January 2011

Too many easy puns for this one

Apparently you really can’t go home again — new revisions of the iPad and iPhone are due to lose the home button:

We have exclusively been told that the reason Apple just added multitouch gestures for the iPad in the latest iOS 4.3 beta is because the iPad will be losing the home button. Yes, we are told that Apple, at some point in time, will remove the home button from the iPad’s design. Instead of button taps, you will use new multitouch gestures to navigate to the home screen and also to launch the app switcher.

Apple have made major physical interface changes before — I’m thinking specifically of the introduction of the touch wheel on the classic iPod — but this one strikes me as a particularly bad idea. Multi-touch gestures can be incredibly useful, to be sure; there’s enough potential there to create an entire physical language for human-computer interaction. But like a language, they’re not at all intuitive. As I’ve noted previously, intuitive usability is not just a tremendous advantage for the iPad and its potentially non-techie users, it’s something that Apple has explicitly used as a selling point. Adding multi-touch adds functionality, but adding multi-touch while removing the home button may just add unnecessary complexity.

Filed: aka Syscrusher || 11:53, January 17 || No Comments »

Truth follow-up

A few things relevant to my previous post on ontological consensus popped up this morning:

Filed: Super Special Questions || 11:08, January 14 || No Comments »

Rhetoric, truth and ontology in political debate

This may be a little disjointed, as I’ve been trying to think through a number of issues relating to the Giffords shooting and my research on partisan information flow. I’m cautiously optimistic that the broad discussion about violent rhetoric is headed in the right direction, even if it is accompanied by a considerable amount of whining about “blame.” But I still feel like we’re missing part of the point.

First, we are seriously eliding the differences between violent, angry and uncivil rhetoric. Sharron Angle’s line about “Second Amendment remedies” is a clear example of violent rhetoric; Ben Quayle saying he would “knock the hell” out of Congress is not; Alan Grayson calling his opponent “Taliban Dan” is not. But in the Washington-dominated conversation about this tragedy, this interpretation (as epitomized by MSNBC’s First Read) is on full display. Much of this concern could’ve been aired during any recent campaign without much editing — the Washington press corps and the political elites they interact with have been extremely concerned with “tone” for quite some time. Tone-based criticism has been a primary weapon against the influence of outsider-activists such as bloggers for years. That they would respond to this shooting by reprising one of their favorite tunes has me wondering just why they’re so concerned with tone and rhetoric, often to the exclusion of policy outcomes. Do political elites fixate on tone because they are both socially close to both sides of the Washington power balance and largely insulated from the outcomes of policy decisions? Could this lead them to view all political debate through this largely socially-driven lens? Ezra Klein took himself to task yesterday for suggesting during that health care debate that Joe Lieberman “was willing to cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands to settle an old electoral score.” This was a fairly personal attack on Lieberman, and probably an unnecessary one, but the core of the criticism was correct — the ACA will save hundreds of thousands of lives. That is, it’s not just a rhetorical device, it’s a policy with real outcomes. But for both passionate supporters and opponents of the policy among political elites, the rhetorical lens is just as important.

Once they abandon their concern for policy outcomes, their ability to moderate policy debates — which ultimately lie at the core of all this rhetoric — becomes extremely suspect. If you’re more concerned with rhetoric than outcomes, should you bother evaluating the outcomes, or the logic used to predict them? We can see this playing out in any number of recent debates. Look at the death panel claim, for instance. This was a claim that received significant criticism from the Left, and even some from the Right, usually in the form of, “Palin’s claim is a bit too strong, but still….” It was used to rile up opponents of health care reform and provided a quick and easy lineage of talking points for the GOP. It was, to be sure, a heated claim — the government was coming to kill our babies and old people — and that was seen by many as a problem. But really the problem with the claim wasn’t that it was heated, but that it was false. Imagine, for a moment, that it was 100% true. Babies with Downs syndrome would have to stand before these cartoonishly named “death panels” to anxiously await a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. Wouldn’t you want to know? Wouldn’t you want somebody to scream from the rooftops, “Hey, this bill is going to allow the government to kill whomever it wants,” and do whatever they could to stop it? I would want to know that!

But it wasn’t true. Despite that, it was largely taken at face value. See also the “Ground Zero mosque,” the various fake bailouts, “Climategate” — you can even go back to Swift Boat ads of 2004, and probably well before that. Unfortunately, one of the hallmarks of the modern Washington press corps seems to be that all sincerely held beliefs are taken on their own terms, and never directly challenged. Over the years, this has allowed us to generate not just duelling ideologies, or duelling information infrastructures, but duelling notions of reality itself. Adam Serwer notes that, “If people really believed 90 percent of what the conservative media were telling them, violence would almost be justified.” What the conservative media tell them is that, among other things, President Obama is literally setting up both a communist and an Islamic overthrow of the U.S. government. Again, the rhetoric itself needn’t be violent; it’s a heated, angry fantasy, which clearly positions a real person with real power as the ultimate villain. Serwer determines that really they don’t believe it, because we haven’t seen a violent uprising, though Digby has a list that suggests otherwise. On top of that list of actual occurrences, we can look to poll results — last August, Pew found that 34% of conservative Republicans believe Obama is a Muslim.

You don’t have to be perfectly sane to start with, or a card-carrying Tea Party member to potentially be influenced by this detachment from reality. It may be enough to be in a position to let this worldview wash over you to the exclusion of truthful information. And once you’ve been so washed, there’s no reason to expect you’re going to take up arms against anyone. But this detachment does more than create an angry environment — it makes political debate impossible. If we’re going to debate the cost/benefits trade-offs of a health care reform proposal, or a stimulus bill, or a tax cut bill, etc., we have to at least have some consensus about outcomes. We don’t have to, and probably never will, agree on which trade-off is best in either the short or long terms. But if your method of debating is to toss out CBO scores you don’t like and just rely on the Laffer curve and scare tactics for everything, we will never get anywhere.

Filed: Super Special Questions || 14:11, January 11 || No Comments »

Some thoughts on violent rhetoric

In the wake of the assassination attempt on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (and the collateral murder of half a dozen others), much discussion has turned to Sarah Palin’s infamous target map, the gun-heavy campaign events held by Jesse Kelly (Giffords’s 2010 opponent) and various examples of violent campaign rhetoric that have come from candidates and opinion-leaders on the Right over the past few years. This is pretty predictable, as is the response: There’s no evidence that Jared Loughner is a Palin supporter, a Kelly supporter or a Tea Party supporter. He’s just a lone nut! Well, maybe. His seemingly insane rhetoric about grammar and mind control strongly recalls that of David Wynn Miller, a prominent figure in the far-right “sovereign citizen” movement. Maybe Miller is insane, too, but the ideology that underlies the sovereign citizen movement has popped up before.

But focusing on Palin’s map — which she ridiculously now wants to claim has “surveyor’s marks” on it — and allowing people to just dismiss Loughner as crazy misses an important, bigger point. For the past two years, conservatives have made their case primarily by stoking fear. They have repeatedly claimed that Barack Obama and the Democrats in Congress are going to kill people, trash the economy, let foreign terrorists have the run of the place, etc. This isn’t an exaggeration of what they’re saying — they’ve taken the rhetoric of “genocide” from the far-right anti-abortion movement and scaled it up to their entire platform. So let’s say that Loughner is unstable, as various armchair psychiatrists have already diagnosed him as schizophrenic. A hallmark of this sort of mental illness is the perception of grand forces conspiring against you, or of someone or something being out to get you. Palin’s map is disgusting as campaign rhetoric, but it doesn’t say to an unstable person, “Hey, here’s a reason to go after this person.” But telling your followers that the government is going to pull the plug on grandma or that it’s deliberately setting murderous terrorists loose in America is different. Referring to an abortion provider as “Tiller the killer,” as Bill O’Reilly did repeatedly, is different. When that kind of rhetoric is tolerated, we shouldn’t be surprised when someone murders Dr. George Tiller, or tries to murder Democratic officials.

As much as this behavior, as well as more explicit threats — Sharron Angle’s “Second Amendment remedies,” the Tea Party’s “We Came Unarmed This Time” t-shirts — seems to be majorly cresting right now, this is part of a pattern dating back at least to early in the Clinton Administration. In 1994, both Sen. Jesse Helms (Clinton “better not show up around here [Fort Bragg] without a bodyguard”) and Rep. Bob Dornan (“The Second Amendment is…for hunting politicians, like in Grozny, and in the colonies in 1776, or when they take your independence away”) made violent threats against President Clinton. The difference then was that those comments were scandalous, and they were condemned by Republicans and media figures along with Democrats. Now, the conservative media machine allows this type of rhetoric to percolate and largely hide from the mainstream. Most of our officials and media figures now probably have little idea what’s happening in conservative social media, or even much of talk radio and Fox News; meanwhile, there’s much more of it than there was in 1994. To understand the implications of this type of violent and delegitimizing rhetoric, we first need to understand just how prevalent it is and how ingrained it has become in a particular segment of the population.

Filed: We R in Control || 16:56, January 10 || 1 Comment »

Who controls the Tea Party narrative?

There’s a question going around the blogosphere today of whether John Boehner’s quick-hit Affordable Care Act repeal bill — a largely symbolic measure that will go nowhere in the Senate — will be enough to appease the Tea Party activists who made rabid ACA opposition one of their litmus tests in 2010. The bill is scheduled for a vote two weeks before the State of the Union address, with no debate or CBO scoring, so it will likely not become an ongoing news story, but will be checked off the GOP’s list of campaign promises and will continue to be used as a fundraising and turnout tool in 2012.

While Jonathan Bernstein takes this move as evidence that Boehner sees the Tea Party as “a fairly easy bunch to manage,” Matthew Yglesias points to conservative messengers’ power in this process:

Suppose there’s some sellout that John Boehner wants to implement. Boehner recognizes that he needs to pair this with a symbolic but meaningless gesture. Now suppose he sits down in a room with Rupert Murdoch, Rush Limbaugh, Tom Donohue, and David Koch and persuades all three of those people that this is the right way to proceed. Then the next day, Boehner unleashes his symbolic gesture and his compromise, and the coverage of it on Fox News, The Rush Limbaugh Show, and the fox-affiliated radio shows is all positive. That alone gets you the three most popular talk radio shows, the television network, The Weekly Standard, a dose of influence at every single conservative think tank in America, and the important organizing efforts of Americans For Prosperity.

I think this misses a couple layers of complexity. First, any discussion of the Tea Party needs to keep in mind that there really isn’t a Tea Party, per se, whether or not you buy the formulation of the movement as largely elite-created. You may recall that the whole thing seemed to kick off when CNBC barker Rick Santelli delivered a rant against foreclosed homeowners who didn’t deserve the same consideration as the banks who’d lent to them. Then it turned into a traveling health care town hall freak show. Then it became about the UN’s plot to make us all ride bikes and Michelle Obama’s War on Dessert. This is why it’s so easy to find large numbers of people claiming Tea Party membership — every angry conservative in the country can find something within the “movement” to latch on to.

Given that, it’s easy to see major conservative media as the organizing loci of the Tea Party, because that’s where these ideas can all come together and be passed around. But suggesting, as Yglesias does, that nobody will be willing to cross Rush on these matters, and thus potentially split the ideaspace, doesn’t quite make sense to me. First, while the dominance of institutional media in the Tea Party is certainly one of the key factors in its growth, we shouldn’t ignore the role played by social media. For every birther flirtation by a respectable conservative pundit on Fox, there are a dozen images of Obama as a Kenyan tribal chief being distributed through social networks online. The woman who interrupted today’s partial reading of the Constitution in the House may have gotten the birtherism idea from some recognizable source, but I’m sure wasn’t Limbaugh and Hannity supporting her at her blog or her Facebook page. Social media makes it much easier to tell that when someone’s pissing on your head, it’s not actually raining.

The other factor here is the likely make-up of the 2012 GOP field. Some candidates will be in no position to be too aggressive with Rush (i.e., Mitt Romney) and will have to show their fealty at every opportunity. But some — Palin, Huckabee — are conservative media figures in their own right. Given that there will probably be several candidates vying for the hardcore Tea Party vote, it wouldn’t be unreasonable for someone like Palin to pick a fight with the established bigwigs, both to try to differentiate herself as a candidate and, more importantly, to try to leapfrog Limbaugh as the biggest of big names in conservative media going forward.

Filed: We R in Control || 12:40, January 6 || No Comments »