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    Respecting the Story

    Here’s a story, one that, like any good story, has a solid plot, good tension, heroes, and villains.

    In this case the villain is the Texas state legislature, limned in caricature by Representative Jodie Laubenberg, a theocratically conservative, middle-aged woman from District 89. Rep. Laubenberg, an apparently not very bright betrayer of her gender, made some insane comments during the debate over an incredibly strong anti-abortion bill, one that, if passed would result in the shutdown of most Texas clinics where abortions are currently performed. Those clinics, however, also provide thousands and thousands of life-saving services for women (the majority of whom need these low-cost or free options), including screenings for numerous cancers, neo-natal services, and contraception. As a result of the bill (subsequently passed and then signed into law by Governor and co-villain Rick Perry), thousands will die. The blood of these thousands, so the story goes, is on the hands of these villains. The heroes of the story are all those fighting the good fight, whether through protest or press or petition, all of whom are determined to make the rest of the country see just how evil and harmful and criminal such actions are.

    Does that sound like the story you’ve heard? Well, here’s another, also with all the right narrative elements.

    In this story, Representative Laubenberg (a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin) and her colleagues, acting out of deep moral conviction and a belief that abortion is the taking of a human life, pushed as hard as they could to save as many of those lives as possible. Having run unopposed in her district, and having been very clear when she ran what her conservative positions were and are, Laubenberg is confident that she is fully representing her constituents as they would want. Recognizing, however, that an outright ban of abortion would be unconstitutional, the legislature presented instead a bill that would work within the limits of constitutionality, yet still save vast numbers of the unborn by limiting the ways and places in which such murders could take place. She realizes that some lives will potentially be harmed through the closing of these clinics, but the few thousands of adult women who might suffer pales when compared to the tens of thousands of unborn children who will be saved. It is in no way a perfect solution, but she is confident that she and her colleagues are doing the right thing for the most innocent and helpless human beings in Texas. She rides the ridicule and the insults, the cries that she is a murderer, the excoriation from the left, and stands tall in her beliefs, becoming a hero to many.

    And here’s one more, one I’m guessing you haven’t heard, but that is just as legitimate nonetheless.

    Facing the closing of the majority of their clinics in the state of Texas, Planned Parenthood plans their strategy. Realizing that appearing as the victim in any narrative is the surest path to emotionally driven support, they continue to bang the drum over the War on Women, the harm done to the poor and indigent, the many who will die because all of their other services will disappear. No more cervical screenings or mammograms; no more well-baby services. Just a locked door and a “Closed” sign. They could, perhaps, take another route, one that fights within the law while continuing to serve as many people as possible. They could, for example, agree to suspend performing abortion services while they work to wend one or more lawsuits through the courts. By doing so, those thousands and thousands of screenings and exams could continue, those thousands and thousands of early detections could save those thousands and thousands of lives.  But if they took that route they might be seen as abandoning both their principles and their narrative; with neither they might risk their story falling off the national radar, their protesting supporters inevitably moving on to other causes. So that’s not the road they travel. Planned Parenthood chooses not to think first about the lives they might save; those seem auxiliary somehow next to the greater good, the more important fight that needs fighting.


    “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion writes:

    We live entirely…by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the 'ideas' with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.

    She’s right, and to prove it you only need to think about your own beliefs, about which story you’ve heard and which you support.

    What so many miss is, for me, what’s really important: It’s not about which story you believe, but about which story you are willing to respect in others. All of the stories above have their points; all, in some ways, are true, are fact. Yet at the same time all are biased and none are completely right. They never will be. Nor will the various stories we tell ourselves in order to live in a world with drones and spying and racism and poverty.

    But when we refuse to understand that other people are invested in their stories, when we choose insult and invective over basic human respect, when our method of activism is to rally our own supporters in an effort to defeat rather than to engage, then we’ve lost. The activism is gone, replaced by mob behavior, and instead of working to heal, we’ve only increased the divisions that hurt us all so badly in the first place.

