Guarding the Gates

We old people remember (and can’t stop talking about) the golden age when there were only three TV networks in America and the only question at 7pm (6pm Central) was whether to watch the national news on CBS (Cronkite), NBC (Huntley & Brinkley) or ABC (somebody else). Then, in 1975, PBS added a fourth possibility (MacNeil & Lehrer). We were so well-informed! And un-confused!

The age isn’t so golden today. Lawyer and journalist Asha Rangappa has some thoughts on the matter, with which I don’t totally agree:

Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones filed for bankruptcy on Friday, after being ordered to pay over $1.5 billion to several parents of victims of the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting in Connecticut who had sued him for defamation. On his radio program and website, Jones had repeatedly accused the parents of being “crisis actors” who were lying about their children dying and claimed the entire event was a “false flag” operation. The lawsuits and the awards demonstrate that increasingly, the court system may be the only institution left that can adequately police the line between truth and lies — which is not a good sign for our democracy.

She then shows a diagram with three categories: a Sphere of Consensus containing things about which all reasonable people agree; a Sphere of Controversy that contains ideas about which reasonable people can disagree and which can be reasonably debated; and a Sphere of Deviance, where ideas like Jones’s “crisis actors” resides. They’re the deviant ideas that aren’t worthy of debate. In other words, Crazy Town.

As [NYU professor Jay] Rosen has observed, traditionally journalists have defined and guarded the boundaries of these spheres — they were the gatekeepers of what was newsworthy, what deserved “two sides” coverage, and what was not given a platform. He notes that journalists were able to maintain this role because viewers and readers were, as he calls them, “atomized” — that is, disconnected from each other and vertically connected to sources of information….

The emergence of the internet and social media [preceded by the arrival of cable TV], [erased] this atomization, allowing views and readers to connect horizontally — which means that these spheres are no longer determined by journalists. Since people are no longer a captive audience and can share information among and with each other, they can redefine what can enter into the spheres of consensus and legitimate controversy.

This, of course, has benefits. Consider, for example, Black Lives Matter, which brought attention to a pervasive pattern of police brutality against Black Americans. The ability to share videos across social media platforms shined a spotlight on a side of America that had largely been excluded by traditional media and of which many Americans were unaware. The same could be said for the #MeToo movement, which allowed victims of sexual harassment and misconduct to connect with each other and bring to light an issue which had, in some instances, been rejected from coverage by major news networks. Things that may have been (wrongly) relegated to the “sphere of deviance” in the traditional model have found a place in today’s information space, democratizing the voices that can be heard and bringing these issues into the sphere of controversy, if not consensus.

As Rosen notes, however, there is a dark side to this horizontal connection. There are now no gatekeepers at all, so the divisions between the three spheres aren’t just blurred, they basically don’t exist. Just look at the last week — it’s 2022 and Kanye West has a platform to profess his admiration for Hitler (incidentally, on Alex Jones’ show). What was once unquestionably in the sphere of deviance has (apparently) become a topic of debate. From the other direction, concepts that used to be unquestioned — like basic science and epidemiology — are now challenged or dismissed entirely. If I had to draw a diagram of where we are today, it would be just one big sphere of controversy.

Here, Rangappa is exaggerating. It’s more accurate to say the Sphere of Consensus has shrunk. There are residents of Crazy Town who think the 2020 election was stolen, but most of them accept that Joe Biden is living in the White House (only some of them are convinced the white-haired guy is an impostor).

Which is where Alex Jones comes in. Jones helped spread the Pizzagate theory — this was the rumor that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex trafficking ring in the basement of a D.C. pizza parlor … — and, more recently, the “Stop the Steal” disinformation campaign…. The only gatekeepers who might restrain him are social media platforms [and cable networks] if they choose to self police. Even then, their efforts might slow down the spread of his conspiracy theories, but wouldn’t stop the millions of readers who visit his website each month from consuming his “news” directly.

Enter the courts. The judicial system is one of the few … institutions left where truth actually matters, and can be enforced. We saw this most clearly in the dozens of lawsuits … filed after the 2020 election alleging widespread voter fraud — sixty three cases were dismissed, mainly for lack of proof. This is because in a courtroom, we have rules about truth. Facts have to exist in order to be presented as evidence. Judges determine what issues are in dispute, and what is irrelevant. Juries can’t make up their own evidence; they have to weigh and evaluate what is presented to them. In a defamation case, the only defense is to demonstrate that your statements true — and even Jones had to concede on the witness stand that Sandy Hook was real.

These are welcome outcomes, but leaving courts to arbitrate what is true and what is not is not a great development for democracy overall. For one thing, most of the disinformation narratives we must contend with won’t end up being litigated, leaving them to cause chaos and harm, as Jones has. More importantly, an increase in litigation is a symptom of deterioration of social trust, a key indicator of societal health. Robert Putnam [in his book Bowling Alone] notes that when a society has a high level of generalized trust — basically, when we follow the Golden Rule and act in ways that benefit our collective self interest, like behaving honestly — it is healthier and more efficient….As he writes:

“When each of us can relax her guard a little, what economists term ‘transaction costs’ — the costs of the everyday business of life, as well as the costs of commercial transaction — are reduced. This is no doubt why, as economists have recently discovered, trusting communities, all other things being equal, have a measurable economic advantage. The almost imperceptible background stress of daily ‘transaction costs’ — from worrying about whether you got the right change back from the clerk to double-checking that you locked the car door — may also help explain why students of public health find that life expectancy itself is enhanced in more trustful communities. A society that relies on generalized reciprocity is more efficient than a distrustful society, for the same reason that money is more efficient than barter. Honesty and trust lubricate the inevitable frictions of social life.”

When that generalized trust breaks down, it is replaced by “cool trust” — formal rules and enforcement mechanisms that force people to uphold their civic and social obligations to society. Putnam continues:

“[O]ne alternative to generalized reciprocity and socially embedded honesty is the rule of law — formal contracts, courts, litigation, adjudication, and enforcement by the state. Thus, if the lubricant of thin trust is evaporating from society, we might expect to find a greater reliance on the law as a basis of cooperation. If the handshake is no longer binding and reassuring, perhaps the notarized contract, the deposition, and the subpoena will work almost as well.”

Having courts police our basic obligations to each other — like telling the truth about actual events — is a good stopgap, but isn’t sustainable for a healthy democracy. We need to have mechanisms outside the judicial system to resurrect some boundaries between agreed upon facts, legitimate controversies, and ideas that are not worthy of debate. Until we can recalibrate those three spheres, perhaps the only people who will make out ahead are the lawyers.

Unquote.

I’ll add that journalists and the legal system aren’t the only gatekeepers. We’re all responsible for pushing back on crazy ideas when we encounter them in public or private life. In particular, politicians and everybody else who has a public platform should act as gatekeepers, doing what they can to keep a lid on the insanity. The same applies to corporations and wealthy individuals. With power comes responsibility.

Three Weeks of Time and an Unknown Amount of Space

It’s been more than three weeks since I graced the internet with a post on this blog. That could be the longest time I’ve ever stayed away. The relatively encouraging results of last month’s election may have left me with the feeling that I should leave well enough alone. Plus, the urge to share thoughts — mine or somebody else’s — can come and go.

But to get going: There’s something that bothers me about time travel. When a fictional character travels through time, they always land standing up or sitting down in a relatively comfortable location. Arnold, for example, landed in an alley, naked, the first time we saw him. Time travelers never end up a mile deep in the earth’s crust or a million miles out in space.

One problem here is that the surface of the earth in the distant past or future is nowhere near wherever the time machine is. The earth, not a perfect sphere, is revolving on its axis and revolving around the sun; the sun and the rest of the solar system is going around the galaxy; the galaxy is moving quickly away from other galaxies as the universe expands. That means calculating the location of the traveler’s destination in space, not just in time, must be quite a challenge. A tiny mistake and Arnold lands six feet under or in the wrong solar system. Naked.

This detail concerning time travel came to mind because I’ve been skimming a TV series that makes use of time travel (in a surprising way) and because I read something that actually seems worth sharing.

Sean Carroll, famous physicist and now the Homewood Professor of Natural Philosophy at Johns Hopkins, has a new book out called The Biggest Ideas in the Universe: Space, Time and Motion. It’s the first volume in a planned trilogy that is supposed to make the fundamental equations of physics understandable to those of us who got through high school math (which may be a problem for me, since trigonometry convinced me to avoid calculus).

Quanta magazine an article adapted from Prof. Carroll’s book that helped me think about space and time differently. Maybe it will have the same effect on you. The article isn’t very long, so you might want to visit Quanta (it’s free). If not, here are selections that mainly leave out some historical background and may (or may not) clarify a few of Carroll’s remarks:

… In relativity, it’s no longer true that space and time have separate, objective meanings. What really exists is space-time, and slicing it up into space and time is merely a useful human convention.

One of the major reasons why relativity has a reputation for being difficult to understand is that our intuitions train us to think of space and time as separate things. We experience objects as having extent in “space,” and that seems like a pretty objective fact. Ultimately it suffices for us because we generally travel through space at velocities far lower than the speed of light, so pre-relativistic physics works.

But this mismatch between intuition and theory makes the leap to a space-time perspective somewhat intimidating. What’s worse, presentations of relativity often take a bottom-up approach — they start with our everyday conceptions of space and time and alter them in the new context of relativity.

We’re going to be a little different. Our route into special relativity might be thought of as top-down, taking the idea of a unified space-time seriously from the get-go and seeing what that implies. We’ll have to stretch our brains a bit, but the result will be a much deeper understanding of the relativistic perspective on our universe….

Einstein’s contribution in 1905 was to point out that [to] better understand the laws of physics … all we had to do was accept a completely new conception of space and time. (OK, that’s a lot, but it turned out to be totally worth it.)

Einstein’s theory came to be known as the special theory of relativity, or simply special relativity. [Einstein] argued for new ways of thinking about length and duration. He explained the special role of the speed of light by positing that there is an absolute speed limit in the universe — a speed at which light just happens to travel when moving through empty space — and that everyone would measure that speed to be the same, no matter how they were moving. To make that work out, he had to alter our conventional notions of time and space.

But he didn’t go quite so far as to advocate joining space and time into a single unified space-time. That step was left to his former university professor, Hermann Minkowski…. Once you have the idea of thinking of space-time as a unified four-dimensional continuum, you can start asking questions about its shape. Is space-time flat or curved, static or dynamic, finite or infinite? Minkowski space-time is flat, static and infinite.

Einstein worked for a decade to understand how the force of gravity could be incorporated into his theory. His eventual breakthrough was to realize that space-time could be dynamic and curved, and that the effects of that curvature are what you and I experience as “gravity”. The fruits of this inspiration are what we now call general relativity.

So special relativity is the theory of a fixed, flat space-time, without gravity; general relativity is the theory of dynamic, curved space-time, in which curvature gives rise to gravity….

We should be willing to let go of our pre-relativity fondness for the separateness of space and time, and allow them to dissolve into the unified arena of space-time. The best way to get there is to think even more carefully about what we mean by “time”. And the best way to do that is to hark back, once again, to how we think about space.

Consider two locations in space, such as your home and your favorite restaurant. What is the distance between them?

Well, that depends… There is the distance “as the crow flies”, if we could imagine taking a perfectly straight-line path between the two points. But there is also the distance you would travel on a real-world journey … avoiding buildings and other obstacles along the way. The route you take is always going to be longer than the distance as the crow flies, since a straight line is the shortest distance between two points.

Now consider two events in space-time. In the technical jargon of relativity theory, an “event” is just a single point in the universe, specified by locations in both space and time. One event, call it A, might be “at home at 6 p.m.” and event B might be “at the restaurant at 7 p.m.” 

… We can ask ourselves, just as we did for the spatial distance between home and restaurant, how much time elapses between these two events…. If one event is at 6 p.m. and the other is at 7 p.m., there is one hour between them, right?

Not so fast, says Einstein. In an antiquated, Newtonian conception of the world, sure. Time is absolute and universal, and if the time between two events is one hour, that’s all there is to be said.

Relativity tells a different story. Now there are two distinct notions of what is meant by “time”. One notion of time is as a coordinate on space-time. Space-time is a four-dimensional continuum, and if we want to specify locations within it, it’s convenient to attach a number called “the time” to every point within it. That’s generally what we have in mind when we think of “6 p.m.” and “7 p.m.” Those are … labels that help us locate events….

But, says relativity, just as the distance as the crow flies is generally different from the distance you actually travel between two points in space, the duration of time you experience [on the journey between A and B] generally won’t be the same as the [one-hour difference between the universal coordinate times, A and B]. You experience an amount of time that can be measured by a clock that you carry with you on the journey. This is the proper time along the path. And the duration measured by a clock, just like the distance traveled as measured by the odometer on your car, will depend on the path you take.

That’s one aspect of what it means to say that “time is relative”. We can think both about a common time in terms of a [space-time coordinate] and about a personal time that we individually experience [or measure] along our path. And time is like space — those two notions need not coincide.

By a “straight path” in space-time, we mean both a straight line in space and a constant velocity of travel … with no acceleration. Fix two events in space-time — two locations in space and corresponding moments in time. A traveler could make the journey between them in a straight line at constant velocity … or they could zip back and forth. The back-and-forth route will always involve more spatial distance, but less proper time elapsed, than the straight version [i.e. a clock along for the ride will run more slowly on the back-and-forth route — really?].

Why is it like that? Because physics says so. Or, if you prefer, because that’s the way the universe is. Maybe we will eventually uncover some deeper reason why it had to be this way, but in our current state of knowledge it’s one of the bedrock assumptions upon which we build physics, not a conclusion we derive from deeper principles. Straight lines in space are the shortest possible distance; straight paths in space-time are the longest possible time. It might seem counterintuitive that paths of greater distance take less proper time. That’s OK. If it were intuitive, you wouldn’t have needed to be Einstein to come up with the idea.

A Relatively Sane Election, But Likely Insanity Ahead

It looks like women and voters under 30 saved the day. Pro-insurrection Republicans mostly lost. Forced birth was rejected in several states. Democrats have added two governors so far.

Depending on results still to come in Arizona, Nevada and Georgia, the Democrats will end up with 49 senators (giving control to the Republicans), 50 (keeping the relative control Democrats have now) or 51 (meaning Manchin and Sinema won’t be as important, since they’ll have to vote together in order to make trouble).

As predicted, Republicans will apparently take control of the House of Representatives. But it appears they’ll have a tiny majority. That means trouble ahead. Author Brynn Tannehill explains:

[The Republicans are] probably going to end up with between 218 and 220 seats in the House. This means only a 1, 3, or 5-seat advantage… Whoever the Speaker of the House is, they’re going to have a pretty unmanageable situation. The right wing of House [Republicans] is detached from reality, intransigent, incapable of compromise, will make insane demands, and is large enough to derail EVERYTHING.

There will be crazies in key positions on all the plum committees. Wall to wall nutso hearings on Fauci putting 5G in vaccines and other nonsense, actual legislation won’t happen. Which is a problem. Because you still have to pass budgets and raise the debt ceiling.

So, whoever is Speaker is going to face a dilemma: (a) Cut deals with Democrats to get critical bills through or (b) go with the crazy and accept government shut downs [and] debt default….

Given how the crazies ran off [the previous Republican Speakers of the House] John Boehner and Paul Ryan, … the Speaker will more or less hand over the agenda to [the crazies] because it’s the path of least resistance….

But wait, it gets even more unstable… On average, in any given Congress about 3 members die. Others retire for whatever reason (such as getting caught with a sex worker), or go to the pokey for white collar crime. All of which result in special elections. Given the age, hypocrisy, and lack of real morals on the part of Republican politicians, they’re disproportionately likely to be the ones who leave office and cause a special election. Which means control of the House may be up for a vote several times in the next two years….

A [Republican] House is going to propose a lot of legislation that’s going nowhere [and make sure Democratic legislation goes nowhere too]. 

[We can expect] the next two years to be unpredictable, chaotic, radical and illogical as the House goes far to the right in order to keep the crazies placated, and the government gets shut down for long periods.

While they still control the agenda in Congress, Democrats need to do something about the debt limit. Republicans are already threatening to vote against honoring the government’s debts as a bargaining chip. A federal government default would lead to a global financial panic. It would be a good idea, therefore, to contact your representatives in the House and Senate, as well as President Biden, and demand that they address this problem before it’s too late, meaning before the end of the year. (Last year’s explanations still apply since nothing has been done since then.)

As we wait for further developments, it’s worth noting that pre-election coverage in this country is practically worthless. From Judd Legum of Popular Info:

Political media is broken Major outlets spent weeks PREDICTING there would be a “red wave” and EXPLAINING its causes It was all based on polls, which are unreliable This kind of coverage is not just pointless, it’s harmful.

“Democrats’ Feared Red October Has Arrived” — @nytimes, 10/19/22

“Democrats, on Defense in Blue States, Brace for a Red Wave in the House” — @nytimes, 10/25/22

Red tsunami watch” — @axios, 10/24/22

“Why the midterms are going to be great for Dxxxx Txxxx” — @CNN, 10/26/22

All of these forecasts, and many similar predictions published in other outlets, turned out to be wrong. But even if media predictions were correct, they represent a style of political reporting that is dysfunctional. Prediction-based coverage comes at a high cost because it crowds out the coverage that voters actually need. To make an informed decision, voters need to know the practical impact of voting for each candidate.

While outlets ran story after story about the [Republican] red wave, [their] pledge to use the threat of a global economic collapse to try to force benefit cuts to Social Security and Medicare went virtually ignored.

The political media has substituted polling analysis, which is something only people managing campaigns really need, for substantive analysis of the positions of the candidates, something that voters need.

You and I don’t control what the “experts” say about upcoming elections, but we can try to ignore the polls and speculation next time.

The End of Democracy: A Reading List

Articles calling attention to the perilous state of America’s politics have proliferated this week in light of Tuesday’s election. The New York Times has a list of books to read in order to understand the disheartening big picture. The article contains brief summaries and links to review of the books. This is its beginning and end, along with the list:

Autocratic demagogues. The erosion of the rule of law. Growing inequality. The upending of elections. Normalization of violence. These are all symptoms of what the scholar Larry Diamond has called “democratic recession” — and we are seeing them not just in America, but around the world. Over the last 16 years, according to Freedom House, a nonprofit that researches and promotes global democracy, more nations have moved away from democratic principles than strengthened their embrace of them. The list includes the United States. What’s new is that this trend is happening in modern, prosperous, liberal democracies.

At the same time — and, of course, because of it — there has been a miniboom in books about the decline of democracy. These range from works that diagnose the causes of democratic unraveling or seek to put it in historical context to those that forecast the grim consequences. Despite different points of view, these books all have a few core ideas in common: that democracies are fragile; that democratic norms are necessary but crumbling; that authoritarianism is seductive; that while America is one of the world’s oldest surviving democracies, it is not immune to the forces that have abraded our form of government elsewhere….

It has become cliché in publishing that no matter how pessimistic your book title, you have to add a clause to the subtitle along the lines of: “and what we can do about it.” The problem in this case is that what we can do about democratic decline is not very clear; the diagnosis has been much more extensively analyzed than the potential cures. All the books on this list call for less inequality, more fairness, less social media, more facts. Easier said than done.

But the potential end of our democracy is an urgent matter. Remember, modern democracies vote themselves out of existence, and the midterms are around the corner. Though the authors of these books have different views of our current political situation, they would probably agree on this: If you have one party in a two-party democracy that does not accept election results, you don’t really have a democracy anymore. The question is no longer: Can it happen here? (The answer to that is yes.) The question is now: Will it happen here?

I’ll add a highly relevant book the Times didn’t mention:

Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government, Christopher H. Achen and Larry M. Bartels (2017)

From the publisher:

Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels deploy a wealth of social-scientific evidence … to show that the familiar ideal of thoughtful citizens steering the ship of state from the voting booth is fundamentally misguided. They demonstrate that voters—even those who are well informed and politically engaged—mostly choose parties and candidates on the basis of social identities and partisan loyalties, not political issues. They also show that voters adjust their policy views and even their perceptions of basic matters of fact to match those loyalties. When parties are roughly evenly matched, elections often turn on irrelevant or misleading considerations such as economic spurts or downturns beyond the incumbents’ control; the outcomes are essentially random….

Achen and Bartels argue that democratic theory needs to be founded on identity groups and political parties, not on the preferences of individual voters…. Democracy for Realists provides a powerful challenge to conventional thinking, pointing the way toward a fundamentally different understanding of the realities and potential of democratic government.

Let’s wish ourselves and the American experiment luck this Tuesday and the days thereafter.

Columnists Are Deeply Concerned About the Election

I’m still avoiding “news” about Tuesday’s election, but many people who write for a living are expressing these two points:

  • Republican politicians no longer even pretend to care about morality.
  • The election will be a choice between democracy and autocracy.

They don’t need to mention that democracy may lose.

From “The New Nihilists” by Sarah Longwell for Persuasion:

These midterms are proving how deep the GOP rot runs.

The crop of Republican candidates running in the midterms has taken immorality to a whole new level. [She then cites scandalous behavior by three of their Senate candidates, Lake, Oz and Walker.]

What was the response from GOP leaders and media figures? In essence: “LOL, nothing matters”. 

It’s a baffling turn for those of us who grew up in an era where the Republican Party built its public brand around morality and character….Until a few years ago, the GOP still defended virtue rhetorically, even when it fell short and engaged in double standards….

In 2022, by contrast, the GOP ignores or perverts virtue altogether. [Their leader] has spawned hundreds of GOP candidates who ape his lies about the 2020 election, his corruption, and his combative style. Candidates of low character—like Lake, Oz, and Walker—are the rule in the GOP, rather than the exception. According to the old saying, hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue—and Republicans have resolved their hypocrisy in favor of vice.   

From “Well, America, You Were a Good Idea While You Lasted” by Charles Pierce for Esquire:

The GOP have finally abandoned the last shreds of common decency, the rule of law and other American ideals.

It was this weekend that I finally gave up. I have watched the steady descent of American conservatism—and its primary public vehicle, the Republican Party—into the terminal depths of the prion disease it acquired when Ronald Reagan, Richard Viguerie and Jerry Falwell first fed it the monkey-brains back in the late 1970s….

I mocked it and inveighed against it. Better people than I … have spent four decades warning us what was coming unless the prion disease was kept in check….

The public episodes are now too numerous to mention…. They are beyond anyone’s reach. They are beyond logic and reason. They left democratic norms and customs far behind decades ago. They are beyond political compromise. They are beyond checks and balances, and they have drifted off into the void of a space far beyond the Constitution.

From “We Need to Be Clear About Who Pushed Us to the Breaking Point” by Jamelle Bouie for The New York Times:

The Democratic Party is, at this moment, the only viable political party with a serious commitment to free and fair elections. And in a country where power alternates between two major parties, this means American democracy is in real trouble….

It is simply the truth of the matter. If you oppose the effort to nullify Democratic election victories and create systems of minority rule (the Republican running for governor of Wisconsin said, for example, that “Republicans will never lose another election in Wisconsin after I’m elected governor”), then there’s only one real choice on the ballot….

Democrats did not make democracy a partisan issue. Republicans did. They did when they stood with Donald Trump in the wake of Jan. 6; they did when they embraced “Stop the steal” and election-denying candidates; they did when they made light of the threats against Nancy Pelosi and the assault on her husband.

There is nothing stopping Republican candidates and Republican voters and Republican leaders from pursuing their partisan and ideological goals while keeping their commitment to free and fair elections. There is nothing stopping them from rejecting antidemocracy extremists in their midst and affirming the vital principles of popular sovereignty, rule of law and political equality. There is nothing stopping them, in other words, from making a different set of choices about the kind of political party they wish to be part of.

It’s not Democrats who left the voting public with only one choice if they want to protect democracy as they know it….

Bouie adds that this kind of politics appeals to some:

When politicians and other political leaders … drop the pretense of virtue and embrace a politics of cruelty and malice, in which nothing matters but the will to power — voters act accordingly. Some may recoil, but just as many will embrace the chance to live vicariously through leaders who celebrate vice and hold virtue in contempt.

Others have other things on their mind (by Michael de Adder for The Washington Post):

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