RIP Helen Thomas

Journalist Helen Thomas died today. She was a remarkable pioneer for women in journalism, but she was also a vital voice of dissent and a relentless practitioner of aggressive, fearless reporting. She had the courage to ask tough questions, and she did not accept political doublespeak.

She did not — as so many do these days — simply write down the talking points of both sides of a political divide, and tell the reader: “Now you figure it out.” Instead, she pursued the truth and reported it as best she could.

I found this biography from ABC to be fairly decent, and I especially like this paragraph:

She was persistent to the point of badgering. One White House press secretary described her questioning as “torture” — and he was one of her fans.

Everyone knows why she retired, and without getting into the specifics of Israel and Palestine, I will simply say that I found her comments simplistic and foolish — roughly akin to the anti-immigrant nonsense we hear in the US all the time. At the same time, I will say that her comments reflect a deep frustration that many people around the world share, owing to the harsh brutality inflicted on Palestinians by the Israeli government. (Which of course does not excuse or justify Palestinian terrorism, etc etc.)

I will also point to Gandhi’s comments on Israel and Palestine, which was a bit more nuanced than Ms. Thomas’, but not entirely opposite:

And now a word to the Jews in Palestine. I have no doubt that they are going about it in the wrong way. The Palestine of the Biblical conception is not a geographical tract. It is in their hearts. But if they must look to the Palestine of geography as their national home, it is wrong to enter it under the shadow of the British gun. A religious act cannot be performed with the aid of the bayonet or the bomb. They can settle in Palestine only by the goodwill of the Arabs.

Finally, however, I wish to stress once more that we resist the temptation to make a person’s least agreeable moment the totality of that person’s identity. However you might feel about that last public episode, we owe Ms. Thomas a significant debt of gratitude for her indefatigable work in the name of democracy, justice, and peace.

EDIT: I totally forgot about her awesome video with Colbert! Thanks, Reddit.

<3 <3 <3 Rachel Maddow

There’s a lot of talk these days about how FoxNews and MSNBC are two sides of the same coin in US politics. Fox is a tool of the Republican Party, and MSNBC is a tool of the Democratic Party. Everything’s just spin and partisan rhetoric on both sides, and there’s never any real honest exploration of the facts. (CNN would like us to believe that it provides the much-needed third way, but as John Stewart explained to Larry King, they miss the mark terribly.)

Without question, MSNBC often plays into this. Ed Shultz does more bellowing than explaining, Chris Matthews is an annoying jerk, and I get bored quickly with the nonstop right-bashing that takes place on that network. More to the point, every event and issue is constantly presented in terms of party politics: What will this mean for Obama’s re-election chances? What does the Romney campaign need to do in order to change peoples’ minds about that?

But Rachel Maddow is a powerful exception to the rule. Her show is a superb place for intellectually honest discourse, and I love her commitment to rising above the simplistic “right said / left said” binary bollocks. She is the reason why MSNBC > FoxNews. There is no one on Fox — not Bill O’Rectum, not Sean Hammity, not even Greta Van Susteren — who comes close. She digs into the truth without abandoning her principles or losing her mental footing, and it is exactly the sort of conscious awesomeness our country needs.

For example: When former US Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge visited her show in 2009, she did not pull any punches. She asked difficult, probing questions, and followed up to demand real answers. He was clearly uncomfortable at times, unaccustomed (I expect) to being interviewed with such vigor.

And yet, at the end of the interview, he said:

I really appreciate the civil way we’ve had the discussion. Frankly, I think we would advance our interests as a country a lot further and a lot faster if we could have the discussions such as this. And I thank you.

Can you imagine anyone saying this sort of thing after an interview with O’Reilly?

Cash Rules Everything Around Misogyny

Recently I was listening to an episode of the superb podcast Best of the Left, and heard yet another magnificent segment from Ms. Maddow, this time about the pay gap between men and women. So I went digging, and I found another bushel of awesome. (I try to limit my use of that word, but nothing else fits here.)

In April, Maddow appeared on Meet the Press to discuss women and the presidential campaign. During this appearance she clashed with a Republican “strategist” (which apparently is a term applied to anyone who wants to say something on TV to support a political party, and the Democrats use it just as frivolously as the Republicans) named Alex Castellanos. There’s a summary on HuffPo, or you can watch the whole segment on NBC.

The most telling thing about this whole incident is the astonishing panorama of facial expressions on Castellanos’ face while Rachel is talking. His face is like a blur suit in A Scanner Darkly. One second he’s frowning with concern, then he’s guffawing like he just heard a silly knock-knock joke, then he’s rolling his eyes with contempt, then he’s smiling like Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel. In fact, I’m going to make a collage right now:

Remember: These shots are not from when he’s talking! This is all during Maddow’s turn. It’s like he doesn’t know what face he’s supposed to make when someone else is talking (and he’s obviously not listening carefully so as to respond to what the other person is saying) so he just cycles through some different expressions as they pop into his big stupid head.

So what were they actually debating? Here’s the issue: Do women make less money than men? Well, most pundits would do the appearance on Meet the Press and the headline would be “Big Disagreement” and we’d never get any real answers. We’d all just agree with the person from our political party, and that would be the end of it.

Fortunately, that’s not how Rachel rolls.

The next day, she confronted this asinine notion that reality is whatever we’d like it to be, and examined what the research actually shows. Her guest was Heidi Hartmann, President of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. You can watch the whole segment on MSNBC or just the interview on YouTube. In fact, the interview is so superb I’m going to embed it here:

Maddow and Hartmann sort through statistics from the Government Accountability Office, Bureau of Labor Statistics, and US Census Bureau. As they explain, the numbers show, without question, that women make less money than men as a rule, and that a good part of that disparity cannot be explained (as conservatives, usually men, often try to dismiss the issue) by things like hours worked, career paths, or family choices.

This segment wasn’t perfect, of course. The one thing Castellanos said on Meet the Press that caught my ear was the bit about how single women tend to make more money than single men in the 45-65 age range. I would like to hear Ms. Hartmann respond to this statement, verify or challenge it, and provide meaningful context.

I also recognize that Hartmann comes from a particular ideological point of view, and I would be willing to entertain a response from an opposing point of view (so long as it actually discussed facts and reality, not rhetoric and dogma).

Facts Exist

But this segment really bashes apart the myth — sadly dominant these days — that the issues we face as a nation are just too complex for most people to understand, and that we just have to take the word of whichever partisan hack shows up on the TV. No. Numbers and statistics can be spun, but they exist, and we can — we must — look at them honestly. As Maddow points out, we must start with a factual understanding of reality, and then we can proceed to the ideological disagreements and bickering about how to deal with that reality.

This concept is why I love the book Grand Theft Childhood: The Surprising Truth About Violent Video Games, And What Parents Can Do. (I praise this book all the time, so I apologize if this is repetition for anyone.) It resists the trend of just skimming the research to babble out a string of talking points or vague generalizations, like most reporting about video games.

Instead, the authors dig deeply into what the research actually tells us, how it was done, and what misinformation we’ve absorbed through the years. A quick example: We often hear about how violent video games make kids “more aggressive”. Well, the authors ask, how is that measured? Turns out that in a number of experiments, after the kids are allowed to play video games (some violent, some non-violent), they are invited to press a buzzer that makes noise. Kids who press the buzzer more or for a longer period of time are classified as “aggressive”.

I used to participate in the online message board PoliticalForum, since its user base is diverse along the political spectrum, and forbids one-line messages. Unfortunately, that space is deeply polluted with ideological rigidity and a refusal to discuss the facts as they are. (Most users prefer to observe reality as they would like it to be, just as Bertrand Russell warned us about.)

Some areas of Reddit are better, but there’s still a woeful refusal to actually dialogue with give and take. Most people want to debate, and they want to win the debate. So I usually dip in, make a point, post a link or two, and duck out. I wish I could find a place where we could all meet and talk the way Rachel Maddow and Tom Ridge talked.

Why I Don’t Watch TRMS Every Day

It’s not possible to be totally awesome all day every day. For whatever reasons (and I expect they include pressure from the Democratic Party, advertising concerns, time constraints, logistic impediments, and stuff that I would have no idea about, since I’ve never worked in television), Maddow’s guests are often “usual suspect” talking heads and Democratic “strategists”. She doesn’t have the variety of people that Amy Goodman features, nor the almost flawless signal-to-noise ratio we get from Bill Moyers. (Make sure you watch his conversation with Chris Hedges! Or you can listen to the audio, if you prefer.)

Still, I’m rarely disappointed when she does a show that inspires someone to share the link. Rachel Maddow is easily one of the five best journalists working in the US today. (Now I have to consider how I’d fill the other four spots. Let’s see. Goodman and Moyers, of course. Jon Stewart and Tavis Smiley. Yeah, let’s go with them.)

Thank you, Ms. Maddow! You rock.

Colvin and Timor

You probably heard that hardcore badass journalist Marie Colvin died recently while covering the siege of Homs in Syria.

Colvin lost her left eye to an RPG in 2001 while covering the Sri Lankan Civil War.

But here’s the bit I only learned about today. I’ll quote a press release from the office of East Timor’s Prime Minister:

“Marie Colvin holds a special place in the hearts of the Timorese people. In 1999 she was one of three journalists, all women, who refused to leave a UN compound holding 1,500 Timorese women and children after it came under attack by militias. All of their lives were in grave danger. Her reporting in through newsprint and global television helped to avert a tragic massacre and after four tense days the group were evacuated to safety. This act of courage and solidarity has never been forgotten.”

Whenever someone starts telling me about how beautiful Megan Fox or Kristin Stewart is, I laugh and say: No. Marie Colvin is beautiful.

TimeWaster™

Hail ants!

Today I’m listening to: Wiley!