Archive for the ‘Journalism and its discontents’ category

Yeah — Ross Douthat Is Still Bluffing

February 9, 2014

The Grey Lady has a problem.

It needs, or thinks it does, a clear, articulate, analytically sophisticated conservative voice on its op-ed team.  David Brooks is tasked with handling most of that load, with the results we’ve discussed here many times, but Ross Douthat was the right-wing wunderkind poached from The Atlantic who was supposed to be the conservative model of the new generation of precocious opinion journalists that bubbled up during those halcyon days of the early to mid-2000s blogging boom.

Guillaume_Budé_by_Jean_Clouet

It hasn’t quite worked out that way.

Consider today’s column.  I’m not going to do go full metal fisk on the piece.  Douthat tries to persuade his audience that the CBO report — the one that showed that the ACA works as intended,  liberating workers from jobs they perform only to hang onto health benefits — is actually testimony to how liberal government denies the dignity of work.  You can read the thing for yucks if you like that kind of up-is-down talk.

Here, I want to get to is the basic dishonesty not just of one argument in one column, but of Douthat’s method as deployed here.

The test was to click on each link in the piece, and see if Douthat’s claimed sources actually supported whatever he invoked them for.  Spoiler alert:  almost to a one, they did not.

Link number 1 is actually OK.  Douthat invokes a Keynes essay, and that essay appears at the end of the intertube he lays down, making the prediction Douthat says it does.

What comes next, though, ain’t so pretty:

…well-educated professionals — inspired by rising pay and status-obsessed competition — often work longer hours than they did a few decades ago…

This link takes you not to an original study but to a summary of others’ work posted at the National Bureau of Economic Research.  If Douthat had checked behind that summary he would have found that the picture of socially climbing workers taking on ever more hours over time isn’t exactly right:

these figures show that (a) the incidence of long work hours fell in the recessions of 1983, 1992 and 2002; and (b) that long work hours rose sharply in the 1980s, more slowly in the 1990s, and –as in the Census data– declined somewhat between 2000 and 2006.

That messier, hence less convenient picture is just the appetizer for the real misinterpretations to come.  Douthat claims that money and status drive folks to work long hours.  But the NBER summary at his link asserts,

Studies suggest that perceived job insecurity has risen substantially among highly educated workers.

Aha! Not virtue but necessity keeps people on the job nights and weekends.  From the underlying paper:

We find that two group characteristics — a rising level of within-group earnings inequality (at fixed hours) and a falling (or more slowly growing) level of mean earnings at ‘standard’ (40) hours– are associated with increases in the share of workers usually supplying 50 or more hours per week.
IOW, even for better educated/salaried workers, long hours are a response to a decline in or threat to earning power at normal so much  a status thing, and not exactly a rising pay story either.
It gets worse when Douthat finishes his sentence with an implied indictment of lower-paid labor.  He writes:

…while poorer Americans, especially poorer men, are increasingly disconnected from the labor force entirely.

Adriaen_van_Ostade_-_Peasants_in_a_Tavern

Once again, the linked piece doesn’t say quite what Douthat claims.  It does have a political tinge — its author cites Charles Murray admiringly, which is always a tell — but the analysis is plain enough:

…a big factor is that – partly due to globalization and technology – the wages of less-skilled, less-educated men have been falling. Simply put, that makes them less willing to get off the couch, particularly if finding a job demands running a gauntlet of on-line applications or requires a move or a long commute or surrendering government benefits.  The surest way to put the most employable of these men back to work would be a stronger economy in which jobs were more plentiful and employers couldn’t be so picky about filling openings. [emphasis added]

So it turns out that Douthat’s disaffected workers aren’t merely and passively disconnected.  They’re barred by actual conditions in the real world from finding work.  A better economy would lower that bar and see re-entry into the labor force.  To be fair, Douthat does note that rising inequality has an explanatory role to play in what he claims are two trends. But the links he provide to support his attempt at social analysis confirm essentially nothing of his interpretation.

Onwards!

Next up, Douthat engages the CBO report itself:

The Congressional Budget Office had always predicted that the new health care law’s mix of direct benefits and indirect incentives would encourage some people to cut their hours or leave their jobs outright. But its latest report revised the estimate substantially upward, predicting that by 2021, the equivalent of 2.3 million full-time workers — most of them low-wage — could disappear from the American economy.

Yet again, Douthat links not to the report itself, but to a Washington Post article summarizing and in part spinning that document.  And it turns out that Douthat’s “full time workers” disappearing number is not quite right.  Here’s what the CBO actually reported, (p. 127)

Because some people will reduce the amount of hours they work rather than stopping work altogether, the number who will choose to leave employment because of the ACA in 2024 is likely to be substantially less than 2.5 million. At the same time, more than 2.5 million people are likely to reduce the amount of labor they choose to supply to some degree because of the ACA, even though many of them will not leave the labor force entirely.
I’ll admit that’s a relatively minor error on Douthat’s part (though the rhetorical torque he applies with the word “disappeared” puts it into the realm of bad faith to me).   But more important, note that Douthat didn’t delve into the actual CBO report itself, at least not enough to grasp any nuance — relying instead on the Post article’s own flawed account.
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IOW:  sometimes the little mistakes are the most revealing.  You can’t argue with folks who don’t know what they’re talking about.  Those of us trying to understand health care in America by reading the country’s newspaper of record should have the confidence that what they find there is based on best attempts to identify actual facts.  Douthat does not encourage such confidence.
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Please proceed, columnist!
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Next, we have Douthat’s attempt to claim that there really is a better, conservative alternative to Obamacare.
the design of Obamacare … makes the work disincentive much more substantial than it would be under, say, a conservative alternative that offers everyone a flat credit to buy a catastrophic plan.
I think he’s trying to say that giving everyone health insurance that almost never insures would trap more people in the jobs they’d need to mitigate the risk of everyday mishaps, but that’s for another argument. I could also  take issue with the notion that the document he links is an actual alternative, and not some cobbled together bit of hand-waving and familiar right wing talking points on health care.  But there’s no doubt that at the point we’re still  the territory of op-ed privilege.
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But here’s the real problem — and it’s one Douthat could very well have slid past all but the most careful of editors.  In the next paragraph he writes:
One of the studies used to model the consequences of Obamacare, for instance, found a strong work disincentive while looking at a population of childless, able-bodied, mostly working-class adults

That sounds like a good serious pundit doing his homework and digging into the academic research on his topic.  But if you click that link, it won’t take you to any study — not even a Heritage parody of social science.  Instead, it returns you right to the doorstop of the “alternative” proposal Douthat invoked in the prior graf.  There’s nothing else there at all, and certainly nothing any neutral observer would recognize as actual inquiry.  This is just a lie-by-citation.

