Friday, February 09, 2007

On Edwards, Bloggers, and Religion

Ah, why do I have to be so busy on a news-filled day (no, not Anna Nicole Smith)? I barely saw the computer today. I'd get home, have about 5 minutes before I have to go out again and so on. NPR did not mention Edwards until 4pm or so (that I heard in the car), so when I first got home I only had time to open e-mail, scan about 50 new messages, home in to the one that had the news, open it, get the links and quickly post without more than a quick skim of the statements by Edwards and others, let alone any time to add commentary (except for what the title implied I felt at the time). And then there were comments I did not have time to respond to. And all the other blogospheric responses I was missing...Ah, well. The family is asleep so I'll try to catch up now.

First, Lane Hudson puts the whole case as clearly and succintly as possible, so if you do not have time and patience for the rest of my post or other links, this is the one to read: Anti-Semite Bigot is Loving to Hate John Edwards

Also very worth reading to understand how the campaign handles netroots, read this: Elizabeth Edwards on "the Sieve"

I'll add a bunch more links on the bottom later on. Now I'll try to be as systematic about this as I can.

Personal History and The Disclaimer

Just to put everything clearly up first before any questions arise:

I am not working for the Edwards campaign in any capacity.

Back in Raleigh, the Edwards' lived a few blocks away from where we lived. Soon after we moved to Chapel Hill, the Edwards' also moved to Chapel Hill. They are my neighbors. I cannot claim we are best drinking buddies, but we've met a few times. I followed John's political career since he announced his run for Senate against Lauch Faircloth. In summer 1998, when I became the US citizen, one of the questions on the "test" was to name the two current NC senators and I answered "Jesse Helms and Lauch Faircloth, but hopefully not for long". A few months later I voted in my very first US election and the first vote on the top of the ballot was for Edwards for Senate.

After a few Usenet years in the early 1990s, battling anti-Serbian trolls, I mostly went offline for a while, focusing on grad school and my research instead. But in 2003, disgusted with the GOP rule, the 2000 electoral debacle and the Iraq war, I went back online and researched all the apparent Democratic candidates for President. I liked several of them, but I liked Edwards the best - and by following him for a few years I knew more about him than about the others. In September 2003 I started commenting on his campaign blog. A year later I started my own blog and wrote mostly about politics until after the 2004 election when I switched my blogging focus to science.

Again this year, I like several of the potential candidates, but still believe that Edwards is the best, for a number of reasons. So, I am openly his supporter and have never hidden that. After all these years, I know a number of people associated with the campaign and they know me. That does not mean I know anything about what is happening behind the closed doors although I live about a 100 yards from the HQ. I do not have my "spies" inside the campaign and if I get some news early, that usually means 30 minutes before it is all over CNN, not hours or days ahead.

Would I accept a paying job with the Edwards campaign if offered (unlikely, of course)?

No. I cherish my independence too much. I am pathologically anti-authoritarian in real life (which is not always good for me). I can't even tell myself what to do without incurring rebellion! I always found it difficult to work for others (my PhD advisor excepted, but I have such huge respect for him and he was never trying to push his authority on me, he earned it through his wisdom). The biggest mistake I make is announce here that I will blog about something. That almost guarantees I will not post about it tomorrow (bye-bye, amylase post). In six months perhaps, more likely never. After all, who am I to dictate to myself what to write about and when!? So, when I write anything on this blog, it is because I want to at the time I want to. I have the deepest admiration for people who are capable of writing on deadline, with an editor approving topics. That is also why I will never be able to work for a political campaign - while I understand the importance of campaign discipline, I am incapable of following it myself.

Why Edwards?

I have opinions on many issues, as does everyone else. There is not a single person in the history of the planet with whom I agree 100% on everything. This is a truism that applies to everyone, of course. Likewise, there is not a single person in the history of the planet with whom I cannot find something, however banal, on which we agree 100%.

We do not pick our friends and enemies by evaluating how many things we agree or disagree on, but on how we stand on a handful of issues that each one of us finds important.

