30 July 2006

Influencing the Right, Part II

This was a great read. The RAG was clearly an early predecessor of the "Journalism as Assertion" tendency later developed by Cable News, free papers like the Chronicle and the Web Blogs. My experience with the Queer Cultural Center's non-commercial Web site over the past eight years begs many questions. This Website was entered by 500,000 people in 2004-05. It is funded by a grant and has no advertising. It is clearly directed at a like-minded audience, i.e., it's niche marketing. Our visitorship increases by about 50,000 people every year because it comes up as the first item in every Google search including the words "Queer" and/or "art and culture;" we do not publicize the site or advertise its existence--the search engine does all that for us. We pay someone $15,000 a year to expand and maintain it; it contains more than 10,000 pages of material. I have learned to ask the basic questions about Websites and audience development.

These same issues are relevant to politics and Web-based publications. Could a left-wing Internet publication develop a national readership of more than half a million for a mere $15,000 a year?

Jeff Jones

Ragamuffins -

Hope everyone managed to enjoy the Day of Orgiastic Feasting without doing too much damage to liver and lights - and has managed to stay the hell away from the 5 a.m. mall riots, as Amerikkka begins its annual Month of Religious Spending!

I'm responding late to some things both Alice and Dennis posted earlier. Dennis' was about working with different interest groups and how people's perspectives change as their sophistication increases, and I say, "WOW!!!" That piece totally tracked my 10 years' (1981-91) experience on Austin's Cable Television Commission in the heady days of municipal regulation. And Alice asked us to write about things we've achieved, successes, what worked.

So OK, two birds with one stone: I chaired the Commission during years two and three, arguably our biggest window of opportunity to take advantage of the city's fleeting authority. It was a never-ending challenge to move programs forward which required as little compromise as possible from competing entities and interests. Fortunately, I served with a stellar group of individuals, and we managed to come up with creative solutions to a lot of supposedly intractable problems, never quite doing the "expected."

The public access studio in East Austin, which belongs to the people of Austin and is built on public land, is the achievement, largely, of four East Austin residents, one black and three whhite, of which I was one. Tommy Wyatt, Brenda Trainor, Larry Waterhouse and I stood firmly together on that issue (while disagreeing on lots of other things); had we not done so, access producers would have had a rented studio for a few years and nada-zip-zilch now. Many producers opposed building on the east side, citing their fear of crime (indigenous black people.) The cable company opposed building anything they didn't own. The city had other unsuitable parcels of land it would have rather offered to us than the one we got. It was a three-ring circus getting the damn thing built, and I'm really, really proud of it.

But yeah, watching the process in others, and feeling it in myself, of coming into a situation with a strong-but-limited perspective and perceived constituency, and then having to modify that as other people's legitimate concerns and constraints become apparent, while still trying to "dance with who brung you", was absolutely fascinating. Sitting in the middle chair in the old Council chambers - oh, yeah, the Ham here loved every minute of it!! - I had to hear what folks on all sides of an issue were really saying, setting aside my own thoughts, at least temporarily, re-state their often inflammatory language so that the crux of arguments could be revealed and understood, be the calm mediator, until everybody knew as much about the issue as anyone else; then, after the question was posed as fairly as it was gonna get, revert to my own view to argue for or against and vote it up or down.

Under Madame Chair Wizard's polite (but steely!) thumb, without ever calling it such, the Commmission adopted the principles of democratic centralism. (We had bylaws which enshrined it, in fact!) Once we made a decision on what to recommend to Council, EVERYBODY either ACTIVELY SUPPORTED IT or SHUT THE HELL UP, and we went in assigned teams (someone I trusted plus someone I didn't on each) to do so! Any commissioner who voiced criticism of a Commission decision after the fact faced hostility, criticism, and ostracism from everyone else, mainly because, once we went through our exhaustive, open, public, extremely long-winded hearings and deliberations, NOBODY wanted to EVER re-visit an issue! And we were one of the most effective commissions in City history, imho, in terms of getting what we wanted from Council!

