From the Web: Can You Trust the Southern Poverty Law Center?

Recently, the New York Times ran an op-ed by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. For those who are not familiar with Ali, she is one of a few folks who grew up within devout Islamic cultures and ended up becoming an outspoken critic of Islam.

In the op-ed, Ayaan addresses the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has been toward the forefront recently as an organization that is supposed to fight bigotry and hatred. In light of the recent events in Charlottesville, the SPLC has raked in millions in donations.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Photo credit: Gage Skidmore

But sadly, the SPLC’s ideology is blind to certain kinds of hate. As Ayaan documents in her op-ed, the SPLC has labeled reformers of Islam such as herself and Maajid Nawaz as “anti-muslim extremists,” while saying nothing of organizations like Al Qaeda and ISIS and the evils that they spread.

Ayaan’s op-ed can be read here, and a long-form discussion with Ayaan can be found here. From that, one can make your own call on the SPLC’s claims.

Our take at Ex Medius is this: criticism of a belief system cannot make one an “extremist.” Criticism is essential to a free flow of ideas and allowing the better ideas to win people over. That can only be done in a world where everyone feels free to criticize ideas, no matter which party is potentially marginalized or oppressed.

From the Web: David Brooks on the Virtues of Moderate Politics

As if on cue, David Brooks recently posted a great advertisement for Ex Medius, or more specifically, our goals.

In his recent column, What Moderates Believe, Brooks outlines the values that differentiate a moderate from an ideologue. Definitely go over to the New York Times to take a look: What Moderates Believe.

In other news here, we’re still working on some features for the coming weeks and finding more writers, so if you want to help, please reach out to us at us@exmedi.us.

Reality TV Politics

Although the joke has been made, Trump’s reality television style presidency has continued to engross Americans in the same way that reality shows have captured our general interest for the past fifteen years. Yet despite the general political awareness this has generated, it is making the country more ignorant of actual politics.

If it looks like it, and smells like it…

Almost all of the narratives around Trump’s presidency center on characters, rather than policies. This centers with the “main man” Donald, but alongside him each of his advisers and cabinet members have been turned into characters. On the other side, Hillary still evokes strong feelings, and Elizabeth Warren was asked to stop speaking and “nevertheless, she persisted.” But do you even remember what that debate was actually about? Most do not.

In a character-driven narrative, conflict must exist. Indeed, so many storylines in the media have focused on tension – real or fake – within the White House and between different characters in our perverse show. How long was Spicer allegedly “on the outs” with the rest of the Trump team? How much have we heard about the inner battles between ex-chief strategist Bannon and nepotist-in-chief Jared Kushner? Whether these stories are real doesn’t really matter. What matters is that the “debate” now centers around characters and drama rather than policy and facts.

Blame the media… or look in the mirror

It’s easy to say that the media is driving this, but media companies are only providing consumers what they will watch or click on. Our basic instincts guide us toward stories with characters and drama. Some research suggests that ability to think and communicate around stories was one major factor helping us evolve beyond our ancestors in the first place as we told our fellow tribe members about the predator we saw on the way to the water hole.

This desire still drives us innately, and has now consumed us as a population, pushing us toward surface-level character-driven soundbites. The internet and 24-hour news networks have built off this, but their start came alongside many other cultural shifts that are hard to disentangle to identify a root cause of our newfound desires. Suffice to say, we are much more in the throes of information overload now than we were thirty years ago and we are struggling with it.

Long long ago, in a world not so far away

Politics was not always fodder for news networks which spew glib narratives that then shape the ill-informed opinions of millions. We can look back at discourse at the time, and it’s a refreshing blast of full sentences, facts, and nuance. Let’s start with a clip of George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan debating immigration in 1980:

And some news coverage:

And lastly, here’s an interview with a 33-year-old Donald Trump from the 80’s where even he sounds somewhat reasonable:

Fighting the Disease

Despite the challenges of getting away from the reality TV show we’re living in, it is possible. All it takes is a knowledge of the right sources, and a desire to learn rather than be entertained and outraged.

This site will be devoted to bringing those resources together, both through our own articles (such as this one), and by pointing you, the reader, to the right corners of the internet to find the reasoned debate that does actually exist.

If you are looking for places to start after following us, long-form podcasts are a great way to get a more nuanced view. Shows like Intelligence Squared U.S. Debates and  Waking Up with Sam Harris provide reliably strong and balanced material, while shows like The Ezra Klein Show and The Ben Shapiro Show provide nuanced, albeit slanted takes from left and right respectively.

