Posted tagged ‘George Will’

He’s got a lot of nerve: George Will commits science wankery of high order.

January 7, 2010

Thanks (sic–ed.) to nutellaontoast over at Fire Megan McArdle (now there’s a blog to love…ed.) I clicked through to Will’s meditation (FSM, I hate it when you link through to the Post — ed.) on cosmic scales of space and matter-density…which led him somehow to solar system dynamics…which led him to the divinely ordered (sic) glories of the federal constitution and the very profligate divinity that achieves change in creation through mass murder.

Don’t believe me?  Then consider this:

…in 1787 other people — Americans call them the Founding Fathers — who were influenced by Newtonian physics and the deist idea of God as cosmic clockmaker, devised a constitutional system of separated powers, checking and balancing one another, mimicking what they considered our solar system’s clocklike mechanics.

Today, we know there is a lot of play in the joints of the Constitution and that every 40 million years or so asteroids more than half a mile in diameter strike Earth. Yet the Constitution still constitutes, and the fact that flora and fauna have survived Earth’s episodes of extreme violence testifies to the extraordinary imperative of life.

Uh, is it just me that wonders at someone who conflates events that transpire over a couple of hundred years with those that require tens of millions to play out?

I mean, if it’s all just numbers, let me assure Will of one thing.  In a few billion more years or so — maybe a hundred, perhaps fewer “generations” of asteroid-strike mass extinctions, following Will’s assumption — we may be sure that both Constititution and life on earth take a final bow.  And of course, if you use more sane measures, say median species survival time, it will be rather less — a few million years or so. (I couldn’t lay my hands on the right number fast, so I asked my secret advisor on all things biological if that’s the right scale, and with the caveat that it varies from group to group, I have dispensation for the claim. 😉

And so on. But why bother.  This is just freshman bloviating taking up space on what should be one of important arenas for public discourse  in the world.  The real message, the not even barely veiled subtext is one of Will’s usual themes.  Science is at best decoration — nice wallpaper to surround the serious thoughts of real intellectuals.

It is a terrible, destructive trope, this use of science as background music, and never an intellectual end in itself. Trope is too grand a word; it’s a trick, really.

Will knows just enough to recognize that science as an enterprise has a particular kind of authority, one eroded but not destroyed by the sustained attack he and others have led on the whole notion of expertise instead of ideology as a guide to statecraft.

He wants that authority; he and others who use the language and images of science to argue against its methods seek to appropriate it to provide cover for all the assumptions-not-in-evidence and teleological reasoning that passes for elite punditry these days.

And yes, all this is truly an over reaction to a lazy, mail-it-in piece of crap from a columnist long past his sell-by date.  The real story underneath Will’s desperate attempts to opine with and on technical matters is that he hasn’t a clue, and it shows.

Here, amidst his mumble of veiled climate change denialism (see, e.g. this: “The discovery, two decades ago, of a bed of dinosaur fossils on Alaska’s North Slope suggests that temperatures may have been warmer long ago, before there were human beings to blame for that…”) and the musings about asteroid strikes and a folksy account of the expanding universe (“Into what is it expanding? Hard to say.”)  what ultimately emerges is the realization that Will has heard about all this stuff somewhere, or an intern has come up with a half dozen or so stories or the like, and Will merely mashed all this together into something he hoped no one would notice made no sense whatsoever.

And even if that’s the likeliest explanation for why this thing appeared, I’m still pissed.  We — and by this I mean everyone who tries to make sense of the worlds we live in, political, material, historical, whatever — have a duty of care.  And by everyone I mean all of us from your humble, though not pajama clad blogger to those titans who possess leasehold on irreplaceable media real estate.

You, me, and damn sure George Will are obligated, at the very least, to make sure we don’t leave our audiences stupider after they’ve read our stuff than they were before. Will routinely fails at this minimal task.  This is just one more example.

Image: Rafael, “School of Athens,” detail with Plato and Aristotle, Heraclites and Diogenes, 1509.

Why Newspapers are Dying: George Will Has Reached His Sell-By Date edition

October 12, 2009

Some of the problems faced by traditional newspapers (the MSM, dead tree dept.) are imposed from without.  It’s not anyone in particular’s fault that the emergence of the intertubes and related digital developments is destroying most of the economic pillars on which newspapers have prospered for a long time.

But there are plenty of wounds that are self inflicted.  No one has forced newspapers to emphasize, say, style at the expense of reporting, especially the kind of gasbag opinionizing that dare not speak its name.  See this latest via Balloon Juice for just one small instance of major media deciding to render themselves irrelevant.

And most bizarrely, no one has forced folks to create a star system of punditry, despite the fact that the only unique advantage major media possesses over the digital wild west is a knowledge of journalistic craft and the institutional infrastructure that supports sustained inquiry and local and or investigative reporting.

But that’s a disastrous miscalculation.  Training up an institution to do real reporting well is hard — and would provide one distinctive competitive advantage over independent knights of the keyboard. Opinion writing does not.  Anyone, even yours truly, can take a whack at it; over time big, fixed cost dinosaurs can compete on neither quality nor quantity  (or, as we say in my house — both Rock and Roll.)

And if, for example, that house organ to the powerful, The Washington Post has to rely on work like  that George Will eructates to lay claim to a distinctive place in our media culture…well, on the evidence of his latest, the end can’t be far off now.

In fact, if I were Fred Hiatt (what a horrible thought…really for Fred or me….) I’d demand my money back.  There truly is nothing there, no actual facts, no analysis, no thoughts.  It’s got some of the Will trademarks — the mandarin disdain; the cocktail-party level faux sophistication (look at me! I look at paintings! the pretentious anglophilia); the relentless projection (I’m not really a sneering asshole;  YOU are!); but at bottom, this is just Will finally going alll Norma Desmond on us.  From top to bottom this reads as an almost pitiable cri de coeur:   “pay attention to me; I used to be somebody!”

The winceable stuff starts right at the top, with a typical Will trope:

Consider nature. Not the placid nature that Constable painted, but nature as Tennyson saw it, “red in tooth and claw.” To glimpse a state of nature as Hobbes imagined it, where human life is “nasty, brutish and short,” visit the Whole Foods store on River Road in Bethesda.

Ooh, ooh teacher, I know this one!

If you want to impress the gullibles, and you want to assert an authority you have not earned, make sure you scatter into your writing/speech — preferably near the top — two or three droplets from the handbook of safe bits of smart-people stuff.  Here we have a famous painter, a nicely canonical poet, and the one quote everyone has heard from someone you can be pretty sure most of your readers have not read well (or recently) enough to expose you for the superficial pseud you are.

Will does this all the time — he is glib, he affects a broad and deep knowledge, he has plenty of access to research assistants.  And particularly in a town like DC, which dotes on culture in the service of power, this kind of stuff goes down a treat.

It’s pitiable nonsense, of course, neither good writing nor in fact an intelligent reading of his sources.  Tennyson’s godawful poem* contrasts nature to human beings — the poet! —  and their relationship to the divine, which has in essence nothing to do with what Hobbes is talking about. But who cares — certainly not Will.  Rather, these are just cliches with Dior labels attached–  “red in tooth…” and so on, both familiar and useful reminders of the speaker’s status.

Will at this point isn’t worth a whole lot of effort to fisk or debunk.  All you will find in this latest evidence of fatal decline is a tally of imagined horror:

*Liberals arguing over parking spaces to buy expensive vegetables proves that those who think that George Will is an idiot are just as awful as those who bring guns to political rallies.

*He argues (really?  is that the verb?  — ed) that because he does not like liberals, therefore liberals are elitist hypocrites.

*He asserts that liberalism’s interest in rights has somehow destroyed the civility, even the legitimacy of the health care debate.

*He thinks that a local traffic dispute proves  that liberals stand on rights too much to resolve disputes — and that, by implication somehow this means that whatever it is that stands for conservatism ought still to command respect.

That is:  this is one long screed of “I hate you guys,” so much so that in the end, it is not worth the bother of deconstructing.  Just take one short quote for an illustration and you’ll get the whole.  Consider:

If our vocabulary is composed exclusively of references to rights, a.k.a. entitlements, we are condemned to endless jostling among elbow-throwing individuals irritably determined to protect, or enlarge, the boundaries of their rights. Among such people, all political discourse tends to be distilled to what Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard Law School calls “rights talk.”

“If our vocabulary is composed exclusively…” And if it’s not, as patently it isn’t?  What’s there?  A lazy old man whose moral and intellectual hemmorrhoids are acting up.

See e.g., the very health care dispute to which Will makes reference.  The argument about the public option is heated indeed, but it’s not about a right.  Rather its about what would be the best politically possible way to reach a particular policy goal:  how to insure as near to everyone as possible at the lowest cost to society.  End of story. Which Will has to know, unless he picked this as the wrong week to stop sniffing glue.  (That universal health care can be expressed as a right isn’t what the left is arguing about.  It’s how to achieve the end of instantiating that right — or as it is sometimes conceived, that essential moral and pragmatically social-order-serving obligation of a modern developed society.)

“rights a.k.a. entitlements.”  So free speech is an entitlement?  The free exercise of religion?  How about the expectation as a human right that in detention one will not be subject to torture?  If these are entitlements, then the eternal Inigo Montoya rises up once more.

