February 2011: A second look at the One Percent Rule

A nod of the ski cap to the late, great New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon for borrowing his signature phrase: nobody asked me, but…

Back in 2006 I wrote about the emerging role of the Internet in enabling greater political communication and debate in “The One Percent Rule and the Power of One.”

Two Web-savvy observers, Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba, had summarized the One Percent Rule as “roughly 1% of your site visitors will create content within a democratized community.” Charles Arthur of The Guardian was even more specific: “if you get a group of 100 people online then one will create content, 10 will ‘interact’ with it (commenting or offering improvements) and the other 89 will just view it.”

In my 2006 post, I had noted that the Power of One—of an individual deciding to speak up—had even greater meaning in societies without any lasting tradition of freedom of expression, and the Internet (then primarily through blogs) made that possible as never before.

I concluded:

Even if the Internet’s latest wrinkle, the social networks and blogs of Web 2.0, fails to usher in a Golden Age of democratic political expression, it still represents progress. The One Percent Rule is, after all, descriptive, not prescriptive; the Web still offers those willing to invest the time and energy a means to manifest the Power of One.

Some six years later that progress continues. A recent survey conducted jointly by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project and Project for Excellence in Journalism (“Understanding the Participatory News Consumer“) found that “37% of internet users have contributed to the creation of news, commented about it, or disseminated it via postings on social media sites like Facebook or Twitter.” The Pew Internet survey found that some 9% of Internet users had contributed their own article, opinion piece, picture, or video to an online news site.

The Pew Internet results need to be viewed with some caution. The questions asked those surveyed if they have ever participated or contributed, so it’s not clear how active these content creators actually are. When Pew asked about daily activity, a much smaller number—19% of respondents—said they looked online for news or information about politics and only 4% said they created or worked on their own online journal or blog (which might or might not focus on politics.)

The number of Americans blogging has remained relatively constant over the past several years at roughly 11-12% of Internet users; of that group, some 8-9% of bloggers focus primarily on politics according to Technorati. If you do the math, you’re left with roughly of 1% of Internet users focused on political blogging.

These survey figures do suggest a growing level of grassroots participation in political communication and discussion. One concrete example: The Huffington Post, which has succeeded through the contributions of some 3,000 bloggers, most posting content on political topics.

It’s not just the quantity of political content on the Web that impresses, but also the greater detail it offers. Peggy Noonan of the Wall Street Journal recently pointed to the renewed appreciation of political speechmaking triggered by how the Internet allows convenient and unfiltered access:

It is restoring rhetoric as a force. When Gov. Mitch Daniels made his big speech — a serious, substantive one — two weeks ago, Drudge had the transcript and video up in a few hours. Gov. Chris Christie’s big speech was quickly on the net in its entirety. All the CPAC speeches were up. TED conference speeches are all over the net, as are people making speeches at town-hall meetings. I get links to full speeches every day in my inbox and you probably do too.

Along with the access and opportunity for greater political participation offered by the Web comes a downside: nasty partisanship amplified by e-mail blasts and Twitter feeds, personal attacks by anonymous posters in comments sections, and ample cyber-room for conspiracy theorists and extremists. Yet, on balance, the Internet represents a marvelous tool for our democratic Republic (and for all those around the world who aspire to liberty and political freedom).

The Web offers uncensored access to information and opinion. It provides places for debate and vehicles for communication and connection. And, most importantly, it’s open to individuals who are free to voice their concerns and express their views. How can this not be a good thing? For those who care about the First Amendment, it’s a development to be applauded.

Copyright © 2011 Jefferson Flanders
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Those troublesome Danes

The headline of the letter to the editor in the Boston Globe—Danish papers stir up trouble“— neatly reflected a certain “progressive” world view about the conflict between Western secular values and Islamic extremism.

The letter-writer, Boston University associate professor of religion Michael Zank, objected to 17 Danish newspapers reprinting a controversial cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad “wearing a turban shaped like a bomb with a lit fuse.” The newspapers, including the country’s three national newspapers, republished Kurt Westergaard’s satirical caricature as a gesture of solidarity after Danish police arrested several Islamic extremists on charges of plotting to murder Westergaard.

