The Principles of VAGUEness
Team VAGUE, contributors and supporters

When you're sure, you're wrong.

Compassion with edge. Cynicism with heart. Vulgarity with brains. Open-minded confusion that's alive with meaning, rich in contradictions and loaded with flat-out dumb fun.

Part I

VAGUEness, appropriately, is a term with many meanings. As a way of talking about politics, VAGUEness means jokes and surprises that jog your mind out of knee-jerk reactions and ruts. As a way of doing politics, VAGUEness means understanding there's more than one right way to chop an onion. In decision-making, VAGUEness means finding multi-partisan, common ground solutions, and in formal philosophy "vagueness" indicates the built-in impossibility of finding the exact point at which "a rock" becomes "no rock" if you chip away at it one molecule at a time.

Presidential election 2000 was a mess becasue it was philosophically vague to the max., but not at all VAGUE-minded. That is, it was a virtual meltdown of certainties accompanied by a hardening of partisan bias.

"Winning" and "losing," in this election turned out to be overlapping categories rather than distinct ones. Not only did a candidate stand to win the popular vote and not the electoral college, not only might he win the election but not get "a mandate," but votes themselves became undefinable — ambiguous as motes of sunlight in a punchcard.

Questions swarmed: If numerous Jews vote for an anti-Semite by mistake, should they have a chance to correct their errors? And if so, why should their errors be treated differently from all the other accidents, mechanical, bureaucratic and human, that plague the electoral process? If newscasters announce a winner prematurely in a state with two time zones, is the election fair? If people make mistakes in droves due to a misleading ballot design, are they individually responsible for their errors, or not?

With a number of heartwarming, if foolhardy exceptions, most people simply chose the answer that favored their candidate. In the end, instead of negotiating a bipartsan settlement between them, the candidates slugged it out in public, and neither came out looking good.

Without VAGUEness of mind, there's no recourse but to bully facts into conforming to your prejudices. We see this most clearly in people's thinking about crime. To take the most startling example, there's the uncontested fact that juvenile crime in the U.S. just took its biggest dip in years. It fell despite every factor, left and right, that predicted its rise. It fell despite the ready availability of guns, the violent misogyny of rap lyrics and the test marketing of R-rated media on under-aged children. It fell despite the rise in drug use among young people and the adulterous behavior of fibbing Presidents, hypocritical House speakers, and censorious mayors. It fell despite the high divorce rate. It fell despite holes in the safety net, overcrowded classrooms, women who work outside the home and parents who lack quality childcare. It fell despite the availability of hate and porn on the Internet, despite the abortion rate, the cruelty of factory farming and species extinction caused by habitat-loss. It fell despite low voter turnout and the over-prescription by school doctors of Ritalin It fell despite the hole in the ozone, the volatility of the market and the pierced eyebrow craze. Faced with such a stunning challenge to accepted wisdom, a properly VAGUE person goes "Hmmmm...." So we cocked our ears for that sound in the political arena. The silence was deafening.

So our job is not yet done.

We can't help but believe that patent injustices in our legal system — like, for example, the automatic disenfranchisement of one-time felons who've paid their debt to society — could be easily corrected if it wasn't for our collective reluctance to re-examine the things we like to believe in the light of disturbingly VAGUE facts. It can be done. California's citizens recently voted to treat garden variety drug abuse as a medical rather than a criminal problem. So there's hope.

All of which brings us to Part II: What We're Doing Here.

When we first launched VAGUEpolitix as an independent site with funding from Web Lab back in December of 1998, we hoped to make the VAGUEness of political issues fun as well as easy to research. Our aim was to help ourselves — and you — to get a grip. We wanted to take a fresh look at the facts and create an online home for doubts and insights that partisan players don't entertain. Irreverence and humor, we figured, would help. And a lot of amazing links, plus innovative, amusing graphics, games, and tight, humorous writing.

Once they saw what we'd done, PBS Online's Independent Division offered to host us, provided we post [this amusing disclaimer] warning people that we would take them to sites on the Web which they — and PBS — might not endorse. That done, we launched officially on Flag Day, 1999.

Our VAGUENESS has been well-recognized. Encyclopedia Britanica as well as librarians and weblogs around the world praised us. We won several significant awards — among them the Yahoo Site of the Year — beating out almost all of those better-funded competitors. That made us feel proud, even a little superior, even though we missed traveling usual online financial fate of millions in VC investment followed by a spectacular IPO and a tsunami of paper money and media buzz followed by sudden financial collapse.

Now that it's time to retire the crime issue from PBS, we're back on our own again, a status we enjoy because it lets us be more outrageous, and politically explicit than before, but which also limits us, because without the abovementioned financing, we can't afford to keep renewing our content. We originally hoped to be a quarterly, covering a new topic in depth every three months, and if you give us the money, it can still happen, but for now, although we're bucking the trend of dot com closings by staying up and staying VAGUE, we've "archived" the site — frozen it in cyber-amber, a state of suspended animation somewhat like the one astronauts enter for extended space travel.

Until we land on the planet of Further Financing we won't be adding new material (except occasionally here). Our content and links wont be updated until further notice. A few of those links die off every month, so if you get more 404s than before, please don't curse us. Or if you do curse us, try to do in an understanding, forgiving spirit.

Happily most of our links are pretty sturdy. We were always built to last. We were never about rapid change so much as culling stuff that's central to the issues. We're pleased with how well the pieces we commissioned and chose have held up. Most of them are still useful after two years. So use us as a resource, register to get occasional updates and VAGUE commentary. Stay with us... and stay VAGUE.

Lynn Phillips

Q: What's your favorite phrase in American politics?

A: "The pursuit of happiness." We like the wishfulness of it. It suggests that, however you define it, your happiness can only be pursued. It can't be guaranteed—by government, business, nature, art, love, a god, a revolution or anything else.

Q: When you say you're VAGUE, do you mean like Brit P.M. Tony Blair? He coined the phrase "permanent revisionism" to describe his new, ever-flexible, anti-ideological politics.

A: No. We like some flexibility in a leader, but reeds in the wind, as we have seen here, bend to the strongest hurricane in town. That makes us nervous.

Q: So, you stand for the powerless against the powerful?

A: No. We don't say that Might and Right can't marry: We've seen them do it often. It's just that, in the odd event that they divorce, we want people to be able to choose whose house to live in.

Q: So what DO you call your position?

A: Picnic Pluralism. It implies that there are many different kinds of potato salad at the feast, and many different kinds of ants competing with everyone for it. Picnic Pluralism on the Internet means listening to many voices and trying to figure out which policies best deliver what people desire in common.

Q: And are there any things that people desire in common?

A: Well, freedom, prosperity, a fair shot (if not a guaranteed win), a share of power in trade for shouldering a share of responsibilities, and, most of all, some wiggle room, a corner safe from the mob, the boss, the state, the people who ring your bell while you're washing your hair to give you a copy of The Watchtower. Oh, and freedom from spam.

Q: So in terms of Left and Right, your position is...?

A: On the ground. Ground Zero.


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