Sunday, November 29, 2009

To Give or Not to Give

As I write this, I'm on a plane from San Francisco to Tokyo, having spent the last week and a half in the home where I grew up. When I was younger, my neighborhood was a middle-class one, trending later towards the upper middle-class. Now, thanks to Silicon Valley wealth, it's become distinctly upper-class.

There are three supermarkets, one of which caters to the wealthy: better service, more imported items, higher prices. It's changed a little, but there's one thing that's changed rather noticeably: at each of the two entrances, an older black man sits on an overturned milk crate, displaying a cardboard sign soliciting donations. One sign asserts that the man is a veteran, the other that the man lost his job in the recession.

Living in Japan, it had been a long time since I'd really thought about the question of the homeless and/or panhandlers. Should one give? Surely a down-on-his-luck veteran and a recession victim are very sympathetic characters; is that just a coincidence? (One certainly never sees such a sign that says, "Need help–lost money gambling.") Do they really need to be given money, or is this simply in preference to working at, say, a McDonald's? Is the money they get the only thing keeping them from living on the streets? (These men were not unkempt, unhygenic, or shabbily dressed.) I would definitely prefer to work at a fast-food place than to solicit money from strangers, but maybe that's not true for everyone. Are they being truthful? There's no way to know.

For me, though, the most difficult and interesting aspect of the situation is how it makes me feel. I feel uncomfortable passing them and not giving anything. (Which, clearly, is the idea.) My income puts me squarely in the middle class, maybe on the low side of the middle, so I'm far from rich. (The store in question sells the best donuts in town, so I indulged myself while I was there; what passes for a donut in Japan I consider barely worthy of the name.) But going into that store is a virtual announcement that you have so much extra money you can afford to buy overpriced food. So, how can you do that while ignoring the sympathetic figure to whom you could give that money and go shop at Safeway?

The problem, of course, is Kant's categorical imperative: what if everyone did the same thing? If more people gave, would more people solicit? People I know who've gone to India and seen its wretched poverty say that they were advised not to give to the highly sympathetic five-year-old beggars: if you do, they were told, you'll be surrounded in under a minute. But it seems counterintuitive to think that a large number of people in America would prefer to solicit than work. So, one could argue that the categorical imperative suggests that we should give them money: it would not likely cause large numbers of people to quit their jobs and become beggars, and the people who did so wouldn't need to do it for so long before they'd gather enough money to live. It could be seen as people doing individually what they should be doing collectively: make sure that no one lacks sufficient resources to live, especially in such a wealthy society.

Which brings me to one of my favorite themes: individual responsibility and collective responsibility. The store in question has a sign near the entrance that urges people to give to organizations that help such people, rather than give to them individually. But this is clearly self-interested; the store surely doesn't want such people near the entrance making customers feel uncomfortable (and would likely not have a sign urging such donations were it not for the people in front of the store). More importantly, the guy in front of the store is someone you can see, and identify with. Giving to a charity is an abstraction, one that's easy to avoid when nothing is staring you in the face. The guy in front of the store is forcing you to think about the issue. In a society with such a huge income gap, where conspicuous consumption is often celebrated, that may not be such a bad thing.

While I was there, I mostly ignored them. On the last day, as I left the store, I gave one of them a dollar. Why? I'm not sure. If I lived there full-time, would I give them money regularly? Give to a homeless/social welfare organization? Out of good citizenship, or wanting to be able to look such people in the eye? I'm not sure about that, either. But it's good to think about it.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

How To Write A Biased Newspaper Article

While I was writing the previous post, I had to do a web search for the report I heavily referenced, having read it once but not bookmarked it. Another result of the search is the topic of this post: an article in the online version of the San Francisco Examiner about the report in question.

Writing a biased article is a lot like writing a political advertisement or attack editorial, except that because you're technically supposed to be neutral, you should try to be more subtle about it. The writer of this article, Byron York, doesn't try very hard. After reading this, just for the heck of it I read some of his opinion pieces to confirm my feeling that he's a strong conservative; it didn't take long. At least those pieces are labeled as 'opinion.' This one isn't, but should be.

Are you, by chance, a conservative? A Republican? Did you vote for John McCain last November, as well as the GOP candidate in your local congressional race?

