2009/12/29

On writing political blog posts

How does one best think about the process of getting one's words and thoughts across to an audience? When I compose my letters to the newspaper editor (Usually on political subjects) for inclusion on the letters page, I often think of myself as a citizen writing to a politician.

What does a politician care about? Getting re-elected.

What does the politician do to achieve that? Deliver the right results to people who care about the issues (No point in expending effort and energy getting, say, the Darfur situation under control if nobody particularly cares about it).

How does a politician know that a citizen cares about an issue? If the citizen demonstrates a knowledge of the subject, if the citizen has a command of the facts concerning the issue and can identify the groups or persons involved with the issue.

Good spelling and accurate identifications are important. If you refer to Planned Parenthood as an anti-abortionist group or refer to Senator Joe Lieberman as the Republican Senator from Vermont (He's an independent from Connecticut), your politicians' assistants will go ahead and take some statistics from your letter, where you're writing from, your age and gender, party you normally vote for, etc. But your letter will then get tossed into the recycling bin and you'll go into a category that says "These people don't really care enough about the subject that there's any real concern about delivering on this issue."

For writing a non-fiction, political piece for the public, I sometimes like to think of myself as a speaker in a carnival sideshow tent. Potential readers are strolling down the carnival fairway, checking out the signs on each tent, wondering whether they wish to allocate a few minutes of their day to going into the tent and hearing what the speaker there has to say.

Each tent has a sign that tells people strolling down the fairway, i.e., your potential readers, the title of your piece and normally your name. More expansive websites will also offer the writer a short space in which to describe
what their piece is all about. A few people wander in and take their seats on the benches provided. The writer comes out onto the small stage and delivers his or her piece. The first few sentences are critical. If the writer just sort of rambles and makes vague, unsupported statements or makes wild, hyperbolic accusations or goes off into a description of something that's kind of beside the point that the audience came into the tent for, well, people will leave. They'll go back out onto the fairway, i.e., they'll click the "back" arrow on their browser, and they'll stroll on to read something else.

Traditionally, newspaper pieces are very deliberately written with short attention spans in mind. What provoked the writer to write about the subject is clear from the title and the first few sentences. They'll try and front-load all of the important information in the piece so that the average reader only needs to get the first few paragraphs in order to get the basic who, what, where and when of the things that are being discussed. More concerned readers can keeping reading for the "why" aspect and for related, relevant information. Sneaky newspaper writers will "hide" information back there so that only a few readers get it, but so that the paper can claim "we covered that."

My own personal preference is for the writing style termed "radical clarity," where the writer delivers a piece and it's not necessarily clear why the writer felt provoked to write it in the first place. The event that provoked the writer of the piece can be presented after the writer fills in the context so that the reader fully understands just why the event energized the writer to write the piece.

The essential point is that there's no one way to write the first few sentences. If one is using a traditional news template, one must begin with the essential, bare-bones facts. If one is doing a "radical clarity" piece, one begins with a detailed description that brings the reader fully up to speed before the writer fills them in on the who, what, where and when of the provocative event. There are, of course, numerous other styles that call for still more approaches.

The essential take-away though, is that one must give one's opening a good deal of thought. "Okay, the audience was just out on the fairway, strolling along and enjoying the sun. They came into my sideshow tent because I promised them a worthwhile show. The show can be amusing or entertaining or thought-provoking or what have you. But the pressure is on and they'll get up and walk out if my first few sentences don't get their attention."

After their attention is attained of course, comes the further hard part of rewarding the audience for sticking around by delivering worthwhile information, amusement, etc.

2009/12/15

So what's Corsi up to TODAY?

Jerome Corsi claims on WorldNetDaily that President Obama's e-e-evil-l-l plan for world domination, or at least domination of the US, a country that he became president of about a year ago, has three critical elements that Obama's organization of e-e-evil-l-l-l henchmen (ACORN) is following:
  1. Register as many Democratic voters as possible, legal or otherwise, and help them vote, multiple times if possible;

  2. Overwhelm the system with fraudulent registrations using multiple entries of the same name, names of deceased and names selected at random from the phone book; and

  3. Make the system difficult to police by lobbying for minimal identification standards required of voters arriving at polling stations to vote.
'Course, there are a couple of problems with all three items. The Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU Law School has been examining cases of "Voter Fraud" (Voting multiple times, fraudulent registrations, etc) and finds that the problem is hugely overstated. The State of Indiana attempted in 2007 to pass a law requiring tougher identification standards (See point #3 above), was challenged and was completely unable to provide (PDF) a single example (Out of an estimated 400 million votes cast since 2000) of a case of Voter Fraud that could have been prevented via tighter ID requirements.

