28 January 2017

In which I am a hypocrite?

In the wake of this election and the early days of the new administration, there are two core themes I'm picking up on as problems

1- How do we find and evaluate reliable news and information. Particularly news that Trump fans/conservatives in general will find reliable? (to the extent that is possible). There are extended and competing narratives about the nature of various problems (crime, immigration, climate change, racism), which sometimes rest upon factual assessments.

I am often asked this, or somehow regarded as a broker of information. Even if people disagree with me about what I conclude should be done about it as a matter of public policy (often: nothing). And to be honest, I'm not sure that I have a good answer. I trust sources that tend to be more grounded in what evidence is available on a subject, make sound and robust interpretations of that evidence, or include and attempt to evaluate contrary evidence/studies. I try to avoid too many obvious partisan sources (so no Fox News, no HuffPo, MSNBC, Breitbart, Catholics4Trump, etc). Not that these are equally bad, just that they tend to be less useful than some other source that will require less filtering. Then avoid subjects on which the writer/journals in question might exercise a great deal of bias without grounding that bias in attempting to convey a relevant expertise in the subject at hand. That is: if they're studying the subject with a particular eye on what policies or ideas it should favor, chances are conclusions and methodology will be sloppy or unserious, and if they're not studying the subject at all, chances are they don't know what they are talking about (so an example here would be "don't read David Barton or David Wolfe", and probably don't talk to people who have taken him seriously either).

This is not a snappy answer directing people to a single source ultimately. So it isn't a very good one. People don't like it.

2- How do we resist effectively objectively bad policies from being enacted?

The second question, as someone who thinks there are always bad policies being enacted, is hard. But one core insight someone familiar with the division of powers and activities of government has is to suggest that local and state politics are much easier to influence, and still likely to have direct influence upon your own life. Local politics and events can be ignored to a point, but the things that happen there tend to be more noticeable immediately. Opposing or supporting changes at this level, or even introducing such changes, would have an immediate impact as a result upon the lived experiences of your neighbours. People you see or interact with every day at work or school, or church should that be your thing. It feels good to (potentially) affect change like this because people who might be helped are evident and visible to us. And the people who might be harmed are likewise, suggesting we could take more caution in adopting harmful policies (not that we do). Large scale policies like federal income taxes, trade policy, international relations, and Supreme Court rulings can impact large numbers of people at once significantly, but often the impact is modest, if still attributed to government actions at all by the time it reaches the public (there can be individual actors that benefit mightily of course, by distributing the costs across hundreds of millions of people). It also involves many, many activists and actors clamoring for attention at that level that it can be difficult to get attention or affect any changes. It magnifies and intensifies these political and cultural chess matches such that they can take years, decades even, to shift noticeably.

Meanwhile. Voters, in their infinite wisdom, have essentially acted to punish the President or the President's party for increases in their local property taxes. Rather than looking to punish them solely on the basis of these large scale shifts in policy at the top. This is not a new problem to this election; it's been on-going. One reason for that is a lack of involvement or rigorous coverage of local and state politics. This is something I routinely encourage people to seek out and engage with. Voter participation in local or state elections is often abysmally low. Some, like school board votes, are deliberately scheduled in off years, sometimes even off months, such that interested parties might influence the results, on this basis that there simply won't be enough voter turnout to overcome such effects. This is clearly something we could attend to with more interest as a public. But accepting that turnout is low, that also means there is more opportunity to overwhelm popular attention quickly, or to be well known by political officials within that community and have concerns or demands engaged with seriously (it could also mean such notoriety is punished of course, so be careful what you wish for).

There are obvious limitations to this as a strategy, for instance if you favor XYZ policies and live in an area dominated by other people that find XYZ policy to be abhorrent or a terrible idea, advocating for it is likely to be unpopular, and getting a movement of people started to potentially alter public views is likely to take quite a while. Most people would find it more convenient to move to somewhere that does want to do those things, as sometimes that doesn't even require uprooting to a new area, just another civic jurisdiction nearby. So paying attention in a sustained way to the local policies and politics and views of the local populace is not something most people do beyond this first pass screening to look for cultural cues and heuristics suggesting they are moving somewhere which modestly favors their outlook and views. And will tend to vote accordingly.

But there's one bigger problem with attending to local political action and activism, and it ties into the first issue that's afflicted people in the wake of the last few years: in most cities there isn't as good of a pipeline of routine and reliable information about local and state politics. So knowing what is going on, what might be changing, and why, is hard to discern. Local TV news is usually a useless stream of stories about how everything in your home and outside the door is trying to kill you (spoiler alert, they're not out to get you), in a vicious cycle of bleeds and leads coverage. I would even suggest that people watching it are less informed than people that do nothing at all, because they will routinely be misinformed rather than properly contextualizing new information about potential hazards, criminal activity, and so on (this is a common issue with Breitbart or Fox and various other national news outlets as well but its much worse locally because there is less competition). Local papers might still have some coverage of local politics, but it can be hit or miss on how focused this is, and space in newspapers is limited. National news coverage soaks up a lot of attention because it's usually easy to find a bigger story somewhere else than what is happening to be announced by a town crier, and for which another paper or news organisation has produced news in a format that can be readily published more cheaply than paying reporters to go sit in on city council meetings. To an extent, it should absorb considerable coverage, because the policies enacted can have weighty consequences. But such coverage devoted to political infighting and horse trading as often occurs can be readily looked up later by interested parties (at election time for instance), and is often of little significance to the average voter. The ugly sausage making of writing laws and regulations meanwhile, is. At least some of this oxygen could be devoted to supporting lower levels of journalistic activity in states and cities.

I myself probably should consume much more local news and events (or produce more of it) in order to have some occasion to do productive, or at least productive seeming, political and cultural effects upon the land. At a national level, I find sources that I can deem somewhat reliable at producing information I can then use to make decisions. Flawed sometimes. But reliable. Locally. Not so much. Lacking good reliable sources of information, it will be difficult to determine what might need to be done in a local community, or what needs to be blocked and protested at the statehouse.

That leaves things like political activist and advocacy groups, who will have biased messaging or political and local facebook groups/friends, again, with a self-selected bias problem endemic to all social networks. The amount of filtering, expertise shortages, and biases involved in sorting these sources could be immense. I would not look forward to that starting from scratch in a way that filtering national news sources takes ample time already. Instead, there are institutions within a community, such as churches and some non-profits, which do interact and engage, and may possess valuable information that could be directly used (even if it is sometimes amounting to town gossip). If turning this into clear policy initiatives seems less likely, at least initially, it at least provides the probability of direct action helping some small number of people.

I've been thinking about this problem as a consequence of being mildly associated with a local group of atheists and contemplating how to organise that typical band of misfits to do productive social and civic things (besides hang out and tell other atheists how ridiculous some theological point is). There are opportunities to do this and they have been pursued in the past, but sporadically at times. That is ultimately a concern that there are fewer institutional ties to the community which can be easily pulled to produce a thread of something to go do in that community, and often stubborn resistance to using some of the existing ties (such as those conceived of by churches and other religious entities) and precious little group cohesion to build some infrastructure of our own. Drawing upon local knowledge of events, where possible, at least offers the prospect of civic engagement to such a group. Whether or not it chooses to take up arms.

There are two other important consequences to local activity and activism I could conceive of.

- More people could be exposed to the idea that other people hold some really strange ideas to be true. That would include some of the people they consider friends or respected co-workers or public figures, or people who might otherwise be fellow ideological travelers (on one issue or another). Or concurrently be aware some of their own ideas are thought of in strange terms by others.

- More people could be engaging in semi-productive, possibly respectful dialogue over said strange ideas.

Or possibly more shouting matches and protest fighting would occur and I would be people watching such events.
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