Facts and Information Are Biased

In a recent article in the Washington Post, a columnist asserted that mainstream media is not “consciously” biased but is biased in the same way that institutions and agencies can become biased, by unconsciously favoring one group or another because of an affinity for their values and objectives.  In a way, she is right: any institution or agency that prefers facts and information will have an affinity for people who respect knowledge.

There are people in this world who do not respect knowledge.  They don’t know that what they do not respect is “knowledge” or “truth” or “facts and information”.  They believe that what they think is all the wisdom there is to be had in the world, and the “cultural elites” are actually clueless.  They are convinced that most “knowledge” is a charade that privileged people are trying to pull over them.  They believe that their knowledge is just as complete and true as those peoples’ knowledge.

If you do extensive research on climate change and come to the conclusion that it is the result of human activity and that will have an enormous impact on the planet, are you “biased”?  And does that make someone who has never read anything on global warming but likes Doug Ford and Donald Trump “unbiased”?  Is your doctor “biased”?  Is your plumber?  Well, we know that all teachers are biased.  They have information.  They have knowledge.  That makes them unreliable and dangerous.

I believe this writer is falling prey to the mistake of false equivalency.  I believe that the more you discover about real facts and real information, the more likely you are to adopt positions that would traditionally be regarded as progressive and enlightened: in other words– “liberal”.

And yes, I’ll say it.  A lot of conservatives are willfully ignorant.  When Scott Pruitt decided to repeal the Obama standards for mileage for North American built cars, he relied on a 25-page document that was largely written for him by the auto-makers.  Obama created the regulations in response to a 1200-page document that was produced by scientists and engineers as well as qualified government staff and researched all angles of carbon pollution, global warming, the impact of the regulations of the car manufacturers, and so on.  They even consulted with the car-makers.

These are not two equivalent things here.

One of these things is not like the other.   You can argue that a persuasive case can be made for doing nothing about climate change– you’d be wrong, but you could argue it– , but you can’t argue that Pruitt has just as many facts and just as much information as Obama has about the issue.  He doesn’t care.  His objective is to enrich his patrons.  They will be able to afford to insulate themselves from the consequences of rolling back environmental regulations, whether it be contaminated drinking water, increased rates of asthma, or global warming.  He does not care.  He will never care.

And this pattern, of conservatives developing policy based on what their uninformed little minds feel is good for them and their friends, and liberals at least giving some respect to information and research, is consistent, from the Civil Rights era to Global Warming.  Not all liberals and not all conservatives, of course, but let’s not be fooled by false equivalencies: they are not the same.

Every action by Trump is really nothing more than this: “you think you’re so smart”.

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It is possible that what we are going through now, with the vicious polarization of politics all over the developed world, fake news, a plague of sexual harassment cases, and so on, is temporary.  Have you ever thought that?  Nobody ever does, about something happening at the moment.  If things look really bad, well, it’s the end of the world.

But I think we may be in a moment of transition, and the resurgence of far right and nationalist movements may be an aberration, a last gasp of a set of cultural values that has lost it’s place.  (That’s why it seems so vicious: the true believers are lashing out in frustration at a culture that seems to marginalize them.  It does marginalize them.)

They will prevail.

No they won’t.  They would prevail if the world is what they think it is and their solutions resolve many pressing issues, like unemployment, poverty, inequality, pollution, North Korea, Iran, global warming, school violence, low achievement scores, loneliness, and so on.  If the world is not what they think it is, their “solutions” will go haywire, and things will get worse, and the majority of us will gradually realize that there was a reason why we used to elect people who appear to be smart and competent.

Perhaps, we’ll even learn that progress is slow-moving and incremental, and almost never revolutionary and sudden.

It is possible that when things go wrong, people will say, well, it would have been even worse than that if we hadn’t elected a Trump, if we hadn’t reduced regulations, if we hadn’t burned more coal.  Unfortunately, that is entirely possible: never underestimate the power of denial among invested people.  They will then find a new Trump and give him a bigger majority in Congress, and we’ll be all in.

