Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Protestors Demonstrate Against Preacher's Homophobic Remarks

Sunday, May 27th saw a massive protest in the town of Maiden, N.C. against the Baptist preacher whose aggressively homophobic sermon went viral earlier in the month.  Reverend Charles L. Worley of Maiden’s Providence Road Baptist Church delivered a sermon on May 13th after President Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage.  In a two minute clip that was pulled from the church’s website after the outcry began, but that spread on YouTube and other outlets, Worley declares that he, God, and anyone with sense are against gay marriage and then proposes his own appalling solution to so-called problem of homosexuality: build a 150-mile electric fence, inter all gays and lesbians behind it, and air-drop food until the population dies out as they fail to reproduce.

The viral spread of the video led to the organization on Facebook of a “Love, Not Hate” rally in opposition to Worley and the sort of intolerant rhetoric he has espoused.  The protest drew a geographically diverse crowd of as many as 2,500 people to the Catawba County Justice Center twelve miles from Maiden.  Organizers placed a good deal of emphasis on the peaceful intent of their demonstration, and local law enforcement handed out no citations for anything other than minor offenses.  That’s not to say that there was no antagonism, however, as the rally drew some counter-protesters who were on hand to show support either for Worley or at least for the sentiment that homosexuality is a grave sin under Christian dogma.

Interviewed by Charlotte-based NBC affiliate WCNC, longtime Providence Road Baptist Church member Geneva Sims asserted that her pastor had every right to say what he said about homosexuals, adding, “The Bible says they’re worthy of death.”  Other congregants defended Worley’s remarks by suggesting good intentions on the part of the preacher.  Some assert that he was attempting to scare homosexuals straight in order to save them from the torment of Hell.  Others lodged the feebler defense of reminding critics that Worley’s plan involved feeding the would-be prisoners, as if to suggest that leaving someone to die is morally defensible in a way that simply killing them is not.

Among reasonable people, who evidently are not present in Providence Road Baptist Church, there cannot be the slightest bit of doubt about the moral status of Worley’s remarks.  What may be less obvious are the possible legal consequences.  At the beginning of the clip, Worley refers to President Obama directly, and uses the gay marriage endorsement as a starting point for his homophobic rant.  Towards the end, he mentions being asked whom he is going to vote for, and Worley loudly declares, “Not for the baby killer and homosexual lover.”

Some protestors are focusing on the partisan nature of this commentary from the pulpit in trying to combat the potential effects of Worley’s vicious attitudes.  The New Civil Rights Movement website, for instance, has reminded its readers that Worley’s Church, like all other churches, has tax-exempt status, and as such should not be engaged in political advocacy of the sort seemingly on display in the YouTube video.  Several readers of the site have reportedly contacted the IRS in response, as has Pastor Barry W. Lynn, the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Federal tax law clearly forbids any 501(c)(3) organization from intervening in any political campaign for or against a specific candidate, or from making partisan comments in official publications or at official functions.  It could be argued, then, that on the basis of his fairly explicit encouragement that his congregation vote against Barack Obama in the coming election, Worley’s church, and any church that makes the same mistake, ought to lose its tax exempt status.  But that is perhaps beside the point.  On the basis of the horrid intolerance and immorality of his remarks, what Worley’s organization ought to lose first and foremost is its designation as a place of worship.

As protestor Liz Snell was quoted as saying at Sunday’s demonstration, “I just can’t believe that Jesus Christ would be about the kind of hate that we were hearing. It’s important for all of us to stand up against that.”

Uncertain Scrutiny in Google WiFi Spying Investigations

In the wake of the release of an FCC report concluding a seventeen month investigation of alleged spying conducted by Google on unsecured wireless networks nationwide, the company may face additional scrutiny from Britain’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), which originally investigated and came to an agreement with Google in 2010.