Professor Zank found “disingenuous” the newspapers’ claim that they acted in support of freedom of speech. Zank questioned whether “this include[s] the freedom to stir up fear by publishing a drawing that has already proved incendiary?” (The original publication of a series of Danish cartoons of Muhammad including the Westergaard drawing, led to riots in the Muslim world in early 2006. One interpretation of Islamic law holds that any depiction of Muhammad is blasphemous).

Zank suggested adhering to a different value, “that of treating one’s neighbor as one would like to be treated oneself,” and then closed his letter by writing:

Inciting hatred against Muslims plays into the hand of radicals on both sides, and it embarrasses the moderates. We don’t need any more of this, especially not in the guise of supporting free speech.

Zank’s views reflect those of many in academic and religious circles, in Europe and in the United States, who have embraced a credo of multicultural tolerance. What is wrong with those Danes, they ask; why do they go out of their way to insult the faith of others? Why embolden the forces of intolerance “on both sides” by reprinting Westergaard’s cartoon? Why must they “stir up trouble”?

But the troublesome Danes have it right: a violent attack on one individual’s freedom of expression (however distasteful to some or “incendiary” that expression may be) represents a threat to all expression. The Danish newspaper publishers and editors who reprinted Westergaard’s caricature are publicly saying that they will not be intimidated or, fearing retaliation, be cowed into self-censorship. They also understand that, as Flemming Rose of the Jyllands-Posten newspaper observed in 2006,if a believer demands that I, as a nonbeliever, observe his taboos in the public domain, he is not asking for my respect, but for my submission.” Such an arrangement, Rose added, is “incompatible with a secular democracy.”

Suggesting that the Danish papers were “stirring up trouble” or “inciting hatred against Muslims” is a classic case of blaming the victim. Danish journalists were not seeking to offend or provoke, but responding to a clear assault on the principle of freedom of speech in their own country. Some of the Danish newspapers had not published the first series of Muhammad cartoons in 2005, regarding them as offensive. Yet they reprinted Westergaard’s cartoon, recognizing that the attempt to silence him—permanently—was also aimed at suppressing any future “anti-Muslim” speech.

The Danish newspaper publishers and editors consciously chose the harder path—it would have been far easier, and safer, to denounce the plot against Westergaard in editorials and columns and not republish his controversial drawing. Printing the Muhammad cartoon makes all of the participating newspapers potential targets for retaliation. (It should be noted that only two large city American newspapers, the New York Sun and Philadelphia Inquirer, reprinted the Danish Muhammad cartoons in 2006.)

Danish courage in the face of threats and terror shouldn’t come as a surprise; the Danes, after all, rescued most of the country’s Jews during Nazi Germany’s occupation of Denmark. They are quietly stubborn. So it is unlikely that they will be swayed by any angry response from Islamist radicals. For that, advocates of freedom of expression should be thankful.

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders
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January 2008: Nobody asked me, but…

Overdue open government, selective recounts, a Super Bowl winner, and other observations

With all due credit to Big Apple columnist Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

GOVERNMENT SECRECY HARMS THE DEMOCRATIC PROCESS, so it was heartening news that on New Year’s Eve President Bush signed into law an improved version of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The legislation should accelerate the release of millions of government documents and will make it easier to prod federal agencies to provide information. The enhanced FOIA also broadens the definition of who is a journalist to include bloggers and non-traditional journalists.

The improved FOIA, along with other signs of greater openness , suggested that 2008 might be a banner year for open government—long overdue, considering the Bush Administration’s woeful record on transparency. Secrecy is often the ally of the corrupt, incompetent, and dishonest in government at all levels, federal, state, and local. The more sunshine, the better.

WHERE WERE THOSE CALLS FROM THE LEFT FOR A RECOUNT OF THE SOUTH CAROLINA DEMOCRATIC PRIMARY? Consider: Sen. Barack Obama’s share of the final vote (55.4%) was much larger than pre-vote polls (38.4% in the RCP average). And South Carolina employed touch-screen iVotronic voting machines, considered vulnerable to rigging by some. Didn’t that raise eyebrows, if not suspicions, among Democratic activists and bloggers?

After all, these factors—a gap between final opinion poll and final vote totals, and the potential for voting machine fraud—were cited by the Democratic Netroots in questioning Sen. Hillary Clinton’s surprising victory over Obama in the Jan. 8th New Hampshire primary. The angry Web buzz and rumors of vote fraud prompted Rep. Dennis Kucinich to pay for a partial recount (which validated the vote, finding no significant differences between hand and machine counts.)

So why no rumors of vote fraud in South Carolina? Why no call for a recount? True, the race wasn’t close (Clinton lost by double digits), but if the question was actually one of “election integrity,” as Kucinich and others claimed in the Granite State, then intellectual consistency would require a recount. What was different, however, in South Carolina was that Obama won, not Clinton. Apparently the Netroots saves its voter fraud conspiracy theories only for when a favored candidate loses an election.

BRANDEIS PROFESSOR DONALD HINDLEY COULD BE FORGIVEN FOR WONDERING IF he had somehow been transported into one of Franz Kafka’s surreal short stories. Hindley faced discipline from the Brandeis administration after student complaints in the fall of 2007 over his use of the word “wetback” to illustrate, Hindley maintained, the mindset of immigration foes. Brandeis then assigned a monitor to his class and wanted Hindley, who has been teaching at the school for some 47 years, to attend anti-discrimination classes (he refused).

Hindley took his case public, with backing by the Foundation for Individual Rights (FIRE), a nonprofit focused on insuring free speech in higher education, and later received support from the Massachusetts ACLU. Brandeis quickly backed away from the controversy, telling Hindley in a letter on Jan. 7 that it considered the matter closed. But the troubling questions of ignored due process and slighted academic freedom raised in the Hindley matter remained unanswered by Brandeis.

REDBLUEAMERICA, A NEW WEBSITE, with a slogan of “Best Thinking. Both Sides.” features a “blue” and “red” moderator. Shades of CNN’s Crossfire anyone?

JANUARY 2008 PROVED TO BE AN AMAZING MONTH FOR AMERICAN POLITICS, and it also featured some top notch commentary, including: Froma Harrop of the Providence Journal on some of the impacts of gender in Campaign 2008, “N.H. Women Had Enough Insults” and “Single Women Coming Out to Vote“; Slate‘s Christopher Hitchens on the Clintons and the race card; William Kristol in the New York Times on John McCain as a neo-Victorian hero; and the Boston Globe’s Ellen Goodman on “The dream ticket” (and her dream ain’t Romney-Huckabee).


FROM POET T.S. ELIOT COMES THIS month’s closing sentiment: “For last year’s words belong to last year’s language/And next year’s words await another voice.”

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders
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September 2007: Nobody asked me, but…

Campus free speech, Clinton and Shakespeare, and other observations…

With a tip of the ballcap to legendary New York columnist Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

SEPTEMBER WAS A STRANGE MONTH FOR FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION ON AMERICA’S COLLEGE CAMPUSES. Columbia University invited the president of Iran—a Holocaust denier, Israel hater, and all-purpose enemy of the West—to share a stage with its president, Lee C. Bollinger, who proceeded to hector and insult Mahmoud Ahmadinejad before the Iranian spoke.

Bollinger apparently forgot both his manners and the old saw that trying to teach a pig to whistle is a waste of time—it only annoys the pig. True to form, Ahmadinejad “debated” the issues by evading all direct questions and informing the audience that, among other things, Iran had no homosexuals.

As Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield points out in the Weekly Standard, Bollinger focused his criticism on Ahmadinejad’s noxious actions, not on his noxious ideology—undercutting Columbia’s stated public purpose in inviting the Iranian president, which was supposedly for an exchange of ideas.

Meanwhile the University of Florida campus police tasered a student (one Andrew Meyer) who had the temerity to ask the hapless Senator John Kerry if he was a member, like President Bush, of Skull and Bones, a secret society at Yale. (The much-played “Don’t tase me, bro” YouTube video of the incident is quite bizarre). The answer to Meyer’s question, by the way, is that yes, Kerry and Bush are believed to be members but, according to the rules of the club, are not supposed to say so.

KATIE COURIC PROVIDED SOME COMIC RELIEF DURING THE Ahmadinejad circus, letting it be known that her mnemonic for pronouncing his name is “I’m a dinner jacket.

IN THE LATEST HARVARD MAGAZINE, STEPHEN GREENBLATT relates an intriguing story about former President Bill Clinton. Greenblatt had attended a White House poetry evening at which Clinton mentioned that his first encounter with poetry had been memorizing passages from Macbeth in junior high school. Greenblatt then writes:

After the speeches, I joined the line waiting to shake the president’s hand. When my turn came, a strange impulse came over me that I cannot adequately explain and certainly cannot justify. This was a moment when rumors of the Lewinsky affair were circulating, but before the whole thing had blown up into the grotesque national circus that it soon became. “Mr. President,” I said, sticking out my hand, “Don’t you think that Macbeth is a great play about an immensely ambitious man who feels compelled to do things that he knows are politically and morally disastrous?” Clinton looked at me for a moment, still holding my hand, and said, “I think Macbeth is a great play about someone whose immense ambition has an ethically inadequate object.”

I was astonished by the aptness, as well as the quickness, of this comment, so perceptively in touch with Macbeth’s anguished brooding about the impulses that are driving him to seize power by murdering Scotland’s legitimate ruler…

Clinton then recited one of Macbeth’s soliloquies, leaving Greenblatt to conclude that he had”missed his true vocation, which was, of course, to be an English professor.”

HELL HATH NO FURY LIKE A SCORNED ANCHORMAN, or so it seems as Dan Rather has launched a legal assault on CBS over his departure from the network after the Memogate debacle. The key question: if the courts accept the civil suit (no sure thing), is Rather determined to get a public airing, or will he accept a monetary settlement to go away quietly? Stay tuned.

JOURNALIST JUAN WILLIAMS HAS AN AMAZING GUEST COLUMN in Time magazine sure to ignite further debate over the health of African-American culture. Williams, who is black, wrote the piece in defense of Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, who had been criticized for his comments on the topic. What is startling about Williams’ essay is his blunt assessment of the problems facing the black community.

The most pernicious damage being done by the twisted presentation of black life in pop culture is the self-destructive message being beamed into young, vulnerable black brains. Young black people, searching for affirmation of their racial identity, are minute by minute being sold on the cheap idea that they are authentically black only if they imitate the violent, threatening attitude of the rappers and use the gutter language coming from the minstrels on TV.

The lesson from the rappers and comedians is that any young brother or sister who is proud to be black has to treat education with indifference, dismiss love and marriage as the business of white people and dress like the rappers who dress like prisoners — no comb in the jail so they wear doo-rags all day, and no belts so their pants hang down around their butts.

Williams closes his column by excoriating all those who “sell out the history and pride of black people to make a buck.” Tough stuff.

NATURE ABHORS A VACUUM: so now we can look forward to a conservative MoveOn.org, an organization called Freedom’s Watch.

ON THE DAY THE NEW YORK METS eliminated themselves from baseball’s playoffs in a collapse of epic proportion, it’s fitting to close with the words of one-time Mets manager Casey Stengel: “Been in this game one-hundred years, but I see new ways to lose ’em I never knew existed before.”

Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
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The week (March 23rd, 2007): Nobody asked me, but…

With a doffed cap to Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

SHOULD TRANSPORTATION SAFETY ADMINISTRATION airport screeners be allowed to unionize? Congress thinks so, but author Becky Akers says in a Christian Science Monitor op-ed piece that the legislation “could add about 50,000 dues-paying members to union rolls while breathing new life into TSA’s unofficial slogan: Thousands Standing Around.” President Bush is likely to veto the bill if it reaches his desk.

Akers makes a broader point in her piece, “A better way than the TSA,” arguing that TSA, funded by $5 billion in tax money, is incompetent and that privatizing security is the solution:

Privatized protection isn’t a panacea, but it’s better than the TSA. Without that federal straitjacket, security wouldn’t be uniform and easy to game: each airline would adapt its policies to its own routes, destinations, and customers. Meanwhile, experts could design security systems without mandates from bureaucrats who understand paperwork and politics but not planes and passengers. Jets worth billions and the repeat business that comes only from satisfied, living customers will compel the airlines to provide potent protection.

Would a more market-based solution work? I’d argue that it would, but only if airlines’ screeners were subjected to security spot checks (the same tests that TSA screeners have repeatedly failed) with huge fines for failure.

THE NATIONAL LABOR RELATIONS BOARD HAS DEALT A SERIES OF STINGING DEFEATS to Wendy McCaw, owner of the Santa Barbara News-Press, upholding a newsroom vote to unionize in the fall of 2006, and finding against the newspaper on “a string of unfair labor charges, including the unlawful firing of seven staffers engaged in union activities.”

The NLRB rulings are the latest development in the long-running battle between McCaw and her newsroom which began in July 2006 with the resignation of several editors who said McCaw was improperly interfering in editorial decisions. Since then, some 38 employees have quit or been fired. McCaw has also faced criticism from many civic leaders in Santa Barbara for her handling of the dispute.

McCaw singlehandedly is reviving the colorful old image of the newpaper publisher as narcissist, meglomaniac and tryant—in the tradition of Colonel Robert R. McCormick, William Loeb, and Frank Munsey, about whom William Allen White once wrote: “He had the talent of a meatpacker, the morals of a money-changer and the manners of an undertaker.”

”TRIUMPH OF THE FEMBOTS,” MEGHAN COX GURDON’s commentary in the Wall Street Journal mocks the notion that “getting pretty, young, scantily clad women to writhe for the camera is a way of empowering them,“ the rationale for television shows like “Pussycat Dolls Present: The Search for the Next Doll.”

Gurdon writes: “Depravity dressed up as empowerment is fast becoming the cultural trope of our times.” She is right to question why feminists haven’t spoken up publicly about the trend.

THE COUNTRY GROUP LITTLE TEXAS, reunited after a six-year hiatus, has released a single, “Missing Years,” a great road song about coming home and appreciating the virtues of small town life, with lead vocals from Porter Howell and an Eagles-like harmony on the refrain. Watch for it to move up the country charts.

THREE CHEERS FOR A FRENCH COURT RULING IN FAVOR of Charlie-Hebdo, a satirical weekly, (and its director), rejecting charges that its reprinting of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed incited hatred of Moslems.

According to the Associated Press, the court ruled that the weekly showed no intention of insulting Moslems with the caricatures, several of which had first appeared in a Danish newspaper and triggered violent protests throughout the Muslim world.

The verdict should also be seen as a victory for France’s Interior Minister and presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy, who sent a letter to the court backing Charlie-Hebdo, saying he preferred “an excess of caricatures to an absence of caricatures.”

As George Orwell once wrote (in the preface to “Animal Farm”): “If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

THE WORD FOR THE WEEK is from Yogi Berra, former Yankee catcher and noted American philosopher: “The future ain’t what it used to be.”

Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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The week (February 2nd, 2007): Nobody asked me, but…

Borrowing a line, once again, from New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon: nobody asked me, but…

SNOW ON THE BATTLE GREEN, THE TEMPERATURE IN THE TEENS, yet Saturday night (February 3rd) found country music star Hal Ketchum far from his Austin, Texas home, performing in the Joyful Noise Coffeehouse (which borrows the sanctuary of the First Baptist Church for a performance space) in Lexington, Massachusetts.

Accompanied by guitarist Kenny Grimes, Ketchum treated the crowd to many of his hits (“I Know Where Love Lives,” “Past the Point of Rescue,” “Small Town Saturday Night,” and “Stay Forever”) as well as songs from his new, soon-to-be released album (“One More Midnight”) and some of his darker, more-bluesy material, including “Unforgiven,” “I Miss My Mary” and a long ballad, “Poor Lila’s Ghost.”

Ketchum has an amazing voice—with a greater vocal range than he reveals on his albums—and is a solid guitarist (considering that he started as a drummer and had to relearn to play the instrument after a bout with Acute Transverse Myelitis, he is a very solid guitarist). After some three decades on the road, Ketchum is also an accomplished performer in a club setting—giving the audience a taste of his wry humor and personal philosophy.

Ketchum’s opening act: the young singer/songwriter Liz Carlisle, who hails from Montana, holds a degree from Harvard (summa cum laude), and has a clear, distinctive voice.

FOR WHAT IT IS WORTH, here’s my Super Bowl prediction: Colts 34, Bears 17. Of course I also picked the Colts against Joe Namath and the New York Jets in Super Bowl III in 1969 (yet if Baltimore quarterback Earl Morrall throws the damn ball to a wide-open Jimmy Orr in the end zone near the end of the first half, the Colts would likely have won the game, and my prediction would have been right.)

THE RIGHTEOUS URGE TO SILENCE OTHERS isn’t as strong as, say, the urge to merge, but it’s still pretty powerful, especially on America’s college campuses. John Leo has an interesting essay in the City Journal detailing the continuing and disturbing appeal of campus speech codes and other assaults on the First Amendment. Leo notes that the philosophical underpinnings for this suppression emanates from the late Herbert Marcuse (a totalitarian at heart). Also noted by Leo is the American Civil Liberties Union’s silence about the campaign to curb free speech in academe.

THIS WEEK’S QUOTE comes from Edmund Burke’s “A Vindication of Natural Society: A View of the Miseries and Evils Arising to Mankind,” published in 1756, and it suggests the enduring existence of the guardians of politically correct expression:

A man is allowed sufficient freedom of thought, provided he knows how to choose his subjects properly. You may criticize freely upon the Chinese constitution, and observe with as much severity as you please upon the absurd tricks or destructive bigotry of the bonzees. But the scene is changed as you come homeward, and atheism or treason may be names given in Britain, to what would be reason and truth if asserted of China.

And didn’t the New Testament conclude that a prophet has no honor in his own country?

Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
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The week (October 6th): Nobody asked me, but…

With a tip of the fedora to the late, great New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

BOB WOODWARD, or his editors at Simon & Schuster, deserve credit for a clever book title—State of Denial—with its multiple meanings. The title suggests that President George Bush and his Administration exist in a state of denial (with the word “denial” carrying some ten-step resonance), and, further, the U.S. government (the “State’), also refuses to face reality.

PROOF THAT THE AMISH practice what they preach: consider the news reports that many Amish mourners showed up at the Pennsylvania funeral of the deranged milkman who killed Amish five girls and wounded five others before taking his own life. It is one thing to talk of forgiveness, it is another to truly forgive.

THE KISS OF DEATH FOR THE 2006 YANKEES came once columnists and commentators began comparing New York’s current lineup to the Murderer’s Row team of 1927 that featured Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Not quite: just ask the 2006 Detroit Tigers.

DEVAL PATRICK, Democratic candidate for Governor in Massachusetts has a marvelous life story—a self-made African-American from the mean streets of Chicago who, after Milton Academy, Harvard College, Harvard Law and a successful career as a corporate lawyer, is the odds-on favorite to win in his first try at elective office. David Broder of the Washington Post touts Patrick as a future Democratic political star, a Northeastern Barack Obama.

But will Patrick’s Old School Liberalism play well outside the bluest of states? Patrick is a doctrinaire liberal (think Michael Dukakis), and his support of large government programs, his coziness with organized labor (especially the teachers union), and his positions on illegal immigration and crime will make him an unlikely national figure—unless the country veers sharply to the left.

Patrick may have other problems. While the Boston Globe has been cheerleading for Patrick on its editorial pages, columnist Brian McGrory has recently begun to question Patrick’s “straight-shooter” reputation (“Patrick’s Candor Gap,” and “Time for Honesty“). Patrick’s past support of parole for a convicted rapist (before DNA tests which confirmed the man’s guilt) has also raised eyebrows.

And the one Massachusetts politican Broder cites as supporting Patrick–former State Senate head William “Billy” Bulger—carries his own baggage, including charges that he shielded his brother, James “Whitey” Bulger, a reputed Boston Irish mafioso who stands accused of several murders, from arrest.

BEN STEIN, the actor and writer, has offered an interesting angle on the scandal surrounding former Republican Congressman Mark Foley, who made inappropriate advances on teenaged House pages. Stein’s take:

I hope my readers and fellow humans will not hate me too much if I say that in a world where 3,000 women and children are raped and/or murdered every day in Congo, a member of the United Nations, in which a genuine genocide is going on in Sudan, a member of the United Nations, in which more than fifty men and women per day are being tortured with electric drills and murdered in Iraq, in which two of the world’s most dangerous and insane men, Kim Jong Il and Mohammed Ahmadinejad, are developing nuclear weapons, the e-mail of one deranged middle class white man does not really count to me as much as it might to some other people.

Who can deny that the national media frenzy about Foley—and not the pressing issues of the day—furthers the trivialization of American politics? And to what end? and Higher prurience-driven ratings?

GET OUT THE VOTE (GOTV) isn’t the most exciting facet of American political campaigns. But if the Democrats have really closed the GOTV gap with the Republicans, (as they are claiming) then the November 2006 election could make Nancy Pelosi the next Speaker of the House.

UNTIL I READ HIS OBIT, I didn’t know that the actor James Earl Jones’ father, Robert Earl Jones (who died at 96 in September) had been a sharecropper, actor, prize fighter (he was Joe Louis’ sparring partner), McCarthy-era blacklistee and New York City marathon participant (in 1996, at the age of 86!). An amazing man.

FUTURE POLS BEWARE! Google’s Eric Schmidt predicts that within five years, “truth predictor” software would “hold politicians to account”, according to the Financial Times.

Voters would be able to check the probability that apparently factual statements by politicians were actually correct, using programmes that automatically compared claims with historic data, he said.

Politicians “don’t in general understand the implications” of the internet, Mr Schmidt argued. “One of my messages to them is to think about having every one of your voters online all the time, then inputting ‘is this true or false?’ We [at Google] are not in charge of truth but we might be able to give a probability.”

If only it were that simple. I would argue that in the future the key issue in both European and American politics will not be the question of false claims—but rather the interpretation of a given situation. For example, the answer to the question “Is Islamofacism a clear and present threat to Western democracies?” depends less on verification and more on judgement. Will the Google search engine of five years hence provide a “true/false” answer to that fundamental question? I don’t think so. Voters will have to think it through themselves—and many other complex political issues.

THE NEW REPUBLIC’S PETER BEINART is calling for a “closing of the ranks” by conservatives and liberals alike on threats to free speech. Beinart believes that liberals have not responded strongly enough to the decision by the Deutsche Oper, a Berlin opera house, to cancel the Mozart classic Idomeneo “because it feared Muslims would react violently to a scene featuring Mohammed’s severed head.” Beinart writes that “Idomeneo should be the last straw” and that American liberals “must make the cause of European free speech their own.”

Beinart rightly sees this as an issue that transcends ideology and partisanship, arguing that liberals don’t need to buy into the “clash of civilizations” meme to defend free expression from Islamic radicals (or from zealots of any religion).

THERE’S A MARVELOUS SPANISH PROVERB: “It’s not the same to talk of bulls as to be in the bullring.”

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Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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