Iowa 2020 – Safe to Ignore

As we approach the final tallies of the spectacularly inept Iowa caucuses, I think it’s fair to say that – despite all of the time, expense, and effort – it ultimately tells us very little.

The tie between Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg shows that the party is still fairly balanced between its progressive and centrist factions.

New York Times, www.nytimes.com, 6 Feb 2020, 5:30 pm, Singapore time

This is true even if you add the results of the other leading candidates together. Looking at the final vote tallies, Sanders and Warren together got 46.8%. Buttigieg, Biden, and Klobuchar together got 50.9%. (I don’t know how to classify Yang.) In the end, the party might coalesce around a more centrist candidate, but that’s by no means guaranteed, and it hints that any centrist candidate will have to reach out to the progressive wing. (Though I suspect their temptation is likely to be telling the progressive wing to suck it and fall in line.)

However, we still have the wildcard of Michael Bloomberg, which could further disrupt the race. Bloomberg is advertising his way (buying his way, US$300mm and counting) into the middle of the pack in recent polls, doing far better than other candidates who have been hustling and meeting voters for a year or more. But he chose to not compete in Iowa and isn’t competing in New Hampshire, so it’s hard to gauge his actual electoral support. After all, Biden has been leading those same national Democratic polls for a long time, but placed fourth. Which, maybe that’s the one clear and meaningful result. Tanking that bad is not a good look.

Random observations from living with the Wuhan coronavirus

Negative:

  • It’s crazy hard not to touch your face.
  • On social media, the well-meaning but snide fact-checkers can be as annoying as the panicky people.
  • It doesn’t take long for people to turn on one another.

Positive:

  • Most people stay level-headed.
  • Governments can and do learn how to respond to crises.
  • We have modern communications, public health systems, and medicine.

Neutral:

  • Sometimes you just have to cancel your plans.
  • When asked to look back to prior outbreaks, people who have lived through them seem to take it all in stride.
  • Nobody trusts China.

Winning in 2020 – Economics vs. race and the return of the politics of hope

As we grind on through the election year – and especially through the Democratic primary – opponents of Pres. Trump are looking for answers as to how he pulled off his unexpected win and what can be done to avoid a repeat. Many of the analyses over the last three years have focused on two main areas: the impact of bigotry in the forms of sexism and racism and the economic and life conditions of the American electorate.* While I’m sympathetic to the first explanation, I think the second explanation has more power. In a clip from an interview with the New York Times, Sen. Bernie Sanders summed it up rather nicely. See the video below or read the transcript below it. (Full interview here.)

Here’s a transcript of the conversation:

NYT’s Brent Staples: I think it’s — how about the fact that Trump has touched a chord in 40 to 44 percent of the people? I mean, what about that issue is that Trump is a symptom of a widespread problem. I mean, how do you address that? The problem exists whether Trump is president or not is what I’m saying.

Sen. Sanders: I wish I could give you a great answer, brilliant answer to that. But this is what I will tell you, because that’s, you’re right. What is the issue? How did Trump become president? O.K. And I think it speaks to something that I talk about a lot and that is the fact that the — not everybody, but tens and tens of millions of Americans feel that the political establishment, Republican and Democrat, have failed them. Maybe The New York Times has failed them, too.

Staples: That explains the appeal of racism?

Sanders: Yeah. O.K. What you have is that people are, in many cases in this country, working longer hours for low wages. You are aware of the fact that in an unprecedented way life expectancy has actually gone down in America because of diseases of despair. People have lost hope and they are drinking. They’re doing drugs. They’re committing suicide. O.K. They are worried about their kids. I have been to southern West Virginia where the level of hopelessness is very, very high. And when that condition arises, whether it was the 1930s in Germany, then people are susceptible to the blame game…

Sanders: To say that it is the undocumented people in this country who are the cause of all of our problems, and if we just throw 10 million people out of the country, you’re going to have a good job, and you’re going to have good health care, and you have good education, that’s all we got to do. So all over the world, Trump didn’t invent demagoguery. It’s an age-old weapon used by demagogues. And you take a minority and you demonize that minority and you blame that minority, whether it’s blacks, whether it’s Jews, whether it’s Latinos, whether it’s Muslims, you name the group — gays? Gays are going to destroy education in America, we all know, yeah. On and on it goes. And you take the despair and the anger and the frustration that people are feeling and you say, “That’s the cause of your problem.”

I think this analysis is fundamentally correct.

We are a desperate people. That’s especially true when you compare us to our fellow developed nations. The US spends far more on health care while getting worse results. In fact, US life expectancy has declined for three straight years. Real wage growth has stagnated for the past forty years. Most of the income gains of recent years have gone and continue to go to the wealthy. Meanwhile, billionaires pay a lower tax rate than the working class. Forty percent of US households can’t afford the basics of being middle class. Forty percent of Americans also can’t cover a $400 emergency expense. Twenty-five percent have no retirement savings. Income inequality is among the highest in the OECD. Students are having to take on ever more debt to get an education to get ahead. The US has outrageous levels of gun violence.

Recently we’ve been enjoying a record-long economic expansion, but this won’t change most Americans situation dramatically – certainly not overnight and especially not if a recession hits. All of this is long-term trend that has persisted through different combinations of partisan control of government. The program that both parties have followed over the last two generations has not worked for most Americans. And they are tired of it. That has resulted in a continuous series of “change” elections. At the presidential level, it’s part of the explanation for how we got Barack Obama twice, but then flipped to Trump.

Ironically, as a son of the (post-)industrial Midwest Rust Belt, the Republican Trump sounded very much to me like a throwback to old-time labor union Democrats – quite the change, indeed – with promises to get tough on trade, save manufacturing plants, and preserve jobs. (He hasn’t delivered, particularly, but that’s another matter.) Democrats long ago blessed this hollowing out of American manufacturing. I watched numerous jobs disappear to lower-wage places with fewer worker protections – including the American south, Mexico, and eventually on to China – while Democrats told people they simply needed to get with it, move their cheese, and get more education (even subtly implying at times that workers in the Midwest were too dim-witted or lazy for the modern economy).

Living abroad as I do, I meet many Europeans who just shake their heads and can’t possibly understand how Americans gave them Trump. We’re not stupid. We’re desperate. And a drowning person will grab for any rope thrown to them.

So, is simply addressing people’s economic well-being the entire issue – the magic key?

No, of course not.

With regards to sexism, this is a real issue in many parts of life. (Pay disparities being a particularly corrosive example, since it undermines women’s power and independence and America’s commitment to equality.) But there’s not clear cut evidence, when it comes to electoral politics, that it’s decisive. And after all, let’s recall that Clinton actually won the popular vote. The country as a whole was certainly ready to elect a woman to the presidency, even if the quirks of the outdated Electoral College blocked that this time around.

Regarding racism, it is absolutely a real, repugnant and pernicious force in American society. I’ll admit – I think I grew up in a bit of a bubble. I was raised without overt racial bias. My parents consistently taught that all people were equal. However, later in life, I moved to downstate Illinois and encountered overt racism for the first time. A plumber doing some work at my house in an eastern suburb of Peoria, Ill., once told me I chose a good place to live because there weren’t many blacks and that he didn’t like black people. Another person I came to know told me one time that he didn’t like to go to the west side of the Illinois River because there were too many black people. (In both cases, I’m ashamed to admit, I did not confront this bigotry forcefully enough.) Another Peoria suburb, the town Pekin, Ill., has a troubling history with KKK activity, which sadly surfaced again recently.

This sort of overt bigotry helps bolster a pervasive low-level racism that shows up most egregiously in the criminal justice system, which then feeds the persistent economic disparities we see in society – not to mention how psychologically difficult it is for people to live with this sort of irrational bias against them. This is the white privilege that gets talked about. It can be hard to appreciate how nice it is to not have your character questioned all the time simply because of the color of your skin.

