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November 2008

Notes from CSCW 2008

CSCW2008-logo I attended the 2008 ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work this past week in San Diego. There were a number of interesting people, papers and projects presented there, many focused on work, others focused on computer support for other kinds of cooperative and/or competitive activities.

During my first few years of blogging, I had been in the habit of compiling and posting careful and thorough notes from all the conferences and other events I attend, but I have not been very diligent about this practice - or blogging in general - since I began the practice of principally instigating at Strands Labs Seattle. This post will be a more abbreviated set of notes, focusing on a smaller number of personal highlights from the conference. Other sources of online information about the conference include slides and photos tagged with "cscw2008".

CoryOndrejka_441x500Cory Ondrejka delivered the opening keynote, on Recursive Collaboration: Building Linden Lab and Second Life. Cory was the co-founder of Linden Lab, who co-created Second Life, a user-created online world ("an online game without the game"), with 15 million accounts, 1 million active users, and $1 million / day in microtransactions in digital items and experiences. He is now Senior VP of Digital Strategy at EMI Music, but was willing to revisit a former career chapter and share insights and experiences on communication, innovation and collaboration in a set of 200 slides during his 45 minute talk [earlier career chapters included stints on a U.S. Navy submarine and at the National Security Agency].

Cory characterized collaboration as "a gateway drug" to technology, participation, entrepreneurship and community formation, and innovation as "productized knowledge", noting the importance of progressively decreasing barriers to with respect to capital, stigma and regulation in the Web 2.0 era, and communication as sharing information and experiences at a distance. He also defined a new term (to me): nichification - the ability to find what you want or value down the long tail of products and services, often through network of friends (rather than more traditional / authoritative sources).

His personal insights and experiences with the evolution of Linden Lab was also interesting. They started off with several desks right next to each other, promoting a culture of asking questions (which broadcasts what you’re working on,and  distributes wuffie - signaling the questionee is bright), and had a weekly "A’s & O’s" meeting (reviewing weekly accomplishments & objectives – noting that 60-65% of objectives accomplished is ideal if one is striving for innovation). As the organization grew, and became more distributed, they started eating their own dog food by using Second Life - the online world they were co-creating - as a platform for collaboration (hence the "recursive" nature of his talk). He also noted how they were able to practice organic and diverse hiring practices - hiring people who were already demonstrating creativity in various activities in Second Life - and emphasized that heterogeneous groups learn better than homogeneous groups. During the Q&A, I invited him to post his slides on SlideShare, and will add a link here if / when he does he has posted them here.

Kenton O'Hara presented a paper on Understanding Collective Play in an Urban Screen Game, in a session on Gaming in the Wild, describing experiences with the Red Nose game played on large BBC screens in urban areas in the UK. In the game, red blobs are superimposed on a large (5m x 5m) screen that shows a real-time camera feed of a public square, and people in the square - detected by the camera - can push blobs around on the screen. Kenton and his colleagues explored a variety of themes of great interest to anyone involved in public and situated display projects in - catchment area, zones of interaction, access and control, and the visibility of interactions. And, as is the case any time I see Kenton talk, my vocabulary was expanded, e.g., the catchment area - the population and/or geographical area served by an institution (or screen) referenced above. Prospective users experienced evaluation apprehension in considering whether to participate in a game; a compere - or master of ceremonies (another term to add to my lexicon of social instigators, which recently was augmented by a recent Kevin Marks blog post on tummlers, geishas, animateurs and chief conversation officers) - was instrumental in overcoming social inhibition.

In a session on Community Building, Andrea Grimes (Georgia Institute of Technology) presented EatWell: Sharing Nutrition-Related Memories in a Low-Income Community, a system for enabling people to record "voice memories" of attempts to eat well, and to enable others to listen to these voice memories. I don't remember too many details of the talk (nor any of the last talk in the session) - I was "on deck" to present in the middle slot - but although I was initially skeptical about the choice of voice (vs. text) for recording and replaying memories, my memory of the voice memories she played during her presentation is that they were emotionally evocative, and I suspect that emotional connection would be instrumental in changing behaviors.