I think it is equally possible that Trump may vaccinate us against future Trumps, just as Hoover vaccinated America against Alf Landon and Wendell Willkie.

I have heard some reasonable people argue that while Trump may not end warfare as we know it, resolve the Palestinian issue in the Middle East, improve the world’s hygiene,  and win a Nobel Peace Prize, he may have a moderately successful presidency with good economic growth and low unemployment and might actually get re-elected in 2020.

But the people surrounding Trump are really not very smart.   He has gutted the foreign service, for example, refusing to learn from Clinton’s experience: he did the same thing and it resulted in the U.S. losing a great deal of influence on events in Africa and Asia, and Europe and Latin America, and was later reckoned as a big mistake.   The Chinese are very busy out there, making friends and influencing people, while America sits back with their hands in their pockets.   Scott Pruitt will be remembered, without a doubt, as the worst E.P.A. administrator in history, not just for his intent– which is to hand over every piece of wilderness in America to oil and coal companies– but because he doesn’t really know what he’s doing– he’s not even very effective at handing it over, and it is thought that most of his regulatory moves will eventually be overturned in court.  He is laying the groundwork for numerous legal challenges and has made his department a laughing stock.

As for foreign policy, there is nowhere to go.  If Trump breaks the Iran deal, Iran will proceed to develop nuclear weapons while the U.S. sits steaming in a pile of it’s own verbiage.  The U.S. is not going to invade Iran– nobody wants one more war (especially since we haven’t extracted ourselves from the last two or three).   We might see a few bombing runs, but that could lead to trouble: Iran is not impotent.

North Korea is not going to give up it’s missiles.  It will not happen.  The U.S. will be led on a magical mystery tour to nowhere.  When they finally realize they’ve been had, Trump will blame Obama.

Unemployment is down.  Thanks Obama.  The economy is moving along, but, so far, all of the benefits appear to be going to the rich, the share-holders and owners, not to the working classes with the McJobs, mortgages, and credit card bills– let alone their inadequate health care coverage.

How far will Trump go with his neanderthal trade policies?  Everything you buy today has a global connection, all of which provide efficiencies that have been forever lost to nationalist trade policies.  It may be ugly at times– consider child labour in Indonesia, India, and Bangladesh– but nations like South Korea, the Philippines, and India are beginning to prosper because of trade, and they will gradually humanize their labour policies as they become more affluent.

Ideas like the Universal Basic Income have already gained some traction.  There is more to come as we begin to cope with the possibility of robots doing more and more jobs, and with the realization that without a prosperous middle class, nobody is going to be selling anything.






North Korea’s Exquisite Dance of the Seven Veils

I would be as delighted as anyone to see North Korea dismantle all of it’s nuclear weapons, sign a peace treaty with South Korea, open it’s borders, and hold elections.  None of that is going to happen.

It’s April 30, 2018.  I am not alone: it took a few days for the intoxication to wear off but now numerous commentators are also very suspicious.  (Gwynne Dyer was one of the few to have never not been suspicious.)

The problem is this: Kim Jung An was, we have been told, mightily impressed– in a negative sense– by the brutal death of Moammar Khadafy, who was dragged out of a steel culvert and beaten to death by enraged citizens at the end of Libya’s recent civil war.  Khadafy also once had a nuclear bomb program but he was persuaded to give up this nukes and join the West in a battle against Islamic terrorism.  In the end, his own people turned against him and the Americans stepped in to assist the rebellion, and guarantee the collapse of Khadafy’s government.

The Americans could never have done that if Khadafy had had a nuclear bomb to threaten them with.

There are some possible explanations for what is happening right now with North Korea.