Believe it or not, the beat goes on.  Douthat bloviates on his own dime for a few paragraphs before coming up with this :

On the left, there’s a growing tendency toward both pessimism and utopianism — with doubts about the compatibility of capitalism and democracy, and skepticism about the possibility for true equality of opportunity, feeding a renewed interest in 1970s-era ideas like a universal basic income.

There are two classic blunders: The most famous is  never get involved in a land war in Asia, but only slightly less well known is never, ever, trust Ross Douthat when he tells you what “the left” is thinking.

The first link takes you not to a critique of capitalism by, say, Joe Biden or even the House Progressive caucus, but to a lengthy and fascinating New York Times account of a book by a French economist that has yet to appear in English.  It’s an important piece of work, I hear, but hardly evidence of a growing American political tendency.

The second brings you to an interview with the author of another book yet to be released —  by Gregory Clark, an economic historian at Davis who has been arguing for some years for a biologically heritable account of economic outcomes.

There’s lots of people who argue with Clark’s work.  But for this discussion the question isn’t whether his brand of biological economics is bonkers or worse.  For this argument it is, does Clark speak from or for anything that could remotely be called the left?

The answer is no: he is one economist controversial within his own field, whose views, if they have any political stamp, have been much more eagerly received by latter day eugenicists than by any recognizable wing of, say, the Democratic Party.

Again: Douthat is a pundit.  He gets to be stupid on the Times’ dime.

But he shouldn’t get to claim authority he doesn’t have — the intellectual buttresses of knowledge he hasn’t actually worked to acquire or analytical effort he hasn’t put in.  Every single link in this piece but the one that just takes to Keynes is flawed, often deeply so, in the sense of supporting the superstructure Douthat wants to erect on top of his claims of erudition.  At best, he’s bibliography-padding, attempting to baffle his readers (and, I think, his editors) with the appearance of someone who does the hard work of thinking.  At worst, he’s misappropriating others’ labor to his own ends.

Echoing Gandhi’s apocryphal jibe:  were I asked what I think about right wing public intellection, I’d reply, “I think it would be a good idea.”

Images: Jean Clouet, Portrait of Guillaume Budé, c. 1536.

Adriaen van Ostade, Carousing peasants in a tavern, c. 1635

 

What Else Is Wrong With Bill Keller’s Cancer-Shaming

January 18, 2014

By now, just about everyone has weighed in on the Kellerdammerung, the his and hers columns striving to cancer-shame of Lisa Bonchek Adams — criticism for the sin of not doing cancer the “right way.”  Beyond what’s been written on our home turf, I’d point you to this and this and this and this and this and this roundup or more recent scorn– and especially this, from The New York Times‘ Public Editor, Margaret Sullivan. (For a contrary view, check out longtime friend-of-the-blog TBogg, who doesn’t think the Kellers’ sins, if any, should have earned the ire of the ‘net mob.)

Sullivan’s piece is so interesting because it is (ISTM, at least), as direct a condemnation of Bill Keller’s column as one could expect from within the organization he used to lead.  She writes:

In this case, I’ll go so far as to say that there are issues here of tone and sensitivity. For example, when Ms. Adams has made it so abundantly clear in her own work that she objects to the use of fighting metaphors in describing experiences with cancer, it was regrettable to use them throughout a column about her, starting with the first sentence. It suggests that Mr. Keller didn’t make a full effort to understand the point of view of the person he’s writing about on the very big and public stage that is The Times. And although I haven’t read all of Ms. Adams’s writing, readers are complaining about other examples of this disconnect. The Times should consider publishing some opposing points of view, possibly in the form of an Op-Ed column from a contributor.

In addition, Mr. Keller’s views here fall within what journalists would call “fair comment” only to the extent that they are based on facts.

Whap!

I know that to an outsider (like me) it might have been nice if Sullivan had gone all chapter and verse on the many flaws in Keller’s piece, but I can tell you with real certainty that within the building, that last line kills.  A humiliation, very public, and immediately understood by Keller and every one of his former subordinates.*

At this point, a bit of housekeeping:  I’m not going to engage Emma Keller’s column at all; it’s been taken down, and the essential point — if you feel uncomfortable at someone else’s presence and material on social media, don’t f**king read it. Unfollow.  Take the blog off your RSS feed.  There.  Was that so hard?  (See also the Guardian’s official explanation for why the piece vanished from the site.)

I’m not even going to try to parse the rich vein of fail Bill Keller manages to mine.  The undertone (not very under-, actually) of “won’t this irksome woman please shut up” is ugly enough.

Smierc_Tomasza_Becketa

The conflation of an “incurable” diagnosis with an asserted fate of imminent death is intellectual sleight of hand of the least honorable stripe.  The factual errors in Keller’s account, noted by Sullivan above, are troubling as hell.  The implication, that there is one “right” way to engage cancer, and that Adams was failing in her obligation to meet death with due deference, is both wretched as a direct comment on a single life, not just wrong, but cruel — and, of course, makes it much harder to get to what Keller claims is his point, that the modern American medicine does end-of-life poorly.  There’s a lot to talk about there, to be sure — but Keller doesn’t actually get to that, so busily does he scold Adams for failing to conform to his expectations.  (You may take from this that I don’t agree with TBogg and Soonergrunt that Keller was more awkward than awful.)

But all of that and more has been amply discussed already.  What I want to add at this point is a gloss on something Times’ Public Editor Sullivan wrote:

As a columnist, Mr. Keller – by definition – has a great deal of free rein. As I’ve written before, Times opinion editors very rarely intrude on that process by steering a writer away from a topic or killing a column before it runs. It’s a columnist’s job, in short, to have an opinion and to speak it freely. That’s as it should be.

A line often attributed to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the former New York senator, makes this point well: “You’re entitled to your own opinion; you’re not entitled to your own facts.”

And therein lies the nub:  (many) opinion columns and columnists are accurate but wrong. Factual mistakes are bad (and they are legion), but the deeper problem is the distortion field of isolating facts from the patterns that give them meaning.

That is:  Keller’s largest failings in his column weren’t his point-by-point errors, the kinds of things that can be addressed by simple corrections.  They were rather lapses of reporting and analysis.  He asserted rather than established that Lisa Adams was (a) dying and (b) “fighting” her disease — and but what was worse, used those two obvious misreadings of Adams own work to make unsupported claims about the American approach to end-of-life.  He gets to do that move, according to Sullivan, because it’s his job to have an opinion.

And so it is — but still, what should Keller know and be able to state about, say, where the US goes astray in end-of-life care?  What does he need to do beyond get excited by (to be charitable here) a misreading of his source?

Well, paraphrasing Henri Poincare here, it falls to the thinker to decide which facts are worthy of inclusion into the argument — which is to say that facts gain meaning and their connection to truth or falsity, by the structure of argument we build around them.

Leonardo_Anatomy_of_the_Neck,_c._1515

Keller was a crap journalist who arrived at an unsupported conclusion not because he got how long Lisa Adams had endured stage 4 cancer wrong, but because the nuggets of fact he deployed — both the ones he got right and the other ones — were already lodged in a flawed argument, that the specific experience of his father in law adequately frames any circumstance in which one faces an incurable illness.

There’s lots more one could ask, and then pick apart. But the point isn’t that Keller did a hack job, though he did. It’s that these kinds of issues are the stuff of elite opinion “journalism.” It’s how you get a David Brooks column on inequality that conflates arguments about the 1 % and the 5 %.  It’s how you get the Washington Post op-ed page more or less in its full glory (sic!).  The problem lies with the assumption that facts are discrete — quanta of reality.  The ones that go wrong can be corrected, and as for the rest, they can be organized anyway an opinion holder chooses to no ill effect.And that’s where editors need to intervene.  Not to tell Keller he can’t write about end of life, or Bobo about income inequality, or Douthat about lady bits, or Will about climate change or Rubin about anything.  But they have to do so in a way that stands the test not merely of simple accuracy, but of robustness.  How easy is it to knock the piece to shreds?  Too easy?  Get me rewrite!

Ultimately, while it’s great that Sullivan publicly eviscerated someone who, not that long ago, ran the Grey Lady (no longer) of 43rd St….she still gives too much license she gives not just Keller but the whole stable on the back pages of her paper. I get to joke that David Brooks is always wrong — but I’m not nearly as far off as I should be.

So, yeah, I’m pretty appalled that the Kellers both thought that shouting at a cancer patient was a clever way to frame something deeper they thought they were saying — but I’m at least as depressed that the system of journalism in which they are both embedded both enables and rewards such crap.

*I also love that Sullivan managed to get an elegantly sly slam on both BoBo and Dowd into her stiletto work on Keller:

I don’t make a practice of commenting on whether I agree with columnists, or if I like their columns in general or on a particular day, whether it’s David Brooks on pot-smoking or Maureen Dowd on Chris Christie.

Softly, softly…

Images:  Tommaso Dolabella, Martyrdom of Thomas Becket, 1627

Leonardo da Vinci, Anatomy of the Neck, c. 1515

David Brooks Goes One Toke Over The Line

January 4, 2014

This story has been covered plenty, and the deep problems with David Brooks and Ruth Marcus and their takes on marijuana legalization lie with the actual policy — the racism built into drug prohibition in the US, the folly and cost of the drug war, the relative risks of cannibis vs. such legal drugs as tobacco and the demon rum and all that.  David Weigel nailed both Marcus and Brooks for many of those stupidities yesterday, and there’s plenty more good work showing just how awful was the work issuing from these supposed paladins of public intellection.  I’ve got another axe to grind, perhaps just a hatchet, though, and it doesn’t seem to have been given much internet notice, so I’m back on my David Brooks is Always Wrong™ beat.

I have to admit, what first got me going on this one was Brooks relentless self-righteous self-congratulation — to wit:

We graduated to more satisfying pleasures. The deeper sources of happiness usually involve a state of going somewhere, becoming better at something, learning more about something, overcoming difficulty and experiencing a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.

Adriaen_van_Ostade_024

I don’t have much to say there — others said it better* — and anyway, I couldn’t get much past thoughts of Brooks engaged in anatomically improbable auto-erotica, possibly involving oxidized farm implements.

Worse, to me anyway, was how swiftly this “moderate” least-government possible type went  for the jackboots.  He wrote about folks’ “deep center” and the moral decay that comes when we fail to do the right thing, like continuing to criminalize America’s favorite weed.  To Brooks, what’s wanted is

…government [that] subtly encourages the highest pleasures, like enjoying the arts or being in nature, and discourages lesser pleasures, like being stoned.

So much fail in so little space. You could fisk this almost word by word for the craptastic silliness on display.

I could go on.  As Weigel and many others pointed out, favoring prohibition is fundamentally racist; as Maia Szalavitz writes at Time.com, Marcus and Brooks are deeply, profoundly ignorant of basic science of marijuana use and its impacts.

Shooting one’s mouth off in the absence of any real understanding of a subject is the mark of the pundits that dominate so much of Washington discourse.  It’s a profound sin to me, a betrayal of the central obligation of any journalist: to get it right for their readers — where right doesn’t simply mean avoiding trivial errors of fact, but distortions of the frame of the story that leaves “accurate” quanta of knowledge utterly misrepresented.  Unfortunately, there’s no real penalty in modern elite journalism for simple deception, as long as Politifact doesn’t actually find out that you weigh less than a duck.

But Brooks did cross another journalistic line in this column.  In one six word phrase Brooks goes all Reefer Madness on his readers, emphasizing the damnable fury of ol’ Mary Jane.  He writes  in a list of the bad things about marijuana “that it is addictive in about one in six teenagers”…

That’s the complete quote, by the way.  I’m not leaving out any modifiers or expanded context.

And here’s the thing:  its simply wrong — and should have been obviously so.

I think I know where Brooks got his 1/6 figure.  One quick bit  of Googling led me to this summary from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.  It states:

It is estimated that 9 percent of people who use marijuana will become dependent on it. The number goes up to about 1 in 6 in those who start using young (in their teens)…

Already, you can see the error.  Brooks says marijuana is addictive for 1/6 teenagers, full stop.  Not so: it’s only 1/6 of those who use the stuff.

Neufchâtel_-_Bildnis_des_Nürnberger_Schreibmeisters_Johann_Neudörffer_und_eines_Schülers

Go one step deeper into the literature.  In the underlying paper [PDF/paywall] to which the NIDA document refers, it turns out

The lifetime risk of dependence in cannabis users has been estimated at about 9% rising to one in six in those who initiate use in adolescence.

Same problem: the risk of dependence is only for those who use.

Note one complication:  there’s an issue with what it means to use here.  Daily? Weekly? Annually? This paper implies that the term refers to at least a weekly date with Mssrs. Zig and Zag, but the underlying source for the figure on adolescent dependence is a book to which I don’t have ready access.  So take that as a bit of unfinished business.

In case a little more context might help, one more turn to the internet turns up the invaluable Monitoring the Future folks, who provide a wealth of data about what Kidz Theze Dayz are really thinking and doing.  (Thanks again to Maia Szalavitz for help getting to the right sources for this post.)There you find that regular (daily) teenage marijuana use (PDF) runs about 1% for 8th graders, and rises to about 7% for high school seniors.  Loosening the definition of user to all those who blow a little dope once a year, (PDF) you get the scarier numbers — about 17% for the younger cohort and close to 40 % of twelfth graders.  Those numbers still don’t get you close to any reasonable interpretation of Brooks’ throwaway remark.

This isn’t rocket science.  Rather, we’re talking journalism 101.   That line should have tickled any experienced newshound’s bullshit detector.   If you read Brooks as claiming that one in six teenagers will be addicted then you run up against the actual lifetime risk for marijuana dependence, which, depending on the study, runs between 4 and 8 % of the population.  You just can’t get from here to there.

And if you read him as saying that there’s some independent measure that whether or not they actually smoke, still, if they did, one in six kids would be unable to control their ganja jones, you have to ask, how could you know that?  What possible experiment could show how many of the majority of teenagers who do not use marijuana even once a year would nonetheless be utterly unable to control their urges after that irreversible first toke?  It’s just nonsense…

…which makes me wonder, first does no one edit the Op-Ed. pages anymore?  Even if Brooks can’t or won’t do the work needed to deliver a minimally competently reported piece, someone else had to have read it before it hit print.  If I were the boss of the Times, I’d be asking who missed what and why.

Quentin_Massys_030

The thing is, Brooks commits sins like this all the time, but usually disguises them better.  Here he just flat out blew it, which makes it easy to say that this is the kind of crap journalism a place like The New York Times simply shouldn’t allow to reach the outside world.  But don’t mistake this as an aberration; this is how Our David rolls.  The wonder is that the Times seems willing to trade little bits of its credibility with each new BoBo-ism for the clicks and visibility that the mysteriously but undeniably influential Brooks delivers.

Sad…and in the long run a bad bargain for the Grey Lady, if you ask me, which they didn’t — and won’t.

*Weigel really did nail it, but for sheer awesomeness, no one did better than Gary Greenberg, whose remembrance of bonging with Bobo had a lot of folks fooled earlier in the day.  Check this out:

…let’s just say that when Dave wrote this morning that in a healthy society “government subtly encourages the highest pleasures” I remembered a time we were parked out at French Creek and he stood up on top of the Vista Cruiser and gave a speech to us about what Jefferson really meant by the “pursuit of happiness,” and how a government should uphold our right to get as high as possible, and how George Washington grew pot and old Edmund Burke must have smoked it, and I wondered if Dave was sending his old posse a secret message.

Read the whole thing. Really. Just great stuff.  (Also — what’s great is the list of folks who believed Greenberg’s piece was true.  Andrew Sullivan, for one (appending a correction to his post after a bit) but my favorite reaction came from Tim Carney, who snapped at  those ridiculing the gullible, tweeting, “That’s about a dozen good journalist friends of mine you’re talking about.”

‘Bout sums up the state of the too much of the media, wouldn’t you say?

Images:  Adriaen van Ostade, Peasants Drinking and Making Music in a Barn, c. 1635.

Nicolaes Neufchatel,  Portrait of Nurenburg Schoolmaster Johann Neudörffer and a student, 1561.

Quentin Massys, An Allegory of Folly, early 16th century.

 

 

It’s Always Projection With These Guys

December 31, 2013

So, Dr. Strangelove Charles Krauthammer weighs in on the latest news out of Benghazi — which is to say the non-news that there was no conspiracy to cover-up whatever evil Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama are supposed to have done in this latest round of conspiracy mongers.

You may recall that a few days ago, The New York Times showed what real newspapers can do when they put some muscle into a story, and dug into the events that led up to the four American diplomats’/intelligence officers’ last hours in Benghazi.  They concluded that it was a confusing situation, that (as reported at the time) an incendiary video helped gin up a crowd, and that (as President Obama noted, to Romney’s eternal embarrassment, the next day) local Islamic militants were also involved.  The key finding: no meaningful al Qaeda link, as the Benghazi dead enders have been trumpeting for a while now.

So, if you are such a dead ender — that is to say, if you are a member of the modern GOP and/or part of its supportive claque in the DC media — what do you do?

Sane people might say, OK, nothing to see here, let’s move along.  I mean, even the Birthers (in office — not the Orly Taitz variety) finally gave up.  Also: Benghazi does have a real political downside.  The more it becomes obvious that there is, in fact, nothing to see here, that bad things happen in the world and not even a Kenyan Moooslim arsenal of superpowers can prevent them all, then the blowback for using American dead for such obvious political purposes starts to bite.

Hell, it already did.  See, again, Mr. Romney, burned not once but twice on the campaign trail for overeager Benghazi baiting.

But, of course, the set of sanity does not overlap with the set of those professionally committed to the destruction of all things the Democratic Party might support, a gang which includes much if not all of the GOP congressional delegation.

Cold_Shower_by_Georgios_Iakovidis

For example, consider this, from Congressman Lynn Westmoreland, a shining light of Georgia’s delegation to the Capitol:

“Of course Secretary Clinton was in charge at the time, and you know there are just now a lot of rumors going and pushing about her running for president in 2016,” he said on Fox News, as recorded by the Hill. “So I think they are already laying the groundwork.”

OK — so utterances of rabid partisanship have become SOP in the House GOP, so I suppose I shouldn’t be too shocked,  But what about that class of folks who consider themselves above the grubby world of politics — AKA the grandees of Washington’s media village.  Enter Charles Krauthammer.  There are none who combine the unmerited mantle of authoritative judgment and sheer malice more completely than our man Krauthammer — inexplicably treated as a serious analyst of modern politics and wholly engaged in the construction of the One True Narrative, reality be damned.

Hence, reacting to the news that the NYT op-ed editor had ridiculed Westmorland et al.’s claims Krauthammer erupted:

“By being defensive about this, he’s making it quite obvious the reason that the Times invested all the effort and time in this and put it on the front page is precisely a way to protect the Democrats, to deflect the issue, to protect Hillary, who was exposed on this issue as almost no issue in her tenure in the administration. It is obviously a political move.”

I actually think that’s what Krauthammer believes, along with Westmoreland and the rest of the GOP officeholders chasing down the Benghazi “truther” rabbit hole.  Why shouldn’t they? It’s what they would do.

Hell, it’s what they are doing:  to belabor the obvious, crying “Politics” avoids the necessity of parsing what the Times actually reported.  It saves having to defend the various claims of whatever it is that Clinton or Obama is said to have done wrong. Most of all, it ducks the obligation to take on what did happen in Benghazi with enough thought to inform deliberations that lead to, for example, not blowing up stuff in Syria.  Much easier to accuse the other side of doing exactly the vicious shit you would have.

These are not people to be allowed near the reins of government. They probably shouldn’t be allowed near scissors.  Danger to self and others and all that.

Image: Georgios Jakobides, “Cold Shower” 1898

 

Work the Referee

November 15, 2013

1932.262~02

Following DPM’s post below on Michael Shear’s ACA website woes = Katrina piece, let me urge y’all to let Mr. Shear know directly of the problems you find in the piece.

Click on the link just below his bio to email him.  Again, please do so firmly, but politely.  The goal is to get better work out of Mr. Shear in the future, not to leave him in a “f**k the hippies” state of rage.

What I told him, more or less, is that most of his piece ain’t bad — he does note, albeit not strongly enough for my taste, that a crappy website aint’t a physical disaster, and that Republicans have set obstacles in the way of fixing Obamacare, a level of obstruction that Bush never had to deal with. The biggest problem lies, I said, with his lede, his framing of the story as one in which Obama’s troubles are the same as Bush’s accepts the premise of the Republican opposition. Instead, I said, he should have begun by asking if that attempted framing were true…and then the rest of the story would have followed a much more sensible (and useful) path

In other words: the goal is to get Shear from building stories on crap foundations — and if you can let him know you noticed this time in a way that suggests he can do better — that can  help.

Work the refs people. It’s part of politics these days, and if we want out side to come out on top, we gotta do so.

Image: Thomas Eakins, Taking the Count1898.

No Country for Old Pundits

November 12, 2013

It’s only Tuesday, but this week’s I Am Not A Racist sweepstakes may just have a winner.  Ladles and jellyspoons, I give you Village Media Star, Washington Post columnist, and inexplicably influential Richard Cohen:

People with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York — a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children.

I’m going to try to be fair to a man who seems conspicuously challenged when it comes to writing about race.  That sentence comes in the context of explaining why many members of the Republican Party may have trouble getting behind Chris Christie. Cohen’s not suggesting he personally has a problem with the De Blasio marriage, not even for its yet more outré (to him?…perhaps slightly more “conventional” than even he wants to own?): “(Should I mention that Bill de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, used to be a lesbian?)”

But reading more deeply doesn’t help.  Here’s the context Cohen provides for his claim that “conventional” types might have trouble with inter racial stuff.  The paragraph in which that quote comes begins like this:

Today’s GOP is not racist, as Harry Belafonte alleged about the tea party, but it is deeply troubled –

About what, you might ask? Cohen kindly answers:

 — about the expansion of government, about immigration, about secularism, about the mainstreaming of what used to be the avant-garde.

How convenient.  Nothing about the current occupant of the White House, nor….

Oh hell, let’s get on with it. Next up, the assertion about the nausea induced by the De Blasios.  Cohen then finishes his “thought” here:

This family represents the cultural changes that have enveloped parts — but not all — of America. To cultural conservatives, this doesn’t look like their country at all.

But no:  Southern Republicans, the Tea Party, cultural conservatives are not racist.  They’re just “conventional.”

Cohen’s no stranger to … awkwardness … on race.  Just last week he wrote that it took the movie 12 Years a Slave to help him grasp that,

 …slavery was not a benign institution in which mostly benevolent whites owned innocent and grateful blacks.

Well, yeah. Better late than never, to be sure.  But 2013, and seventy-two tours around the sun is damn late indeed to be figuring that one out.

Charles_Towne_-_Old_Billy,_a_Draught_Horse,_Aged_62_-_Google_Art_Project

To be clear:  I do not think Cohen holds any racial animus against New York’s mayor-elect and his family; I doubt he’s troubled by interracial relationships; I don’t actually care whether or not “in his heart” Richard Cohen has trouble with people of color.

But words matter.  When Cohen asserts that the bluntest kind of old-school racism, the rejection of the possibility of two people of different colors loving each other, is “conventional,” he gives aid and comfort to that view.  He mainstreams it:  what could be more down the middle of the discourse than something “conventional?”

To put it another way: we know Cohen is clueless* — there’s no other explanation for his self-described late aspirations to wisdom on the matter of owning other human beings.  But mere obliviousness still can’t excuse malice — and that’s what flows with granting any respect at all the view that the sight of a white man and a black women sharing their lives in marriage should make one gag.

To put it yet one more way: this is Cohen’s argument stripped naked:  Thesis one:  the GOP is not racist. Thesis two: a key element of the Republican Party is racist. Conclusion three: well, maybe the GOP has a racism problem it’s OK (sort of) because those nice conventional folks are simply mourning the fact that most Americans no longer tolerate such crap.

How does that add up?  What kind of mind writes that paragraph and doesn’t go “Wut?” … and try again.

Last question:  Cohen is a terrible columnist, a weak thinker, a man suffocating in swaddling of past-its-sell-by-date received wisdom and second-hand knowledge.  But the Post chooses to employ him and you’d think they’d have the compassion, (not to mention the self interest) to protect him from himself.  Shorter: Don’t they have any editors down there any more?  Who the f**k let that “conventional” slip by?

*One more in the annals of general cluelessness.  In this column Cohen goes on to argue that the reality for the GOP is that its core recoils from modernity and is now spasming in its rage. To drive the point home, he writes this:

As with the Dixiecrats, the fight is not over a particular program — although Obamacare comes close — but about a tectonic shift of attitudes.I thank Dennis J. Goldford, professor of politics and international relations at Drake University in Des Moines, for leading me to a live performance on YouTube of Merle Haggard singing “Are the Good Times Really Over.” This chestnut, a lament for a lost America, has been viewed well more than 2 million times. It could be the tea party’s anthem.

Uh, Richard. In these dayz of the intertubes, two million views over five years is…not impressive.  Hell, I’ve been listening to some Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeros lately (now there’s a band on the zeitgeist, right?), and the official video of their folk-groove song “Man on Fire” has scored over three million hits in the last eighteen months.  You want to talk about music at the point of cultural confrontation that Cohen’s talking about? Well then, how about Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’s hit “Same Love feat. Mary Lambert” (which features and interracial gay couple, btw)?

Almost 95 million views on Ryan Lewis’ channel alone, and many more millions elsewhere.

It’s not that Cohen’s wrong on the basic point. Running through the GOP’s current turmoil there is a profound rejection of the whole broad politics and culture that flows from (inter alia) the real advances in civil rights we’ve seen in this country.  But this business of making cultural commentary about a Youtube video isn’t about that argument.  Instead, this is a question of whether or not Cohen is up to his job.  Here, he doesn’t seem to have the basic contextual understanding he needs to draw any inference from a data point like 2 million Youtube views.  It’s not just the “conventional” racists who don’t recognize this country.  Cohen’s making heavy weather of it too.

Image: Charles Towne, Old Billy, a Draught Horse, aged 62, 1823.

MSM Delenda Est, Chuck Todd edition

September 18, 2013

A couple of commenters in the last thread picked up the same item that’s had me stewing for a few hours already, so I thought I’d share the bile with the lot of you:

During a segment on “Morning Joe,” former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D) speculated that most opponents of the Affordable Care Act have been fed erroneous information about the law. Todd said that Republicans “have successfully messaged against it” but he disagrees with those who argue that the media should educate the public on the law. According to Todd, that’s President Barack Obama’s job.

“But more importantly, it would be stuff that Republicans have successfully messaged against it,” Todd told Rendell. “They don’t repeat the other stuff because they haven’t even heard the Democratic message. What I always love is people say, ‘Well, it’s you folks’ fault in the media.’ No, it’s the President of the United States’ fault for not selling it.”