But anyway, aside from Corsi attempting to use an elephant gun on a mosquito, Corsi is very, very, deeply concerned that Obama is attempting to destroy capitalism. If he were, this would certainly come as news to Timothy Geithner, the head of the US Treasury who was the CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and served as Under Secretary of the Treasury for International Affairs from 1999 to 2001 under Secretaries Robert Rubin and Lawrence Summers. Geithner just recently acted to renew the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program until late next year, so it's pretty difficult to figure out how this substantiates the charge that the Obama Administration is trying to destroy capitalism. Corsi then devotes the last seven paragraphs of his piece attacking George Soros and his "inexplicable" hatred for George W. Bush, but how anybody could disagree that Bush and his people stomped all over the Constitution with muddy, hobnailed boots is the part that I find utterly and completely inexplicable.

One question that Corsi raises is how much did the de-regulation of the financial sector have to do with the "Great Recession" that's just now ending? Not a whole lot, the economist Dean Baker claims. He mostly blames the housing bubble and lots of miscellaneous acts of irresponsibility. Yes, the 1930s law Glass-Steagall was canceled on Clinton's watch and no, it was not a good decision. So yes, blame for America's economic mess is, to at least some extent, a bipartisan one.

2009/12/11

How well is the traditional media doing its job?

A fellow named Perry Bacon of the WaPo answered a whole series of reader questions. Bacon felt that, yes, "...most Americans can follow Tiger, the Salahis, health care and Afghanistan..." without skimping on comprehension or losing track of any particular subject. Is that true? Wel-l-l-l, the "public option" is, to progressives, an absolute necessity for the health care plan that's been debated for the last several months to truly succeed. The WaPo's own Ezra Klein pointed out that, despite the fact that the "public option" concept is, "fairly simple, and undeniably prominent," most Americans (66%) don't feel they could confidently describe what the phrase actually means.

My own memory of discussing the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (The "stimulus bill") in the online comment sections of my local paper was that my fellow citizens didn't have a very clear idea as to what constituted a true economic stimulus. A frequent complaint was that the bill, passed in early February, constituted "spending" and not "stimulus." Note: spending IS stimulus and even the WaPo columnist David Broder concluded that the stimulus bill was successfully doing exactly what it was supposed to do.

While I don't think anyone could argue that America's supermarket tabloids and various TV channels devoted to gossip and Hollywood news do not do a perfectly adequate job of covering subjects like the romantic difficulties of Tiger Woods and the party-crashers the Salahis, I find it very highly questionable that America's traditional media sources are doing even a barely adequate job of covering their primary beat, serious stories like health care and Afghanistan.

The challenge has been put forward:

I dare the Post to conduct a scientific poll of its readers, asking them a basic question about health care reform: According to the Congressional Budget Office, would health care reform that includes a government-run public insurance option increase the deficit or reduce it?

Obviously, if the readers of the WaPo were as well-informed as the paper claims they are, such a question would a simple no-brainer. Readers would be able to answer it without even thinking twice. Remember, progressives consider the public option to be a necessary component to a successful nationwide health care plan, so this crucial bit of data should be something that citizens have at their fingertips.

In FAIR's November issue (This crucial media watchdog group is running a fundraising drive right now, so if one clicks on the link, one will get a fundraising message above the analysis piece), FAIR looks at how well America's news consumers are being served by their for-profit, free-enterprise media. The answer? Not very. FAIR cites a study that found that having a college education made a significant difference in the US and Britain in terms of citizens being conversant with their issues of the day, but in Denmark and Finland, both of which spend heavily on public media, the gap between those that are highly educated and those with knowledge of the issues disappears.

Citizens in Denmark and Finland with just a high-school education are just as well-informed on the issues as are those with a college education. FAIR recognizes that a straightforward government-funded media would not be a practical alternative to our current free-enterprise model, so that piece and others explore different methods in which our media might be made more responsive to the information needs of US citizens. The need for a change is urgent. Traditional media in the US is fast becoming irrelevant to serious, real-life problems.

2009/12/05

Demonstration against War in Afghanistan on December 2nd

A blogger reports that he was pleasantly surprised at one aspect of President Obama's announcement that he was preparing to send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan. That aspect was what the President didn't say. The President made no attempt to follow the example of the last President. Nowhere in Obama's speech was there any reference to trying to help the Afghan people. He presented the escalation of the war there as something that was in the strategic interests of the US. It was not presented as an attempt to help out any particular groups in that country, but as something that would benefit people here at home. Of course, it falls apart on that basis as well, but this is a modest bit of progress in the right direction.

Reacting to President Obama's announcement, local anti-war activists made it clear that they weren't pleased about it. Brandywine Peace Community had arranged for a demonstration to take place soon after the announcement was made. The group Philly Against War issued a press release once the exact date was known. The announced demonstration was moved from the City Hall plaza to the sidewalk facing it as there was a Christmas celebration taking place at the projected time. About 100 of us gathered and as the photos show, we made a splash! Oh, and a local activist has compiled a whole set of resources for further research on the War in Afghanistan.

2009/12/01

President's upcoming speech on Afghanistan

Reading the Inky's Afghanistan reporter's take on the issue of President Obama's speech on troop escalation there, one particular phrase jumped out at me "If the United States pulls out of Afghanistan precipitously, without ensuring the security of the population..." [emphasis added]. What Rubin ignores is the option of gradual disengagement.

This reminds me of people who defend George W. Bush's reaction to being told that the 9-11 attacks were underway and that Americans were burning and falling out of the World Trade Center towers at that very moment. "Well, you don't expect the President to jump up, look wildly about and then to run screaming out of the room, do you?" No, I expect our President to give the schoolchildren a quick, calm "Seeya" and to walk calmly out of the classroom, giving quiet instructions and then getting to a command post as quickly as possible.

No, there's no need for a precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan, but Rubin doesn't credit opponents of escalation with wanting a gradual, phased disengagement. It was also quite notable that a particular name was completely missing from the article, that of the former American Ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry.

Eikenberry is a former general and has extensive experience in Afghanistan. I don't expect a local newspaper to insist that their reporter pay attention to all kinds of different aspects to the story, but couldn't someone else have been assigned to provide us with the former ambassador's point of view and then placed that view alongside that of General Stanley McChrystal (as presented by Rubin)? Why are we limited to just McChrystal's point of view?

The projected plans for US forces in Afghanistan are also very hard to take seriously, "...more troops would make it possible to funnel more economic aid to troubled regions and intensify training of Afghan security forces," "The new troops would even improve the chances for a negotiated peace between Afghan leaders and top Taliban leaders...," "This could stabilize the situation sufficiently to pour in development funds and offer substitutes for poppy-growing...." These all sound like very good and positive developments, but they also sound like wishful thinking, like strategies that might work IF there were a real national commitment from the US and IF the US's whole population were engaged in the effort.

Instead, as Tom Engelhardt from TomDispatch.com points out:


7. Our all-volunteer military has for years now shouldered the burden of our two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even if we were capable of sending 40,000-80,000 more troops to Afghanistan, they would without question be servicepeople on their second, third, fourth, or even fifth tours of duty. A military, even the best in the world, wears down under this sort of stress and pressure.

Unlike during World War II, when pilots would perform so many missions and then go home, the US is sending troops back to the front time and again because there simply are no people in the pipeline to replace them. After the fall of Baghdad but before the guerrilla war in Iraq got going (May to July 2003), President Bush tried to get volunteers to go to Iraq, not even to fight, but to do administrative work. Virtually no one took him up on his request. US civilians in Iraq were pretty much limited to the "Green Zone" by September because they had completely failed to establish any real presence in Iraq as a whole.

What have been the effects of US efforts in Afghanistan so far?

3. Despite billions of dollars of American money poured into training the Afghan security forces, the army is notoriously understrength and largely ineffective; the police forces are riddled with corruption and held in contempt by most of the populace.

And we can't even count the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai as a solid friend and ally. After President Ahmadinejad of Iran "won" a highly questionable electoral victory, Karzai was among the first foreign leaders to congratulate him.

Bob Herbert of the NY Times points out that:

More soldiers committed suicide this year than in any year for which we have complete records. But the military is now able to meet its recruitment goals because the young men and women who are signing up can’t find jobs in civilian life. The United States is broken — school systems are deteriorating, the economy is in shambles, homelessness and poverty rates are expanding — yet we’re nation-building in Afghanistan, sending economically distressed young people over there by the tens of thousands at an annual cost of a million dollars each.

The US is simply in no shape to conduct an imperial war halfway across the world. It's time to start the drawdown and leave that country to those who live there.