Beyond audio formats, there are articles out there that convey reasoned arguments with nuance. Yet those stories get drowned out by the outrage attracting headlines and those glib shots across party lines. Here at Ex Medius, we will remain committed to providing articles that advance discourse rather than degrade it.

Rejecting Tribalism

Tribalism, or the natural affinity that humans have toward groups, is considered by many to be an evolutionary trait. That is: the groups that bonded and protected each other survived and thrived over generations, while other groups that couldn’t build those bonds did not make it.

That being the case, the definition of group has changed – broadened – over time. First it was family, then tribe, village, then city, country, and beyond.

We stand at a point now where one’s tribal association varies greatly. Some define it by family, others by race, others by religion, others by nation, some by the world.

We can all agree the inexorable movement through history has been toward a broader and more inclusive definition of tribe. Much of our political struggles in the world today have to do with tribes, and the natural forces push them together even as they resist each other.

As was the case with the tribes and civilizations of long ago, the process is not likely to be clean, easy, or quick. Yet it’s a process that will reward those who figure out how to come together despite differences.

Common Sense on Climate Change

Few things trigger intense feelings than discussion of Climate Change. Immediately the Left launches into diatribes involving “world-ending catastrophe” and blaming greedy capitalists for perpetuating a system of instability. Many on the Right, meanwhile, may make claims of “fake news” and “leftist conspiracy,” while saying that it’s just all the sun’s fault and we might as well keep dumping things into the atmosphere. The debate operates on an emotional level, with both sides simply skipping over the facts and diving into emotions first.

Maybe we should all take a step back. There’s basically four questions for us to answer:

  • Is the climate warming?
  • Has this been caused by human activity?
  • Will it continue to warm?
  • What should we do about it?

Let’s take a look at each of these.

Is the climate warming?

This can be answered empirically, and the answer is yes. The latest NASA data provides measurements since 1880, and paint a pretty clear picture: the 2000’s have been about 0.8 degrees Celsius (1.4 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than the early 20th century.

NASA land and sea climate data since 1880. Source: NASA

While these numbers do need to be adjusted and manipulated, that is a best practice in data science. Indeed, it would be irresponsible not to examine the data, clear out outliers, and ensure that the data is as accurate as possible.

You can also look at this over the extend of history, and it is worth noting that our climate has been warmer and cooler in the past (below). However, the warming now is happening at a significantly faster rate than past ice age recoveries (though this chart does not provide that look, it is referenced in the source).

Temperature over the past million years. Source: NASA

Has this been caused by human activity?

We enter a bit more uncertainty here because we don’t have another Earth in an alternative universe where we can compare what would have happened if we hadn’t gone through industrialization. That being said, there’s enough evidence to be pretty certain that human activity is causing some of the warming.

Put simply, the amount of carbon in the atmosphere has been artificially skyrocketed by human industrialization. Again, this can be measured empirically.

Total Human Emissions since 1800 Source: Mak Thorpe.

This has driven the measures of carbon in the atmosphere to levels that haven’t been seen in the past tens of thousands of years (this can be measured because we can approximate it from ice samples that basically record a snapshot of the planet at a given point in time. That graph presents us with one of the main reasons that people are worried: we haven’t seen anything like this in the past five hundred thousand years.

CO2 parts per million over time. Source: NASA

So could this be correlation and not causation? This is possible, but unlikely in this case. Why? Because our best understanding of chemistry and geology suggest that carbon acts as a greenhouse gas when in the atmosphere by trapping heat that comes in from the sun and preventing it from going back out into space. And of course, there are other factors involved in regulating the climate: the sun’s energy output, water vapor/cloud cover, the list goes on. But there the clearest culprit is carbon and other gasses that are the result of human activity.

Will it continue to warm?

As with the stock market, past performance is not necessarily indicative of future returns. Past warming caused by humans is not necessarily indicative of the future response of the climate to more carbon. But it’s very likely that warming will continue for several reasons:

  1. We know that carbon and other gasses in the atmosphere trap heat. This is well documented, well, pretty much everywhere.
  2. Recent analysis of the feedback effects of water vapor in clouds has been shown to be positive: i.e. that clouds trap more heat than they block out.
  3. Recent analysis suggests the “pause” seen in global warming in the early 2000’s was the result of different currents driving more heat into the deep ocean, which has recently been able to be quantified. Indeed, the Economist had a great article explaining this in 2014 even before the pause has clearly rescinded itself in recent years.
  4. Lastly, if you looked closely at the above temperature graphs, you’ll notice that ice ages are regular occurrences that drop the temperature on the planet tremendously. This, not surprisingly, has also been studied. It’s super interesting (did you know: ice ages are caused by the pull of Jupiter and Saturn on Earth’s orbit?), but latest estimates suggest that our issues with warming are much more immediate – the next ice age isn’t due for at least 50,000 years.
Obligatory picture of a polar bear on an ice berg.

And the list could go on. But the reality is that the best science out there today suggests that human emissions cause the planet to warm, and there’s no current reason why we think that should stop.

Indeed, the best models we have suggest it will continue even if we all stop emitting carbon right now. So that raises our last question:

What should we do about it?

This is the question that debate needs to focus on at this point in time. Even in a world where we agree to the above three points, there’s range of actions we could take.

Indeed, this is where the extreme left jumps to wholly unrealistic answers that would impede economic growth by trillions of dollars and cost lives as a result. Of course, as most on the right have their heads buried in the sand, it ends up being a pretty silly debate.

Some are making a case for more reasoned answers. Shikha Dalmia recently wrote a great piece in Reason titled Why the Left Can’t Solve Global Warming. That’s worth reading in its own right, as it frames this question and the reasons why this should be the debate and some of the option sets that are out there.

We’ll have follow-up pieces on this in coming weeks, looking more closely at the debate of what we should do as a civilization moving forward.

Back When Politics Were Dirty

This is adapted from a piece I wrote for the Lehigh Patriot way back in 2008. The original can be found here. It comes with a bit of snarky sarcasm, and the clairvoyant prediction that breaking the Ten Commandments could become a net positive in the near future. Enjoy!

While political discourse seems uniquely bad in current day, it’s always been dirty business. Here are six examples from America’s past of politics getting personal, and not in a good way.

Time will tell where the “lock her up” chants of an admitted “pussy grabber” will fall on this list, but for now let’s enjoy the escapism of focusing on some of the great political mudslinging of decades past.

1. Your opponent has broken every one of the Ten Commandments

Nowadays, this attack probably wouldn’t even matter to the public. Other than number six, breaking the other nine commandments is basically cool. Stealing, adultery, false witness, coveting your neighbor’s spouse, and not keeping the Sabbath holy are all fairly common. But back in 1844 this was serious. James Polk’s campaign told voters that Henry Clay had indeed “broken every one of the Ten Commandments,” and that “his debaucheries… [are] too disgusting to appear in public print.” Nevertheless, Clay still won 48 percent of the popular vote. The lesson: this probably isn’t the best way to attack your opponent – today this could be a net positive.

2. Your opponent is a pimp, or his mother is a prostitute

These two attacks are obviously radically different, though a combination of the two would be rather disgusting. I digress. These political punches were actually counters to each other during the lovely campaign of 1828 between Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams. Jackson supporters accused Adams of “providing entertainment” for Russian Czar Alexander I, and later Adams supporters called Jackson’s mother “a common prostitute.” Jackson ended up winning 56 percent of the popular vote. The lesson: It’s better to be the son of a prostitute than to be a pimp.

2016 Update: enjoy a look back at “the worst election in history” with this YouTube video:

3. Your opponent is a coward

Franklin Pierce was a general during the Mexican-American war. Being from New Hampshire, he wasn’t used to the heat, and he collapsed from heat prostration during a battle. When it came time to run for President, Franklin Pierce was named “the Fainting General” by opponents. Even with that stigma attached to his name, he still won all but four states. Americans have since learned not to tolerate military cowardice, and did not elect John Kerry in 2004 after his bravery in the military was questioned by some of his fellow swift-boat veterans. The lesson: if you are going to join the U.S. armed forces, show no fear.

4. Your opponent is just ugly

Sorry Abe, you aren’t exactly easy on the eyes. Abraham Lincoln, circa 1963

As could be expected in the turbulent years leading up to the Civil War, the North-South divide caused some heated discussion. As a Northerner, Abraham Lincoln wasn’t a favorite politician in the South. In fact, he won a majority of the electoral college without even being on the ballot in many southern states. It’s easy to understand why: according to the Houston Telegraph, he was the “most ungainly mass of legs and arms and hatchet face ever strung on a single frame”. The lesson: let your opponent’s ugliness work on its own, pointing it out won’t help you much.

5. Your opponent has an illegitimate child

This rumor about Senator McCain was brought up during the Bush-McCain primaries in 2000. McCain’s daughter Bridget was actually adopted from an orphanage in Bangladesh by McCain and his wife Cindy. But by anonymous polling, the Bush campaign suggested that McCain was Bridget’s biological father. Bush then went on to win the Republican primary. The lesson: anonymous polling has been shown to be just as effective as anonymous leaks in getting news out there without any accountability.

6. Challenge your political rival to a duel, and kill him

We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the Burr-Hamilton duel that resulted in the death of Alexander Hamilton. It’s worth reflecting on the absurdity of the sitting Vice President of the country dueling a former cabinet member and actually killing him. Burr was Jefferson’s Vice President, and Hamilton was only 42 years old at the time, with a wife and several young kids still at home. Of course the story is now well known thanks to the popularity of the Hamilton musical. If there’s a lesson to be had, it is known that Burr had to spend the rest of his life as a pariah after this, though he was never actual tried or convicted of his crime.

Sources:

  • “A Historical Perspective on Presidential Campaigns”. Dr. Ken Stevens, 2003. http://www.his.tcu.edu/Frog&Globe/SiteArchives/Stevens-Elections.htm
  • “The Anatomy of a Smear Campaign”. Richard Davis. The Boston Globe, March 21st, 2004. http://www.boston.com/news/globe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2004/03/21/the_anatomy_of_a_smear_campaign/
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aaron_Burr

Our Goal For Ex Medius

Our goal for Ex Medius was briefly explained in the introductory article: Welcome to Ex Medius. However, it’s worth explaining a bit more about what the vision for this site is, and why it matters for you.

Our dream in a sentence:

Ex Medius will be a place for readers and writers to come together to share and challenge idea without the judgement and outrage found elsewhere.

What that means for our readers:

Alluded to above, readers will find well-reasoned articles that come from the moderate portion of the political spectrum. Some articles will lean left, others right, but without the judgement and hot take culture seen in the media and news feeds everywhere. What you see here should strengthen some beliefs and sway others. Fundamentally we believe that no matter how much political beliefs can become ingrained, Americans today are thirsting for a place they can go to have their beliefs challenged in a respectful way. Does that describe you? Then follow us!

What that means for our writers:

As we believe readers want a place to be challenged respectfully, we believe that there are many writers or potential writers who want to be able to reach and sway people. Right now there’s a limited market for the moderate point of view, and few moderates have a way to break through the noise of our current political discourse. Our goal is to provide that platform and help find and build an audience for those views.

To close:

We believe that over 80% of Americans are moderates at heart. They may lean left or lean right, but fundamentally they want what is best for this country. We believe that many of these Americans see the urgent need for better discourse and will fight the tribal urges that appeal to outrage. We believe that this creates the opportunity to build a community to share, read, and debate ideas around the questions facing the world today. Come join us!

If you want to read more, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, or subscribe to e-mail updates.

If you want to write here, reach out to us @ us@exmedi.us.

Making Compromise Great Again

This is adapted from an original piece posted at mumma.co and six months after Trump’s inauguration still holds quite true. The original can be found here.

Since the election of Donald Trump, and we’ve continued veering off into a rhetorical arms race toward our respective corners of ideology. Insults, name calling, the calls of hypocrisy, the claims of policy that will ruin the country or the world: you name it and it’s been said. This adversarial mindset must be debunked. We need to revive a world of accepting compromise.

It should be self-evident why it is critical for us to deescalate tensions between left and right. On face, a nation where one half sees the other as evil or illegitimate creates tensions that don’t dissipate easily. It’s the reason Abraham Lincoln commented that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” Further, polarization leads to dysfunctional governance: gridlock, focus on extreme issues rather than moderate ones, and ultimately weakens democracy and opens minds toward anti-democratic techniques in the name of just getting things done.14

Before we really get into this, it’s necessary to address the elephant in the room: our President-elect Donald Trump. Six months in, Trump has made it clear that the concerns about his amorality, narcissism, and incompetence have largely been proven valid. That’s not to say that everything he’s done has been evil or wrong, but there’s ample evidence to these very critical flaws. As such:

  • One, if you voted for Donald Trump, that doesn’t mean that you are a bad person or that your views on any given issue are wrong. You still want what you think is best for the country, but…
  • Two, policy issues should be evaluated separate from the man. This is highly relevant for everyone: unwavering support or opposition based on a person or party is dangerous. Let’s focus on issues and the underlying questions at hand.

With all that being said, we’ll go through a three-step process for making compromise great again!

First step: Relax

Yes, politics matter. And it is a good thing to care about the direction we take. But seriously – left and right – just calm down. Claims on editorials on both sides are at unsustainable levels of bitterness, anger, and over-the-top accusations of malfeasance from the other side. That’s easy to do when you assume the other side is full of stupid, heartless monsters out to destroy the world.

Second step: Assume Rationality

If there was one skill to imbue every person with then a base assumption that those who disagree with you are still rational beings would need to be near the top of the list. The other side of your political spectrum isn’t a group of stupid and heartless monsters out to destroy the world. They may value different things, or have a different base of experiences and knowledge that they are acting on. But the vast majority mean well and have some reasons behind their beliefs.

Third step: Ask Questions

Once you assume rationality, all you have to do is be curious! Why does this person believe what they believe? What underlying assumptions are different from your own? Often, you may find out some things that surprise you.

Let’s play it out: An Example

Let’s take one topic and play this out: Obamacare. Consider our friends, Lefty Lou and Righty Rob who are both well-meaning but have different biases, values, and sources of information:

LL: Trump is going to get rid of Obamacare and millions of people are going to lose their insurance, it will be terrible and I have no idea how you can support that!

RR: Obamacare is horrible and it has made healthcare way too expensive. It’s about time we undid this mistake, you out-of-touch liberal!

(At this point, debate could turn off and go into a yelling match. Or, we could try to act like adults.)

LL: Okay, so what part of it is bad?

RR: Particularly the premiums – prices are going way up, including a 40% increase in Pennsylvania. A quick look at articles on it show a bunch of people commenting how healthcare is now eating up 20-30% of their income. They can’t sustain that and it’s really damaging a lot of families who are now struggling to make ends meet as a result.

LL: Oh, I didn’t really know that. I mainly hear about and prioritize the benefits, mainly getting people insured and ensuring that people with pre-existing conditions can still get insurance.

RR: Yes, those are good. They may even be part of a replacement for Obamacare. But we need to address some of the underlying drivers of cost.

LL: That generally sounds like a good idea to me. Doing some quick research, it looks like the largest buckets of cost are: hospital care is the largest bucket – a bit over 30%. That is where Obamacare will help eventually as they shift to value-based care, meaning that hospitals will be paid for a condition once, rather than continuing to receive payments if subsequent visits are needed.

RR: That makes sense, and I agree that is good! But it doesn’t seem like it’s taking effect fast enough. Maybe we can reduce costs in other ways as well. I think we still have a debate to have about how we pay for insurance and who pays what, but maybe we aren’t that far off on the question of what insurance should provide and what we can do to make it more efficient.

A Conclusion:

By being calm, curious, and starting with an assumption of good are essential to better political discourse. To be clear, we won’t solve everything like this. But, it stops the shift towards extremism as each side reacts to news of a new extreme reached by the other side. Ultimately, we can find what I call “80% solutions” – things that you could get 80% of the population to agree to – based largely on common ground with a few compromises thrown in. While building a large consensus does not guarantee good policy or good outcomes, it is a much better start than what we are doing today. By finding that common ground we can address some key issues and start to build a better rapport between the two sides to tackle the bigger issues we all know that we face.

About That Google Memo

The Google Memo and surrounding controversy have garnered attention because of how many timely topics it relates to. As such, it’s not quite possible to capture all in a single article or single frame.

Here’s one take though that doesn’t fall into the predictable partisan traps that has been all too plentiful around the web. I happen to know Kathy personally and know she is a brilliant mind in tech, and she offers a great take on why Google’s reaction is counter to the core ethos of STEM fields.

It’s a quick read, so I’d recommend reading the whole thing via the link below:

View story at Medium.com

As I alluded to in the intro, there’s so much that could be said about the whole series of events around the memo and the underlying political issues. So there will be more to come on this topic from myself and others here.

Relax About It: North Korea

If you’ve been around the news at all recently, you know that people are freaking out about the rhetoric being used by the Trump administration about North Korea.

There have been many examples of this by commentators on the left or in the mainstream media, to the effect of staying we are on the precipice of nuclear war. Cue the New York Times editorial “Will the Blowhard Blow Us Up?

Embed from Getty Images

There are many valid criticisms of Trump’s use of Twitter and approach to foreign policy. It also feels valid to assume that Trump and his team have under-planned how to address North Korea. But jumping to “we’re all going to die in a nuclear winter” is irresponsible rhetoric – designed to rally the base and further separate two sides from a very real issue: how should we handle North Korea?

North Korea is a really complicated situation, and there aren’t clear “best practices” that one can apply to mitigate their bellicose ways. To be sure, the Obama administration was not at all successful in reigning in Kim Jong Un and his crazed ambitions.

Here’s my take: the sit-and-wait approach hasn’t gotten us too far, and there’s a real chance that by stirring the pot a bit we end up getting further toward China putting more pressure on North Korea that they heretofore have not. If we can all calm down about nuclear war, maybe we could have a discussion about it.