If your answer to these question is yes, then you are very, very strange -- and perhaps not even fully American. At the very least, you're not one of the rest of us.

I'm pretty sure that the 'not even fully American' bit doesn't appear in the report; it's the writer's characterization of the report's thrust. That's the reason for the 'perhaps': it's a weasel word that gives the writer an out ("I didn't actually say that he said that").

Also, the first two paragraphs suggest that the report said that solely on the basis of being a conservative, a Republican, voting for McCain, or the GOP congressional candidate, then you're one of the 'strange' people the report refers to (except that the report didn't use the word 'strange' either). But this is simply not true.

A few paragraphs later, the article says:

Conservative Republicans, according to the Democracy Corps research, don't trust Barack Obama; are scared by the speed with which the president and Democrats in Congress are attempting to enact new programs; don't like government takeovers of business; and believe that many of their fellow Americans don't fully appreciate the threat posed by the Democratic agenda.

You might think those are entirely reasonable reactions to the Obama presidency, or are at least within the mainstream of American political debate. But Carville and Greenberg say those beliefs "are not part of the continuum leading to the center of the electorate." If you hold them, you "truly stand apart."

This is the sneaky part: yes, the Georgia conservatives did say those things. But those are not the beliefs that the report feels set the Georgians (and in general, Fox News watchers/believers) apart from most people who lean right politically.

Along the same lines, the article says:

...the people in Atlanta were something else entirely.

Why? Because the Atlanta conservatives said things about Obama like: "He scares me because of how smart and smooth he is. I think the package he presents, combined with the media running interference for him, he could do a lot of things fast, which he's trying to do, which worries me."

And: "I think the whole basis is, let's ram it through while we have the numbers, while we have the popularity and while maybe people don't know what's going on. ... Once it's through, it's awful hard to repeal."

York is cherry-picking the most unremarkable things said by the Georgia Fox-watchers, the things least likely to be considered controversial. He repeats these, compares them to the report's conclusion that the Georgians are out of step with most Americans, then concludes that it's obvious that the report is trying to fool you:

No, what bothers them about Obama is what he's actually trying to do. If having such concerns means they stand a world apart from the rest of America, then there are millions of Americans standing with them.

If you read the article without having read the report to which it refers, and mocks, you might think it was entirely reasonable, and that the report was foolish, or at least reached foolish conclusions. That's what York counts on. But the reason that the report concludes that the Georgians/Fox-watchers 'stand a world apart' from the rest of the country are not the ones York lists above. Rather, they are (quoting from the report):

  • our groups showed that they explicitly believe he is purposely and ruthlessly executing a hidden agenda to weaken and ultimately destroy the foundations of our country.
  • Closely related to this well-established notion of a secret agenda is a hidden set of liberal elites or power brokers who have guided and directed Obama as a puppet, helping him to reach the highest office in the land.
  • They actively believe President Obama is purposely lying about his plans for the country and what his policies would do, and that he is exaggerating the threats America faces in order to create support for his policies.
  • questions they believe have not been adequately answered or investigated about Obama’s background, including his place of birth, his education, the authorship of his books, the degree of his associations with controversial figures including William Ayers and Jeremiah Wright,
  • They believe Obama is pushing his agenda at record pace because he does not want the American people to know what he is doing.
  • they believe his policies are purposely designed to fail... and to strip away so many basic constitutional rights that we are too weak to fight back and have to accept whatever solution he proposes.

There were others, such as that the Georgians/Fox-watchers love Sarah Palin and adore Glenn Beck. But you get the idea. Everything in the bullet points above is a belief attributed by the report to the Georgia focus group, and all are views that are far out of the mainstream of American political thought. These are the reasons the report concludes that the hard-right conservatives 'stand a world apart' from most Americans, not the far more mild ideas listed by the writer of the Examiner article.

So, to write a biased article, you should treat your opponent's assertions as puzzle pieces, to be taken apart and rearranged as you see fit. Mischaracterize his assertions, omit his reasons that support them, and suggest that other tangentially related things he said were intended to support the assertions that they clearly don't. Then sadly shake your head to let your audience know what a fool this man is, and how lucky they are to have you to point this out to them.