Amazingly, to me, the single issue on which we spent the most hours, over the entire 10 years I was involved, was free speech on the public access channels. Time after time, various very emotional people opposed extending Constitutional protection to atheists, the Ku Klux Klan, nasssty music videos which mock Jesus, fake Hallowe'en news programs ("There's a slime monster in Town Lake, ooooooo-eeek-eeek!"), discussion/depiction of numerous sexual practices, church services, and on and on and on. The key concept that public access channels ONLY EXIST AS AN EXTENSION OF the First Amendment, which ought therefore to be guarded very zealously, was elusive to some, as was the notion that no one is forced to watch television they don't like. But on this issue, unlike some where I maybe saw the Company's p.o.v. a little too sympathetically, or was trying to butter up another commissioner to secure their support for something else down the line, I was NEVER tempted to compromise on Free Speech.

What Dennis said is really important to understand when we consider political process. We also need to know what our CORE VALUES are; the things that are non-negotiable. In my case, these appear to include rampant exercise of free speech; rejection of racism in any public policy; and group processes which result in group decisions, to be upheld and worked for unless and until they are generally seen to be defective.

Al, I dunno if that adds anything to what you were getting at, but it is something I did for a long time that I was pretty good at, and this is pretty much what I think about it now, in terms of what worked and why. People who served with me knew that everybody would get a fair hearing; that we would take however long we needed to get to where we needed to go; and that if they were gonna get stabbed, they would get stabbed in public rather than in the back. We kept no secrets, even when city bureaucrats begged us to do so; our process was utterly transparent; and even the oddest folks who came to the commission were treated respectfully and given eye contact.

Also, the chair still didn't wear a bra, even tho she was on TV every month, and came to virtually every meeting for the entire 10 years absolutely REEKING of her favorite vegetable matter; again, core values, some things just don't change!

Happy Month of Excess,

Dick Reavis wrote:
-- As for the "attack on science," the important part comes from within science. No theoretically-current scientist, I would think, believes that science turns up an "objective" truth. Science was never a body whose theory all held together. What science produces are bits and pieces of practical knolwedge, dependent upon different theories of what knowledge might be. It's a postmodern thing. For the Marxist interpretation, see David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity, a very sensible book.

My thoughts on this:

The "post-modernist" rhetoric about the impossibility of perceiving objective truth, while still fashionable in some academic circles, is (and has always been) completely out of touch with the reality of scientific work and with the attitudes of the people doing such work. This is not because scientists are not "theoretically current" -- it is because many (but not all) of the theories that scientists work with both are true beyond sane doubt and are very broad and unifying in their explanatory power. Atomic theory is the poster child for this, but there are many other areas (e.g., plate tectonics, special relativity) that are similarly well established.

Of course there are still plenty of incomplete or tentative scientific theories. In fact, these are the areas where research scientists direct most of their attention, since their job is to extend the established core of science. But these theories are investigated with confidence that objective answers exist. It is philosophers (most of whom are scientifically illiterate) who are afraid to believe in things -- not scientists.

The theories of science hold together quite well, as far as they go. Physics, chemistry, geology, biology, and astronomy all reinforce each other. The "social sciences" do not do as well, but that is because they are a mixture of objective, subjective, and prescriptive elements. Most of politics is a "How do we want things to be?" design argument rather than a "How do things work?" scientific investigation.

Also, science is still far behind the most advanced religious and artistic traditions in its investigation of human thought. But most working scientists are well aware of this, and look to music, poetry, and art for spiritual support, not to psychiatrists.

-- Contemporary evolutionary theory has a problem: it doesn't provide straightforward answers, like the theory that we were taught under the name "evolution." (Accidents as well as survival of the fittest lead to where we are -- and that means that there's no virtue in where we are.)