My talk was a whirlwind tour (53 slides in 23 minutes) of The Context, Content & Community Collage: Sharing Personal Digital Media in the Physical Workplace, a system developed at Nokia Research Center Palo Alto along with Ben Congleton (University of Michigan) and Max Harper (University of Minnesota) in the summer of 2007. The C3 Collage was the latest generation of proactive display applications that can sense and respond in contextually appropriate ways to the people and activities taking place nearby (though it is now the second most recent generation, as we have yet another proactive display application - the Community Collage, or CoCo - deployed in a coffeehouse in Seattle). In the Nokia application, users could associate their Bluetooth devices (e.g., mobile phones) with one or more collections of photos on the Flickr photo sharing web service (their own photos or those of others), and whenever they were detected near one of eight 46" touch-screen computers around the lab, their photos would be added to a dynamic collage of images shown on the screen, creating new opportunities for awareness, interactions and the creation or enhancement of relationships in the workplace. Throughout the conference, I was encouraging as many people as I could to use SlideShare ("YouTube for Powerpoint"), and to demonstrate it's use - and practice shameless self-promotion - I'm going to embed the slides I used for the talk below.

Proactive Displays CSCW2008
View SlideShare presentation or Upload your own. (tags: strands nokia)

A session on Social Tagging included two papers and an extended discussion on the topic. In the presentation of the first paper, The Microstructures of Social Tagging: A Rational Model, author Wai-Tat Fu (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) described tagging as an instance of distributed cognition, wherein internal representations of individual users (mental concepts) interact with external representations (tags) to produce interesting aggregate usage patterns. Tagging was also described as a form of knowledge exchange (representation change induced by others), but I found myself wondering whether it was really knowledge exchange or opinion exchange (thinking back to the googlebombing episode linking the search term "miserable failure" to George W. Bush ... this was links in a search engine, not tags per se, but I do think it interesting to consider in this context). Of course, ever since a college course on epistemology, I've never been fully convinced that knowledge is anything more than widely held opinion(s) ... but I digress.

During the presentation of the second paper on social tagging, Influences on Tag Choices in, co-author Emilee Rader (University of Michigan) noted that there are both personal and social motivations for selecting tags. She described tags on the social bookmarking service as informational, i.e., they are organized to find, re-find and navigate information on the web. I agree with her claim that future tag choices are heavily influenced by tag choices that users have made in the past, especially with respect to exact wording (e.g., "blog" vs. "blogs" vs. "blogging" - a particular example that I have struggled with from time to time in my own use of; sometimes I opt for whatever word form I initially chose, but sometimes I opt for a new form that is more "popular". Emily suggested that tags in other services - (music), Flickr (photos) and YouTube (videos) - were not informational; it may be that she meant that tags selected by users of these services were primarily social - vs. personal[ly informational] - in nature, but I remember posting notes from CSCW 2006 on a paper by Kathy Lee, "What Goes Around Comes Around: An analysis of as social space" (who, incidently, posted her slides on SlideShare), highlighting the social motivations and practices within In any case, I thought that Mor Naaman hit the nail on the head during his discussion after the papers, suggesting that perhaps no one really knows what motivates users in their selection of tags in social media sites ... but I am glad people are looking into these issues.

Another session, on Building Relationships and Teams, lead off with a paper on Being Online, Living Offline: The Influence of Social Ties over the Appropriation of Social Network Sites. Co-author Bernd Ploderer (The University of Melbourne) profiled some users of BodySpace, a body-building online social network service (SNS). He distinguished friend-based SNS (e.g., Facebook), which are organized around people, enabling them to keep in touch with offline ties, with a "deeply entwined" connection between the online and offline, and what he called passion-centric SNS, (e.g., BodySpace and dogster) which are organized around a shared passion, and primarily enable people to connect with “strangers” who share their passions. Bernd also noted that bodybuilders appropriate SNS as a tool, theatre and community, but this seems to be the way users appropriate all SNSs, at least the successful ones (users and services). I really liked this distinction between passion-centric and friend-centric SNS, and wondered whether there any examples of successful special-purpose SNS that are not based on passions (vs. mere interests).

Kurt Luther (Georgia Institute of Technology) presented another paper in that session, on Leadership in Online Creative Collaboration (and he shortly thereafter posted his slides on SlideShare), which focused on the distributed online creative collaborative organization Pass-My-Flash 2, whose members work together to create short, Flash-based movie animations. These types of collaborations differ from some of the more famous examples (Wikipedia, Mozilla, Apache), with respect to completion, originality and subjectivity. Kurt highlighted three themes that are important for this type of collaboration: structuring, directing and integrating. What most struck me about his presentation were the quotes from project leaders that highlighted the delicate balance between power and empowerment, which I think apply to offline as well as online collaboration, and to forms of work beyond loose-knit groups of hobbyists:

  • If you’re collaborating, you gotta make everybody feel like they’re a part of it. You’ve got to make sure—you’ve got to make them feel like it’s all their movie. Because if it’s not, then they won’t want to work on it. (Tyler)
  • I just led ‘em. They did the rest. (Massimo) 
  • I don’t think of it as a position of power. I think of it as a position that enables me to … give them things to participate in. (Joseph R.) 

Finally, I want to note two papers that were focused on the use of technology by people helping people. The first was The View From the Trenches: Organization, Power, and Technology at Two Nonprofit Homeless Outreach Centers, in which co-author Keith Edwards (Georgia Institute of Technology) described an investigation into the use of technology at two homeless centers. What I found most interesting was the differences between the centers. Center A was focused on homeless activism and outreach, had a stratified organization with unclear division of labor, poor use of office technologies to support work coordination and collaboration, and workers who felt like indentured volunteers. Center B focused on employment-focused case management, had a flat organization and clear division of labor, relied on recognizable office technology (email, calendars, shared documents) and whose self-directed volunteers often came from within the ranks of clients. I found this particularly interesting due to my recent reading - and writing - about the technology employed by community organizers in the Obama campaign ... and wonder whether their "secret weapons" of the Internet, databases and psychology can play a broader role in helping more people help people more.

The other paper in this vein was Charitable Technologies: Opportunities for Collaborative Computing in Nonprofit Fundraising, in which co-authors Amy Voida and Steve Voida (University of Calgary) highlighted six ways that technology can be used to help organizations raise funds to help those in need, and offered a number of examples of organizations currently employing technologies to accomplish these goals:

  • Communicating Information about Nonprofits
  • Helping Potential Donors Discover Nonprofits
  • Enabling Donations
  • Enabling Directed Giving
  • Enabling Individual and Community Advocacy
  • Helping Nonprofits Learn about Technology

Unfortunately, I had to leave before the closing plenary, but the closing keynote speaker, Sara Diamond, attended the entire conference, and asked a number of insightful questions after several paper presentations. [Aside: I also asked a number of questions, and received subsequent positive feedback from both some questionees and others in the audience about those questions (for which I'm grateful); I've written before about questioning questioning, and I think I'm making progress in mustering the gumption to stand up and ask questions] I would have liked to have heard what she had to say, given the stage and a more significant allotment of time ... perhaps she'll post her slides to SlideShare.

David McDonald (University of Washington) and Bo Begole (PARC) did a nice job of co-chairing the conference (and in posting their opening and closing slides to SlideShare). In addition to their coordination of the logistics behind the event, they injected a playful dimension at the outset, with mismatched flipflops inserted in conference bags that they encouraged attendees to trade with each other in order to arrive at matched sets. Although I never actually exchanged flipflops, I did find other pretexts for meeting a number of new people and reconnecting with many friends and acquaintances.

Revenge of the Community Organizers

Obama-ProjectVote One of the low points of the recent U.S. presidential campaign for me - and there were many - was Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin's contemptuous dismissal of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama's earlier career chapter as a community organizer during her acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention:

I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a "community organizer," except that you have actual responsibilities.

