Meme I Hate: The Arch of Centrism

You would think that, as someone who teaches argumentation and debate, I would be all about a graphic going after media bias. But this widely shared graphic?


I loathe it.

The fact that it forms a neat arch, with the most centrist news organizations also being the most reliable, and the most partisan being the least is what tripped the wire in my brain that I scrutinize it. But its the left axis that I find damning.

On a graph, an axis should be a set of points all from the same set, arranged in a sensible order. But they are not. Complex analysis (apart from being a branch of mathematics), is a different genre from fact-reporting. This isn’t an issue of the quality of the reporting because, and this is very important, it is not reporting. Persuasion, analysis, and reporting are all different things.

  • Persuasion: A piece that tries to convince you to believe something, usually point of value or policy.
  • Analysis: A piece that tries to synthesize facts into an abstract framework, usually by an expert. It naturally contains an element of persuasion; facts can be interpreted many ways. It is fundamentally a point-of-fact excercise, but more abstract than a basic who, what, where, when, why, how report.
  • Reporting: the aforementioned who, what, where, when, why, how piece.

There is nothing inherently low quality about any of these—though opinion pieces are having a bit of a low moment. Just as you would not complain a candle is bad at cutting down trees, you should not be surprised that analysis is a mediocre way to glean a list of facts; its just not what’s its for. Vox is a popular punching bag, but they exist to explicitly fill an analysis void in the center left. If you read it with that purpose, it is hard to argue they are doing an overall bad job. I much prefer AP, BBC, or NPR for simpler point-of-fact reporting.

What this chart shows is the toxic centrism that is gripping this country. They highest quality discourse, the idea goes, is that which can find the middle. As you get more partisan, your work must be of lower quality. What this precludes is the possibility is that one party is actually right. They are both wrong—why vote, why hold either accountable, why not share saccharine memes instead of challenging news stories?

It is also nakedly anti-intellectual. While not all analysis and opinion is high quality, nor is all point-of-fact centrist reporting. (The meme acknowledges that; the few exceptions to the parabolic shape are in the tabloids.) The facts may simply be wrong without being opinions. Further, while it can be high-quality to its purpose, omitting context because it is analytical may not be the most illuminating route. If you do not know that America First was a popular White Nationalist and pro-Nazi slogan from the 30s, the current America First slogan takes on a different tone. I’m unaware of any reporting that explicitly links it to a purposeful rebranding of 30s White Nationalism, but there is persuasive analysis that shows how it has come out of groups with the ties to suggest it it was, if not purposeful, certainly not entirely a coincidence.

Putting facts into a framework—and engaging with other persons’ interpretations of the facts—is a vital part of being informed. Analytical currents are in fact news because they are the framework that policy and value sits on, not bare facts. And persuasion, though not currently living up to this, should be the final course of a meal of information that any informed citizen digests. Stopping at facts, and treating bare facts as the highest quality input, is a perfect reversal of the point and purpose of a free press.

Nothing about this meme is contributing to media literacy, and I hate it.


Everything You See on the Internet Is Not True (Erectile Dysfunction Edition)


Now that I have your attention:


This is…grossly misleading, though partially true. CNN Money says that insurers “have the right to choose what counts as ‘pre-existing'”. They go to give a list from the Kaiser Foundation that has been floating around Facebook of “ailments and conditions [that] were universally used to deny people coverage”. You would be correct in noting that erectile dysfunction is not on that list, but its not because it wasn’t a preexisting condition.

A blog devoted to ED drugs* noted before the pre-existing conditions clause went into effect:

If current proposed health care reform stays in place, in 2014, this won’t matter. But until then, the answer is, it depends. Mostly it depends on what the insurance company considers a preexisting condition and what they will or will not cover. Also, most insurance companies use a certain formula or logarithm to determine eligibility. They may look at your medical history to see what conditions you have been diagnosed with, what you’ve been treated for, what medications you’ve taken, etc. Compounding this is the fact that erectile dysfunction is usually not a standalone issue, but a symptom of another underlying condition, physical or psychological, like diabetes or clinical depression, and that is more likely to be what the insurance company will be looking at as far as preexisting conditions go.

