Monday, April 28, 2008

Philosophy 101: Truth and right, Knowledge and Information; Science and manipulation

Visitors familiar with some of my blog writings about psychological polarity, inherited from Paul Rosenfels and the Ninth Street Center, may remember the opposite “magnetic” poles of “truth” and “right,” as being the province of feminine and masculine personalities, respectively. Goethe wrote about the “eternal feminine” and inspired choral-symphony masterpieces by Franz Liszt and Gustav Mahler, as well as operas by Arrigo Boito and Charles Gounod.

The “masculine” personality, in this view, is more concerned about manipulating others in a domain (as a family, or business) to do the “right” thing (or perhaps just the “desired” thing). “Masculinity” is sometimes associated with salesmanship for its own sake, and can degenerate into hucksterism and short-sightedness (look at the subprime mortgage crisis – can’t anyone look beyond five years?) “Femininity” is associated with scientific research, but it can become self-indulgent and just mass information or knowledge for its own sake, without motivating people to use if properly.

On Sunday, April 27, The Washington Post Style Section, p M1, featured a long piece by Monica Hesse: “Truth: Can You Handle It? Better Yet, Do You Know It When You See It?” link here.

She goes on to discuss the difference between “information” and “knowledge," the latter dependent on "truth." This sounds like epistemology in a university Philosophy 101 undergraduate course. With so much material available to search engines on the web, schools and universities are having to tighten their standards for what is acceptable source material for research. Professional journalists have long dealt with this: fact-checking. The recently opened Newseum in Washington DC offers a short film on journalistic truth and provides a visitor exercise in journalistic ethics. The Post article mentions the book by Andrew Keen, “The Cult of the Amateur” which I reviewed on my books blog, here. However, amateur sites, and open-source compendiums like Wikipedia often provide original sources which may in turn be checked manually. I try to do that as much as practical, and encourage visitors to go to the original sites and read what’s there. The totality of what I find can be disturbing.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

T-shirt vendor sued for unauthorized use of fallen soldier's name; a test on the First Amendment with commercial speech?

An Arizona online merchant selling (and apparently having manufactured) a T-shirt listing the names of soldiers killed in the War in Iraq has been sued by the family of one of the fallen soldiers, apparently for “intentional infliction of emotional distress,” for a whopping $10 Million. The AP story by Paul Davenport is “Slain Soldier’s Parents Sue T-Shirt Maker”, link here. (You may need a paid AOL subscription to see the article.) The story does not yet come up on AOL has a running survey (for subscribers) that seems to indicate that the public supports the family. The East Valley Tribune in Phoenix also carried the story on April 23, here.

The company is called “Carry a Big Sticker” with this website. You can see the “Bush Lied” shirt at this link.

Arizona, as do some other states, has a law prohibiting the use of fallen soldier’s names for commercial purposes without permission, and actually makes this a misdemeanor as well as actionable in a civil suit. A federal judge put the criminal portion of the law on hold, saying that the use of such names on shirts was political speech. Patrick Howell O’Neill has a story on this action by the ACLU filed in 2007 to void the Arizona law, “ACLU Seeks to void law banning use of dead soldiers’ names on shirts; Arizona businessman protests war with shirts using fallen soldiers’ names; Police to file criminal complaint, link at Associated Content, here.

Generally, the First Amendment protects commercial speech “almost” as well as non-commercial political speech. There are some limits as in the “Central Hudson” test, discussed on the UMKC law school (Kansas City) website here, “government regulation of commercial speech”.

Generally, government can regulate speech that sells illegal products or services, misleading speech, or in cases where the regulation meets a substantial state interest and is narrowly tailored.

The question of what is commercial speech comes up frequently, as now with ordinary blogs carrying advertising. The question was debated in the COPA trial in 2006 and never completely resolved, as the federal judge felt that the concept is still ambiguous.

The "Fair Use" doctrine of copyright law does consider "commercial" speech less favorably than free speech.

It may be possible for this sort of problem to come up with "right of publicity" cases, too; but that has more to do with implying endorsement or with unauthorized use of a picture or image as well as a name.

"Intentional infliction of emotional distress" has always sounded like a catch-all that invites abuse by "plaintiff's bars." It sounds like a John Stossel "Give me a break" to me.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Pope Benedict: his homily remarks on "rights and responsibilities" imply major challenges for individualism

Pope Benedict XVI, in his homilies, talked about connecting “rights” to “responsibilities” and about making personal choices with due respect to larger sense of obligations to others, and even “family identity.” Yes, he comes from a religious perspective, but his remarks convey the idea that there should be some kind of national or world event to develop a concrete notion of “responsibilities.” I’ve said before that a “Bill of Rights 2” might come packaged with a “Bill of Responsibilities.”

