Vast Amounts of Campaign Cash

I read an article after the election that made an effort to reassure people that the money pouring into the 2012 elections wasn’t really that big a deal. Granted, the article was written on Cracked.com so it really isn’t that authoritative but I’ve heard similar ideas elsewhere. Their argument is that compared to the money spent on marketing in other industries, elections spend a small amount. The NY Times estimates total spending on the 2012 election to be around $6 billion with $2 billion of that from the presidential candidates. Just the automotive industry spends around $13 billion a year on advertising and L’Oreal drops over $1 billion a year selling makeup.

Fuck that. Businesses cram part of their profits into marketing from sales to customers in order to gain more customers. In a sense, the company’s success in serving their customers should gain them more customers and more money. Ideally, a political campaign is funded the same way by supporters, voters. The usual spin is that small donors represent this ideal as regular people chip in a bit at a time in order to fund the campaigns that they feel will better serve them. That any modern large-scale campaign can do that is bullshit. Even Obama’s vaunted small donor program pulled in less than half of his funds. Even if small donations represented most of the incoming cash, the ability of a candidate to return some sort of loyalty and service is necessarily pretty nebulous when their constituency is that big. It’s relatively easy to express gratitude to a campaign’s largest donors and PAC funders. When you can put a group of donors into a room that represents more than a fifth of your war chest, it’s not that hard to circulate through the crowd and find out what they want.

So, it’s true that political money is vastly dwarfed by the money spent in most other industries for marketing but that’s grabbing the wrong end of the stick. All the money spent in an election is to reach and hopefully sway a vast audience of voters. All the money donated is essentially to sway the opinion of just one person- the candidate.

Whether a candidate wins or loses, they represent a good investment for any organization looking to push an agenda. Obviously, winning the loyalty of a sitting elected official is the best outcome but support for losing candidate gains points with that person’s party and contacts. Hell, I’ve had Lipton Iced Tea send me free samples of some shitty drink mix based on my status as an “influencer”. Somebody with the pull to gain a major party’s nomination is worth dropping a few bucks on.


Quick note on bullshit conservative hysteria

Two issues have floated to the surface of political discourse this election season. They’re both incredibly stupid.

1) Non-citizens will commit voter fraud– and we need to tighten election laws to STOP IT!
Umm… have these people never voted? Even before throwing up roadblocks to eligible voters, voting is kind of a shitty process. You have to stand in line, possibly a very long line. There’s frequently an enormous ballot full of crap that you haven’t really thought about. School bonds, commissioner seats, water conservation district??

Then, after working through the equivalent of a day at the DMV, you’re left with no tangible result except an I Voted sticker.
If you think that immigrants are going to commit a felony, endanger themselves, and risk deportation for that- fuck you.

2) Women are willing to claim that they’ve been raped in order to obtain an abortion

Ok
Seriously?
First of all, conservatives already take as a given that all abortions are immoral and should be illegal. The absolute bright line on limiting abortion rights that has been untouched since Roe v Wade has been the idea that women should extra doubly especially not be denied an abortion in cases where the life of the mother is at stake or in cases of rape or incest.

Now, conservatives are pretty sure that rape thing is hooey because ladies would totally lie about that.
Women would say that they’ve been raped in order to undergo an expensive medical procedure? Is rape a frequent go-to excuse for these people? Has Rep. Todd Akin ever been told by a female staffer, “Hey, I’m going to be late today. I got so raped last night”?
This is not something that happens.

Voting and legitimate rapes. Making up bullshit constantly in order to avoid talking about the things that might actually be important to people. There seems to be some economic difficulty. There’s an ongoing war. Climate change seems to be a thing as well as floods, droughts, and other extreme weather that might very well be related.

Nope. Fear that brown people and the uteruses… uteri?


Anonymity

I’ve read quite a bit about how the anonymous hordes of internet assholes are destroying public discourse. Google tried to enforce a “real name” policy on their new social network and Facebook’s terms of use require you to use your real name in your profile. Lots of news websites require a real name if you want to comment on a story. The idea is that people don’t say awful shit as much when they can’t hide their identity. Awesome! Except that it turns out that simply requiring people to adopt a persistent identity of some sort accomplishes the same goal. Also, the combination of all of the legitimate reasons why someone might want to remain anonymous and the impossibility of developing a system that accommodates all of the permutations of real names means that anonymity online is never going away. This is a good thing.