To me, this demonstrates very well the importance of being well-informed. If we are, we can see through pieces of crap like this. As with anything, not being well-informed allows us to be taken advantage of. And that allows, for example, politicians to do things they pretend are in our best interests, but definitely are not. Some people, in response to this, are blindly cynical. "All media is biased, all politicians are crooks." In fact, they're not, but this attitude just attempts to abdicate our responsibility: to learn to tell which are and which aren't. If for no other reason than to serve our own interests, we should try harder.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009


If you watched Fox News, never having seen or heard of it before, it would not take you long to discern its strong right-wing bias. There are those who say that the bias is on the 'opinion' shows and not the 'news' shows, but the fact is that even on the news shows the story selection and the giving of credence to unproven assertions (reported as a 'controversy') that always favor the right rather than the left would be evidence enough that the bias affects everything shown by the channel. Another hint, however, would be that the channel was created by right-wing media mogul Rupert Murdoch, and the man he hired as its president was Roger Ailes, a staunch Republican who worked on right-wing political campaigns and was well-known in the political world for ruthless attack ad tactics. From the beginning, Fox asserted that it was 'fair and balanced' as opposed to the other media, all of whom supposedly had a liberal bent. This assertion, ludicrous on its face, signaled what was to become more and more clear as time went on: by giving the news and opinion shows from a conservative point of view while insisting that it was not, Fox would function as a propagandist for the right, creating and broadcasting its own version of reality: the one in which conservative ideas are always correct and validated, while liberal ideas are wrong, and even dangerous to the country. Fox would be the channel of American flags, 'heartland values', 'real' Americans, churchgoers, and ordinary working people tired of 'big government'.

From its beginning in 1996 to the present, Fox has gradually increased its audience to the point where in sheer numbers, it has passed CNN and leads by a significant margin. Its audience, unsurprisingly, is overwhelmingly conservative. Being in Japan, I don't and can't watch it, but I can see numerous YouTube and other video clips of it, and it's quite amazing. It occurred to me recently that if you watched only that channel for news, and uncritically believed everything it said, you would have political 'knowledge' that differed substantially from what most of us would consider the facts. In fact, surveys have shown that people who get their news primarily from Fox do more poorly on tests of knowledge of political information than those who get it from most other sources, and are more likely to believe factually inaccurate points of view pushed by conservatives. In essence, Fox News creates its own reality, and offers it to those who feel comfortable basking in the knowledge that everything they believe is correct.

As is true on the other cable networks, the opinion shows are much more popular on Fox than the regular news, and therefore, more is offered. On CNN, opinion shows like Crossfire featured liberals and conservatives arguing with each other, spouting talking points. The more heated the debate, the higher ratings the shows got. On Fox, the opinion shows only featured conservatives, except for one show (now gone) called Hannity and Colmes, in which the milquetoast liberal Colmes performed for Hannity the same function that the Washington Generals did for the Harlem Globetrotters. The more conservative the show, the more the audience liked it. The more anti-liberal assertions the hosts made, the more the viewers ate it up. This created a vicious circle: the conservative viewpoint got more extreme, which excited the viewers more and gave them a more and more skewed version of reality. The increased ratings pushed Fox to put on more and more extreme voices, and for those voices to be more extreme, which got even higher ratings, and skewed the viewpoint of the audience even further, which made Fox go even further to the right... you get the idea. This explains most of the absurd anti-Obama charges that were made during the campaign: Obama was a Muslim, he was born in Kenya, he sympathized with terrorists ('palled around' with them, as Sarah Palin famously charged during the campaign), hated white people, and so forth. Dismissed by the general population as ridiculous–53% of Americans did end up voting for him, after all–these charges were widely believed by Fox News viewers.

So, for a while I've had a general sense of the dynamic of this, but I recently read a detailed analysis which puts the whole question into sharp and disturbing focus. A political consulting firm conducted detailed focus group interviews with two groups: one group of conservative Georgians who watch (and believe) Fox News, and a group of conservative-leaning indepenents from Cleveland who didn't, or did only occasionally. While the two groups had generally similar leanings, what they believed about politics was very different.

