american society, ruminations

Length and Strength

If you’ll indulge me, I’m going to try something. I’ll present the same argument three different ways. I hope that by the end, you’ll understand why.


The length of an argument is directly proportional to its strength.


Generally, the length of an argument is proportional to it’s strength. Barring excessively and pointlessly wordy arguments, five words are much less likely to convince than even fifty. Surely five words on taxation can energize those who already agree with you on the topic, but it’s much less likely to convince those that oppose you than is a thoroughly reasoned 500 words. There’s no denying that some may never be fully convinced, but they’re more likely to understand if they hear a thorough explanation than if they hear a sound bite.


I have this idea that the length of an argument is, generally speaking, directly proportional to it’s strength. That is: a long argument is far more likely to succeed in actually convincing someone to change their opinion than a short one. Now, having said that, I should add that not all arguments that are long will be strong. A long and rambling argument is a long and rambling argument. But given a roughly constant rhetorical strength and skill, a short quip is likely to leave the opposition in opposition.

Consider: “A woman has a right to privacy.” If you’re for a woman’s “right to choose” you’re probably convinced that that’s a good argument. But you won’t convince anyone standing outside an abortion clinic with a sign by such an argument. You may succeed, however, if you gave them a longer explanation about how you feel that a woman should be guaranteed a safe medical procedure when she feels it is necessary. And that you also hope that it’s rarely necessary. Surely a sudden conversion is unlikely, but I find it hard to believe that it wouldn’t be more likely.

So too with the argument for “higher taxes,” which the political left in most countries desires. Couched in those terms, it turns off everyone but the most ardent supporters. But expanded to explain all the good that those taxes would empower the government to do on behalf of its citizen, people would become more likely to accept the argument. Soon, they too might take to the streets shouting “higher taxes.” Again, they’re not likely to convince many that way, but they’ll learn.

Much of people dissatisfaction with the “sound biting” or all cultural and political arguments is because they understand the implicit logic of the relationship between length and strength. They understand that you’re much less likely to convince a person in a 30-second television commercial than in a 30-minute discussion. I think that implicit understanding should not only be illuminated, but expanded so that everyone will finally come to understand the argument.

american society, politics

What’s Wrong With Talking?

NYTimes.comKristol (NY Times)

A character like William Kristol is often caricatured by America’s left. Since he joined the New York Times‘s Op-Ed staff, he’s provoked even more ire for both invading what’s usually seen as “home court” as well as being, well, not spectacular (even if no columnist is). His huge factual error of last week deserved the criticism it got.

And even as I’d like to take pity on such a magnet for criticism, I’m about to tell you how this week’s column is wrong. Though he was far more measured than some of the conservative ideologues he’s often confused with, the one problem–and conclusion–Mr. Kristol had about Barack Obama’s infamous speech on race was absurd:

With respect to having a national conversation on race, my recommendation is: Let’s not, and say we did.

To be fair, Mr. Kristol makes the valuable and accurate point that endless accusations of racism traded across massive chasms are useless. There’s no denying that. He also suggests correctly that,

What we need instead are sober, results-oriented debates about economics, social mobility, education, family policy and the like — focused especially on how to help those who are struggling. Such policy debates can lead to real change — even “change we can believe in.”

But Mr. Kristol’s failing, the reason his conclusion strikes such a dissonant note, is that he’s misunderstanding “a nationwide conversation about race” to mean “a televised shouting match that does nothing but increase grievance.” I share his opinion that the latter is a bad and useless thing, but I also know that the former isn’t alway code for the latter.

One salient example of how we can really learn and teach something about race was taught to the crew on MSNBC’s Morning Joe by Mike Huckabee, who said:

As easy as it is for those of us who are white, to look back and say “That’s a terrible statement!” I grew up in a very segregated south. And I think that you have to cut some slack–and I’m gonna be probably the only Conservative in America who’s gonna say something like this, but I’m just tellin’ you–we’ve gotta cut some slack to people who grew up being called names, being told “you have to sit in the balcony when you go to the movie. You have to go to the back door to go into the restaurant. And you can’t sit out there with everyone else. There’s a separate waiting room in the doctor’s office. Here’s where you sit on the bus…” And you know what? Sometimes people do have a chip on their shoulder and resentment. And you have to just say, I probably would too. I probably would too. In fact, I may have had more of a chip on my shoulder had it been me.