At the time, I wondered how community organizers - on the left and on the right - and the people they work with (the community "organizees"?) felt about this perspective. There were reports the next day of how this snide remark galvanized Obama supporters, including some religious groups - my favorite response was "Jesus was a community organizer; Pontius Pilate was a governor" (heard on the Diane Rehm show). There were some compelling responses defending community organizing and noting how important this work is, in general ... and in elections:

The change voters are talking about this year builds on the shared problems community organizers have been helping people identify for decades. The change voters want builds on the solutions community organizers have been nurturing and putting into place, building the leadership of everyday Americans all across our country to demand that America work for everyone.

Scanlonplantcity It wasn't until I heard the most recent episode of NPR's On The Media - the segment entitled Net Routes, based, in part on a Wired article on Obama's Secret Weapons: Internet, Databases and Psychology - that this all came together for me, helping me understand the full irony of Palin's attack on Obama: the community organizing experience she so derisively mocked in her speech was actually a key to the success of his campaign!

The Barack Obama campaign's winning web strategy employed the latest in social networking to create a highly efficient update of old-fashioned politicking. Marshall Ganz designed the field-organizer and volunteer training systems that turned Obama's campaign volunteers into organizational leaders.

Ganz' emphasis on personal narrative as a means of empowering and engaging people was particularly poignant, given my recent reading of The Stories We Live By: Personal Myths and the Making of the Self, by Dan McAdams, in which he observes:

In order to live well, with unity and purpose, we compose a heroic narrative of the self that illustrates essential truths about ourselves.

I'm including an embedded link to the 6-minute audio for this segment, and a few quotes highlighting some of the most interesting and inspiring observations made by Marshall Ganz below.

[Ganz] helped develop a website to recruit and share information, and a weekend training program called Camp Obama, where volunteers created brief personal narratives to drive their message home.


The [community] organizing approach is that you hire full-time people, train them to be organizers, and their job is to recruit leaders from local communities, bring them together and equip them and train them to work together to reach out to their neighbors, the other people that live in the community, the voters themselves.


So there was a level of empowerment of volunteer leadership at the local level that is a theme that’s run all through this campaign. And that’s why you see the responsibility, the enthusiasm, the creativity. And that’s why when the campaign is over, as it is now, this isn't going to go away.


What we helped them understand is that the first thing they need to learn is how to articulate their own story, in other words, what is it that moved them to become involved and engaged, because it’s from their own story that they're going to be able to most effectively engage others. So when people leave, they leave equipped to do that. That’s sort of the foundational piece.

And in the initial series in California, we launched 200 teams in two weekends that, with the support of four staff people, built that operation out there to the point where it could make 100,000 phone calls a day. This is like an investment in civic assets, in local communities that no political campaign has done for years.

The right benefited from being rooted in social movements, which do this because that’s what social movements do. They translate values into action; they bring people in to work together. But on the progressive side, everybody had become marketeers. Everybody’d been marketing their cause or marketing their candidates as if it was another bar of soap, transforming people from citizens into customers.

What we did was bring the citizenship back in and put the people back in charge, and then put the tools in their hands.

While relatively few people attended Camp Obama or had access to the database made available to the official community organizers, I suspect that most voters did have access to - and did utilize - the other "secret weapons" used by the Obama campaign mentioned in the Wired article referenced above: the Internet and psychology.

Anyone who consciously or unconsciously constructed a personal narrative about what Obama - or McCain - means to them was engaging in a practice of personality psychology. I suspect that many of these personal narratives were influenced by other narratives that were accessed via the Internet, and that many people used the Internet to share their personal narrative, or at least their shared narrative, via the Internet (even via the simple act of forwarding an email to family, friends or acquaintances) ... suggesting a practice of social psychology.

So, although these interviews and articles are focusing on the formal community organizers, in some sense, it seems to me that the real impact of the Internet in this campaign - which was effectively promoted by the participatory approach embraced by Obama, Ganz and a legion of others - was to empower and engage people at the edges of the network(s).