The Fox viewers (quoting from the report):
The self-identifying conservative Republicans who make up the base of the Republican Party stand a world apart from the rest of America, according to focus groups conducted by Democracy Corps. These base Republican voters dislike Barack Obama to be sure – which is not very surprising as base Democrats had few positive things to say about George Bush – but these voters identify themselves as part of a ‘mocked’ minority with a set of shared beliefs and knowledge, and commitment to oppose Obama that sets them apart from the majority in the country. They believe Obama is ruthlessly advancing a ‘secret agenda’ to bankrupt the United States and dramatically expand government control to an extent nothing short of socialism. While these voters are disdainful of a Republican Party they view to have failed in its mission, they overwhelmingly view a successful Obama presidency as the destruction of this country’s founding principles and are committed to seeing the president fail.

The conservative-leaning independents:
For additional perspective, Democracy Corps conducted a parallel set of groups in suburban Cleveland. These groups, comprised of older, white, non-college independents and weak partisans, represent some of the most conservative swing voters in the electorate, and they demonstrated a wholly different worldview from Republican base voters by dismissing the fear of “socialism” and evaluating Obama in very different terms. Most importantly, regardless of their personal feelings toward Obama or how they voted in 2008, they very much want to see him succeed because they believe the country desperately needs the change he promised in his campaign. Though we kept discussion points constant between the two sets of groups, on virtually every point of discussion around President Obama and the major issues facing our country, these two audiences simply saw the world in fundamentally different ways – underscoring the extreme disconnect of the conservative Republican base voters.

I'll cut and paste a few of the more remarkable comments and conclusions of the report:

The notion that Obama’s health care reforms represent a government takeover of all aspects of health care is an article of faith; they reject as laughable the suggestion that it might not, pointing to his arguments to the contrary as further proof of his determination to lie and deceive to fulfill his ultimate agenda.

This is a good example of what happens when you believe an alternate reality: if someone tells you the truth, instead of considering the possibility that it might be true, you call them a liar, which to you is obvious because are clearly not telling the truth: because, after all, you know the truth.

A central part of the collective identity built by conservative Republicans in the current political environment is their belief that they possess knowledge and insight that the majority of Americans – whether too lazy or too misguided to find it for themselves – do not possess. A combination of conservative media outlets are the means by which they have gained this knowledge, led by FOX News (“the truth tellers“), and to a lesser degree conservative talk radio. Their antipathy and distrust toward the mainstream media could not be stronger, and they fiercely defend FOX as the only truly objective news outlet.

So, looking at the world through their eyes, the Obama presidency is a very scary time, and only they know the truth. No wonder they're frantically trying to stop everything he does.

One man in the conservative group said:

I don’t just watch FOX News. I’ll watch CNN, I’ll watch regular you know prime time news just to get the comparison of the story and kind of figure out where the truth lies and facts don’t lie, and I think FOX News is reporting the facts… The other news stations aren’t picking this up and running with it tells you that, you know, I mean it tells you something.

Again, if you start from the notion that only Fox is objective and correct, then one can see where this would be disturbing. It's quite remarkable: it's as if a small but significant portion of the country has bought into a giant conspiracy theory.

Building an Underground Movement

The final aspect of the collective identity shared by conservative Republicans is the call to action. The attacks they suffer for their values and the special knowledge they share as a result of their devotion to conservative media and active rejection of mainstream media are ultimately meaningless if it does not help defeat Obama and his hidden agenda. This is where the sense of collective purpose is greatest. They see a nascent movement building, still not fully realized or activated but with a growing number of people watching and listening, growing increasingly frustrated, and looking for ways to stop the growing threat they perceive.

I strongly urge anyone who has more than a passing interest in American politics to read the whole report. It's long–it probably takes 20-30 minutes to read–but it's extremely informative, and explains a great deal. Most importantly, it explains why the Republican Party is tilting so strongly to the right: its base supporters have become more and more extreme, to the point that they disdain any cooperation with Obama or the Democrats whatsoever. It also explains why the percentage of voters who identify themselves as Republicans–20%–is at an all-time low. Many people, like the ones in Cleveland, can't stomach what the party has become, typified by Sarah Palin, who the Fox News viewers love.

