Democracy Needs Snow Tires

SnowyRoad_viaJarrettHendrixIn the political war of extremes, it seems like we’re setting up for one of the more divisive elections in recent memory, and yet perhaps also one of the most hopeful. For once the debate isn’t just about running to the center, which means we have an unusual opportunity to see where we actually are.

All things being equal, I think a large group of voters would prefer a centrist president. But of course all things are not equal. The middle-of-the-road candidates on the right don’t get attention anymore, and Hillary is losing a lot more ground to Bernie than she’d like while trying to argue that middle-of-the-road is more realistic. Unfortunately, moderates on the right and the left both are all suffering from one major problem: the centerline isn’t where they think it is.

I sympathize—when the road is covered in snow and ice, you can’t see the centerline. You have an idea of where the lanes are, but you mostly have to guess. Maybe you can’t even see ahead much. And the far right has spent the past decade doing everything they can to make the visibility worse.

Continue reading

In the Public Interest

Carter_and_Ford_in_a_debate,_September_23,_1976As someone who hasn’t yet watched the Republican or Democratic debates and hasn’t attended any campaign events, I rely primarily on reporting to keep abreast of the candidates and their positions. Or perhaps I should say “would rely on,” since the things reported in the media and things I want to know have essentially no overlap.

When we, the public, granted private companies the right to broadcast throughout the United States, we also asked for one thing in return: that they spend some time each day in serving the public interest. Thus was born “the news.” Yet the news, in its current incarnation, seems to have shuffled off the public interest in favor of the popular demand..

The things in the public interest to know, in my opinion, would be what positions candidates have taken, what policies they advocate, and what those policies would actually mean for the public. Are these policies feasible? Are they soundly supported by evidence? What are the upsides and downsides? Yet I am hard-pressed to find any mention of policies, let alone reporting that substantively analyzes those policies and discusses the evidence for and against them.

Hillary Clinton has been the Democratic “front-runner” (and already we fall into the horse race) for more than a year, since long before announcing her candidacy. But what do we hear about her policy choices? The media mostly describe them in broad strokes, and when they pass judgment it is out of partisan bias, not evidentiary analysis.

And what about the “leading” candidate on the Republican side, Donald Trump? Reportedly the media are so interested in interviewing him that he can make the absence of policy questions a condition of his participation. Some of his policies do hold the media’s attention, but only those that are so patently absurd (like the proposal of a giant concrete border wall) as to provide gawker value.

Even within the bounds of the horse race, the media can’t seem to base it’s reporting on evidence; instead they suffer from the worst form of confirmation bias: choosing a narrative early on in their coverage and defaulting to that narrative repeatedly, regardless of actual events.

Consider, for example, the coverage of Bernie Sanders (or lack thereof). If Hillary draws a crowd of 20,000 people, this is proof of her “front-runner” status, yet if Bernie draws a crowd of 25,000, it barely registers. Not that I think either of those should define a candidate’s viability, because position in the race has nothing whatsoever to do with value as a leader. At this stage of things, none of the general public has weighed in; the positioning in the race is mainly determined by punditry and biased polling—by candidates, of their supporters, and by media, of their viewers.

Nor is the bias skewed left or right; Donald Trump is, one would think, the undeniable “front-runner” on the Republican side, and yet the media generally treat him as an enjoyable sideshow. In their minds, he is unelectable, which is just the word used by pundits to make their personal biases sound like unassailable facts.

So what am I, a member of the public, to make of this? The things that are in my interest to know are not reported. The things that are reported are irrelevancies plagued with bias. The question of who would lead and serve this country best, and what their positions would mean for us, goes unanswered.

As a member of the public, the message I receive is that the collective governance of our country, and the democratic ideals on which it was founded, and the choice of who will define our polices—these are nothing more than sport.

That is not in the public interest.

Infinite Pie in the Sky

World_GDP_Per_Capita_1500_to_2000,_Log_ScaleThe ideology of economic growth is so entrenched an idea that it often goes unnoticed and unquestioned: the media, politicians, and businesses all frame more growth as good and less growth as bad. But “growth” in this proposition is ambiguously defined. In fact, our dominant national economic indicator, GDP, actually measures economic throughput, not economic growth—it measures the total value of services and resources used in a given year. Neoclassical economists assume that because a growing economy is correlated with a healthy society, a “healthy” neoclassical capitalist economy must always be bigger than it was before.