There are perhaps ten people currently considering running for President for Dems and about ten for GOP (plus probably a couple of third-party candidates). That is a very small pool to choose from who to support. Out of that pool, I find I agree with Edwards on issues that are important to me. Plus, I am pragmatic enough to know that he has a reasonable chance to actually win.

What is important to me is going to be biased by my own personal history. While outraged by the Iraq war, that issue is very low on my list of priorities: it is a part of an overall Republican mode of governing and not an isolated issue. Furthermore, the US foreign policy as a whole is very different from what I'd like to see and I am unlikely to see a candidate of any party coming even close to me on this issue, though I trust that any Democrat if elected would pull out of Iraq fast. So, Iraq is off the table for me. It does not incense me with any kind of strong emotional pull as it does some other people for whom the war is the one and only issue in this election.

I guess if I was black, or a woman, or gay, the issues of race, gender and sexual orientation would be #1. I am not. I also see those as parts of general Enlightement principles that can be taken care of once conservative ideology is defeated and marginalized enough so that we can raise new generations of enlightened children. I explained recently why I think Edwards is the man for this bigger-picture job.

I am unemployed and poor, so the issue of poverty as a part of a general issue of the way economic system is set up in the USA is important to me. While I harbor no illusions that the system will be changed any time soon, the way Edwards approaches the issue of poverty and his just-announced health-care proposal, are, IMHO, the best moves in the right direction that can potentially pave the way for more systemic changes further down the line. Yet even that is just a part of the bigger picture of trying to move the country towards modernity.

I was born and raised an atheist. I did not have to go through the painful process of self-doubting and losing my religion. Thus, I am not a fervent atheist - it just comes naturally to me and I cannot imagine being anything else. This is why the issue of religion is lower on my list than that of many US-born atheists who had to go through such a process. As long as the wall between the church and state is kept standing and the fundamentalists are kept on the margins, I have no problem with people believing whatever myths they want to if that makes them happy or feeling more secure.

Now, the anti-atheist sentiment in this country is the result of direct fundamentalist sliming over the centuries and can be addressed by ridiculing and marginalizing the fundamentalists. Part of this ridiculing effort also involves explaining why religious beliefs are irrational and silly. Part of this effort involves exposing all the evils perpetrated in the name of religion over the millenia, including today. But many people have a deep emotional need to believe in something bigger than themselves, and as long as such a need is channelled towards doing good, and not manipulated by Priests of various religions for their own aggrandizement or whatever other political or financial gains, I am fine with that. If the marginalization of fundamentalism happens and thus people understand what atheism is and isn't and being an atheist is not being a second-order citizen, the rest of the society will slowly secularize itself over the generations as well. More on this, in the context of the Edwards/Marcotte/McEwan saga, below.

Political blogging: personal vs.professional

A blog is a piece of software.

Thus, a blog can be used for various purposes. The word means different things to different people. Many erroneously lump personal political blogs together with campaign blogs and call them all "political blogs".

Many people who call themselves political bloggers write and read only personal blogs and rarely if ever go to campaign blogs (or big blog-communities like DailyKos). This is how they understand political blogging.

Many people who call themselves political bloggers write and read only posts and Diaries on DailyKos, almost never venturing out to personal or campaign blogs. This is what they think political blogging is.

Many people who call themselves political bloggers write and read only a campaign blog and almost never venture out to personal or community blogs. This is what they think is meant by 'political blogging'.

The three are very different form each other. My blog is my home - you enter and I hope you are nice to my wife and do not swear in front of my children. A frat-guy's appartment will have a different tone. A retired schoolteacher's home will have a different tone yet. DKos and such are public venues and the discourse is fast and harsh. The campaign blogs are businesses - disciplined effort to get a candidate elected.

Many, during the recent Edwards bloggers saga either do not understand the distinction, or purposefully muddied the waters for their own nefarious purposes.

Let me see if I understand the roles Amanda and Melissa are supposed to play.

The way I understand it, Amanda was not hired to move Pandagon over to JRE'08 blog. She was not hired to advise Edwards. She was not hired to be his spokesperson. She was not hired to write opinion pieces. She was not hired to write the campaign blog. She was hired to manage the campaign blog. To take care of technical and visual aspects of it. To try to somewhat control the campaign message there and steer the conversation in the direction favourable to the candidate. She will be dealing with the "campaign blog" type of political bloggers. She is supposed to write an entry every day saying something like "...our candidate gave a speech here today and here is the video of it and here are some media reports on it and links to some blogs on it. Discuss." It's a job for which she is eminently qualified.

The way I understand it, Melissa was not hired to move Shakeapeare's Sister to JRE'08 blog. She was not hired to advise Edwards. She was not hired to be his spokesperson. She was not hired to write opinion pieces. She was not hired to write the campaign blog. She was hired to serve as a communication link or liasion between the campaign and the "personal blog" type of political bloggers. Someone who can e-mail people like me with a 30-minute heads-up on the news, so if I am inclined to blog about it because the news excite me, I will, otherwise I will not. Likewise, if I have something to ask or say or suggest to the campaign, she is the person I can contact. It's a job for which she is eminently qualified.

For either one of them, what they said on their personal blogs in the past, or even what they may still write there in the future, has nothing to do with their new jobs. I would not submit one of my blog-posts about science to Nature and I would not expect most of my readers to enjoy reading a dry-scientese paper on this blog. Those are two different jobs I perform - the only connection being they both have something to do with science. For Amanda and Melissa the only connection between their blogs and their new jobs is that they both have something to do with politics.

The Rumor Mill and The Wait

Many have complained about the long time it took the campaign to issue any kind of statement. In the meantime, many people swallowed the Salon rumors about firings as true. We need to remind ourselves that we, the bloggers, live not on a 24-hour news cycle but on a 24-second news cycle. We want instant gratification immediatelly pronto right now. The Marcotte/McEwen issue was really big for us, for legitimate reasons (see all the links I posted yesterday for some excellent coverage), but it was not so big if you step back and look at the big picture. There wasn't barely anything in the MSM about this - after all, Anna Nicole Smith died, and there is trouble in Iraq, and there is Libby trial.... There is another year before Iowa, almost two before the General election. We reacted to a brief AP article that found itself in the NYT and WaPo - something that almost 300 million Americans did not read.

I have no idea what went on in the campaign during the past day or two. But I can imagine, so let me indulge in it for a minute...

I think that some people have this notion that John Edwards and all of his campaign managers and staffers sit around the HQ all day and eat pizza. I've been to his HQ a number of times during 2003/2004 bid as well as the current race. There are a few staffers there, extremely busy doing their jobs - crunching numbers, fundrasing, calling people, etc. There are preumably others doing their, somewhat different jobs up in D.C. Others are likely stationed in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina doing their jobs there. Edwards himself is travelling around the country giving speeches and attending fundrasiers a couple of times a day, with some of the staffers travelling with him.

When the hiring of bloggers provoked the silly outrage on Right-wing blogs, they probably - and wisely - decided to ignore it. When the Pickler hit-piece and the Salon rumor provoked all the outrage on the Lefty blogosphere, they probably felt they had to respond somehow. So, I can imagine that a few people were pulled from their normal jobs and assigned to work on this. They were probably not even all in the same part of the country at the time, so they communicated by phone or e-mail. It took them some time to do all this - far longer than our impatience could stand. I can imagine internet-savvy staffers trying to explain that bloggers are not some strange animals but the core supporters who, for the first time in history, can talk back to the campaign as well as to voters, other activists etc. I can imagine the old-time campaign managers being uneasy about being talked to by the bloggers, but they bring enormous campaigning experience they accumulated over many campaigns over decades. Sometimes, this experience suggests that patience is the best course of action.