    Civility and respect aren’t easy. Stealing a line from Aaron Sorkin, I have to tell you that “you gotta want it bad, ‘cause it’s gonna put up a fight.”  Ignoring or belittling other people’s stories simply doesn’t meet the criteria. Neither does holding back from insulting others while mentally discarding their opinions. These are surface scans, and avoid the deeper issues of how we can really talk to each other even when we so fundamentally disagree.

    This seems the only real question to me. We’ll never all agree on abortion or race or poverty or foreign policy or American exceptionalism, or any of the dozens of other issues that routinely separate us. Nor will anyone ever win. This isn’t supposed to be a place of winning and losing—at least I didn’t think so. What we can and must agree on is that there are always multiple stories, and many of them are real, fact-based, and important. Mine isn’t the best, and neither is yours. But if we tell ourselves stories in order to live, then it is also true that we must respect the stories of others in order to let them live, too.


    An Open-and-Never-Shut Case: The Zimmerman Verdict

    [NOTE: Join me and co-host Eric Byler tonight on THE MIDDLE GROUND where we’ll ask you to chime in with your thoughts on the George Zimmerman verdict.]

    I admit to being incredibly confused by the Zimmerman verdict and the reactions to it. I just don’t seem to have the clarity that so many millions appear blessed with, that easy absolutism that convinces them of the rightness or wrongness, the fairness or unfairness, of what just happened in Florida.  I even waited a couple of days to write about it just because I wanted some of the hyperbole to die down before I jumped on one bandwagon or another.

    Well, it hasn’t. And I haven’t. It turns out that there isn’t a bandwagon I want to ride on in this parade.

    And parade it is. Over on Facebook there’s a Kill Zimmerman page, a closed group with 95 members, all of whom seem to think that, since GZ wasn’t convicted of a non-capital crime, he should be visited with capital punishment delivered the old-fashioned way: by a mob wielding stones. (Update: There's now a page insisting that the first page be taken down, which it seems as happened; nevertheless, the point stands.)

    I’m also uncomfortable with the fact that Zimmerman clearly benefited from a system that seemed more interested in the trial’s entertainment value than in justice. Don’t believe me? Then let me ask you this: Do you know who Deryl Dedmon is? Dedmon is a white teenager who, just a few weeks after Trayvon Martin was killed, was convicted for running over and killing a black man in a Jackson, MS parking lot. Dedmon got life.

    But we didn’t hear much about that one. Why? I don’t know. But it would have been an interesting juxtaposition to see just as much media attention paid to the fact that a white man was convicted of killing a black man.

    Except that Dedmon’s conviction lacks the outrage needed to fuel the ratings.

    Nevertheless, some facts are inescapable: as you can see in the graphic below, there is a dramatic disparity in who gets convicted in these situations. Nor can you deny certain statistics: in Florida, an African-American is 4.4 times more likely than a White to end up in prison, per population rates. (Note: while horrible, the number isn’t anywhere near the highest; New York’s ratio, for example, is 9.4:1.)

    Despite what someone would argue (including, apparently, the Supreme Court in some cases), you can’t avoid the fact that race plays a part in how our society decides what it decides.

    But the Zimmerman case? There’s a lot to chew on there. This was not a hunter hunting (as I’ve seen portrayed), not a swaggering vigilante out to make a name for himself. This was a guy looking out for his neighbors who promoted a situation that ended in tragedy. I don’t know what the proper outcome should have been.

    Apparently that puts me in the minority.

    [Photos and graphs from UK Mail Online]


    Sometimes a Not-So-Great Notion....

    While the proliferation of the internet continually creates new media at breakneck speed, providing a voice to millions, it also means that the worst kinds of political rhetoric are easily disguised as “news” when they’re really no more than simple propaganda. Designed to speak to those who already agree, these popular properties [1] continually misinform and misdirect in order to push the emotional buttons that insure devoted anger, incivility, and demonization.

    I’m not speaking of simple bias: As any writer knows, it’s impossible to write anything without some bias creeping in. Even the most academic inquiries are skewed simply by the questions researchers choose to ask and answer. There is no escaping it. Even given that bias, there are responsible and reputable journalistic outlets across the political spectrum. Mother Jones and The American Conservative are two examples of properties that, even with an agenda, strive to provide cogent, fact-based and logical reporting.

    Not so with the worst of the worst; take a gander at these two: is one of the top fifty political websites in the country, despite (or because of?) filling its pages with falsity, innuendo, and—of course—the always incendiary headline.  Here’s a good example from July 12, 2013, at the height of the George Zimmerman trial:

    The headline demonstrates once again that an over-the-top right-wing site loves nothing better than to tie everything (and I mean everything) to a corrupt Obama administration. And they do it in classic style: Apparently “speculation is raging,” and the judge “could have been put under pressure.”  In other words, nothing in the way of facts, reportage, or journalism of any kind. Nada, zilch, scratch, zip, diddly, bupkis. Nothing.  And yet people read this stuff and believe it because they want to.

    Lest those on the left think that the right has the patent on journalistic insanity, I beg to differ.  Check out my favorite counter-example,

    Think progress?  I think not.  Despite the name, the only real thought going into this work is the carefully wrought headlines, aimed, as always, at gut rather than head. And as for progress, that too is missing. In fact, this tawdry excuse for a website seems more interested in taking journalism back a hundred or more years to the days when media moguls first began passing off opinion as news, plastering yellow journalism across the front pages of, for example, New York World and New York Journal, the rival papers headed by Pulitzer and Hearst, respectively.

    ThinkProgress recently gave us this:

    What a headline, huh? Doesn’t matter that Governor Corbett (PA-R, in case you were wondering) never actually said any such thing. Mr. Volsky, in writing the article, used the connect-the-dots technique to presume that Corbett meant that, and then crafted a headline that is context- and fact-free. It’s only further down in the headline that Volsky attenuates his claim by writing that “Corbett appears to suggest...” But, hey: that headline makes for good copy if you’re trying to rile up the masses.

    ThinkProgress, by the way, is one of the top fifteen most visited political sites, ranking higher than both Mother Jones and The American Conservative.

    I know what you’re thinking right now. [2] You’re thinking that one of the two I’ve mentioned is downright evil while the other one is completely different. You’re wanting to call me names and tell me I’m blind and that I need to wake up.  Well, I have woken up.  When I want to understand what’s happening in our political world, I go elsewhere. In fact, I go to many elsewheres in order to find a balance. I respect Mother Jones and The American Conservative. I fondly review articles at The Huffington Post and Taki’s Magazine. Yes, they have bias: as I’ve said, journalism always does. But they’re not yellow. Their purpose is still news and facts and context and information rather than innuendo and disinformation.

    So why, oh why, is this crap so damn popular? My guess is that it goes back to what I think you’re thinking right now. We like the stuff our guys put out there. We believe it because we want to. But try not to.






    Update: I'm officially adding Daily Kos to my list of egregious offenders for having run this story with an outrageous headline. What will it take, I wonder, to get people to see that their favorite e-rags are all doused in kerosene and waiting for a light? - MC


    [1]There are thousands and thousands of less popular properties; anyone with a computer and the ability to spell “wordpress” can shout about anything. However, I’m referring in this essay to those that have millions or more in visitorship annually.

    [2] Or at least I think I do. I’m assuming, based on experience and review, but I can’t be absolutely sure, so if you need to rip me a new one anyway, fine. Go ahead. I’m used to it by now…. ;-)



    Mean Democracy

    I’ve been troubled for some time about democracy; I just don’t think it means what it used to mean.

    Democracy is supposed to be about hearing, considering, and respecting multiple voices, resulting in reasoned compromise that leads to the overall betterment of society. Not today, though. Today democracy seems like just another cudgel, grabbed by the powerful and used to force a modern despotism on a helpless electorate. It has become a tool of convenience; we parade its benefits when it suits our needs, and we do so in ways that subvert its truth. Demokratia, the rule of the people, is used by those who, wielding a bastardized definition, pretend that democracy is a power given to individuals rather than a loan given to representatives.

    While I may be unsure of what the word means today, I do know one thing: the practice of democracy has gotten mean. In North Carolina, for example (a part of the country we should all be paying extremely close attention to), democracy no longer rides the rails at all. The state legislators down there seem to have adapted the modern definition and are busy horse-whipping the populace into submission. (If you don’t believe me, take a look at this video, in which the NC Lt. Governor tells the concerned gallery occupants that they can’t make either sound or gesture. This, he seemingly contends, is how democracy works on his watch.) Instead of representing their constituents, the current supermajority appears to have taken the electoral victory as an opportunity to remake the state in their own image rather than finding ways to compromise for the betterment of the state’s diverse population.