Mike Huckabee–to the apparent shock of much of America’s left–shows us, in the surprise of the Morning Joe crew, what an honest conversation about race can look like, and teach us.

To his immense credit, Barack Obama has long stood by the fact that a conversation is neither support for the person with whom you are talking (as would be the case if he were to talk to Iran or Cuba), nor is a forum for people to shout grievances at each other and walk away unchanged. A conversation hold implicit within it a finding of some common ground of some, however subtle or unnoticed, new awareness of the commonality between the participants.

Perhaps Mr. Kristol simply missed the point that Jon Stewart made so cogently, while doing his best Walter Cronkite, “And so, at 11 o’clock a.m. on a Tuesday, a prominent politician spoke to Americans about race as though they were adults.”

american society, big ideas, personal

On Privilege

White privilege, as you may know,

is a sociological concept describing the advantages enjoyed by white persons beyond what is commonly experienced by the non-white people in those same social spaces (nation, community, workplace, etc.). It differs from racism or prejudice by the fact that a person benefiting from white privilege need not hold racist beliefs themselves.

There is also some noteworthy scholarship on male privilege and heterosexual privilege. All of it speaks to the ways in which being white, male, and straight allows me the freedom to never be asked to speak on behalf of any group in which I was randomly born a member. How my poor behavior is rarely seen as a reflection on anyone but myself. How most people will assume that I’m intelligent, safe, and trustworthy. How history, as conventionally told, is brimming with people who look like me and by people like me. How role models that look like me are everywhere in this culture. How people are unlikely to harbor any negative ideas about me because of who I am.

And aside from the privileges bestowed by being white, male, and straight, I’m college educated. My parents are still married. My parents are upper-middle class. I’m an American. I live in the United States of America. I have little discernible accent (at least to American ears). All of these are seen as things that make me a better person, despite my responsibility for none of them.

And those are merely those privileges that I can enumerate right now without effort. I’m sure there are many more that I’ll discover later and probably untold ones I’ll never be made aware of.

Discussion of privilege can quickly degenerate into theoretical issues and nit-picking on substance. Surely, you might argue, there must be some privilege’s in being black, Latino, or Asian. I wouldn’t contend that there aren’t. But that’s immaterial to the fact that white (or male or heterosexual) privileges in most countries–and especially this one–are far more numerous than those conferred by other identities.

And surely white privilege–even all the privilege’s I possess–doesn’t dictate my lot in life. A poor gay black man from Zimbabwe could make himself far more successful than I’ll ever be. But I feel rather certain that he’d have had to fight a lot harder to get there.

If–or when–one recognizes that they’ve received so many unearned privileges the obvious question is: what do I do about it? One bad answer to that question the easiest to give: nothing. To assert that though you’ve received these unearned privilege’s you should essentially forget about them. Or worse, you can make the absurd and disgusting claim that they’re rightfully yours because “it was earned for you by the hard work and self-discipline of your ancestors and relatives, whom you should learn to appreciate.

There is something to be said for conscious awareness of it. To recognize and understand what it may be like on the other side of that divide. It wasn’t until I spent fifteen minutes in a mostly-black grocery store near downtown Detroit that I ever recognized what it’s like to be on the minority side of any social situation. Aware that even if these people meant me no harm–and I’m sure of that–there was the immutable fact that I felt out of place. For a white heterosexual male who has lived most of his life in predominately white parts of a predominately white state it was an eye-opening experience.

Real awareness, I think, leads directly to action. Perhaps the greatest action you’ll ever undertake is to spread awareness of these privileges among others. Perhaps you’ll just vote for politicians who you think understand and would do their best to countermand these unearned privileges. Perhaps you’ll become an activist against these privileges.

Perhaps you’ll do absolutely nothing. But I do hope you’ll at least think about what a privilege you’ve been given, to be able to ignore the ways in which you’re privileged. The unprivileged have no such choice.

american society, big ideas, ruminations

Signal, Noise, and Lou Dobbs

Jarrod Trainque (flickr)CNN “News”

Signal to noise ratios are something most people are at least mildly familiar with. They’re the reason that you either turn off the radio or change the station as you drive out of the range of the station you were listening to.

