Once Bitten, Twice Shy


In a surprising development, Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Mark Warner (D-VA), and John McCain (R-AZ), recently introduced a bill, called the Honest Ads Act, that would impose the same types of regulations on internet political advertising that have long held sway over political ads in print, radio, and television. What’s surprising about it is why it took this long to regulate online political advertising, and that until now there hasn’t been regulation of the same sort as in other media. A reader of online news could be forgiven for having assumed that internet political ads were subject to regulations similar to what has existed in other media for decades, such as disclosure within the ad of who paid for it. Not so.

What took Congress this long? Congress has been behind the curve for years on technological developments, and so in this case the more relevant question is why are they acting now. The answer is presumed Russian interference in last year’s presidential election, and specifically the placement of advertisements as well as so-called news stories on social media sites that the Russians allegedly intended to influence the election results. All that has yet to be sorted out in ongoing investigations, but in the meantime it will be a positive development to have online political advertisers more openly accountable.

March for Truth (35076251785)
A demonstrator in a Trump mask at one of the March for Truth rallies that took place around the country on June 3, 2017. Photo by kellybdc.

Much has been made over the past year especially, because of the election, of the effect of “fake news” on the electorate, the majority of which now appears to get its news through social media feeds on sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Those sites have made noises about doing a better job monitoring the reliability of news sources, but ultimately they cannot effect a major reduction in fake news without entangling themselves in issues of censorship, and consequently losing user trust even beyond the drop in trust they experience when another fake news story makes the rounds.

Forty and more years ago, when there were three national television news outlets and one or more print, radio, and television news outlets in every middling city or larger throughout the country, all of them reliant on a few news service gatekeepers such as the Associated Press, United Press International, and Reuters, the daily news reached a consensus that most people plugged into. There were drawbacks to such centralization, of course, but in general there existed a set of generally agreed upon facts from which disputants could diverge.

Now the news has atomized to the point that someone with a large Facebook following can spread a story with no basis in fact, and those followers will spread the story some more. There are no editors sitting on the story until it is verified. The engineers at Facebook and Twitter are not interested in the job, nor do they seem to think it should be their job. Their job is to watch what their customers watch so that they can boost their company’s revenue by effectively targeting advertising based on those results.

It is as if a newspaper’s staff printed almost everything that came across their desks, with little or no editorial judgment on the contents, and focused most of their energies on the advertisements. A newspaper could not do that because of physical limitations on paper, ink, and space, but an online news feed has no such limitations. A reader can scroll on forever, if so inclined. It’s a buffet that the social media sites are serving up, and it’s in their interest to try to specifically please each person they serve, a task made possible by the interactive nature of the web, where each user click is tabulated as a vote in favor.

From the 1976 film The Pink Panther Strikes Again, Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau shows the foolishness of making assumptions based on limited information.

There’s only a limited amount then that the news feed providers can and should do to monitor the reliability of the content they provide. Every little bit helps, which is why it’s good news that Congress is belatedly getting around to at least subjecting political advertisements to regulations that would alert interested readers to the provenance of online political advertisements, therefore allowing the readers to judge for themselves the veracity of the ads.

Ultimately people who read news online from a multitude of sources have to exercise critical thinking more than ever before in evaluating the reliability of what they are reading. The days of passively accepting the news in predigested form from trusted sources are over, and that’s all for the good really, but it also means being on guard and skeptical more than ever, much as people want to indulge their lazy tendencies toward confirmation bias, or believing what they want to be true.
― Techly




The recent controversy over Sarah Palin, Ted Nugent, and Kid Rock goofing in front of a portrait of Hillary Clinton at the White House tells us nothing new really about who these people are. Their immature actions were about what we would expect from a tour group of seventh-graders left unsupervised for a time, and were mild compared to the antics of two gay activists at a White House event in 2012 who flipped the bird at Ronald Reagan’s portrait. Joy Behar on The View accurately characterized the Palin trio as “sore winners”.