ED and its causes (many of which are on CNN’s list) were preexisting conditions, and ED treatments weren’t and still aren’t covered in many cases anyway. If you have diabetes and that causes ED, they can deny you coverage for your ED medication as a “preexisting condition” as long as their rules are clear, so ED shows up here as an implication. It’s possible to squint and add a bunch of caveats that make this meme “true”, but I think the implication, that ED is usually covered but complications from sexual assault aren’t if you buy insurance after the fact is false.

And there is no reason to cling to this! To find examples of institutional sexism in health care look no further than AHCA! Planned Parenthood defunding is just that. This murky example, largely anchored on a misunderstanding, looks washed out next to PP’s loss of funds.

So please, outraged citizens, direct your rage at the actual problem here: that both ED and treatment for complications from sexual assault will be denied as preexisting conditions if the House GOP has their way.

*I too wondered PDE5guy kept a blog about Viagra and Cialis for years, but, hey! If there is one thing 2017 is teaching us, it is that the world is weirder than we thought.

So, Donald Trump’s Upcoming Sexual Assault Case is not Clear Cut

Update: Within just a few hours of publication, the case moved. The plaintiff is going public this evening. I will not be updating the piece to reflect any of the changes and, presumably, the new information and public reveal of the plaintiff’s identity will make it easier to go after this case. I feel my analysis is vindicated by the fact that when she went public coverage is spiked.

My feed has a steady stream of memes, posts, and updates regarding Donald Trump’s upcoming sexual assault case. And—please hear me out—the case is quite murky. A big part of why it is not getting a lot of coverage, as we’ll see, is that if an outlet has a high standard of proof for publication, then large parts of this case simply cannot be published.

The accusations are actually quite a bit worse than what my headline suggests. According to a source (hang on), this is what happened. It is quite graphic, so if the headline did not tip you off about the content of this piece, this is your last chance to bail:

She lists four alleged instances of sex with Trump, including one when she says she was forced to perform lesbian acts with another underage girl.

Both girls were allegedly told to “place their mouths simultaneously on Trump’s erect penis until he achieved an orgasm.”

“After zipping up his pants, Defendant Trump physically pushed both minors away while angrily berating them for the ‘poor’ quality of their sexual performances,” the lawsuit reads.

In another encounter where Johnson says she was tied on a bed, Trump alleged raped her after refusing to wear a condom. After he finished, she says Trump threw money at her while putting his suit and told her to get an abortion.

This comes from the esteemed pages of, however the suit is real and the details here are what is actually being alleged. This seems it should be a bigger story.

Well, there are a few things to note here. For starters, this is a civil, not criminal suit. The burden of proof is lower for a civil suit, so starting there suggests that the plaintiff knows her case is flimsy. Also, it has been dismissed once on technicalities, including the fact that she gave the address of a foreclosed house as her residence. Further, no one has located or even identified—let alone interviewed—the plaintiff. She is currently representing herself because reportedly she is having trouble finding a lawyer. (That last bit comes from our “friends” at gossipextra, so, yeah.)

It is important that I take a moment to point out that false accusations are rare. Even if this is one, it would be unusual. And there is no evidence that it is. There are possible explanations of each of these irregularities—for example, sexual assault is notoriously hard to prove, so she may have no choice but to go to civil court first. Donald Trump in turn is famously litigious, so plenty of lawyers might want to steer clear. No imagination is required to think her secrecy is simply a desire to put off the inevitable scrutiny of every detail of her life. I hesitated even publishing this piece simply because it is difficult to point out a sexual assault case is flawed without encouraging rape apologia.

But keep in mind that the press has virtually nothing to go on here. Just as it would be unscrupulous to dismiss the plaintiff’s claims out of hand, the irregularities and secrecy of the plaintiff make fair reporting on Donald Trump nearly impossible.

But, perhaps most importantly, there is not yet an upcoming trial. There is status conference for December, where the judge receives preliminary information at this time to decide if the case can even proceed to trial. With this many irregularities, you can bet Trump’s lawyers are going to move for dismissal and you can bet the motion has a fair shot. If something is provided by the plaintiff that day that the press does not have access to, you will see this blow up. And rightfully!

In the meantime, I’m sorry, there is not much to this case to be reported right now.