Then, I guess at some point, they had to call Edwards and tell him what they think. He probably talked to Elizabeth, to Amanda and Shakes, and to his key campaign personnel. But this was a side-show for him today. He had a big event in South Carolina which was much more important than the question of bloggers. Who knows, perhaps some of the last-millenium types suggested firing due to ignorance of the new media landscape. But Edwards understands the Internet and the importance of bloggers/activists/supporters. I have no doubt that, at some point during the day when he had a few minutes to devote to this, he did not have to ponder too long about the decision. It was just a matter of crafting the message that will make everyone happy - excluding the Wingnuts who are irrelevant as they are not potential voters. So, he wrote a statement of support for his bloggers. And he wrote it in a way that calmed down the religious supporters who are many, and just as important for the campaign. I may not like the tone, or even the subtance of it, but that was the most politically savvy message he could make.

The Religion Question

As someone who spent enormous amount of time on his campaign blog back in 03/04 I can tell you that majority of his supporters (just like majority of Americans) are religious. Hundreds of comments and diaries were posted by people who stated that they supported Edwards because his message resonated with what they consider to be their personal religious beliefs. And I respect that even if I believe their progressivism came first and religion is just parasitically riding along, i.e., they are interpreting religion through the prism of their liberal worldviews, just like fundies cherry-pick their beliefs according to their conservative worldviews. Edwards cannot diss them - that would be politically suicidal.

It is unfortunate but true that the doctrines of organized religion (as opposed to the personal, emotional need to believe something) are still respected on this planet and this country. Atheists are the last discriminated against minroty in this country. Thirteen states have explicit laws precluding atheists from seeking elected positions.

A hundred years ago, women were fighting for their rights. It is still not completely equal, but compared to today, situation a century ago was akin to slavery.

Fifty years ago, the Civil Rights movement, often bloody, resulted in elimination of official seggregation. While racism and seggregation are still alive and well, the comparison between today and half-a-century ago is stark.

The gays are fighting that fight right now, and slowly winning by winning the hearts and minds of the next generation. Even Young Republicans are not as homophobic as their parents are.

The next fight will be over religion. Atheists will need to speak up and stand up for themselves. So many people have no idea what the word 'atheist' means except that it has something to do with eating live children. But many of the same people think the same about Liberals. I hope that in 10 or 20 years I can go to a campaign blog of an openly atheist presidential candidate who has realistic chances of winning with nobody batting an eye-lash, and not finding the word 'atheist' in scare-quotes in someone's comments, like this: "atheist".

But that is the future. Today, we have to play in today's playing field. And Edwards is a masterful player in this field. Moreover, he has so far been the most courageous candidate, breaking a number of taboos. Talking about poverty. Hiring feminist bloggers. Not firing them under presure from both Left and Right. That takes guts. But it does not mean being unrealistic and unpragmatic about the business of winning elections.

Perhaps I am closer to Kucinich on issues, but Dennis has no sense of how to play to win. And we'll all have to swallow some of the rhetoric we do not agree with in order to depose the GOP and win. Then change the country and the associated rhetoric with the aid of a Democratic President and Congress. Another small step towards the ideals of Enlightement. It does not happen overnight. It does not happen by swinging at the windmills. It does not happen by foolishly attacking everything at the same time. You have to be savvy to pick your battles and change the world one generation at the time.


Some more good (or important) links:

Chris Bowers: This Isn't Over
Matt Stoller: Game On
Chris Bowers: Keep Piling On The Pressure

Chris Bowers: This Isn't Over
Edwards STANDS UP UPDATE: War is declared
Breaking: Edwards Stands Up and Keeps Amanda and Melissa
Edwards Does The Right Thing
The line between work and blog

Ed Cone:
Stay of execution (read the comments)

The Pandagonians:
Chris Clarke

The Shakespearians:
Melissa (read the comments)
Melissa (read the comments)

Hilzoy on Obsidian Wings:
Double Standards

Sara Robinson on Orcinus:
Silencing the Netroots

Talking about the Edwards blogger brouhaha with Taylor Marsh
Who is Amanda-basher Bill Donohue?
Official statement from Edwards: Amanda and Shakes not fired!

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