aftermath a "reading."

Science attains after a kind of universality (at least at a generality that exhibits repeatability), but criticism is content to illuminate singularities as often as not (which can but need not exhibit a selective applicability beyond themselves).

It is true that scientists in their enthusiasm sometimes seem to bite off more than they can chew. They sometimes speak as though they are certain of what can inspire at best strong confidence. They sometimes speak as though descriptions are final when they can only be just the best on offer. They sometimes speak as though the grasp of consequences trumps the need for meanings, or deny the saturation of their own practice with singularity and meaning-making projects that speak to values other than their scientific ones. In such moments, scientists seem to me at best like poets, but at worst more like fundamentalists themselves than like proper scientists.

Criticism is useful for discerning these moments, appreciating them for their beauty, exposing them for their pretensions. But however useful it can sometimes be, criticism is not science and shouldn’t mistake itself or be mistaken as such. This is a vital strength of criticism, not a liability.

“Politically conservative Christianity is nothing to be concerned about in and of itself,” writes Stavrianakis, but I couldn’t disagree more. Politically conservative Christianity, in at least its American fundamentalist version, is driving or at any rate has been hijacked in the service of a project to re-write the secular American republic (such as it is) in the image of a secretive, defensive, moralistic, monolithic, militaristic republic with the means at its disposal to destroy the world (and it is the avowed desire of many of its partisans that such an outcome come to pass). You better believe this is something to be concerned about!

But I agree with Stavrianakis that it is “when [fundamentalist faith] comes masked as a progressive scientific theory [that] questions must be asked.” What I want to insist on here is that there is a distinction between values (of which there are a diversity of valid forms that make individual lives more meaningful) and scientific hypotheses (the differing candidates for belief among which are susceptible to testing by powerful standards known and affirmed by consensus scientific culture). Rather like the separation of Church and State, the crucial distinction of scientific from moral belief relies for its intelligibility and force on precisely the kind of tolerant, liberal, secular sensibilities conservatives like to disdain as “relativist."

Stavrianakis points to some interesting reasonable-seeming coded phrases and injunctions such as that educators should “teach the controversy” or “appreciate complexity,” both of which are often used by faith-based anti-evolutionists to introduce a wedge into the teaching of consensus science in biology classes. This is similar to the way in which paid scientific shills for corporate fat cats who care more about their profits than about the suffering caused by smoking cigarettes or the vast dislocations threatened by climate change like to deploy the reasonable-seeming phrase “sound science” to impose impossibly high standards of scientific certainty on reasonable belief and thereby create doubts about the verdicts of consensus science to frustrate reasonable, scientifically-literate regulations in the service of the public good.

This is not anything new. Rhetoric is exactly as old as science is, and if Stavrianakis wants to ensure that the descriptions at which consensus science arrives remain the force for public good they can be, I would suggest he pay more attention to the insights that “value relativist” cultural critics and rhetoricians have long understood and taken into account ourselves, rather than blaming us for the pernicious impact of anti-science social conservatism driven by the twin projects to consolidate the wealth of one minority against the majority, and to consolidate the moral/religious culture of another minority against the majority.

Sunday, November 28, 2004

More on the "Red Shift"

The latest data expose the curious "Red Shift" of election results from exit polls more exhaustively and conclusively than ever. We now know that forty-two of the fifty-one states in the Union swung towards George Bush while only nine swung towards Kerry, and there is still no satisfying explanation for this unprecedented discrepancy.

Exacerbating the perplexities is the fact that many of the states that swung against John Kerry swung to an extent that is well beyond the margin of error in exit polls. Exit polls - which simply ask voters how they actually voted rather than about their intentions - have historically been highly accurate.

Democratic Supraintelligence

Technophiles who drift uncomfortably in the direction of the megalomaniacal end of the temperamental spectrum often wax enthusiastic about the near term arrival of post-biological superintelligence. Undaunted by the relentless deferment of the "inevitable" arrival of even the modest artificial intelligence we've been promised interminably by enthusiasts for decades, they warn of and (let's be frank) pine for the near-term and inevitable arrival of greater-than-human artificial intelligence to this day in the same urgent, sometimes hushed, tones.

Not to delve too deep into my skepticism about this way of thinking, I will simply suggest that these starry-eyed projections (1) tend to overestimate our theoretical grasp of intelligence in general, (2) tend to underestimate the extreme bumpiness we should expect along the developmental pathways from which the relevant technologies could arrive, (3) tend to assume that these technologies, upon arrival, would function more smoothly than technologies almost ever do, and (4) tend to exhibit a rather stark obliviousness about the extent to which what we call technological development is articulated in fact not just by the accumulation of technical accomplishments but by social, cultural, and political factors as well, in consequence of which they simply rarely take these adequately into account at all.