Between 2007 and 2010 Google used its street view car to collect 600 Gigabytes of payload data along with the street-level images that the car is intended to generate.  This data included e-mail correspondence, text messages, passwords, and web histories.  Despite this, the ICO concluded that the data was free of any “meaningful personal details,” and took no official action, though Google did agree to allow the ICO to audit its privacy practices in the future.

One such audit was published last August and will be reviewed sometime this year to make sure their recommendations are being followed.  The results may affect the ICO’s decision on whether to take further action, which is an open question considering that around the time of that audit, the Information Commissioner decided that contrary to the absence of actual charges, Google had in fact broken the law.  The ICO’s inaction and handling of the investigation have also faced some criticism in British Parliament, so there may be some pressure to act more aggressively now that the FCC report has the ICO reconsidering the case.

The FCC has not, however, stated that Google is to face prosecution or even that it broke the law.  Google has maintained that while the wireless information gathering did indeed occur, it was attributable to one engineer who wrote the relevant code and installed it in street view cars, but did so without the knowledge or consent of the street view team or the company at large.  The FCC report casts doubt on this claim, finding that other engineers reviewed and modified the code, and several more installed it in cars and extracted the data it collected.  One senior manager of the street view project was purportedly informed of the intention to collect payload data.

Yet no litigation is forthcoming in the United States, presumably because the FCC report also points out that even if Google was aware of the data collection, and even if they had ordered it, harvesting masses of data from unsecured networks may not be illegal at all, as per the Wiretap Act, which grants that anyone may access any communication that’s configured so as to be publicly accessible.  Consequently, the only definite trouble faced by Google with the FCC has been a very modest fine of 25,000 dollars for impeding the investigation by failing to respond to repeated requests for information.

That in itself casts some measure of suspicion on Google, even if it doesn’t present any further legal problems.  Their claim that they never intended to use the payload data is automatically suspect in light of the fact that Google seems eager to collect all manner of personal data in other contexts, and to use it to target advertisements and content more effectively and more manipulatively.

I stopped using Google as a search engine and news aggregator when I discovered the extent to which content was modified from one user to the next, even in web searches for quite basic terms.  Google evidently uses fifty-seven different factors, including your location, operating system, and browser, to personally tailor search results to the individual user.  This is particularly objectionable when one is searching for current news, which ought to be presented objectively, and with a universal sense of importance, not personally structured to align with each individual’s likeliest consumption patterns.

The accompanying invasions of privacy, and particularly the ways in which they are used, are socially poisonous trends, even if they are not illegal.  But being as they are not illegal, governments cannot be relied on to do much of anything to counter that trend.  Little has been done in the United States, the case in Britain is shaky, and Australia has decided against investigating the same issue.

But in each of those places, the citizenry still can take it upon itself to use against Google that very thing that they are so fixated on: consumption patterns.  I fear that the reason why privacy invasions of this kind have become so endemic is not that entities like Google have been so prone to engage in them but that we as a society have been so prone to accept them.  When we can demonstrate that the new convenience we enjoy is not worth what we trade away for it, then perhaps the rampant misuse of information will be avoided more often, even if it isn’t technically criminal.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Don't Answer the Question of the Day

Despite his conservative bent, lawyer and professional ethicist Jack Marshall authors what is consistently one of my favorite blogs, Ethics Alarms.  A recentpost of his attacked the “Question of the Day” posed by CNN’s Carol Costello on Thursday morning.  She asked her viewers to contact the show with their answer as to the rather nonsensical question “Do CEOs make good presidents?”  She went on to cite Donald Trump, Ross Perot, and Herman Cain as examples of CEOs.  Astute observers will notice that none of them were presidents, and they might also realize that no CEOs have ever been presidents.  But as long as Costello had to choose purely hypothetical examples, she certainly could have come up with a more balanced list.

Jack Marshall sees this as proof positive of liberal media bias, and an effort on the part of CNN to torpedo the Romney candidacy by any means necessary.  It’s honestly hard not to agree with him on that latter point, although I don’t for a moment believe in the myth of the liberal media.  The loaded question presented by Costello on Thursday morning was undoubtedly in Obama’s favor, but the overall bias of the media is not towards liberal viewpoints or personalities.  The overall bias is in favor of viewership and profitability, and outside of Fox News and MSNBC, where this is accomplished by a commitment to conservativism and liberalism, respectively, the result is a good deal of duplicity buttressed by base pandering and bad journalism.

Those are the things for which the media must be most vigorously criticized.  And what are more crucial than any particular bias are the elements of laziness and stupidity put on display by this and virtually any other CNN Question of the Day.  I’m not especially bothered by the fact that Carol Costello was trying to not-so-subtly impugn the qualifications of candidate Romney.  What aggravates me is the fact that she was asking her viewers to do it for her.

So we live in a representative democracy.  It’s wonderful; we’re all proud of that fact.  That doesn’t mean, however, that a seemingly democratic process is appropriate for every single social institution.  The fifth estate is supposed to be independent of the ebbs and flows of public opinion, as well as the influence of government.  Indeed, it’s crucial to a well-functioning democracy that the populous be informed by a media which deals in facts and expert dialogue rather than being an aggregator of private, uninformed opinion.

I’d be hard pressed to think of a more uninformed opinion than any response to the question “Do CEOs make good presidents?”  Whether you answer yes or no, your answer is as meaningless as if you had stated your opinion about the financial management skills of the tooth fairy.  There is no information on either topic, so to answer the question is to construct a purely speculative fantasy.  And even if there had been CEO presidents in the past – even if there was a tooth fairy – it wouldn’t make a poll of private opinions any more informative.  As politically engaged citizens, we’re supposed to be able to refer to the news media for information before we form our opinions.

If CNN believes that CEOs, in theory, would make terrible presidents, that’s fine; let them say so.  But let them say so by referring to historical facts and correlating business activities with the challenges that a person can be expected to face in political office.  Completely unbiased journalism is widely regarded as a fantasy, but there’s a clear distinction between responsible and irresponsible bias in reporting.  Framing one’s claim as the question of the day is decidedly irresponsible.  It just allows the network to hide its opinion behind unaffiliated responses to their hideously leading questions.  It parrots the common argumentative tactic of dodging criticism by insisting, “Hey, I’m just asking questions, here.”

Asking questions is indeed a crucial part of the media’s job.  But when it comes to political topics, many so-called journalists seem to have forgotten that other, equally crucial part: providing answers.  If you as a journalist think a question is essential to the public understanding, then it’s your responsibility to bring to bear facts and logic on that question to help the public to resolve it in a way that’s consistent with reality, not just with their preexisting points of view.  And if you find that the question you want to ask can’t be resolved in that way, say because there are no relevant historical data, then you’re probably asking the wrong question.

The modern news media is rife with examples of behaviors just like the CNN Question of the Day.  Instead of listening to the news and being informed, consumers are not encouraged to tweet at live broadcasts, to vote for their favorite stories, to sound off with their views in absence of substantive information that might clarify those views.  When did the media decide that its job is to provide a popular outlet for every individual’s point of view?  And perhaps more important, why does the public seemingly accept this as a good thing?

We all want to have our voices heard.  Of course we do.  But a responsible citizen also takes care to recognize when his voice is actually needed, and when, on the other hand, he needs to keep quiet and listen.  Collectively, we need to step outside of our presumptions from time to time, log off of our otherwise incessant Twitter feeds, and open ourselves up to the presentation of information that exists independent of our relished ability to talk back.  When we do, maybe we’ll take clearer notice of the fact that the people tasked with providing such information simply aren’t doing so, and maybe we’ll use our always-welcome voices to demand more.