Behar’s phrase reveals the authoritarian character of many Trump supporters, and it tells us something about why they would goof in front of the portrait of a defeated political rival rather than merely tell us that they are childishly vindictive. The term “authoritarian” as used here refers to a personality type instead of only a political inclination. More authoritarian personalities are typically drawn to right-wing politics than to the left, but nonetheless there are authoritarians of the left. The Canadian psychologist Bob Altemeyer has studied and written about the authoritarian personality type, and developed a short test for the type, though he humorously suggests in his notes on the test that you not take the result too much to heart. His book on the subject, The Authoritarians, is available as a free download, and is well worth reading.

We are accustomed to hearing about sore losers, and certainly the Clinton camp has come across as such with their eagerness to cast blame for their election loss on everything and everyone but their own miscalculations and hubris, but Behar’s clever turn of phrase shines an unusual light on the election winners. What do they have to be sore about? Because an examination of the authoritarian character shows they are perpetually aggrieved people who feel put upon by the larger society no matter how powerful and numerous they are within it. An authoritarian always needs a scapegoat, The Other, a straw man (or in the case of the Hillary Clinton portrait, a straw woman), to push against and to externalize their hostility and anger. Anger makes up a large part of the authoritarian character, and for their own well-being they need to turn it outward.

Hitler in Paris, 23 June 1940
Hitler in Paris, 23 June 1940; photo from the Heinrich Hoffman Collection. Albert Speer, architect, on the left, and Arno Breker, sculptor, on the right.
So we have a trio of winners who take time from their White House tour to gloat over the portrait of a loser; we have a president who continually dredges up his victory over that loser in a childish attempt to validate himself; we have the Republican chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, who had been licking his chops in anticipation of a Clinton presidency because of the joy and headlines it would have given him in continuously investigating her, and who now appears to have been so deflated by her loss and the no-win prospect for him of investigating the new president that it could have affected his decision to not run for re-election in 2018.


Why then with all this winning are they not happy? True winners, after all, can be happy and generous in their victory. Because as authoritarians they cannot be happy for themselves with winning, but they can be happy with beating someone they have made into The Other. They will prop up a straw man or woman again and again in order to beat that straw person down again and again; they will repeatedly, with hollow enjoyment, revive the memory of The Other’s loss; and they will be disappointed and without purpose when they are deprived of the opportunity to badger a scapegoat and to build up their own esteem at the scapegoat’s expense.
Cheering crowds greet British troops in Paris, 26 August 1944. BU21
Cheering crowds greet British troops in Paris on Liberation Day, 26 August 1944; photo from the British Imperial War Museum.


Such are the actions of the authoritarians on the right in Washington, D.C., while over on the Left Coast, in Berkeley, California, the authoritarians on the left are not helping the cause of an open society, but are instead hurting it when they make martyrs of right-wing opportunists Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter. The old saying “sunshine is the best disinfectant” is beyond their ken. They don’t trust others to make their own adult decisions about what to hear and believe. What is within their ken is that they fervently believe they know what’s best for everybody. That they enlist the words and ideas of Martin Luther King, Jr., to validate their tactics is perverse. That the By Any Means Necessary (BAMN) and Antifa groups are authoritarian in nature is without doubt. They are certainly not sore winners, and don’t fit the profile of sore losers. They are nothing other than soreheads.
― Ed.


A Plague on Both Your Houses


Courage, man; the hurt cannot be much.


No, ’tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a
church-door; but ’tis enough, ’twill serve: ask for
me to-morrow, and you shall find me a grave man. I
am peppered, I warrant, for this world. A plague o’
both your houses! ‘Zounds, a dog, a rat, a mouse, a
cat, to scratch a man to death! a braggart, a
rogue, a villain, that fights by the book of
arithmetic! Why the devil came you between us? I
was hurt under your arm.


I thought all for the best.

William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet (Act III, Scene i).


From February 23rd to the 26th, the 447 members of the Democratic National Committee will meet to elect a new chairperson to replace Donna Brazile, who has served as interim chair since Debbie Wasserman Schultz resigned. The two leading candidates are Minnesota Representative Keith Ellison and former Labor Secretary Thomas Perez. Ellison is backed by Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, while Perez is backed by more of the Party establishment. It’s anyone’s guess at this point whether the election of a new chairperson will serve to correct the faults within the Party that led to the 2016 election debacle, but the signs are dubious at best.

DNC chair candidate Sally Boynton Brown of Idaho garnered a lot of publicity for her remarks about serving as a voice for minorities, even if that means suppressing the voices of white people. She no doubt meant well, but her ill-chosen phrasing has only stirred the embers from the last election, when the Clinton campaign’s reliance on identity politics and neglect of working class voters, mostly white, in the Rust Belt states led to a decisive turnout for the opposition. It is now almost three months since the election, and the Democratic Party establishment still has not come to terms with their own complicity in losing a very winnable election. They still seek to blame others, such as the Russians for meddling in the election, for which they have negligible evidence, and the Rust Belt voters who upset their apple cart. The continuing denigration of white working class voters by Democratic Party elitists as ignorant, misogynistic, racist “deplorables” shows they are still  incapable of accepting any blame themselves.

According to psychologists, the five stages of grief are 1) Denial, 2) Anger, 3) Bargaining, 4) Depression, and 5) Acceptance. It’s clear from both public and private rhetoric that many Democrats are still in stages 1 and 2. They have every right to feel that way for a time, though in many cases their anger is misdirected. They should be directing their anger at their leaders rather than the working people those leaders have abandoned and ignored over the last forty years while they courted corporate money and the academic and professional classes. In the past, many so-called deplorables were a part of the Franklin D. Roosevelt coalition that ensured a solidly Democratic Party majority in this country through the middle years of the Twentieth Century, before the Democrats lost their way and decided to mimic Republicans in becoming bedfellows with Wall Street plutocrats, while cynically attempting to retain credibility with a portion of their base by throwing them identity politics sops.

Unfortunately, being mired in denial and anger obstructs recovery, which begins with acknowledging there is a problem, as any twelve step program informs us. Until Democratic Party leaders demonstrate a willingness to stop blaming the Russians and others for their own failings, and thereafter attempt to reform the Party by returning it to the left of center FDR coalition that served the majority of its members well for many years, Progressives will need to look outside the Democratic Party and begin working earnestly to make a third Party a force to be reckoned with. Progressives – and maybe some disgusted Republicans, too – will, like the wounded Mercutio, have to say to the two major Parties, “A plague o’ both your houses!” Let’s hope in the meantime that, unlike Mercutio’s wound, the new era of Supreme Leader doesn’t prove fatal.
― Ed. 


A Grain of Salt


The picture here of Harry Truman is in no way meant to conflate him with Donald Trump, but merely to illustrate the similar nature of their upset wins. In 1948, polls had the Republican challenger, Thomas Dewey of New York, ahead of Democratic incumbent Harry Truman. The Chicago Tribune, a newspaper which made no secret of its dislike of Truman, was so certain of his impending loss as it went to press late on the night of the election that it went ahead with the infamous headline “Dewey Defeats Truman.” Two days later, after Truman left his home in Independence, Missouri, where he had awaited the election results, his train stopped in St. Louis and he posed on the rear platform with a copy of the Chicago Tribune and with the former Democratic mayor of St. Louis, and in 1948 Postmaster of St. Louis, Bernard Dickmann.
Dewey Defeats Truman
Harry Truman with Bernard Dickmann in 1948


Certainly in 1948 newspaper technology played a part in the Tribune’s error, on account of the extensive lead time needed to typeset the pages, photograph the plates, and print the paper. Other newspapers faced with the same technical limitations, however, did not make the same error. Confirmation bias, or wishful thinking, played a larger part in the decision by the Tribune brass to print that headline. They saw all the polls picking Dewey as the winner, and because they wanted Dewey to win – or rather, they wanted Truman to lose – they confirmed their bias in print.


As the 2016 election results came in, it became clear that most polls, which up until election day had Clinton ahead of Trump, were wrong again as they had been in 1948. Granted, Clinton narrowly won the popular vote, but at nothing like the three to five percentage points many polls gave her. It seems the electoral vote win by Trump was brought on by taking a few Rust Belt states away from Clinton, all of which the polls generally had either solidly in Clinton’s column or leaning her way. Two factors come to mind here in the disconnect between the polls and the election results, one having to do with the methods pollsters use and the other having to do with voters and media ignoring the disclaimer that comes with all polls, namely the margin of error, typically about three percent. That’s the grain of salt people should take when they read polls, but often choose to ignore.


A particular problem with predicting the 2016 presidential election was how quickly the race tightened up in the few weeks between the aftermath of the last debate, when the buzz nationwide was about a possible Clinton landslide, and the weekend before the election. Also, polling up to the last minute did not appear to show a change in the amount of voters who remained undecided. Most of the undecided voters appear to have waited until election day to go for Trump, and that shows in how Clinton’s numbers remained practically unchanged from the polls to the election results, while Trump made up the difference of three to five percentage points he had been behind in the polls. In future elections, pollsters will have to reexamine their methods and consumers of polls will have to remember to take that grain of salt.
Vanity mirror
Vanity mirror; drawing by David Ring
for the Europeana Fashion project
John Podesta
John Podesta in 2010;
photo by Flickr user Connormah


Meanwhile, in the aftermath of the election, the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee are casting blame on everyone but themselves for the debacle of losing to a Republican candidate that few political insiders, not even in the Republican establishment, thought could win. The Democratic establishment, with great hubris and with apparent confirmation from the polls, arrogantly expected their candidate to win in a walk, and to their eventual detriment they didn’t appear to care about courting the votes of working class and middle class people in the Rust Belt. We shall see if John Podesta, chairman of the Clinton campaign, and the rest of his crowd learn anything from this, but in the meantime to help them do so they could use a long, hard look in a mirror if they want to assign blame.
– Techly


What Is a Debate?

Debate intransitive verb; To engage in a formal discussion or argument.

Monday evening, September 26, there will be a debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. “Between” may not be the right word to describe what takes place, though, and perhaps then it shouldn’t be called a debate at all. Modern U.S. presidential election debates are in the format of brief answers by the candidates in response to questions from a moderator or a panel of journalists. The candidates usually make an opening speech and a closing speech to bracket the debate. The candidates rarely address each other directly, and when they do so it is outside the prescribed format.

Lincoln debating douglas
Abraham Lincoln, standing, debates Stephen Douglas, seated to his right.

Kennedy Nixon Debat (1960)
On October 7, 1960, the second of four presidential election debates took place between John Kennedy, at the podium on the left, and Richard Nixon, at the podium on the right. The moderator sits behind them, and a panel of four journalists sit in front.

In the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 for the office of U.S. Senator from Illinois, the candidates took turns speaking at length on issues they brought up themselves, with no moderator or panel of journalists interposing between them and their audience. While Lincoln lost the election, his eloquence in addressing the issues of the day brought him to national prominence and led to his election as President two years later.

In 1960, the U.S. presidential election debates began as we know them now, with the format of a joint press conference rather than a true debate. Unlike now, the discourse then at least was civil and the candidates addressed issues more than personalities. Now, in the debate tomorrow evening, we will have two candidates who, reminiscent of a line from the song about a red-nosed reindeer, laugh inappropriately and engage in name-calling. Examples of both behaviors abound from both candidates. Far from Lincoln and Douglas, the 2016 candidates are not even close to being like Kennedy and Nixon.
– Ed.

It’s the 2016 presidential election debate season, and in the middle is our moderator, the stand-in for the public at large, flanked by the two major party candidates.