Tag Archives: politics

A Writing November

Cartoon of open newspaper with "Correction" advertisement: "The Downing St memo seems to be at odds with pretty much anything you remember seeing and hearing in the media in the runup to the Iraq war.  Your memory is in error. We regret your mistake."

(c) Tom Toles (2005) | “The First Draft of the Rewrite of History”

I’ve decided to participate in this year’s National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo 2013), and will be using the 50,000 word-challenge to reboot my research on the British executive branch’s structure, values, personnel, and communications during the 18 months before the UK- and US invaded Iraq.*

This year marked the 10th anniversary of the March 2003 invasion and the 8th year since I began to study how the Blair administration rendered Saddam Hussein’s Iraq “non-compliant” with international protocols on weapons of mass destruction and an “imminent” threat to the UK national interest.

I’ve already written and presented about this case for other communication academics (Popular Culture Association, 2008; Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, 2009), and I’ve also written a 150-page doctoral study about it with a bibliography nearly 25 pages long. I may write for these readers again in the future, but not next month.

November is about writing about the British executive branch, weapons of mass destruction, secrecy, freedom of information, and civil servants, not for other academics and not as part of a degree program, but for members of the public: people like you who are savvy and curious, who don’t necessarily know a lot about the details of this case, and who care about good governance and want to read high-quality, engaging content about it.

I’m not going to write and revise next  month, though; I’m just going to write. By the end of the month, I’ll know whether I have it in me to turn this year-old baby into a book in 2014.

My goals for November are simple enough, and I’m declaring them here to increase the risk:

  1. Write ~2,000 words six days each week for 30 days, or a minimum of 1,670 words daily.
  2. Focus on generating these 50,000-50,100 words, rather than fretting about whether they are good words.
  3. Remember how much I love this project and wonder why it’s taken me so long post-graduation to return to it.

If you’d like to track my progress through November, there’ll be a word count widget in the right column of my homepage. And if you have a fiction or non-fiction book in you too, then you still have a day to sign up! As of tonight, nearly 190,000 other writers are waiting for you.

Expect an update on this from me in a few weeks.

* This intention marks me as a NaNo Rebel. Good luck to all the novelists too!


Today I bought Janna Malamud Smith’s Private Matters: In Defense of the Personal Life (2003) and will be sharing content and reflections on it going forward. The following quotes come from pages 27-41; in that section, Malamud Smith builds on Alan Westin’s 1967 definition of privacy as four-faced and composed of solitude, anonymity, reserve, and intimacy. I’ve bolded these categories in the sections below.

“When you set out to destroy someone psychologically, destroying his privacy turns out to be one effective and common tactic. When Primo Levi talks about solitude in [Auschwitz] being more precious and rare than bread, he helps us understand its place in life. One function of privacy is to provide a safe space away from terror or other assaultive experiences. When you remove a person’s ability to sequester herself, or intimate information about herself, you make her extremely vulnerable.”

“Summed up briefly, a statement of ‘how not to dehumanize people’ might read: Don’t terrorize or humiliate. Don’t starve, freeze, exhaust. Don’t demean or impose degrading submission. Don’t force separation from loved ones. Don’t make demands in an incomprehensible language. Don’t refuse to listen closely. Don’t destroy privacy. Terrorists of all sorts destroy privacy both by corrupting it into secrecy and by using hostile surveillance to undo its useful sanctuary.”

Solitude is the most complete state of privacy. A person seeking solitude separates from others so that she cannot be seen or heard, and so that she is not easily intruded upon. In solitude, as opposed to the other states of privacy [anonymity, reserve, and intimacy[, she is most free to relax her body…”

“We seek solitude because our psyches are permeable membranes. When we come in contact with others, we tend to absorb feelings, thoughts, moods, and opinions. A child says you’re unfair for making her start her book report today. Are you? A client asks to change his appointment from Tuesday to Monday. Can you? A spouse gives you a look that suggests it’s your turn to fold the laundry. Is it? A friend describes events that have made her sad. Is that why you now feel sad? We separate from others to sort through all we have taken in, to replay pieces of exchanges, to evaluate them, to rework them—and ultimately for the peace in which to listen attentively until we can hear our own notes amidst the jangle.”

“The essence of solitude, and all privacy, is a sense of choice and control. You control who watches or learns about you. You choose to leave and return… Unchosen solitude quickly becomes painful isolation… But solitude in moderation, held in check by its being a sought and limited departure from the company of others, allows freedom.”

“People need privacy from others so that they can rest from the strain of being what others desire—responsive, civil, engaged, conventional…To think and create, people often need solitude because its privacy allows not only mental continuity, quiet, and relief from being noticed, but latitude to experiment with half-formed ideas and ridiculous solutions. Still, that image neglects the full cycle. Solitude is half a heartbeat. Artists seek solitude so that they can create what they then must take before the public. Without an eventual audience, no matter how small, solitude can become, in Emerson’s words, ‘the safeguard of mediocrity.'”

“A second state of privacy is anonymity. To be anonymous is to be unidentified, unnamed, unnoticed:  a walker in a city, a member of a crowd. With the absence of recognition can come a liberating privacy. People often seek anonymity when the conventions of their surroundings, when the burden of being known, threatens to obliterate vital dimensions of their being… Anonymity allows people to express thoughts or feelings they might suppress in a relationship where they feel ashamed, vulnerable, or frightened… When not worried about being identified, people will say what they are otherwise ashamed to say…”

Reserve, the third state of privacy is forbearance, tact, restraint. In a state of reserve, unlike solitude, we are together with people, and unlike anonymity, we are usually known to them. We may be intimate. Our state is private simply because we do not choose to reveal the full extent of what we feel, observe, think, or experience. We set aside our immediate perceptions, sometimes our frankest opinions—preserving them (and often us) for the future. reserve is a house with glass walls, but no one mentions it.”

[Examples of reserve include retiring to one’s sleeping space or using headphones, newspapers, or books to block out other passengers on public transportation. Forms vary culturally and over time.]

“Too much reserve leaves people isolated, misunderstood, and guessing. Do you like me or hate me? Are you angry or sad? Am I helping or hurting? People get edgy when they cannot figure out where they stand. Yet almost all exchanges require some holding back of what is thought or felt because our most private thoughts are too idiosyncratic, vacillating, boring, unsocialized, and bald to be more than occasionally tolerable to other people. The capacity for reserve is as important to sustaining intimacy as disclosure is. It offers a basic form of emotional safety.”

Intimacy is a private state because in it people relax their public front either physically or emotionally or, occasionally, both. They tell personal stories, exchange looks, or touch privately. They may ignore each other without offending. They may have sex. They may speak frankly using words they would not use in front of others, expressing ideas and feelings—positive or negative—that are unacceptable in public… the heart of intimacy, its essence, is that in it one comes as close as one is capable of, or as close as one feels permitted, to revealing oneself to another person. One attempts to express frankly to another one’s inner experiences, desires, feelings, and perceptions—though the expression is inevitably limited and incomplete.”

Like a recent article on the empirical psychological impacts of political surveillance, this 4-fold analysis of privacy focuses on the individual and his or her voluntary or involuntary engagement with others. I look forward to seeing Malamud Smith explain whether or how she sees privacy and private relationships influencing collective knowledge-making or the work of the state.

Sometimes it’s the 400-year-old articles that speak most clearly.

John Milton’s Areopagitica, a treatise from the early days of the English parliament, was inspired by a 1643 law that required new books, pamphlets, and papers to be reviewed and licensed by the new English government before publication and reprinted only when approved. In this tract, Milton, argues that censorship stifles communal debate, learning, and knowledge-making, undermines a people’s search for truth, and binds them to state-authorized conclusions.

via Southern Methodist University's Bridwell Library.

First page of Areopagitica, via Southern Methodist University’s Bridwell Library

When Milton wrote, England was in the midst of its second civil war and developing the doctrine of parliamentary supremacy over the tradition of divinely appointed monarchy. Parliament was controlled by Protestants, Presbyterians specifically, and their chief antagonists were Catholic and Puritan. King Charles I, enthroned at the time, had a Catholic wife and was perceived as unsupportive of the Protestant Reformation in mainland Europe.

Milton references Catholic churchmen and rulers uncharitably throughout Areopagitica, playing to readers’ prejudices in order to increase their support (the Christian epistle to the Romans does the same). But these references also work to describe a particular kind of governance: people of all and no religious background have presided over tyranny and the non-Catholic king was accused of doing so throughout his reign until Parliament had him executed in 1649 as a traitor. The Parliament that passed the Ordinance for the Regulating of Printing was not Catholic, but Protestant, and in this pamphlet Milton describes them as grasping, controlling, and well out of their rightful lane.

In the passages below, Milton explains why open discussion is essential and why prejudging variant opinions and those who are different is both unwise policy and philosophically weak.

Where there is much desire to learn, there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions; for opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making. Under these fantastic terrors of sect and schism, we wrong the earnest and zealous thirst after knowledge and understanding which God hath stirred up in this city. What some lament of, we rather should rejoice at, should rather praise this pious forwardness among men, to reassume the ill-deputed care of their religion into their own hands again. A little generous prudence, a little forbearance of one another, and some grain of charity might win all these diligences to join and unite in one general and brotherly search after truth, could we but forego this prelatical tradition of crowding free consciences and Christian liberties into canons and precepts of men…

And if the men be erroneous who appear to be the leading schismatics, what withholds us but our sloth, our self-will, and distrust in the right cause, that we do not give them gentle meetings and gentle dismissions, that we debate not and examine the matter thoroughly with liberal and frequent audience; if not for their sakes, yet for our own? — seeing no man who hath tasted learning but will confess the many ways of profiting by those who, not contented with stale receipts, are able to manage, and set forth new positions to the world. And were they but as the dust and cinders of our feet, so long as in that notion they may yet serve to polish and brighten the armoury of Truth, even for that respect they were not utterly to be cast away. But if they be of those whom God hath fitted for the special use of these times with eminent and ample gifts, and those perhaps neither among the priests nor among the pharisees, and we in the haste of a precipitant zeal shall make no distinction, but resolve to stop their mouths, because we fear they come with new and dangerous opinions, as we commonly forejudge them ere we understand them; no less than woe to us, while thinking thus to defend the Gospel, we are found the persecutors. —John Milton

Howard Chandler Christy's "Scene at Signing of the Constitution of the United States" (1940)

“Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States” (1940) by Howard Chandler Christy

History is recursive when we fail to learn its lessons. The British aren’t the only people to have faced state censorship; they are again today, and so is the United States. But the United States was born  more than a century after the English Civil Wars and the 1643 ordinance to “regulate” publishing. The US’ founders were no stranger to English history or the religious, political and ideological persecutions that run through it.

So it was no accident that the Western hemisphere’s newest republic diverged from England on its definition of “treason,” provided that “no religious test” could qualify a person for state office, and ranked as fundamental the rights of free speech, free exercise of religion, free assembly, and a free press.

In England, the principle of a free press was not secured until 50 years after Areopagitica, yet there are questions about both individual censorship and press freedom in the UK today. (Also see this summary of the UK’s reach from AP.) And these questions are not just for professional commentators and specialists, but also for every ordinary person who values liberty—their nation’s and their own.

Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties. —John Milton

Beyond the Vote: Political Meta-narratives & Asking the People What They Think

In this talk, Eric X. Li offers a provocative discussion of political meta-narratives—the stories we tell ourselves about our political systems—based on his study of the People’s Republic of China. At 15:08, Li makes some bold predictions about China’s future in comparison to the US and peer nations within the next decade. I hope someone checks back with him in 2023.

I think democracy contributed to the rise of the West and the creation of the modern world. It is the universal claim that many Western elites are making about their political system, the hubris, that is at the heart of the West’s current ills. If they would spend just a little less time on trying to force their way onto others, and a little bit more on political reform at home, they might give their democracy a better chance. China’s political model will never supplant electoral democracy, because unlike the latter, it doesn’t pretend to be universal. It cannot be exported. But that is the point precisely. The significance of China’s example is not that it provides an alternative, but the demonstration that alternatives exist. — Eric X. Li

Li argues that the Chinese one-party system has allowed for greater adaptability and reform than we electoral democracy citizens have acknowledged, and he may be right. A vision of one model operating worldwide betrays a fear of political diversity, a lack of imagination regarding all the ways there are to govern different societies effectively. Why must only one governance model be adopted across the planet or presented as the end toward which we must or will inevitably evolve if we’re mature enough (and by whose standards might we be judged “mature”?

VoteButton_Dallas Observer

Your vote counts… Or does it? | via The Dallas Observer

I think Li is correct on this point: there are different ways to participate in governance, there are different ways for governments to be responsive, and voluntary elections are not the only way to prompt popular engagement or official reception. In the US, only 50-58% of voting-age residents have done so at a general election since 2000, and voter turnout has never been higher than 63%. (The voting age population includes imprisoned citizens and non-citizen residents.) If only 3 out of 5 people will participate in a general election, and 1-2 out of 5 on average in elections for more local levels of government, we can’t honestly call their choices the voice of the people.

The use of survey instruments, focus groups, and similar direct research tools in public sector administration has increased in Europe over the last 15 years along with shifts towards e-government; the UK government’s use of public consultations as it developed controversial bills is a recent example. These methodologies could help to reform electoral democracy here in the US too.

Orson Scott Card and Art Boycotts

Ender’s Game author Orson Scott Card is in the news again hoping the Ender’s Game movie won’t be boycotted. But his call for “tolerance” doesn’t read like a desire for mutual civility. It’s not even a discussion of his views or their merit. He’s all about the money, snarking about others’ right not to pay into his product, and driving the canard that people working against demographic discrimination are oppressive haters who shouldn’t be trusted when the power tables ever turn. The logic: “I can lobby against your marriage and civic standing & that’s not intolerant. But you organizing against my profits—that’s intolerant.”

No. No, no, no.

Card is a private citizen and entitled to his personal and religious beliefs. He’s not providing a public service so he’s under no mandate to offer his work to everyone. He may be hired by whoever wishes to hire him; and no one is obliged to patronize him. This is the essence of market trading: producers aren’t entitled to consumers. Producers earn consumers via product resonance, price, quality, and great experiences, and so smart producers will cultivate their brand to increase resonance and improve their product, its image, and client relationships. This being so, I wonder what the strategy sessions at Summit Entertainment  look like this week!

The Artist’s Outsized Influence

There’s another issue beyond market strategy. As well as being a private producer, Card is also an artist. One doesn’t have to agree with an artist’s politics or endorse their psychology to engage works derived from the artist’s art. Students of literature and music often learn to trace artists’ psychology, politics, and life experiences in their work, and some of us use that assessment to determine what we do and don’t want to consume.

Centuries ago, Shelley wrote that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. I’ve always agreed with this, not just in relation to poets but also re. other artists and cultural creators. Card has an outsized public influence among a range of readers because of his art and the worlds he creates in that art. He’s also developed influence among religious-political lobbyists because of his willingness to speak beyond his art. How does he not grasp that because of his outsized influence he’ll receive outsized praise and scrutiny when members of the public—his audience—affirm or challenge his contributions?

Boycotting as Freedom: The Right to Opt Out

Unlike those harmed by his political lobbying and the climate he contributes to through his writing and speech, Card is not at risk for harm. There’ll be no referendum on his opinions as there’ve been referendums on other citizens’ rights, relationships, and families. Though he, NOM, and his church have promoted diminished civil rights for LGBT people, they are at no risk of diminished rights themselves.

The freedom of expression that Card enjoys as a citizen and an artist has never included freedom from criticism, and anyone may boycott his work if they wish as an expression of their rights. Economic boycotts are native aspects of American politics. They’re not “monstrous” or inherently “intolerant”; they’re an instance of liberty. They are sometimes based on un-reflective groupthink; they often channel consumer ire at local franchises rather than at corporate owners and policy-makers, and so they can be ineffective change-agents—but these are deployment issues, not essential characteristics.

A boycott is a symbol of the right to opt out, the liberty not to buy, the freedom to consume consciously and at will. It’s a tool, not an end, and sometimes it’s warranted.

Hailee Steinfeld and Asa Butterfield in Ender's Game | (c) Summit Entertainment  (Lionsgate)

Hailee Steinfeld and Asa Butterfield in Ender’s Game | (c) Summit Entertainment (Lionsgate)

I’d like to see Summit Entertainment’s Ender’s Game eventually though I’ve never read Card’s series: I’m a fan of Asa Butterfield and expect him to shine in this role. I also have some empathy for the cast and crew involved in this production: it looks solid and they’re not responsible for the source writer’s work or personality. Orson Scott Card is responsible for that. I don’t yet have any info on how much he will earn from the Summit film; early rumors are that the studio isn’t including him in pre-screening publicity—yet clearly the marginalization approach isn’t helping them and they may need to be more direct about their relationship.

There are lots of other films to see this year; I may save my pennies and watch the film a few months late with a free Redbox code. In the meantime, all the best to people convicted otherwise: buy or boycott as you will.

Awe, Doubt, Fanaticism

The Doubt Essential to Faith | Lesley Hazleton

Abolish all doubt, and what’s left is not faith, but absolute, heartless conviction.You’re certain that you possess the Truth—inevitably offered with an implied uppercase T—and this certainty quickly devolves into dogmatism and righteousness, by which I mean a demonstrative, overweening pride in being so very right, in short, the arrogance of fundamentalism…

Like fundamentalists of all religious stripes, they have no questions, only answers. They found the perfect antidote to thought and the ideal refuge of the hard demands of real faith. They don’t have to struggle for it like Jacob wrestling through the night with the angel, or like Jesus in his 40 days and nights in the wilderness, or like Muhammad, not only that night on the mountain, but throughout his years as a prophet, with the Koran constantly urging him not to despair, and condemning those who most loudly proclaim that they know everything there is to know and that they and they alone are right.

And yet we, the vast and still far too silent majority, have ceded the public arena to this extremist minority. We’ve allowed Judaism to be claimed by violently messianic West Bank settlers, Christianity by homophobic hypocrites and misogynistic bigots, Islam by suicide bombers…

This isn’t faith. It’s fanaticism, and we have to stop confusing the two. We have to recognize that real faith has no easy answers. It’s difficult and stubborn. It involves an ongoing struggle, a continual questioning of what we think we know, a wrestling with issues and ideas. It goes hand in hand with doubt, in a never-ending conversation with it, and sometimes in conscious defiance of it. —Lesley Hazleton

Democracy: Expression and Decision-making

Jon Stewart’s away in Egypt filming (nice work, John Oliver). I just saw Jon talking with Bassem Youssef, host and resident satirist at Al-Bernameg. (Skip ahead to 10:11.)

Skip ahead to 10:11. Jon and Bassem start talking about the role of humor in political commentary and the differences between insults, injury, tyranny, and democracy:

“If your regime is not strong enough to handle a joke, then you don’t have a regime… A joke has never ridden a motorcycle into a crowd with a baton. A joke has never shot tear gas to a group of people in a park. It is just talk.

“What Bassem is doing… is showing that satire can still be relevant, that it can carve out space in a country for people to express themselves. Because that’s all democracy is, the ability to express yourself and be heard. You won’t always win, but you can’t confuse tyranny with losing elections. [Democracy] is just the opportunity to be heard and for the majority to respect the minority, whatever they may say, however they may do it.” —Jon Stewart (emphasis added)

A large corporation speaks through a wall of speakers at 3 small people with a bullhorn: "This 'freedom of speech' that we all enjoy is the great equalizer, wouldn't you say?"

(c) Matt Muerker | via Glogster

This comment obviously played well in its context, but I don’t think what it describes is the essence of democracy at all. Free expression is the point at which Jon’s work intersects with US culture; it may be part of the national ideal and of course it’s protected by the constitution as the first element of the Bill of Rights. Free expression may even be what US media and interests export in nation-building and culture-sharing projects elsewhere. Regarding it as the core of democracy is par for the course when thought leaders define democracy in terms of expression rights and occasional leadership selection but not in terms of routine decision-making or authority.

Why is it that popular definitions of democracy do not deal with free choice or access to decision-making, or evaluation of authority? Why do we so often stop short at the right to say as we please, however obnoxious we might be? How does the “it’s just talk” model serve the people? Another satirist, George Carlin, had some cynical thoughts about this. What are yours?

ht: Splitsider and Joi Chadwick