Addition to the blog roll Sunday, Dec 26 2010 

I know it’s been a LONG time since I’ve written anything on this blog, but I would just like to inform everyone of a new blog that is out there. It’s called “Everything Else Not Being Equal” by Ming Lo, a professor of economics at SCSU. The name, which I love, is a play on the term “ceteris paribus,” which means “everything else being equal.” The term is used frequently in economics when we want to talk about how a variable affects some outcome without ever mentioning the other variables. So if we assume everything else stays the same, we can imagine how just one variable affects a particular outcome. The problem is that it’s almost never the case that “everything else stays equal.” So the concept of ceteris paribus can be abused in ways that do not accurately reflect reality, which is why I love the name of Dr. Lo’s blog, who also notes, “There is always a need to counter conventional wisdom.” I couldn’t agree more!

It should be very interesting to see the ideas posted there. More opinions and more ideas, especially from the SCSU community, is exactly what we need. Just for clarity (and I’ve mentioned it before in this blog), I did take a class with Dr. Lo while I attended SCSU. If the class is any indication of the honesty and thoughtfulness we can expect in the blog, I suspect the blog will be very good. Cheers to Dr. Lo and his new blog.

As for this blog, I really do apologize for the lack of activity. If I could have it any other way, I would. I’ve just been too busy to keep up with the research and writing time that I used to devote to this blog. I do have several unfinished posts that I at least want to get finished sometime within the near future. I’ll try to keep you guys posted. I can’t tell you how much I’ve appreciated the traffic and return readers, especially from within the SCSU community. My hope is to become active in writing again; my readers are my inspiration. So I hope to see you all again soon. Also, I am always looking for guest writers (don’t be shy!). You can be an anonymous writer if that’s what you want, but I don’t care to keep this blog focused on one particular opinion or viewpoint. The more diverse the better. Cheers to you all.

First Amendment Forum, again Friday, Apr 16 2010 

Today I was able to attend one of the presentations that was a part of the First Amendment Forum on campus, put together by the SCSU Society of Professional Journalists, the Department of Mass Communications, the St. Cloud Times, and others. The topic of the presentation that I attended was “Protecting Journalism in the Era of Dying Newspapers and Social Networking.” Though the topic was about the death of newspapers and the rise of online content and social networking, most of the panelists discussed how they were using or had used social media to complement their writings as journalists, reporters, or editors. However, once the discussion was opened to those in attendance, the issue of the death of traditional media was brought up.

Namely, the issue of charging for online content was brought up. This issue is the same issue that I had addressed in an earlier blog post and letter to the University Chronicle. I didn’t bring it up, but I believe the person who did was the same person I wrote my post in response to (that is, Kyle Stevens). The person asked the panel what they thought about the media charging for online content.

A salient point that one of the panelists (Ramla Bile) brought up was that charging for the news online introduces some problems in that doing so bars certain people (namely the poor) from accessing the news. Bob Collins, who works for Minnesota Public Radio (MPR), said he really wished the Star Tribune would start charging people to read online content, because he believed doing so would drive more people to MPR. Adam Hammer of the St. Cloud Times likened it to the music industry, and the challenges they faced with the digitization of music and the piracy of said music. He explained how people became accustomed to listening to music through digital media, and it was Apple who recognized this and created iTunes to provide a legal channel through which people could access this digital music.

Of course, there’s the other side of this issue. The content wasn’t produced without a cost. How are the media supposed to make money if they can’t charge people to view their content? Both views are valid. We need to balance the ability to make a profit through producing important news and the necessity of not pricing people out of the market for this important news. In other words, we want people to get paid for doing good journalism, but we don’t want to bar people from accessing this journalism simply because they can’t afford it.

Some people might just respond that if people can’t afford something, they don’t deserve it. If you can’t pay for it, why should I give it to you? The problem with this argument, however, is that important news is not just another commodity to be bought and sold. The news, as I have always said, is a cornerstone of democracy. (In economics, it might be called a public good.) Scholars and political theorists have long recognized that a free and vibrant press is the foundation of civic society and liberal democracy. This is what differentiates online news from, say, online music in Hammer’s example. Music is important, yes, but not necessarily a requisite for a functioning democracy.

The question, thus, becomes whether we want to limit the dispersion of knowledge and important news or if we want to make it as free and vibrant as possible. This is where I disagree with Stevens. He believed we should charge for online content, which would have the effect of pricing people out of the market for important news. As I said, though, we need to consider the fact that the content was not produced for free and there is a certain necessity to generate a revenue to at least cover the costs of making such important news available. The suggestion I made, basing my argument off the work of Robert McChesney and John Nichols in their book The Death and Life of American Journalism, was that there be a public subsidy for independent journalism. Both McChesney and Nichols present several convincing arguments in support of their case. A public subsidy for independent (that is, not corporate) news would solve the aforementioned balancing issue; the cost of producing important news would be paid for, and accessing this content would be kept free, allowing for the greatest number of people to access vital information.

Anarchism in St. Cloud Thursday, Oct 8 2009 

Two Wednesdays ago, St. Cloud got a sort of impromptu visit from the Motorhome Diaries guys. They are essentially three guys driving around the country in a motorhome spreading the word of liberty to people they meet along the way. They stopped in on SCSU for a little while to talk to a couple of people (about a dozen or so), most of them from the Libertarian Party club and the Young Americans for Liberty organization, and few other open-minded people.

These people described themselves as voluntaryists, meaning only decisions or actions that are made voluntarily are just and moral. They therefore oppose the state, which they see as coercive and necessarily violent. They also support anarcho-capitalism, which would be a completely stateless society in which completely unfettered laissez-faire capitalism constitutes the mode of production. The gist of their argument, I think, is that any voluntary association should be allowed so long as it does not interfere with the rights of others. Being forced to pay taxes, live in a statist society, follow statist regulations, and so forth are seen as involuntary and enforced only through the use of force and coercion by the state. Because the state lacks voluntary association, it is seen as illegitimate.

So the work these guys do is to oppose the state based on these premises. However, they, like most voluntaryists, wish to do so by working outside of state institutions. That is opposed to the Libertarian Party’s method of working within state institutions by, for example, electing officials into government for the purpose of reducing government. Instead, they opt for non-political means such as civil disobedience. Their stance reminded me of a discussion I had with Filip Spagnoli. While I agree the state is the largest perpetrator of violence and destruction, I think it’s helpful to try to improve the state. And I think one way you can do that is through electing officials that will help the cause of reducing government and ending state violence. It would be a more gradual change. I think that’s a noble cause. It’s certainly more realistic, in my opinion, than abolishing the state outright, especially given its current size.

I think that’s where I disagree with these guys. Nevertheless, I appreciate their visit and sharing their ideas about ideal society. It was intriguing, and I’m sure a new concept for many people at the meeting. Anarchism is often seen in a negative light, as a chaotic system, disorganized, lawless, and so on. The Motorhome Diaries help dispel these myths. I think anarchism is a legitimate political philosophy (it’s quite broad) and merits our careful attention as such.

Pornography vis-à-vis feminism and rights Wednesday, Sep 30 2009 

Pornography can be a touchy subject to deal with because many people are uncomfortable discussing sex, let alone its commercialization. I concede this fact, but will try to anyway.

I’m generalizing a bit, but I think it’s fair to say there are two broad categories of people when it comes to pornography: those who believe it should be illegal and those who believe it should not be illegal. I belong in the latter category. I’m not alone by any means, and I believe I’m in good company. But I want to make myself very clear that supporting the legality of something does not necessarily mean condoning it. For example, when I say I support the decriminalization of marijuana, I do not mean to imply that I condone the use of marijuana (recreationally) or that I would use it myself. When I say abortion is an absolute and inalienable right of women, I do not mean to imply I support women getting abortions (I prefer they don’t, but that doesn’t mean it should be outlawed). So when I support the legality of pornography, I do not mean to say porn is necessarily a good thing. I’m sure there’s a good deal of people who support the legality of pornography but do not necessarily agree with the act (and definitely a great deal that do support the act itself).

Tonight (Wednesday), however, the SCSU Women’s Center along with the Residential Life Social Justice and Diversity Committee will be hosting an anti-pornography special event at 6:00 P.M. in Ritsche Auditorium (I’m not sure that I will be able to make it, because I’m also going to a special event on Palestine). The event is titled “The Price of Pleasure” and it will show the documentary that goes by the same name followed by a presentation by Robert Jensen who is an anti-pornography activist and a professor of journalism at the University of Texas in Austin (he also appears in the documentary).

In one of the few times I’ve been impressed with the quality of a student-written opinion appearing in the University Chronicle, Neil Panchmatia writes a scathing criticism of the Women’s Center position on pornography that it takes in showing the documentary and hosting the professor, which he says is contrary to “the consensus of most feminist scholars.” Panchmatia, a graduate student in social responsibility, writes, “In feminism there is lively debate on whether porn is harmful, but through Professor Jensen the Women’s Center is promoting only Andrea Dworkin’s extreme perspective, which not only claims that porn itself embodies the violation of womens rights, but equates the term ‘porn’ with ‘gender violence,’ and even that porn ’causes’ rape and fuels violence against women.”

Indeed, arguments about pornography are nuanced, even among feminists, but there’s little doubt that the position the Women’s Center endorses is out on the extreme. A thorough survey of the American public by Yankelovich Clancy Shulman in 1986 showed 78% of people did not believe pornography should be illegal (finding reliable polling on this subject somewhat difficult). I do not deny that pornography can cause problems. I don’t think anyone doubts there can be detrimental effects in the participation, production, or consumption of pornography. There is, in fact, robust scholarly literature that deals with this important subject. But to conclude from that that pornography should be illegal is misguided.

In their 1969 ruling in Stanley v. Georgia, the Supreme Court of the United States declared every American has the “constitutional right to keep and enjoy pornographic material in his home.” Though the court said they have the “broad power” to regulate “obscenity,” it concluded every American may “satisfy his intellectual and emotional needs in the privacy of his own home.” That is, the court affirms, Americans have the right to free speech and privacy. (In a true perversion of the Constitution, the court later ruled in 1973 in Miller v. California that it had to right to determine what “obscenity” is and therefore declare it not a form of protected speech or expression under the First Amendment.)

So if we have the right to view pornographic material, one can infer from this that there also exists the right to participate in and produce pornography. That is, consenting adults have the right to perform sexual acts with each other and they also have the right to disseminate depictions of these acts with other consenting adults. They have these rights, but whether you want to argue that engaging in these activities is right or wrong is an entirely different thing. You may wish to educate people, inform people of risks, discuss its immorality and so forth, but we cannot deny them the right to engage in the activity. I can certainly agree, for example, that pornography can have the effect of distorting views on sex and sexuality and objectify and dehumanize women, but it doesn’t follow from that that pornography ought to be outlawed.

But proponents of outlawing pornography point to the alleged negative social effects it creates. Particularly, they argue pornography incites violence against women including through rape. “Pornography is the theory, and rape is the practice,” goes the saying. Is it true? The Classically Liberal blog, in their post on the benefits of pornography, cites a study by Todd Kendall, a professor at Clemson University. Kendall finds, “a 10 percentage point increase in Internet access [to pornography] is associated with a decline in reported rape victimization of around 7.3%,” among other benefits. There is a preponderance of evidence that supports this claim. (In fact, in 1969, Lyndon B. Johnson and Congress, in response to the SCOTUS ruling in Stanley v. Georgia, set up the President’s Commission on Obscenity and Pornography. What the commission found was that exposure to sexual materials does not create adverse social effects, does not corrupt the individual, that restrictions on the “sale, exhibition, or distribution of sexual materials to consenting adults should be repealed,” and that adults believed they had the right to view pornography on their own accord. Congress rejected these findings.)

To conclude, the right to own, view, participate in, produce, and distribute pornography has been affirmed for consenting adults. We have strong and overwhelming evidence that pornography does not create adverse social effects and, in fact, may reduce violent crimes against women such as rape. Yet, the Women’s Center will dismiss these rights and ignore the research to instead advocate the idea that pornography is fundamentally and necessarily wrong and detrimental and ought to be illegal. Needless to say, I believe they are taking the extreme position and it ought to be firmly rejected.