Evolutionary theory has always acknowledged a central role for chance -- it was the chance survivals and subsequent varied adaptations on the Galapagos islands that Darwin used as his leading illustration of the process. Don't be distracted by the minor novelties or refinements of evolutionary theory that fame-seekers put forth as fundamental changes. Darwin's theory has had a couple of holes filled (genetics in the 1920's, complex systems in the 1990's), but remains little changed (and of course is now massively supported by data).

In any case, I fail to see how virtue could be conferred by being descendants of the proto-Republican organisms most efficient at killing their peers, grabbing things, and spreading their seed. It is this legacy that constitutes the original sin that any thoughtful person must see in himself and other people. But there is also an evolutionary basis for the cooperation that is the most striking feature of human culture, and perhaps for the altruism and hunger for justice that arise repeatedly, even in some middle-class Americans.

Hunter Ellinger

I don't think that you and I would much disagree, except that I would take exception to your comment knocking postmodernism.

I didn't come to that view through the usual route of literary studies. Instead, like everything else, I came to it through the wisdom of the 60's.

Everything one might say about the "truth" of science passes for "truth" because someone "reasonable" believes it. Some people also believe that the world is flat. Belief doesn't prove the truth of anything. Some people hold "unreasonable" beliefs.

Science passes for "truth" because a lot of "reasonable" people believe in it, and because authority of various kinds backs it up. Not many of us know, for example, that the world is round. How could we prove that to unbelievers? We believe, "on good authority," that it is round, or something roundish.

Authority is the civilized face of force. The "reasonable man," the common test of truth, is the docile citizen of whoever holds power. As Mao would have said (had he been consistent), "Truth flows from the barrel of a gun."
Or at least that's way I see it. Since people who agree with me do not hold any power, my ideas are, of course, "unreasonable," "extreme," and the like. I speak for a "truth" that on its face is not true.

Dick Reavis

Yes, there is another "attack on science," coming from yahoos in the U.S., the "intelligent design" folk and such. If the yahoos win, their victory will only be another revival of the backwardness of the U.S., not anything of great global significance, I think.

See, I think it's more entrenched than that, with the Intelligent Design people being only the latest wave pushing the de-education of American kids. Why are daily papers really failing? Jonny cain't reed, y'all. Look at everything deleted from US curricula over the past, what? 30 years? and it's a wonder more jobs haven't been exported to India. "Kids today" aren't taught spelling or grammar, so they don't understand their mother tongue; they aren't required to obtain even rudimentary knowlege of any other language, so they are less capable than multilingual people of understanding differing points of view; and instead of scientific inquiry and independent thought, we teach technical dexterity and mental adaptability to circumstance. When a person educated in such a system is called upon to evaluate theories such as evolution vs. I.D., he or she is most likely to apply lessons learned in kindergarten: "I'm OK; you're OK," if for no other reason than that reading all that science stuff is yucky.

Then, Hunter comments on scientific knowledge:
Many (but not all) of the theories that scientists work with both are true beyond sane doubt and are very broad and unifying in their explanatory power. Atomic theory is the poster child for this, but there are many other areas ... that are similarly well established.

Of course there are still plenty of incomplete or tentative scientific theories. In fact, these are the areas where research scientists direct most of their attention, since their job is to extend the established core of science.

... Physics, chemistry, geology, biology, and astronomy all reinforce each other. The "social sciences" do not do as well, but that is because they are a mixture of objective, subjective, and prescriptive elements ...

Also, science is still far behind the most advanced religious and artistic traditions in its investigation of human thought. But most working scientists are well aware of this, and look to music, poetry, and art for spiritual support, not to psychiatrists ...

Darwin's theory has had a couple of holes filled (genetics in the 1920's, complex systems in the 1990's), but remains little changed (and of course is now massively supported by data). --

And I have to say I agree with all of that 100%, despite the fact that I've spent a lot of time over the last couple of years seriously questioning the nature of "reality" as it applies to people's perceptions and recollections, and to history, as written by victors and survivors...

But, in talking about the relative "virtue" of one's family tree, I didn't think Dick J. Reavis was talking about any "descent," whether from plain old monkeys or Hunter's "proto-Republicans." Intelligent Design, along with its parent Creationism and most world religions, offers the appeal of saying, "Human beings exist for some purpose; were created for that purpose by a power greater than themselves." I think this is deeply appealing to most of us at least sometimes, not so much because it is more dignified than being a monkey's nephew, but because, if there is a power greater than us which is responsible for our existence, then we are, really, when push comes to shove, off the hook for how it all turns out. If it's all in God's hands, hey, I can watch a lot of basketball this week! That is the "virtue" of having a Creator who is running the show!

(Of course, I know that folks in this group who are believers also think along the lines that "God helps those who help themselves (and others)," and aren't looking to religion for an escape clause, so I hope I'm not offending anyone; the appeal of "letting go and letting God" is felt by non-believers and lukewarm agnostics as much as anyone else, and maybe more so.)

Dick, thanks for the info on weekly newspapers; and no, I'm not talking just about the Chronicle-type, events-listings plus metro-chic papers, though there are a lot of them around the country. But they exist in all sorts of small rural places, too. On a seven-week road trip through NM, AZ, CA, NV, UT, CO and West TX last spring, I picked up dozens of 'em. I stayed off the interstates for all but 1,000 of 7,000 miles, so I was in some nicely out-of-the-way places, as well as Santa Cruz, San Francisco, and Phoenix. Most of the stuff I saw was totally locally written (except for, say, astrology and/or self-help columns) by a combo of owner-publisher-writers, paid stringers and staff, and jus' folks. In a lot of places, the nearest metropolitan daily has very little of interest or accessibility to small town residents. Ads in the local weekly are other local businesses, and there's always a heavy civic pride component, but that doesn't preclude criticism. I found a surprisingly strong environmental content in a lot of the little Western papers in areas where mining, timber, and ranching are still important.

Just last weekend I picked up two little rags over in Chappell Hill, TX. The "Round Top Register" is a quarterly, nice paper, full-color cover of onion domes in Red Square headed, "Government! Can't live with it, and you can't live without it," there is a HUGE article on the publisher's extended European trip which included a visit to Russia and another on the guvmnt's lame response to Katrina; the cover also sports an Ambrose Bierce quote, "Politics is the conduct of public affairs for private advantage," and is labeled the "Throw the Bums Out Issue." Lots of ads from Brenham through Giddings, real estate, auto dealers, antiques, restaurants, B&Bs. The other one, simply "The Press," is a weekly; the cover of this issue, also full-color, is a "Saluting Veterans" photo of middle-aged black vet in striped overalls and a camo hat, nice; but inside, it is mostly ads, including eight pages of 24 total classifieds, listings, and columns by a variety of individuals, including Bartee Haile on how racism caused something called the "Cart War" in the Rio Grande Valley, right after the Texas War of Independence!

I will try to contact him; photo looks amusingly the same as ever and I'm theorizing he's teaching history someplace in the Piney Woods.

There are a lot of weeklies in Austin, too, including at least one by and for that under-30 crowd which finds the Chron stale and predictable; I'm thinking there's still some hope for basic literacy.


The bias of western science is its certainty of its superiority over all other peoples. Unfortunately it all falls apart where the rubber meets the road.

Number one cause of death in this country is going to the doctor, just adding up AMA figures.

Drug side effects (100,000), mistakes (40,000), diseases caught in hospital (40,000), unnecessary surgery.

We are number 37 in world health, despite spending way the most money. Any nation on the “Western diet” of corporate-grown food has huge epidemics of auto-immune disorders.

And now, sadly, I read today that tens of millions of Chinese are leaving the farm.

Soon they too will have these epidemics, and the American pharmaceutical companies will get richer, hiding the symptoms, as they cannot “cure” dietary deficiencies.

Janet Gilles

OK, I have just eight things to say.

First, we have no proof of the existence of reality, much less that anything in it is true. I have discovered, however, that I have much more pleasant hallucinations when I presume that what I am hallucinating is, in fact, real. That there is a truth of the matter is a fundamental presumption without which there can be no science.

Second, if we give up on truth, we give up on reason. If we give up on reason, on what basis do we set social policy? Brute force. Sometimes policies ARE set on the basis of brute force, of course. We can all cite numerous examples. My point is that reason is our sole bulwark against brute force in policy formation. We should be reticent to jettison it. Is it any wonder that many of the leading postmodernists of their generation (e.g., Heidegger, DeMan) turned out to be Nazi collaborators?

Third, postmodernism is just critical theory without its positive moment. It wants to (and usually can) find ideological content in theoretical formulations. But they follow up this critique of ideology with absolutely nothing, for fear of creating new forms of ideologically-laden formulations. In other words, they reject responsibility for postulating potentially emancipatory formulations. They do the easy job of tearing down without dirtying their hands in the hard job of building up.

Fourth, post-modernism is trivially self-refuting. To say that truth is relative is itself a truth claim.

Fifth, it is "true" that "Everything one might say about the 'truth' of science passes for 'truth' because someone 'reasonable' believes it." This is not to say that truth is relative, but only that belief is. I would agree that belief is relative. I take Hunter to be saying (with, for instance, W.V.O. Quine and Hilary Putnam) that we count as "true" those propositions that, if true, would maximize the global coherence of our knowledge (not just our beliefs,)including our empirical observations, as well as our theoretical knowledge. We are always ready, however, to revise such judgments on the basis of new information. There is no better criterion than this for theory-selection judgments. Falsificationism just doesn't work (Feyerabend is right about this, even in his postmodernism.) But falsificationism's failure does not justify jumping to no criterion at all, as would Feyerabend and, apparently, Reavis.

Sixth, knowledge is not in the head, it's in the library (and increasingly on the Internet.) Knowledge is fundamentally a social product, not an individual product. To ensure that we maximize the global coherence of our knowledge, we should and must encourage diversity in the community of knowledge producers. As my colleague and feminist epistemologist Linda Alcoff once put it, "The justification for diversity in the academy is not sentimental. It's epistemological."

Seventh, although I agree with Hunter about the difference between natural and social science, I want to add two comments. First, natural scientists don't have to worry about what Aristotle called formal cause and final cause. They can unproblematically impose meanings (formal causes) on the objects of their science. Since the objects of social science are potential subjects of science, this is trickier for social scientists. Natural scientists do not study entities that have intentions. This makes causal attribution a whole lot easier for them. Second, and relatedly, the objects of social science -- people and their communities -- can read the products of social science and change their behavior accordingly, appearing to invalidate a theory that actually had merit. Every Marx has his Keynes. This of course doesn't happen to natural scientists. The natural sciences should never be called the hard sciences. They are in fact the EASY sciences.

Eighth, I have no time for any of this.

Gavan Duffy

Beware of anyone who would try to convince you with reasonable arguments that reason has no basis in reality. Language cannot exist without a reality we exist in together. If there is nothing, then there is nothing to speak of and no one to speak of this nothing. One must exist in an objective world in order to have a hallucination. The solipsistic fallacy has had a long run. Zeno had his argument about why the arrow would never reach the target. Analysis can never grasp the whole. The eye cannot see itself without reflection. The limitation of science is not a definition of reality.

I think solipsism has had such a long run because people like word games, they like to be baffled by bullshit. Also, mortality is not popular. Many, many people are not happy with cause and effect when it comes to their own existence. Let them jump off tall buildings and tell me about the experience later.

Alan Pogue

Zeno might have something to say about the impossibility of reaching the ground after that jump off a tall building.

Daun Eierdam

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