By the way, this is not unique to the US. As I’ve already mentioned, I live abroad in the city-state of Singapore. This is a well-run, orderly, clean, wealthy, and interesting place to live. We’ve been very fortunate to be here. I’ve also learned that racism has a history here and is, in fact, a universal human condition. There was what is called “communal” violence and tension – groups separated by race, ethnicity, and religion. In the case of Singapore, this mostly means Han Chinese, Malays, and Tamils from the southern India. Sometimes these attitudes pop up from time to time in Singapore and in other parts of Southeast Asia. To its credit, Singapore takes affirmative steps to tackle these tensions. Officially it doesn’t tolerate racism, and it works actively to balance and celebrate the representation of its respective communities. I’ll admit; it often does so in ways that many people in the “free” world would not accept – for example, enforcing a representative ethnic balance in public housing estates – but it’s not at all clear to me whether this is a bad thing if it leads to the de-emphasis of ethnicity and a decrease in racial tensions. (Incidentally, people of European descent are often referred to as “ang mohs” – meaning “red haired”. While used pejoratively by some – there are other, worse terms – many European extraction people often use it jokingly as a way to “take it back”.)

Getting back to the Sanders interview and statement, I spent what likely seemed like a long digression on racial attitudes in Southeast Asia. That was not to slam Singapore or any other country, but to illustrate that racist attitudes are universal. While the overt bigots of the world are willing to double down on this sort of thinking – and there are always ruthless politicians willing to exploit it – I sincerely believe most people in the world would rather try to find a way past racist thinking and move toward universal respect and acceptance of people regardless of their unchosen physical traits at birth.

How to do that? Well, in the American context, of course, condemn the true bigots as, dare I say, deplorable. Then seek ways to make racist appeals less salient – less powerful – by giving people hope and well-being and economic security. And that’s what Sanders – and progressives in general – look to do through their structuring of the social contract.

Is this a perfect recipe? No, not at all. Back to Europe for a moment. The people living there are fortunate to have the kind of social well-being systems in place that Americans and many others in the world can only dream of. But that doesn’t make them completely immune to racist appeals. The advocates of Brexit famously used racist appeals to push their case. The widespread immigration from the Middle East is challenging many European countries and empowering right-wing forces. This is true even in the places with the most robust welfare states.

There is no perfect solution. This is a constant fight. Millennia of human society built on condemning others in order to promote group solidarity (which was likely essential to our very survival) won’t be cleared out in an instant. This whole Enlightenment and welfare state projects are blips in human history – a couple hundred years in thousands of years of human civilization.

Also, it’s important to note that economic interests don’t explain everything in human society and elections, anyway. For example, progressives often wonder how lower-income conservatives could possibly vote for the Republican Party, which tends to advocate for policies that benefit the wealthy. The standard, and accurate, reason given is that Republicans play on other “cultural” issues, like abortion, religion and guns. These are often regarded as irrationally trumping (excuse me; had to use it) economic issues. But I don’t think there’s anything irrational about it at all. We are much more than the sum of our economic interests. Values matter. Essential commitments matter. For example, if someone were to offer me the opportunity to live comfortably and securely for my entire life and for the lives of my descendants in the ever-tightening authoritarian security state being created in the People’s Republic of China, I would refuse because human rights and freedom of expression matter to me. It’s not so easy just to dismiss it as a “cultural” issue.

So, how to put a program like the one Sanders and other progressives might propose in effect? Yes, there are a host of practical considerations to take into account – from paying for it to designing it to fit into other features of human nature, like laziness, greed, the willingness of people to exploit systems, and the power of financial incentives and the value of free enterprise. (These last two are not small things.) But those are all questions of design and enforcement, issues that never go away no matter what the system.

What’s needed first is a universal commitment to guaranteed widespread human well-being, based simply on someone being a human being and not of any particular socioeconomic or ethnic group. If we can begin to turn the minds and hearts of Americans in that direction through politics and elections, well, that’s a pretty good place to start.

* A third set of explanations could be called “dirty tricks”. This would include the Russian interference campaign, former FBI Director James Comey’s actions regarding the agency’s investigations into Clinton’s use of a private email server while Secretary of State, and Wisconsin Republicans’ changes to state election laws. It’s hard to say whether any of these were decisive. Elections are won and lost due to many reasons. However, taken altogether, these hijinks, with any luck, are unlikely to have the impact they did in 2016. Clinton is not on the ballot, of course, and people are prepared, otherwise. (At least we hope, despite efforts by Republicans seemingly to leave us vulnerable to further foreign interference.)

This War Being Ginned Up With Iran Must Be Stopped Now

ENOUGH. With the shooting down of a US drone by Iran, the Trump administration needs to take steps now to de-escalate this situation.

Parts of this administration — most stridently National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — have made it obvious that they want war with Iran and no other option. And that alone should make us suspicious of any event that pushes us further in that direction.

Going to war would be a stupid mistake on par with our the disastrous decision to invade Iraq. It’s no surprise that it’s the same people promoting this war as that one. Whom, by the way, wouldn’t go when their country “called”.

By the way, this is not even something the Pentagon wants. I’m old enough to remember with the Republican Party supposedly listened to its generals. Nah, war is too good.

Frankly, I remain baffled by how we’ve been unable to find a lasting peace with Iran. Don’t talk to me about the Iranian Revolution and holding the embassy employees hostage. I live in Southeast Asia. I have visited Vietnam as a tourist with my family. If we can reach that kind of accommodation with Vietnam, we can certainly do so with Iran.

So what’s it all about? Israel. As with all things US policy in the Middle East, it begins and ends with Israel. (See #3.) Even more than oil, I believe.

While I’m on oil, wasn’t fracking supposed to be about energy independence so that we could avoid these kind of conflicts over oil? Nah, instead we’ve become a net exporter of oil. Money to be made.

But I digress. We need a more balanced policy in the Middle East. We need to de-escalate now. The American public cannot fall for this again. For that matter, the elite mainstream press better not fall for it, either, like they did with Iraq.

And for what it’s worth, this is personal. I have extended family that serve in the military, and closer to home, I have two teenage boys. They will be the ones asked to fight this forever war. If not for them, for other teenagers just like them, this needs to stop. A war is unthinkable. ENOUGH.

Slow down, or even dump, the Kavanaugh nomination

Thoughts on the Brett Kavanaugh nomination:

  • Seeing as yesterday’s Ford-Kavanaugh testimony occurred overnight, I have only been checking the highlights today. It is powerful.
  • I really don’t see at this point how Republicans can proceed to vote on his nomination without an FBI investigation. They likely will, of course, given how ruthlessly they pursue Supreme Court seats, but I would think they would want it as a way to remove doubts about Kavanaugh, since they believe so strongly that he did nothing wrong. Obviously that investigation would have to include Kavanaugh’s friend, Mark Judge. This is not a clean he said, she said, because she has maintained from the beginning that there is an eyewitness – and not necessarily one in her favor.
  • Sorry, but if Kavanaugh feels persecuted, I just don’t have much sympathy for him. His history as part of Ken Starr’s Whitewater, then later Monica Lewinsky, investigation team speaks for itself. He had no problem with a relentless investigation of a sexual matter then. Does he regret it now? And that was consensual, supposedly, unlike what he’s accused of. (That said, I have little patience for Democrats who continue to defend Bill Clinton. He grossly abused his position and power with Monica Lewinsky in ways that seem so clear to many Democrats now, just so long as it isn’t Clinton we’re talking about.)
  • Really, at this point, do Republicans not have someone else they can nominate? I mean, they’ve already proven that they do. Just look at the way that Mitch McConnell engineered the seat for Neil Gorsuch and was able to jam him through. They’ve gotten an approval before. Find someone besides Kavanaugh.
  • Finally, like the Trump election proved that the Electoral College is an obsolete relic by allowing the candidate with fewer votes to win, lifetime appointments to the Supreme Court are a relic. We need a fixed term, just like every other government office – maybe 15 or 20 years. That’s plenty of time for a justice to retain a level of independence, but still limit the power of a single individual over American life.

Four years an expat – What do I think of home?

Recently, my family and I traveled to the United States for our annual trip back to see family and friends. We’ve done this every (northern) summer since moving to Singapore. After we returned, a friend asked me what I thought of the US, since we’ve lived outside of the country for a while now. So, here’s my answer.

I’d start by saying that we’re from the Midwestern US (Ohio, Michigan, and Illinois), and we’ve mostly lived in small cities and small towns in suburban and rural areas – not urban or coastal areas – so there are bound to be differences from the strictly urban, island environment we live in in Singapore.

So, that said, the first thing that strikes me every time is now intensely car-based US culture is. You have to get in the car to do ANYTHING. Here in Singapore, we’re accustomed to walking most places or taking the train, which we vastly prefer.

Also, everything is single-family homes pretty much in the US, which is not at all like here. We live on the 25th floor of an apartment high rise. Frankly, I don’t miss having to tend to a yard at all. I do maybe miss having a garage to tinker in, but nowadays that’s really mostly for my boys to enjoy, not me.

Put together – cars and housing – I know these are supposed to represent the American Dream. They’re supposed to represent freedom. To me, anymore, they just represent restraint. A house needs to be endlessly maintained. Something is always breaking. And as I mentioned, I get no joy from mowing a lawn, anymore (especially when you throw in the environmental consequences of making it conform to the usual expectations). Also, we often talk about home “ownership” in the US. Of course, if you have a mortgage – which the vast majority of people do, of course – the lender actually has more of a claim on the house than you do. As for a car, they, too, need endless care and feeding – expensive care and feeding. And the notion of going back to being stuck in a traffic jam at rush hour is a nightmare. Yes, compared to public transportation, you do get your own personalized pod for your commute. But there’s a steep price to pay. Oh, and US cars are HUGE compared to here. Most US cars would be utterly impractical here, but that would be true of most cities, I think. (Maybe not Texan cities, where they are likely designed around dually pickup trucks.)

My friend also asked about how many people are outside in Singapore, compared to the US. On this, the comparison is a bit unfair because, being on the Equator, Singapore feels like summer all year round – hot and humid. (Although, oddly, the northern and southern summers are often far hotter than here because they get even more concentrated sunshine for a longer day. Here, the day is the same length all year long.) Because it’s always like summer here, people can very easily be out all year long, but the air con (air conditioning) is often more attractive than the sweltering heat. So, in that regard, perhaps every day feels a bit like a winter day, where you might go out for a bit, but you can’t wait to get back inside.

A last observation – and this is a bit rude, I guess – is people are a lot heavier. But this is well known from national comparisons. I can think of many reasons – and I’m not expert – but I’d have to point to the seemingly obvious reasons of the prevalence of US-style fast food, combined with the car-based culture. I know I packed on about 10 pounds in just three weeks. Man, it’s hard to resist the siren call of that deep-fried junk food. Now, yes, people can choose better food most of the time, but for sure, as an individual, you can’t choose a walking culture. That’s a public policy choice. We continue to invest our transportation dollars in roads and a car-based lifestyle, when other options are certainly available. Anyway, as I mentioned earlier, we are from the Midwest, and I think, in general, people are thinner outside the Midwest – California and Florida, for example – but that’s well known from state-by-state comparisons, too. (Thank the South for beating us out on this specific measure.)

I would imagine many people are curious about how the politics comes across. Actually, it’s not that hard to stay up on the politics from here, so I don’t feel as disconnected as I might have in past decades. However, I will say this: Trump supporters seem to have no problem getting in your face. One boat we saw in Michigan was flying an enormous Trump flag. There was no corresponding show from others, but we were in a pretty conservative area. Either way, I’m not a fan of Trump, so there you go.

Otherwise, it felt a lot like home always did – which is comforting.

The 21st Century Dilemma

A friend sends me this column by Niall Ferguson:

Screen Shot 2018-06-13 at 4.31.14 PM

I don’t see myself naturally aligned with Ferguson on much, but I found this analysis interesting.

That said, I think he glosses over the fact that China represents a wholly different political system with regard to human rights and freedoms than the US and Europe do. That same cultural perspective should be unifying us, and instead, Trump attacks our democratic allies and warms up to dictators.

That’s emerging as the central danger to our republic from Trump. He’s a wannabe autocrat. And while we might constrain him at home (if Republicans ever grow a spine), there’s a very real danger that he will have permanently damaged our relationships with our fellow democracies. And once that happens, autocracy will rule the global political day (which, in fact, is just a reversion to the human norm of millennia).

I envision a global democratic alliance that also includes India. Sure, India often gets laughed at for having so much democracy that it can’t develop – or function. But I’d rather throw humanity’s lot in with that problem than autocracy.

The Trump-Kim Summit

The Trump-Kim summit is tomorrow (Singapore time), and I guess I’ll weigh in on it – mostly just because they’re both staying about a five-minute walk away on either side of me.

Everyone has to wish that this meeting works out. Even if this could mean an easier path to a second term for Trump, everyone has to wish for this to succeed.

But what’s success? I think the only measure that there can be is that there is a concrete step toward the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.

But what are the chances that that’s going to happen? Virtually zero.

In my reading of the situation, above all else Kim wants security. He wants to know that he and his regime can stay in power. In a world where the US names countries to an “Axis of Evil” and overthrows nations with every new presidency, the only reasonable and solid guarantee he could create for himself was a nuclear deterrent. Now he has it, and he’s not going to give it up.

So, based on that reality, this whole thing is for show. Kim gets what he wants in international recognition and stature. Trump gets what he wants in basically the same terms, except he’d love a shot at getting the Nobel Peace Prize.

But if this fails, neither one of them loses anything. We just return to the status quo, and they can each leave, blaming the other for why it didn’t work out. Just see their Twitter feeds for how they’ll go about that. There simply is no downside to this meeting for them. It’s only upside.

Meanwhile, according to Singapore’s prime minister, the country is shelling out SG$20 million (about US$15 million) for this event (although who knows who might cover all the costs in the end, really), and I can’t get deliveries to my condo since I’m in one of the secure zones. (Well, okay, that last part is a bit petty.)

Again, let’s hope for success. But that’s not where I’d put my money.

P.S. I am not a fan of Trump, but that doesn’t mean I disagree with everything he does. I actually see this as a welcome shake-up of the dynamic with North Korea. But there’s been so little planning – it’s so much off the cuff – that it seems unlikely that this will go anywhere.

Transparency

In a previous post I asked the question, am I a journalist? From reading that, you will know that my answer is yes, under a couple of conditions:

  • That I will be transparent about my worldview and associations.
  • That I will hold to the commitments and habits of a journalist, including retaining a healthy skepticism, relying on verifiable facts and evidence, and remaining fair-minded.

In this post, I try to be as transparent as possible about various items that I think are relevant to understanding my journalistic work and writing. Here they are.

I was born and raised in the Midwest, and I’m damn proud of it. I lived in Ohio, Michigan, and Illinois for almost my entire life before moving to Singapore. (Yeah, that was a bit of a change.)

I self-identify as a secular humanist, and yup, that means I’m an atheist. (I was raised as a Roman Catholic.) I believe a secular society is best. Otherwise, we risk endless religious war.

I was a mainstream journalist for a little while, but then I had to move on. I cover that here.

I spent several years working in the un-paid economy as a stay-at-home dad, raising two boys.

Thanks to my hard-working spouse, we’re doing pretty well. (Based on where she works, don’t expect any poignant commentary or hard-hitting exposés on the construction equipment or mining industries.) We’re in the top roughly two percent of earners and top ten percent of wealth in the US – which is pretty darn good, of course, and ridiculously wealthy on a global scale.

That said, given the shape of the income and wealth distribution, I find it much easier to identify with the 99%. Let’s put it this way: I’m not attending Davos.

I believe in the traditional western liberal values of freedom and individuality, including freedom of expression, free enterprise, and free and fair elections – using the American interpretation of these rights as my baseline.

Even though I identify as a journalist, I reserve the traditional rights of citizenship. I will vote and support candidates and issues I believe are in the best interests of my country and the world.

I have traditionally voted for Democrats because they tend to be in line with my positions. That said, I think party partisanship makes people stupid. I refuse to self-identify as a Democrat and do not consider myself a member of the Democratic party.

In 2016, I voted for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary. And for what it’s worth, I would have voted for John Kasich over Hillary Clinton, but alas, Republican primary voters didn’t give me that choice. I have contributed money to individual Democratic candidates from time to time.

I once briefly helped a Democratic candidate for the US House and have phone-banked for Democratic candidates once. I decided I didn’t like to do either one of those things.

I’ve lobbied Illinois state politicians in opposition to fracking and on behalf of a more equitable tax system.

Based on my reading of the evidence and upon reflection, I believe the following are important to human well-being: a comprehensive welfare state; clean, democratic politics; and strict gun control.

I believe everyone should have the basic stuff of life. We can argue about how to get there, but I really can’t see why not to do this.

I’ve contributed to the groups the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, Common Cause, the ACLU, Illinois People’s Action, and Drinking Liberally – sometimes with time, sometimes with money, and sometime with both. I am not an NRA member (surprise!), nor do I own a gun.

I oppose an unlimited right to abortion and the identity politics of in-born traits.

I tried to come up with a pithy summary for my political-economic worldview, and I came up with “socialist for conservative reasons”. I also like “decidedly, but not strictly, left-wing”. Pick your fave.

I’m fascinated by China and Chinese culture.

I hate professional sports, but I love tennis, so I’ll watch those folks.

I enjoy the occasional rainy day.

For more insight on where I’m coming from, please follow me on my blog, Twitter, Facebook, and Medium.

I reserve the right to change my mind.

Am I a journalist?

As you can see at the top of my website, I describe myself as a journalist. However, if you spend any time reading my blog or my social media posts, you’ll quickly see why, when asked, I also describe myself as a liberal.

If you’re of a particular mindset about journalism, you might find that a tough pill to swallow. I understand, because it is for me, too. I grew up in the 70s and 80s at the tail end of an era in journalism when “objectivity” was considered absolutely paramount. I even grew up in the household of a traditional newspaperman who taught classes on journalism ethics. Journalists were not supposed to express an opinion. They certainly were never to be politically active, either in partisan politics or with an issue advocacy group. That said, even in those stricter days, there were a few exceptions. Sometimes journalists could write “analysis” pieces, in which they tried to put facts and events into more context, and that required applying judgment as to what was relevant and irrelevant to best understand a given situation. Also, when someone was labeled a columnist, he or she could express opinions more readily. However, there was still an expectation that facts and reasons had to be provided, and political activity remained off the table.

This traditionalist mindset has taken a beating in the last roughly three decades. Rightly so, because it was mostly a fairy tale. Journalists were never robots, without emotional attachments to a sense of what was and wasn’t important. They couldn’t help but have a sense of what was right or wrong for themselves, their families, their communities, their country, and the world. For example, at a most basic level, whatever perspective they had came out in story choice. Some events and issues were deemed worthy of attention and time, and others were not.

So, if this traditional sense of journalism was largely a fiction, is objectivity dead? Is there anything that can be reasonably called journalism?

The answers are no and yes, and explaining those answers will in turn explain why, despite self-identifying as a liberal, I feel like I can still describe myself as a journalist.

It comes down to the concept of transparency and the craft of journalism.

Transparency

Put simply in a 2009 post by David Weinberger that I found thanks to Jay Rosen:

Transparency is the new objectivity.

The idea is that, since no one can ever be completely free of interests and perspectives, it’s best just to be upfront about what they are. Rosen digs further into this definition of objectivity here.

As he stresses, being clear about where you’re coming from “is the biggest shift, and the hardest for traditionalists to accept.” As a recovering traditionalist, I think he’s probably right there. Transparency is a powerful idea. Rather than going to all sorts of personal and creative lengths to disguise one’s opinions, just be open and free with what they are. In fact, being forthcoming and truthful sounds an awful lot like, wait for it, what journalists expect of everyone else.

The craft of journalism

While the concept of transparency does a lot of the heavy lifting, it doesn’t get you all the way to an understanding of what it takes to be a journalist. For the rest, I think you have to turn back to some very old-fashioned notions. Labeling yourself a journalist means that you are willing to make commitments to a particular kind of craft.

First, journalists must always retain healthy skepticism. They must always challenge facts and assumptions. They must maintain a critical distance – or put another way, be willing to call bullshit.

Second, journalists must be fair-minded. Perfect balance in any story is not always possible – and frankly, not always desirable, as examinations of the coverage of global warming have shown. Even so, journalists have to be careful not simply to dismiss perspectives that don’t align with their worldview. (Of course, there are limits.)

Third, journalists must stick to the traditional notion of finding and verifying facts and information, even if they also provide context that interprets those facts. The famous quote by Daniel Patrick Moynihan comes to mind:

Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.

By the way, I would also extend this idea to say that journalists must commit to being secular, in the sense that we can only consider facts as they exist in the natural world. People hold all sorts of beliefs about supernatural reality, but what’s important is how they have an impact on the world we share.

All of this, by the way, might sound like a version of the scientific endeavor, and yes, it’s pretty close. As Carrie Brown-Smith puts it here: “The scientific method on a tighter deadline.”

Brown-Smith has more to say on the idea of transparency in her post, so go read it. But she also highlights the elements of journalistic craft I’m talking about here. In fact, she refers to the famous book (in journalism education circles, anyway) of Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, “The Elements of Journalism” (naturally), in which they say that the traditionalist notion of objectivity, that I discussed at the top, was a distortion of the original way the term was applied:

In the end, the discipline of verification is what separates journalism from entertainment, propaganda, fiction, or art…. Journalism alone is focused first on getting what happened down right….When the concept (of objectivity) originally evolved, it was not meant to imply that journalists were free of bias. Quite the contrary…. Objectivity called for journalists to develop a consistent method of testing information—a transparent approach to evidence—precisely so that personal and cultural biases would not undermine the accuracy of their work…. In the original concept, in other words, the method is objective, not the journalist. The key was in the discipline of the craft, not the aim.

As Kovach and Rosenstiel mention, it is this commitment to a craft of skepticism, being fair-minded, and checking and double-checking facts that makes journalists so maddening to the politicians, activists, press officers, and propagandists of the world.

Advocacy journalism

So where does this leave me in answering my question, am I a journalist? I say yes, because of the commitments to transparency and craft that I’ve laid out above. And as part of following through transparency, I’ve written an entire separate post with what I think you need to know. In there, you’ll find the issues and topics that I support and am willing to advocate for. And that leads me to my final thoughts. When you combine a sense of purpose and journalistic transparency and journalistic craft, you get a particular kind of journalism called advocacy journalism.

Roughly eighteen years ago, Sue Careless gave an address that spelled out clear boundaries for a journalist who wants to also advocate for change in the world, drawing the line between journalism and activism. Read the full address, but to wrap up here are some highlights. (The bullet points are mine.)

Rules for Advocacy Journalism:

  • No matter how dear a cause is to journalist’s heart, there are lines which should never be crossed by a professional journalist.
  • Can a journalist have a declared bias and still practice journalism in a professional manner? Yes. In fact you may be seen as even more credible if your perspective is acknowledged up front.
  • A journalist writing for the advocacy press should practice the same skills as any journalist.
  • You don’t fabricate or falsify.
  • There must be a general fairness and thoroughness.
  • Verify your facts and quotes.
  • Use multiple sources and try to cite neutral sources for statistics.
  • You use your eyes and ears when you are news gathering. If you are covering a protest and a demonstrator hits a police officer or shouts profanities, you are obliged as a journalist to report those facts, embarrassing though they may be to a cause you personally support.
  • A good journalist must play devil’s advocate. You must argue against your own convictions.
  • You may believe something in theory or in principle, but how does it play out in practice?
  • Refer to (your opponent’s) best arguments, not his worst, quote him directly, accurately, at length and in context.
  • Even when a juicy story or outrageous statement emerges from your opponents, you don’t rush to print it until it is confirmed.
  • Advocacy journalists should also cover stories that may be unflattering to their own cause or community. Bias at its worst is a blind spot or automatic judgement such as believing that a leader in a cause or community can do no wrong.
Words to practice journalism by.