From Ron Paul opposing the Civil Rights Act … to exclamation points and underwear. Ahh, the Internet…. (More)

Uggh, Hrmm, Cool! (Non-Cynical Saturday)

Rather than a series this week, Morning Feature has hopped around several topics. Thursday we explored the conservative frame Just Call It Even. Yesterday we looked at the Repeal Amendment proposed by Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY) and five other Republicans. Today we hop to hopping around on the Internet.

Candidate Ron Paul III

Yesterday in New Hampshire, Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) announced that he will, once again, run for president. This is Rep. Paul’s third bid, having run in 1988 on the Libertarian Party ticket, and in 2008 for the GOP nomination. The announcement offered Rep. Paul a chance to indulge his favorite pastime: saying ridiculous things on cable news. Last night on MSNBC’s Hardball, Rep. Paul said he would have voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act had he been in Congress. Not because he’s racist, mind you. He says he opposes government-imposed racism like Jim Crow laws. But he claims the landmark law went too far by banning segregation in private business:

I believe that property rights should be protected. Your right to be on TV is protected by property rights because somebody owns that station. I can’t walk into your station. So right of freedom of speech is protected by property. The right of your church is protected by property. So people should honor and protect it. This gimmick, Chris, it’s off the wall when you say I’m for property rights and states rights therefore I’m a racist. That’s just outlandish.

Libertarians often argue that property rights are the basis for all other rights, thus property rights should supersede all other rights. It’s a convenient argument for people who own lots of property and think they should get special privileges. (Libertarians insist those are not special privileges, as anyone who owns lots of property should have them.) Apparently freedom of speech only exists if you own some piece of the media, and religious freedom only exists on church property.

Lest that absurdity go unnoticed, Rep. Paul went on CNN to say he’d abolish FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, because it’s immoral for government to “take care of us when we do dumb things.” According to Rep. Paul, paying taxes to insure each other through government agencies like FEMA is immoral. We should buy our own insurance or take our chances and hope for charity if disaster strikes. So insurance is okay, as long as it’s voluntary (and for-profit). Never mind that natural disasters hit pretty much everywhere. Never mind that many states had to pass laws forcing insurance companies to cover natural disasters, or set up government insurance plans.

And, most importantly, never mind that studies in behavioral economics show that expecting people to opt-in to the right decision is usually bad policy:

If you want to discourage bad decisions, make the good decision the default. That’s what FEMA and other forms of government ‘insurance’ and cost-sharing do. Too few of us would choose to (or can afford to) pay for things we need or may need someday, so we make sharing those costs through taxes the default.

Exclamation Points and Underwear

Of course, this brings us to exclamation points and underwear. Because what else would you think of when someone says “Ron Paul” or “behavioral economics?”

Hold on. There is a logical chain there, but it starts with a personality flaw.

I like to scan reader comments when I research. Maybe I’m a masochist, or maybe I just like to see what other ideas are floating around an issue. Maybe both. Regardless, I was scrolling through the reader comments in the TPM article about Rand Paul and one reader offered a snark which was not detected as snark, prompting a mention of Poe’s Law. I hadn’t heard of Poe’s Law, and since it was very early in the morning I sneaked into BPI’s state-of-the-art High-Energy Meta Mojo Elucidation Detector (HEMMED) Lab and turned on the official BPI Googlizationalizator. (Thankfully, that is nowhere near the Red Button.) Poe’s Law states:

Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is impossible to create a parody of Fundamentalism that SOMEONE won’t mistake for the real thing.

Proposed in 2005 by Nathan Poe on an Internet forum discussing evolution, Poe’s Law has since been broadened to apply to any parody of extreme ideologies. Parody and satire rely on taking a bad idea to the extreme, but it’s hard to tell the Offered For Satire extremes from the No We Really Mean That extremes. BPI’s NewsHound learned to follow Poe’s Law after a reader mistook a parody from the Onion for actual news. Links to the Onion in Noontime News now have a Satire tag.

Research suggests Poe’s Law is not merely anecdotal. A 2009 Ohio State study found that many conservative viewers thought Stephen Colbert only pretends to use parody on The Colbert Report, and that he actually supports conservative views. Their findings were consistent with a corollary to Poe’s Law: parodies of extreme ideas will be mistaken for actual advocacy by many who believe the extreme idea (“Damn right!”), and actual advocacy of extreme ideas will be mistaken for parody by many who do not (“He had to be joking…”).

And that leads to exclamation points and underwear. No, really, it does. It’s like this. Back in 2009, The Telegraph‘s Tom Chivers wrote an article on Internet rules, and that article mentioned Poe’s Law. The Official BPI Googlizationalizator picked up that article and of course I had to read it for the sake of completeness. (Probably evidence of another personality flaw.)

Chivers includes the famous Godwin’s Law (“As any online discussion grows, the probability of comparison to Nazis or Hitler approaches 1”), and Poe’s Law, and others like Skitt’s Law (“Any post correcting an error in another post will contain at least one error itself”). That’s a law I follow carefully (or, well, not). And at the end of Chivers’ list we find The Law of Exclamation:

The more exclamation points used in an email (or other posting), the more likely it is a complete lie. This is also true for excessive capital letters.

HOW TRUE!!!! This reminded Chivers of science-fiction writer Terry Pratchett’s statement – in the Discworld series – that the more exclamation points one uses in writing, the more likely one is mentally unbalanced. According to Pratchett, five exclamation points indicates “someone who wears their underwear on the outside.” (I have to go back and count. Whew, that was CLOSE!!!!)

So the next time you see Rep. Paul on cable news, think of exclamation points and underwear. It will make at least as much sense as whatever he’s saying.


Happy Saturday!