But where radio on road trips is the obvious place to begin this analogy, it’s certainly not the end. Signal to noise ratios come in to play everywhere. Maybe you’ve picked up a magazine and had to put it down because the make-up or computer parts ads easily outnumbered the interesting content of the magazine. Maybe you’ve made the same decision about a website. Too many pop-ups, pop-unders, or just plain old ads. Maybe you “detest” “corporate” radio because of “all the ads”–my apologies for three uses of ironic quotation marks in the same sentence.

But advertisements aren’t all this is about. Certainly advertisements are an easy example. When you’re watching television, listening to the radio, reading magazines, or surfing the internet, advertisements are easily recognizable. Because ads are easy to recognize it’s easy for us, as consumers, to decide that they clearly constitute “noise” against the “signal” of the show or article we are seeking.

But advertisements aren’t the only type of noise out there, and I would hardly allow that they are the most pernicious. We know them and clearly recognize them as noise (perhaps excepting those during the Superbowl) advertisements are easy for us to filter out. Product placement, when done well, can be much harder to filter out than traditional advertising–hence it’s premium position in the minds of advertisers.

And that’s to say nothing of the hard-to-find signal in other places. For example, a few years ago I gave up on cable “news.” The signal to noise ratio was creating something far worse than mere advertising or even an out-of-range radio signal. The signal itself was corrupted. Not only were the commercials “noise,” but the content itself was essentially valueless. Were CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News the only ways to get the news I may have tolerated their pettiness, but in a world with so many options in so many mediums sitting through the noise of commercials and the noise of the channels’ shrill commentators seemed a fool’s choice.

Now what I consider “noise”–the churlish pettiness of commentators like Bill O’Reilly and Keith Olbermann–may be considered by others to be the signal. Surely both men produce shows far more interesting than they would by blindly reading wire stories, and for some that’s enough. And indeed it’s roughly the same calculus–“It’s news and entertainment”–that I use to excuse the regularly petty antics of Jon Stewart’s The A Daily Show.

There are multiple points that one could unravel from all of this, but the most important is this: you’ve always got to consider what you want, and if what you’re looking at is giving it to you. It’s very easy to say “I want to be informed about the news. CNN is about the news. I’ll watch CNN to be informed.” The logic is faultless, but the results are ugly. Anyone who watches Lou Dobbs and thinks they’re being meaningfully informed about the world is severely misguided.

If there’s one societal trend I’m allowed to blindly lament without any evidence it exists, I’ll choose this: People seem less skilled about distinguishing between what’s valuable or not and using those judgments to determine their habits. They seem to flock to people and ideas and then abandon them without ever considering if they’re personally getting anything from either act.

Now I have no basis for that lament, so I must retract it. But I think this advice remains salient: Think before you watch, or listen, or read. Please.

american society, politics, USA

Watching America’s Game

IowaPolitics.comObama Campaigning in Iowa

It’s chaos. It’s a circus. It’s a money parade. It’s undemocratic. It’s pointless. It’s cheap drama. It’s the real American Idol.

That’s right everyone, it’s the middle of America’s presidential politicking season.

I could make a list, but I doubt I need to. You know that many people–in America, but especially in stable parliamentary systems–find this whole mess in which America is now submerged mildly absurd. Myself, I fluctuate between hearty agreement with their bafflement and tut-tutting consternation with the foolishness of the critique.

First, a few points. The way the Democratic party’s contest is held in Iowa is absurd, perhaps even undemocratic. The priority given to Iowa, New Hampshire, (now) Nevada, and South Carolina is, at best, unfair. The rush to have the earliest nominating contest has, this year, been harmfully chaotic but is a direct consequence of the truth of the last sentence. Too much money is raised and spent in the quest for a party’s nomination.

Having made all the necessary concessions to critiques, I’ll now heartily and blindly defend America’s system.

The most important point is that the system I defend is open. I wouldn’t go so far as to claim it’s always democratic, but it usually is. And open and democratic are better than most parliamentary systems can claim in nominating their candidates for leadership.

It’s no secret that Gordon Brown was to be Tony Blair’s successor from the first day that Labour took power in Britain. And it’s also no secret that only politicians determined that point. Lay members of the party had no say in who would lead the party. It’s like the way American Vice Presidents are selected–behind closed doors with unknown calculations being made.