  1.  Kim Jung An has had a road to Damascus experience.  He wants to be a statesman and lead his nation to prosperity and international respect so that he can reign as the glorious leader of an enlightened, civilized, modern state.
  2. Kim Jung An believes that Trump might actually do it– he might actually launch a pre-emptive attack and try to take out North Korea’s nuclear weapons testing facilities and, if they can, the launch sites, and the artillery aimed at South Korea.  So, quavering in fear, he is prepared to surrender rather than face military annihilation.
  3. Kim Jung An is, like his father and grand-father, a canny genius who understands perfectly the dynamic character of Trump’s foreign policy– “dynamic” in the sense of ridiculously impulsive and short-sighted– and is playing Trump for a sucker, hoping to get some sanctions dropped and some economic benefits, in exchange for vague, indeterminate, and unverifiable “reductions” of his testing and development regime (but not of the existing missiles).

I think “3” is the most likely answer.  In fact, I think it is very, very likely that Kim is taking Trump and Pompeo and Bolton for a ride, no matter how much they all insist they cannot be fooled.  Kim Jung An is probably thrilled beyond imagination at the imminent summit: just the two of us– an unstable, impulsive, immature blow-hard and the leader of the most powerful nation on earth– on that day– Kim Jung An!

As of this day, Kim apparently has offered to allow international inspectors to witness the shutdown of his nuclear test facility– the one that recently collapsed and is no longer usable.  Then he offered to get rid of all his nukes if the U.S. promised not to attack North Korea.  The U.S. promise, of course, would be as worthless as Kim’s– especially under the Trump Administration which has shown the same deep, abiding, respect for international commitments and agreements as Trump has personally shown for wedding vows and sexual purity.  Item #1: the Iran Nuclear agreement, which the U.S. is poised to break?

Of course, it is possible that the U.S. will adopt a rational, defensible, strategically smart position that the nukes must be dismantled before there is even a moment given to negotiations on sanctions and economic agreements.  But then, the talks might have already been over and nothing will have changed.

The wildcard here– as should be obvious– is China.  Will China countenance any kind of reunification if it allows for an American military presence in South Korea?  I can’t imagine it.  Will the U.S. agree to remove all of their military assets from South Korea before North Korea dismantles their nukes?  Are they that stupid?

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The Wolf Who Cried Boy

Here and Here

The key thing is this: if the journalists at the annual Correspondent’s Dinner had wanted informed editorial opinion, they would have chosen an informed editor to give it.  What they chose was a comedienne.

There is a big difference between journalism, editorial opinion, and comedy.  Trevor Noah– who is not that sparkling of a comedian– completely lost the distinction.  So did Michelle Wolf at the 2018 Correspondent’s Dinner.

Wolf is not a journalist.  She is not a graduate journalist: an editor.  She is not a qualified reporter.  She is a comedian.  And she is a trained kinesiologist.

But thanks to Jon Stewart, Trevor Noah, and Stephen Colbert, people are beginning to lose that distinction between an editorial opinion and comedy.  Trevor Noah has become horribly boring because he acts as if he is a journalist and offers unqualified editorial opinions all night.  It’s not funny, and it’s not informative, and it’s not even interesting.  Why does he do it?  When did he start thinking he was sort of like an editorial writer for a newspaper, instead of a comedian?

The same problem has happened to SNL’s “Weekend Update”.  There is no longer a parody of news casts.  It’s mainly a couple of blow-hards just mouthing off about Trump.  It’s not funny or interesting when they do that.  It can be funny when they actually parody the news, but when Michael Che reads a report of some comment or action by Trump and then more or less says, “what a moron”, it’s not funny.  It’s not witty.  It’s not even amusing.

I think I can safely assume that Wolf was chosen for her qualifications as a comedienne.  I’m not even sure if the people who appointed her get the difference: she mainly just got up there and called Donald Trump names.  That’s what Donald Trump does to other people and it’s not fun to watch.  It’s contemptible.

Undoubtedly, Michelle Wolf felt she had a right to express the following, but it’s pure editorial.

“You guys are obsessed with Trump,” she said, near the end of her routine. “Did you used to date him? Because you pretend like you hate him, but I think you love him. I think what no one in this room wants to admit is that Trump has helped all of you.

“He couldn’t sell steaks or vodka or water or college or ties or Eric, but he has helped you. He’s helped you sell your papers and your books and your TV. You helped create this monster, and now you’re profiting off of him.”

