Learning the wrong lessons from The Atlantic’s Scientology debacle

UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism dean Edward Wasserman is dismayed over the consensus takeaway from the recent Atlantic advertising snafu, in which a glowing article written and paid for by the Church of Scientology was presented almost exactly as if it were regular journalism:

In the aftermath of this embarrassment, some of the criticism the Atlantic received was surprising, and focused on how poorly the magazine played the “native” game: Nobody, it was said, could mistake the Scientology missive for an article the Atlantic might actually have run. The magazine erred, Charlie Warzel of AdWeek wrote, by “licensing uninteresting and bizarre content that falls well outside the walls of the magazine’s brand.”

Economist magazine managing director Paul Rossi advised publishers to start thinking like ad agencies and get better at concealment: “The real issue is how do  you make content that’s compelling to a reader that doesn’t feel like an ad. That’s the real challenge.”

So the problem was that the deception was inept and easily detected. If that’s it, the solution, it seems, would be to integrate paid persuasion seamlessly into editorial offerings, so that reader resistance is allayed and the ads go down smoothly.

But that’s not it. The more basic problem, as Columbia Journalism Review’s Dean Starkman wrote, is an “existential” one. In that regard, “native advertising” succeeds precisely because it’s so skillfully wrought that it’s imperceptible as advertising, and joins the flow of information and commentary that readers accept as part of the chronicle of topical realities that they trust the news media to provide.

The GOP: always watchful of that UN takeover

Today, the Republican Party in the Senate rejected a United Nations treaty to protect the rights of the disabled:

Former Senator Bob Dole of Kansas sat slightly slumped in his wheelchair on the Senate floor on Tuesday, staring intently as Senator John Kerry gave his most impassioned speech all year, in defense of a United Nations treaty that would ban discrimination against people with disabilities.

Senators from both parties went to greet Mr. Dole, leaning in to hear his wispy reply, as he sat in support of the treaty, which would require that people with disabilities have the same general rights as those without disabilities. Several members took the unusual step of voting aye while seated at their desks, out of respect for Mr. Dole, 89, a Republican who was the majority leader.

Then, after Mr. Dole’s wife, Elizabeth, rolled him off the floor, Republicans quietly voted down the treaty that the ailing Mr. Dole, recently released from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, so longed to see passed.

A majority of Republicans who voted against the treaty, which was modeled on the Americans With Disabilities Act, said they feared that it would infringe on American sovereignty.

Among their fears about the disabilities convention were that it would codify standards enumerated in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child — and therefore United Nations bureaucrats would be empowered to make decisions about the needs of disabled children — and that it could trump state laws concerning people with disabilities. Proponents of the bill said these concerns were unfounded.

The measure, which required two-thirds support for approval, failed on a vote of 61 to 38.

Joshua Keating notes the surprising influence of homeschoolers in ensuring the treaty’s failure to be ratified:

In addition to groups like the Heritage Foundation — which opposes nearly any U.N. treaty on sovereignty grounds — and anti-abortion politicians like Rick Santorum who argue, inaccurately, that the law could lead to abortion being mandated for disabled children, the politically powerful, but usually under-the-radar U.S. homeschooling movement has been one of the most pivotal lobbies working against U.S. Senate ratification of the treaty. The Homeschool Legal Defense Association claims to have sent anywhere from 8,000 to 20,000 letters and emails to lawmakers urging them to oppose the treaty:

“I think the homeschool movement was more mobilized on this issue than any issue in the last decade,” Estrada said, noting that a large population of homeschooling families had at least one child with a disability.

“They realized this wasn’t about disabilities issue, this was about who was going to make decisions for children with disabilities,” he said.

Keating explains:

Groups like the HLDA argue that the treaty could allow the U.N. to mandate that parents who home school their disabled children to send them to government-run schools. (It says nothing of the sort.)  They may also be worried that adoption of the law could set a precedent for the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which they oppose on equally specious, but perhaps slightly more comprehensible grounds

It is indeed sad that a perfectly reasonable treaty was just rejected based on a complete misreading of it, but it’s yet more evidence of how influential a small group can be when it gets very organized and very loud.

Oh, those horny liberal women

Yup, it’s exactly what the headline says:

Here’s how we know. The NFSS posed this question to respondents:

Are you content with the amount of sex you are having?

Respondents could answer in one of three ways: (1) Yes; (2) No, I’d prefer more; or (3) No, I’d prefer less. Now, before you throw around claims of misogyny, take some comfort in knowing that I don’t think answer #3 is somehow inherently more correct than #2. Good grief. My job here is interpretation.

Here are the simple numbers: 16% of “very conservative” women say they’d prefer more, compared with 29% of conservative women, 31% of moderates, 47% of liberals, and 50% of “very liberal” women…

And, remarkably, it isn’t much affected by how much sex they’ve actually had recently. That is, while greater recent frequency of sex predicts less desire for more sex, it does nothing to diminish the link between political liberalism and wanting more sex. And women of all political stripes report statistically-comparable frequency of sex.

In regression models, the measure of political liberalism remains significantly associated with the odds of wanting more sex even after controlling for the frequency of actual intercourse over the past two weeks, their age, marital status, education level, whether they’ve masturbated recently, their anxiety level, sexual orientation, race/ethnicity, depressive symptoms, and porn use. Many of these are significant predictors of wanting more sex. And still the political thing matters.

One theory? Sex = religion for liberals. No, really:

1. More liberal women are less likely to be religious. (In the NFSS and other datasets, she’s correct in this).

2. Given that, more liberal women are therefore more likely to have a difficult time attributing transcendent value to aspects of life such as their work, relationships, children, and daily tasks. Some scholars speak of this as “sanctifying daily life.” In other words, liberal women are less apt to conceive of mundane, material life as imbued with or reflecting the sacred.

3. Nevertheless, most people experience sexual expression as–in some significant way–transcendent, or higher-than-other-experiences.

4. More liberal women therefore want to have more sex because they feel the lack of sufficient transcendence in life. If sex is one of the few pathways to it, then it’s sensible to desire more of it.

Free speech as disease, or cure?

David Cole takes a look at suggestions for banning various forms of offensive speech and comes away unconvinced:

Such proposals to regulate hate speech—whether “two-pronged” or not—are flawed, for principled, legal reasons, as well as strategic, political considerations. As a legal matter, any attempt to penalize speech because of its offensive content contravenes the First Amendment’s bedrock principle that the government should not be in the business of defining what messages are permissible or impermissible. Arguments for regulating hate speech often take the same form as those made by defenders of laws prohibiting flag burning: if the content of the expression is offensive, and the speech itself is deemed of negligible value, it should be suppressed. But the last thing we need in a democracy is the government—or the majority—defining what is or is not a permissible message.

Second, defining “hate speech” in a way that draws a clear and enforceable line between that which deserves protection and that which can be prohibited is an elusive, and probably impossible, task. Ruthven’s proposal distinguishes between criticism and “insult,” an approach eerily reminiscent of the one Turkey’s Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan has adopted in defending the prosecution of journalistsfor “insulting” Turkey. Waldron’s proposal draws similarly vague lines between speech that offends, which he would protect, and speech that denigrates the human dignity of individuals or groups, which he would not. Canada prohibits “any writing, sign or visible representation” that “incites hatred against any identifiable group.” Ireland prohibits “blasphemous” speech that is “grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion.”

Such laws empower the government, or a jury, to draw lines between legitimate criticism, satire, and public comment on the one hand, and “insulting,” “abusive,” or “hateful” speech on the other. Is there any reason to be confident that government officials or juries will do a good job of this? And as long as the lines are so murky, many people will be compelled to steer clear of legitimate expression that some official or jury might, from its own viewpoint, deem over the line after the fact: this would stifle free speech and lead to self-censorship. Ruthven himself seems ambivalent about whether Rushdie’s depiction of Mohammed in The Satanic Verses is “insulting,” and therefore should be prohibited, or an example of artistic criticism that should be protected.

He concludes:

There is a place for limits. I am a professor. I do not tolerate, in my classroom, disrespectful speech of any kind, because it interferes with the learning environment that I seek to foster. I am also a father, and have a similar view with respect to the need for respectful speech around the dinner table. A responsible newspaper publisher might well decline to print an article that its editors were convinced was likely to spark violence. But these limits are not imposed by law, but by social norms and ethics, which are in turn informed by discussion, dialogue, and culture. Such norms are quite powerful, and ensure that for the most part, people do not use their freedom of speech irresponsibly. In those isolated instances where freedom is exercised irresponsibly, it is far better to employ more speech to condemn it—as President Barack Obama did recently in response to the YouTube video—than to empower the state to limit speech by punishing dissidents deemed hateful or insulting.

It’s not all bad news


The New York Times reports on an advertising counteroffensive as a response to the virulently racist subway ads I’d mentioned about a week ago. Thankfully, the “culture wars” narrative has not yet vanquished all comers:

Striking back against an anti-jihad advertisement in the subwayswidely perceived as anti-Muslim, two religious groups – one Jewish, one Christian – are taking out subway ads of their own to urge tolerance.

Rabbis for Human Rights – North America and the group Sojourners, led by the Christian author and social-justice advocate Jim Wallis, are unveiling their campaigns on Monday. Their ads will be placed near the anti-jihad ads in the same Manhattan subway stations, leaders of both groups said and transit officials confirmed. The groups said their campaigns were coincidental.

The ad by Rabbis for Human Rights turns the language of the earlier ad, placed by a pro-Israel group, on its head. The original ad says, “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat jihad.” The ad by Rabbis for Human Rights says, “In the choice between love and hate, choose love. Help stop bigotry against our Muslim neighbors.”

“We wanted to make it clear that it is in response to the anti-Islam ad,” said Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights, whose members include rabbis from all streams of Judaism.

The Sojourners ad simply says, “Love your Muslim neighbors.”

Coming home, and a shout-out to a friend

It’s been about two weeks since my last post. In that time I’ve flown from Beirut to Anchorage, Alaska, then to Wichita, Kansas, and — just tonight — back home to New York, where I have finally and mercifully landed at last. (I will spend a few brief days in Boston starting tomorrow, but will return shortly thereafter to recommence my life as a relatively stationary man. And for that I am, at least for this moment, enormously happy.)

Onward, then. One of my very best friends, Sam Diaz-Littauer, recently produced a video commemorating the recent Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. Sam flew from Geneva, where he’s currently based, to Rio de Janeiro to take part in activism on behalf of the “Major Group for Children and Youth.” After leaving the conference with a palpable sense of disappointment in the lack of progress achieved, Sam created the aforementioned 5-minute video, titled “Something To Believe In,” which was released on August 12th (International Youth Day).

He asked me to pass along this statement for more context:

Something to Believe In: MGCY Rio+20 Declaration Video
Celebrating International Youth Day, 12 August 2012

Today we celebrate International Youth Day. Today we celebrate our generation. Today we celebrate you and me.

The Major Group for Children and Youth (MGCY) is the voice of young people in the UN sustainability negotiations, active participants in the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development. Through negotiating, demonstrating, and participating in local initiatives, we shared our vision of the future and the actions needed to achieve this.

Despite our disappointment in the outcome of Rio+20, we remain committed to the process of achieving a sustainable future, for our generation and for those to come. We need you to help make this a reality.

This is our declaration.

We believe that youth can move the world. Our time is now. Today let us inspire our generation. Share this message and celebrate with us as we create the world.

If you would like to read more about the MGCY’s involvement in Rio+20, visit our website at http://www.uncsdchildrenyouth.org or download our Youth Blast Report. Our MGCY Rio+20 Report is coming soon!

Sam is an extremely gifted filmmaker, and one whose talent behind the camera I only fully understood after an absolutely catastrophic attempt of my own, during my university years, at donning the director’s hat for a year-long project. (The bloody remains of my cinematic career are still spattered all over the proverbial cutting-room floor, where the contents of my finished product should have remained as well. Alas, they escaped to the campus “big screen,” to the bemusement of somewhere between 1,000-2,000 very confused moviegoers and undergraduate peers. I distinctly recall slinking down the back alleyways of campus with my brother after the premiere, avoiding all interaction with familiar faces. But I digress.)

While I cannot, without doing significant further research, personally endorse the platform of the MGCY or any of the other organizations referenced above (and this, equally definitively, should not be taken to mean I reject them either), I can emphatically recommend keeping a close eye on this, and whatever else Sam continues to produce, film, edit, or otherwise tinker with over the course of what I know will be a long and always-fascinating career devoted to bending the lines separating the arts, philosophy, and theology towards some sort of intellectual and emotional synthesis.

Sam’s idealism and unvarnished passion have always been, and continue to be, the yin to my yang of detached cynicism. It is this very juxtaposition — a word that has more meaning for him than for most, if I may be so cryptic — that has caused perhaps more heated arguments between us than anything else. And yet it is these very same qualities that I most admire in him: it is, indeed, quite probable that my impassioned entreaties to “be realistic,” to “stop living in the clouds,” if he were ever to heed them in their entirety, would represent to me a tragedy far surpassing the ruins of my teenage cinematic ambitions.

That Sam may in fact possess certain compromising videotapes of me acting badly in horrendous films he never completed has, I assure you, no relevance to this post.

Anyway, without further ado:

[vimeo http://vimeo.com/47381594]

The Oslo tragedy and media narratives

The facts of the Oslo bombing and shootings — already being called Norway’s September 11th — are still being discovered, and yet the mass media’s narrative, much like a preemptively written obituary of a public figure, was already neatly in place. Here are a few examples:

Kristian Harpviken, interview in Foreign Policy magazine:

“The only concrete supposition [as to the identity of the attackers] that would emerge in a Norwegian context would be al Qaeda.”

The Wall Street Journal:

“…In jihadist eyes [Norway] will forever remain guilty of being what it is: a liberal nation committed to freedom of speech and conscience, equality between the sexes, representative democracy and every other freedom that still defines the West. For being true to those ideals, Norwegians have now been made to pay a terrible price.” [Note: This quote appeared in the original version of the article, but the WSJ later deleted it along with other modifications, after it became apparent that a non-Muslim, non-al Qaeda-affiliated person was suspected of the crimes.]

Jennifer Rubin, The Washington Post:

“This is a sobering reminder for those who think it’s too expensive to wage a war against jihadists. I spoke to Gary Schmitt of the American Enterprise Institute, who has been critical of proposed cuts in defense and of President Obama’s Afghanistan withdrawal plan. ‘There has been a lot of talk over the past few months on how we’ve got al-Qaeda on the run and, compared with what it once was, it’s become a rump organization. But as the attack in Oslo reminds us, there are plenty of al-Qaeda allies still operating. No doubt cutting the head off a snake is important; the problem is, we’re dealing with global nest of snakes.'”

I could continue with additional quotes, but these and other, similar proclamations have already been covered and debunked by the likes of James Fallows at The Atlantic, Benjamin Doherty at Electronic Intifada, and especially Glenn Greenwald on Salon.com.

The point is that, not only is the media’s first instinct to jump to the Islamists-as-terrorists trope, but, as Greenwald helpfully exposes, sometimes the mistaken attribution to Islamic fundamentalists is the only prerequisite for labeling an act as “terrorism” in the first place. Thus, a horrifying act can only be terrorism if it’s committed by a Muslim; conversely, no matter how gruesome the act, it is not terrorism if it’s committed by someone other than a Muslim.

As it turns out, the story is already taking shape quite differently than initially reported. The New York Times’ lead article now states:

The Norwegian police on Saturday charged a man they identified as a right-wing fundamentalist Christian in connection with the bombing of a government building in central Oslo and a shooting attack on a nearby island that together killed at least 92 people.

As stunned Norwegians grappled with the deadliest attack in the country since World War II and a shocking case of homegrown terrorism, a portrait began to emerge of the suspect, Anders Behring Breivik, 32. He was described as a religious, gun-loving Norwegian obsessed with what he saw as the threat of multiculturalism and Muslim immigration to the cultural and patriotic values of his country.

“We are not sure whether he was alone or had help,” a police official, Roger Andresen, said at a televised news conference. “What we know is that he is right wing and a Christian fundamentalist.”

The enduring tragedy of the Oslo attacks is that the laughable performance of our mainstream media will go undetected and un-criticized by most, because it is far more convenient to stick to an accepted script than to question the prefabricated story-lines we’ve come to expect. The word “terrorism,” when used to such dubious and unproductive ends, has gained precisely the opposite of its original meaning: as my friend Sam described it, “This sort of language quickly becomes bloated beyond its meaning and has the tendency to pervert anything that precedes it or follows it. It is eager and anxious to be helpful but in doing so tries to excuse itself from being complicit with the historicity of the problems it is trying to rectify.”

By jumping to call anything and everything that is perpetrated by Islamists “terrorism” — even when, as in this case, the entire conjecture as to the identity of the participants was incorrect from the start — and refusing to use the same word to describe actions taken by other disaffected groups, we’ve stripped the word of all meaning. “Terrorism,” much like “Hitler” and “Nazi,” has undergone such a grotesque transformation in usage that it’s lost any true power it once had as a descriptor. Unfortunately, it seems very unlikely that anyone in a position of power is likely to notice or care.