But that’s also the way that parliamentary parties pick their leaders, and thus their analog of President. In America, a candidate has to win the support of a plurality of his party’s members, and then a plurality of the country’s electoral college voters (a chastisable system in itself, but not our topic here). This seems to me far more democratic than a system whose candidates are selected by a small group of full-time politicians whose party is than approved by the people.

In America’s system, a candidate must be liked and chosen by normal people. They can’t merely call in a small number of favors within the party, they must be chosen as the best candidate by a lot of non-politicians. And I don’t see how that’s a bad thing. This circus may be a dislikable result of a system that tries to give people–normal people–a say, but it gives people a say.

And then there’s this: I find this game we’re playing–however over-moneyed, shallow, and pointless–at least a little bit exhilarating. The result may not always be perfect, but it’s more exciting and democratic than any other system I’ve seen.

american society, USA, world

“There is almost no problem we can solve all by ourselves”

Source: cursedthingBill Clinton

Former President Bill Clinton was on Charlie Rose last Friday. He said a lot of interesting things, and though they also did a fair bit of rehashing tired arguments about the presidential campaign, it is a pretty good interview to watch.

Without question, the line that most caught my attention was this one: Mr. Clinton said, making what felt like a rather precarious jump, that the American people now know as they never have before that “there is almost no problem we can solve all by ourselves.” That America’s citizenry recognizes that the problems we face as a country: terrorism, nuclear proliferation, climate change, health, and immigration, are all outside of the control of any single government, even the most powerful.

Though Clinton wouldn’t have been a good politician if he regularly denigrated the intelligence of the American people–as I sometimes think is appropriate–I do think he’s overstated the case. One doesn’t have to look very hard in this country to find people as convinced as ever that America has the right to impose its will upon the world. That its policy can and should be to unilaterally do whatever it wants, whenever it judges itself justified.

I have no doubt that those who easily forget that the United States is merely one country in a much larger world is shrinking and continues to shrink. But I find it incredibly hard to accept the argument that the whole populous has come to this revelation.

To be fair, Mr. Clinton is doubly right. More Americans than ever realize that their government doesn’t run the world, and every day a few more do. Further, he’s right in that the world is indeed a less “Amerocentric” place than at any other time since the Second World War.

Certainly, the attacks on September 11, 2001 shook a number of people out of the delusion that they lived in an impenetrable fortress from which they can run roughshod over the whole world and never face any consequences. Unfortunately, from there they went on to allow Mr. Bush to convince them that the wisest course to restore their illusory security was to depose Saddam Hussein–a hideous man no doubt, but hardly a grave threat to American security.

It is in Mr. Bush’s nearly-unilateral, (now known to be) misguided, and poorly executed invasion of Iraq that many Americans realized that they cannot persist as a hegemon. So too has Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Bush’s intransigence on climate change, and the many failed attempts to reform America’s broken immigration laws.

All of this has made clear that Americans do not have sole control over their own destiny. Though I hate the over-simplistic term, “the emergence of China” has clearly changed the world. For one, America’s recent economics hardships have been far more localized than many expected.

There was a time when a devaluation of the American dollar was an absolutely terrifying scenario for world economics, but it hasn’t had the expected debilitating impact. As the world slowly decouples from the formerly-all-important American economy (and thus its government), this country, like Britain before it, will have to recognize that it is not the king of the world.

Love or hate the former President, he is right about that.

american society, politics, world

Of Teddy Bears and Ignorance

By now you’ve probably heard something about a teddy bear in the news. But it seems to me that the way people understood the story had a lot to do with where they heard about it. So in the tradition of this piece, I’ve created two very different interpretations pared down from different news sources.

First we have, edited from Andrew Heavens’s story of last Friday, what I like to call “Crazy Muslims At it Again”:

KHARTOUM (Reuters) – Hundreds of Sudanese Muslims, waving green Islamic flags, took to the streets of Khartoum on Friday demanding death for the British teacher convicted of insulting Islam after her class named a teddy bear Mohammad.

“No one lives who insults the Prophet,” the protesters chanted, a day after school teacher Gillian Gibbons, 54, was sentenced to 15 days in jail and deportation from Sudan.

At least 1,000 protesters shook their fists or waved banners or ceremonial swords and chanted religious and nationalist slogans after leaving Muslim Friday prayers. Banners called for “punishment” for Gibbons, and some protesters burned newspapers that contained pictures of the teacher.