So exactly what percentage of U.S. citizens, and what percentage of conservatives, can be described as the report does? The report doesn't give a number, though I'm sure there are numbers out there that would give a good approximation. But I'm sure that there are enough to have a real impact on the Republican party. The most popular Fox News programs get 3 million viewers, which is about 1% of the U.S. population. But these are the ones who are active in politics, the ones who vote, the ones who send political e-mail to their friends. They have a disproportionate effect on the Republican party, which can be seen when one reads the political news every day.

For example, one of the many real-world effects of the disconnect of the Fox News viewers with reality occurred recently: the special congressional election in the 23rd district of New York state. The local Republican party chose as its candidate a moderate-to-liberal Republican. Informed of her pro-gay-marriage and pro-choice views, the right wing was outraged, and strongly supported a right-wing businessman who joined the race as a third-party candidate. He got a lot of out-of-state money, made ads, climbed in the polls, and finally eclipsed the Republican candidate, who quit the race in disgust and endorsed the Democrat, who won a district that had been in Republican hands for over a century. I think this is bound to have a strong impact on the 2010 congressional elections: moderate candidates will be discouraged from running, or may be defeated in the primaries, ensuring that in a moderate district, there may be a moderate Democrat against a conservative Republican. This situation, needless to say, favors Democrats, who will become the party of the left and the center; their challenge will be to balance the interests of both groups.

I'm sure the national Republican leadership knows this full well. What I'm not sure of is whether they can do anything about it. And as long as Fox News gets good ratings by ever-fervently preaching to the converted, it's hard to imagine how the situation will change.

The Haunted Condo

Over the past few months, I've talked with a few students about the Miyuki Hatoyama thing (in which Japan's first lady expressed some highly unconventional ideas, concerning UFOs and past lives), which did finally become widely publicized in the Japanese media only after it was overseas. Such beliefs are not unheard of in Japan, but they are unusual enough that most students chuckled at them.

With one student, about a month ago, I made the same point (about comparing it to Christianity) that I made in a previous blog post, then added a new one that came to me at that moment. I postulated for her the following scenario:

"Imagine that you're about 30, as is your spouse. You have no kids, but want to within five years. You live in an apartment now, but want to move to a condo, one spacious enough for kids in the future. You'd also strongly prefer one that's within 30 minutes of central Tokyo. But those condos tend to go for about 40 million yen (roughly $400,000), and you can't afford it; the best you could do now is one for half that price. It'll take another eight or ten years to save up for the down payment on the one you want.

"A few months after you start looking, a real estate agent calls you and asks you to come out to see a condo he wants to show you that is in your price range, and fits your requirements. You go there, and what he says is true: it's nice, big enough, 25 minutes from central Tokyo, and the building is modern-looking and only five years old. The price is 20 million yen ($200,000).

"You say, 'It looks really good, but most condos like this go for twice this price. Why is this so cheap?' He explains that about six months ago, a young couple lived in the condo. The man killed his wife, then killed himself, in the living room in which they and the agent are now standing.

"So," I asked the student, "will you buy this condo?"

She immediately and vigorously answered 'no', which from having talked about the subject in general with other students in the past, I pretty much expected. I then told her that I would buy it, with few if any misgivings, and I thought most Westerners would. The point of the question was to point out that she may think that someone who says their spirit went to Venus on a UFO is strange, and maybe they are, but it could also be said that someone who gives up a possible $200,000 in value on a home based on a fear of ghosts could be, and probably would be, seen by those in other cultures as being pretty strange, maybe even stranger than someone who believes in UFOs. She was very interested, and wondered how many Westerners would buy it. I had to admit I wasn't sure. In the next few days I asked most other teachers here (total of nine people: seven Americans, one Canadian, and one Brit); six teachers said they would buy it, two said no, and one wasn't sure.

I then decided to conduct a survey of the students (I ended up asking 60 students these questions), and that I would first ask other questions to determine their general leanings on matters related to their answer to the condo question. I asked the following questions (I need not, but will anyway, stipulate that this survey is nowhere near scientifically valid, and is purely anecdotal):

Do you believe in any form of life after death?

Do you believe in fortunetellers?

When marrying, is it important that the date be a taian day? (Occurring once every six days, considered a lucky day, especially for weddings. In Japan, wedding halls charge substantially more on this day, due to high demand.) Or is a butsumetsu (unlucky) day acceptable?

