Archive for April 2010

“The Lupus of News” — Jon Stewart diagnoses Fox News

April 22, 2010

Bernie Goldman is a supperating boil on body of the punditocracy. Jon Stewart accurately diagnoses the underlying pathology that allows the expression of such a symptom.

Via Balloon Juice — which means that posting here is kind of duplicative, but still, more funny than this is hard to imagine. Smart too.

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GOP Health Care Cost Innovation: Poultry for PET Scans, Video Dance Edition

April 22, 2010

(h/t TPM)

Eye Candy

April 20, 2010

Even lighter blogging than usual to come over the next couple of weeks as I actually produce a piece on deadline. (See, kids:  I used to be a real free-lancer.  Honest.)

In the meantime, expect some stuff like the message from this daffodil:

Now, as the photographer, my brother Richard, put it:  that’s stick-to-it-iveness.

More to come, I’m sure.  I’m trying to triage my outrage, though I’m still trying to keep myself from boiling over at this piece of ordinary obnoxious nonsense from failed Bush man of faith, Michael Gerson in today’s Kaplan rag:

…events of the past year have moved Republicans of every variety to the right, in reaction to the vast Obama overreach.

Seriously, dude, what Obama overreach?  I mean what, exactly, would you characterize as an unacceptable use of his power or his influence?  Name one act.  I dare you.  I double dare you.

You mealy-mouthed, sense-mauling, bought-and-paid-for-and-cheap-at-the-price cant-magnet.

There…I feel better.

A little.

This Is How Bad Ideas Become Received Wisdom: Mark Ambinder, Regulation, and Evil edition

April 16, 2010

I’m not an Ambinder hater.  He knows the mechanics of politics really well, and when he chooses, he’s got useful material to share.

But I’m no fan either — I think he’s allowed himself to play Villager too much too soon.  He’s a good reporter, I think, but his pleasure at being a member of the Washington in-crowd is palpable, and I find his site less and less interesting the more reliably conventional its wisdom becomes.

It’s kind of sad, actually.  He’s too young and too smart to make it pretty to watch him turn into a kind aspiring Broder with internet skillz.  But that’s what’s happening,  I think.

Case in point — look at this reflex in action on what would seem to be a subject pretty far removed from the usual Washington sacred cow.  Ambinder wrote a  very interesting article for the May issue of The Atlantic Monthly about  obesity, spinning of his own experience an in depth look at what can and/or should be done about the very real harm obesity is causing in this country.

Mostly, the piece is a pretty good bit of feature writing, with a clear understanding of its subject and its aims.  But even in a matter very near to his heart, and one in which he has already made the (for the contemporary Village) significant leap of recognizing a role of government action in confronting the very complex issue of obesity, he still can’t help straying into the easy, mindless tropes of elite posturing on the evils of policy action.

For example, in one passage, he describes President Obama’s choice of FDA chief, Margaret Hamburg, as “another New York City veteran with a strong nanny streak.”

That would be this Dr. Hamburg

Dr. Hamburg, who was appointed by Mayor David N. Dinkins as acting commissioner in 1991 and became commissioner the following year, was one of the few top officials asked to remain when Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani took office in 1994. She was best known for developing a tuberculosis control program that produced sharp declines in the incidences of the disease in New York. Under her tenure, child immunization rates rose in the city.

She left New York in 1997 to become assistant secretary for planning and evaluation at the federal Department of Health and Human Services, where she created a bioterrorism initiative and led planning for pandemic flu response.

And what was Dr. Hamburg’s sin? That under her leadership, the FDA “warned 17 food manufacturers that their food labeling made misleading health claims that needed to be corrected.”

This is, if I may steal someone else’s snark, Your Liberal Media In Action.

Ambinder seems to see as a nanny — by implication, I think, an emasculating female authority figure — someone who helped roll back what many consider to be one of, if not the greatest looming public health crises around these days (TB) — not to mention someone who has tried to plan ahead for a couple of the most significant anticipatable but not predictable medical threats we face as a nation.

I’m not sure what you would call someone who has that skill set and resume, but she’s a nanny only if you think proactive government planning and decisions in the face of real dangers is somehow Satanic Mary Poppins territory.

But that, of course, is the current elite Washington chattering class consensus.  Three decades of hard, effective work by the radical right propaganda apparat — the AEIs and the rest — have produced the unthought conclusion for too many that government action of any sort is an infantalizing, illegitimate assault on the individual’s corporation’s right to lie about the effects of its products.

What’s weird — or rather, telling — is that it actually appears from the passage in question that Ambinder actually admires the FDA’s action in this case. He writes, “This was the most significant FDA enforcement action on such matters in more than a decade.”

But even so, he can’t stop himself from spitting out a cliched epithet that undercuts his own apparent conclusion — and, more broadly, the whole idea that it might make sense for the government to be active in the arena of protecting the public from deceptive practices implicated in a major health concern.

You see this pathology more bluntly in a blog post that Ambinder wrote to follow up on the article, in which he outlined in brief what he thought ought to be done about the American obesity plague.  There he writes that  we should

Accept that regulation is a necessary evil. (Emphasis added.)

Oh FSM.  Not this again.

Easy snark aside, here you have the political editor of The Atlantic Monthly taking as absolutely uncontroversial the idea that regulation, necessary or not, is bad.  It’s a truth universally acknoweledged– in his worldview —  that such government action cannot be better than the lesser of two lousy outcomes.

And this is the problem.  There is no argument that there can be good and bad regulation — as in rules that fail to achieve their policy goals.  But the idea that the tool of regulation is itself evil — now that’s the true accomplishment of the Reaganite long war on the whole idea of public governance, of a public interest.

And, of course, it’s false, a lie, told wittingly by some, unconsciously, I think, here.

This really isn’t complicated:  regulations are the tools we use to ensure that private ambitions do not trump public interests.

Ambinder even gets this, sort of.  In  his longer article, he writes of the ways regulatory change works.  Sometimes it is simply a rule that compels a change in behavior.  Other times, it is process that evokes such changes.  He writes,

There is a creative tension here, and the conversations can be difficult,” said the [National Restaurant Association] president, Dawn Sweeney, of its negotiations with the administration. “Having said that, we have to have real things to offer, because if regulation is in the offing at some point down the road, we want to be out in front of it.”

Well, yeah.

To recap:  what has Ambinder tried to say here?  One — that our current food practices have led to a deeply damaging national crisis of obesity.  Two — that the organization of  our food industry and culture are among the primary drivers of this crisis.  Three — that absent changes in the way the industries involved do business we are unlikely to resolve said crisis.  And four — that such change comes only in the context of explicit incentives to do so, and this administration is using the regulatory process to provide those incentives.

Nothing evil to see here — except, if I may hyperbolize — Ambinder’s swift and sloppy appropriation of a cliche that advances the very political interests that would derail the changes he wants to see here.

Which is to say Ambinder has to choose, as must all the rest of us, which side of this rhetorical and real divide he wants to defend.

*Ambinder himself notes this problem, writing, inter alia, that “wide evidence suggests that advertising feeds obesity, triggering what the psychologist Robert Cialdini has called the brain’s “click-whirr” response.”

Images:  James Gillray “A Voluptuary, under the horrors of digestion” (a caricature of the Prince of Wales, later George IV) 1792.

And why not two  Weird Tales covers in one day, this one, dated November 1942, vol. 36, no. 8, featuring Nursemaid to Nightmares by Robert Bloch. Cover art by Richard Bennett.

Why I Love the English Language (and writing)

April 16, 2010

From Nick Mamtas

Carver became a legend on 72 short stories. I just sold my 60th.  But thanks to the handy chart at the back of Carol Sklenicka’s mammoth biography, I know that Carver never sold stories to anthologies with names such as The Walri Project, The Naked Singularity, or Fucking Daphne. Am I doing something wrong?

(h/t Andrew Sullivan.)

I don’t quite know why this tickles me so, except that as a writer, I love reading writer’s rants.  Or perhaps its the fact that I now have some almost-certain-to-be-unreached destinations to which my own work could aspire.


mage: Cover of the pulp magazine Weird Tales (January 1937, vol. 29, no. 1). Covert art by Margaret Brundage.

Because I Have Never, Not Once, In All My Life, Been Cool Enough To Wear The Big Suit

April 14, 2010

Look, kids:  This was how we thought cool rolled back when we blogged via chisel and slate.

(I needed a break from words after the last three posts.  Enjoy.)

David Brooks Is Always Wrong — Steel vs. Code follies and the White Man’s Burden edition: Part Three

April 13, 2010

I once directed the Broadway and film actor Richard Kiley in a narration session for a NOVA series I’d just produced (with colleagues).  We were doing two hour long programs that day, and Kiely wasn’t in his first youth, and so when he started to flag just a bit about two thirds of the way through the second script, I asked him if he needed a break.

“No!” he said.

“I can smell the oats in the stable.”

Me too, here, after this long tour through what has mostly been a litany of garden-variety David Brooks foibles:  bad writing, errors, sleight of hand, a tendency to misread his sources and mislead his audiences.  So far, we’ve built the foundation of the indictment in part one and part  two.

Now, let’s seal the deal.

Here’s the mystery.  Brooks is sloppy, a lazy reader (third tier sources and all the rest) and an incurious reporter.

But one thing he is not, is stupid.

He’s smart.  He has skillz too.  It’s not easy to write smooth-reading, plausible seeming 850 word packets of pop sociology and political comment two or three times a week.

However banal his writing may be, however wrong he routinely is; however much he shackles his critical faculties in the service of the role he’s created for himself — the conservative that does not offend the Upper West Side —  he knows what he’s doing.  Here, at this sorry end of a seemingly happy little essay, he makes the turn to claim a conclusion that is both foolish and touched with evil.

It turns out, though you could not have guessed it from the dog’s breakfast of mutterings about protocols that have come before, that what Brooks is trying to say here is that poor people have it coming — and there is neither the possibility, nor necessarily the opportunity, to do anything about the plight of those less fortunate than he and thee.

He gets there in two slippery steps.

Firs, he writes:

What really matters, Edmund S. Phelps of Columbia argues, is economic culture — attitudes toward uncertainty, the willingness to exert leadership, the willingness to follow orders. A strong economy needs daring consumers (Phelps says China lacks this) and young researchers with money to play with (Romer notes that N.I.H. grants used to go to 35-year-olds but now they go to 50-year-olds).

Leave aside the pure nonsense here – the recycled line that China lacks daring consumers.  There are many things China may lack today — but a healthy appetite for material goods and the new, new thing are not among them.  (For a view of China and its economic/political prospects informed by expertise, experience, and inquiry, start with this exemplary piece by someone who remembers how to be a journalist, James Fallows).

The real tell here is that economic success follows social behavior, with a rather stratified view of what counts:  you need dear leaders, and you need followers, perhaps loyal enough to remember that we’ve always been at war with Microsoft Google.

So far, for all of the silliness in that short passage, Brooks’ reasoning is somewhere between banal and benign.  But there’s a sting to come, born of his deliberately vague description of the cultural secrets of economic succcess. He goes on to write that

…a protocol economy tends toward inequality because some societies and subcultures have norms, attitudes and customs that increase the velocity of new recipes while other subcultures retard it. Some nations are blessed with self-reliant families, social trust and fairly enforced regulations, while others are cursed by distrust, corruption and fatalistic attitudes about the future. It is very hard to transfer the protocols of one culture onto those of another.

Now we’re down to the short strokes.

All of Brooks’ misdirection; his multiple incoherent descriptions of the so-called protocol economy; all the thumb-sucking about food courts and steel and drugs — the whole mess comes down to this.

The reason that there is inequality here at home, Brooks tells us, the reason that there is a divide between rich and poor nations is all down to bad families and nasty bribery habits.

Pay no attention to the data behind the curtain that suggests that inequality is constructed, a political  failure as much as an economic one, for to peer to deeply into the actual numbers might furrow the unwrinkled brow.  And never forget that scumbags screwing the middle class are, if they exist at all, mere bad apples, and not systematic threats to economic prosperity.

Best of all:  relax.  We’re alright, jack.  We, the elites who read The New York Times have the cultural right stuff.  In the inequality rodeo, we sit on top of the bull till the bell rings.  Let the clowns risk the horns.

Most important:  look at the last critical move Brooks make:  “It’s very hard to transfer the protocols of one culture onto those of another.”

Brooks is careful here — he is canny when he needs to be.  He never mentions genes or any claim of biological determinism.  But his message is that poor folk are poor for reasons that are inherent to their circumstances, to their culture, to qualities beyond individual choice.  And hence there is no escape:  you just can’t teach those shiftless losers the protocols they need to rise above themselves.

I’m being careful here.  Brooks never mentions race and what is presented here is not a racist argument.  Rather, it’s about class, ethnicity and history.

But at the same time, the same mental move that underlies racism is in play here:  Brooks is saying that some groups of people suffer from an inherent stain, an almost ineradicable vein of culture that determines the fate of the individuals within that group.  Brooks may say that he’s making nothing like the pseudobiological claim of the social Darwinist, the eugenicist — but an cultural inheritance of  inequality that is “very hard” comes out at the same practial destination:  you can’t fix culture, so the poor are stuck — and that’s just the way it is.

I hope I don’t have to go on here at any more length to point out the nonsense here.  Let me just say that the same has been said often enough before, and yet, somehow, plenty of folks deemed unfit to prosper have somehow had (e.g.)  the temerity to succeed.

But I do want to leave you with a thought as to why Brooks would play in this most dangeous — and wretched — sandbox.

Why would such a nice-seeming man want to reach such a conclusion, to the point where he has to twist what he knows, or avoid it altogether, to make his way to that destination?

Because, at least it seems to me, Brooks is the nice guy voice of the GOP/thug fantasy that government action is never better than useless.

If Brooks can persuade you that the economy is so different nowadays that all you thought you knew is wrong, and that this new picture depicts one in which winners and losers are pre-determined, then you can’t begin to support government action to address the seeming causes of inequality.  After all, any such effort must founder on the underlying reality of good cultures and bad, worthy folks and the shiftless.

And if you don’t read carefully, he is smooth enough to slip in all the errors, the omissions, the failures of logic and fact needed to present such a conclusion, not as the heir to blood-and-soil nastiness that it is, but as yet one more classic Brooks account of the good news about the way we live now.

And that, my friends, is what makes him so damn dangerous.

*I just can’t stand to go on, so I’m going to leave to the reader the pleasure of dissecting every morsel of dumb out of this coda to Brooks’ column.  To burnish his deep thought credentials, he backs off his channeling of Kipling to leave us with this pearl:  “Economic change is fomenting intellectual change. When the economy was about stuff, economics resembled physics. When it’s about ideas, economics comes to resemble psychology.”  I count at least three major errors here and four epic banalities.  You?

Image: John Ferneley, “Sir John Thorold’s Bay Hunters With Their Groom in a Stable.”

William Hogarth, “The Tête à Tête, the second in the Marriage à la Mode series, c. 1743.