    Such plays out all over the country. Fear and enmity have combined with Torquemadan tactics to create an environment that seems anything but democratic to me.  Instead, democracy is what someone else decides it is; democracy is whatever the winners want it to be.

    And our attitude has gone international. I’ve written previously about the Egyptian elections and how we seem to have conveniently forgotten that they were in fact just that: elections. Now there are those who laud what we used to deplore: the military ousting an elected head of state and then taking over the country.

    In my day we called that a “coup.”  But not today.  A quick search for references to the events in Egypt reveals an abundance of counter-coup claims; apparently, use of the term would violate U.S. foreign policy and impact our ability to provide aid to Egypt. And since we sort of like the results (After all, they got rid of the Muslim Brotherhood!) we wouldn’t want to take that risk. So it’s not a coup, even though “leading voices in Washington contend that it is the security interest of the U.S. and the region to help loosen the grip the Muslim Brotherhood has over Egypt and assist in holding a new set of democratic elections.”

    Apparently the last set of democratic elections didn’t provide the outcome we want.

    And it’s all connected. It seems like no accident that, at the same time that we willfully turn a blind eye to democracy’s overthrow in Egypt, we are also using democracy’s bludgeon to legislate against the non-existent threat of Sharia law here at home.  For proof, look no further than (once again) to our friends in North Carolina, who have chosen to join more than two dozen other states in wasting time on this “threat.”

    Is this really what democracy is for? And, if not, how can it change?

    Perhaps we should start with those few legislators who somehow still care, who try not to see only through a glass, darkly. Currently too many are playing the game the bludgeoners want them to play, catering to the lies and misinformation with counter-arguments that they know will only fall on deaf ears. Perhaps, instead, they should call out the hypocrisy. In North Carolina, for example, in the recent floor debates shown in this video, why is it that not one defiant legislator stood up to call out the bill supporters, to dare them to admit what they are really trying to do? Why do they only play the game of punch-counterpunch when the real issues of fear-mongering and theocracy are never addressed? Can you imagine what would happen if just one legislator bothered to stand up and speak the real truth, to ask just this one question: “Have you all gone fucking nuts?”

    Let’s find those legislators, both at the state and federal levels. Let’s encourage them, give them cover, offer them reportage and support. Let’s urge them to stop struggling in an environment that ignores democracy; urge them instead to call out what’s really happening, and to force those who would suppress us by pretending to democracy admit instead what they’re really trying to do.

    And what they’re trying to do is about the farthest thing from democracy I can imagine.


    Greetings from Woodstock

    I've just come back from a couple of days in Woodstock. Yes: THAT Woodstock. My son lives there and I drove the four-plus hours to help him celebrate his birthday. We spent some time recording music in his small apartment just outside of town (it's amazing what you can do with technology these days), and still had plenty of time to take a few circuits up and down Tinker Street, popping into a store here and there not so much to buy anything as to take a break from the humid heat. (Expect for the bookstore, of course. Can't go into a bookstore without buying something. Ever.)

    As we walked along, I saw this sign, and found it intriguing enough to photograph:

    Interesting, I thought. A bit different than I expected, but it somehow seemed right, true. Seeing it just shy of Independence Day made me think of how important dissent has always been to American history. Hell, we were created out of dissent. Voices are important. Whether it's Occupy Wall Street or the early days of the Tea Party, those voices all have one thing in common: they care.

    Then I saw this sign:

    Now I knew something was up.  A block further on came this one:


    And I thought: Where else but in Woodstock, the original home of dissent?

    When I got home I did a little homework and found out that the signs are an extension of something call the I-75 project, some of the "art of social conscience" by Norm Magnuson.  Now THIS guy knows how to say something.  Check out more of the signs here.

    And remember to speak, to dissent, to CARE.

    Have a great Independence Day, everyone, and thanks for reading.