Then I asked the condo question. With the first three, I intended to get at the following basic ideas: Do you believe in spirituality, in psychic or paranormal phenomena? Do you believe in luck? Basically, in the power of things unseen and unproven. The results were:

Do you believe in any form of life after death? Yes 18, Somewhat 13, No 29

Do you believe in fortunetellers? Yes 8, Somewhat 21, No 31

Do you believe taian is important? Yes 13, Somewhat 19, No 28

Will you buy the condo? Yes 10, No 50

When told the results, students tended to be surprised at the large number of 'no' answers in the first three categories, since Buddhists believe in reincarnation, and there are some Japanese Buddhists; street fortunetellers are easy to find in Tokyo, and taian days are expensive. A few common comments: "I don't care about taian, but my parents/in-laws/extended family feel it's important to have it on a lucky day." "I want to believe in life after death, but I don't." "I believe in fortunetellers when they say something good will happen, but not when they say something bad will happen." The last one was especially common.

Two aspects of this were of particular interest. One was the question of why there's such a huge difference between how many Japanese will buy the condo, and how many Westerners (I assume) will. The other was the fact that while I wasn't specifically keeping track of this, I'm sure that there were over a dozen people who answered 'no' to the first three questions, but then said they wouldn't buy the condo. This seemed inconsistent to me, since if you don't believe in ghosts or luck, why not buy it? What could happen? I particularly pressed those people to explain the inconsistency. Most of them thought about it, and finally good-naturedly admitted that they couldn't. I heard a lot of 'kimochi warui' (literally 'bad feeling', though in this context 'creepy' is probably closer to what they wanted to say). Some said that simply knowing the murder/suicide had happened would stick in their mind, and interfere with their enjoyment of the condo. My response of "for $200,000, can't you make an effort to change how you think?" met with a quick shake of the head. Over a dozen said that probably it would be fine if they didn't know the murder/suicide had occurred, but since they knew, they couldn't live there. Even if they couldn't explain it well, even if it was inconsistent with their other beliefs, they were quite sure that they couldn't buy it.

The best answer, I felt, was from a guy who's a scientist, working in the field of water treatment and purification. He said that as children, Japanese hear a lot of ghost stories, and in Japanese ghost stories the ghosts are more violent and mentally ill than in the west, where for example we have the perfectly friendly ghosts that inhabit Hogwarts castle. Some Japanese parents apparently say to their young children, "You'd better be good, or else the ghosts will get you," which I found quite an appalling thing to say to a young child. So, this student said, even if as an adult you're perfectly confident that ghosts don't exist, there will be a sense deep in your unconscious that you'd better not buy the condo, and will creep you out enough that you feel you'd better not buy it just to be on the safe side. I thought that made a lot of sense.

The ten who would buy the condo were generally aware that they weren't in the majority, but didn't mind. Most didn't hesitate much, and firmly believed that nothing spiritual exists, so there was no problem at all living there. One guy, 60 years old, did say that he would call in a Buddhist priest to spiritually 'purify' the condo, after which he was sure it would be fine. It would cost over a hundred bucks for the priest to come out, but hey, money well spent!

As for me, for the record, I do believe in life after death (reincarnation), I don't believe in most fortunetellers (though I believe a few might have a genuine talent, and should be referred to as psychics rather than fortunetellers), I don't believe in lucky days (though I do believe that if you really believe they'll be unlucky, they might well be), and I would buy the condo.

Students tended to be very interested in the topic and the questions, as was I. My original intent was simply to point out that you probably shouldn't make fun of someone's odd beliefs if you have your own odd beliefs (which you may not realize that you have, or recognize as odd), but it turned into an interesting examination of cultural differences in the area of spiritual and paranormal phenomena. Also, it's now become part of my history with these students, most of whom are my regulars. If they ever make a skeptical comment about someone else's religion and beliefs, I can respond, "Yeah, but you weren't willing to buy the condo." Even a year from now, I suspect, they'll remember what I'm referring to, and laugh.

P.S. After I finished writing this, but just before posting it, my wife found this short article on about Americans' willingness to share a house with a ghost–not just the possibility of one, but assuming there really was one. Of course, there can be a gap between what people say they would do and what they would really do, but this is still very interesting, and shows the culture gap very strongly.