DirtySouth As Arianna Huffington noted, the winner of the 2008 election was the Internet (and its users), and the loser of the 2008 election was Rovian politics [although, having listened to another segment in the same On The Media episode, The Dirty South, which incluced an interview with Stefan Forbes, director of Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story, who reviewed the dark legacy left by the "southern strategy" developed by Rove's mentor - "spin when you can, change the subject when you can’t and if all else fails, mine the voters’ resentment, and fear, usually of blacks" - I hope that what we have really witnessed is the end of Atwaterian politics.].

In any case, it seems to me that what the growing participatory affordances offered by the Internet, and Web 2.0, are ushering in an era of universal deputization of community organizers. I'm just glad that Obama, Ganz and their lieutenants had the experience and insight to ride this wave more effectively than their opponents.

The McCain campaign certainly had their own network of community organizers - as Ganz noted, the religious right had a very strong, pre-existing network ... although in my judgment, the fundamentalist and dogmatic orientation of many of these groups creates a different kind of network than one that is more open to diverse opinions and backgrounds (an "unfair" advantage, perhaps, among the differences between conservativism and liberalism I mentioned in an earlier post).

I am reminded of the classic Pogo cartoon, "we have met the enemy, and he is us" ... and thinking that perhaps this new movement represents a new twist on Pogo's observation:

We have met the community organizers, and they are us.

I hope that Obama and his community organizing lieutenants will now be able to direct the energies of this engaged citizen army - and find ways to deflect or co-opt the energies of the opposing, and often enraged, army of community organizers and organizees - in ways that will help us address the mounting challenges that we are facing.

A recent USA Today / Gallup poll suggests that a majority of us share this hope, and although I believe hope and dreams trump fears and smears, I also believe that, by itself, hope is not a strategy. Ganz noted the effectiveness with which the right has historically - at least in the Atwater / Rove era -  been able to translate values into actions ... it now remains to be seen whether / how Obama we can translate hope into post-election actions.

Hope and Dreams trump Fears and Smears

The speeches of the two U.S. presidential candidates Tuesday night were hopeful and inspiring, a welcome change from the fears and smears that dominated much of the campaign ... or, at least, one side of the campaign. John McCain delivered the most gracious concession speech I have ever seen, and Barack Obama delivered yet another inspiring - and gracious - victory speech shortly thereafter.

I had planned to post a blog entry summarizing some of the fears and smears promulgated by McCain, his running mate Sarah Palin, Fox News and other conservative voices - instances I'd been tracking via Twitter - after the election, but the combined positive boost of these two speeches leads me to let these go, and focus instead on hope and dreams. 

And, in letting go of fears and embracing hope and dreams, I'm reminded of a classic book by Gerald Jampolsky, Love is Letting Go of Fear, which I first read many years ago.

The Course [in Miracles] states there are only two emotions, love and fear. The first is our natural inheritance, the other our mind manufactures. The Course suggests that we can learn to let go of fear by practicing forgiveness and seeing everyone, including ourselves, as blameless and guiltless.
As each of us moves towards the single goal of achieving peace of mind for ourselves, we can also experience the joining of our minds that results from the removal of the blocks to our awareness of Love's presence.

John McCain's concession speech exemplified some of these ideals. I don't know whether McCain ever truly believed the fears that he and his cohorts were trying so hard to instill in the minds and hearts of the American people, but he certainly did his best to let these go - and urge his supporters to do so - during his speech.

Here are a few of the passages that I found particularly inspiring:

In a contest as long and difficult as this campaign has been, [Obama's] success alone commands my respect for his ability and perseverance. But that he managed to do so by inspiring the hopes of so many millions of Americans who had once wrongly believed that they had little at stake or little influence in the election of an American president is something I deeply admire and commend him for achieving.


These are difficult times for our country. And I pledge to him tonight to do all in my power to help him lead us through the many challenges we face.

I urge all Americans who supported me to join me in not just congratulating him, but offering our next president our good will and earnest effort to find ways to come together to find the necessary compromises to bridge our differences and help restore our prosperity, defend our security in a dangerous world, and leave our children and grandchildren a stronger, better country than we inherited.


Whatever our differences, we are fellow Americans. And please believe me when I say no association has ever meant more to me than that.

It is natural. It's natural, tonight, to feel some disappointment. But tomorrow, we must move beyond it and work together to get our country moving again.


I wish Godspeed to the man who was my former opponent and will be my president. And I call on all Americans, as I have often in this campaign, to not despair of our present difficulties, but to believe, always, in the promise and greatness of America, because nothing is inevitable here.

Barack Obama's victory speech also emphasized love - through the of language of hopes, dreams and unity - over fear, despair and divisiveness.

Here are a few of the excerpts from his speech that I find most inspiring:

If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.


It's the answer spoken by young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled. Americans who sent a message to the world that we have never been just a collection of individuals or a collection of red states and blue states.

We are, and always will be, the United States of America.

It's the answer that led those who've been told for so long by so many to be cynical and fearful and doubtful about what we can achieve to put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day.


There's new energy to harness, new jobs to be created, new schools to build, and threats to meet, alliances to repair.

The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even in one term. But, America, I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there.

I promise you, we as a people will get there.

There will be setbacks and false starts. There are many who won't agree with every decision or policy I make as president. And we know the government can't solve every problem.

But I will always be honest with you about the challenges we face. I will listen to you, especially when we disagree. And, above all, I will ask you to join in the work of remaking this nation, the only way it's been done in America for 221 years -- block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand.


What began 21 months ago in the depths of winter cannot end on this autumn night.

This victory alone is not the change we seek. It is only the chance for us to make that change. And that cannot happen if we go back to the way things were.

It can't happen without you, without a new spirit of service, a new spirit of sacrifice.

So let us summon a new spirit of patriotism, of responsibility, where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves but each other.


This is our time, to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids; to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace; to reclaim the American dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth, that, out of many, we are one; that while we breathe, we hope. And where we are met with cynicism and doubts and those who tell us that we can't, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes, we can.

Ever since that speech, I find that two songs keep swimming through my head. One is Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth), by George Harrison:

Give me love
Give me love
Give me peace on earth
Give me light
Give me life
Keep me free from birth
Give me hope
Help me cope, with this heavy load
Trying to, touch and reach you with,
heart and soul

The other song was triggered by a line in Obama's speech: "It's been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this date in this election at this defining moment change has come to America."

The music of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young inspires me more than the music of any other band. As I noted in my review of a CSNY concert in 2006, their song, Long Time Gone, is a "goosebump" song, and one of my favorite songs of all time.

It's been a long time comin'
It's goin' to be a long time gone.
And it appears to be a long
Appears to be a long
Appears to be a long,
Yes, a long, long, log time
Before the dawn.

Turn, turn any corner.
Hear, you must hear what the people say,
You know there's something that's goin' on around here,
That surely, surely, surely won't stand the light of day.

I've written about another verse, "But you know, the darkest hour, Is always just before the dawn", in another post (The Darkest Hour) in another, far less celebratory context, in which the song offered an unexpected catharsis.

Although I invoke it again here, in a truly celebratory context, I will also note that the song was written in response to the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, an event which many, including myself, see as the end of an earlier era of extraordinary hope. Listening to NPR this morning, a commentartor noted that Obama's promise that "we as a people will get there" invokes the spirit - and hopes and dreams - of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., from King's inspiring "I've been to the mountaintop" speech  ... the one he gave on the eve of his assassination.

[Update: I found videos of this speech - in two parts - on YouTube; including them below.]

The speech ends off with this inspiring and prophetic passage:

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! [emphasis added]

As I noted in an earlier post, on ignorance, indenciaries, ironies and inspiration:

The increasingly incendiary invective incited by the McCain / Palin campaign instill me with fear that Obama may meet a fate similar to other inspiring political figures from our naton's past. On this week's pledge week installment of This American Life, host Ira Glass played a segment from a Fresh Air earlier this year on Pete Hamill Remembers Robert Kennedy. I was deeply moved by Robert F. Kennedy's speech in Indianapolis the night that Martin Luther King was shot in Memphis, in which he raised the questions of "what kind of nation we are, and what kind of direction we want to move in". Many of those hearing the speech at the time were also moved: although there were riots in 180 American cities that night, there was relative quiet in Indianapolis.

I sincererly hope that the combination of speeches from McCain and Obama will put an end to the fears and smears represented by the ridiculous "Who is Barack Obama?" rhetoric, and help us focus instead on the questions RFK raised:

What kind of nation are we, and what kind of direction do we want to move in?

I believe the election of Barack Obama on Tuesday represents the beginning - or perhaps the continuation - of a hopeful answer to these vitally important questions, and I hope that we, the people, can collectively let go of our fears, and our politics of divisiveness, and embrace the love and courage that will be required for us to climb the mountain toward a more perfect union.

Conservativism, Liberalism and Independence

As the campaign draws to a close, two classic Doonesbury cartoons have been regularly recurring to me, a visual analogue to the aural experience of a song I can't get out of my head. One of them was the pithiest summary of the differences between conservatives and liberals I've ever read; the other was a parody of college students acting as sheeple, uncritically accepting anything and everything their professor says, despite his assignment of writing an essay on independent thought.

This campaign has been emotionally charged for me (and others). I generally try to be positive on this blog, and yet have been finding myself increasingly indignant from the [literally] incredible smears and fears shamelessly promulgated by the campaigns and their supporters. I've started using my Twitter account to vent some of this irritation by simply and briefly noting some of the acts I find most egregious - occasionally sprinkled with sparks of hope. 

The recent news that Gary Trudeau has created an "Obama Wins!" strip for Wednesday, based on his reading that "Nate Silver at is now giving McCain a 3.7% chance of winning" (though my reading of Today's Polls, 10/31, says "McCain’s win percentage is down to 2.8 percent") leads me to delve into these strips and describe how I see them as framing the current political climate in America.

Doonesbury-Conservatives-2003-07-13 In the first strip [first published on July 13, 2003], two Doonesbury characters who play the role of commentators on the public radio show All Things Reconsidered, liberal Mark Slackmeyer and conservative Chase Talbot III (who also happen to be homosexual lovers, and eventually became a married couple), discuss the differences between liberals and conservatives. The strip starts out with Mark watching Fox News, where an announcer trumpets "Fox News: we report, you decide!", to which Mark muses "That has to be the most cynical slogan in the history of journalism" [personally, I find their other slogan, "Fair and Balanced" to be far more cynical].

In the main portion of the strip, Chase sums up the differences between liberals and conservatives: "[Y]ou liberals are hung up on fairness! You actually try to respect all points of view! But conservatives feel no need whatsoever to consider other views. We know we're right, so why bother? Because we have no tradition of tolerance, we're unencumbered by doubt! So we roll you guys every time!" When Mark replies "Actually, you make a good point...", Chase responds, "See! Only a loser would admit that!"

As I noted in my last blog post - and as is reflected in many of my recent "tweets" - what irks me the most this campaign season is the ignorant and incendiary statements made and actions taken by some of my fellow Americans. Revisiting Doonesbury's characterization of conservatives, I can see that many of these statements and actions reflect the core conservative values of righteousness, intolerance and certainty.

Doonesbury-TeachingIsDead The willingness to consider alternative perspectives, think critically, and arrive at independent conclusions - hallmarks of liberalism, from Doonesbury's perspective - is the subject of the other Doonesbury strip that has been on / in my mind a lot lately. In this strip [first published on January 27, 1985], a professor is lecturing to students, who eagerly write down everything he says, without thinking about or challenging any of the increasingly provocative statements he makes:

  • "... and in my view, Jefferson's defense of these basic rights lacked conviction. Okay, any discussion of what I've covered so far?" [no response]
  • "Of course not, you're too busy getting it all down. Let me just add that personally, I believe the Bill of Rights to be a silly, inconsequential, recapitulation of truths already found in the Constitution. Any comment?" [no response]
  • "No, scratch that! The Constitution itself should never have been written! It's a dangerous document! All power should rest with the executive! What do you think of that?!" [no response]
  • "Jefferson was the antichrist! Democracy is fascism! Black is white! Night is day!"  no response].

After the professor slumps over the podium, decrying "Teaching is dead", two students turn to each other; one says "Boy, this course is really getting interesting", to which the other replies "You said it, I didn't know half this stuff."

Now, this strip was originally printed on January 27, 1985, shortly after Rush Limbaugh started his conservative radio show in Sacramento, but a few years before it made its debut on WABC-AM radio in New York during the 1988 campaign. I don't know if Doonesbury knew about the show at that point, but his strip perfectly illustrates the legions of Limbaugh fans - sometimes referred to as dittoheads - who unquestioningly accept and repeat the hateful, righteous, intolerant views he regularly espouses on his show. The strip also has current relevance, given the confusion about the First Amendment recently exhibited by Sarah Palin (the conservative Republican vice presidential candidate), the evangelical furor over [allegations about] Obama being the antichrist that I mentioned in my last post, and the growing acknowledgment (by conservatives) that conservativism is increasingly anti-intellectual and some going so far as to claim that conservatives are addicted to misinformation.

Although I do not listen to Rush Limbaugh nor watch Fox News regularly, I have heard and seen many clips from a variety of their shows, especially this election season, and all of them have exhibited some combination of righteousness, intolerance and certainty ... and none of them has exhibited anything that I would consider to be fair or balanced (though I want to note that I've never heard Rush refer to himself - or his show - as "fair and balanced" ... and in fact, he has strenuously argued against the Fairness Doctrine).

Now to be fair, Fox News is counterbalanced, to some extent, by MSNBC, a network which seems to be increasingly liberal - the "antithesis of Fox News". As I've noted before, MSNBC's Keith Olbermann is my hero ... or, at least, he was. I have to admit that as the campaign has worn on, it seems to be wearing down Olbermann, whose candid, direct and provocative style has become increasingly affected by righteous indignation ... and contemptuousness. In his recent Special Comment on "It's Palin doin' the pallin'" (embedded in my last post), which is both a fabulous refutation of Palin's charges against Barack Obama "palling around with terrorists" and a strong indictment on her - and John McCain's - associations with people who might be considered terrorists, he condescendingly refers to "poor Sarah Palin", and uses a mocking tone in many of his other references to her ... a tone I typically associate with Rush Limbaugh and the conservative pundits on Fox News.

In another dimension of "balance" between conservatives and liberals, I was very disturbed to see an article about a mannequin dressed up as Sarah Palin with a noose around its neck hung outside a house in West Hollywood this week, and then to read about an effigy of Barack Obama with a knife through its neck that was hung outside a house in Redondo Beach in response ... all in the spirit of Halloween "fun". Both of these effigies have now been removed after protests, and I was heartened to see that one of the protesters against the Barama effigy was a local McCain campaign official, Pete Kesterson [I do not know whether any Obama campain officials officially protested against the Palin effigy]. I was also heartened to see a video of Daniel Zubairi, a Muslim McCain campaign official, and other supporters, confront other supporters who were promulgating misinformation about Obama being a socialist with an Islamic background (though, disheartened to later read that Zubairi was then asked not to talk about the incident by the McCain campaign).

Finally, I want to also note that I was heartened - and humored - to see John (and Cindy) McCain's appearances on Saturday Night Live last night. Although there was some booing of John McCain from the audience, I have to say that the skits he appeared in seemed to strike a fair balance between the serious issues McCain wants to emphasize in the campaign and a rather self-effacing, humorous look at some of the issues I would have expected that McCain would not have wanted to emphasize. I have to say that the effect - for me - was to re-humanize McCain a bit, after a long, downward spiral of increasing negativity coming from McCain, Palin and their supporters (including Fox News and Rush Limbaugh).

Although SNL is often criticized by conservatives for having a liberal bias, the show has recently been willing to poke fun at liberals (e.g., House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Chairman of the House Financial Services Committee Barney Frank in an interpretation of the recent bailout of the banking industry) as well as conservatives (e.g., their interpretation of Katie Couric's interview of Sarah Palin).

To end off on a light note, I'll embed a couple of these videos below.

McCain QVC open:

Palin / Couric open

Oops! I just discovered that last night's show included an SNL parody of Countdown with Keith Olbermann, played by Ben Affleck: