Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Who will make weaker opponent for Obama: Mitt or Newt? Doesn’t matter if progressives don’t vote

By Marc Jampole

Progressives, liberals and blue-dog Democrats face an interesting mental puzzle: Who do we want to win the Republican presidential nomination: Mitt Romney, who is seen as being able to attract more centrist and independent voters and therefore more likely to defeat Obama? Or Newt Gingrich, who is seen as less likely to defeat Obama but would be a disaster as president?

If we focus on the best possible “worst case” scenario for the country, we favor Mitt, because his track record suggests that he will be a far abler manager and administrator as president than the loosey-goosey Gingrich. But if we focus on the best chance of retaining Obama, who despite his faults is far more progressive, far more interested in the problems of the 99% and far less corrupt than either of the two likely Republican nominees, Newt seems on the surface to be the better choice as the assumption is that centrists will never vote for the corrupt and hypocritical Gingrich.

The flaw in the reasoning is the assumption that Newt would be easier to defeat than Mitt because fewer centrists will like him. Consider that rural-based evangelicals have never seemed to be able to warm up to Mitt, who represents the city-slicker as much as he represents free market values. They have decided to forgive Newt his transgressions, which Gingrich has rewritten into the rebirth narrative so dear to the religious right. This group, comprising from 20-30% of the population, might sit on its hands in the general election for Romney but might vote in droves for Newt.

Meanwhile in his effort to pander to the far right, Romney cut ties with the Hispanic community by coming out against the Dream Act, which would give long-time illegal aliens with deep community roots the opportunity to go legal. While Newt has not stated a position on this pending legislation, he has expressed sympathy with the long-term illegal immigrant, which has not hurt him with the evangelicals and allowed him to build a bridge to centrists and social conservatives among Hispanic voters. That Newt is a converted Catholic and not a Mormon probably helps his standing somewhat with both evangelicals and Hispanics.

On the other hand, we can safely assume that Mitt Romney would be more able to raise money for the general election than Gingrich could, and many pundits, predictors and politicians put a lot of stock in how much money each candidate raises. Money doesn’t vote, people do. But money can influence votes and money can drive voters to polling places. Whoever the GOP candidate is, we can expect that Obama will raise more money, as much as $1.0 billion total according to a few estimates.

A variation on current speculation is whether the extended campaign for the nomination will hurt or help the Republicans. It didn’t seem to hurt the Democrats in 2008, and in fact helped keep the party in the spotlight. But we were dealing with two candidates who were relatively scandal free. The Republican race has come down to the King of Republican Scandals against Mr. One-percent. Of course, it’s possible that by the time of the love fest that will be the Republican convention, the country will have grown tired of hearing about Mitt and Newt’s flaws, and will therefore shut their ears to Democratic negative campaigning in the fall.

At the end of the day, though, all the speculation in which progressives may engage about the current state of the presidential race leads to one action plan, and it’s always the same action plan for winning all elections:

  1. Support the more progressive candidate, which in this case will surely be Obama.

  2. Drive that candidate leftward with letters, emails and support of other candidates.

  3. Vote on Election Day.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow shows why propaganda is effective: the mind wants to be fooled

By Marc Jampole

I’ve been reading Daniel Kahneman’s very accessible and entertaining Thinking, Fast and Slow, which is his highly anecdotal take on more than 40 years of research by him, his students, his friends and his associates about how the mind operates. I recommend it highly to anyone who wants to know why people think as they do, and how to improve one’s own decision-making, be it in selecting new employees or investing.

Now Kahneman is not a biologist who will depict the chemical and physical processes the brain undergoes. His interest is how the conscious part of the brain—I like to call it the mind—thinks, and specifically, how it makes decisions.

Kahneman proposes that we have two thinking systems, #1 and #2. System #1 is fast-thinking and impressionistic, while system #2 is methodical and rational, and yet will take directions at a moment’s notice from the conclusions provided by System #1.

What I found most interesting in Thinking, Fast and Slow is that virtually all the tricks by which journalists, academics and speech-writers twist the truth are made possible by peculiarities of the human mind.

For example, the mind will tend to make decisions based on the principle of “what you see is all there is” (WYSIATI), which means that people will assume that all the information at their disposal is all the information that is relevant to a decision. By their selection of criteria, experts and details, writers create a world of facts that readers tend to take as WYSIATI, which is why propaganda techniques that involve selection and non-selection work. No one bothers to ask why only the rightwing anti-labor expert is being asked about the impact of the strike, or why none of the options being discussed involves adding taxes to the wealthy. We just accept the facts and experts the media selects for us.

People also tend to let the order of seeing facts or events influence their thinking. Pudovkin and Vertov proved this oddity by running film shots in different orders before audiences in the 1920s. Every audience changed its emotional reaction to the narrative depending on how the shots were ordered. Kahneman describes research that proves we do the same thing when we make decisions or evaluate people. Propagandists have used editing to distort the truth from the ancient Greek sophists up to Andrew Breitbart and the maker of the rightwing anti-union Waiting for Superman.

Kahneman’s book describes extensive research that demonstrates that people will believe an anecdote much more readily than they will believe statistics that go against their current ideas. This peculiarity of thought, proven in multiple contexts, demonstrates why the argument by anecdote is such an effective propaganda tool. The argument by anecdote proposes that one story proves a trend even if the statistics show otherwise. Thus the “Willy Horton” case history that haunted the Dukakis presidential campaign. The anecdote doesn’t even have to be true; witness the great success of Reagan’s “welfare queens” remark, which Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum want to resurrect as “food stamp squires.”

Another weird thing about the mind is that, when asked a difficult question, it will substitute an easier question and answer that one instead. Propagandists take advantage of this predilection of the human mind to eschew the really tough question when using such rhetorical devices as conflation, false conclusions, the Matt Drudge Gambit, question rigging and trivialization. For non rhetoricians, here are some quick definitions:

  • Conflation: Equating two events, objects, trends or facts that have nothing in common; for example, using fictional evidence to prove a historical trend or comparing Bush II’s spotty National Guard stint to the military record of war hero John Kerry.

  • Criteria Rigging: Selecting the criteria that will prove the point you want to make, for example, the studies that use criteria that exist in the suburbs to show that the top places to live are all in suburbs.

  • False Conclusions: Putting a false conclusion at the end of a paragraph or article that is factually based and logically reasoned.

  • Matt Drudge Gambit: Reporting that a disreputable reporter or media outlet, such as Matt Drudge or Glenn Beck, said something that you know probably is false.

  • Question Rigging: Selecting the questions to get a better answer. For example, instead of asking people if they believed global warming was occurring, research groups asked them if they thought the news media reported too much on global warming. When asked the second way, many more people seem not to believe that global warming is occurring.

  • Trivialization: Reducing discussions of important decisions to trivialities, for example focusing on the personality differences between opponents while ignoring their substantive differences.

If we can just overcome these propensities to think in an illogical way, or learn to recognize why we are reaching a conclusion, we would all make better decisions and not be so susceptible to the smoke and mirrors of politicians and pundits.

I’m not sure how many people will end up thinking more rationally after reading Thinking, Fast and Slow, but for the rest of us, at least there is the delight in reading about all the neat research involving the measurement and analysis of human decisions and reactions in both real and artificial environments. I highly recommend Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Monday, January 23, 2012

CliffsNotes Shakespeare cartoons work as literary travesty, but not as a teaching aids

By Marc Jampole

One of the four short subjects on the “Blackboard” page of the New York Times’ quarterly “Education Life” insert is a gee-whiz Cheez-whiz feature on CliffsNotes Films recent release of animated seven-minute versions of six of Shakespeare’s most often-taught plays.

That’s 7 minutes a play.

From the publisher of study guides which all too often are mistaken by lazy students as cheating aids, not teaching aids. The danger of CliffsNotes, and the reason why most literature teachers look down on them, is that so many students use them to replace reading or thinking about original source material.

I saw most of the Macbeth, Hamlet, Julius Caesar and Othello at the Cliffnotes website. All open with a super hero character with a cape named Cliff flying into a public library where he sets the scene for the play. Cliff’s first words are always the same: “Hey, I’m Cliff and these are my notes.” Cliff will provide narrative links between the scenes throughout the play. A comic foil to Cliff in all of the introductions is a prop from the play, the handkerchief for Othello, Yorick’s skull for Hamlet and a bloodied, bodiless head for Macbeth.

The plays present little else than plots. Characters reveal in words what their soliloquies and actions show in the original Shakespeare. The type of animation, the irony in all the voices and the fast-paced editing stitched together by colloquial narration all derive directly from the fractured fairy tales and Mr. Peabody cartoons that Jay Ward created for the “Rocky & Bullwinkle” show. So is the reduction of complex minor characters to Commedia Del Arte caricatures, the worst of which is making the sensitive and thoughtful Laertes into an intellectually slow big guy, a Lenny or an offensive lineman in a Burt Reynolds football movie.

The Times article notes the use of slang in CliffsNotes cartoon Shakespeare. Here are some examples I especially enjoyed. When I say “enjoyed,” I mean I appreciated the cleverness with which the writers reduced beautiful words to the lowest common denominator of idioms:

  • “Making the beast with two backs…” to describe Othello’s marriage to Desdemona.

  • “…first it was like, oh no, we’re going to lose…” to describe the beginning of a battle in Othello.

  • “I like to call it ‘Daddy issues,’” which is how Cliff reduces Hamlet to a phrase popular with television psychologists; and “Weird stuff is happening in Rome” is how he describes the situation the day before Caesar’s assassination.

  • “Soothsayers, always saying sooths,” is Caesar’s way of sloughing off warnings about the ides of March.

  • “He’s your brother-in-law! Gross,” Hamlet to his mother about her marriage to Claudius.

  • “Dad, Hamlet’s gone bananas,” Ophelia’s plaint to Polonius.

I’m presenting my favorite outside of bullets because it may represent the epitome of travesty, which is, to quote Merriam-Webster, a burlesque literary or artistic imitation usually grotesquely incongruous in style, treatment or subject matter.

I’m talking about the reduction to 14 words of Shakespeare’s most well-know and oft-quoted soliloquy, the one Hamlet gives in the middle of the play that bears his name. Here is how Cliffnotes delivers the 36-line poem that Hamlet recites to himself and which hundreds of millions of school children have had to study and often memorize through the centuries:

“To be or not to be, that’s the question…right? When you think about

I think it would have been nobler in mind, and deed, if this bit of paraphrasing had remained in some undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns.

CliffsNotes states with pride that it believes that students introduced to Shakespeare by its films will want to read and see the original plays. Fat chance! Why would they? These seven minute cartoons are self-contained works of entertainment that satisfy viewers the way Road Runner cartoons or episodes of a sitcom do. The strange dress and sometimes archaic ideas are the same kind of easy-to-digest local color they are accustomed to getting at historical rides and exhibits at a Disney amusement park.

One telling detail: Before you can see any of the CliffsNotes Shakespeares online, you must first sit through a 25-second commercial for a movie about some kids making a zombie movie.

Because the CliffsNotes Shakespeares remain true to the plot, they are great for helping kids get “gentleperson” C’s in their English classes, as they enable the student to regurgitate the plot in essays, test answers and classroom response.

For the student or non-student of any age who has some familiarity with Shakespeare, the CliffsNotes versions should be a hoot, and especially, I think, for educated Gen Xers and Gen Yers, who have grown up with the kind of humor central to the CliffsNotes Shakespeares and are more familiar than Baby Boomers with the argot of the moment. I could see my son and his friends (mostly other engineers and engineering graduate students) whiling away an hour laughing at these travesties. Some may have used CliffsNotes in the past and others certainly did not, but part of the humor for all of them would be that these were the CliffsNotes versions. It’s similar to laughing at pot humor in current youth movies.

That CliffsNotes would produce such intellectually bankrupt yet mildly entertaining nonsense makes perfect sense.

But why does the New York Times publicize it?

Without a doubt, CliffsNotes or its public relations agency has launched a national campaign to attract coverage of the CliffsNotes films in the news media and through Facebook, Twitter and other social media.

But why did the Times bite?

The Times reporter, Katherine Schulten, doesn’t express a point of view, but lets the facts prove the obvious—that this film venture is intellectually bankrupt because it undermines every reason to study Shakespeare in the 21st century.

But for CliffsNotes, even bad publicity, and perhaps especially bad publicity, is good publicity.

Consider why anyone would criticize CliffsNotes, either overtly or implicitly as Schulten does? There is only one reason: because CliffsNotes encourages cheating by enabling students to avoid reading the assigned material.

But isn’t that exactly what the marketplace for CliffsNotes educational products wants? So no matter how strong or weak the criticism, it helps CliffsNotes sells books.

There are other offbeat stories the Times could have covered, but the editors decided to help CliffsNotes sell its quasi-ethical substitutes to reading literature. In doing so, the Times may or may not have been expressing anti-intellectual values. It was, however, certainly expressing marketplace values.