A Philosopher's Blog

Palin & Crowdsourcing

Posted in Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 11, 2011
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The media folks, in many ways, created the media juggernaut that is Sarah Palin. They continue to sustain her in an ironic way: the more they attack her, the more she benefits.

Obviously, I have written about her. However, I have decided to adopt a strict Palin Policy. My policy is that unless she actually decides to run for president or does something else of true significance,  this will be my last Palin blog. In a way, the blog is more about the media than about her.

The Washington Post and New York Times are in a fine frenzy over the release of 24,000 Palin emails from her time as governor of Alaska. While a sensible person would probably think that pretty much all that needs to be known about her time as governor is already known, the Post and Times are eager to sift through the digital haystack in search of some sparkling needle that presumably can be used to jab Palin.

If some dire doubts remained about that time or if a great deal was at stake, then sifting those emails might be worth the effort. I do, of course, admit, that some true nuggets of information might be found that would make the game worth the electricity. However, it seems like a lot of effort with only a small chance of a worthwhile payoff of any sort.

Because there are so many emails and the traditional media companies are not doing as well financially, the Post and Times are crowdsourcing the work. The idea is that people will, for free, grind through the emails looking for choice bits to provide to the Post, Times and whoever else is involved in this little adventure.

If they can get people to do their work for free, then that would be rather good for them. No doubt this would also strengthen the trend of news agencies making use of the public as unpaid staff members. On the plus side, this does increase the amount of information coming in to the news agency and it allows the public to be actively involved in the news process. On the minus side, the professionals really should be doing their jobs. After all, they are supposed to be the professionals. There is also the concern that relying on amateurs can lower the quality of the news (which is already rather low). Finally, getting people to do this sort of work unpaid seems rather exploitative-especially when done by (allegedly) liberal organizations.

As a final point, it seems just a bit creepy to be going through someone’s emails like that. As noted above, if there were good reasons to think that the emails contained information about illegal or unethical activities that would be the business of the people, then that would be one thing. However, this seems to be a mix between a hopeful witch hunt and creepy voyeurism. Naturally, if something of true importance does turn up, I will write a post admitting that I was wrong.

Yes, I do suppose that I am actually defending Sarah Palin.




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Midterms 2010

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 1, 2010
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Tomorrow is a big election day. The press and pundits have been playing up the drama and we have been assured that the angry tea party will send the Democrats packing. Well, most likely.

On the face of it, it seems likely that the media’s narrative will play out. After all, the Democrats’ popularity is low, the Tea Party seems to be riding high and the Republicans seem to be in a good position to take some seats.

Of course, the narrative does not always play out and there are reasons to think that the Republicans might not win as big as they hope. Rather than play along with the narrative or reject it outright, I’ll offer a brief discussion of some of the factors in play.

First, the Democrats have allowed two problematic (for them) impressions to endure and grow. One is that the Democrats have done little (or nothing). The other is that what the Democrats have done (mainly the health care reform) is bad. Obviously, “What little we have done is bad” is not an election winning slogan for the Democrats. They have tried to counter with the “key and ditch” metaphor, but this seems to be getting little traction.

Second, voter anger does seem to be a factor. There is a highly motivated opposition to the Democrats and they will probably turn out for the vote.

Third, apathy is a factor. While the Democrats face a motivated opposition, their base seems to be far less fired up. Folks who were fired up for Obama seem much less fired up and some seem to be indifferent, at best, towards the Democrats. One main reason is that people expected that Obama would do amazing things. When he did not deliver awesomeness and proved to be yet another politician, some folks became disillusioned.

Fourth, there is the Tea Party. While the Tea Party is considered a Republican ally, it can actually work against Republicans. One reason is that Tea Party candidates have beat out some more traditional Republican candidates and some of them have decided to run anyway (most famously in Alaska and Florida). Having a Tea Party Republican (TPR or Tealephant) and a (former) Republican will tend to split the vote to the advantage of the Democrats. Also, while the Tea Party candidates might play well to the motivated folks who voted in the primaries, they might not do so well in the regular election. As even some Republicans have pointed out, some of the Tea Party candidates are way to the right or rather wacky.

Fifth, there are the minorities, especially the Hispanics. While the Republicans did well with Hispanics in the past, the anti-immigration sentiment in the Republican (and Tea) party might lead to a larger than expected turn out of Hispanic voters. This could work in favor of the Democrats. However, the Democrats seem to have been unwilling to make this into a significant issue.

Six, there are the DINOs (Democrats In Name Only). Some Democrats are running against…well, the Democrats. Taking this approach might work-if the voters buy it. Of course, running as a DINO/pseudo-Republican means that such candidates face the problems of the Republicans as well as having the Democratic taint. Also, having Democrats running ads that attack other Democrats is not exactly helping the Democrats.

Seventh, there is the media. The media’s narrative and coverage almost certainly has some impact. For example, the media folks give the Tea Party coverage, they made Sarah Palin a star and so on.

Overall, I suspect the Republicans will make some gains. But, the game is still an open one and it could turn out in unexpected ways.

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Going Rogue

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 18, 2009
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Sarah Palin‘s book, Going Rogue, recently hit the shelves and is selling quite well. Eager to cash in on this, magazines such as Newsweek (which features a ‘pin up gal’ style cover shot) and other media sources are putting forth stories about Palin. Naturally, the left leaning folks are being rather critical and those on her right wing bandwagon are completely thrilled.

What I find most interesting about Palin is the fact that she has been lifted out of obscurity and placed under the bright spotlights of fame for doing very little.

True, she was governor of Alaska, but then quit. Weirdly enough, this made her even more of a hero rather than making her seem like someone who cannot stick with her responsibilities and duties. I am not sure why some people see this as a sign that she would be a good choice for a presidential candidate. After all, if someone cannot handle being governor, then she surely would not be able to handle being president.

True, she was also picked out of the blue as the VP candidate in 2008. However, this did not seem to be based on any merit on her part and even many conservatives regarded this as a bad idea. And, of course, she lost.

Of course, being famous for being famous is nothing new. The media engines did, after all, lift people like Paris Hilton on high so that she might be gazed upon by the masses. While Sarah purports to criticize the media, they have served to put her face on TV and on the cover of magazines. While some folks in the media criticize her and almost cast her as a monster, in many ways she is their monster.

To merely say that she is famous for being famous would, however,be unfair to her. She manages to appeal to a very loud demographic in America-folks who are angry and afraid and who seem to be looking for someone like her to express their views to the world. The fact that she seems to be somewhat confused and unclear about such things as history, science and political ideology merely makes her more appealing. After all, those who find her so dear seem to be in the same boat.

It must also be said that Palin does represent one aspect of the American dream: she arose from humble origins to the national stage, fame, wealth and success. As such, her story is very appealing in a very American sort of way. Even her critics cannot deny that she has become, at least for the moment, a political force. While she might fade into obscurity, she is burning bright across the sky for now.

Naturally enough, people are speculating about 2012. I share the view of many conservative thinkers: Palin simply does not have what it takes to be a good President. I think she could probably match George W. Bush, but we certainly do not need that sort of Presidency again. Apparently 74% of Americans think that she is not qualified to be president, so I am not alone in this. But, of course, what people think and how they vote are two different matters. After all, being seen as unqualified does not seem to be grounds for not electing a person-folks on the left say this about Bush while folks on the right say this about Obama.


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Palin: Take the Money & Run?

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 11, 2009
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There has been considerable speculation over why Sarah Palin quit her job as governor of Alaska. One hypothesis is that she resigned because she has a multimillion dollar book deal. That would make some sense. After all, people do often say that the first thing they would do after winning the lottery is quit their job. Perhaps Palin sees herself as a lottery winner.

There are also rumors that Palin believes that there are many other deals waiting for her. While I am not an expert on the law, I’m reasonable sure that holding the office of governor limits the sorts of money making deals that a person can accept. Perhaps Palin looked at the opportunities that would be available to her if she left office and was won over by the power of green.

Of course, this is all speculation. It can, however, be assessed in an empirical way: if Palin avails herself of such deals, then that would lend credence to the claim that her motivation was financial. Of course, even this would not be conclusive. After all, she might have left office for other (and more noble) reasons and simply decided to take advantage of the offers. It would, of course, be foolish to say “no” to such deals.

Now, if Palin were to reject such deals and instead devoted her time and energy to the public good, then the claim that she was financially motivated would be undercut.

Naturally, I am not saying that there is anything wrong with her leaving a job to seek a better income. If by quitting my current job I could make millions of dollars, I would do so. After all, I could still teach for free and could also do more good than I do now-that kind of money would pay all my debts, provide me with a fine income and still leave me plenty of money with which to create scholarships, give to charity, help my friends & family and aid my community.

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Palin & Socrates

Posted in Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 4, 2009
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In a somewhat odd speech, Sarah Palin informed the public that she was resigning as governor of Alaska. With Sanford’s recent adventure, this has been a rather weird time for Republican governors.

Palin’s speech was certainly interesting. She seemed to be speaking without notes and apparently with only minimal preparation. On the positive side, she seemed to be saying what she really felt which is a rare thing in politics.

Not surprisingly, the response has been largely along ideological lines. The folks who dislike her are claiming that she is either getting out ahead of a scandal or looking to head down to the lower 48 to start her bid for 2012. Those who like her think that she is doing what is right for Alaska and that she is a victim of various malign forces (such as the media and the Democrats).

While I found her speech to be rambling and a bit strange, she did make a point that I found rather interesting. To be specific, she seemed to be claiming that being in politics had caused trouble and that in order to get things done, she had decided to resign. This made me think of Socrates‘ remarks in the Apology:

Some one may wonder why I go about in private giving advice and busying myself with the concerns of others, but do not venture to come forward in public and advise the state. I will tell you why. You have heard me speak at sundry times and in diverse places of an oracle or sign which comes to me, and is the divinity which Meletus ridicules in the indictment. This sign, which is a kind of voice, first began to come to me when I was a child; it always forbids but never commands me to do anything which I am going to do. This is what deters me from being a politician. And rightly, as I think. For I am certain, O men of Athens, that if I had engaged in politics, I should have perished long ago, and done no good either to you or to myself. And do not be offended at my telling you the truth: for the truth is, that no man who goes to war with you or any other multitude, honestly striving against the many lawless and unrighteous deeds which are done in a state, will save his life; he who will fight for the right, if he would live even for a brief space, must have a private station and not a public one.

Socrates’ view does have a degree of plausibility. Good people who get involved in politics seem to end up compromising away their good intentions or being unable to take action if they stick with their values. People who act outside of politics do often have a greater opportunity to avoid compromise and sometimes can get more done. It will be interesting to see what Palin does. Will she, for example, become a spokesperson for the pro-life movement? Or is this, as some have suggested, just a clever ploy to get lined up for 2012?

Another point worth considering is that Palin is actually acting in accord with the professed ideology of Republicans. One standard line that Republicans often use is that government is bad. Naturally, this caused me (and others) to wonder why they would be so eager to be involved with what they consider to be the problem. In this case, Palin is acting in a way consistent with that view: she is leaving the (alleged) badness of government.

As to why she is really leaving, time will be an indication. If she stays out of government, then it would seem that her speech was sincere. If she ends up running for another office, then the sincerity of her words can be called into question.

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Small Town Values

Posted in Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 4, 2008

McCain, Palin and the Republicans have been pushing the theme of small town values. Since McCain and Palin are politicians and not philosophers, they have been rather vague about these small town values. Being from a very small town (Old Town, Maine) and also being a professional philosopher, I thought I’d step in and help them out. After all, that is what we small town folks do.

The view that small towns are havens of moral goodness and cities are cesspools of moral decay has along tradition behind it. When America was a rural nations, people praised the virtues of the rural folks. Philosophers even got in on the game, perhaps the best known being Rousseau. On his view, the youth should be raised in the country and kept from the corrupting influence of the cities. Of course, the belief in small town virtue seems to be mainly the result of a romantic view rather than the result of a proper investigation. In this regard, it is similar in other ways to the wonderful myth of the noble savage.

As noted above, I grew up in a very small town. I also did my undergraduate degree in a small town (Marietta, Ohio). I’ve visited many small town in America and know people from them. I’ve also visited big cities ( such as New York, Boston and Pittsburgh). I did my graduate work in a big city (Columbus, Ohio) and have met many big city folk over the years. While this does not count as a thorough empirical investigation, it does give me a basis from which to assess small town and big town values.

Based on my experience, a person’s place of residence is not a good indicator of their ethical values. I know of plenty of small town folks who are not good folks and I know plenty of big city folks who are morally upright. Naturally, I know plenty of good small town folks and bad city folks. Of course, my experience could be biased in some way and my sample is fairly small: just the thousands of people I have interacted with over the years. As such, it would be wise to not just rely on my experience and judgment.

Of course, there are some reasons to suspect that small town people might be better behaved that city folks.

One factor to consider is that people in small towns have additional incentives over city folk to behave better. As a small town person, I can attest to the fact that what a small town person does in his small town (or beyond) becomes generally known fairly quickly. The anonymity of the big city is absent. Further, a small town person has to interact with the same people regularly in his small town. Big city folk can find other people to interact with if their reputation goes bad with one group. While it might be believed that these factors merely make small town folk better at concealing their misdeeds, it is also reasonable to think that these factors help habituate small town folks to behave better. It is not that small town people are better-they are just better observed and have a harder time avoiding the consequences of bad behavior.

Another factor to consider is that the small populations of small towns means that they have a smaller number of corrupting people and influences. Hence, there is less chance that a small town person will end up under a corrupting influence. Also, bigger cities have more money and the sort of things that tend to attract those with lower moral standards. Hence, it is not that small town folks are morally better. It is just that small towns provide fewer opportunities for the corrupters and the potentially corrupted.

The above is, of course, speculative. Considering the two factors does not tell us whether small town folk consistently behave better than big city folk. To determine this, some empirical investigation would be in order.

One empirical way to examine the question of whether small towns have better values (and follow them) is to look at the crime rates. While this is not a perfect measurement, it does serve to provide a reasonable indicator of the moral conditions in an area. This is especially true in regards to crimes that are not economically based. After all, the frequency of rape in an area says more about the moral values of the inhabitants than does the frequency of speeding tickets.

Interestingly, Palin’s state Alaska does dismally here. Alaska leads the United States in incidents of forcible rape, is 5th in aggravated assault, and is 17th in murder. In contrast, my own home state of Maine has an extremely low crime rate. As with towns in Alaska, Maine towns tend to be small and even our biggest city, Portland, is a rather small city. As such, I certainly hope that Palin is talking about the small town values of my home state and not the state she governs. Of course, perhaps the conditions in Alaska are such that it is harder for those small town values to influence behavior. After all, everything is supposed to be tougher in Alaska. Presumably this applies to not engaging in criminal activity, too.

Based on my own experience and arguments, there does not seem to be a special set of small town values that make small town folks better. As such, the appeal to small town values is what sensible people know: just an empty piece of political rhetoric.