Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Erickson Times discusses online data brokers


The Erickson Tribune, a leaflet-like newspaper for seniors, has a “disturbia” story on page 5 of its February 2008 issue by Michael G. Williams. “Your private life for sale: Online data brokers banking on your identity.” I could not find a link to the story online yet, although I presume that it will appear soon.

The article describes “online data brokers’ that sieve consumer information from a variety or sources: credit reports, public records (like judgments, convictions), real estate transactions, tax records, social security records, and divorce and family court. The story does not report sifting the Internet (especially social networking sites) with search engines (the “reputation defense” issue) but the temptation to do so is obviously there.

Generally, companies offer members of the public the right to opt out of having their data available, but few people know that this goes on. It would sound as though the data brokering industry ought to behave like the credit reporting industry, with security freezes, and an orderly procedure to correct errors.

One company presented in some detail is Intelius. This company offers a sample “fictitious” background check that would list properties owned and neighbors around the property. The sample contains disclaimers that appear to admit that synonym problems with names are possible, even with criminal background checks. For another story on Intelius, check my "network neutrality" blog here. Zabasearch has links to Intellius.

Another company is Bestpeoplesearch, which offers to locate people by a variety of complex criteria. In theory, this kind of service ought to be valuable to financial institutions making sure that they are doing business with correctly identified people. The site claims that it makes social security number searches available only to those who provide official documentation.

SearchPublicinfo makes a bald claim that anyone can do his own private investigation of anyone – friends, family, even “potential dates.” Of course, this is something people use search engines for now, as has been reported so often lately.

Docusearch is another such company, but it has a disclaimer that only the “investigative or legal industry” can use some searches.

There are larger companies known in this industry, such as Choicepoint. That company offers a free copy of any report on an individual ordered by an employer, landlord, insurer, or similar stakeholder, to that individual. But this company was involved in a security lapse in 2005, as in this news story in the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. Another high-profile data gathering company is Lexis-Nexis, with this writeup of "RiskView." That company also experienced security problems in 2005, as in the MSNBC story here.

Representative Jim Moran wrote to me about this issue in 2005. You can see the letter here. One company that offers personal address searches is zabasearch.

The issue of background checks has always been problematic to a degree. The problem is long known with government security clearances (particularly in the days when sexual orientation was an issue for these, as it still is for the military). Even three decades ago, it was common for employers to tell new hires that investigative consumer reports could be run (to check "your mode of living"), although, in practice, they were usually rarely performed (even with respect to GLBT issues, when they were more problematic than they are today). The very nature of the need to run BI's implies the possibility of people being excluded from employment or other opportunities because of incorrect or misinterpreted information. This is very much like the “reputation defense” problem.



Update: Feb. 22

Reed-Elsevier, which owns both "Books in Print" and the ISBN Agency (RR Bowker), and LexisNexis, is buying ChoicePoint for $4.1 billion in cash. The story is "LexisNexis Parent Set to Buy ChoicePoint" by Ellen Nakashima and Robert O'Harrow Jr., on p. D01 Business of The Washington Post, Friday Feb. 22, 2008, link here.

There is an update story to this post on Feb. 29 on this blog.

Another major data broker, not well known and not mentioned in this story, is Entersect, used by state "intelligence fusion centers" such as in Maryland.

As a whole, some of these sites give good "clues" as to a person's activities or whereabouts (for skip tracing) but the information is often fragmentary and misleading or incomplete, and sometimes wrong. Good and fair business practice means that employment decisions (including exclusions) should never be made based on cursory examination of these databases or of search engines.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Online reputation defense and profile management: do the two concepts belong together? A new kind of "FICO"?


We’ve gotten used to the idea of a “privatized” version of Big Brother. The obvious example is credit reporting companies and FICO scores. I worked for one in the 1980s, and I remember the systems analysis for a project called “risk predictor” that would mine data to feed to Fair Isaacs. Now, banks, as we know from the subprime crisis, haven’t always used them thoughtfully, but the principle is there: your behavior as a consumer and to some extent responsible citizen gets tracked by both government and private interests; it is stored and sold or reported, in a manner that is somewhat regulated by a “shadow government” and generally accepted in our culture as necessary.

So now we find a similar, but even more perplexing problem, with online personal reputation. Of course, the concept of social reputation has always been with us, and in the pre-Internet bricks and mortar world it comprised a lot of items: word of mouth circulation from employer or business references, family connections, public records, “accidental” children (the “nice girl” issue), and even then, credit record. Even twenty years ago, professionals in various fields built referral lists, like “FirstCall” for physicians, that would provide personal information (like marital status and children) of professionals. The concept is easy to abuse; anyone who has lived in Texas knows the term “good old boy network.” Daytime soap operas thrive on this stuff.

Around 2004 or 2005, employers, hearing the hype about Myspace, Facebook, other social networking sites and plain blogs, started realizing that the Internet was a good place to check up on job applicants and employees. (There has been scattered problems before, though, when employees discussed their employers online or appeared in Internet pornography, for example.) Employers found that some people had twenty pages of Google references, and wondered how clients would feel about this. They began to perceive that many people did not care about their “reputations” the way previous generations had. Search engine checks on people could retrieve information, years old, that in the past would have aged and been forgotten with the course of time.

There are some companies cropping up which offer to scan the Web for items that can harm a client’s reputation, and context other parties to have damaging items removed. The best known of these is probably Michael Fertik 's Reputation Defender, which has registered service marks like “MyReputation”, "MyPrivacy" and “My Child.” There are other companies like Ziggs that build and monitor online “professional social networking” profiles for professionals in various fields.

The obvious question then is, what about putting the two concepts together? Does it make sense for a “reputation defending” company to work with major employers as clients, establishing norms of online behavior for “key person” employees? I think it does, and with some caveats, the evolution of such a business concept sounds inevitable.

Here it gets murky, and we get into areas that can elicit strong emotions and objections. First, yes, employers have a legitimate reason to be concerned that clients will be disturbed by some kinds of material posted (even at home) by associates. This is a new facet of online life, partly related to the efficiency of search engines, that we have been finding out we must learn to live with. And, yes, we have a strong tradition of freedom of speech, which is legally protected for most public employees (there are obvious issues for the military, intelligence, law enforcement, and in a different way, teachers, and especially with the latter there is a long audit trail of court cases that try to establish the “safe” boundaries of public employee speech, which the Internet has obviously made more complicated). In the mainstream workplace, we have a traditional expectation of separation between work and personal, which, of course, the Internet has breached. For an immediate perspective on this, go to "dooce.com" Heather Armstrong’s account ("Collecting Unemployment") of her being fired in 2002 for what she wrote online, here. It's noteworthy that "The Company no longer had any use for" her, and that her material critical of her employer had been discovered even through she didn't mention The Company or other people by name. (This sounds like the "fiction" problem that I've taken up before.)

So, even as Dr. Phil recognized on some recent shows, we find ourselves talking about apples and oranges, an immiscible mixture when trying to forge new policy on online conduct, even from home. It’s well to consider what employers worry about, and wonder whether landlords and insurance companies will worry about these in the future. And there are several different potentially bad things.

One problem has been well known for years, that trade secrets might inadvertently be disclosed or implied, or that client personal information could get compromised indirectly, even resulting in security risks. That could come up especially with employers that deal with specific kinds of people as customers (“fraternal companies”) There’s plenty of media coverage on how quickly bad actors can fish for personal information that third parties have disclosed.