I will leave as an exercise for their various psychotherapists the exposition of the perplexing particulars that drive these enthusiasts to ignore so much that is palpable when they declaim their pornographically implausible apocalyptic and transcendentalizing techno-transformative scenarios as inevitabilities. More interesting to me is the more modest suggestion that technologically mediated forms of intelligence, deliberation, collaboration, as well as prosthetic and neuroceutical amplifications of our capacities for concentration, memory, and other cognitive processes may soon put us in a better position to solve for once some of the deep and dangerous problems that confront us all -- many of these problems exacerbated for now beyond our reckoning by ongoing technological developments themselves.

Rather than figuring these hopes and fears for intelligence through what amounts to a rather embarrassingly adolescent-boy imaginary populated conspicuously by scary monsters, mecha metal, and bulging superheros (superintelligence: a mode of superlatively private, autonomous individual agencies), I prefer to figure them instead through the frame of technologically invigorated processes of democratic collaboration, contestation, and responsibility (supraintelligence: a mode of superlatively public, interdependent individual agencies).

Against the usually sociopathic fantasies of the curiously many techno-enthuisiasts who appear to want to craft and code pristine superintelligences with which to endow their robot armies, I dream instead of air-dropping billions of networked computers across the world, to weave more and more perspectives, desires, and intelligences into the global web.

(It's one good dream among many, of course -- and not one I hold in exclusion or preference to the ones that impel work to bring adequate food and medicine and shelter and transparent authorities to everybody as well -- there are many good and important dreams to choose from, after all.)

Anyway, I just noticed, via my favorite blog WorldChanging, that a company called SolarPC has announced the availability of a $100 personal computer called the SolarLite. It burns just 10 watts, has an aluminium case with a 20 year warranty, a lead free motherboard, is loaded up with free software, and the company is ready to fill orders of 100,000 units or more right about now. There are questions about the energy requirements of the computer, its monitor, and other things, so clearly this isn't an end-all and be-all they're talking about here, but the technological facilitation of democratic supraintelligence sometimes feels so near you can just taste it, can't you? So much better than dwelling a single day more on the dreary debacle of November 2!

Thursday, November 25, 2004

Another Stunning Earthshattering Mandate

It looks as if Republican Dino Rossi came out ahead in the recent recount for Washington Governor, by 42 votes out of more than 2.8 million cast. Could the decent conservative folks of Washington State have made more palpable, really, the nova-hot urgency with which they clamor to a man to dismantle the welfare state, to snatch away from women their abortifacients and birth control pills, to install a muscular Christian theocracy in which the faithful can await the Rapture in peace without the endless annoyances that accompany diverse, educated societies with relatively thriving middle-classes, for a screaming rain of bullets and bombs upon oil-rich lands everywhere, and for a deliriously expanded exhalation of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere? Could, like, the will of the people be more obvious?

It's Your Money

According to, "[s]ixteen company PACs [donated] 90% or more to Republicans. They include the federal PACs of

Phillips Int'l. (100%)
Cooper Industries (100%)
Flowers Industries (100%)
Harris Corp. (98%)
Illinois Toolworks (97%)
Outback Steakhouse (96%)
ExxonMobil (96%)
National City Corp. (95%)
Wendy's Int' l. (93%)
Anadarko Petroleum (92%)
Timken Corp. (91%)
Halliburton (91%)
Meadwestvaco Corp (90%)
Darden Restaurants Inc. (90%)
Branch Banking & Trust Co (90%)
Int'l Paper (90%)"

To these, Jerome Armstrong of MyDD, points out a few big-name corporations that donate disproportionately to Republicans over Democrats in more like the 80-90% range:

Caterpillar (89%)
J.C. Penny's, Inc. (89%)
Goodyear Tire, (89%)
Conoco Philips (89%)
Smithfield Foods (88%)
Chevron/Texaco (87%)
Ford Motor Company (84%)
Cigna Corporation (83%)
Owens Corning (83%)
Conagra Foods (83%)
Home Depot, Inc. (81%)
Baxter Healthcare (81%)
3M (80%)

Of course the smug sociopaths who impel the monstrous machineries of corporate globalization relentlessly on in their murderous motion have the kind of mutilated inner lives that drive them to covet a single extra dollar bill added to the smudged stinking wad in their pocket even if doing so demands they reduce the world to a smoking cinder with nothing left worth spending it on, but that doesn't mean that you have to help them do it.

And before you howl that the Democrats are just as beholden and compromised to the poisoned spigot.... Sure, sure, I know what you mean, and of course you're right to a point. The Democrats must be beholden to democracy and not oligarchy, else what's the point? But it's stoopid to deny differences that make a difference, and we have one here.