Okay, here we go again with this. There are so many systems of arguments in the area of personal morality that what seems necessary is not just list them all, but encapsulate them in a compact form so they can be readily retained.

One issue that seems to spur the new discussion of personal morality is the environment, facing all those “inconvenient" external challenges. I don’t think there is serious debate anymore that a lot of climate change is man made, and recently the media (Oprah, for instance) has preached to us about the changes in our daily habits that we need to make.

It runs deeper, though. In the past few decades, we have grown used to the notion of personal autonomy or individual sovereignty. We have defined “personal responsibility” in terms of living with the consequences of one’s voluntary choices. Two basic concepts supported this libertarian idea: non-aggression or non-coercion with honoring the right to consent, and honoring of voluntary contracts within the free market system (and that includes respect for property rights, which are viewed as connected to one’s expression of one’s own identity).

Personal autonomy comported with a particular strategy in developing personal relationships: one develops one’s productive identity first before settling on a life partner and particularly before having and raising children. One maintains individual identity even in marriage. On a personal level, this pattern counters “soap opera style” jealousy, and on a societal level it seems to counter discrimination and tribalism. It sounds to a progressive like an essential component of liberty and peace. This paradigm for personal life strategy has been popular with young professionals and particularly with better educated gay men, but the idea is sometimes promoted even on shows like Dr. Phil.

The changes going on – the concerns about the environment, the extreme variations in wealth, the extreme levels of nihilism and resentment among many populations – suggest the possibility that people may have to learn to “see themselves” differently, in a more collectivized fashion, in the decades to come. People may have to learn interdependence again, in situations that they may not always be able to choose. It’s not just the threat of pandemics or cataclysms (manmade or natural): demographics is forcing this out in the open. People can’t “choose” the responsibility of taking care of their parents, and eldercare has exploded into a huge problem. In a larger sense, people will have to learn to accept responsibility for things that they don’t completely “choose.” Raising the expectations of interdependence could compromise the capacity for many people to make fundamental choices about their own lives and force them to experience their lives in the context of familial or tribal identity regardless of whether they have their own kids.

Of course, there is a libertarian or progressive answer: innovation and "working smart" - as in the green energy area, an in the medical area, with quality of life progress rather than just longevity progress. These arguments are legitimate. Nevertheless, a new style of moral debate is coming (perhaps recalling the old notions of “public morality” from a half century ago) and it is well to understand what it means.

There are some buzzwords for this notion, like “pay your dues,” or “what do I owe?” or just "karma." Religious leaders, raging from the Pope to "purpose-driven" Rick Warren (“It’s not about you…”) , feel that this is a spiritual issue about accepting Divine Grace and that so much focus on personal responsibility actually defeats the moral purpose of scriptural teachings. One must be “born again” or be “changed.” Nevertheless, we do have a competitive, meritocratic society. Any individual may reasonably want to project this more nebulous idea of deeper morality back into the plane of “personal responsibility” in order to figure out for himself how to deal with it.

Libertarians quite correctly note that both “conservatives” and “liberals” want to tell others “how to live.” And isn’t that what a lot of this is about? We kind of need a Trump boardroom kind of focus here and target the problem. It’s not controversial to tell people that they ought to be and stay married when they have kids (by chosen behavior). It is controversial to tell people that it is “wrong” to be single or childless, to draw undue attention to themselves, or to over-enjoy one’s own thoughts in comparison to appreciating daily interaction with other people—that those who are “different” present a problem for “normal” people trying just to survive.. In different ways, this is a “debate” or the “moral” aspects of introversion and, to some extent, sexual orientation and gender identity. Why? Those who are wired to be “different” consume in different patterns and often don’t follow the conventional patterns of accepting emotional accountability to others. They may, because of social asymmetry, have an effect on others out of proportion to their means. There is certainly some connection between the new debate over personal social responsibility (to the planet and community) and older ideas of family responsibility that transcends modern notions of individual choice. And there is connection, though not full coincidence, between these ideas and the older “moral” ideas about homosexuality common fifty years ago, when privacy could not be taken for granted – ideas that make today’s debates on gay marriage or even the military ban sound gratuitous at times.

It’s useful to enumerate what some of these ideas are. It’s important, although painful for some people, to develop and maintain an intellectual understanding of what this was really all about. For example, “working class” parents tended to assume that they had a “fundamental right” to biological loyalty from their kids even as adults – that meant a lineage and grandchildren and maintenance of family line – vicarious immortality. (Yes, there were books written in the early 1970s that said this.) Parents saw this presumed loyalty as intrinsic to their ongoing experience of marriage. Religious teachings “equating” sexuality to marriage and procreation (especially as phrased by the Vatican) tried to “guarantee” that everyone “shared” in the “risks” of family responsibility, such as bonding with and caring for the less abled within the family (and that tracks to eldercare today). Parenthood (either direct, or at least as implied by the indirect support of other family members if one remained unmarried) was presumed to be a duty that earned the full rights or adulthood and that helped validate reverence for human life on its own sake. Maybe not everybody makes babies, but almost everyone experiences sexuality in some fashion, at least in fantasy, so everyone share some mandatory family responsibility -- at least that's how religious "moral thinking" would go. These used to be very important cultural and “moral” ideas, almost beyond intellectual questioning, and still are in some cultures. Male homosexuality seemed particularly problematical because the “narcissism” and “reaction formation” (coupled with "upward affiliation" and the "self-deprecating" relinquishment of "expected" male prerogatives) was taken by straight men as a way of reminding them that they could “fail”, “too”. The “family wage” was accepted as a necessary practice to protect families from the logical consequences of runaway individualism.

Of course, all of this was easy to “exploit”: while families remained cohesive, they could be held in place by an economic order that allowed big divisions between the rich and poor. A few decades ago, many people perceived sharing family responsibility (whether "chosen" by procreation or not) as a personal moral imperatives, as sometimes was sharing collective risk (as with military service) or hardship, whereas gross injustices among classes, nations, groups, or races was seen the moral responsibilities of politicians and governments only -- and in the modern world, some of the latter becomes part of "personal responsibility." In Europe, “family” had always formed the basis of political alliances, that eventually could lead to wars. So individualism could provide a remedy to this institutionalized kind of injustice but create a new problem: within any family or community, less individually “competitive” individuals could be dropped on the floor, a circumstance that provides incentive for crime.

All of this tracks to debates about “mandatory” service. Soon, we’re likely to consider some pretty strong carrots for national service. Some politicians and sociologists have used the “backdoor draft” in Iraq to justify a call to resume military conscription, probably including women this time. The debate over “don’t ask don’t tell” and gays in the military becomes a debate on whether gays can (or will be allowed to) shoulder their share of the burden in protecting freedom (a concept very apparent in my first 1997 book); it is far from a call for permissiveness.

It also tracks to larger debates on “how we live” (at some offense to libertarians). Some people will say that the “singleton” lifestyle that I made productive for over three decades (with plenty of rental car trips with unlimited mileage) will not be feasible for the next generation, where everyone could be accountable for a personal (or perhaps familial) "carbon footprint" score. Perhaps so. If one "moral precept" stands out from all of this, perhaps it is the idea that everyone should have a specific emotional stake and "investment" in future generations (either directly through lineage or indirectly through support) in order to have the necessary incentives to behave appropriately given the "threat" to the planet that future generations may inherit. The "emotional" part seems to be essential; many men father generations and want the social benefits of progeny without the emotional dedication to follow. Perhaps another way to pitch this "karmic" principle is to say that one's competitive activities must represent "sustainability." But "sustainability" may imply a measure of expected "socialization," and experience of the self as connected to a group or family.

This all can lead to a world where the nuclear biological family has more “clout” and even has more power to control the activities of otherwise unattached adults. One can imagine legal doctrines built around “family granularity,” or a world where every adult must be “accountable” to someone in order to share “emotional risk”. Imagine the ramifications for Internet speech for openers (the “implicit content” problem). Of course, such ideas introduce other “non-rational” contradictions, and confound the idea that parents must take total responsibility for their own children. No, it could become “the Village,” no offense to Hillary Clinton or to M. Night Shyamalan. Prohibitionistic policies (as Andrew Sullivan once called them in 1993) toward sex (as articulated most, but not followed too well at all, by the Catholic Church) sound then like an attempt to “simplify” what would otherwise become very complicated ethical deliberations, if one accepts the idea of “group responsibility” to start with.

The world that is coming is certainly capable of challenging the modern notion of individualism as it has evolved over the past few decades with the help of technology and globalization. It could demand more emotional empathy and less choice in willingness to make personal commitments, even less of what Dr. Phil calls "the right to be right." It may require more willingness of "unbalanced personalities" like me (this is a "technical term"; see the Paul Rosenfels review here) to be willing to inherit the gratuitous emotional goals of others as one's own. I am very concerned about this. It seems as though people like me have benefited from the "secularized" and "counter-socialized" and highly individualized paradigm of individual freedom and rights that has evolved (especially in urbanized culture in the West) in the past few decades, and that others feel that people like me have benefited at the expense of others who depend more on social spontaneity. My father used to say, with some double-entendre, "the majority has rights, too!" There are a lot of "inconvenient truths" accumulating and some of them can represent serious challenges to individual sovereignty as we have come to expect it. I do think that these issues deserve a structured public forum, and I would like to work on helping set one up.