Owsley County, Welfare, and the Cost of Policy

Democrats like the narrative that low-income voters who vote Republican must being doing something wrong. They must not know that the party does not support welfare. They are often labeled “Low Information Voters”, which is (ironically) a mangling of a social science term that just means voting for a candidate because you know what their party stands for. And while some voters really do vote against their apparent interests, giving people some credit for knowing their lives raises more interesting questions about policy that should give Democrats more pause.

I think this meme is emblematic of the view:


I’m going to skip over the political science lecture where I point out that there is a petty large wing of the GOP that supports welfare. They tend to be, and sit down for this, white and rural and poor. They benefited from the New Deal generations ago and nominally switched parties when the Democrats stopped being the party of the old Confederacy and built a multi-racial coalition. They represent a fossil: the socially conservative, racially backwards, and economically forward coalition that propelled FDR to power. It would be very simply wrong to group them lockstep with the Reagan Republicans. Oh, look. I just did that lecture I said I was going to skip.

But more interestingly, I am not sure Owsley County Kentucky is wrong to throw itself in with GOP interests. Consider Owsley County’s sources of income and what has happened to rural America since Bill Clinton took office. Owsley County is to some extent a victim of environmental regulation. The US still has fairly rich coal seams that we are under-exploiting because of our environmental regulation. That (really, truly) puts people out of work. Free trade has leeched wages out of the working class, though to what extent Owsley County specifically is a victim of that is not clear to me after some brief digging around.

I support these environmental regulations and my thoughts on free trade are complicated, but broadly favorable. They are good for the country. But there are real costs to them, and those costs look a lot like the pictures of Appalachia. Those voters know that candidates from their area might support cutting their benefits, but they also promise to bring jobs back. And their plan is, at face, plausible. Cut environmental regulation and restrict free trade and that would probably help Owsley County more than the welfare state, say what you will about the wisdom of the plan for the rest of us.

We Democrats have convinced ourselves that our plans are common-sense policies that will help everyone. At the same time, we believe that anyone who does not vote like us must be either corrupt or ignorant.

And the truth seems much more complicated.

Systemic Misrepresentation

There is a very good reason you never saw this pre-Columbian map of the United States:

That very good reason is that it is not a pre-columbian map of the United States.

Please, I beg you, if you are going to share a meme, Google it. (To be fair, that would not have done you much good this time. I had a hard time tracking down anything about this.) But if you’re not going to Google it…maybe read it? It says on the map “Approx: 2015”. Columbus, I might remind you, sailed the ocean blue in 1492.

This looks like a decently cool thought experiment. What if the Native Nations had remained sovereign and developed national polities? I lack the requisite expertise to evaluate this particular proposal, but some of it looks plausible. Other parts—like the location of the Ojibwa polity and the consolidation of the Pacific coast tribes—look arbitrary without knowing the provenance of the map. Still, it is a neat thing to consider.

I sincerely recommend falling down the Wiki-wormhole that is reading up on all the tribes there, the people that constituted them, and the languages they spoke. Because while the meme itself is not a map of pre-contact North America—and such a map would be a Eurocentric fiction—you really did not learn enough native history from your formal education. Also, if you don’t find it down the wormhole, the Bering Strait Theory you learned in school was a lie designed to make you think the Natives were newcomers too.

So I totally support the good intentions behind sharing this meme. But pity it’s wrong.

P.S. I promise this blog won’t be all-memes-all-the-time. They will totally keep showing up because, hey, they are good fodder for bad ideas. But tomorrow I’ve got a post about something very different.

A Lesson in Liberal Logic

The week John Stewart left the Daily Show, I had to get rid of my blog.

These aren’t connected in any explicit way. I am changing jobs, and not because Stewart is, and there was content on there that simply wasn’t acceptable for my new position. And as I’ve come to terms with losing my blog (the job is worth it) I’ve been thinking about how to move forward. And as I’ve thought about what parts of that blog I’d like to salvage—and if a new project is the way to go—I started thinking more and more about John Stewart.

Stewart’s legacy is complicated. It is totally possible to view him as a great liberal hero, albeit with qualifacation. It is completely fair to call him the patron saint of liberal smugness. It really comes down to where you situate his long tenure on the Daily Show.

Stewart was always at his best when he picked low hanging fruit. The Bush administration was terrible in a way that transcends politics. It was scandal-ridden, expensive, and by the end one of the least popular presidencies since the end of the Second World War. Going after Bush was easy, but Stewart did it with such panache at a time it was much needed so it felt refreshing.

But it is easy to lose sight that that was his game. Now that a Democrat is in the White House, it has been the Daily Show’s MO to go after Fox News. Again, not hard. They seem so blissfully unaware of the tenants of logical consistency so as to be self-parody without Stewart’s help. Stewart elevated them to a spectacle of conservative folly. In an age where they have the plurality of viewers, that is worth a lot.

But I can’t say he’s elevated liberal discourse.

Liberals have taken his exasperated approach and applied it with not his thought, research, or self-awareness. Stewart’s method works best when you have an open contradiction or an argument that is so at-face wrong it can be dispatched with a zinger. Conservatives have neither a monopoly on those problems nor are they incapable of forming reasonable thoughts.

An example that is percolating through my feed is this meme:

It has the virtue of being both misleading and wrong. And they are different problems in this case.

It is misleading because it only shows discretionary spending. Of 3.5 Trillion dollars spent in 2014, the larger part went to entitlement spending. The difference is important, and it is sometimes correct to separate them out. Entitlement spending is money owed to people by virtue of their circumstance—usually poverty or age. It is appropriate to omit entitlement spending when trying to control for the business cycle. When the economy is bad, more people need the safety net, so spending in the large part increases. It doesn’t tell us anything about the more stable parts of government nor even what the government might look like after the economy has recovered. But, by leaving entitlements out, it distorts how much of your taxes goes to different programs. Call me cynical, but I suspect it was deliberate to make military spending look even bigger than it is.

It is also wrong. SNAP benefits are not discretionary spending. They are Entitlements and thusly not reported in the discretionary part of the Food and Agriculture budget. SNAP comes in a bit north of 4% on this chart—right around the purple wedges—though it doesn’t belong here. It is a bit like talking about the city budget, displaying what the schools spend, and pointing at the resource officer’s wedge to explain what you spend on policing. It misses every point.

Now, it’s true that SNAP still constitutes a small part of Federal expenditures. About 2 cents for every dollar in you pay in federal taxes, for those keeping score at home. And there is virtue in pointing out the big fight lays elsewhere. But it lays soundly in the bigger entitlements, with military spending being a modest fight at the margins. To get a sense, here is the 2010 budget as broken down by Wikipedia. SNAP is about an eighth of the large, greenish wedge “Unemployment/Welfare/Other Mandatory Spending”. Note this is from the height of the Great Recession, so the entitlements are bloated:

2010 Federal Budget, per Wikipedia
2010 Federal Budget, per Wikipedia

I worry liberals have taken the wrong lesson from Stewart. A smart, savvy comedian who lampooned those who very much needed to be lampooned is not the voice of a generation who is poised to start setting the policy agenda. In 2020, the demographic march will make it harder even under current gerrymandering for the Republicans to maintain such a hold on redistricting. By the time 2022 and 2024 rolls around, we’ll be looking at significant realignment in the House and Senate—and the GOP has more than likely seen its last presidency until it reinvents itself. Closer to the present, 2016 and to a lesser extent 2018 will see over-positioned Republicans facing tough elections, much like democrats in 2014. Young liberals will soon be the plurality of voters and we need to get these questions right.

As long as we liberals view conservatism uncharitably—or, more precisely, so long as we’re not careful enough to consider which arguments deserve our attention and which are flat out wrong—we will continue to be flat out wrong in our responses. The budget debate, while not best centered around food stamps, should talk first about entitlements in a wider sense.

While I won’t be above going after low-hanging fruit from conservatives, I do hope to use this new project to put liberal feet to the fire. Trust me, we’ll all be better for it. I’m sad that I lost my old blog, but it is a chance for my political views to grow up some more.

After all, if we really believe that the liberal movement is generally correct, it will withstand hard questions and the occasional admission that, hey, conservatives aren’t always wrong.

P.S. I don’t even know what is going on in this one. I think it is completely wrong, but I can’t figure out how they spliced the data together: