Boots on the Net

The U.S. Army invades the Fray.

You can learn a lot about Slate’s audience by following the  Fray. Articles about professional trades, like trucking or education, draw the attention of workers in the field. Write about politics and you’ll attract dogmatic partisans like a flame gathers moths. Thoughtful coverage of culture, literature, or foreign affairs appeals to hardly anybody. And, judging from the state of the Explainer Fray, U.S. service members care deeply about the weather in Iraq.

Last week, David Sessions answered whether Iraq really gets temperatures as high as 130 degrees. The short answer? It doesn’t. However, many current and former soldiers are quick to point out that it still feels that way, and many of the environments in which they work really do hit such numbers.

It’s a stark illustration of how deeply the Internet has transformed our access to information when soldiers deployed abroad can post to chat boards at home, criticizing the news in real time. While such firsthand reports may not be completely uncensored, they’re certainly immediate. Some are probably untrue, given how popular imposture is on the internet. But, there’s not much ground to disbelieve the assertions that Iraq is really hot.

Though participation by soldiers in our forum is interesting for its own sake, what they have to say is more interesting still. Over and over and over again the charge is leveled against David Sessions that he has somehow let down our troops by reporting the official temperatures of the Middle East. There are some reasonable critiques, such as lefty warmonger’s allegation that the official numbers are rigged to whitewash routine violations of international labor regulations. But the most common complaint is a semi-coherent version of an objection best described by smoresj: that such information could undermine domestic support for our troops by conveying a false impression of an easy standard of living for the troops on the front lines.

We’re in sorry shape, indeed, if our troops are depending upon a lie of six degrees. It’s sad to see so many troops (plus their friends and family) opposed to a mere statement of truth. I don’t think they’re giving the folks back home enough credit for realizing that Iraq is hot as hell, despite debate over the exact number of degrees. Nevertheless, there’s some fascinating material, too. If you’re curious about the mundane details of the war, there’s a lot of informative posts in the Explainer Fray. Check them out. GA7:30 p.m. PDT

Saturday, September 15, 2007

In two recent “Press Box” columns (Aug. 27 and Sept. 6), Jack Shafer criticized Clark Hoyt, the New York Times public editor, for worrying aloud about the damage inaccurate stories in the paper’s Web archives could do to the reputations of their subjects. Shafer objected to the very idea that personal reputation should be considered a personal interest, describing it as something that “actually resides in the minds of others.” This may be true, but the distinction has long been irrelevant to the common law, which holds libel a cause of action precisely because of the damage that can flow from others’ bad opinions. According to Shafer, the burden of fixing old inaccuracies shouldn’t fall upon the shoulders of the New York Times but rather upon the subjects of the stories, who can use the Internet to counteract misinformation.

This stance seems unfairly dismissive of Hoyt’s concerns, and more than a little self-serving. Has Jack Shafer, Slate’s editor-at-large and a career man of the press, let his self-interest overtake his judgment? The press certainly benefits from unaccountability when publishing falsehoods. It’s much less clear, however, that this privilege provides a net benefit to the public.

The potential impact of our online profile these days is undeniable, at least if we’re cursed with anything like a distinctive name. Employers routinely Google the names of prospective hires, provoking sharp debates over the ethics of such practices. Many people routinely Google up their romantic interests in advance of the second date. A simple Web search is even a tool for keeping tabs on old friends or family we’ve lost regular contact with. Whether you like it or not, your Google profile has an increasing power to define you, for good or for ill, in the eyes of others.

Shafer’s blithe response to this worry (“Get a Web page“) hardly constitutes an adequate response. As bagelwoman points out, few people can count on receiving the link love that Shafer’s column provided to Allen Kraus, the victim of a misleading fraud allegation printed in the New York Times. An ordinary individual has little chance of beating the net’s leading periodicals in a battle of Web optimization. In the world of ordinary people, exercising ordinary judgment, the consequences of misleading press coverage are nearly inescapable and potentially severe.

Whether the issue at hand is the Valerie Plame case, the Pentagon Papers, or even the venerable New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, the press is a persistent advocate of the supremacy of its privileges over competing public interests. This stance is hardly surprising, but those who must bear the costs of the nearly unfettered privilege of the press deserve a more convincing defense than simple expedience. While there are First Amendment absolutists outside the press corps, many Americans reasonably conclude that neither the Constitution nor common sense demands a free pass for the press to publish blatantly false information.

Back in July, Dahlia Lithwick brought attention to Antonin Scalia’s reported willingness to overturn the Supreme Court’s landmark libel ruling, New York Times Co. v. Sullivan. When one looks at the facts of case, so ably encapsulated by slasher_14, it’s hard to raise an objection to the decision’s outcome. Though the Supreme Court’s holding frustrated a manifest injustice, getting the merits right doesn’t guarantee your rationale will make good policy. The court’s heightened libel standard of “actual malice” leaves the press unaccountable for the harms caused by most inaccurate reports, such as the false allegation of corruption against Allen Kraus. The court’s ruling shifted the burden to the subjects of the false reporting. Under our current First Amendment regime, the cost of misinformation in “the paper of record” is borne by real people, who will likely suffer real injuries.

Clark Hoyt is right to wonder whether the Internet is increasing those harms. The rise of online archives and search engines may have upset the balance struck by an earlier court between the value to individuals of their personal reputations and the interests of the public in a free and open press. A free pass to print misinformation creates a real danger to the jobs, relationships, and reputations of those with the misfortune to cross a journalist’s path.

I can’t pretend to know the best policy approach to this problem. But, it is clearly an issue primed for discussion. Those of us in the press should feel an obligation to discuss the matter seriously if we expect the public to treat our prerogatives seriously. That means, at a minimum, analyzing the dilemma with a scrupulous regard for all of the interests at stake.

Do you think the Internet has changed the rules of the game for the First Amendment? If so, how? And what, if anything, should be done about it? We want to hear your opinions in The FrayGA3:30 p.m. PDT

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Is contemporary environmentalism motivated by genocidal fantasies? Responses to Daniel Engber’s analysis of calls for voluntary population control include several such accusations. Supporters for the proposition tend to argue that population reduction is coming; our only choices relate to how it will happen.

Debate in the Fray seems to hinge on quasi-theological assumptions about the worth of man. To not_abel, contemporary environmentalists fall on a continuum of apocalyptic thinking. Instead of the post-Armageddon landscape described by the prophet John’s Revelation, envfrk offers the vision of a world inhabited by saber-toothed rats, as foreseen by the prophet Dawkins.

There seems no hope for separating your position about humanity’s future from your stance on the intrinsic value of human life. Sakura proposes a veil of ignorance test, similar to the one proposed by John Rawls, which asks whether “you, as an unborn spirit floating around in the pre-life, [would] choose a 100% chance of being born into the world of 10 billion [or] a 16% chance of being born into a world of 1.6 billion?” The question seems to illuminate a chasm between debaters—an unbridgeable divide between those who find it a provocative starting point for inquiry and those who find it an absurd premise. A powerful proponent of “creation stewardship,” ptallon, best frames the issues at stake:

To suggest that one ought to worry about the eco-ethics of one’s progeny is to admit to the discussion an ugly and joyless consideration. To be asked to stand upon the brink of parenthood and calculate the carbon emissions of one’s progeny reveals a coldness at the core of the war on global warming. The problem with this kind of reasoning is not that it is illogical, but that it is merely logical. Such thinking cuts the heart out of any powerful movement for change by replacing deep, human value with consequentialist calculations. Suggesting that the best way to protect mother earth is to refrain from becoming a mother, then one wonders why exactly we are working to protect the planet? A desire for a world without humanity seems to carry with it a marked disdain for human life, and human worth. If humans are really the excrescence at the end of an evolutionary digestive tract, then reducing our numbers makes sense. Perhaps the planet is better off without us. But undercutting human value then calls into question our own responsibility for the planet. Are we then moral agents with a unique role, or something else, a poor thing the world would be better off without? And if so, what moral role to we play in protecting the planet?

This argument finds a secular advocate in garbagecowboy, who argues that “the idea that humanity is little more than a plague on mother nature and that humans should stop procreating is an esoteric and nihilistic belief that will never be held by anything more than a small fringe of the most radical of environmentalist liberals.”

Advocates of population reduction, however, insist that the problem is a very real technical one that cries out for a practical approach. JeZeus advocates taxing large families, while konark_girl urges a strong push for public education.

How effective would voluntary population reduction be? Benny the dog thinks that people don’t emit carbon, dollars do. The financial savings of childlessness might actually increase your carbon footprint more than procreation would. Zahniser7 worries about the consequences for the elderly of a rapidly decreasing population. And Xanny seemingly squares the circle of this problem, pointing out that adopting children is a surefire way to advance both environmental and humanitarian objectives.

Must we destroy the family in order to save the world? We want to hear your answer in the FrayGA4:50pm PDT

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

In her song about the brutal passage from androgynous childhood into sexualized adolescence, folk singer Dar Williams croons: “Now I’m in this clothing store/ and the sign says ‘less is more’/ more that’s tight means more to see/ more for them, not more for me.” Emily Yoffe’s recent  shopping excursion with her pre-teen daughter elicits much the same dismay at a culture that equates female attractiveness with bodily exposure.

Mothers identify with Yoffe’s plaint and vent their frustrations en masse. For mom of teen, even with an abundance of fashion savvy and resources, filling Lolita’s closet with nonsuggestive clothing has become “a true dilemma,” even more so on fairyqueen43’s limited income. For young girls who fail to conform to skinny norms, such as Melissaru’s “well-proportioned” but slightly round daughter, the ongoing quest for decent-fitting clothes “makes her feel just awful about herself, and more than one shopping trip has included tears.”

Lest we dismiss these maternal reactions as generational, the ranks of the scandalized include younger women, too. Twenty-one-year-old Nukapei inventories the tweener section of a women’s clothing shore: “Khaki skirts high enough to show off panties when the girl bends over (and some even before), plunging necklines, midriff-baring tops, and of course the ever-present snarky graphic tees. I wouldn’t want my 18-year-old sister wearing this sort of thing, much less if she was 10 or 12!” Another big sister of identical age expresses shock and indignation at the seemingly widespread phenomenon of younger girls who “ dress like total skanks.”

Denouncing the cultural trend toward tramp training, encouraged by “popular Bratz dolls” and “sexy clothes” marketed at an ever-younger female demographic, a wary 25-year-old mother wonders with some dread what her 2-year-old daughter’s fashion choices will be in 10 years.

As a former teen consumer of risqué attire, mochajasmine offers some reassurance to these jittery parents a decade after the fact: “For what it’s worth, I am anecdotal evidence that these shopping choices do not lead to tweenhood delinquency, promiscuity, and death.”

Plus ça change remember the 80s? Baci does, in vivid detail:

Satin hot pants and a satin jacket worn with Candie’s slides? Tight, pegged jeans (yeah, they did have high waists, though). Tight, girl-cut t-shirts with shiny glitter mottos on them?Everybody acts like this is all new stuff, when in fact I distinctly remember quite slutty fashions from my own girlhood, and pressure to wear them. I pretty much didn’t–my parents would never buy me that stuff.

Indeed, in the history of fashion—or so claimsPalabra—one can go back much further to “the very suggestive and ostentatious Rococo period” to discover similarly skimpy cuts for women and girls.

Redbeth77 accuses Yoffe of reading sexual innuendo into clothing where there is none, such as the pussy cat logo for Baby Phat (shortygurlang traces the etymology of the brand name for us here). As far as Victoria’s Secret is concerned, “I see nothing wrong with my daughter wearing their Pink line.” Adriannasanchez also tells reluctant parents to dispense with their Puritanism and get with the new fashion program.

EarlyBird turns a critique of oversexualized teenage clothing into an overreaching indictment of Western culture and its promiscuous ways. More nuanced is grantoe’s observation that the whole debate is “indicative of a deep neurotic split in our American psyches” regarding our hypervigilant protection of children (especially young girls) from sexual predators and our simultaneous sexualization of them.

Discover more about the fascinating world of girlwear in the Fashion Fray. AC6:10pm EDT