Coordinated post on GLBT blog, here.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Work ethic: it used to have a collective moral meaning

The notes in my medical records from my spell at NIH in 1962 (see Nov 28 2006 on this blog) indicate that my own father tended towards “moralizing” and that so did I. Like father, like son. That seems understandable enough.

The notes also discuss my father’s concern about my learning to do manual tasks and mechanical chores correctly. I remember this well. He used to talk about “learning to work.” At some time like ninth grade, I used to put up existential arguments, saying that work in the abstract did not matter, only finishing specific tasks did. I would do a task "my way" and sometimes get it one in what would look acceptable, and he would insist that it wasn't "the right way." I might "get away with it" in this sheltered circumstance, but I would need to be able to tie the right knot in a more difficult physical circumstance down the road.

This sort of thing translates into school work. We know there are debates about how to teach reading and math skills, because sometimes there are ways to get acceptable situational answers without understanding what is going on beneath. This always happens in the workplace, when one needs to dig into unfamiliar material to solve a problem. I was actually a slow reader (and tended to let my mind wander), but I did well in upper grades of school because I learned how to identify what concepts and facts mattered and connected to already mastered material. I learned how to predict what would be on exams. (A good way to study is to make up an exam.)

I can fast forward about three decades and remember managers at more than one company circulating memos about “work ethic.” In information technology, that is a fairly concrete concept. You test thoroughly before you move into production. You pay attention to detail. You watch the little things, because they can lead to big things. I’m sure that programmers and systems professionals at Sun, Microsoft, Google, IBM, EDS, Perot, etc. all live this ethic every day; they have to or their companies wouldn’t be where they are. Yet, throughout this whole period of my life, I was Okay with that, and I believed it as part of my own set of moral values. I was pretty fastidious about testing (file-file compares) and keeping records of the tests (too much clutter in those days), and about being around to support jobs at night when they went in.

One place that this comes up is in coding standards. Companies are usually strict about this (particularly companies that sell code to clients), but in practice (particularly in older batch systems) there are often many ways to do something that will work and give correct results. But one way is usually better than others and follows “standards” and leads to systems that can be maintained by others. Getting people to do this is always a problem in management.

Still, though, my father’s concerns about how I did mechanical tasks (whether tying shoes, mowing the lawn, physical “chores”) bring up another aspect of “work ethic” which has more to do with “paying your dues” and “Boy Scout” preparedness than everyday productivity in a job in which one is fully acclimated and experienced. “Formation of proper habits” was one of his pet ideas. The military makes a lot of this concept in Basic Training because following procedures exactly (and keeping everything "perfectly" clean) can save lives in combat -- and I grew up when there was a draft and when men owed such "service" to society. It obvious matters in other areas, like medicine.

These had specifically to do with gender roles, for starters. Yes, I was always being reminded “girls first.” It was intrinsically a man’s responsibility to be able to protect women and children. This all took place in the early days of the Cold War, in a society used to conscripting men, and that would go through another round of controversy over the draft and how it worked (deferments and differential “sacrifice”) during the Vietnam era. As we know, this would all change with the Civil Rights movement, the breakdown of the credibility of old fashioned systems of authority with the failure of Vietnam and Watergate, with women demanding parity in the workplace and developing and asserting individual identities outside the home and family, and with gay rights. We became a culture that struggled with how to “have your cake and eat it too.” Gay men often, although not always, report that this aspect of their social training was oppressive, yet often embedded the parts that they needed into their adult work ethic.

A lot of well known people (especially journalists) have “paid their dues” and worked in dangerous environments, and they certainly needed work ethic and “proper habits” to succeed, even survive. But in these cases they had usually chosen the work they did, out of some passion. It isn’t that hard to stay with something that you see as a personal mission and live it 24 hours a day. It’s harder to accept someone else’s mission if it is imposed on you by circumstances beyond your control.

Choice, follow-through, and control of one’s own message seem like an essential component of individuality in the modern world. But my father (born on a farm in Iowa in 1903) knew that freedom and “choice” and favorable circumstance can’t always be taken for granted. People have to transcend survival and find meaning in adversity, in circumstances caused by the aggression or wrongdoing of others. That reality generates a lot of the deeper moral thought of Christianity (indeed part of the Pope’s many sermons this week). People have adversity imposed on them (or indirectly on them by family members) by chance, even genetic chance. After the Civil Rights movement was well underway (and particularly after Stonewall and toward the time of Watergate) my contemporaries became more concerned about “bad karma” – that many of us have our “independence” and “expression” at the expense of the undervalued labor of others. In time, that can lead to political or even aggressive movements to force the sharing of burdens by others and create the feeling that basic freedoms have been taken away in the name of group morality or karma (the “cultural revolution” problem). Basic work habits and emotional adaptability to meeting the needs of others, even when on their turf and not one’s own, become important virtues. My father was probably right about that.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Newseum 1st Amendment exhibit presents problem of "fiction" in school systems

The First Amendment exhibit at the Newseum in Washington DC brings up a number of interesting cases, and one panel gives some examples of overreactions by school officials to student (and probably teacher) speech. Last year, the Supreme Court upheld an Alaska school district’s suspension of a almost graduated high school student who carried a “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” banner in a town parade sanctioned by the school. (That student is now an English teacher himself, ironically.)