If you tried to apply this in your life, it would swiftly become ridiculous: for example, you would have to measure your bank balance by how much money you withdraw in a month instead of by how much is left. You would conclude that you were getting richer by spending more money every month, and ignore the rapidly shrinking balance until you had multiple overdrafts and the bank froze your account.

A rationale thinker may at this point ask how an economy can grow infinitely on a finite planet. The neoclassical economist’s answer is the proposition of infinite substitutability—that human ingenuity and technology will find the answer to any problems of scarce resources. In plainer words, the dominant economic view is that humans are infinitely smarter than natural limits and we will always find ways around them, so don’t worry about it.

Using my bank account analogy, this is the same as pretending your account is infinitely full of money, so you will never run out. If that seems like irrational, pie-in-the-sky thinking, it is: infinite pie in the sky. As economist and teacher Kenneth Boulding notably proclaimed, “anyone who believes that exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.”

Infinite substitutability based on human ingenuity is effectively hubris laid down as an economic principal. It discounts limits of materials and energy, presuming that we will always find a new alternative. In practice, though, human society has chosen to draw down stored energy faster than it can be replenished in the form of coal, oil, and gas. No amount of human ingenuity has yet created free energy and the second law of thermodynamics tells us that it never can. Nevertheless, the idea of infinite growth goes mostly unconsidered in year-to-year economic policy.

As Garrett Hardin put it, “a society that pays attention to economists needs economists who pay attention to reality.” To recognize physical limits, however, is not a popular position. In the United States, at least, there is a major incentive to ignore the problem of infinite growth—namely, ignoring it lets us rest easy on issues of economic inequality. If there is always more to be had, no one with more wealth can be blamed for the lack of wealth of others.

When I wrote about the Rich Man’s Burden, I observed along the way that some people assume equal access to all the benefits of a growing economy. The proposition of infinite growth is one excuse for that assumption: if there is an infinitely growing pie, the size of your slice may have no relationship to the size of anyone else’s. The proposition of an infinite pie sets up a carrot on a stick for disenfranchised lower classes: work hard to get more, because there is always more to go around. Following that, if you make a lot of money, you must be smart, creative, and hard-working; if you make little money, you must be dumb, rigid, and lazy.

Within this Rich Man’s Burden framework, it is easy to say we should cut the social safety net because there are “too many on the government teat.” It is easy for Representative Allan West to argue for cutting programs for the poor because “we in Congress need to do our part to aid the struggle for more personal responsibility. We need to reduce government spending levels so we are taking less from America’s producers of economic growth.” It is easy for business columnist Elizabeth Macdonald to talk about the “feeding trough” and “government handouts,” as if the people who need the safety net are lazy pigs. As if our grandparents who worked their entire lives should be bankrupted by the high cost of medications, or as if our children who depend on food stamps should just buck up and earn some money themselves. Maybe those poor children should just become janitors so they can learn how to work harder—a suggestion actually made by Newt Gingrich during his bid for the 2012 presidential nomination.

That heaping disdain traces back to the idea that growth gives everyone equal opportunity—but really it is just another excuse to continue removing opportunity from the worst-off among us to benefit those who need it least.

And so we are always chasing growth, because many people are in need and supposedly growth will alleviate that. Yet the majority of “new” wealth in the economy is captured by those at the top, not those most in need. The idea of an infinite pie sets up a constant moving target of financial stability that keeps those most exploited by the system hopeful, while the well-off continue to benefit from their labor.

With an infinite pie, the idea that anyone might have too much, especially we in the United States, need never enter the discussion. There is no such thing as too much—instead, it is always about more.

The Rich Man’s Burden

via Flickr user David ShankboneThe argument that the poor are happily “sucking [the American] teat” evokes a self-satisfied group of freeloaders living like parasites on the stolen wealth of hard-working Americans—so it’s no wonder that it generates deep resentment of social programs. But the more I encounter this entrenched idea, the more I begin to realize that it is not just classist rhetoric; it is a the edge of an ideological statement about the role of the powerful in our society.

Consider the assumptions required to support this view. First we must assume that wealth from a growing economy is available to all and apportioned only by effort: that the son of a white multi-millionaire and the daughter of a poor black family have equal access to potential wealth. With that reckless presumption in place we can also conclude that those who have more have worked harder than those who have less. Finally we can assume that those hard-working folks who have more are the key to the health of the whole economy—that more given to the top will magnify and benefit the bottom, while anything given to the bottom will be squandered.

This is the Rich Man’s Burden: the idea that it is the inherent right and duty of the rich to guide and control society, for the benefit of everyone. The lazy poor should accept their lot and strive to work hard like the rest of us, not weigh America down with their basic needs. The Rich Man’s Burden carries with it all the old prejudices of the civilized over uncivilized, the manifest destiny of the powerful, and the duty of those blessed with more to take from the poor what little they have.

That naked classism might not stand, but fortunately there is a very old argument to prop it up—“it’s for their own good.”

The idea of trickle-down benefits crops up time and time again, and “job creators” is the latest incarnation, a reframing of the assumption that benefits given to the top inevitably magnify and support everyone. The phrase is bandied about on cable news, in political debates, in presidential races, and in the halls of government. Those who espouse this view do not argue that social well-being is unimportant, but rather that social well-being is not the business of government. “Market forces,” they claim, will translate the privilege of a few into the well-being of the many, and therefore one of the main available engines of equality—the government—should keep out.

This argument appeals to economics for justification, but it is merely an ideological claim couched in economic terms. Economist Thomas Sowell wrote with some irritation: “as someone who spent the first decade of his career researching, teaching and writing about the history of economic thought, I can say that no economist of the past two centuries had any such theory.”

The facts bear him out. If trickle-down ever had been an economic hypothesis it would have been long-since debunked. Emmanuel Saez, economist at the University of California, found that in the recovery from the 2008 financial crisis, 93% of the income generated went to the top 1% of earners. Richard Michel, who analyzed income data from 1982-1987 to determine if trickle-down theory had ever worked, concluded that “the rising tide may have lifted all yachts, but it has not lifted all boats.” Disturbingly, Michel also found that households headed by Hispanics, African-Americans, and single women—demographics often subject to prejudice-driven inequality—actually saw their income growth slowing when wealth was supposedly trickling down from the upper classes.

The evidence shows us that trickle-down economics has never accomplished its stated ends, but people are wedded to ideologies, and facts look fuzzy if you squint hard enough, and old ideas do not die easily or quietly.

The roles of the powerful and the powerless have been in contention in our society for some time, and possibly for as long as societies have existed. The White Man’s Burden bolstered the Western colonialism of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, helped maintain the ruling class of Europe, and led to some of history’s most famous uprisings, the French Revolution among them. In the past it was the supposed duty of the White to civilize the Brown through religion and culture—and to take their resources along the way. Now, it is the supposed duty of the rich to civilize the poor through job creation—and to make money off their backs while they do it.

Consider the rhetoric that accompanied that old idea, itself a justification for imperialism, exploitation, and the enslavement of others. Powerful white men would speak unselfconsciously about the need to civilize the savages, to teach the less intelligent classes how to contribute to society, and to put to good use the resources squandered by dumb, lazy natives.

Consider in parallel this statement made by Newt Gingrich, 2012 Presidential candidate, on the work ethic of the poor: “Really poor children in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working and have nobody around them who works. So they literally have no habit of showing up on Monday. They have no habit of staying all day. They have no habit of ‘I do this and you give me cash’ unless it’s illegal.”

Or this, even more explicit, from South Carolina Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, who spoke against public assistance for the poor because: “[my Grandmother] told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals. You know why? Because they breed. You’re facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply. They will reproduce, especially ones that don’t think too much further than that. And so what you’ve got to do is you’ve got to curtail that type of behavior. They don’t know any better.”

If we abandon the debunked economic arguments and look at these statements for themselves, it is hard not to see the echoes of what has come before. The Rich Man’s Burden enshrines selfish decision-making as beneficial to all, and justifies old prejudices by couching them in economic rather than overtly racial or cultural terms. And we naively accept the new forms, and repeat them, and encourage them; through some alarming rhetorical alchemy, those who take have come to be known as those who give. And yet, we keep waiting.

Protecting Religious Liberty

ReligiousLiberty_via_Joel_KramerIn the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to affirm the freedom to marry for all Americans, regardless of gender and sexual orientation, a small but vocal opposition is loudly lamenting the horrific consequences. Their main argument, it now seems, is one of religious liberty. I am sympathetic. It is a good argument, and a just argument, and it is also fundamentally misapplied.

(There are some who still cling to the idea that same-sex marriage is an assault on “traditional” marriage, but they sidestep any question of how to define traditional marriage. Amanda Marcotte brilliantly deconstructs that argument here.)

So what of this argument for religious liberty? I am afraid it is well-founded. Indeed, freedom of religion is a part of our constitution and a critical pillar of our society. Without it we might have a state-sponsored religion and a set of laws imposing one set of beliefs on everyone, regardless of their person choice. So, yes, protecting people’s religious liberty is incredibly relevant here.

But the religious liberty of evangelicals is not the liberty in question.

The people talking about religious liberty right now are prominent senators, presidential candidates, judges, pastors, and Fox pundits. They have never been forced to do anything against their beliefs, but they remain terrified of the possibility. In their view, extending the institution of marriage to same-sex couples might possibly infringe on the religious liberty of evangelical florists, wedding planners, clerks, caterers, and so on—people who might be involved in a gay wedding and deprived, by this ruling, of their religious “right” to refuse to participate. In effect, they want the religious liberty to discriminate against people they do not approve of.

Of course, that isn’t what religious liberty means. If evangelicals wanted to claim religious liberty as an argument for discriminating against women or black people, society would have no trouble piercing the veil of confusing language and identifying the bigotry at its heart. And before you think that would never happen, it has. Paul’s letters have been used, and are sometimes still used, to exclude women from leadership positions in Christian communities. The argument that black skin is the mark of Cain was used to justify persecution of blacks in previous centuries. In both these cases, religious liberty is not diminished when discrimination is outlawed.

In fact, discrimination is the opposite of religious liberty. However one tries to contort around the issue, the bottom line is that religious liberty—and all liberty—is not about the freedom to fully practice your beliefs. It is about the absence of any imposition of belief. Religious liberty means no one religion’s beliefs may be imposed on those who believe differently.

And let me be clear: discrimination is the imposition of belief. Offering a service, whether that is cake decoration, wedding planning, or acting as a public servant, is stepping out of your role as a religious believer and into your role as a part of society. Within that role, denying service to people you disagree with is institutionalizing your religious belief and imposing it on the people around you.

Of course I realize that liberty, and freedom, conflict. But the freedom of one person to believe and practice as they choose cannot and does not trump anyone else’s same freedom. If, for example, sacrificing children is a part of your belief, that does not mean your religious liberty is at issue if the law says you cannot do that. When the liberty of individuals conflicts, we must negotiate an equal path, a path that preserves the most freedom for the most people.

In the case of religion, you are free to believe whatever you choose, but you are never free to impose your beliefs on the rest of society. By living in a society with freedom of religion, you are implicitly agreeing to a social contract that subordinates your personal beliefs to the ideal of religious liberty for all, including those who do not agree with you.

You are free to disagree, and to disapprove, and to believe prejudicial things. That is your right. But it is never your right to discriminate. You don’t get to pick and choose the beliefs to which religious liberty applies, because religious liberty isn’t about beliefs. Religious liberty is about people. And religious liberty means same-sex couples get the freedom to marry, and you get the freedom to disapprove. But you don’t get the freedom to stop them.

What is Being Lost

Surveilence_camerasEvery few weeks I read something new about privacy—and when I say “about privacy,” that is actually a very strange way to put it, because these stories are all about new places where we lack privacy. We call them privacy stories, but they are really about the encroachment of non-privacy on an ill-defined negative space. Reading these stories is like walking down the street alone, and then hearing footsteps behind you. You didn’t consciously expect to be alone, but it is still a bit startling and unnerving to discover you are not.

The most recent of these stories, for me, is an episode of Radiolab, about an aircraft-based surveillance system developed for the military, and what happened when entrepreneurs brought it to Dayton, Ohio. It’s fascinating, and worth a listen. At one point in the episode, Jad Abumrad says: “Here’s my problem with this, with all of these privacy stories. It’s like when you’re talking about these technologies, the advantages are always so concrete, and the tradeoffs always feel so abstract. I feel like there is something being lost here, but I can never quite put my finger on it.”

I feel that way, too, except I think I can put my finger exactly on what is being lost. What each of these technologies is doing is removing gradations of privacy. They are changing privacy from a spectrum to a binary state.

It isn’t surprising that we can’t always articulate that. The words “public” and “private” don’t acknowledge a spectrum of privacy, and we don’t explicitly talk or think about things as “a little bit private” or “kinda public.” We’re getting used to the idea of “public” being an absolute, but it didn’t used to be, and we still feel a twinge every time the old and new meanings run into one another.

The internet, I think, is the strongest driver of this shift. We’ve gotten comfortable, up to a point, with the idea that “public,” online, means the whole world. Regardless of what you do online, someone knows: your ISP, Google, the websites you visit, the NSA. Facebook asks us to choose privacy settings—“only me,” “friends,” or “everyone.” There is no longer an option for “people in my town,” or “people in my country,” or “people at my school.” Now we are not just individuals, we are individuals who must protect “our data” or, by default, leave power over that information in the hands of others. Mostly that means our actions are “public,” because, for the vast majority of us, actively protecting our data is a time-consuming task with no obvious payoff.

What unsettles us, I think, and what unsettled Jad, is that the new online version of “public” is also bleeding over into our physical world. We’re bad at naming that, but we see it nonetheless. There used to be both physical and temporal limits on public information. What your house looked like was information available only to those who went past on your street—now we have Google Street View. Where you went and how you got there and who you spoke to was information that was observed by those around you, but had to be painfully reconstructed by others—now, anyone with access to the surveillance footage can just click back through time and see for themselves. Even in a crowd, computers can pick out your face, identify you, and track you back through time.

All of these things, and many others, affect those gradations that used to exist between “public” and “private.” Everything that used to be in between is getting shoehorned into the “public” side of this developing binary, while at the same time, the idea of “public” has expanded. We’ve redefined “public” from “available to anyone nearby right now (a perhaps a few others)” to “available to everyone everywhere, and for the indeterminate future as well.” The end result of these shifts is that instead of having increasing levels of public, like concentric circles that follow us around, we are collapsing into two—the things we do alone or in very small groups, and everything else.

One’s first impulse may be to moralize this—to ask if is it a good shift, or a bad shift, or a neutral shift. If I had to guess I would say it’s all of the above, and then some, but I also think that isn’t the most useful question. I don’t think “how do we stop it” is a terribly useful question either, because we, as a society, have always adapted to new technologies and new norms.

What I think we need to do is to look carefully at this shift and recognize it for what it is. The history of our society shows us that the interests of the powerful are often different from the interests of most citizens—and that we can only advocate for our interests if we collectively understand what they are. I think that rather than moralizing or obstructing this shift in meaning, we just need be able to name it and discuss it. That, I think, is the difference between the norms we choose, and the norms that are otherwise imposed on us.

Changing Minds, Part 3: the Sentiment of Society

When I worked in wilderness therapy, changing minds was a regular part of the job. It was up to us, the guides, to help struggling teenagers reexamine their lives and make new choices. Sometimes that meant challenging their biases. It always meant challenging their assumptions. I valued that part of the work the most: the part where I got to see someone open their mind to a new way of looking at the world. But that was only the first step—in order for them to maintain their new habits, they had to return to an environment that would nurture their change and support them in making healthier choices. And that was something I had no control over.

Within our communities, and within our society, there is an inevitable inertia to our views. It starts, as I discussed in part one of this series, with our own entrenched ideas. Even if we change one another’s minds using the tools I outlined in part two, there remains a certain amount of inertia in the society around us. We who change our minds on controversies will be swimming upstream, fighting against the tide of the zeitgeist for a long while before the ship of public opinion finally turns.


Advocates for social change sometimes suggest that changing individual minds is equivalent to changing the mind of society. We rarely say so explicitly, but too often we rely on some vague social alchemy to translate the beliefs of persons into the beliefs of the people.

Of course it is not so simple—the entrenched ideas of society do not require our consent. They do not even require the consent of a majority of people; a majority of the powerful will do. And even when the believers are a minority, the entrenched ideas may continue grinding onward for a long while unless they are actively stopped.

In the course of researching for my Masters thesis, I puzzled out what I believed to be the five major components of an entrenched societal idea. In brief they are legitimacy, pervasiveness, inertia, organizational manifestations, and broad unconscious acceptance. To change the mind of a society, I believe we who advocate the change must address each of these components and ensure not only that we undermine the old idea, but that we build these qualities into the thing we advocate.

I believe climate change is a instructive example. Human-caused climate change is well-supported by scientific evidence, repeatedly evidenced in our climate and ecosystems, and yet confoundingly controversial in the public realm. We should have started responding to climate change two decades ago, but instead we seem locked in societal indecision over whether it really exists.

To consider how the idea of climate change interacts with the entrenched idea that humans can do what they wish to natural systems without fear of consequences, let’s look at each of the components I mentioned above.

Legitimacy is the acceptability of an idea in the public sphere. While the science has come down heavily proving human-caused climate change, those who have the most to lose have fought hard to maintain legitimacy for climate science denialism. When anything is a “controversy” in the public perception, what that really means is that there are two opposed viewpoints that are both considered legitimate. Racism, by contrast, is widely practiced but it is not acceptable to be publicly racist—it is an illegitimate idea.

Pervasiveness is how an idea crosses geographic, cultural, political, and other societal boundaries. The people who deny climate change, unfortunately, come from many segments of society, which helps maintain climate denial’s legitimacy as a belief. When an idea becomes restricted to a single group, the rest of society can often move on. When it remains pervasive, though, it remains entrenched. Racism, despite being illegitimate in public, is still pervasive.

I must observe here that, whatever the benefits of Al Gore’s climate advocacy, the partisan divide that resulted from it has been disastrous. By linking response to climate change with a pre-existing societal boundary, we have all but deadlocked the issue. In fact, I would go so far as to say the single most important thing to do in the world of climate activism is to find ways to engage Republicans in support of change. Until awareness of climate change becomes pervasive, it will be tough to make headway against climate denialism.

Inertia refers to how people interact with the entrenched idea; if they are pushed by society into one position or another by default, that idea has societal inertia. Climate change actually has fairly weak inertia at this point because the positions for and against it are to some extent equally weighted in the public mind. This is a bad thing for climate activists, though, because it maintains the controversy. In this respect, educating people on the science is critical because it makes it harder to accept the assumptions of climate denialism.

Organizational Manifestations are those structures already in place that rely on one idea or another and influence the behavior of society’s members. Inertia affects people’s individual views, but organization manifestations affect their actions.

Climate advocacy is vastly behind the curve on this, because although there are thousands of people working on clean energy sources, the majority of infrastructure is built with the presumption that fossil fuel energy is an acceptable large-scale energy source. Entire industries are built around exploiting fossil fuels, and governments are continuing to subsidize them. Changing these structures is unavoidably painful for a lot of people who will have to switch careers or abandon their investments, and the economic behavior of our entire society has to move away from relying on cheap energy if we are to achieve real change. In this sense, the organizational manifestations of climate denialism are creating massive behavioral inertia.

Broad Unconscious Acceptance is the final quality of an entrenched idea and describes how those people who hold an idea view it themselves. Here we can see a great deal of progress around the issue of climate change. As recently as the 1980s and early 1990s, it was easy to accept the status quo without thinking about it—gas was cheap, energy was cheap, and the climate science was uncertain. Now we’ve reached the point of controversy, so people on both sides of the debate cannot ignore the presence of an opposing view. That said, they still may not question their own view.

In Summary

Climate denialism became entrenched decades ago through naiveté, and changing the mind of society is a slow process. Although climate change advocates have made some headway in legitimizing climate change and eliminating broad unconscious acceptance, the organizational manifestations and pervasiveness of climate denial remain an issue, and the inertia of the ideas is fairly balanced. To reach a point where society will respond to climate change and stop worsening the problem we need headway in all five components—we need climate denialism to become illegitimate, be restricted to a few groups of people, and be eliminated from our social structures like businesses and governments.

Through these five qualities of entrenched ideas we see the ebb and flow of societal beliefs, and we can begin to seek change on a level beyond that of the individual. The evidence may be clear on an issue, as it is on climate change, but that isn’t enough to change the mind of society. Nor is changing individual minds alone enough to create that change. We have those things, and still the “controversy” legitimizes the ideas that climate is not changing, or that if it is, humans aren’t causing it, or that if we are, it may not be a bad thing, or that if it is, we can only accept solutions the maintain the status quo.

In the previous two parts, I suggested concrete ways to change minds. I have changed my own mind, and I can suggest ways to go about that. I have helped others change their minds, and there is science to suggest ways we can do that effectively.

To change the zeitgeist, however, is to turn a much more unwieldy and capricious beast. My best understanding at present is that we must try to ensure that our work impacts the qualities I listed above. I cannot say precisely the best way to go about it, but I suspect the answer is all ways, and then some, and with all the energy you can muster.

May Recommended Reading

At the end of each month I compile links to articles I found thought-provoking over that month, categorized with pull-quotes for your perusal and edification. Each of these is a story that made me stop and think, and hopefully one or two of them will do the same for you. This time I’m adding a “pick of the month” category for the best and most interesting story I saw this month.

Pick of the Month: 

The Wreck of the Kulluk – McKenzie Funk

This is truly excellent reporting, and incredibly informative. It’s a gripping story of Shell Oil cutting corners, hunting for arctic oil, and being hoist with their own petard. There is no one quote that will do this justice, but it is equal parts corporate desperation, intrigue and suspense, and action and heroism on the high seas.

On Baltimore and Racism: 

Black America’s Baltimore schism: Why the Freddie Gray tragedy demands serious soul-searching – Brittney Cooper

“The right of the people to revolt in response to unjust conditions is a founding principle of this Republic. But another founding principle of this republic is that Black people are not fully human. Therefore they are not legitimately “the people,” not a part of the “demos” in democracy. Thus revolution and rebellion remain the province and property of America’s white citizens. All other comers are illegitimate.”

De Blasio: Civil Disobedience Means Do What The Cops Tell You – Christopher Robbins

“In short: if you want to disobey the police, you have to make an appointment. It also helps if you’re a prominent, white, male, elected official running for higher office. Challenging the status quo sometimes means being a part of it. To the protesters who turned out on Wednesday to protest police brutality, whose friends and relatives were killed by the police, or whose skin color alone equates them with criminality in the eyes of the law, the mayor gave very clear advice: ‘Pay attention to the instructions of the police, and I think everything will go fine.’ ”

Media coverage of gang violence sure looks different when the perpetrators are white – Jenée Desmond-Harris

“Those who are using what happened in Waco to start conversations about stereotypes and media biases against black people aren’t complaining about the tenor of this weekend’s media coverage. They’re saying something a little different: that by being pretty reasonable and sticking to the facts, this coverage highlights the absurdity of the language and analysis that have been deployed in other instances, when the accused criminals are black.”


Wisconsin GOP Advances Bills Controlling How People On Welfare Eat And Pee – Arthur Delaney

“Legislation approved by the Wisconsin State Assembly on Wednesday would require drug screening for poor people in the state who want [need] public benefits and force food stamp recipients to spend most of their benefits on state-approved groceries.”


Female McMaster professors getting a pay boost to same level as men – CBC News

“Female professors at McMaster University will get a pay raise under a new plan to make sure women faculty are paid fairly.The university will boost the base salaries of female faculty by $3,515 per year starting on July 1. The increase comes after a joint study between the university and the faculty association determined that female faculty make that much less than their male counterparts.”

“The Good Ones Say No”: Why Purity Culture and Rape Culture Are Two Sides of the Same Coin – Miri

“On one side of the coin is the idea that only ‘good’ women are worth anything, and only women who consistently refuse men’s advances can be ‘good.’ Of course, this creates a paradox: if women are only ‘good’ as long as they refuse, and men could only ever want to get emotionally (and materially) invested in ‘good’ women, what happens when a woman stops refusing? So either men are supposed to only have sex with virgins and only once, or they’re supposed to indefinitely stay in relationships that are not sexually fulfilling (because there is no sex), or they’re supposed to coerce and rape women. The latter option is the only way to have sex with someone who says no, by the way.”

Entering the Mind of My Rapist: An Exercise in Extreme Empathy – Deborah Copaken

“I didn’t even want him not to graduate. I wanted to confront him in a safe place in front of others. I wanted him to understand that what he did to me—penetration against my will—was wrong, really wrong! I wanted him to express remorse for having crossed a moral and legal line, so that if and when he ever raised a son, he could teach him not to cross it. I wanted, in short, an apology.

Am I delusional? Is this line of thinking the product of too much empathy and not enough rage? Maybe. But I don’t think so. No matter how my rapist (and I will always call him that, “my rapist”) told the story of what happened that night before graduation, the fact that one of us experienced it as a rape should have been enough to force an immediate discussion in which proving guilt, beyond a shadow of a doubt and at the expense of my reputation—a second rape, if you will—was not the goal.”

Incapacitated and Forcible Rape of College Women: Prevalence Across the First Year – Kate Carey, Sarah Durney, Robyn Shepardson, and Michael Carey

“Before entering college, 28% of women had experienced attempted or completed rape. During their first year, one of six female students had experienced [attempted or completed incapacitated rape] or [attempted or completed forcible rape]. The lifetime prevalence of attempted or completed rape increased to 37% by the start of sophomore year.”

In summary, 1 of every 4 women is assaulted in her first year of college, and 1 in every 3 women has been assaulted sometime in her life before her sophomore year.

LGBTQ Rights:

Alabama minister tried to marry a lesbian couple — now she’s on probation – Jin Zhao

“A minister arrested on a misdemeanor disorderly conduct charge for trying to perform a gay wedding in an Alabama courthouse pleaded guilty on Monday but will avoid serving time in jail, Montgomery Advertiser reports. Anne Susan DiPrizio, 44, entered the plea in Autauga County Circuit Court. A judge ordered her to pay a $250 fine and gave her a 30-day jail sentence, which was suspended later in place of a six months unsupervised probation.”

Government and Privacy:

Court rules NSA program illegal – Jim Acosta, Ted Barrett and Jeremy Diamond

“ ‘This decision is a resounding victory for the rule of law,’ said ACLU Staff Attorney Alex Abdo, who brought the challenge. ‘For years, the government secretly spied on millions of innocent Americans based on a shockingly broad interpretation of its authority. The court rightly rejected the government’s theory that it may stockpile information on all of us in case that information proves useful in the future. Mass surveillance does not make us any safer, and it is fundamentally incompatible with the privacy necessary in a free society,’ he said.”

Climate Change:

400 Again – Phil Plait

“There are people out there who still will pooh-pooh this, saying carbon dioxide is good for us, and plants love it. Let me be clear: This is the single dumbest thing climate change deniers have ever said, and that’s a deep, deep well of dumbosity. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, and the science on this is very basic, as basic as knowing a rock will fall when you drop it from your hand. At first blush 400 ppm may not sound like much, but it means we’re significantly accelerating planetary heating. And warming the Earth doesn’t just mean we’ll be able to grow pineapples in Canada. It means huge changes to global weather patterns, changes we’re already seeing.”

What if climate change is real? – Katharine Hayhoe

This one is a video—a TED talk by a conservative climate scientist from Texas.

Ideas and Beliefs: 

How Facebook’s Algorithm Suppresses Content Diversity (Modestly) and How the Newsfeed Rules Your Clicks – Zeynep Tufekci

“Here’s the key finding: Facebook researchers conclusively show that Facebook’s newsfeed algorithm decreases ideologically diverse, cross-cutting content people see from their social networks on Facebook by a measurable amount. The researchers report that exposure to diverse content is suppressed by Facebook’s algorithm by 8% for self-identified liberals and by 5% for self-identified conservatives.”

Canvassers study in Episode #555 has been retracted – Ira Glass

“Last month [This American Life] did a story about canvassers who’d invented a way to go door to door and, in a 22-minute conversation, change people’s minds on issues like same sex marriage and abortion rights. We did the story because there was solid scientific data published in the journal Science – proving that the canvassers were really having an effect. Yesterday one of the authors of that study, Donald Green, asked Science to retract the study. Some of the data gathered by his co-author seems to have been faked.”

I Don’t Want to Be Right – Maria Konnikova

“The longer the narrative remains co-opted by prominent figures with little to no actual medical expertise—the Jenny McCarthys of the world—the more difficult it becomes to find a unified, non-ideological theme. The message can’t change unless the perceived consensus among figures we see as opinion and thought leaders changes first.

And that, ultimately, is the final, big piece of the puzzle: the cross-party, cross-platform unification of the country’s élites, those we perceive as opinion leaders, can make it possible for messages to spread broadly. The campaign against smoking is one of the most successful public-interest fact-checking operations in history. But, if smoking were just for Republicans or Democrats, change would have been far more unlikely. It’s only after ideology is put to the side that a message itself can change, so that it becomes decoupled from notions of self-perception.”

This Is How Fast America Changes Its Mind – Alex Tribou and Keith Collins

“Eleven years after Massachusetts became the first state to allow same-sex couples to marry, the Supreme Court on April 28 will hear arguments about whether to extend that right nationwide. The case comes amid a wave of gay marriage legalization: 28 states since 2013, and 36 overall. Such widespread acceptance in a short amount of time isn’t a phenomenon unique to gay marriage. Social change in the U.S. appears to follow a pattern: A few pioneer states get out front before the others, and then a key event—often a court decision or a grassroots campaign reaching maturity—triggers a rush of state activity that ultimately leads to a change in federal law.”

With cool graphs!