Several hundred protesters made a brief stop at the closed but heavily guarded Unity High School, where Gibbons worked, but did not attempt to go inside. The school was guarded by five truckloads of police in riot gear.

The protesters marched from there to the British embassy where several hundred surrounded the ambassador’s residence, chanting religious slogans. There were no reports of violence.

Gibbons was charged on Wednesday with insulting Islam, inciting hatred and showing contempt for religious beliefs because the class toy had been given the same name as the Muslim Prophet Mohammad.

Under Sudan’s penal code, she could have faced 40 lashes, a fine or up to a year in jail. But Gibbons was convicted only of insulting religion.

This is how most people I’ve heard talking about the story see it. This is terribly unfortunate because even Heavens’s piece contains some insight into the role the Darfur crisis may have had in the actions of the government in Khartoum and the loyalist protesters.

The second version of the story is stolen from The Economist’s coverage, and I’ll (verbosely) call it “West Misunderstands Khartoum’s Feeble Attempt to Exploit Religious Row”:

FOR anyone who is labouring to improve Christian-Muslim relations, or stop civilisations clashing, it is a painful setback: a well-intentioned Western woman who has volunteered her services as a teacher in a land stricken by conflict and poverty, only to find herself denounced by a local colleague and incarcerated in horrible conditions.

Gillian Gibbons, a 54-year-old teacher from Liverpool, was sentenced on Thursday November 29th to 15 days in prison for “insulting religion”, after allowing her pupils at a school in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, to name a teddy bear Muhammad.

When the story broke in the British press this week, it was widely reported that she might face up to 40 lashes, or six months in jail, if she were found guilty on all three of the charges laid against her. The incident happened in September and caused no protest among parents at the time. At one point the affair seemed to be spinning out of control as groups of angry men gathered outside the police station where she was held.

For Muslims in Britain and other democracies, the story was a deeply depressing one: so many of its features, including the fact that it happened in the run-up to Christmas, seemed almost calculated to resonate with British tabloid readers, who may not know much about Sudan or Islam (or any other faith) but have strong feelings about teddies, tiny tots and motherly teachers.

In more elevated western circles, it is becoming commoner to hear the view that Islam itself (rather than any extremist interpretations of the faith) is posing a challenge to western values that must be resisted. And if that view becomes more respectable, so too does a defensive Muslim reaction, which is often tinged with geopolitical grievance.

To observers who know Sudan, the whole affair seems to have become entangled with the broader stand-off between the government in Khartoum and the Western countries, including Britain, that have pushed for the United Nations to intervene in the appalling humanitarian crisis in Darfur. All diplomatic exchanges between the Sudanese government and Western ones, whether they concern refugees or teddy bears, take place against that background.

The Economist’s admirable piece goes on to discuss the role of capital punishment in Islam–worth reading if you’re interested. I should also point to another responsible (if almost as tardy as my own) perspective on this event form Anne Applebaum’s “The absurd Sudanese teddy bear controversy” at Slate.

What the difference between the two stories above makes clear is the painfully high cost the world pays for ignorance. The gap between seeing the “teddy bear row” as another example of Muslims doing crazy anti-Western things and seeing it as a desperate attempt by Khartoum to get as much leverage as it can to prevent outside intervention in Darfur is a big one.

Those who read the story the first way go away more convinced than ever about the massive threat posed to Britain or America by what many like to call “Islamofacism.” Those who read it the second way are essentially aware that the event, though ugly, is a product of the wishes of a fearful government and a few loyal supporters–nothing more.

I do think reporter for the major news agencies–Reuters, AFP, the AP–could do a much better job moderating the coverage of events like this, since their articles are read by the vast majority of laypeople. But I think it would be both unfair and short-sighted to castigate them for their occasional failings.

Mostly, I just wish that everyone–myself included–were more willing to withhold judgments on the things we don’t understand. And the complex geopolitics of Sudan and the diversity of Muslims are two things I certainly don’t understand. Perhaps hoping we can accept before judging is a lost cause, but I’m pretty sure lost causes are the only ones worth hoping for.

american society, OPW

OPW: Norman Mailer on America

Norman Mailer died two weeks ago, and so I’m slow on the uptake. But I’d rather quote something interesting and out-of-date that timely and uninteresting. So on today’s “Other People’s Words,” what Norman Mailer told Charlie Rose about his country in 1998.

