No, not Snopes!

We love Snopes, the fact-checking web site founded by David and Barbara Mikkelson, and it’s useful now more than ever. Now, though, the Daily Mail has published a hit piece on Snopes — Snopes must have debunked a few too many Daily Mail crap stories.

The hit piece is 90% hot steaming garbage, but unfortunately, 10% of it is a matter for serious concern. First, let’s sweep away the garbage.

The piece focuses on the most useless bits of the story: Facebook ‘fact checker’ who will arbitrate on ‘fake news’ is accused of defrauding website to pay for prostitutes – and its staff includes an escort-porn star and ‘Vice Vixen domme’. Oooh. A couple of the people writing for Snopes are also sex workers. I don’t care, but apparently readers of the Daily Mail need a sanctimonious snit to get through the day. Sex work is work. It no more discredits the intellectual abilities of Snopes contributors than does the fact that I worked my way through high school doing agricultural stoop labor. Actually, sex work sounds like a smarter use of one’s time than spending long hours bent over pulling weeds.

The article obsesses over the fact that Kim LaCapria and Elyssa Young have and may still be working as escorts and models. Don’t care. Really, the only thing I care about is that the Daily Mail thinks shaming women is newsworthy. [A clarification: while the Daily Mail thinks this is the case, LaCapria herself has said that she is not and has not been a sex worker.]

They are outraged that a site billing itself as “non-political” has a woman writing for them who ran as a Libertarian for Congress on a ‘Dump Bush’ platform. I have no love for Libertarians, but if the only way a website can be non-political is if every writer for it never expressed a political opinion, then you’ve just created a filter that guarantees that only idiots will work for it. Everyone has political opinions, it’s human nature. What matters is if they take care to avoid using them to color their work. Or if they use the illusion of objectivity to justify defenses of the intolerable, which is the Daily Mail’s specialty. Fuck ’em. Don’t care.

They are also aghast that the Mikkelson’s went through an acrimonious divorce, with disputes about the management of the site ongoing. That two people are finding personal differences great enough to compel them to separate is not a problem — if you’re unhappy in a relationship, end it and move on. I watched my grandparents hate each other for decades, and I would rather have seen them happily apart, if that was possible. The Daily Mail does not get to tell people who should stay married to who.

But then we start getting into some real concerns. They are arguing over compensation, which is an internal concern, but one of the accusations is that David Mikkelson has been rifling through the company’s budget to pay for personal matters. If true, and of course David Mikkelson disputes it, that’s an ethical violation that also says management is not very tight. Healthy companies do not let the founder loot the treasury.

If true. I’d like to see evidence of professional management.

Mikkelson has also made a statement to address the Daily Mail’s objections.

David Mikkelson told the Dailymail.com that Snopes does not have a ‘standardized procedure’ for fact-checking ‘since the nature of this material can vary widely.’ He said the process ‘involves multiple stages of editorial oversight, so no output is the result of a single person’s discretion.’

He also said the company has no set requirements for fact-checkers because the variety of the work ‘would be difficult to encompass in any single blanket set of standards.’

‘Accordingly, our editorial staff is drawn from diverse backgrounds; some of them have degrees and/or professional experience in journalism, and some of them don’t,’ he added.

I think that’s a good response, actually. I agree that they should have a diverse staff, and that they’re dealing with all kinds of claims suggests that flexibility is important. But the key point is this one: “multiple stages of editorial oversight”. Say more. What exactly does Snopes do internally to verify their assessment, and how do they cross-check to prevent bias from creeping in? That’s something they ought to be able to explain.

So Forbes asked them for the details. David Mikkelson flubbed the answer.

Thus, when I reached out to David Mikkelson, the founder of Snopes, for comment, I fully expected him to respond with a lengthy email in Snopes’ trademark point-by-point format, fully refuting each and every one of the claims in the Daily Mail’s article and writing the entire article off as “fake news.”

It was with incredible surprise therefore that I received David’s one-sentence response which read in its entirety “I’d be happy to speak with you, but I can only address some aspects in general because I’m precluded by the terms of a binding settlement agreement from discussing details of my divorce.”

OK, details of your divorce should be off the table. But the details of how your company determines what is fit to post on your website? Nope. That’s the main concern and you should be able to discuss it. That the Daily Mail published a lot of salacious garbage ought to be ignored on principle, but the accusations that weaken trust in your organization ought to be answered promptly.

Unfortunately, the rest of the Forbes article is still tainted with bullshit.

When I presented a set of subsequent clarifying questions to David, he provided responses to some and not to others. Of particular interest, when pressed about claims by the Daily Mail that at least one Snopes employee has actually run for political office and that this presents at the very least the appearance of potential bias in Snopes’ fact checks, David responded “It’s pretty much a given that anyone who has ever run for (or held) a political office did so under some form of party affiliation and said something critical about their opponent(s) and/or other politicians at some point. Does that mean anyone who has ever run for office is manifestly unsuited to be associated with a fact-checking endeavor, in any capacity?”

That is actually a fascinating response to come from a fact checking organization that prides itself on its claimed neutrality. Think about it this way – what if there was a fact checking organization whose fact checkers were all drawn from the ranks of Breitbart and Infowars? Most liberals would likely dismiss such an organization as partisan and biased. Similarly, an organization whose fact checkers were all drawn from Occupy Democrats and Huffington Post might be dismissed by conservatives as partisan and biased. In fact, when I asked several colleagues for their thoughts on this issue this morning, the unanimous response back was that people with strong self-declared political leanings on either side should not be a part of a fact checking organization and all had incorrectly assumed that Snopes would have felt the same way and had a blanket policy against placing partisan individuals as fact checkers.

Mikkelson’s answer to that is actually on point. I agree. The author’s reply is crap.

We aren’t talking about an organization drawing on a sole political viewpoint, like Breitbart or Infowars. The Daily Mail found one person with open Libertarian leanings, and at the same time, found that the operation was loose and diverse. Snopes is not a propaganda organ for one point of view.

And Jesus fuck, what is a “partisan individual”? Where are you going to find all these boring neutered drones to act as the fact-check department for a news organization? That a bunch of suits at Forbes don’t like people who think differently than they do to work as fact-checkers is meaningless. Don’t care, again.

I would say that someone who worked at Breitbart and Infowars is disqualified from working as a fact-checker because those organizations don’t do any fact-checking, and seem to lack all principled motivation to search for the truth. That isn’t necessarily true for a libertarian, a conservative, or a liberal. Judge them on the quality of their work and their ability to separate the personal from the objective, not whether they have brains of purest pablum.

My opinion: most of the accusations against Snopes are irrelevant. But some do raise concerns: this is an organization that ought to strive for transparency, and they aren’t. I also get the impression it’s very much a David Mikkelson operation, and there ought to be management practices that shield the organization from the whims of the founder.

“Comes to its senses”?

Trump just plopped this one out.

The world will have come to its senses when we get rid of nukes, and when we get rid of sabre-rattling assholes like Donald Fucking Trump. You don’t diminish the threat of nuclear war by strengthening and expanding your nuclear arsenal.

Also, this seems appropriate now.

Another sign of the Apocalypse: Prince Charles is making sense

The wacky gomer with the azure blood and the freaky New Age beliefs actually said something reasonable.

“We are now seeing the rise of many populist groups across the world that are increasingly aggressive to those who adhere to a minority faith. All of this has deeply disturbing echoes of the dark days of the 1930s,” he said.

“My parents’ generation fought and died in a battle against intolerance, monstrous extremism and inhuman attempts to exterminate the Jewish population of Europe.”

Citing UN statistics, he added that a “staggering” 65.3 million people abandoned their homes in 2015 — 5.8 million more than the year before.

“The suffering doesn’t end when they arrive seeking refuge in a foreign land,” he said. “We are now seeing the rise of many populist groups across the world that are increasingly aggressive towards those who adhere to a minority faith.”

I think what it means is that our situation is so perilous that it has cracked through the adamantine crania of privileged royalty.

But what about my evil reputation?

I got interviewed for an article on all us scheming left-wing zealots on the Professor Watch List, and this is what I get? The Minnesotans on the ‘Professor Watchlist’ are disappointingly unthreatening.

Oh, well. “Disappointing” and “Unthreatening” are going right onto my CV.

And yes, I have to agree — it’s a buncha mild-mannered Minnesota professors, dontcha know!

I’m not home yet

Today involved getting up at 4am to take a cab to the airport, a couple of connections, and then landing at the Minneapolis airport — where I now await the shuttle back to Morris, which doesn’t leave for a few hours, will take a few hours, and if it’s anything like the shuttle we took to get here, will be an icebox that will threaten me with frostbite all afternoon.

But it was all worth it! I got to spend a day in balmy New York City, and I spent most of my time with Iris, who took me on a tour of vegan restaurants on Manhattan. Turns out there are a few. (Don’t worry about the squirrels, since this was a vegan tour we eschewed giving them their deserved reward, this time).

irisvanderpluym

Then we realized that alcohol is vegan, so we stopped for a little warmup. It was a phenomenal way to savor the big city.

And then it was time to go to Cooper Union, where we speechified and organized to RefuseFascism.org. It was a great event: a diverse and ferocious crowd — you could hear the rage out there — and I gave a short speech and Iris was asked to read a message of support sent by Gloria Steinem. The whole thing was recorded, so you can watch it right now if you’ve got a few hours to spare. I was one of the first speakers, and once you get past me, it just kept getting better and better. I recommend Jeremy Scahill‘s scathing denunciation of the whole damn system if you want to get your blood boiling.

Look! I glow!

Look! I glow!

And then we went out for beer, as all revolutionaries do, and made a few plans that will emerge later. Finally it was a scant few hours of sleep, and here I am, about to climb into an ambulatory freezer. I’d do it again!

Damned history, quit repeating yourself

caligula

Once upon a time, I took a couple of upper-level courses in Roman history. I had a professor who spent a whole quarter on just Augustus, and it was revealing: there was no one moment where you could say that the Roman Republic became the Roman Empire, and even as it was happening the Emperor (who was just the Princeps, just another guy among all the other guys, he was just first in all things) was able to point to all these wonderful examples of the continuity of tradition. For example, the tribune of the plebs was important: he was elected by the plebeians to represent their class, and he had all these abilities, like being able to propose legislation directly to the people for a vote, and he had the power to veto legislation. The position was a key check on the power of the aristocracy.

Augustus didn’t get rid of it. He just adopted the tribunician power for himself. So you could go looking for a tribune of the plebs to represent you if you were plebeian, and still find him…he was just the Princeps himself, which kind of defeated the whole purpose, but literally, one could argue you hadn’t lost anything. The fall of the Republic took decades, as all the diverse checks and balances got consolidated into granting absolute power to one individual.

Paul Krugman has been reading some ancient history lately, too.

But the ’30s isn’t the only era with lessons to teach us. Lately I’ve been reading a lot about the ancient world. Initially, I have to admit, I was doing it for entertainment and as a refuge from news that gets worse with each passing day. But I couldn’t help noticing the contemporary resonances of some Roman history — specifically, the tale of how the Roman Republic fell.

Here’s what I learned: Republican institutions don’t protect against tyranny when powerful people start defying political norms. And tyranny, when it comes, can flourish even while maintaining a republican facade.

On the first point: Roman politics involved fierce competition among ambitious men. But for centuries that competition was constrained by some seemingly unbreakable rules. Here’s what Adrian Goldsworthy’s “In the Name of Rome” says: “However important it was for an individual to win fame and add to his and his family’s reputation, this should always be subordinated to the good of the Republic … no disappointed Roman politician sought the aid of a foreign power.”

I’m sure historians will look back on the recent history of the American republic and find lots of similar concerns — the gradual aggrandizement of power in the hands of the executive, with the willing help of a senatorial aristocracy (and in our case, a subservient press). It seems like a good idea when you’ve got a competent leader, a Caesar or an Augustus or even dour old Tiberius, but then a Caligula takes the reins and you realize your mistake.

But don’t worry. You can eventually get rid of a Caligula with assassinations, calling in the Praetorians, and treason trials, which of course fixes everything.

Live! In New York! It’s…me!

I’m joining a forlorn hope to call for a refusal to accept our electoral nightmare tonight, at 7pm Eastern. Do I think we’ll succeed? No. Do I think maybe we’ll be part of a movement that might nudge history a little bit? I hope so. All I know for sure is that I can’t just sit back and watch it happen with a stunned expression on my face.

I hope you’re all doing something to oppose this doom that we all seem to be knowingly hurtling towards, while reassuring ourselves it’ll all be fine. Because it won’t.

Another reason to dread the Trump regime

It’s time once again for the nightly Twitter bluster from our embarrassing president-elect.

What do we learn from this, other than that Trump can’t spell? What we should learn is that the world now thinks that America is weak. That was not a science vessel: it was a military ship probing submarine access points to and from Chinese ports. This was in international waters, so I’m not defending the Chinese seizure…but I can understand it, and most importantly, isn’t it obvious that China is confident the US will do nothing about it? They know we are soon to be lacking a serious head of state, with a clownish buffoon who is the product of foreign meddling in our politics, and so hey, sure, let’s poke the dull-witted twit a bit.

Expect more of this. It isn’t just terrorists — established world powers have been annoyed at American dominance for the past century, and they don’t mind tormenting the world’s biggest bully.