29 November 2014

Ferguson: We’re Missing the Point; or, How We Can Bloviate Endlessly

On Black Friday, assorted malls, Walmarts’ and other retailers were inconvenienced by citizens protesting the whole Ferguson, MO, situation.  (Even so, the retailers scored about an 8% increase over the sales on Black Friday last year.)

First, we need to separate the “Ferguson-Incident” from “Ferguson-the-Issue.” The concept that the St. Louis grand jury got it wrong and that “we” need a do-over is a suckers' bet. [See note 1]   If anyone defines “success” as what will happen in Missouri, they had missed the point.

The Ferguson-Incident really matters to the people who directly experienced it and to those with direct contacts to it. It matters to the decedent’s family and friends. It matters to the officer. [See note 2]  It matters to the witnesses. It matters to the authorities who are responsible to find out what happened in that particular incident.

But the rest of America is substantially impaired to judge this Ferguson-Incident.  If it represents a starting point for a national discussion, that’s fine.  But the Ferguson-Incident is one data-point in the discussion. No more. No less.

Maybe an out-of-control officer assassinated an innocent victim. Maybe a bad guy ran into an officer minding his own business. I don’t know. If I express an opinion, it has to be based on third- (or more) hand information. There is no way any of us can fairly judge from what evidence has been leaked from the grand jury, almost invariably by someone who has a dog in that fight. Even forensic evidence is merely evidence. Humans have to interpret that and sometimes humans get it wrong.

What? I hear a lot of You-have-to-be-kidding-me’s. A video from a few minutes before shows thus and so.  On the other hand, the ballistics show thus and so.  One witness says one thing and another witness says another. I read it in the the news, so I know what happened.  Don’t I?

As important the Ferguson-Incident is to the people directly involved, the rest of us are doing little but counting faeries dancing on the head of a pin.

Here is the real point: A significant part of the national community perceives that justice is racially biased.  Another part of the national community perceives that it’s not, but if it is, it’s rational.  That’s the issue.  

We need to accept that the majority of folks speaking out actually believe what they are saying. They are right. They are wrong. It doesn’t matter. People act on beliefs which are sincerely held.  When the beliefs clash, human nature seems to tell us to shut our minds, marshal our arguments, and defend our position to the last man.  

After all, if we can prove that the other side is wrong, they will fold their tent and go home.

Won’t they?

Not hardly. The normal human response is to dig in.  Then, ultimately, some belief is accepted by a bare majority. And then you have others who are royally – and genuinely – pissed off. 

Oh, I hear the You-have-to-be-kidding-me’s again.  Can I not see that [whatever] is the truth?

Actually, no.

That’s why the this Ferguson-Incident represents only an example of how we look at race to determine the bias of justice.

Oh, of course the justice system is biased. You are biased.  I am biased.  All God’s children are biased, especially those who are aghast that anybody dares to say that they are biased.  In my experience, the justice system is heavily biased against people who do harmful things to others.  We expect that bias. But the devil is in the details. What other biases exist that we agree is unfair or yields a poorer quality of justice.  

I have some ideas. Other people have different ideas. I suspect that all of the notions have a degree of truth in them. This American social experiment is complicated. There is no single cause for a single effect. We have a constant competition of ideas, all going on at once.

What is a mature society to do?

1 – Slow down. The Ferguson-Incident is a data point. While it is important to the people involved, if the rest of us claim “a piece of the rock,” we make whatever happened in Ferguson the whole point. 

2 – Speed up. Actually, we need to go from a dead stop. Americans say they want answers to the problems of American life. But we want simple answers when the answers are not simple. We need some real answers.  We need to accept that this is a continuing process of never-ending improvement. We need to invite dissent, not merely tolerate it.

3 – We need to confront the entire problem of justice, not just futz around making it look better. If you have a turd, spread icing on it, and decorate it with candles, it’s still not a birthday cake.

A rare group  moderate Senators had an intriguing on how to handle the gun debate.  Some suggested a “National Commission on Violence,” where the participants have not already decided what to conclude.  

How about dealing with a much larger issue: A National Commission for Justice, Violence, Economics, and Responsibility.”  I can picture it letting others than the Al Sharpton’s or Rush Limbaugh’s of the world be heard --respectfully.  I can picture – I think – that we might listen and participate in the discussion without automatically going into a defensive mode.  

This is important stuff.  If we pay attention to that because it because of the Ferguson-Incident, so be it.  But now it’s time to STFU and actually find some answers.

Note 1:   Actually, a do-over is possible. The government can present a case to the grand jury again and again until the grand jury issues an indictment.  I don’t really imagine that any future grand jury would have any more information than the grand jury which is already sitting.  That particular grand jury said that the evidence did not satisfy even a probable cause standard.  That is the easiest proof standard. Also, a federal investigation is possible.  But a federal civil rights violation would be still harder to prove. The Feds have to prove a specific civil-rights-related intent.

Note 2: I use “decedent” and “officer,” rather than any of the victim vs. bad guy, officer vs. bad guy, etc.  I still was not there when it happened. 

02 November 2014

Those Darn Negative Ads; or, If You Can’t Say Something Nice, You’re on the Right Track.

Last week, the Times-West Virginian (the local paper) ran its regular “man in the street” feature. The question was, “Do you pay attention to negative political ads?”

Three of the respondents said no, they didn’t. One guy said he doesn’t pay attention to any political ads.  And one lady said she votes against anyone who runs a negative ad.

If only it were that easy.

To say the least, this was not a valid statistical sampling of this community. Nor was it a valid sample of any community.

The reason the politicians use negative ads is simple: They work.

We have a very weak law of libel in the United States. The First Amendment is so strong that it takes a ton of libel to overcoming it. And for political ads, all bets are (nearly) off. Against a political figure, you can say safely say almost anything with a straight face.

A good example is how Minnesota Sen. Wellstone was treated in his 2002 reelection campaign. Opponents ran ads that mischaracterized some of the senator's  procedure votes.  The opponents said that the Senator wanted to tax all dead people and that he really disliked veterans.  But the ads didn’t mention that these were procedural votes which passed the Senate with scarcely a dissent.  They had nothing to do with any senator’s ultimate opinion.  All Wellstone could was try to ineffectively correct the record.  (Sen. Wellstone died in a plane crash two weeks before the election. His opponent, Norm Coleman,won.)

Peoples fear reactions are much stronger than their reactions to positive things. Wellstone's attempt to limit the damage had nothing like the power of good negative ad.

One particularly nasty campaign is the West Virginia race over the open seat of Sen. Rockefeller.  The Democratic Secretary of State has been attacked because she endorsed Obama in 2008 (Who was she supposed to endorse?) and because she doesn’t strongly (enough) support coal interests. At the same time, she has attacked her Republican opponent because her husband got a job with an investment bank, presumably the because the Republican candidate (who is in Congress) made some sort of secret deal. 

Neither candidate can hope to effectively set the record straight. Their response? – Run more negative ads.

We got three ads in the morning mail yesterday.  Each is an 8 x 10, glossy paper, printed on both sides.  All told, they cost about $1 each to deliver.

One is screed which blames all Democrats for the EPA’s war on coal (and there indeed a war), West Virginia’s “failed educational system” (the Mountain State is consistently in the bottom five), some sort of failure in funding the emergency services (beats me what they’re talking about) and that Obamacare has reduced the number of folks who are covered by insurance.   (I'm not sure, but I kinda doubt it.)  It is produced by “Go West Virginia Inc.”   It’s address is a PO Box in the pleasant little town of Elkins, Randolph County. It is not incorporated in West Virginia. So we know nothing about it.  We have no idea whose money paid for it.

The second is from “Grow West Virginia Inc.”  Oddly, they use the same post office box as “Go West Virginia.”  It accuses an incumbent State Senator for supporting ISIS (!!), mandating Obamacare (the Congress didn’t leave much choice) and for having voted for Cap & Trade.  Cap & Trade must be bad if it’s mentioned in the same breath as supporting ISIS.  Not one in 100 people understand it. I sure don’t.   And Grow West Virginia is equally as obscure as Go West Virginia.     

Third, surprisingly, is one paid for by an actual campaign. This accuses the same State Senator for having “[taken] money away from seniors[‘] programs to line casino investors['] pockets.”   There is no doubt a story there.  By the way, I am pretty annoyed that the campaign bought a list which identified me as a “senior.”

There are 3 items that are supposed to scare me.  What to do?

To be brutally frank, I don’t expect people to do jack about it. The politicians count on the public to accept this shit.  So far, they are right.  People believe all kinds of unbelievable things. People take an outfit like Go/Grow West Virginia as some kind of public service group.  The public is so used to lying that they don’t hold it against anyone.  Sure, money is king in politics.  

But just as there have to be buyers of votes, there have to be people willing to sell.

Are we willing to sell our votes for a lie?  It might be a good idea to question the “factual” basis for a political ad, even one from someone who doesn’t hide behind the Association for Mom & Apple Pie.  

Also, it might be a good idea to assume that anything produced by little groups with an unknown yet nice name has no relation to reality.  That is, they are lies.

And finally, we might hold politicians responsible for what their campaign does.  If s/he lies, s/he proves that s/he is willing to lie for personal gain.  If they both lie, vote for some minor party or write someone in.  

And if after a few campaigns, negative ads have quit working, at least they’ll try some other way to lie.  

In light of the Citizens United decision, we cannot control political propaganda.  It might not be a good idea to try to control it.  But let’s quit selling our votes so damned cheap. It’s embarrassing.

Note to candidates:

Your signs spread everywhere are a legitimate part of the campaign.  That’s until 7:30 PM on Election Day.  Then they are litter, junk and an eyesore.  I admit, they do made great makeshift target holders on a firing range.