The lessons learned from Thursdays Question of the Day almost make me want to believe that some rebel copywriter inserted it into the script in hopes that it would spur some tiny proportion of the audience to sit up and realize, “Hey, I can’t answer this question!  Why on Earth are they asking it?”  Far more likely, though, is that some researchers at CNN crafted that question so that they, and by extension their very network, wouldn’t have to do their job.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Everest Made Deadly By Familiarity

It was a fatal weekend near the summit of Mount Everest.  Three climbers are confirmed dead and two others are missing, according to the Vancouver Sun.  Reporting so far identifies various elements of the local conditions as contributing to the deaths, some of those conditions possibly attributable to global warming.  But the main culprit here seems to be overcrowding.  So many people tried to trek through what’s charmingly referred to as the “death zone” than people at the back of the queue were starting for the summit nearly three hours later in the day than experts recommend.  That’s an astonishing fact, and I think it calls for a breaking point in the very concept of adventuring in the modern world.

In a 1949 episode of my favorite radio series, Quiet, Please, the author, Wyllis Cooper, presents a story of two men’s attempt to summit Mount Everest, and he taps into the sentiment entertained among some mountaineers at the time that the world’s tallest mountain might actually be unclimbable.  A short sixty-three years later – less than the span of one human lifetime – people flock to the conquered vertical frontier in droves, and carrying ultra-modern, life-preserving equipment, they file to the top of the world like a line of ants, all attempting to re-experience en masse the seminal achievement of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay on May 29th, 1953.

But it is no longer possible to re-experience that same triumph now that the world has been so much transformed.  Without question, summiting Mount Everest remains among the most challenging and impressive feats that one can achieve, but it is nowhere near as difficult as it was decades ago.  It still claims lives, as it has for as long as men have struggled against its inhospitable environment.  But it is remarkable that the probability of death upon the mountain is now more a function of the number of people making their way up its slopes than of the amount of difficulty faced by a well-equipped person in good climbing conditions.

By way of technological advancement, we have steadily made Everest easier to climb.  Yet at the same time, by way of collective pride and lack of imagination, we have kept pace with other changes that make it as risky as ever.  I’d say that it’s time that the 25,000 annual tourists to Mount Everest start more closely considering the economics of risk and reward in attempting to climb the mountain these days.

The exaltation that accompanied surviving the summit in 1953 must have been unparalleled and inexpressible.  I’m sure that the experience today is a highlight of the life of every person who survives it, but for no one does it rise to the level of what Hillary and Norgay accomplished.  Rarity enhances the value of every commodity, even human experience, and with multiple climbers reaching the peak of Everest every year, it just doesn’t have the same august status of human endeavor that it might have.  Meanwhile the absent rarity increases the risk.  You can die coming down from Everest these days not because those who went before you died as well, but precisely because those who went before you survived to both delay and encourage your ascent.

The world is inspiringly long on the noble aspirations of men and women who wish to do amazing things with their time on Earth.  I respect and admire that impulse to the utmost.  But I wish that such people were more prone to use that ambition to pursue feats of endurance and ingenuity that other men had not yet accomplished.  As our ability to master the once-seemingly impossible grows, our efforts ought to grow proportionally.

Now, I acknowledge that the world is all but out of new frontiers now.  James Cameron’s descent into the Marina Trench proved that it is not entirely devoid of remote places to conquer, and indeed he should stand as an example of what remains to be had of headline-worthy ventures.  Nevertheless, unconquered places are exceptionally rare now.  There are still grand feats that can be accomplished within the realms that have already been explored, but with the climbing of Everest almost passé, and deadly now in part because of its human congestion, the world is lacking in the sense of magic that it once possessed, the sense that allowed Wyllis Cooper to imagine the peak of Everest as the dwelling place of the world’s last living goddess.

We live in a time that is more challenging for the very concept of adventuring than it is for most individual adventurers.  It will probably be several generations yet before we have new frontiers to conquer out in space, and that will be a brilliant time for the collective imagination regarding the possibilities of bold, individualistic human endeavor.  In the meantime, though, I hope that people with a truly adventurous spirit will see it as their prerogative not to queue up for a re-experience of long-ago conquests, but to find those rare frontiers of exploration and human strength which still exist in the corners of the Earth and the human spirit, and to demonstrate thereby that there is still true majesty in both.