You know, I think we live in the most exceptional country ever for a writer, because there’s so many aspects of it.

I don’t know about other writers but I know that I’ve had an odd love affair with America. As if I were married to this incredible woman who I half loved and half hated. And all through my work I’m always thinking of her, “Oh God! There she’s gone and done it again!” It always happens that you’re so disappointed just as you’re begining to get excited about her.

There are many disappointments to living in America because I always think it’ll get better and it doesn’t. It gets worse. The architecture in America, for example, has gotten worse every year for the last 40 years.

Can you think of anything that has gotten better?

Yeah, the MTV has gotten better and better.

american society, personal

Happy Thursday!

I’d planned on writing something today, but when, on rising, I was greeted by four inches of accumulated snow my resolve to do so quickly cracked and eventually crumbled. Already somewhat interested in making Thanksgiving (it’s tomorrow in United States) an extended break, I was unable to do any serious thinking.

So, Americans (and perhaps non-Americans too) enjoy tomorrow. I think it’s just fabulous that we in this country have compartmentalized one of most important sentiments in the world to fit onto a single calendar day on which we worry about little other than food and professional football. I consider it a blessing that on the day we named for gratitude our central societal concerns have become gluttony and sloth. This Thursday is truly a great day to be an American.

american society, ruminations

“Working to Live” and Other Lies

You hear the complaint a lot: “too many American live to work when they should really be working to live.” The dichotomy always rang false to me, and I finally figured out why.

The first problem is that this, like most dichotomies, is completely false. To demonstrate this, I’ve compiled a short list of the inane dichotomies created by the rhetoric of modern American politicians. “You’re either with us or against us.” “My opponent is a tax-and-spend liberal while I support tax cuts [but can’t pay for the programs you’re asking for without taking massive loans from China].” “You either support our troops or oppose the war.” “You’re either a patriot or a ‘cut-and-runner.'” “You’re either a liberal or a conservative, a Republican or a Democrat. Come on, pick a side, we’re at war!”

This dichotomy of “living to work” or “working to live” is no less false than the ones above. It divides the world into two camps, neither of which has much basis in fact. It ignores the inherent nuance of life, people, and worldviews. But dichotomies, even false ones, can be useful. This one, unfortunately, is not.

The real problem with this dichotomy is that neither possibility is a very good or realistic one, especially in an America where one’s identity is built in no small part on their work. If you “work to live,” your life is regularly put on hold for 8 hours out of every weekday, roughly half your waking life–wasting half of your life is no way to live. On the other hand, if you “live to work” you’re somehow without motivation or method any time you’re not in, thinking about, or talking about the office–hardly a life worth living.

Because the two options in this dichotomy are both bad ones, the most rational thing to do is opt out. But as I said, we could have better–though clearly far from perfect–dichotomies. Perhaps the most useful one on the topic of work is “for love or money.” This dichotomy has the same inherent flaws of all the artificial binaries dreamed up for rhetorical ease, but I have little doubt that it’s more useful.

There is nothing inherently bad about “working for money,” but it’s hardly as good as “working for love.” To this day, one my biggest hangups about the corporate world is that I feel pretty strongly that most of the people there are “working for money.”

Working for money can be fine, especially if you don’t much mind what you’re doing or find it ethically questionable. But a devout Catholic working at an abortion clinic for the money would probably suffer incredibly because she was “working for money.” Fortunately, for most people “working for money” isn’t half as bad as that.

“Working for love” is, almost without question, everyone’s ideal. If everyone were able to do jobs they loved, I have little doubt that people in this country would be happier. Doing work you love–while making enough money to live comfortably–is what all people would do if they had the chance. Some people probably never have the chance, some people probably never realize they have the chance, and some people probably never want to see a pay cut.

If forced to chose some binary that illustrated people’s relationship to their working lives, “living to work/working to live” is not one I would ever choose. “Working for money” and “working for love” is a better dichotomy. It implies that there is a type of life in which work has meaning without its sole meaning being work.

Having said that, I would prefer that we banned all dichomoies, or at least disclaimed them. Asking: “Given a binary choice between ‘working for love’ and ‘working for money,’ which are you doing?” is far better than asking “Are you a liberal or a conservative?” The first embraces the falseness of the choice while the second denies the existence of alternatives. And there are always alternatives.