Internet anonymity is kind of a new animal in Western society. Sure, anonymous publication goes all the way back in the US to the Founding Fathers propagandizing against the British and the Federalist Papers publicly hashing out our form of government. The thing about the internet is that it makes the process of publication infinitely more trivial. That means that one’s message can potentially be more widespread, but it also means that the barriers that used to require a certain amount of motivation have also disappeared. It’s just as easy to write “Bieber sux cock” in an internationally available form as it is to publish a treatise on economic theory, possibly by the same person. Combine that with the fact that every aspect of a person’s life is potentially published online, and the need for anonymity becomes much more urgent. Our politics are already streaked through with non-compartmentalized scandal as people’s family lives, lifestyle choices, professional work, and published work all get intermingled. As ordinary people start to find themselves having to reconcile previously separate spheres of their lives, it makes sense to allow them to maintain different personas in different arenas.

So, anonymity online is at least a necessary evil. I would go further and say that it is actually a good thing. Publishing online outside of a few niche venues means that the average person is pretty much anonymous anyway. The advantage of “standing behind your work” with your name attached is largely negated by nobody knowing who the hell you are. One of the major arguments establishment journalists level against bloggers and online commentary in general is that the largely anonymous authors don’t have to stand behind what they write. I could go along with that reasoning if it weren’t for the fact that most of the time when I read a newspaper I’m asked to trust the credibility of “staff” or AP Newswire. Supposedly, the reputation of the publication stands in for the ability to trust in a specific author. I would say that this transference of reputation from a specific individual to a publication is similar to what makes being anonymous online work. My persona as The Howling Pig has nearly nothing to do with my daytime identity, but the publication history of THP speaks for itself in that my political biases and social views are well-documented as is the reliability of my presentation of facts and opinions.

That’s where I find that online anonymity represents a new thing entirely. The vast majority of the time online being anonymous isn’t so much a complete lack of identity as the adoption of a persona. Usernames, email addresses, and IM handles all tend to be persistent. It’s not impossible to make up a new username, but people tend to become parts of communities and become known as the personas that they’ve adopted. Even better, these persistent identities (not necessarily connected with one’s offline life) develop their own reputations based entirely on their contributions. It’s now possible for a tax accountant to become a respected authority on needlework in an online forum, a sought-after gaming companion in role-playing game, a fiery partisan in a political bulletin board, and never have any of these roles effect each other. Of course, it’s also possible to be an unmitigated asshole, but that’s always been possible and most people both don’t participate in that way and are learning to ignore it.

How cool is that, really?


Fun and Excitement Watching the Crazies in Greeley

Today, I got to go to my very first right-wing rally. Luckily, I got to hang out with the rather cooler people that organized a response to the Americans For Prosperity travelling circus show that set up in the park downtown. It was a weird experience. There were a number of speakers, but the only two that I knew were locals– talk show host Amy Oliver, and county commissioner Sean Conway. The speakers actually addressed themselves largely to the protesters since the crowd of supporters wasn’t very big. For the most part, it was a call and response sort of thing with protesters shouting out derisive commentary as the speakers rambled on about the importance of fossil fuels and the waste of government funding for alternatives.

Boy howdy, I was floored at the internal inconsistency from these people. Obviously, the whole point was to fire people up to oppose the evil government and Obama specifically. Their hook was that government regulations, policies, taxes, and waste were responsible for high gas prices. This led somehow to a defense of natural gas fracking, the Keystone pipeline, and an attack on alternative energy. No mention was made that Americans For Prosperity are largely funded by oil and gas companies, with the oil baron Koch brothers chipping in a significant amount of the organization’s cash. On the other hand, the speakers made a point to say that the Obama administration was rife with conflicts of interest, apparently funneling vast amounts of research money to campaign supporters. Since I’ve been a supporter, I assume the check is on the way.

One major point that I noticed- most of the arguments were cast in terms of either ending oil and gas production entirely at the hands of draconian government regulations and taxation, or stopping the waste of taxpayer money on alternatives and setting the industry free to innovate without government interference.
Seriously, what the hell?
Even the hardest core environmentalists don’t want to end fossil fuel production immediately, and there sure as hell weren’t any hardcore greens hanging out there. Transitioning to alternatives is just a smart idea. Even if one believes in a fairy tale of infinite fossil fuel reserves that are somehow available at a reasonable cost, and completely discounts the concept of climate change, anything to reduce fossil fuel use is kind of an unvarnished good thing… unless you’re in the business of selling oil. Reducing the mess from production, reducing the need to intervene in volatile regions of the planet, reducing the shit belched into the air, and of course reducing the price all seem like good arguments for alternatives. Beyond that, Weld County people don’t really seem the type to want to end oil and gas production entirely, but we’re a bit suspicious of any methods that seem prone to poisoning our water and reducing our air quality.

Pretty much everything else was a recap of a generic Fox News broadcast– scandal and insinuation heavy, but light on discussion. There was some gesture toward backing up points with numbers, but I noticed that the units didn’t match up. One speaker that was introduced as a scientist tried to show that fracking used less water than watering golf courses– but she used acre-feet in one example and gallons in the other. I wasn’t in a position to take notes, but a little bit of mental estimation gave me the impression that her numbers said the opposite of what she said, but she was relying on one number being bigger than the other. Tricky. Also, who’s opposing the massive water use of hydraulic fracking because they’re avid golfers? Is there a Lorax that speaks for the back nine?

It was an interesting exercise in propaganda, but I don’t know that anybody who isn’t in on the scam would be convinced by the over-the-top rhetoric. Conservatives dug it because the crazy people on their team were saying wacky things– hooray! It was a hockey match and their side threw a few hard elbows. Kind of a waste of time and money. I kind of resent the fact that these assholes get to be stupid and shitty in public in such a way that those of us that oppose that sort of crap have to waste our time responding.

In short, the gents and ladies that feel the need travel around puking up a bunch of disingenuous red meat to some gullible conservatives can just fuck the fuck off.


Rush Limbaugh, Bill Maher and Free Speech

A couple of weeks ago, Rush Limbaugh went on a tirade against a grad student from George Washington University named Sandra Fluke. She had been denied an opportunity to testify about contraception coverage through institutional insurance plans, specifically from religious institutions like her university. Subsequently, she was able to speak at a public hearing brought by congressional democrats about the added cost to women that needed contraception, but were unable to get it through their insurance provider. Her testimony centered on a friend of hers that needed hormonal birth control to treat a medical condition, but was unable to afford it and so lost an ovary because of the lack of treatment.

Limbaugh freaked the fuck out about how people shouldn’t have to subsidize women’s sex lives and personally attacked Fluke, calling her a slut and a prostitute. After three days of that, the shitstorm public response had advertisers pulling their support from his show. Beyond the simple bullheaded stupidity that Rush showed by somehow conflating a high contraception bill to a sheer amount of sex, and missing the entire point of Fluke’s testimony that her friend needed birth control pills for something other than contraception but couldn’t get them, I mostly ignored the story because I figured it was another case of Limbaugh being an asshole and he could take his lumps.

Then the pushback started. People started pointing out that Bill Maher had at various times called Sarah Palin a stupid cunt and a twat. Somehow excusing Rush’s behavior by balancing against a blowhard on the left was the strategy for weathering his current shitstorm. What’s worse, Bill Maher actually kinda defended Rush on freedom of speech grounds.

Without getting into the weeds of what the law around speech issues actually is, I can definitively say that both those guys are assholes and that people defending them on freedom of speech grounds are wrong. Here’s the thing- the first amendment protects you from the government. Rush Limbaugh is protected from government action that abridges his right to say stupid crap. That means that he’s not going to go to jail. Further, he’s probably on safe ground as far as losing a lawsuit though his particular statements might cross the threshold into slander territory. On the other hand, people publicly and loudly saying “FUCK THAT GUY” and communicating that to his friends, colleagues, and advertisers is pretty much the very foundation of the idea of free speech in this country.

In short, the freedom of speech includes everybody; even the people that don’t like what you say and protest it. Bill Maher was just being a pussy because he realized that he could also be in deep shit if he offended the wrong people with his big mouth. If he doesn’t think that he can adequately explain himself whenever he steps on his dick in public and doesn’t have the cojones to own it, then screw that guy.

For the record, as far as I can tell, Sarah Palin is kind of a dumb cunt.

 


Limits on Free Speech

Because of my personal story, I have a thing about criminal libel statutes. The idea that a government at any level can prosecute you simply for things you say is antithetical to the rights guaranteed in the First Amendment. I’m glad that criminal libel is well on its way to being repealed in Colorado, and that it is slowly disintegrating as a legally enforceable concept in other states that still have felony libel laws on the books.

Here’s the thing: limits on free speech are all over the place. If somebody doesn’t like what you say or the way in which you say it, there are plenty of ways to stop you and punish you. In the realm of libel and slander, every state has a civil statute that allows people to sue if they’ve been harmed by someone. There are important limits on how these laws operate. Essentially, you’re in trouble if you maliciously lie about somebody. If you are harshly critical, but tell the truth, you’re in the clear. If you couch your criticisms as opinion, parody, or satire, then your speech is protected. Civil disparagement laws are much MUCH better than criminal ones, simply because it’s an adversarial process in which your accuser has to make a case and you can reply to it. Criminal laws cast law enforcement officials in the role of the accuser, and you must justify yourself rather than respond to another party.

Civil litigation still sucks a bag of dicks. The fact that you can effectively defend yourself is all well and good, but the court system is heavily weighted toward those with power and money. Most people would struggle to pay a competent attorney to mount a defense. Hell, a blogger in Colorado that writes a post about somebody in Florida might be faced with a default judgement if they can’t pull together the money for airfare so they can show up in court, much less pay a lawyer. This isn’t even addressing what happens if you are sued in Britain- libel laws there put the burden on the defense to prove that they have not committed a crime, and British courts claim jurisdiction over anything that has been viewed in the UK (they have the internet there!)

The basic rule of the road for civil litigation is that if you offend somebody with enough money to sue you, then they probably have enough money to win. This rule is already evident in patent law. Companies threaten lawsuits that are absolutely nonsensical, but defendants are forced to settle because they can’t afford to mount a defense.

There are plenty of problems with libel laws. The good part is that there are constitutional limits on how they’re enforced, and a good defense is possible. Now that the internet is a huge part in disseminating speech, libel laws aren’t necessarily the biggest sticks around for the offended parties of the world to wield.

It’s ridiculously easy to block publication of online material. Many service providers provide an automated response system that will take down offending posts of text, audio, and video based simply on the claim that they infringe a copyright or trademark. In order to avoid liability, service providers are required to remove material immediately upon a takedown request and the process of appealing the decision can be lengthy or non-existent. The same sort of mechanism can be used in some countries to block entire websites, or to cut off internet access to creators.

Then there’s the vast array of resources that are legally enforceable but mostly outside of the legal system. Depending on your job, there may be a number of legal and contractual restraints upon what you say in public. There are largely no protections for people that are fired by employers for what they might say in a public forum– this affects everyone from school teachers to call center employees. If you’re pissed off at something someone has to say, all it takes is a complaint to their employer and that will more often than not make the problem go away. Federal employees have to constantly watch what they say in order to avoid running afoul of the Hatch Act, which states that government employees can’t engage in political activity.  Any broadcaster has to be very careful to abide by FCC guidelines. If UNC had adopted its school code of conduct at the time I was under investigation, it’s quite possible that I might have faced disciplinary action through the university.

Infringing free speech isn’t difficult. There are large numbers of absolutely legal, constitutional ways to make people stop saying shit and punish them for speaking up. Anybody who wants to try and maintain a blatantly unconstitutional criminal libel law must not be paying attention, or they’re the sort that likes to hunt prairie dogs with a nuclear weapon.


Protest Movements

Occupy Wall Street (#occupywallstreet) has started to become a movement. Protests are cropping up around the country as people sign on to the notion that corporate goals, especially those of financial giants, aren’t in tune with the majority of people in this country. What seemed to just be the next thing that protesters were doing (solidarity with Wisconsin labor being the last thing, anti-war demonstrations being the thing before that) has become something bigger. This embiggening into a movement means that people are already trying to co-opt that energy. Unions are joining in, though seemingly without pushing an agenda. Van Jones has planted his flag and given shout-outs at his Take Back America Conference. It won’t be long before everyone from MoveOn to the Human Rights Campaign blasts out fundraising emails that name drop #occupywallstreet.

Here’s the thing: the mass of people participating in this course of civil disobedience and airing of grievances aren’t putting forward any leaders or endorsing any specific agenda. Unlike the WTO protests or the anti-war rallies of the past, these folks are simply demonstrating that they’re pissed off and they won’t be moved until somebody with power takes action. Ask any one of the protesters about what needs to be done and they’ll most likely have a laundry list of possibilities but they’re not offering a canned solution that can be denied or negotiated away. There’s no leader or organization that can be bought or negotiated with. This is the Tea Party of the progressive movement. Tea Partiers didn’t have to do anything more than show up and shriek incoherently about taxes in order to bolster their political allies. Then they successfully took credit for electing a number of ideologues. Now, any elected official in the Republican Party can’t approach a single vote without checking on the Tea Party stance.

We’ve learned that protest movements don’t get shit done in this country. Huge numbers of people came out against the war, against the WTO, even against the death penalty. Politicians looking at big protests organized through the usual suspects on the left and right think of them as poll results showing the strength of their base. Polite people that get permits, book speakers, and put out press releases are just looked at as people that will reliably vote against the other party, so fuck’em. Impolite people that shout obnoxiously, pack public meetings, block streets, and generally cause havoc need to be listened to. The Tea Party figured that out. Now the Left has a growing movement of boisterous activists that are good enough at stirring up shit that they’re not fading out of the spotlight. Maybe, the Democratic Party will have a moment of clarity like the Republicans did. When camps of protesters pop up in Missoula and Billings, Kent Conrad and Jon Tester get to make a choice between getting primaried or finally making some sense when it comes to jobs and the financial sector. I certainly look forward to replying to the next fundraising email from Mark Udall with a brief statement-

FUCK YOU, signed #occupywallstreet