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Om Nom de Plume

Thinking about political frustration, inspired by recently watching Wag the Dog and Bulworth too close to each other. As they're both films that prod playfully at political problems in the USA (and accidentally other cultures - these are human problems rather than being specifically American ones), I wonder how broadly accepted the specific problems they point out are - for those who have seen neither film,

Wag the Dog:

  • In a democracy, the demos are easily distracted from issues of import by other issues, and their attention span is brief, easily drawn away from substance by love of a story, and manipulable
  • Media aids this manipulation in order to find/create sensations that draw in viewers
  • There exist politicians who are aware of the above fact, and manipulate them to draw attention away from issues they don't want to deal with
  • Disrupting that process too directly can place one at risk of extrajudicial action by the powerful
  • Politicians are easily bribed by industry, either personally or through campaign donations, to support industry interests instead of the broad interests of society or their constituency
  • Media is controlled by the wealthy, permitting them through our current interpretation of free speech and concentration of media ownership to stifle public discourse
  • Even when media is not attempting to stifle public discourse, it has little passion for serving society or producing quality products, instead focusing on profit
  • People have a yearning for more honest public discourse and a vague feeling that they are not served by the politicians they elect.
  • Sufficient dissatisfaction with the opportunities and the lack of vitality of modern society/culture inspires people to seek alternate (often criminal) means to wealth and power
  • Disrupting the status quo too directly can place one at risk of extrajudicial action by the powerful (again)
To me, these are all at least half-truths, many of them being close to being fully true. They also point to a cluster of problems with our society that seem to be potentially fixable. One large difference between the films is how the general public is portrayed - Wag the Dog suggests that the public is as much to blame as the political and media establishments, their having deteriorated, at least as a group, into being largely consumers of entertainment - Bulworth instead suggests a frustrated public that is in parts pretty self-aware and able to analyse its problems to varying extents. I'm uncertain which more accurately represents society as a whole, but I suspect there are class boundaries involved - Wag the Dog's society is only distantly portrayed and is presumably largely white suburbanites, while Bulworth focuses more specifically on lower-class black urban society.

In my experience, lower-class black urban society in the United States is in fact more socially active, aware, and often politically savvy than most white suburban society - more is at stake for them in politics than those in the suburbs (this trend extends back into the early struggles over civil liberties), and in some ways they have been neglected by the media (this neglect is disrespectful, but perhaps more healthy in the end?). I should qualify this by saying that my experiences are based on visits to black churches in the Cleveland area, volunteer work at shelters/food kitchens/animal shelters in Cleveland and Columbus, a few acquaintences in both areas and a friendship in Columbus that "let me in" to the community. Similarly, my light ties to the socialist movement in Pittsburgh have led me to gatherings relating to organised labour here. Other than that, I just have book knowledge and access to surveys, so weigh this set of conclusions as you will - it may not apply to other parts of the country and may be underjustified.

Returning to the films, I wonder how widely accepted the assertions suggested by each film is. I would like to think that if the media would not prohibit real discussion of the issues and the assertions were roughly accepted, productive structural change would be likely, although this may be naïve to either suppose or conclude.

(I should mention that neither of the films are dry political commentary or Michael Moore-esque critiques - their criticism of the way things are is mixed into a compelling story that should interest even the apolitical)

To tiptoe a bit further into politics in this post, I think this guy's criticism of Libertarian thought, at least the kind that I was involved in when I was younger, is mostly on par. It's unfortunate that he chose such an inflammatory title - it probably descends from internet tradition (flaming that is not flaming)..

Recently I've been playing a bit with searching public political campaign donations of people I know..

  • My father, as I long knew, is a Republican (even considering his contrarian views on everything)
  • One of my uncles might be a Democrat while another is certainly a Republican
  • Former employers are often quite interesting as well
  • It's strange (to me, at least) how often people end up contributing to PACs that are owned by their employers.
  • It would be particularly interesting to try to automatically scrape sites like this and build inferences on blog word content from family members - as authors such as Lakoff have analysed cultural and philosophical differences underlying American conservativism and liberalism, it would be interesting to see how well that lines up with word and phrase statistics from households that we might statistically infer to be conservative or liberal based on their campaign contributions. The ugly bit would be trying to rigourously link blogs online (livejournal/wordpress/etc) to families/identities retrieved from campaign contruibution records - apart from using a lot of human intelligence and guesswork, I'm not sure what could be done.

I would be very pleased if CMU would talk to me about some of the jobs I've applied for soon, although I'm starting to apply for jobs at MIT now too (and probably will at UTAustin, should I see ones that look particularly cool (incidentally, I discovered that TAMU has a branch campus in Mexico. Life is sometimes strange)). I am also weirded out by how little money I seem to spend - it seems that my current savings/spendings might permit me to go jobless for another year or two if I wanted to. That would probably be a terrible idea though.

I should spend some days at the Beehive...



Weird that I don't seem to show up in the political contributions search, as I've contributed quite a bit to Obama... My father and my cousin both show up. :-)
I read a bit of the anti-libertarian thing. The guy is either just plain sloppy, or doesn't know what an ad hominem argument is and why you shouldn't make them. It's not appropriate to attack Libertarianism by attacking Libertarians.