But there is much worse, as any quick Internet search can find. In 2003, a middle school student in Richland Hills, TX was suspended for “hacking” a computer for sending an innocuous text message using an older method (with DOS and not using the operating system) rather than by using the method approved by the teacher. Dave Lieber wrote a letter to the Ft. Worth Star Telegram about this, available on Jerry Moore’s “My Short Pencil” here. As the letter writer points out “Hacking is not using a built-in command to send a message.”

The Orlando News in January 2005 reports that two grade school special education students were arrested and suspended for drawing stick figures that communicated a threat, link here. (Story is titled: “Students Arrested Over 'Violent' Stick Figure Drawings: Pictures Show Classmate Being Stabbed, Hung”, link here. Apparently this is the story indicated in an Newseum panel on the 4th Level, “When is a Doddle Dangerous?” According to the Newseum, a federal judge later ruled that the drawings did not represent a “threat.” MSNBC also carried this AP story here.

Apparently a similar case occurred in Arizona in Jan. 2007, “Arizona School Suspends 13-Year Old Boy for Drawing Gun,” AP story on FoxNews, here. There was a similar case in Oct 2007 in New Jersey involving a second grader’s drawing a stick figure, Fox AP story here.

And in Illinois a high school student was suspended for drawing what was taken to be a gang-related symbol in a notebook. (Here is a PDF giving a typical school policy from West Aurora IL).

The Newseum entry asks “can a student write a fictional story about ….” or “draw a picture of …” situations that describe or portray potential threats to others in the school? The most obvious situation would be, of course, related to school violence (as in Gus Van Sant’s film Elephant), but it could also apply to situations of a sexual nature involving minors. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how a school system will react to finding similar materials authored by a student or (more seriously) teacher on the Internet (as on a Myspace page or blog). It seems to be accepted in commercial film. An important legal question seems to be whether “fiction” can be taken as evidentiary of probable future “fact”. That kind of thinking (“propensity”) underlies the entire “don’t ask don’t tell” policy for gays in the military, for example. In fact, there is little actual case law or statutory law on this problem, outside of the 1979 “Touching” case in California (about a novel where a character unfavorably portrayed simulated a real person), as I discussed on this blog on July 27, 2007 in relation to a problem that I had. There is a divorce case in Vermont where a “fictitious blog” is at issue (Jan. 11). This is becoming an important legal question. Recall that Paramount had to delay the release of the movie "The Kite Runner" out of fear that some viewers in the Muslim world would not understand the abstraction involved in relating to dramatization, and immature visitors, finding fictitious material on the web out of context, may not understand the point of the abstraction in fiction. There have also been liability questions about fiction that seems to incite action, such as a lawsuit over the novel "Hit Man."

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Ad revenues from user generated video continue to grow despite recession

Some people have speculated that online advertising revenue would plummet with the economic downturn associated with the subprime crisis.

A Washington Post Business story today (April 17) by Kim Hart: “The Smart Money Watches You Watch Videos: Sophisticated Tracking Gives Marketers a New Edge,” link here.
The print version of the article (you need to pay for that!) includes a big chart showing sales of online video advertising rising steadily from 2006 to 2009, almost tripling, more or less with an even slope (Algebra I, have you) and continuing to grow through 2008 despite economic problems. It's not clear how this compares to ad revenues from "ordinary" websites and blogs with text and stills content.

This all reminds me of the time I worked for NBC in information systems (1974-1977), and company broadcast revenues were growing steadily despite the economic stagflation of the 70s (and loss of tobacco revenue then).

Market analysis companies like Nielsen (remember them – broadcast networks have whole IT systems around Nielsen) analyze VouTube viewing and even rewinds. All of this comports with newer techniques to track Internet surfer behavior to target ads, a practice that has privacy advocates worried because it might invite practices close to keystroke monitoring and spyware, and be difficult for security monitors like McAfee to filter properly.

Remember, though, “free content”, even this content, eventually has to be capitalized somehow. The recent book by Jonathan Zittrain on the future of the Net speaks well to this issue, review.