There is no joke, no wit, no cleverness to it at all.  This is the kind of commentary– when done right– that you would expect from a journalist with good first-hand knowledge of Washington politics and the White house.

But it’s just a comedienne who suddenly thinks she’s Martin Baron.

I will say this though– Stephen Colbert was right when he observed that the reporters complaining about Wolf’s speech sound like a man complaining that the valet just stole his car.  Think about it– it’s a great metaphor for what happened at the Correspondent’s Dinner, which, in all truthfulness, is a bizarre and unnecessary annual ritual anyway.


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Tell us the Truth or Else

In Episode 11 of Season 5 of “The Americans”, Philip and Elizabeth are informed that a woman named Natalie Granholm,  currently living in the U.S., may be a war criminal from the Nazi era, a Russian who participated in the mass slaughter of Russian soldiers.  They  secretly observer her and take her picture, and gather some information.  Moscow informs them that she is who they think she is and instruct them to murder her.

Philip and Elisabeth are ambivalent about the task.  They arrive at her house one night and  wait for her to come home.  It is implied that they want to double-check the veracity of the information they were given.

They have guns.  They break in.  They confront Natalie.

Here this episodes loses me.  What did they expect to do?

They confronted her and demanded that she tell them the truth.  In TV land, that works.  All right, darn it, since you’re pointing a gun at me I won’t lie any more.

Even with a transparent attempt to make it more credible– we are asked to believe that she thinks telling them the truth will lead them to spare her husband– the episode is ridiculous.  It is simply not believable that Natalie, confronted by two strangers in her own house who are clearly intent on identifying her as a vicious war criminal, would not continue to deny it.   Why on earth would she confess?  Surely, she doesn’t expect to be spared if she admits she is the one they are looking for?   And surely she doesn’t think that confessing– falsely or not (it is hinted that it’s false, or, at least, that she had some justification)– would cause these murderers to spare her husband.

Why would she think they would kill her husband anyway?   He’s not the war criminal.

And if they intend to kill him (if gets home before they leave) because he is a potential witness, her offer has no realistic value.  The dynamic is utterly preposterous.

Natalie’s confession is presented as an illustration of moral ambiguity.  She claims that her family was murdered in front of her, and she was manipulated (much like Philip and Elisabeth are manipulated) into performing the ghastly act.  Once again, Philip and Elisabeth have no reason to believe this story.  Are they really naive enough to buy it?  They really never thought of that kind of rationalization before they broke into her house?  They really wanted to give her time to tell them her story before killing her?

The audience is bullied into believing in it because of Lydia Fomina’s performance as Natalie, aimed at extracting our tears.  But surely Philip and Elizabeth, masters of deception themselves, can’t be taken in– can they?

They can be, and they are.  [Spoiler alert]: they do kill her, but they feel really, really bad about it, because, well, they are no longer the ruthless spies they were in Season 1.

That kind of scene has long been an essential element of American crime dramas.  The good guy, acting exactly like the bad guy, confronts the bad guy, shoves him against the wall, points a gun at his cheek, and demands the truth.  And the bad guy, preposterously, gives it to him.  All so the viewer can comfortably regard the subsequent atrocity– usually murder– as justified.  He had the right guy. No doubt about it.  He deserved it.

Nowadays, we know all about cops being convinced that they are confronting some guy who deserves to be killed.  Unfortunately, we’re finding out that many times the guy had nothing to do with anything.

“The Americans” is less fun to watch as they continue to explore the increasing ambivalence Philip and Elizabeth feel about their mission, particularly after murdering the innocent lab assistant while investigating an alleged biological weapon.   Really?  They are deeply, deeply disturbed by a single casualty of the great cause?  Are they really that delicate?  Were they not all that disturbed by the other killings they’ve had to commit?

Yet the idea of ambivalence is a good one.  Dramas that focus on moral ambiguity are almost always more interesting.   But not when they resort to cliche and tired tropes.

We are witnessing a familiar pattern in episode dramas and comedies.  The producers start polling their audiences, and they find that they like the major characters, but would prefer them bloodless.  The first years of “The Americans” showed us a pair of ruthless, cold-blooded, violent Russian agents, who could be cruel and efficient when necessary.  They are slowly removing their balls and trying to make them more attractive to the audience by making them more harmless and far less interesting.

They could do one thing that would really, really liven it up, and improve the quality of the show by 100%.  Have them decide one night that Stan is getting too close and has to go.  Philip strolls over across the street one night and shoots him in the head.  No conversation, no whining, no self-recrimination.  Just do it.

I must add: I could do without a single minute more of Paige moping around and around and around.  Please.  Maybe they could kill her off in an upcoming episode: I wouldn’t mind.  But then, Elizabeth and Philip are starting to mope around a lot too.

I don’t get why the producers of “The Americans” think self-absorbed misery is good drama.  I’m a bit fascinated by it: who likes watching Paige whine and mope?  Why do they like it?   Is it narcissism?  Is it the nausea of one who becomes aware of how no one cares if you are unhappy?


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Why Was This Allowed in Court?

In a description of the testimony of one of the witnesses against Bill Cosby in his second trial for sexual assault, we hear that one of the women remembered going to Cosby’s hotel suite for drinks and then waking up in her bed at home.  That’s what she remembered.

Later, after hearing about the other accusations against Cosby, she suddenly “remembered” that she must have been sexually assaulted during that blank period of time because, after all, that’s what Bill Cosby does.  Everybody knows it.  Case closed.

Soon, she found herself on that bastion of unimpeachable journalism, the Dr. Phil show, thrilling millions with her lurid tale.

I’m not going to act surprised that a court allowed this testimony– it is no secret that real courts are not like TV or movie courts.  They will often allow ridiculous evidence to be introduced, without effective challenge–  like fiber evidence and blood splatter evidence.  So a woman who admits that she has no memory of any such thing is allowed to assert that Bill Cosby sexually assaulted her.   And the purpose of this testimony– Cosby is not on trial for assaulting her– is to put the jury into the right mood for convicting him of assaulting Andrea Constand.

I will point out that “recovered memories”, which is what this is, have long been rather convincingly discredited, and that no burglar, for example, should ever be convicted even partly on the basis of a neighboring home owner telling the court that one day she came home and found that her house might have been broken into and things she did not remember owning might well have been stolen, and that a neighbor she had given a key to might be the culprit.

I hope an appeals court will think differently.  [2023-20-22: Yes, the appeals court did think differently and tossed out the conviction.]    I hope an appeals court throws the entire case out because it amounts to double jeopardy: Cosby reached a court supervised agreement with Andrea Constand in 2006 under which she was offered and accepted $3 million dollars to go away.  This was not an agreement between two individuals: it was supervised and administered by a court, which certified that both parties had agreed to this settlement and that that would be the end of the legal procedure against Cosby.  Cosby has, as you might expect, launched a civil action to recover the money.

There is a debate over whether Constand did violate the terms of the agreement.

I have no doubt that Bill Cosby was and is an asshole– I never liked him, not during his days as a stand-up comedian when he ducked the civil rights movement, and especially not as Cliff Huxtable, in a boring, sanitized, ridiculous sitcom– a black “Daddy Knows Best”.  He played a denatured caricature of himself so that white audiences could safely enjoy his shtick.

But that does not make all of his accusers angels, and doesn’t remove the slight taint of suspicion that many of these actresses and models went to his hotel room or apartment hoping he would do something for their careers.  He didn’t drag them there.  He didn’t even pay them to come there.  He just invited them and offered to help them with their careers.  And these women accepted.

You might believe that they had no idea what a man might be up to when he invites a woman to his apartment or hotel suite, alone, or when he offers her drinks, or Quaaludes or benadryl, or massages their hair.   No idea at all.

And in the current political climate, none of them will ever have to truthfully answer the question of just what they expected to happen there.

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