“Endless jostling among elbow throwing individuals?”… Timing is everything, but on the weekend of the LBGT march on Washington, I’d have to ask if Will thinks it inappropriate for someone to take to the streets, peaceably, elbows and all, to jostle his delicate sensibilities with demands for equal treatment under the law.  Note also the sleight of hand:  “to protect, or enlarge.”

Speaking as someone enjoying my bloggy moment of free speech, its protection in all kinds of ways (net neutrality, e.g.) seems important.  To condemn it ever so slickly by conflating it with enlarging…well, from the point of view of the writer’s craft, that’s slick, skilled, and wholly dishonest.  (Also, I’m not so sure what is so bad in the abstract about enlarging rights:  from sufferage to equal access to public benefits, as in Title 9 seems like exactly the logic of a view of humanity that accepts the essential notion of equal treatment under law.)

“Among such people” — ahh, here’s the real nub. Who are these people? Will never says. The wrong sort, no doubt.  They’re the imagined Prius drivers who dare to shop at Whole Foods.  They are pissed off drivers slowing for speed bumps, profiled in a strangely anachronistic Post piece that presents as new what has happened in neighborhoods all over America (all over the world) when traffic engineers use their tools to shift driving habits.**

Whoever they are, these mythical liberals, these hypocrites, these folks who dare speak of rights — they are not, in fact, the people who have truly provoked the great George Will.  Rather, those offenders would be, I think (a) the large subset of the governing party that is ignoring everything he has to say, and (b) the American voters who have sent a young, smart, not-one-of-us man to the White House, along with 60 of the wrong party to the Senate and a similarly large delegation to the House.

Which is to say that most of Will’s career has been, in effect, repudiated by those results.  The electorate and a growing (though not yet dominant) faction of the ruling party understands that Will has gotten most of the important calls wrong for a very long time now.  They and we realize that he has nothing much left to say, given how thoroughly his earlier arguments have been shown to be wrong — not through debate, nor the easy abstractions of armchair argument, nor by raising his Constable with any of a number of Turners, but in the hard school of the real world in which he has lined up on the side of grotesque political and policy failure.

Which leaves Will with this:  a column that says nothing, as little-boy-nastily as possible.

And that, my friends (channeling my inner McCain, there folks — sorry) leads back to the beginning at which we will end.  If the Post doesn’t start breaking some real journalism soon; if all it has to offer is “such people” kvetching by tired old Gloria Swanson impersonators, then what reason for being will they have?  Why would anyone lay down a buck or whatever they charge these days for wrap any self-respecting fish would reject?

*and endless.  I dare you to read the whole thing.  And I’ll bet dollars to donuts that Will has not.

**It may come as news to Will, but this has happened before.  And what usually goes down is this:  people get pissed off for a while about speed bumps or other bits of traffic engineering when they first are installed, and then they just deal, as most folks figure out that slowing down in neighborhoods full of kids is not the worst idea in the world.  Only a world-class asshole would assume that the “conflict” between neighborhoods and drivers passing through was a measure of political sincerity or sophistication.

Image:  Vincent van Gogh, “Old Man in Sorrow (On the Threshold of Eternity)” 1890

Do Bow Ties Constrict GOP Blood Flow to the Brain?: Tucker Carlson/Global Warming edition

March 4, 2009

What is it about these guys, bow ties and global warming?

Here’s George Will fanboy and bronze medalist in the Narcissus Olympics, mid-level pundit division,Tucker Carlson in a Washington Post (of course) online chat:

…for the record let me say that I think global warming is a crock too.  (H/t Kos)

For the record, Tucker Carlson’s “thought” (sic) on global warming has the same weight as does my cat Tikka Hussein Masala’s opinion on the validity of Perelman’s proof of the Poincare conjecture.  George Will’s too (see below, this blog, and half the science blogosphere to boot).

Image:  Paul Gavarni, “Dandy in Paris,” before 1866.

Bad Andrew (and George): Sullivan (and Will) Can’t Do Economics

October 24, 2008

I know, I know — a dog bites man story.

Still, this quote approvingly retailed by Sullivan from Will should win some kind of prize for the most ideologically blinkered thought (sic) of the year:

Hundreds of billions of dollars that the political class would have liked to direct for its own social and political purposes have been otherwise allocated. That allocation, by government fiat rather than by market forces, must reduce the efficiency of the nation’s stock of capital.

It’s hard to know where to begin with so much idiocy crammed into so few Augustan words.

Just two thoughts:

First:  those billions that the notional “political class” would have liked to direct to its own ends did not exist as politically available funds until the crisis occurred.

The notion that in the real world any Congress would have said, hell, just increase the deficit by 150 percent or so to buy cupcakes on the moon is nonsense.  I’d like to think that Will (or Sullivan) knows this, but I’m not in fact sure that either of them do.  Spending too long repeating half-learned shibboleths from decades before tends to reduce your ability to connect ideas with observations of the real world.

Second:  Look at that last sentence in the quote again.  A more or less minor error slips in when Will seems to conflate real and financial capital — true beginners buffoonery. For a bigger howler, consider his complaint about government vs. private sector capital allocation.  If “market forces” were so effective at allocating capital, we would, of course, not be in the position of bailing out private market players right now.


Image:  The Panic – Run on the Fourth National Bank, No. 20 Nassau Street [New York City, 1873.  Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA.  Digital ID: (b&w film copy neg.) cph 3a00900 Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

John McCain’s reality problem: Guantanamo, State Power, and Theoretical Physics

June 17, 2008

You have to be quick to be good. Today, via Atrios, George Will (George Will!) is actually saying the right thing about John McCain’s latest, almost tragic, self negation.

The back story: The Supreme Court rules 5-4 that prisoners held by the US, on territory the US wholly controls, actually have some baseline of essential rights, in particular the right to make a habeas corpus claim, requesting a hearing (requesting! not automatically receiving) in which the government must demonstrate that it has due cause to hold the complainant, or else release him or her.

So what happened next? Joy amongst those who think the Constitution has some life in it yet, visions of the apocalypse for those who feel the rule of law is for other people.

John McCain, sadly — and I mean that — lined up with the latter, declaring the ruling “one of the worst decisions in the history of this country.”

It is sad: I’m no John McCain fan (dog-bites-man…ed.), but he is someone who once seemed to have a sense of who he was, and now he doesn’t. On everything from torture (agin it, except when the proper Americans do it) to energy polict, (even Cheney thinks he’s gone wacky) he now seems willing to say whatever he thinks at that moment might help him out. It’s never a pretty sight to see someone turning themselves into a caricature in public.

But here McCain is worse than sad: he’s dangerous on two levels. The first is obvious, and it is the one Will nailed — with exactly the same serious of examples I was planning to provide. As he writes,

Does it rank with Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857), which concocted a constitutional right, unmentioned in the document, to own slaves and held that black people have no rights that white people are bound to respect? With Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which affirmed the constitutionality of legally enforced racial segregation? With Korematsu v. United States (1944), which affirmed the wartime right to sweep American citizens of Japanese ancestry into concentration camps?

No; of course not. As Will points out, there are in fact some issues to argue here — but there is no way to say that this decision defies reason or legal basis.

Will goes on to have some fun with McCain — there’s a tone of real contempt in lines like “Did McCain’s extravagant condemnation of the court’s habeas ruling result from his reading the 126 pages of opinions and dissents?”

While I can enjoy such snark (and from such a source!) the real point of Will’s column, and the one that moves the whole incident into the realm of a blog concerned with what science can offer public life is the real risk of a McCain presidency exposed here. And it is not just that he’s revealed (once again) as a shoot from the hip reactive kind of guy (contrast his approach to this legal decision with former law professor Obama’s preparation here). Rather, it is that there is a real problem in electing Humpty Dumpty to any responsible office.

That is: the one constant across all the disciplines that call themselves science is a commitment to reality, to acknowledging the actual data that observation and experiment produce, however much they may conflict with worldview or desire. Here’s Albert Einstein, acknowledging in public, for as broad a lay audience as he could reach, explaining the significance of of the new discoveries of quantum mechanics:

There is no doubt that quantum physics explained a very rich variety of facts, achieving, for the most part, splendid agreement between theory and observation. The new quantum physics removes us still further from the old mechanical view, and a retreat to the former position seems, more than ever, unlikely….The qunatum theory again created new and essential features of our reality…”

Einstein never reconciled himself to critical aspects of the modern quantum theory; he spent three decades looking for a more general theory that would subsume it; and yet he nominated its first architects, Heisenberg and Schroedinger for the Nobel Prize, and he did not deny its obvious power or importance. He hated it, but he knew it meant something very, very significant.

Contrast that with McCain in action here. It is a fact that this decision falls within the mainstream of American jurisprudence — one may not like the outcome, and there are meaningful arguments to support that dislike, but this is a perfectly conventional bit of Constitutional reasoning. To say that this is “one of the worst” Supreme Court actions is simply to ignore example after example, fact after fact, that gives the lie to McCain’s pique.

This post is long enough. I’d just say that we’ve had enough of people asserting facts not in evidence for their own, temporary advantage. If there were a ever a single disqualifying attribute in a potential President, it is this truly anti-science willingness to ignore what they do, or should, know to be essential features of the reality we inhabit.

Image:  Jade Record, Chinese, 19th Century.  Depiction of sinners being tortured in the sixth court of hell.  Source: Wikimedia Commons.