Jerome Armstrong goes on to point out in his that there is "a 10:1 ratio in the number of corporations favoring Republicans over Democrats, but for the actual money, it's much higher, 25:1 or greater." Spade's a spade time, people, and you know what to do.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Lynch Lapses, Praises Safliar

Zack Lynch pauses a moment in his ongoing contribution to provocative and useful neuroethical and neurocultural commentary to note that William Safire, “a giant” (indeed… but a giant what, one wants to know?), is leaving the troubled New York Times.

Lynch’s Brain Waves blog is a consistently excellent source of news and provocative speculation about neuroceutical research and neuroethical quandaries. I really loved his recent discussion of “enablement” as an alternate frame to break the unproductive conceptual deadlock of “therapy versus enhancement” as a way to leverage insights about the propriety of particular proposed genetic or cognitive medical interventions, for example. I would love to see how a discourse of genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive “enablement” might weave into the too-technophobic too bio-conservative default discourse of disability studies in ways that could help us insist on a medical practice that spreads freedom rather than imposing conformity in the name of “health.”

Anyway, Safire apparently coined the term “neuroethics” and is off to work with the Dana Foundation, which is preoccupied with neuroscience research, so it makes perfect sense that Lynch would note Safire’s move there. But you really have to wonder what impels the suggestion that Safire is a “giant,” a font of continuing “insights” and “many notable contributions”...? Perhaps Lynch refers to the stunning mountain range of “career peaks” documented by Eric Boehlert in today’s Salon, “William Safire’s Dubious Legacy”?

Reading Lynch’s encomium I had that sick feeling in my stomach I get every damn time I realize that yet another person on whose insights I rely on matters of technological analysis reveals themselves as someone who endorses or celebrates a facile market libertarian or hard conservative political bent (always embarrassing in a thinking person you otherwise respect, but today in Bush’s America frankly flabbergasting).

I really think somebody needs to update Snow’s “Two Cultures” argument to explain just why it is that tech temperaments are drawn to conservative politics.

(And, no, railing at “postmodernists” -- whoever they’re supposed to be -- is not an adequate solution, nor is offering up another self-congratulatory declaration of the existence of a “Third Culture,” which amounts largely to scientists often awkwardly commandeering some questions that preoccupy humanist intellectuals, re-writing problems of ethics and morals and esthetics and politics in the image of [usually] evolutionary biology or [occasionally] subatomic physics by applying a few rough-and-tumble analogies in an embarrassingly loose fashion or a relentlessly reductive fashion, all the while refusing to engage in more than a superficial way in any of the actual conversations long underway among scholars, intellectuals, artists, academics in the humanities themselves, except, you know, to deride them, even the many of them who do indeed take the trouble to understand the relevant science – I know, I know... bitter, much?)

So, anyhoozle, is the liber-techian seduction simply a matter of an aversion to the messy give-and-take of ongoing political negotiation, I wonder? Is it the time-consuming sometimes tedious often fraught rough-and-tumble of irreconcilable contending stakeholders that lures so many radical tech-types to accept too quickly and too uncritically sedimented political formations and assumptions as good enough?

To the extent that the American market-fundamentalist pseudo-spectrum from neoliberal to neoconservative to market libertarian politics tries to figure “liberty” as a kind of neutral absence of personal violation (disavowing all the contingent positive values on which this relies for its sense and maintenance), and then pretends that proper social order can emerge spontaneously through the workings of a largely mythical “free market” (a shorthand for indefinitely many possible and historical legal and institutional arrangements, assumptions, and agreements, not one of which has or could ever either emerge or sustain itself “spontaneously”), maybe all these problematic assumptions provide technical temperaments an excuse to “bracket” the political altogether, shunt it all aside as a kind of automatic machinery cranking out adequate (or, more cynically, inadequate but as good as it will ever get) public goods, all the while permitting them the breathing room to focus on the falsifiable hypotheses and hands-on hunches that better please them.

Or possibly many techie types are already socially alienated in ways that make libertarian repudiations of the public appealing while simultaneously drawing them into deeply private modes of intellectual life one associates with deep readers, coders, basement tinkerers, and lab-techs (a description that hits me personally very close to home, so don’t assume I’m randomly pathologizing here).

Obviously I’m reading far too much into a brief column, so let’s just say Lynch’s blog-post was the occasion that triggered a faucet that’s been itching to spill. It’s just that I’m hyper-sensitive to the rightward conservative and market-libertarian drift of so much technology discourse. That’s because tech-progressives like me know we must rely for our sense of true progress as much on social progress (a wider, deeper enjoyment of freedom, defined as real hands-on access to and enjoyment of capacities on the ground by all people, everywhere) as on technological progress (the technical achievement of new capacities without which this social progress is no longer imaginable). Sometimes it seems that these necessary partners in the dance of true progress see themselves instead as deeply distrustful antagonists facing off on a cultural battlefield. I’ll admit my own distrust of what looks to me like technical reductionism and complacent social conservatism among too many techies leaves me at a loss as to how to break the impasse in a way that properly respects the contributions of both temperaments.

PS. Sorry about all the parentheses -- that always happens with me when I'm thinking out loud without time to edit or revise. Why is that, I wonder...? Pomo convolution, no doubt. Ah, me.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Republicans: Spared and Spoiled No More

Progressives outraged by medieval moralizers utterly miss the point when they triumphantly expose hypocrisies and then breathlessly imagine that this should somehow win them the "debate" on "morals" with social feudal-conservatives. The truth is it feels good to sin, and then when you're done you just repent without paying. To feel the force of hypocrisy as a shaming nudge to reform one's conduct rather than a ribbing of sin for one's added pleasure is to be already an adult rather than a smug spoiled child, and as often as not these days to be already a Democrat rather than a Republican.

Yes, yes, the fetid swamps of the South are tangled benighted dens of domestic violence, divorce, street crime, epidemics of alcoholism, drug abuse, obesity, teen pregnancy, illiteracy, not to mention kudzu. And much the same goes for the barren tornado-torn mileage of the Midwest, a sprawling ghost-acreage except for the bright liberal oases of a handful of scattered cities.

Red-faced red-staters gulp down delirious swigs of tax largess from the productive civilized liberal cities they deride and disdain and then belch out their loud rants agin' gu'ment.

Republicans are squalling squalid infants stewing in their stink and howling with endlessly frustrated desires, for whom liberty simply means there will always be somebody around to clean up after them. Democrats, I fear, are the grown-ups whose largely thankless responsibility it seems is to be, for the time being, the parents of this staggering dumbfounded Republic. And that means we need to see to it that irresponsible citizens are no longer insulated from the negative consequences of their bad behavior.

It's time to cut their credit cards, time to send them to their rooms without supper, time to take away their privileges until they learn to show respect in a world of diversity and behave responsibly in a world with a long-term future. And they can be thankful that -- unlike some people I know -- we Democrats are neither so brutal nor unenlightened as to go in for spanking the daylights out of them as well.

American Eclipse

Simon Smith’s proud paean to his native Canada over on BH offers up reasons to be cheerful in dark times… as do the many recent reviews and discussions occasioned by the proximate publications of Jeremy Rifkin’s The European Dream: How Europe's Vision of the Future Is Quietly Eclipsing the American Dream and T.R. Reid’s The United States Of Europe: The New Superpower and the End of American Supremacy.

Know-nothing Americans are diddling themselves while the world burns, floating like pollen grains over ballooning bodies on foreign fields and ballooning debts at home. Here we remain drugged and delirious in a toxic swell of fast-food garbage, fast-news glossolalia, and fast-cars guzzling gas.

The citizens of the United States have been insulated by wealth, privilege, and geography (all accidents parading as destinies and desert) from the consequences of their stupidity, cruelty, and greed. Americans are scarcely more evil than other human mammals, none of whom are well equipped for benevolent rule, but the legacies of apparently endless frontiers, racist slave-trades and native American genocides, and an embrace of religious fundamentalism have flavored our own short-spanned imperialist episode in especially unfortunate ways.

I think the Democrats in a Kerry Presidency with a Democratic Senate majority would have softened but not circumvented the tire-screech of reckoning that’s waiting in the wings. And now when the bloody bills come due the scene will be uglier, costlier, and sooner than it otherwise would, but the world will surely be better off without another brainless bullying empire throwing its weight around. If indeed the most important election of our lives has been lost, then for now the reasonable left must concentrate its attentions (at least until the 2006 mid-terms, and subsequent preparations for the Boy-King’s Impeachment and ritual humiliation) on ending the death-cult Republican war adventuring in Iraq and Afghanistan, and stopping them from casting their murderous bedroom eyes onto Syria or Iran.

Friday, November 19, 2004

MundiMuster! Voters Bill of Rights

[via Code Pink] Code Pink is looking to get 25,000 people to sign their Voters Bill of Rights by November 30. The first few items on the list glow with white-hot urgency, while items later on the list, like instant-runoff voting and the abolition of the Electoral College involve necessary structural transformations that will require long struggles (it will be crucial to see to it that the state-by-state democratization of the Electoral College does not perniciously advantage anti-democratic forces, for example). I personally wouldn't mind the added suggestion that we incentivize voting by outright fining non-voters, or ratcheting up the Federal Income Tax rate of non-voters by a single percent, as a compensatory contribution to the proper functioning of democracy. Even if it registers no more than the protest of "None of the Above," voting in the world's most powerful and long-lived democracy (such as it is) should be a duty like jury participation, if you ask me. In any case, here's the whole Voters Bill of Rights, click the link to sign, and please circulate the petition widely!

1. Provide a Paper Trail for Touch-Screen Voting Machines

It’s essential that every touch-screen voting machine in the U.S. be equipped to produce and store a voter-verified paper record of every vote cast. Each machine must incorporate open source coding tested by an independent agency before and during the election to guarantee optimum transparency. In addition, corporations that manufacture machines should refrain from political involvement.

2. Create Independent, Non-Partisan and Transparent Oversight

Officials in charge of administering, overseeing and certifying elections should not be party affiliated, running for another office, or publicly supporting any candidates. Unfortunately, partisan secretaries of state are currently able to issue rulings that favor their parties and themselves. Electoral commissions at all levels of government should be independently financed and free of control by any political party. Administrators should help increase voter confidence by inviting non-partisan observers, both domestic and international, to observe all aspects of voting procedures.

3. Celebrate Our Democracy: Election Day as a National Holiday!

Working people should not be forced to choose between standing in a long line to vote and being to work on time. While 30 states have laws giving workers the right to take time off to vote, many workers and employers are unaware of these laws. Holding national elections on a national holiday will increase the number of available poll workers and polling places and potentially increase overall turnout while making it much easier for working Americans to go to the polls.

Election Day is already a holiday in Puerto Rico in presidential election years, and many Puerto Ricans celebrate and make Election Day a fun and festive party with a purpose. In 2000, Puerto Rico's voter turnout was 82.6%, as compared to 51.16% in the United States – and Puerto Rico doesn’t even have any Electoral College votes.

4. Maximize Voter Access

Many citizens are discouraged from voting by unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles and restrictions. Registration forms should be simplified, so no one is again disenfranchised for failing to check a superfluous box, as occurred this year in Florida, or for not using heavy enough paper, as occurred in Ohio. To ensure all qualified voters are able to vote, we should join states like Minnesota in allowing citizens to register to vote on Election Day itself.

Forcing people to wait up to 10 hours in line to vote is unacceptable and disenfranchises those who cannot afford to wait. To increase citizen’s options and maximize convenience, all states must provide for more early voting and election-day polling places. Resources should be allocated based upon the number of voters per precinct to ensure equal access and minimize the wait at the polls. Partisan voter challengers at the polls disrupt and undermine the voting process and should not be allowed within or near any polling location.

5. Count Every Vote!

To encourage more participation in the electoral process, voters must know that their vote will count and make a difference. Unfortunately millions of “spoiled”, “under-vote”, “over-vote”, provisional and absentee ballots–oftentimes ballots cast by people of color– are not counted during each presidential election. It’s basic: Voting precincts should be adequately staffed with sufficiently trained personnel and professional supervision; old and unreliable voting machines should be replaced; absentee ballots must with sent with sufficient time; and provisional ballots should count for state and federal contests regardless of where the vote is cast.

6. Re-enfranchise Ex-Felons

Why should ex-felons be excluded from voting? The permanent disenfranchisement of former felons, a practice that falls outside of international or even U.S. norms, is an unreasonable restriction that creates subcategories of citizenship. There are over four million American citizens in this category, particularly African American males, who are incarcerated at a disproportionately high rate. These lifetime voting prohibitions violate citizens' constitutional voting rights and must be repealed. Those states that permanently disenfranchise felons—Florida, Virginia, Nebraska, Mississippi, Kentucky, Iowa, Arizona, and Alabama—should amend their laws and practices to restore full citizenship to ex-offenders.

7. Implement Instant Runoff Voting (IRV)

Instant Runoff Voting allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference (first, second, third choice) and if no candidate gets a majority of first choices, a runoff count can be conducted without the need for a second election. IRV gives voters the opportunity to vote for those candidates they like the most without worrying that their vote will help candidates they like least. Instant runoff voting has been used successfully around the world: Ireland uses IRV to elect its president, Australia to elect its House of Representatives, and San Francisco to elect its major city offices such as mayor.

8. Provide Public Financing for Elections and Equal Air-Time

In a system where the amount a candidate spends is directly related to the likelihood of success, it is not surprising that voters think politicians are more concerned with big campaign contributors than with individual voters. We need to establish full public financing of campaigns and free access to public airwaves. Broadcasters must carry debates and provide free time for all candidates and parties as a license requirement to use our public airwaves.

9. Ensure Third Party Candidates Easier Access to the Ballot and Debates

In our two-party system, third parties face a host of institutional barriers, from getting on the ballot to being included in debates to broadcasting their views. This discourages people from voting because alternative voices help enliven the political debate that is at the heart of any healthy democracy. Prohibitive ballot access requirements should be dropped and debates should be open to all ballot-qualified candidates and should be organized independently of the political parties themselves.