But reputation seems to focus on something more intangible, the idea that a client can depend on the associate as a professional. One issue that has caught the attention of the recent “online reputation debate” is the tendency of many people (especially teenagers) to portray themselves unfavorably on the Internet, or to allow others to do so. These concerns have focused particularly on images of underage drinking and drug use. One college student lost a job internship offer because the employer found a Facebook picture of her holding a bottle of vodka when she was not yet 21. That does seem silly and unreasonable to me, but it drives a point. Other problems have concerned self-portrayals in stories or scripts purported to be “fiction.” I got into trouble with a school district over this when I was substitute teaching, about a script in which a character who apparently behaves “illegally” and goes to jail was thought to resemble me too much. The script really is fiction. A supplementary issue for some employers may be the notion that the appearance of a person's name in combination with a defamatory string of words in a search engine result represents a problem, when it just means that the combination of words appeared together somewhere on one file (but may be unrelated).

One aspect of this whole “self-defamation” problem is that usually it occurs in the context of what the speaker believes is a morally legitimate social or political protest. Certainly, free speech rights include the right to protest drug or underage drinking laws, or age of consent laws or mores regarding gender roles. The employer may not get this, or may believe that the only appropriate way for their employees to “protest” is through more conventional collective action – belonging to labor unions, or throwing money at political candidates.

That brings us to another point: many jobs demand public loyalty to the employer’s objectives. The most obvious example is working for a politician’s campaign. It would be bad faith to receive a paycheck from some party whose values you personally disapprove of. But many other jobs require one to be perceived as a leader, authority figure, or personal role model (consider teachers), and from a psychological perspective, these expectations may not fit the temperament of many people who make themselves personalities on line. A double-edge in the argument is that the Internet does indeed “democratize” debate and force those in power to become more objective and less beholden to special interests as in the past; but doing so can come at a cost for speakers.

Some employers -- especially school districts (and the military some day) -- may want to strike some kind of truce that imagines that employees in sensitive jobs will not talk publicly about their personal affairs. But imagine the effect of such a policy on GLBT people. People use their "families" to promote "business" all the time, and the Internet can only magnify that process.

How would a reputation company work with an employer? One place to start is to recognize that in most organizations there are many different kinds of jobs with widely varying amounts or kinds of publicity-sensitive exposures. A computer programmer who works as an individual contributor and who is not known for his work outside the company (unless that programmer “represents” a staffing company – an increasingly common practice) may not present the reputation sensitivity of an executive who makes decisions about other people’s jobs. “Off-duty” online conduct policies should definitely be related to the job, and should be disclosed to employees and even job applicants. One possible rule would be that employees whose jobs do involve publicly representing the company or making decisions about others not post any material where search engines can find them. That means, if they use social networking sites to date, they must place them behind privacy filters and whitelists, which social networking companies now allow. The issue then is not the content of the speech but the audience to whom it is delivered. Associates might have to consider what they will do if they subsequently seek promotions into positions of greater public responsibility, or if external circumstances ("someone walks in through the door") push them into these positions.

Much of the attention in media reports has related to search engines, but it should be understood that reputation goes deeper than this (as it did before the Internet). Facebook profiles may be whitelisted, but people copy them and still spread them around, and in some cases employers have still asked to see them or been able to see them. Another issue is that it is easy to find the wrong party with a search engines, which were never intended to be used as “background investigation” or “skip tracing” tools when they were invented.

Could we wind up with an industry that rates people’s presence online the way FICO rates creditworthiness? Or the way we “rate” television shows and movies? Or the way we rate insurance companies, for that matter? It’s a scary thought. A technology that changed the topology of the way we communicate and sell ourselves as individuals suddenly becomes perverted into another tool to enforce social conformity, possibly out of some naive belief in benign political correctness. One thing is certain: the HR and Reputation Defense industries need to give serious thought as to what fair and ethical practices of employer monitoring of home-based expression on the web will be.

To sum up, one can imagine that in many jobs, people have to be wary about the idea what they say online (or what others say about them) affects how clients "feel" about depending on them. It is a deeply personal concept that is somewhat disjoint from the legality or appropriateness of online content when viewed apart from knowledge of who wrote it or whom it refers to. This is certainly a disturbing idea that can lead to the idea that the Internet is a place to check up on social conformity. It has me quite concerned.



Update: Feb 5, 2008

There is an important supplement on this blog, Feb. 1, about teachers, with an additional link there.



Update: Feb. 7, 2008

EFF has a story about a (now dropped) "frivolous" lawsuit by a Washington DC official against a local watchdog group and its website for apparently harming a "reputation". The link (by Marcia Hoffman) is here.



Update: Feb. 9, 2008

The Washington Times, every Saturday, has a "Nobles and Knaves" editorial, in which lately it has been naming ordinary citizens as "knaves" when reported to have done bad things (like getting caught with an open bottle when driving and a child in the car without a seatbelt, as in a recent Florida case). This is another example where third parties, even corporate ones, feel free to demean the "reputation" of ordinary people.

There is a follow-up on this story on this blog March 14, 2008.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Web's ability to democratize: the good, the bad (and maybe the ugly)


Today (Thursday Jan. 24), the Washington Times (p A2) has an interesting story by Robert Stacy McCain, “John Wayne of blogosphere: For Simon, the frontier is online,” a story about Robert L. Simon, CEO of Pajamamedias, a good example of entrepreneurial networked journalism. (See my entry July 31. The news story link is here.

Simon’s novel “The Big Fix” became a film from Universal, directed by Jeremy Kagan, in 1978, with Richard Dreyfuss. The in 1989 he adapted Isaac Bashevis Singer ‘s novel for “Enemies: A Love Story,” 20th Century Fox, directed by Paul Mazursky, about a Jewish ghostwriter. The Times article discusses his aversion to the racial politics of the O.J. Simpson case in the 1990s. (The second of these two films shows up on Netflix as having a DVD.)

On the day that the usually stern Washington Times produced such a cheery story about net adventurers, the usually much more liberal (or at least moderate) Washington Post threw ice water in a story by Mary Beth Sheridan, “Terrorism Probe Points to Reach of Web Networks,” link here. The story points to a bizarre incident in 2005 when someone was being arrested near the Capitol, certain others (supposedly connected to a domestic radical Muslim group) were making video near the Capitol, and those others would eventually be arrested after their videos or pictures appeared on the Internet and they were connected to support for Al Qaeda. The story discusses the use of the World Wide Web to disseminate radical Islamist ideology and suggest "marks." The pictures comprised images of various prominent buildings or landmarks, including one oil storage facility near an Interstate highway. All of the locations were places easily visible to the public with normal effort and most of them are readily shown in newspapers, periodicals, books, television and commercial websites already. (The Pentagon no longer allows amateur photography from anywhere on its property or parking lots, even though common sense says that there is nothing particularly secret about what can be seen outside; presumably people can photograph the 9/11 memorial.) The overall pattern in the story suggests that web content (especially images) can be illegal because of the identity of life circumstances of the speaker, when it might otherwise be legal. That is certainly a disturbing legal theory, if applied in other areas (the new “implicit content” problem). Almost any corporation or successful individual could become a “target” of some party with a bizarre grievance, but, using “common sense,” we don’t normally consider Internet photographs of public buildings or corporate facilities provocative. (The oil facility mention was particularly troubling since some radical Muslims insist that Americans “steal” oil from the Middle East; but there are many such facilities all over the country.) There have been issues with websites that show photographs of particularly vulnerable locations in buildings (there was a Reader’s Digest story (“Outrageous: Let’s Shut Them Down”) on this in March 2005 by Michael Crowley, link here. ).

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The "Married with Kids" Boon


A Washington Post Express (the synoptic rag of that Metro riders who find seats entertain themselves with, especially after the recent massive rush hour fare hikes) story on p 34 today (Jan. 23) in the “Society” column was titled, “Single & Satisfied: Some bachelors enjoy a solitary life, free of serious relationships.”

The story refers to the “Alternatives to Marriage Project,” link here.

The story reports that in 2006, 33% of men in their early thirties had never married.

The article mentions that speculation on a single man’s sexual preferences may occur if he builds friendships with co-workers.

I know that perception well from the 1970s. The article notes “the idea that in order to completely fulfill your role as a leader in this business or policy setting, you need the support of a family.” In the 60s and up to the early 1970s, some companies would not hire unmarried men over a certain age. One episode of the 50s sitcom (black and white only) “My Little Margie” was based on that practice.

The article also quotes Nicky Grist from the Alternatives to Marriage Project as saying, “single men often say they are asked to work on holidays, put on longer hours or travel more for business. Employers often assume that without a spouse, unwed workers have extra time to spare.” In some less reputable HR circles there exists the snicker: "getting single people at a discount."

This has been particularly problematic in salaried positions, with occasional stories about this problem surfacing in the news media over the years (such as a 1997 Wall Street Journal story about a single female lawyer who was forced to miss her own birthday party). I know this problem in computer data centers from the way uncompensated nightcall sometimes is shared. Elinor Burkett took up this problem in her book “The Baby Boon: How Family-Free America Cheats the Childless” published by the Free Press in 2000. (Link to my review is here.) Onm that review page, another view is expressed in Philip Longman 's "The Empty Cradle," (2004, Basic Books) which talks about the demographic, economic and political issues of longer life spans and lower birth rates in more "prosperous" groups (although since then media reports indicate that birth rates in the United States are higher than in many parts of Europe).

A few years ago, there was an interesting article “Childless by Choice” by Leslie Fulbright in the Seattle Times (April 1, 2003). The article discussed organizations for child-free couples and singles, such as Child Free by Choice, No Rugrats, To Breed or Not to Breed Brats, and No Kidding!. The article went on to report that, when prodded, some cultural conservatives, like Allan Carlson of the Family Research Council, swung back with in-your-face comments: “’Any healthy culture is child-centric because the future rests with our children… ’These (No Kidding!) people are copping out on the future, refusing to accept the standard obligation for responsible membership in our society. I would describe them as childish, immature and irresponsible.’”

In recent years, I have been challenged to show why I am not willing to take more "assertive" role in administering the rule of others or selling the content of others, why I am not interested in advancement and authority for its own sake, especially in situations that involve teaching or role-modeling for "other people's children." I say that part of the answer has to do with not having father children myself or accepted some socially supported equivalent role. But then others will challenge me and take this into an existential direction. A lot can happen where there is more need around than there was before.

The mainstream media has treated this whole subject area very gingerly. Bloggers need not be so kind and gentle.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Another thought experiment: conclusion: keep your laws off my life (and my body)


Here goes another “dangerous” thought experiment, maybe through hypnotic regression. I go back to the era of my “coming of age” – the 50s and 60s – as a young male who was “different” and not terribly competitive in conventional terms. Looking back, and pretending to live in a parallel universe (or another “dominion” as novelist Clive Barker would call it) I can imagine that there could have been a different outcome. Suppose I had bought in to the emotional demands of others, to see “people as people” and focus less on my own fantasies and my own self-defined place in the world. It’s probably possible that I could have entered the emotional conundrum of the heterosexual world, with all of its pampering social supports (especially for “protective” and adaptive gender roles). It’s even possible that I would have married and had children. A willingness to accept faith more literally (as it is often promoted by pastors – salvation though Grace only) could have been a factor. That would have meant cutting off a lot of thought patterns, denying some of my own aesthetic judgments of people. (There is an archaic term for this process that sometimes seems to accompany the ex-gay experience – “aesthetic realism:”). And it might have resulted in my harboring all the anti-gay beliefs that were imposed on me in those years myself. Indeed, I do understand how some people can view "abstinence" outside of "potentially" procreative marriage (however "Catholic" an idea) as an essential social virtue to protect less "competitive" people from becoming eventually marginalized in both global and family contexts.

So, how can this be? What is the basis of these beliefs? I could imagine getting far enough to have children, and then rejecting a child (especially a male), if he were gay. And, of course, the question is a great big Why.

On one level it’s easy. People naturally want to see others go through the same hoops they did. They want to see others pay their dues if they had to. If they practiced self-denial (even out of religious discipline) they want others to have to do the same. This comports with an old fashioned idea of “fairness.” Perhaps it sounds just plain petty, but it’s human nature. What I see more of, though, is a need for an “absolute” moral value system that justifies the results that happen (with the inequalities that always result).

One potentially appealing “moral absolute” derives from the “right to life” – specifically, a special reverence for human life. This gets extended to an intrinsic belief in an existential responsibility to procreate. Everyone must honor his parents by continuing the lineage, or, if really unable, become supportive of those in the family who do have children. Gay men often come into a process of upward affiliation (unless they can move to really committed “polarized” partnerships), a process that, while generating aesthetic energy that can provide serial satisfaction for years even when spending time alone, creates a certain contradiction with the idea of being a role model taking responsibility for other people, a worthiness that men normally often ratify by becoming fathers themselves.

Modern, open society with globalization and communications technology provides people with the idea that they can pursue their own personal goals in life regardless of family obligations or limitations—developing the modern notion of “individual sovereignty” that undergirds libertarian thought and notions of “fundamental rights”. Actually, this has always been true. Technology has, at various times over many centuries, given “average” people more reach, and arts, music and painting have always affected the way other people perceive their world – and has always progressed in various steps correlated to history and technology. Consider, for example, how musical composition is usually an individual activity, and how relatively few composers (most of all, Beethoven) have an enormous effect on how most people perceive their world, at various points in history.

At the same time, many people grow up with an ingrained ethic of filial responsibility, and this drives all their interaction with the outside world. The movie “October Sky” provides a good example of how science and technology, and individual efforts in those areas, interact with pre-existing family responsibility. Typically, many parents in close-knit families perceive the emotional bonds of family as something they “grew up” into. They are profoundly disappointed, even angered, when one or more children do not want to continue the psychological, emotional and biological lineage.

I do recall, shortly after the William and Mary debacle in 1961, that my father said that therapists had said “you don’t see people as people.” That is, I am not responsive to their needs in a normal way, only relative to a world constructed in my own mind. Call this “fantasy” if you like. This was seen in those days as a central moral point. A more modern word for it would be “socialization,” the ability to share the emotional goals of the family or larger community. In those days, the “moral view” was that family responsibility always pre-exists, rather than coming into being by conceiving a child (after all, (in subjunction) Mary was a virgin, so there is a religious precedent). Parenthood is a result of family responsibility, not the cause of it. This view of “'family first' responsibility” coincides in moral terms with socialization. Families pass this on to their kids, particularly in conservative religions. Consider the Mormon “family home evening,” for example.

In practical terms, “globalization” and technology have, in the past few years, called more attention to the urgency of “family responsibility.” Stories abound in teenagers forced to raise siblings, and in adult careers ended by eldercare responsibilities. It’s covered a lot in movies (“One True Thing”, “The Savages”). This has happened as a bit of a rebound from the “me-generation” culture that encouraged urban enclaves, fewer children and smaller families, and valued “blood loyalty” much less. It is easier to take care of people and give them "meaning" (without government bureaucracy or taxes) in larger families. This leads issues with the birth rate, and the eventual possibility that states will enforce filial responsibility laws, mandate long term care insurance, or both. Particularly with small families, childless people may find it hard to “go to bat” for needy relatives (or live as "part of a family") with the same fervor that people with kids can.

I put this posting in the main blog rather than the GLBT blog because the issue really is not just a gay one. It is really about the change in moral focus. I came of age in a time and community where “responsibility for one’s own actions” was a given. The moral focus was on how burdens are shared. This was reflect in issues like the draft, student deferments, and how “less competitive” people should be treated within the family (as well as publicly). The buzzword was “public morality,” which was communicated with “irrational” sodomy laws and police raids on gays, bigoted practices that make no sense in modern individualism but that to older generations sounded like a necessary measure to tether “waverers” to biological family loyalty that is “owed”. “Don’t ask don’t tell” is a modern vestigial appendix to that kind of thinking, trying to at least respect personal space (“hands off”! or “laws off”) in a society that globalization and the Internet has suddenly made much less private. .

Our society gravitated toward individualism and “personal autonomy” in part because it believed it could afford to. It may seem inevitable but it was not; with the Civil Rights movement, we had wrenching debates about shared responsibility and wealth redistribution that at the time seemed like the fundamental moral issues. A number of “externals” jeopardize our experience of individualism now, and can force people to accept more interdependence again, especially within the family. An interesting issue is the way free speech has migrated to self-broadcasting or self-promotion that is seen as harmful to those with more family responsibilities – the ramifications of this (like with the “Myspace problem” or “reputation defense” issue) are just now starting to be grasped. The open speech itself has called new attention to these problems and the “unfairness” of the way burdens fall on people. In some circles, that argues for stricter notions of family responsibility and biological loyalty.

Another observation about the “seeing people as people” problem is that, while the mental health world used to see it as related to the ability to grow into the capability to marry, stay married and raise children (that is, fundamental to the complementarity of heterosexuality as the Vatican describes it, or as Freudian psychiatrists talked about it with some sniggering – remember all those horrible old books like “Growing Up Straight”), it probably relates more to the ability to have any lifetime intimate partner (of the same or opposite sex) with the emotional legitimacy of a psychologically (if not necessarily biologically) polarized committed relationship. So it does sound like a fundamental “moral issue” but not just quite the way social conservatives want. It can actually support the idea of gay marriage and gay adoption in the long run. But it also raises questions about the way a lot of people conduct their “harmless” lives. A central concept is taught by the New Age movement: karma.

Smaller or contained religious cultures make a lot of “mandatory” socialization. (Look at Israel, and look at the Mormon Church.) They see it as a way of sharing need and keeping the outside world at bay. Mormons, especially (as do other religious conservatives) see it as a way to bridge the contradiction caused by expecting young males to “compete” but then “helping” those men who really can’t to marry and father anyway. Open global society values individual expression a lot more that social expectations, but then has to deal with the reality that many people are left out. While we want to embrace individual sovereignty and a simple "consequential" idea of personal responsibility, we will have to accept that hyper-individualism can have a down side, of sometimes leading to contempt for less competitive people that can become politically dangerous in sufficiently asymmetric circumstances. It's understandable, then, that, even if it could have a more modern understanding of some personal characteristics as biological and immutable, "society" would want to "connect" those who are "different" to the mainstream expectations of social empathy and commitment. On the other hand, one can pretend to follow all of society’s “moral” rules (particularly those starting with Catholic or other religious-based ideas of procreation and marriage) and “protect one’s family” and turn around and use this ability to manipulate people just for self-promotion and eventually oppression (effectively becoming "disconnected"), excluding whole suspect classes or groups of people. History is the story of that. There's something about "reproductivity" that begs for it to become competitive so it is more "exciting." Personal values (of any kind) to tend, when taken to excess, to lead to the “ism-s” – communism, fascism, religious fundamentalism and extremism – once personal caring gets replaced by a need to rationalize or transform experience with a “perfect moral order.” (Catholicism is far from perfect, given it’s record over centuries, but it did help bring about the fall of Soviet communism.) But morality comes from within. The thought experiment comes full circle.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Social networking sites can attract "inappropriate" "friends" and give away personal info


The advent of Web 2.0 and the use of personal web profiles and pages for social networking rather than just as a soap box (which had been the original model in the 90s) has created new possibilities for conflict or problems in the professional business world and also for school systems.

There is an important story in USA Today, Friday, Jan. 18, 2008 by Janet Kornblum, “Social, work lives collide on networking websites: As ‘friends’ lists grow, personal information can spread even to strangers,” link here.

You can probably get an idea of how this could work by clicking on my own Myspace profile, which I don’t use much. Instead, I prefer to publish on my personal site(s) and blogs, and invite comments, and sometimes emails and, if appropriate (not that frequently), cell phone calls. I also see that I wrote about this issue on Nov. 15, 2006 here with “Myspace says I have 1 Friends”. As an older person, I generally prefer to use the real world for social purposes, as I would be at an obvious disadvantage in the typical “myspace” social environment. Even Dr. Phil, as noted in recent entries, has pointed out the unexpected complications that misuse of social networking online can cause.

The biggest problem is that personal information can be shared in an accidental and inappropriate way with other coworkers or, especially, subordinates or clients, disrupting potential business relationships. This sounds particularly problematical with teachers and students, especially in public schools when the students are usually legal minors. Most workplaces (most of all school systems) have necessary rules about this, which social networking sites can at least accidentally transgress. This seems to have been a factor in the dismissal of a New Jersey substitute teacher, as presented on the Dr. Phil show Jan. 15 (see my TV reviews blog for that day).

Facebook may be less exposed to this problem than Myspace and some other sites, because Facebook has stricter privacy membership defaults (related to schools or universities) for signup, tending to keep profiles more restricted. All social networking companies are developing ways to refine the concept of “friend” into different levels of “friendship” or “acquaintanceship”. Some people may wind up on profiles as “friends” because they see themselves as signing a “guestbook,” an older website feedback concept that was popular in the 90s (a big deal when Microsoft Front Page offered it).

Employers may have to consider regulating the way some key employees (those with direct reports, those who grade students, or those whose job it is to speak for the company or to make underwriting decisions about others) promote themselves personally on the Web, especially with social networking. They might insist that such employees allow their activity be professionally managed, or keep profiles “private” according to new paradigms that the social networking industry has had to develop quickly.

Friday, January 18, 2008

When referring to people on Net postings, use the same name spellings they use; stuff stays out there forever


These days, as Internet reputations are all the rage, a particular problem is, as noted before, the effect of comments, video, photos, etc. posted about someone by other people online, especially in totally public areas and left accessible to search engines.

Reputation counselors tell people to do Internet “background investigations” on themselves, with many people having many pages of reference links on the common search engines. You can try mine with both “John W. Boushka” and the “pen name” “Bill Boushka,” where Bill is the nickname my parents gave me at birth, based on a middle name of William (no, not the prince).

That brings up an important point. As I noted before, many times the wrong person is identified by people (even employers) doing searches. That’s much less of a risk with an unusual name, or a name with an unusual spelling. The name synonym question does bring up the whole ethical question of employers and even law enforcement doing these searches properly (as well as id theft issues discussed on another blog).

An particular issue comes up with links and bibliographic references that mention specific contributors, or persons affiliated with organizations (such as those issuing press releases). Since a reference is likely to get indexed and stay out there for years if a site stays out there for years, it’s important to credit the individual with the same name and spelling that he / she used at the time of the reference. One should not add a middle name or initial if the person doesn’t use it (that may make it “too easy” for an unscrupulous third party to track the person down; there are other sites like Zabasearch that can do this). One should use the pseudonym if the person uses it. That would me that for my books, “Bill Boushka” is the correct reference. The cat’s out of the bag with me, so it really doesn’t matter for me any more, but it does for some people.

I’ve had my own domain(s) since 1997, and I used AOL personal publisher as early as 1996 (“hometown AOL”). Many people are referred to, of course (in reviews or especially bibliographic references) and I try to keep the references relevant to what matters with respect to particular issues. Over the years I’ve had very few requests to remove or modify a reference. In one case, a person who had attended a particular political meeting as the “minutes taker” didn’t want his name posted. In another, a “third party” local political candidate was running for office again and felt that a reference on my site was old and misleading because of the passage of time. Another situation involved an old press release that today might sound strident (times do change even as literature is forever), so I simply changed the name to initials. These incidents have been infrequent and usually involved unusual circumstances that are unlikely to recur, and they involved matters that were unimportant, so I have honored them. One feature of the Internet is that it can preserve material forever (and indeed add “notability”) when it would have been forgotten in the past. People need to remember that when they insert themselves into the public eye (which now people often do when very young), the material they have written and the public knowledge of their activities is likely to stay out there essentially forever. People no longer have to be "professionals" to post (truthful) news stories about them. That’s OK when someone can stand behind what he or she has done (as “who I am”), even though it might create conflicts with some future employers or sources of income. Imagine, for example, that anyone who entered the fight against the military gay ban (and the notorious Clintonian “don’t ask don’t tell”) and challenged it publicly will be known to have done so forever. One needs to stand behind one’s akashic record.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Online reputation gets even more attention in books, media


During the past few days I have come across another flurry of activity over the subject of employment and online reputation. Please check the Blogger profile for all the links, but I discussed a recent book by GWU professor Daniel Solove about “The Future of Reputation” as well as the Dr. Phil show aired Tuesday Jan. 15 (it looks like the show was actually taped Jan. 11 in California). Furthermore, the issue of online “fiction” and defamation has rather suddenly come up (last Friday’s post).

This is a complicated topic, and hard to encapsulate. Technology has made it possible for any person with no capital to reach the entire planet at the speed of search engine indexing. Ten years ago, when the Internet seemed to be about online commerce and user groups with some personal publishing, it wasn’t really controversial. But after 9/11 employers started noticing the “search engine” problem more (partly because of all the financial scandals of the time) as at least an issue of corporate confidentiality. Then social networking sites, by 2005, had upped the ante because, to everyone’s surprise and consternation, people seemed to want to use these sites to “defame” themselves and others. The social networking sites naturally hook up with the online video sites (like YouTube, Motion Box, etc.) and photobucket sites. No one would have predicted this ten years ago. Entrepreneurs love to leverage user-generated content, and are just now having to face the practical and possible legal implications.

One trend that is particularly striking is that people do make fun of themselves online, and seem to believe that doing so makes a political statement. In fact, sometimes it really does. On one level, people like the idea of limelight and notoriety (without having to compete to “get published” as in the past). But on another level, a lot of people (an not just “the Kids”) want to protest the artificial standards of social propriety (the “All that Heaven Allows” problem). Sometimes the issues have a lot to do with gender roles and sexuality, and the meaning that others give to family.

Another psychological aspect of this happening simply is that the "rules" for getting into the limelight have changed. The town soapbox, or the short-lived and forgettable attention that sometimes follows a newspaper letter, or even a book or television appearance, becomes a permanent part of one's public karma. Seemingly, people don't have to compete by the old rules to get noticed, and understandably when people haven't "paid their dues" before "being seen," others perceive impending disruption.

All of this confounds employers, who must deal with the practical realities of life for clients and stakeholders, compared to a nuanced sense of protest and social justice that web speakers believe that they deliver. People tend to judge others with whom they must do business quickly, and don’t bother to understand the context of the impressions that others make. Because of the appearance of "bad faith" on the part of the speaker, there is an utter lack of "due process" in handling problems like this, even in public employment (such as school systems); compelled resignations happen frequently. Some careers never even leave the tarmac.

People who present themselves negatively on the Internet or in any public space -- even as part of what they think is a "legitimate" protest -- shouldn't be surprised if some others treat them poorly or even "unfairly", and if employers become silently dismissive. To an extent, that's not so much a legal question as just a practical one about normal human social interaction. To some people, negative self-portrayal may communicate a sense of nihilism, or a sense of contempt for others (or at least a lack of requested empathy for them) with whom has been or will be expected to interact. It might be seen as associated with a familiar social experience in dating or attempted love life -- "rejection." Sometimes protest against social norms does raise really iffy questions -- after all, some people need the norms and appearance to protect themselves from negative feelings.

All of this means that Human Resources departments do need to think about this problem carefully, and develop clear policies that they communicate to job applicants and associates. The policies ought to be developed in the spirit of similar issues with credit and background checks. Companies need to have ways of knowing that they are actually finding the right person online. The policies ought to depend on the kind of job sought. Some of this seemed to come out in the Dr. Phil program recently.

Another point is that one may have a job now that is not very visible to the public or to a company’s clients, but a person may want a promotion in the future; or the company might restructure, pushing the person into a more “public” job, or a new owner might walk in the door and want to enforce new policies. Or, a person might, because of family circumstances beyond one’s control, have to consider a position that is more “people oriented” or sales oriented than in the past in order simply to bring in enough money. There is a natural tendency in most careers for jobs to migrate toward sales and interacting with the public. All of this makes online reputation, which tends to stay forever in caches and archives (they can be changed, but that’s sometimes difficult, and many people have pages and pages of references online now) even more confounding as an emerging issue. Even retirees cannot be complacent, as rapid economic changes or family matters can force them back into the workplace.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Divorcing husband writes "fictitious blog" "about" his failing marriage; wife "complains": when is fiction taken to be "real"?


This morning, Friday January 11, ABC Good Morning America aired a story in which a man in Vermont getting a divorce wrote a “fictitious” blog telling a story similar to that of his marriage and divorce, but with many details changed and made up. The man maintains that it is “fiction,” like a novel in installments. The wife felt that the public would believe that the female “character” was her and viewed the material as either libelous or invading her privacy with a false light. The woman sued and a judge issued a restraining order that the blog be removed. The man has refused to obey the order so far.

The man’s attorney, Debra Schoenberg, appeared and talked about his first amendment rights and about the concept of prior restraint. She did make the point that the Internet has tended to globalize what used to be the town "soap box," making it quickly visible, through search engines, anywhere on the planet with a wireless connection.

ABC posted the story around noon Friday. It is called "Should Husband Be Able to Blog About His Marriage?; Man Says His Web Site Is Fiction; Wife Calls It Defamatory and Harassment", with the link here. The man is William Krasnansky. The URL for the blog is this. Notice that the blog says "The Following Is A Work Of Fiction: The Names, Characters, Places & Incidents Are Either The Product Of The Author's Imagination Or Are Used Fictitiously..." (the disclaimer continues with language familiar in motion pictures) but further down the page he refers to the "first page or so of an auto-biographical novel ..." So is it really fiction? The ABC anchor who described the story was Chris Cuomo, who is himself an attorney (also, like Anderson Cooper, globe-trotting, to the ends of the earth in a recent ABC series about the most remote areas of the earth affected by global warming.)

The New York Times has a somewhat detailed story by Amy Goodnough, from Jan. 10, 2007, "Blog Takes Failed Marriage Into Fight Over Free Speech," link here.

There is a famous case in California, about the novel “Touching,” from the late 1970s, where someone who resembled a character in a novel sued successfully when claiming that the author was writing about her. It’s not clear that a ruling in California could apply in other states, although it might be a kind of “persuasive evidence.” In this case, however, the couple had lived in California, which could make earlier California court precedents more relevant.

I had a situation like this with a fictitious screenplay, and I discussed it on July 27, 2007 on this blog. I have more information about it on a recent entry, here.

Emily Friedman has a somewhat related story on ABC News, from Nov. 20, 2007, "Have a Complaint? Blog about It: More People Using the Internet to Vent Means More Defamation Suits," link here. A few consumers have been sued by companies who complained "falsely" about their products, and at least one mother has been sued by a private school over false claims supposedly made on her blog.

Post script:

ABC News has gotten a lot of comments this after noon about the "fictitious marriage blog" story and one of them, from "akarubytuesday" (female) claims having been arrested and jailed for "extortion" in CA for demanding an apology on the web after a certain affair went bad. Her website has photos of news clips. It is a pretty unbelievable story (the details are hard to summarize right here, but I recommend tracking it down). The URL on myspace (dated Oct 1, 2007) is this, but you may have to be or become a Myspace member and subscribe to the blog to read it. She refers to womansavers.com, which has more material on that kind of problem, but at this time that second site is rated Yellow by McAfee (might change later).

I also posted the following comment on this story:

"There was a famous case in California in the late 1970s about fiction and libel, with the novel "Touching" (I think it was called Bindrim v Mitchell). I don't know whether it applies here, but ABC's journalists should look into it -- esp. Chris Cuomo since he is an attorney himself.

"I had a case in 2005 when I was substitute teaching. I wrote a screenplay for a short film and posted on my own site. It was entirely fictitious, but it showed, as a "thought experiment" how a teacher can get into trouble and get tossed in jail (in the screenplay the teacher dies there). I got in trouble with the school system over this because the principal at one school thought that the central character resembled me too much after she found it with Google. It really WAS fiction.

"This fiction imitating or predicting real life is getting to be a serious problem, and I'm not sure lawyers have figured it out yet. The legal name for the problem is 'implicit content.'"

One other aspect of this problem of fiction-imitating-life in blogs strikes me. If some people get so upset about finding these, doesn't this imply that individual blogs, even among the hundreds of millions of them, do find significant audiences, even supplementing the draw of major media?

See update on this story March 26, 2008 on this blog.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

GWU law professor holds Q&A on Internet privacy and anonymity on Washington Post website today


Today, Associate Professor of Law Daniel J. Solove, from The George Washington University in Washington DC, answered questions about online “privacy” issues for about an hour at The Washington Post. The link is here, and the Post story was called “Privacy, Free Speech, and Anonymity on the Internet.” The link for the discussion is here.

There were eleven questions and answers, and they started with the tragedy in Missouri in 2006 with teenager Megan Meier, who was humiliated when an impostor (pretending to be a teenage boy) pretended to “groom” her online and then rejected her. The story has received national attention and is covered in detail on my Internet Safety blog, which has an entry today (Thursday, January 10, 2007).

Dr. Solove indicated that the First Amendment protections for anonymous speech are very strong, and that, while the content of the other family appears reprehensible to many people, it may be very difficult or impossible to prosecute under the law as it is set up. The law protects some expressive behaviors that in a particular social context are offensive in order to protect freedom of speech for everyone.

The questions gradually migrated to concerns over the permanence of information on the Internet, especially the Internet Archive (which could be used to investigate past online activity of someone), as well as search engine caches. The professor indicated that persons, if they make the effort, can usually have such online archived information removed. There was also concern that eventually photo-information will be able to identify people even when they are not named in accompanying text. This concern seems more speculative.

There were several questions about employers checking job applicants with search engines. Dr. Solove answered that the law currently offers little or no protection against this, apparently even when employers make decisions based on false information or mistaken identities. Theoretically, the law regarding libel and invasion of privacy would work the same way as it does in the print world, but from a practical viewpoint it is almost impossible to implement existing case law on the Internet. He suggested that he personally believes that many employers have behaved in an unethical manner, and that employers ought to develop clear job-related blogging and publicity policies and convey these to job applicants and employees – an idea I have long promoted on this blog.

The last question involved online shaming and vigilantism. The online world makes things permanent, a feature that the legal system has not been prepared to deal with. From a psychological viewpoint, perhaps Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 19th Century novel “The Scarlet Letter” really does convey a relevant lesson.



I did submit a question right at 11 AM. When the Washington Post server did not acknowledge the submission, I submitted it a second time (still no automated acknowledgement), with a note that the first submission may not have worked. The question was not answered, although similar questions were chosen. I don’t know whether he really received my question. I have been having some problems with pop-up controls interfering with some websites even when I think I’ve turned them off, and maybe this was a pop-up blocker issue.

Here is the question that I submitted
. Of course, I appreciate “good faith” answers as comments.

"Why are employers checking Google and social networking sites on job applicants and employees when they know that the information they find is "unreliable"? Search engines and social networking sites were never designed as "background investigation (or skip tracing) tools". Employers can even easily identify the wrong person because of name synonyms, and pictures are harder to "identify" than one thinks.

"I wonder if companies are going to set themselves up to offer "online reputation" scores that are like FICO scores! This is crazy!"

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Digital Rights Management -- going away, but tricking paying customers; many ISP's don't understand Fair Use


Electronic Frontier Foundation has been reporting on the kafka-esque implosion of DRM (Digital Rights Management). On January 4, 2008 Fred von Lohmann reported that the last of four major music companies, Sony-BMG (which used to own RCA) is giving up DMG for at least some of its catalogue. The link is here.

Lohmann reports another irony, that the remaining “holdouts” on DRM are subscription services like Napster and Rhapdsody. Napster, one will remember, had started out with Shawn Fanning’s laptop in Hull, MA and almost tore apart the music industry, before Shawn (as a teen) could even grasp the legal and business model consequences of what he had invented. It was forced to convert to a paid subscription service.

Lohmann predicts that what will protect revenue for music is simply the good old standby – customer service. You pay a monthly fee for a blanket license and get the music content downloads that you want.

Even so, DRM is inconveniencing paying customers, such as certain Vista users who buy new monitors, and try to use certain subscription video streaming services like Netflix. The story was posted by Seth Schoen Jan 3, 2008 and is here.

There is also an interesting New Study on Copyright and Creativity from the Center for Social Media, story by Hugh D'Andrade, link here. Much of this has to do with lack of understanding of the Fair Use concept (especially with derivative works). EFF has a best practices “Fair Use Principles for User Generated Video Content” which should be considered in conjunction with takedown notices, link here.

The Center for Social Media is run by American University and the website is here.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

10 year anniversary of my own personal lesson on the benefits of a private health care system


January 6 this year is another big anniversary. On Tuesday, January 6, 1998, ten years ago, I had the accident that prompted my only major surgery so far in my life, and it produced a major lesson on health care.

Around 9:15 AM I was at work and the mainframe TSO/ISPF session stalled. So I decided to go get some coffee at the local Tom Thumb, 500 feet away, although requiring a walk through Minneapolis parking lots in winter just after a mild icing event. I got inside all right, but the entry to the convenience store from the hallway required a sharp left turn. The first few feet in the store were wet and the employees had neglected to put the pad down. The Law of Conservation of Angular Momentum took over. As I turned on the wet floor in street shoes, I hydroplaned. I went down and fell on my left side, so suddenly that I could not stop it. Had I not been turning, however, I would not have fallen.

I could not get up. The store called for an ambulance, and I was taken to Methodist Hospital in St. Louis Park. That’s where the insurance card said I should be taken. They took the Xray, and a young resident came in and told me I had a hip fracture. But I was in the wrong hospital. Another ambulance ride took me to Riverside Hospital on the West Bank in Minneapolis. By afternoon I had an MRI (with the help of morphine) and a leading orthopedic surgeon was called in. He determined that I needed a special operation, to be done at the main University of Minnesota Hospital on the East Bank across the river.

Instead of the usual 45-minute operation for a hip replacement, I had a cracked acetabulum, which drove the femur into the pelvis. This required a six-hour operation. I remember been wheeled down toward the OR about 3 PM on Thursday Jan. 8, and nothing more for the next six hours. The embarrassing stuff was done after I was out.

The surgeon put in a titanium plate to hold the pelvis together. Then I would just heal. I was told that this was a brand new and experimental device. There was never a charge for the device, which would normally cost some thousands of dollars. I was a guinea pig, of the private health care system.

I woke up with my left leg in a cradle, with a motor to exercise it. I had never experienced a catheter or bedpan before, and it was soon old hat. I needed a blood transfusion because of the loss of blood from the bone. I remember the nurse coming in at night to adjust the intravenous line and saying, “let’s save some hair on your arm.” A hospital stay gets embarrassing and personal.

After a week, I was transferred across the river to rehab, which amounted to a skilled nursing facility (SNF). There was only one shower on the floor, which was odd. It was a boring existence, with a spectacular view of the Mississippi River in winter. Fortunately, I reached the inflection point in recovery quickly. Once I could get down to the main hospital on crutches, I could go home. I had a scare with swelling, and a plethysomgraphy and echo sound test to make sure I didn’t have a clot.

So the private health care system, funded by employer insurance, had worked well. I got back to work in three weeks and never missed a day. It helped that I lived 1000 feet away from work, in the Churchill Apartments.

The main hangup was in getting credit from Health Partners for my referral, so that all treatment was covered in network. In the meantime, I litigated with the help of an attorney who happened to be a Democratic state senator. There was a lot of posturing, but eventually the liability insurance company for the convenience store settled, and then Health Partners subrogated, meaning that the lawyer and Health Plan took the entire award, almost. This was no slip-fall racket.

I would go ahead to give a lecture on my book from crutches, to be videotaped and televised, at Hamline University on February 25, and get a traffic ticket on the way home. The cop didn’t even notice the crutches. Oddly, driving a stick shift with this injury was no problem at all.

The moment of triumph (and perhaps a personal Epiphany) came at the Academy Awards Banquet, for which the Minnesota AIDS Project had scheduled an event at the Orpheum Theater on Hennepin. I would take the crutches with me in the cab from the Churchill, but put them down and spent the evening walking without them.

The private health care system had served me well, giving me immediate, state of the art, and even experimental surgical treatment. There were no battles over unproven procedures, as we hear about today. There were battles over internal referrals. At one point, in fact, Health Partners seemed to be saying that I could not have gotten a valid referral because I had not yet picked a primary care physician when moving to Minnesota (just four months before). But they dropped that ruse.

What I fear is that in Britain or Canada I could have lay in traction for weeks waiting for surgery, exposed to pneumonia from inactivity (I did have a problem with fever from lack of activity to clear my lungs for a few days; it went away as soon as I was more mobile). The nature of the fracture meant that an innovative device was needed for rapid recovery and return to work. Do severe acetabular fractures like this get immediate surgical treatment in countries with single payer or nationalized systems?

Friday, January 04, 2008

Iowa Caucuses: they set a good example for the Washington Redskins, maybe; the Demo-Cats bring back Tom and Jerry


So it’s Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee, both winning at the Iowa Caucuses with dominating performances, the kind that pro football teams want in the playoffs.

First, as to the candidates. Obama may have the most charisma, and looks young and trim enough to fit in on a disco floor, and I don’t think he would feel embarrassed by a drag show. Critics say he is not specific enough about some things, like how to make universal health care work. But then again, who is? (No, not Hillary.) John Edwards (along with Joe Biden) seems a little more willing to discuss a few things (like “sacrifice”) that Americans need. If I don’t agree with Edwards on same-sex marriage, at least I know where he’s coming from, and I’m OK with it.

Mike Huckabee sneaked up and came on strong. His much stronger showing than would have been expected a month ago (compared to McCain, Giuliani, and Romney) puts some cards on the table. Evangelical support matters, and some evangelicals are not afraid to impose their social agenda on others against the will of others. (After all, how do you save souls?) It’s a bit scary that Huckabee, back in the 90s, had reportedly suggested that HIV-infected people should be quarantined (referring to the scare talk of the mid 80s), and this week, the Center for Military Readiness tried to capitalize on Huckabee’s rise by an op-ed piece that suggested that the military return to formal “asking” (with respect to “don’t ask don’t tell”) – see the link in my post yesterday. The other GOP candidates, even Romney, seem less scary, and Giuliani could be a good president.

If Huckabee does well early on, then some of the cutting edge social issues might indeed get debated more, demanding more candor from articulate candidates like Edwards. We could even see discussion of filial responsibility laws, which can turn a lot of other issues upside down; indeed this issue sets a time trap.

There’s something to say about the caucus process itself. The Republicans have what amounts to an informal primary. I’m not sure how rigorous it is in Iowa. Virginia will have a primary Feb. 12, one “semaine” after Super Tuesday. Virginia has very rigorous procedures even for primaries with recording and reporting machine results, requiring a 17 hour day of poll workers, a kind of national service (for $140) that comports with neocon fixation on exporting democracy and setting an example at home. I don’t know yet whether I will do it that day.

But it is the Demo-cats that get center stage here. Their caucus process requires something forgotten in our urbanized, "do-not-call-list", yuppie society: personal attention and persuasion. (I don't know if that is feline; somehow, the old WB Tom & Jerry cartoon "The Cat Concerto" made good DVD fare for Caucus day (it comes with "The Yearling"). It’s something that might work in a rural state. This is, after all, the setting of Clint Eastwood’s “The Bridges of Madison County,” not too far from my own father’s home (born in 1903) of New Virginia, Iowa, which I managed to visit in 1997 shortly after I had moved to Minneapolis for six years.

You hear a lot about people (“volunteers”) going door-to-door and offering personal transportation to bring potential voters to the caucuses. You hear people say that they operates as “persuaders” at the caucus, in the half-hour before Round 2, where any block of voters that didn’t make critical mass (15%) has to join a candidate that did.

I recall that one of the people who reviewed my 1997 book on Amazon was from Log Cabin Republicans, and her objection to my approach really, when it got down to it, was that I preferred to remain a pamphleteer rather than get out and raise money and win votes. After all, that is how most people perceive politics. You get people to raise money for you. (My goodness!) Or you raise money for other people. In 2000, I actually considered becoming Minnesota’s Libertarian Party candidate for Senate. I deferred to someone else, who was probably more effective than I would have been, especially with pet Second Amendment issues. In fact, in 1997, I met one candidate for Minneapolis City Council almost immediately and helped him campaign, and met a college student who had run for office in St. Paul at 21, and who helped arrange my Hamline speech in 1998.
There is something to running for office, after all.

As for Log Cabin Republicans (there is a film about them on Netflix, called “Gay Republicans”) they are right in that one wants to bring GOP on board to more progressive positions on issues – especially more libertarian or individualistic positions, which are certainly at great risk given the apparent dangers of today’s post 9/11, pre-apocalypse-and-purification world. What I could never bring myself to do is get out and campaign for their candidates. But I know that is how things get done.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

A Different Life


On Oct 9, 2007 in this blog, I wrote a piece about personal morality for people like me who are “different” because of the unusual “karma” we may have with the rest of the world.

I have been in a period in the past few years where sometimes others do not respect me in a normal way. They may believe that some things I have said publicly might have brought on this “disrespect” of normal rights, and they may believe there are some specific ways they would like to see me interact with others. Without discussing personal details more than necessary, I’d like to address this problem a little more and see where it leads.

Back in the 1990s I had a situation where I took a corporate transfer in order to avoid working “directly” for military-associated clients. I felt there was a “conflict of interest” because I was publishing a book that goes into detail about the “don’t ask don’t tell” issue. In 1999 there was a family situation that could have compelled me to come back. I said that I would not. Fortunately, it was resolved without immediate harm, although there was risk and disruption. Underneath the COI issue, there was an undertone that someone who was not “morally” eligible for military service (to take his turn taking the risks to defend the country) should not earn an income from it. (That kind of thinking had been common a few decades ago, when civilian gays could not get security clearances or, often, other civil service employment. I wrote about this yesterday on my GLBT blog in reference to conservative comments on the DADT issue, here.

Then, in 2004, the same sort of issue came up with substitute teaching. A few assignments, without properly informing me, could have placed me in the situation of giving intimate custodial care to a severely disabled person of the same sex. The argument can be made that someone with my level of publicity should not be allowed to do this kind of work (because of the 1993 federal DADT law), and some lawyers have told me that it is probably unwise. I posted this observation on my sites and some school administrators became upset when they discovered it. I can say, this is good education for them – they have to teach social studies – so they understand how serious an issue like DADT can be, even outside the military.

Another observation that comes up is the notion that some of my online material would present me “unfavorably” from a “reputation defense” point of view, and draw (in the minds of some people) dangerous or unfavorable attention to me and to others connected to me. There was a particular problem in 2005 with a fictitious screenplay in which a character who may resemble me is depicted as doing something especially wrong in the view of some people. Now, I discussed this in the July blog, along with some mention of the legal background (the California “Touching” case). The whole issue of “autobiographical” fiction is beyond the scope of this particular entry (it is the subject of a recent film “Starting Out in the Evening”) and may be taken up again later.

What some people want (I can make light of this with the movie “What Women Want”) is for me to take advantage of “discrimination” laws and prove that, with assistance, I can function as an “authority figure” in the specific sense of fitting into a social or business hierarchy. With a teacher, that means someone who is more than a tutor, facilitator, or imparter of content; it means someone who is an authority figure to be obeyed for authority's sake, in a chain-of-command position. As an individual contributor in information technology, this never came up, but it has appeared in several contexts since 2003 (in a debt collection job interview and subsequent job, in an interview to become an insurance agent, in an unsolicited interview call to supervise youths raising money for charity with surplus sales). A particular desire was to see me function, somewhat publicly, as a “role model,” as one substitute assignment where I, at 60, was asked to forgo shame and get into swimming trunks. No, it was too late in adulthood for that.

But I definitely get where some of this is coming from. Last night, I watched the 1946 MGM flick “The Yearling” where the demands of a family (in the Reconstruction South, in this case) on its members (in this case, a little boy) to conform to the survival needs of the family as a whole, rather than his personal desires (in this case, to preserve the life of a fawn he had tamed). At one point, in a rather strange soliloquy for a film of its time, the boy speculates that he will never get married. Later, at the end of the film, his father (Gregory Peck) renders the mandatory fatherly lecture on getting up from life’s unfair arbitrary knocks. But, imagine a world in which you live for your family (and perceive yourself as past of a family group in how you experience all of life) before you get to set your own goals. In the more modern world, some of us call that “adaptive” behavior, with totally selected personal relationships and activities termed “creative.”

I have been able to lead “a different life,” and make it productive, because of increasing technology, which meant mobility, visibility, communication, globalization, and the luxury of being selective with personal commitments for the code decades of my adult years – but not at the beginning, and, again, less so recently. Not everyone has the “luxury” of these resources, and, until a few decades ago, most societies believed that they could not afford the “luxury” of allowing much diversity within families. Societies expected (with a good deal of oppression, and with great invitation for abuse) people to develop the complementary skills appropriate for their genders, and operate through these. That’s still true now in much of the developing world (and look at how much of the Muslim world works today). One cannot take these resources for granted.

In a world in which I did not have those resources, I can certainly understand how I would believe that I need lineage of my own, and need to deal with the realities of competitive patriarchal behavior. I have been able to lead my adult life without jealousy. That sounds good, but it need not have been so. In a different society, I would have needed to compete to keep loyal wives just like the characters Shawn and Lucas on “Days of our Lives.” Indeed, until recent times, most middle class people grew up with the presumption that their main role on this planet was to reproduce, or to support the reproductive efforts of others, all within the structure of the legally defined nuclear family of blood loyalties; expressing one's own talents could take a back seat. Many people still experience life this way. I’m not saying that this is good or right (it can lead to pretty horrible things – it certainly does in the soaps) but I can understand and empathize with how it happens. I didn’t ten years ago the way I do now. I can even see the appeal of "natural law" -- the idea that lineage is so basic (in its connection to reverence for human life) that one must not cheat the "natural law" that supports it -- leading to the Vatican or otherwise religious idea that sexuality without the (emotional) "risk" (as well as responsibility in a more conventional perspective) of procreation cheats "nature" in such a way that "normal" families cannot be expected to function. In retrospect, it seems that this notion of keeping a protective shell of "natural law" and "natural duty" justified the outright harassment of homosexuals (even police raids of gay bars) a few decades in the past. Modern ideas of individual sovereignty, as incorporated into the law, have diluted this "old chestnut" of moral notion, to the disadvantage of some people, but also to the point that "modern" young people don't grasp where old fashioned notions of "public morality" came from -- familial and tribal survival.

The need for familial connectivity comes up with eldercare. I’ve talked about filial responsibility laws in many states, and these could in coming years create a new crisis for childless and GLBT people especially. Beyond the financial issues, there is the practical problem that sometimes seniors may need adult children to “protect” them by sharing the same cultural world, when they have lived very different and separated lives for some decades. It is difficult to go to bat for a family unless you have your own lineage -- whether by biology or adoption – even though societies (especially the Catholic Church) have tried to figure out ways to keep singles and the childless (not always synonymous) socialized for millennia. Likewise, it is difficult for a “yuppie adult” otherwise childless to suddenly act as a role model for children, but given the post 9/11 and post-NCLB directions we are going, some people may find themselves walking in these shoes.