Late on Thursday April 17 (after Wall Street's close), Marketwatch released this story (by John Letzing), which surprised analysts concerned about Internet advertising revenue: "Google profit grows 31% amid concern over search ad businessGoogle profit grows 31% amid concern over search ad business," link here. The Techcrunch blog has this report, and today bloggers are reporting genuine surprise in comparison to the earnings report that had been expected (search engines will turn up many pessimistic predictions written before today). Remember, however, some other experts on Wall Street had expected Internet "tech" and media companies to do much better than other sectors (like financial) throughout the current "recession"; business models are relatively solid in established tech companies (compared to a decade ago before dot-com busted), and now found to be unsound and "Bubbles"-like in other areas (like finance)

So far, I have put all my own videos here on my own domain, although I may start to use YouTube soon for some of the more "political" material. But I want to be sure that the audience would build properly first.


Posting on my first Newseum visit today is here.

Update: April 22, 2008

The Wall Street Journal had a "media & marketing" article by Emily Steel on Monday, April 21, p B8, "Agencies Know the Score on Web Tracking," with discussion on comScore estimates, here.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

New French bill (on speech encouraging anorexia) makes for a good comparison of US and European ideas of free speech

Free speech in Europe is, apparently, not as closely protected as in the United States. An example is shown by a recent AP story by Devorah Lauter, “French bill takes aim at those who glamorize the ultra-thin,” April 15, here. The story appeared in summary form today in the (free) Examiner newspapers (p. 17 in Washington).

The bill would fine and imprison publishers of websites that encourage or aid with “extreme thinness”, and the bill attempts to take aim at those who would “exploit” anorexia nervosa, a psychiatric disorder sometimes leading to starvation, especially in young girls. The bill was authored by conservative Valery Boyer. There were concerns that fashion companies in France were capitalizing on anorexia and bulimia.

The detailed provisions of the bill are in another AP story, here.

There are concerns that “extreme thinness” is a vague concept, just as some people maintained that “harmful to minors” was a vague concept in the COPA litigation in the United States.

In the United States, given First Amendment interpretation, it is generally difficult to outlaw speech for encouraging others to do harmful things unless it entails an “immediate threat of lawless action.” However, sometimes there are laws that prevent the enticement of minors, as with activity on the Internet, and some interpretations of these laws could become legally controversial.

There are many blogs that advocate “thinness” in the US. In Europe, there is more of a feeling that "you are your brother's keeper."

In October 2007 I reviewed the HBO documentary on treatment for anorexia here. The disorder leads to destructive or nihlistic behavior that is heartbreaking to watch on film.

There are other interesting comparisons between US and European or British law on speech. Kitty Kelly (“The Royals”, 1997) has maintained that in Britain, truth is not an absolute defense to a complaint of libel. There have been problems with “libel tourism” with a Saudi businessman who sued in Britain to get a judgment over a book not even published in Britain, as with Rachel Ehrenfeld’s book, reviewed here in October.

Picture: from the Franciscan monastery, Washington DC.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Should individuals be their own moral agents? They have to get their own information first.

During the past few decades, there has occurred a shift in the way individuals get and interpret information. Along with this goes a change in the attitude that individuals have toward their personal stake in and responsibility for global issues.

A half century ago, we had a paradigm that a person’s moral loyalty belonged to his or her blood family, and that big conflicts of a global nature were the province of experts, or politicians who represented them. Conflicts among groups of people for resources were settled by wars or diplomacy. People got information parsed, organized and doled out to them by those in charge, of families, churches, etc.

A major component of peace, at least in a moral sense, would be the ability of the individual to assess his own actions. That seems particularly apparent with a concept like “carbon footprint.” A person’s family, community, union, church or employer may not always be right about some critical issue, and the individual needs the ability to break free. In a world where families and communities sometimes seem weaker and less cohesive, and where interdependence could become a virtue again, that secularized and individualized idea of personal responsibility can become controversial.

The Internet figures into our way of getting and processing information, by making so much accessible instantly. It seems revolutionary, but television was viewed as revolutionary fifty years ago. Technology (media companies and now user-generated content) may seem to make it easier for “Everyman” to keep up with things; the ease of access, however, seems to lead some people to become lazier and less sharp in their critical thinking skills, which is the opposite of the effect that democratizing through the Internet seeks. The title of a fictitious book written by an angry literature professor in the (Miramax) movie “Smart People” communicates this sentiment: “You Can’t Read.”

There is some talk in libertarian circles of more “direct democracy” (Mike Gravel) and use of referendum, which can become dangerous. When people go to the Internet, they often find one-sided pieces that fit their preconceptions of a problem. In that regard, the quality and objectivity of the “amateur” and volunteer edited Wikipedia is quite encouraging (despite reports to the contrary, such as “tampering” by supporters of political candidates or even from companies themselves). The appearance of book series like “Opposing Viewpoints” from a small Michigan publisher (Greenhaven) is likewise encouraging. I’ve talked before about how to use database access methods to store and organize the retrieval of “opposing viewpoints” within categories, and found that improved capabilities in blogging software (especially Wordpress) can facilitate such efforts.

I’ve tried, in my own posts, to bring together as many aspects of a problem as possible. This morning I wrote, on my retirement blog, a piece replying to a newspaper op-ed on caring for your parents. While an emotionally charged issue (“family values”) a constructive approach to the issue invokes many areas: long term care insurance, family structure, employment leave policies, social security and Medicare reform, possibly filial responsibility laws, and even sexual orientation. People often soften their writing on these kinds of issues to avoid offense or political incorrectness. Or they may be afraid to "put it all out there" to an unknown audience that could behave unpredictably when that audience is used to having access of information and use of it manipulated by familial, religious, or other "legitimate" structures of authority. But it’s necessary to put it all down on the table and tell the truth. With today’s technology, it just takes one person, and almost no money, to do that. The knowledge among politicians that just one person does this can keep the whole system, otherwise vulnerable to special interests and lobbyists, honest. But that does require "the knowledge of good and evil."

Friday, April 11, 2008

"Amateur" journalists: when can they get paid?

Well, I’ve recently seriously considered contacting the major media about my concerns in several areas, as often covered on these blogs. One of the areas is “reputation defense,” and another is the management of substitute teaching, and as I have related before, these two concerns intersected in my own life. Still another area is filial responsibility, which could soon ambush us (especially the LGBT population).

There are several approaches. One is a simple letter to the editor, and I’ve written many of those. I’ve had four of these published in The Washington Times (two in 1993, during “first” debate on gays in the military, and another in U,S. News and World Report, in 1996, and a similar piece on “gay witchhunts” in the Army Times then). Some papers, like The Washington Times, sometimes offer the opportunity for “novices” to publish longer op-eds on critical topics in the Sunday paper.

Newspapers do not pay for these contributions, generally, and the same holds for television networks. The “compensation” in the journalism world is for the “professional work” of not just getting the scoop or story, but of careful and procedural fact-checking, and writing the story accurately under a time-pressure deadline. Foster Winans explained all of this in his 1986 book “Trading Secrets” from St. Martins Press (about insider trading on Wall Street, and his perspective as a WSJ reporter writing “Heard on the Street”).

This reminds me of an undertone of discussion in the writing community, particularly when I mixed with the National Writers Union and a gay journalists union. Since I don’t make a lot of income from writing (I have to admit, I live off of retirement incomes and 401K’s invested well enough it seems), I don’t belong to these unions now, although that could change again in the future. There was a perspective that writing is a profession, like computer programming. It is a service that people pay for, and this particularly holds with business writing. For example, look at Holton (Minneapolis) “If you have an idea, I can help you sell it: Writing for Results.” That perspective helps explain the sensitivity over electronic republication royalties and copyrights, even especially with the recent WGA (Writers Guild) strike, although I think that industry could develop much more realistic compensation models (and more effectively and automatically adjusted) than were available in the past.

When one develops his own ideas and content and submits them, should he or she get paid for them the same way? That sounds like the essence of freedom, both of speech, or property rights, of the ability to contract. Of course, the media companies have a right to set their own policies, and they have a legitimate interest in keeping up journalistic standards to a professional level expected of the credentialed press. Still, some of the problems we encounter today (like “reputation defense”) are so ambiguous and unexplored that it would make sense for them to hire freelancers with “niche expertise” on short term contracts do research and report specifically on these problems. I hope I will find them open to doing this.

I have an earlier story on networked journalism in July 2007, here.

(Note: The Newseum in Washington DC opens today; I expect to visit it soon.)

Monday, April 07, 2008

Bill of Rights Institute

A column today in the DC Examiner by FCPS English teacher and GMU professor Erica Jacobs discusses the Bill of Rights Institute. This should not be confused with a similarly named “Planetary Bill of Rights” which is here.

In fact, Jacobs ‘s column creates a cover headline today Monday April 6 in the online DC Examiner, “How to Honor Student Winners,” link here (in print in the DC edition, the story appears on p 30). The story relates an essay contest, “Being an American,” on civic virtues. The student is to discuss how he or she relates a particular civic virtue personally, and is supposed to connect that value to a founding father and a major historic document. It’s not hard to imagine that such a project could be feasible in any major democratic country. The specific virtue that she mentions is “compromise.”

One of the tricky concepts is that, in any society with liberal ideals for freedom, virtues can compete. For example, in a free society we value personal independence, but we find that we need interdependence also. We realize that external circumstances can compel us to develop more social interdependence again. All the major cultural debates on “family values” revolve around this “ind- and “inter- “ dependency axis. Religious faith often promotes interdependence (as “fellowship”).

There are variations on this dichotomy, such as “competition” and “cooperation.” Some collectivist political ideologies object to the idea of “competition” because they believe it promotes “unfairness” or “injustice” and inequality, or causes some people to become devalued. It’s only the personal sharing of common responsibilities (some of which are not completely voluntarily chosen) by individuals that can offset this problem.

We run into these problems particularly with free speech and the First Amendment. Most litigation based on the First Amendment is based on the idea of looking at content at its “face value” for how it reads in some literal fashion. In practice, however, the way content is found and by whom, and the relationship that the visitor believes that the speaker has to the subject matter all contribute to the practical effect that the content has on the visitor. This is a big problem for school systems, teaching students how to interact safely with others in an anonymous, global medium, and how to interpret what they find in the proper context. Many school systems barely have a grasp on how to do this yet with the Internet. But, the point of four years of English in high school (the study of literature from many cultures and times) is, among other goals, to learn how to interpret material in the context intended by the speaker. Doing so becomes a hard-wired “brain” skill, integrated into the young adult’s personality.

One of the big issues with “rights” is the “responsibilities” that go with rights. On one level, this means accepting personal responsibility for one’s chosen actions, but some responsibilities can come from without, and sometimes “responsibility” becomes quite a subtle, nuanced concept. Is an Internet speaker to be held responsible for how less mature visitors interpret the content that the speaker posts on a blog or social networking profile? This is a profound ethical question that goes beyond the reach of the law right now .We all know about some tragic incidents lately, covered in the media. Much of the online "reputation defense" issue concerns this ethical problem.

Dr. Jacobs had actually taught a high school blogging project two years ago, as described in this article “An Ode to Blogging” from 2007.

Visitors can check my 1999 “Bill of Rights 2” essay here. I also have an earlier blog entry from Jan 2007 "Bill of Rights 2: Redux," here.

Update: April 21

Erica Jacobs talks about moving her "TeacherTalk" blog on DC Examiner and its move to the National Examiner, here. "With great power comes great responsibility," as Peter Parker says.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

School administrators and teachers: conflict of interest policies

One of my pet topics has always been “conflict of interest,” and even the Fairfax County Public Schools had an occasion in late 2005 to read what I had to say about this online.

So I noticed today a curious story by Leah Fabel on p 3 of the DC Examiner for Saturday April 5, 2008, “Montgomery principal shuts down consulting side business,” link here. The free newspaper had a cover page headline "Moonlighting principal faces ethics questions: Richard Montgomery's leader offered seminar for fee at school."

A principal of a high school in Rockville, MD (about 15 miles NW of Washington DC) had been running occasional seminars ("Breakthrough Principal"_ for other principals, apparently some of them on school property on student holidays, and apparently charging for some of them. There is a site which the story says was taken down after the Examiner interview, but which now says it is “under revision” (the site responded slowly, but did come up with a home page for me after about a minute).

The Montgomery County, MD school district has a code of ethics that bans “school officials” that could cause a conflict of interest or diminish their effectiveness as employees. Any public school district would need such a policy. Obviously use of school property would violate such a policy in any school district.

I wondered the same thing about teachers, who sometimes have to moonlight to make ends meet. The most sensitive issue has been the “reputation defense” issue that occurs when students are able to find personal profiles or blogs by teachers on the Internet and find content that, taken out of context, confuses them and that doesn’t seem to have a legitimate “purpose.” Teachers have lost their jobs or had contracts expire because of outside activity, such as appearing in "adult" websites of magazines, even many years ago. I have a couple postings on this, especially based on the Dr. Phil show: here (from Dec 2006), and here (Jan. 2008) with a case about a New Jersey substitute teacher.

Update: April 14

DC Examiner
has a story this morning by Leah Fabel, "Principal in Montgomery County probe also faces plagiarism charges," link here, from a company called Breakthrough Coach.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Military wives become surrogate mothers: there's more than one spin on it

ABC Good Morning America this morning aired a provocative story about military wives acting as surrogate mothers. The web story is by Susan Donaldson James, “Baby Carriers: Cold Cash or Warm Heart? Military wives can make ideal surrogate mothers,” link here.

The are a couple of different spins one can put on this. One is that, from a libertarian viewpoint, women can do what they want with their bodies. From a practical viewpoint, the practice is common because women are well compensated, often making more than their husbands serving in Iraq or Afghanistan, and are guaranteed pre and post natal care by the military health care system.

The women say that they are doing this to help other (infertile) couples have children. Personally, I wouldn’t accept using my own body for someone else’s purposes or needs this way, but I am a male. Of course, one can say the same thing about offering one’s body in combat for the benefit and safety of others. I did wonder how their husbands feel about it.

Newsweek also had a recent cover story on surrogate motherhood April 7, "Womb for Rent", blog link here.