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Culture of Obesity

David Sirota had a piece in Salon yesterday addressing the obviously demanding issue that is the obesity crisis.  The article consists of five recommendations for how to begin practically addressing the problem.  The appeal of them is intuitive enough, though I would put much more emphasis on Sirota’s number two recommendation, restructuring subsidies, than on his number one, taxing junk food.

I believe that consumers do tend to act in a rational manner, so far as their understanding of the facts allows.  It seems to me that a principle cause of obesity is the malnutrition of the poor, helped along by the fact that high fructose corn syrup and general junk food are less expensive per calorie than healthful food.  Taxing junk food without first dramatically altering the grocery market wouldn’t fix the element of the problem that’s caused by poverty.  Making all food more expensive won’t make people any more likely to acquire adequate nutrition from the food that was expensive before the fact.

There is perhaps a breaking point to be had here, in the same sense that there is with any instance of blaming the victim.  It is unfortunately tempting to assume that obesity and similar ill health is purely the result of poor choices, without regard for the possibility that some people’s actual range of choices is constrained.  For my own part, I often find myself thinking that I know exactly what I need to do in order to be healthier; and more than that, I know that I would roundly prefer the healthier dietary and lifestyle options that are theoretically available to me.  And yet I know that I simply cannot make many of those choices, because they are out of my price range.

This is not to say that education (Sirota’s fifth point) isn’t essential to reversing negative trends in food consumption, but by emphasizing ideas that effectively punish people for their constrained choices, we practically absolve ourselves of the responsibility to make other people’s most healthy choice into the choice that is also most rational.

The trouble is that things like extending the boundaries of rational choice are tediously difficult solutions that must rely on collective social action and firm government initiatives.  This goes for a solution grounded in education, and it goes double for ending junk food subsidies.  It’s also the essence of the third item in the Salon article, banning junk food in schools.  Again, though, I would adjust the language to “replacing” junk food.  It’s more accurate, considering that what we’re talking about is junk food that schools had been supplying in the first place, and it’s also just better PR.  The word “ban” might convey the idea that this issue really is about limiting people’s choices, rather than changing the rational calculations that go into making them.

In any event, all of these potentially effective anti-obesity measures can only be gradually and incrementally implemented.  None of them come with associated breaking points.  The last of Sirota’s recommendations, though, is a matter of impelling a breaking point for a relatively small number of people.  It’s also maybe a solution that wouldn’t spring to many people’s minds, being as it is hidden in plain sight.  But concordantly, it’ll be in plain sight so it might generate more rapid results.

The recommendation is “stop glorifying unhealthy eating habits,” and Sirota’s example of such glorification is the photo-ops that appear throughout presidential campaigns of candidates consuming corn dogs and cheesesteaks.  For some reason, this is seen as an essential way of connecting with voters, either because such terrible food is considered uniquely American or because it helps to make the politician seem like what everyone assumes Americans stupidly want their leader to be: a regular guy.  I hope there will never been a better example of this trend than at the last Iowa straw poll when the treat to be photographed consuming was a deep-fried stick of butter.

But the glorification of unhealthy eating habits extends far beyond that.  For instance, I have always been both perplexed and disgusted by the fact that an activity known as competitive eating exists.  And until it ceases to exist, it remains indicative of a culture that has strongly duplicitous attitudes towards healthy living and the causes of obesity.  And competitive eating truly must cease to exist, along with every other impulse to present food consumption as a source of amusement or personal image, as opposed to what it is and should be: a source of nutrition.

All the more complex initiatives to address the obesity crisis must precipitate from a change of culture, which clarifies valuation of healthy lifestyles.  Until that is achieved, efforts to change policy and improve education are doomed to a degree of frustration.  They will not be accepted by a population that is still pulled in two directions.  They will not be backed up by uniform political will.  Every collective change starts at the level of the individual, and yet the individual’s attitudes often have their foundation in media.

That’s why this is a matter of reaching a breaking point.  The most crucial first steps must be taken by those few people who are in a position to say, no, we won’t broadcast the hot dog eating contest this year, or no, we won’t run the picture of Mitt Romney jamming a chicken fried steak into his face on the front page, or no, we won’t make the fat guy the comic foil in this sitcom.  People in charge of decisions like this are disproportionately capable of changing culture, but I fear they often don’t realize it.

I am always hopeful that something will both jog their awareness and prompt them to take the corresponding responsibility seriously.  And I hope it takes something less than their ceasing to profit off of American obesity, because if I’m right that other initiatives won’t reverse the crisis without a cultural change, then that may never happen.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Shocking Common Financial Realities

Bill Cimbrelo directed me to a CNN Money story titled “Retirement Shocker: 60% of Workers Have Less Than $25,000 Saved.”  To my mind, the main question that this raises is for whom is this a “shocker”?  If the cited fact applies to more than half of the people concerned, isn’t it safe to assume that the majority of people should be unsurprised by the information?  The only reason that I see why a person would be surprised by statistics that affirm the day-to-day reality of his life is if he thinks his own experience is somehow anomalous, somehow out of keeping with the daily experience of other people like him.  Unfortunately, this is almost certainly the situation with most lower-middle class and poor individuals.

So here’s a breaking point that I’m looking forward to, and it’s one that’s on my mind often, and that I’ve brought up earlier and elsewhere.  The news media and society in general needs to stop presenting affluence as the default state of life in America.  It’s not correct, and more than that it can be damaging to policy and social discourse.  Our collective understanding of income disparity is distressingly skewed by a distinctly hopeful presentation of American life in most media, whether fiction or non-fiction.  As with all things, failure to accurately recognize the problem makes failure to craft solutions almost certain.

 People should never be shocked by information that’s right under their noses all the time.  If they are, then it’s pretty clear that something had been wildly misrepresented in the past.  You might object that it’s not as though people walk around with their total retirement savings tattooed on their heads.  Why should we have any idea what sort of figures apply to the majority.  You shouldn’t, of course.  And if you’re not a meteorologist you shouldn’t know exactly how much rain your area has gotten this month.  But when somebody tells you that figure would you be shocked?  If so, surely you’re either terrible at estimating rainfall or you haven’t been looking outside very much.  And if you weren’t paying attention, in order to be shocked you have to have made some groundless assumption about what the amount might be, which will then be contradicted by the facts.

There’s a lot of information that casual observers can’t be expected to know about people, about the economy, about the world.  But learning something new is not the same as learning something shocking.  Yet I don’t dispute that the headline for the given story was accurate and that a great many people were shocked by the revelation.  They wouldn’t have been if they hadn’t concluded on the basis of nothing whatsoever that the majority of Americans are well prepared for a comfortable retirement.  I put forth that this sort of thing reveals the entire perception of income demographics in America to be pure fantasy.

Such a fantasy promotes a victim-blaming mentality.  And it promotes that not just among the beneficiaries of income inequality but among the victims of it, too, as they may tend to be surprised by information that shows their experience to be firmly in the majority.  And yet even the recognition of that information is not in itself enough to move commentators towards the idea that financial difficulty is an endemic problem and not a personal one.  The language applied to stories about the plight of the masses still suggests that the simple fact of their being a part of the masses is in some measure attributable to their own negligence, sloth, or ignorance.

The CNN article takes pains to spin the subject in a certain direction that is at once optimistic about general patterns and unfair to individuals.  It points out, “While workers' lack of saving and confidence in their ability to retire comfortably is troubling, [Employee Benefit Research Institute director Jack] VanDerhei said it's good that people are becoming more realistic about their financial situations.”  Sure, maybe, but there’s an enormously significant dimension of this story that stretches beyond the personal responsibilities of the people who are negatively affected.  At the same time that those people exhibit realism about that, how about analysts, media, and society as a whole become more realistic about the financial situations of people other than themselves?