Back in the old days (Get Offa My Lawn!….), us print folks used to snort at the way TV types styled themselves journalists.  When we did, we’d point to folks our Mr. Todd resembles: stenographers with cameras.

An-Officer-dictating-a-Letter-1655-58-Gerard-ter-Borch

Nowadays, of course (and much more than we wanted to admit back then) there’s nothing medium-specific about the utter intellectual failure of elite American political journalism.  But after today I’d say that even in that dismal lineup Todd is a special snowflake.

What’s infuriating is that he really isn’t stupid.  He has a body of knowledge and some genuine expertise.  But the claim above is so — self-castrating is about the best I can say for it.  What professional with any jot or tittle of pride in his or her work would say “hey! Don’t look at me! I don’t write this stuff; I just deliver my lines.”

Truly:  Todd’s quote reads to these eyes like a resignation letter. If you can’t rouse yourself to meet the minimum requirement of a cub reporter covering a school council meeting — ask if that thing Councilmember Doe just said, was, you know, actually true? — then perhaps you should take a bit more time with your family.

Or rather:

Yo! Chuck:  you’re stealing paychecks from the Peacock and wasting everyone else’s time.  Go home.

Image: Gerard ter Borch, An Officer Dictating a Letter, c. 1655-1658

Least Surprising News Ever, Media Edition

September 11, 2013

Via  Peter Lauria at Buzzfeed, Tina Brown and the Daily Beast are parting ways:

According to a source with direct knowledge of the situation, The Daily Beast parent company IAC, owned by media mogul Barry Diller, does not plan to renew [Tina] Brown’s contract when it expires in January.

What might be driving this (not very) unexpected news?  The obvious, as reported in The Atlantic Wire:

At the end of August, AdWeek said The Daily Beast was on track to lose $12 million this year in a report that strongly foreshadowed today’s news….as AdWeek put it, Diller’s “goodwill may be running out.” Diller lost a fortune when IAC bought Newsweek, merged it with the Beast, and then sold it off again. He recently admitted that buying the newsweekly was a “mistake.”

Henri_Rousseau_-_The_Merry_Jesters

I’ve met Barry Diller all of exactly once, making a presentation to him for a very ill-starred media venture sponsored by another mogul.  He was polite beyond his reputation, perfectly attentive to a project in which he had no interest, and left me with just one impression:  not a man for whom you’d like to lose a pile of bucks.

One thing though — given the record of Tina Brown’s Beast before Diller bought it — what the hell did he expect?  Someday I may rouse myself to write at my usual logorrheaic length about how the failure of the Beast/Newsweek experiment — truly the least surprising possible outcome of that endeavor — is another demonstration (if any were needed) that elite media grasp of modern audiences and the shifting ownership of cultural capital falls somewhere between disastrous and catastrophic.  But today’s not that day (I hear you saying “for which the FSM make us truly grateful” — yah bastids).

But as long as you’re sticking around: one more thing.  My standard first half of a title on a Megan McArdle post is “MM is always wrong part (n).  And that’s true, of course, when it comes to matters pollitical, economic, intellectual, culinary, and pretty much anything to do with the actual stuff of what she writes.  But I have to concede that she has not-terrible career judgment.  I thought she was making a profoundly dumb move when she left the Atlantic for the Beast (unless she was pushed, which would make Tina the more of a sap for offering a damaged brand a soft landing).  But even if it was purely an error for MM to bail on The Atlantic, she was on top of her game when she abandoned the good ship Beast for her current Bloomberg News gig — as I kind of wondered in this post :*

I’m wondering if McArdle’s finely honed survival skills are in play, in which case we may be getting a leading indicator on the prospects for our Beastly friends.

Bye, bye, Tina. You’ll not be missed, but please go away.

*Andrew Sullivan’s turn to self-publishing doesn’t look that bad a move either, even if he hasn’t yet met his numbers.

Image:  Henri Rousseau, The Merry Jesters 1906.

David Brooks Is Always Wrong, Part (n)* — Numbers and Horrors Edition

August 30, 2013

Despite its many flaws,The New York Times is an indispensible institution right now, producing more and better actual journalism than any other major American media outlet. Setting aside the low-bar-snark, though, its ongoing willingness to offer David Brooks a platform is a running chancre that infects every hard-won story from the real reporters whose beat has the ill-fortune to attract BoBo’s fancy that day.

That’s true even when he arrives at something of a defensible argument, because to get there, he pays his way in counterfeit intellectual coin.

PFA69874

See, for example, today’s dog’s breakfast of an attempt to go all big-think-wise-man on “the biggest threat to world peace right now.”

That would be his attempt to frame the situation on the ground now in Syria as an example of the great war of Sunni versus Shiite.  As he works his way through to a (to me) surprisingly modest end, Brooks displays several of the tropes that make his work such an embarrassment to anyone who actually cares about either journalism or honorable argument.

Let’s go to the videotape.**

First up, there’s an old Brooks standby:  useful innumeracy in support of a claim intended to raise stakes beyond the facts on the ground:

As the death toll in Syria rises to Rwanda-like proportions…

Bullshit.

What’s going on in Syria is awful. Horrible. Wretched. Vicious.  Supply your own adjectives.

That doesn’t mean it is comparable to what occurred in Rwanda.  In the genocide there, between 500,000 and a million Rwandan civilians  were slaughtered, accounting for up to 10% of the population as a whole. The best current estimates of the toll of the Syrian civil war place the number of dead at a still-horrific 100,000 or so – less than 0.5% of Syria’s approximately 22 million inhabitants.

In raw numbers and — to focus on Brooks own term — as a proportion of the affected population, the two disasters are not equivalent.

God_the_Geometer

I’m not suggesting, of course, that Syria is anything less than an utter humanitarian disaster and tragedy.  But holding on to the problem of Brooks here, look at what his rhetoric is doing:  calling something a genocide or its equivalent raises the moral and international-legal stakes for action by a lot.  Such claims need to be earned, not (as so often with this source) simply and wrongly asserted.

Onwards.  Brooks has a long-standing difficulty untangling cause and correlation, not to mention his long dance with the dread might/must fallacy:

Meanwhile, the strife appears to be spreading. Sunni-Shiite violence in Iraq is spiking upward. Reports in The Times and elsewhere have said that many Iraqis fear their country is sliding back to the worst of the chaos experienced in the last decade. Even Turkey, Pakistan, Bahrain and Kuwait could be infected.

Some of the difficulty here isn’t simply a failure of causal argument.  Brooks is perfectly capable of making sh*t up.  Despite his claim that the current battles in Syria are causing violence in Iraq, Sunni-Shiite conflict is, as most of us with a functioning nervous system may recall, hardly a recent phenomenon. Consider just this cursory timeline, courtesy of the BBC:

2011 April – Army raids camp of Iranian exiles, killing 34. Government says it will shut Camp Ashraf, home to thousands of members of the People’s Mujahedeen of Iran.

2011 August – Violence escalates, with more than 40 apparently co-ordinated nationwide attacks in one day.

US pull out

2011 December – US completes troop pull-out.

Unity government faces disarray. Arrest warrant issued for vice-president Tariq al-Hashemi, a leading Sunni politician. Sunni bloc boycotts parliament and cabinet.

2012 – Bomb and gun attacks target Shia areas throughout the year, sparking fears of a new sectarian conflict. Nearly 200 people are killed in January, more than 160 in June, 113 in a single day in July, more than 70 people in August, about 62 in attacks nationwide in September, and at least 35 before and during the Shia mourning month of Muharram in November.

Nearly 200 people are killed in bombings targeting Shia Muslims in the immediate wake of the US withdrawal….

And so on.  But Brooks isn’t merely wrong as a matter of fact.  Rather, these facts point to the deeper problem, one that has crippled his (and many others’) arguments for American action in far off places.  That is:  the suggestion that Syrian events are driving Iraqi conflict includes a crucial unstated assumption:  that Iraq’s own problems, fractures, circumstances and history are irrelevant.

You get this a lot amongst grand strategy or Great Game thumb-suckers.  Countries, movements, peoples, funny-looking or sounding foreigners are all objects, not agents, mere counters in the game.  Except, of course, as we found out the hard way from 2003 onwards, they’re not. They’ve got their own stories and they stick to them, by gum. Does an increase in conflict, a decrease in stability within a region matter to countries nearby?  Sure.  But other things matter more.  Otherwise, El Paso’s murder rate during the last years of last decade might look a lot more like Ciudad Juarez’s than it does, if you catch my drift. (Happy to report, BTW, that the news there is getting a bit better.)

And there’s more! File this next one in the “fighting the last war” category:

It is pretty clear that the recent American strategy of light-footprint withdrawal and nation-building at home has not helped matters. The United States could have left more troops in Iraq and tamped down violence there. We could have intervened in Syria back when there was still something to be done and some reasonable opposition to mold.

I’m not actually sure what the hell Brooks means in the first sentence above.  We left Iraq under treaty, at the insistence of the Iraqi government.  Is Brooks really saying we should have maintained a force under those circumstances?  If so, he should make that clear, and then suggest some way that could be done…and then tell us how 100,000 or so (post-surge levels) US troops could actually police the kind of violence Iraq has seen in recent months and years.

Or to put it another way: this is pure REMF bullshit; thereoughtabealaw material:  Brooks only gets to say we need more armed Americans in conflict zones if he’s willing to embed with a tooth unit for a full year.

And as for that “nation-building at home” line — WTF?  Really — what does he mean?  Or rather, please, sign me up.  Get us a Nancy Pelosi speakership so that we could actually pass a jobs or infrastructure bill.  Then we’ll talk.

And last:  about that “we could have intervened in Syria back when…” Tell me, Mr. Brooks, what in detail you think we should have done.  “Intervene” is such a usefully vague word.

Hell, don’t.  Let’s read the chicken entrails you’ve left for us in this column.  To me, the most revealing note in the whole piece is that phrase “reasonable opposition to mold.”

That sense of a plastic organization ready for whatever the U.S.’s child-like hands chooses to pinch or fold recalls nothing so much as Chalabi worship, the delusion that actors in a place about which we know little are dolls for us to dress-up and move and pour pretend tea for as we choose.

Brigitte_mit_Puppe_Margret_Hofheinz-Döring,_Öl,_1946_(WV-Nr.20)

Never mind that they actually are the heirs and current proprietors of their ownlong history of faction and party and ideology and interest of which Mr. Brooks (and me, to be sure) have asymptotically close to zero grasp.  Does he think that American blood or just American artillery would have persuaded anyone involved not to fight their own corner?  Didn’t happen in Iraq, where US intervention brought out into the open long-(violently)-suppressed sectional conflict.  Flash forward to the harsh tyranny of now, and still Brooks offers not one shred of evidence or argument to suggest that we had a better grasp of internal Syrian tensions this time around.

Astonishingly (to me) — and in all fairness, to be lodged on the credit side of his ledger — Brooks does land at a more or less reasonable conclusion.  Echoing his colleague Nick Kristof, he endorses a strike against the Syrian government in support of what both columnists call the norm that prohibits the use of chemical weapons.  (More on that later, perhaps.)  But then he suggests something resembling restraint:

[There are] at least three approaches on the table. The first is containment: trying to keep each nation’s civil strife contained within its own borders. The second is reconciliation: looking for diplomatic opportunities to bring the Sunni axis, led by the Saudis, toward some rapprochement with the Shiite axis, led by Iran. So far, there have been few diplomatic opportunities to do this.

Finally, there is neutrality: the nations in the Sunni axis are continually asking the United States to simply throw in with them, to use the C.I.A. and other American capacities to help the Sunnis beat back their rivals. The administration has decided that taking sides so completely is not an effective long-term option.

Brooks even concedes the crucial uncertainty:

…at this point, it’s not clear whether American and other outside interference would help squash hatreds or inflame them.

Given that, he concludes:

Poison gas in Syria is horrendous, but the real inferno is regional. When you look at all the policy options for dealing with the Syria situation, they are all terrible or too late. The job now is to try to wall off the situation to prevent something just as bad but much more sprawling.

I’ll take it anytime an Iraq cheerleader reins in his or her lust for another great adventure for someone else’s kids.  Really.  So I’ll pull back on my own bridle and note only that the claim that we are on the verge of a great Sunni-Shiite apocalypse is a conclusion assumed in advance.

Once again, the idea that the Syrian conflict might be, well, actually and in important ways distinctly Syrian is never actually entertained.  The fact that the strife now in Egypt has nothing to do with sect-based religious rivalry and a great deal to do with very specific and long-standing fissures in Egypt’s society and polity never seems to enter Brooks spotless mind.  And so on.

Which is to say that a glass-half-full kind of person might say well, at least our Bobo is learning.  As for me, I’m no such Pollyanna: even when Brooks, blind pigging and all that, does reach a point that isn’t crazy, the way he gets there remains a problem.  I guess it is the incuriousness that gets me the most.  There’s a lot of sunshine in his spotless mind.

And as for the Times?  They’ve made their bargain:  Brooks’ celebrity is secure now; he gets clicks and he gets tons of exposure, both gold in this transitional media moment.  He’s a smooth — I’d say glib, but YMMV – writer, to be sure, but he’s a genuinely crappy thinker.  And that’s not going away.  Still, even if his work does or ought to bring a flush of shame to those  in the building who do put their minds (and sometimes their bodies too) out into the fray is something the powers that be in Timesland seem willing to worry about another day.  The tricky thing is that places are only indispensable until they’re not, and it’s after the rubble settles that those long-ago first cracks reveal themselves as warnings unheeded.

*Where n is an arbitrarily large number

**obligatory h/t to Warner Wolf.

Images:  Clara Peeters, A Vanitas Portrait of a Lady, c. 1613-1620.

Frontspiece of the Bible Moralisee, God the Geometer, c.1250.

Margret Hofheinz-Döring, Brigitte with Doll, 1946.

David Brooks Single-Handedly Solves the Fertilizer Shortage

May 3, 2013

Today’s BoBo column is useful, very useful indeed.

It’s one of his nominally apolitical efforts, and as such, parsing its intellectual flaws and frauds yields a helpful guide to the ways Brooks puts his thumb on the scale of everything he writes.  A column like this one helps expose his genius for bullshit without the confusing (to some) aura of partisan argument.

Brooks here presents what seems to be  a humble (sic) precis of responses he received to questions posed in an earlier column in an exercise of what he termed “crowd sourced sociology.”

That Brooks might not be the best suited to launch such an effort could be seen in the first of those queries:

A generation after the feminist revolution, are women still, on average, less confident than men?

Cranach,_Lucas_d._Ä._-_Doppelbildnis_Herzog_Heinrichs_des_Frommen_und_Gemahlin_Herzogin_Katharina_von_Mecklenburg_-_1514

Someone with some methodological insight might see the problem in the way that question is phrased…and I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader.

But it’s really today’s column that captures BoBo’s skill of finding always and only the conclusion he seeks in any alleged analysis of the alleged data.   His key trick:  there’s always a turn, a sudden shift in the unstated assumptions of the piece that allows Brooks to assert a claim unsupported by the actual body of information he possesses.  Let’s see that in action here, from this beginning

I’ve read through a mountain of responses, and my first reaction is awe at the diversity of the human experience. I went looking for patterns in this survey…

But it was really hard to see consistent correlations and trends. The essays were highly idiosyncratic, and I don’t want to impose a false order on them that isn’t there.

Fair enough.

But wait!  It’s BoBo, after all.  Who needs an understanding of the data when there’s an anecdote that dovetails with his preconceptions:

One of the calmest letters came from Carol Collier, who works at Covenant College.

One of the drums BoBo has been banging lately is the (in his view) value of acceptance of a body of received belief.  He’s been writing about modern Jewish orthodoxy, but he’s asserted more than once the importance of revealed religion as a source of stable selves.  So it’s no surprise what kind of reader would win his accolade:

She wrote: “As a believer in Jesus Christ, I see myself as redeemed, forgiven and covered in the righteousness of Jesus Christ. I believe that this is how God sees me, all the time and without exception. I believe that his smile and delight in me is unwavering. This view of myself is quite simple yet with profound implications. It allows me to accept criticism without self-condemnation and to accept affirmations without exalting myself. This is the ideal view of myself that I am always working at. It is a struggle, but a good one.”

Just to be clear, my issue isn’t with Ms. Collier; she believes what she believes and she feels what she feels, and, as T. J. Luhrman has been writing a lot lately, that experience is itself both a subjective reality and a data point.

No, what gets my goat is the all-too-predictable-use Brooks makes of Collier’s account:

I’ll try to harvest more social trends later.

Say what!? (BTW — there is no ellipsis there. That sentence follows directly from the quote.)

Let’s review.  At the top of his column Brooks tells us that “it was really hard to see consistent correlations and trends.”  Now, we learn that not only has he shown us (at least) one trend, there will be more to come!  Impressive.

So what is this trend?  Bobo reveals his discovery:

But, in the meantime, I’m struck by how hard it is to have the right stable mix of self-confidence and self-criticism without some external moral framework or publicly defined life calling.

D’0h.  Of course — BoBo’s Kulturkampf never rests.  We need to behave properly, as our faith teaches us, as the manners of our mythical ancestors would have us, as the non-sexually-abusing members of Brooklyn Orthodox communities may be claimed to act.

A confession, here.  Remember how I said above that this was an apolitical column.  There is actually no such thing in Brooks’ repertory.  It’s all political, which is why he creates his cultural and sociological fictions.  This column is a foundational one, a way to slip in a claim of reality — that enjoying a good life, possessing the crucial human skills of balance, depend on specific allegiances that Brooks can then assert must inform whatever specific political claim he wants to make.

Another thing:  Brooks offers in this pair of columns — the questionnaire and now this “results” piece — a veneer of  science-yness, the trappings of surveys and analysis that (he suggests) give his interpretations the disinterested authority of a mere reporter of fact.  What you actually see here, of course, is that Brooks either has no clue what goes into the construction of an observation or experiment a scientist would recognize as meaningful — or he does, but doesn’t care.  Let’s go to his conclusion to see that dishonesty in full flower:

If it’s just self-appraisal — one piece of your unstable self judging another unstable piece — it’s subjectivity all the way down.

So. To review again.  BoBo  says there are no trends or patterns he can see in his responses.  He then quotes a single reply and asserts that it captures one fact — presumably that of the connection of religious commitment to the possession of certain qualities of personality.  And then he states, with no reference to any of his data, (ex cathedra, as it were) that another way of knowing one’s self is invalid.

The scientific follies are so many, and so many of them are obvious, it’s exhausting to try and list them all. Just to suggest one — no where does BoBo suggest that he might have to deal with a selection bias in the population of his readers who choose to reply to him.  Given that he’s written often about the satisfactions of an externally constrained religious life, that might be a problem — but it is not one that seems to trouble him.

But the fact that his “study” is worthless as actual knowledge is both obvious and besides the point, his point.  Look one more time at that last sentence.  Notice the double sleight of hand there?

It’s not just the untethered nature of the assertion — our David telling us that self appraisal is suspect — but  this too:  it’s an answer to a question no one asked.*  He began by wondering how men and women compare for self-confidence; now he’s shifted to an assertion about the sources of his respondents self-judgment.  Not the same question at all.  (There’s the added problem of the subjectivity of religious experience as well, but to ask BoBo to do the very hard work of thinking about  about that is like asking a donkey to keep watch for angels.  It’s been reported to happen, but very, very rarely.)  All of his column is unconnected to this final point; it’s there just for atmosphere, to give this unsupported, culturally and politically freighted claim the aura of reality.  It’s pure propaganda.  This is David Brooks.

Enough.  I’ve wasted another perfectly good hour foaming at Brooks many sins.  Here’s the shorter: he always plays a rigged game.  The only reason to read him is to play “spot the bullshit.”

To add:  what bugs me from my particular bailiwick as a science writer is that he has so little knowledge of, or perhaps respect for, what actually goes into the very hard work of deriving actual understanding from the exceptional complexity of material reality — including the extraordinary tangle of human experience.  There are lots of way science is losing some of its cultural capital right now, some self-inflicted.  But nonsense like this sure doesn’t help.

Image:  Lucas Cranach the Elder, Portraits of Henry the Pious, Duke of Saxony and his wife Katharina von Mecklenburg, 1514.


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