10. Abolish the Electoral College

It’s time to end the safe state/swing state dichotomy and make all votes equal, no matter the state of the voter. The President should be elected by direct, popular vote. Since a constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College may prove infeasible, reformers should set their sites on amending their state laws to proportionally award their electors.

Sunday, November 14, 2004


As you can see, I've done a little house-cleaning on the blog, re-organizing the links, shifting techno-ethical and technology advocacy links forward, etc. Part of this is an attempt to shift my focus away from partisan politics, which has me feeling bleak and blustery still, to technological politics, which still inspires hope. I've also posted a permanent link to an expanded discussion of the terms "tech-progressive," "bio-conservative," "post-humanist," which I deploy regularly on the blog. Otherwise, I'm mostly dissertating still (which is hardly the most uplifting activity in the world). Links to the new chapters are coming soon, and I'll be soliciting comments and criticisms.

Saturday, November 06, 2004

As Suspicions Mount, the Daydream Mandate Recedes

Thom Hartmann’s latest article in Common Dreams, “Evidence Mounts That the Vote was Hacked” makes a compelling case for the horrorshow story Randi Rhodes has been been trumpeting all the livelong week on Air America, fearlessly, relentlessly, and almost all by her lonesome.

What do I think of all this?

Of course Bush stole this election, just as he did the one before. The artificially long lines, the campaign of insinuations facilitated by conservative media at the end of which citizens voted for candidates who opposed their own espoused positions on multiple issues or through which millions were completely mislead about vital and almost universally substantiated facts (no WMD, no Iraq-9/11 connection, unfundated mandates, devastating environmental policies, rampant unaccountability and secrecy, unprecedented cronyism and graft, etc.), and all this dickering about with paper trails, exit-polls, profiling, intimidation, challenges and caging lists, dirty tricks and the rest....

It is true, the theft is less conspicuous and less dramatic than the one abetted by the Supreme Court's outrageous criminal conduct last time around. It bespeaks deeper systemic frailties this time that are often hard to grasp or substantiate.

The particular case for fraud that is starting, finally but almost certainly too late, to acquire more mainstream attention is in fact the iceberg tip of a larger swarming mess of institutionalized disenfranchisement on which the New Republicans have relied to maintain their oil-slicked grip on power.

These death-cult money-lusting New Republican evangelicals (not to put too fine a point on it) may howl with derision at the pathetic conspiracy theorists and whiny sore losers of the left. But even if the specific contours of the case as it is getting traction in the media don’t add up perfectly, even if the breadth of theft cannot surmount the Boy-King’s squeaky-tight non-mandate, the bottom line is that this is the story that has emerged as the one through which the undeniable larger reality of epic disenfranchisement, general criminality and election fraud, and utter illegitimacy of this moment in our fragile democratic Nation’s history is expressing itself.

Market libertarians say taxes are theft, social libertarians say property is theft, and liberal democrats in Bush's America say the election was theft. None of it, I suppose, is true the way simple truths of the matter are sometimes true (when we are lucky), but it speaks to a deeper complex violation of legitimacy that is as true as can be.

I understand those who worry this discourse of election-stealing is irresponsible, but it seems to me any silent acquiescence to illegitimacy on so many levels as this is incomparably more damaging and irresponsible. And those really do seem to be the options on offer, unfortunately.

No doubt it is too little, too late, incomplete, impertinent, and vulnerable to ridicule. Nevertheless, the ozone stench of this story should shroud this sleazy second term like a personal stormcloud from now to the mid-term elections, whereupon we ride the stormfront on to a well-deserved impeachment soon thereafter.

Three Maps, Three Territories

Everybody needs to take a long look (or a second look, if you’ve already seen it) at the county-by-county, proportionately color-shaded mapping of the Election 2004 Result produced by Princeton University’s Robert J. Vanderbrei.

A deep reddish purple richly veined in blue, like a ripe, bloody cheese, now that’s the America I say we live in for true. Certainly it's not that expanse of triumphalist red speckled with occasional ineffectual blue that Bush’s Brownshirted shills are flogging endlessly to cough up a hairball of mandate for their Boy-King. Nor is it the broad bland “purple haze” beloved of the defeated can’t-we-all-just-get-along skeerdy-cat liberals begging for the right to cast a shadow in the world ruled by market fundamentalist overlords whose "pro-life" sensibilities manifest themselves principally, oddly enough, as an eager lust for more guns, more wars, and more capital punishment.

Anyway, before we all lose ourselves utterly in the bleak contemplation of Diebold disenfranchisement, racist hooliganism at polling places, and Mayberry-Machiavellian moralizing fantasies of man-on-dog sex and partial birth abortion procedures, it may be worthwhile to give this report by the Center for Responsive Politics a looksee.

Maybe that’s not the smell of a ripe bloody cheese America is giving off after all. Behind the rest of the atrocities the familiar shit-stink of money puts it all back in boring hideous perspective. Here’s the upshot:

In 96 percent of House races and 91 percent of Senate races, the candidate who spent the most money on the campaign came out the winner. That means in 413 out of 432 House races and 31 of 34 Senate races, money trumped every other factor in determining the winner. And only 13 Republicans and nine Democrats won even though they were outspent.

Friday, November 05, 2004

The Latest Dispatch from the DNC Brain Trust

Harry Reid is apparently assuming the highest elected office in the Democratic Party, Senate Minority Leader. No doubt this anti-choice Mormon who voted for the so-called “Partial Birth Abortion” Ban will be just the man we can count on to fight the inevitable onslaught of anti-abortion judges, including as many as three Justices to the Supreme Court, with whom Bush will seek to infest our nation’s courts. No doubt this resident of reddish swing state Nevada will take uncompromising stands on the controversial issues that matter deeply to Democrats, given the unassailability of his position there. I can’t say I’m happy to see that the first important move of the Democrats in the aftermath of devastating defeat is to shoot themselves, again, in the foot.

Godless, Gunless, and Gay

As a queer atheist for gun control, I want to send a shout out to all my fellow American citizens on the genocidal evangelical Right and the panic-stricken scapegoating Left: I'm not the problem, I'm not going away, and you all suck.

What's Next

Feel the love.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Real Americans

Oh, and another thing! Progressives must defend and champion urban Americans in the so-called “Red States.”

We should distinguish sparsely populated rural conservatives from densely populated diverse urban progressives. The millions upon millions of city dwelling progressives across America are real Americans, and progressives do not live only on the coasts.

Every time demographic dimensions of political discourse are contemplated or figured through the broad-strokes of “Red and Blue States” or the “Heartland” versus the “Coasts” progressives must simply ignore that framing (we shouldn’t even respond to those terms) and we must always counter with a framing that insists on benighted poor sparsely populated rural conservative expanses dotted throughout with densely populated progressive cultural centers, thriving progressive centers of learning and industry, and diverse productive progressive cities and capitals.

Progressives need to get it through their skulls that, actually, come what may, we are Americans.

I realize that this is actually a common but by no means universal ritual of progressive maturation, still... When many of us left home for college or the cities and emerged into progressive consciousness, first confronted religious diversity, first grasped the reality and extent of social injustice, came out as gay, rebelled against the strictures of our upbringing, whatever form this development took, it is too easy to imagine that in becoming progressive we took a measure of distance from "America" as it is embodied in the impoverished lives we left behind.

But this is the path the majority of Americans have taken in some form or other over a century of tumult and trial. We did not leave America behind when we grew up and became progressives. Much of America grew up with us, much of America came with us, this is what much of America is now, this is the way most of us do things around here now.

Social conservativism is a sad, scared echo of America’s past reverberating into its present, but progressives are truly Americans in America as it actually exists in the present. Progressives need to stop acting like renters in America and realize we already own the place.

Values: Morals Versus Ethics

I think it is sensible that progressives are re-thinking the place of values in civic life, but it is crucial to remember that not all values are moral values. I am a gay man and I am horrified that rural homophobic moralism mobilized so much of the evangelical base that delivered Bush the popular vote this time around. This does indeed demand some soul-searching and rhetorical strategizing on the left.

But, in my opinion, for progressives to spoof the Republican moralist discourse is to mistake the conditions which give conservative moralism its force, and essentially would replicate in the sphere of values the somewhat disastrous “me-too, just more reasonable” DLC impulse that has nudged American economic discourse to the right to the cost of everyone.

“Morality” derives from mores, the values through which members of particular communities actively identify with one another and dis-identify with “outsiders”. Because social and religious conservatives are in fact an embattled minority in a broadly secular society, they are galvanized by moral language in a way that secular democrats simply cannot ever be. This embattlement gives conservatives organizational advantages -- especially given the institutional quirks of the American system of governance, which empowers sparsely populated, socially conservative, less diverse rural regions over dense diverse secular urban regions. The language of moral value cannot invigorate progressive pluralist politics in the same way.

Progressives should counter conservative moralism with ethics as our own value discourse. The ethical language of values does not derive from parochial identifications, but aspires to universality (or at least representativeness). Progressives should relentlessly flog the need for ethics – concepts of fiscal and environmental responsibility, transparency, accountability, legitimacy, and the like. Progressives should respond to moral appeals by countering with ethical appeals. We should insist on the private and personal nature of moral values and then counter with ethical appeals and ethical critiques.

All this has the advantage of being true, being true to actual progressive perspectives, offering an occasion to go on the offensive rather than trying to accommodate the language and temperament of wrongheaded conservative perspectives and focusing attention on devastating weaknesses in the culture of conservative advocacy as it has constituted itself since Goldwater.

This is not a suggestion that progressives leave value discourse to conservatives while we stick to the pragmatic calculation of shared interests and positive outcomes – it is a suggestion that we recognize that this outcome-language has a ethical value dimension we have hesitated to highlight but on which we must now insist.

And so, for example, when conservatives make a moral appeal to a particular construal of Christianity, progressives absolutely should not affirm their own kinder, gentler Christianity, but fearlessly insist that America is a society with a real diversity of Christian, otherwise religious and secular communities and that it is the job of politics to enable these communities to peacefully co-exist and collaborate with one another to achieve common values. This is not an abdication of value, but an insistence on ethics over morals as the proper focus of responsible politics in diverse societies where different communities all have rights and needs.

Progressives must insist on responsible and accountable conduct from elected and appointed representatives of government. We must relentlessly expose corruption, secrecy, unfairness, short-term irresponsibility in officials beholden to diverse constituencies. These are ethical issues and here democrats are strong. We must not fear to highlight the ethical value-dimension of these struggles, nor should we attempt to re-write these struggles in the image of the moral values of particular communities.

The bankruptcy of the parochial moralism of conservative ideology is nowhere more conspicuous than in their continual refrain that government itself is the problem, that government is better the smaller it is, that the drumbeat of deregulation without end is emancipatory. This is the voice of the hostility of powerful minorities to democratic checks on their authority, and the paranoia of social minorities exposed by democracy to the threateningly alien cultures that surround and seduce them. From an ethical perspective progressives can powerfully critique the impulse that would lead people presumably hostile to government into government. We can rightly point out that those who do not believe in the very idea of good governance cannot then be expected to govern well. Progressives like to point out that so-called “fiscally responsible” conservatives tend to bankrupt the economy, so-called “small government” conservatives tend to preside over swelling governments, and so-called “anti-government” conservatives tend to inspire the worst most corrupt cronyist regimes. Although we tend to frame these points in a straightforward pragmatic “interest” language, there is clearly a powerful ethical but non-moralist dimension in these critiques that progressives should embrace more forcefully.

As a strategic matter, it is simply more powerful and effective for us to insist on the need for ethical governance and to expose the unethical conduct of corrupt conservatives in the inevitable era of corporate and government scandal that is to come, than it would be to offer up weak “me-too” progressive pseudo-moralisms that do not speak to our strengths our sensibilities or the real (urgent!) problems that actually preoccupy us.

Moralism is primarily a private and personal and parochial language for talking about values, while ethics is civic and a better fit for pluralist and democratic temperaments. Even when democrats and progressives win skirmishes in moralist battles, this will often contribute to a larger denigration and cynicism about public service and public servants (eg, another corrupt politician) that plays into the larger project of conservatives to dismantle democratic governance and impose governments that serve very particular communities to the cost of others. The value language of ethics must assume that good legitimate governance is possible and desirable, so that even when we lose particular skirmishes the overall discourse consolidates the general standard that good government is an ideal toward which all are properly striving. It is too late to re-write moralism in the image of civic-mindedness. We must change the terms and momentum and stakes of these debates. We must demand ethical government and protect the moral life of each individual as a personal matter.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

It's All Over 'Cept for the Cryin'

Kerry has conceded, and surveying the scene this morning I can't agree with those who say he was wrong to. Imagine losing the popular vote by millions and then eking out by a few hundred provisional ballots a slim electoral margin to preside over a consolidated Republican Congress... I don't see that as more than marginally better than the concession itself.

I think the Diebold disenfranchisement, the racist shenanigans, the stealing and the cheating and the hooliganism are all a disaster -- and they should be addressed on their own terms and not through a focus on Kerry's concession or refusal to concede Ohio.

The Supreme Court is a disaster that will outlast my life, unless I survive long enough to find my way to a shining robot body in some far-flung future, I fear.

The fact that the mobilization of widespread American hatred of gay people like me was essentially the force the Republicans rode to victory doesn't exactly inspire confidence, either.

Still, one has to hope that the archipelago of democratic organizations like ACT, MoveOn, Air America, and the rest -- inspired and shored up by resistence to Bush's lies, incompetence, and ugly ethos -- will survive this defeat and form the basis for a powerful countervailing force to rising militarism, market libertarianism, and the evangelical urge to theocratic dominance.

Faith-based American imperialists may deride the rest of us, but to deny the reality of the wider world is not to become immune to its impact, faith-based American racists and homophobes may despise the rest of us, but to deny the reality of diversity will not successfully insulate them from our righteous demands for justice. They can't win, for losing. The fight will be uglier than it had to be, the suffering will be deeper than it had to be, the fear will be wider than it had to be, but the blame cannot go anywhere but where it squarely and palpably belongs.