The American Scene

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Articles filed under The Media


Serious Christians Should Abstain From Theology-Via-Media-Quotes

Remember when Pope Francis gave that interview? And he said something heretical-sounding? And all orthodox Christians blew a fuse? And it turned out the interview wasn’t proofread and Francis never said that?

Good times.

One of the people who blew a gasket was the Southern Baptist Convention’s Russell Moore, calling the Pope’s interview a “theological wreck.” (Ecumenical best practice?)

And remember how, just a few days later, Moore was profiled in the Wall Street Journal and described as calling for a “pull back” of Evangelicals from politics, causing conservative Evangelicals to blow their own gaskets? And then he had to issue a clarification and say no no no, that’s not what I said at all? He who lives by the media-misquote…

By the way, I don’t think I’ve seen Dr. Moore apologize to the Pope.

Lest you think I am calling out motes without noticing the beam in my own eye, I am writing this because I fell for this too. In appraising Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber I critiqued a statement of hers I found unorthodox. My source for this was a Washington Post article. And of course it turns out that the quote was wrong.

Of course religious people are accustomed by now to the idea that the media covers religious topics absurdly. But it is a statement of our dark, pharisaical hearts that we still treat media accounts of religious people as authoritative when it gives us ammo to denounce someone.

From this succession of fiascos we should draw a simple rule: serious Christians should never, ever, EVER rely on media (at least mainstream media) accounts of a person’s theology to get an impression of that person’s theology. Please. Are y’all with me?

And of course I apologize to Ms Bolz-Weber.

Don't Tell Me I Can't Be a Feminist House Husband

Into the ever-churning vortex of debate about leaning in/having it all comes Lisa Miller’s New York cover story bogus trend story about “the feminist housewife,” women who have, without changing any of their feminist convictions, decided they’re happier staying at home with the kids as their full time job. They insist that having a career mattered to them, but it simply couldn’t compete with the tranquility and stability of having one parent managing the household full-time. Several of Miller’s characters describe their pre-housewife lives as miserable and frayed by stress and marital tension. With both parents working, neither gets to the spend the time they want with the kids; dividing up the domestic duties and communicating about them non-stop makes life transactional and exhausting; inevitably someone’s dreams are going to get shorted. So the (two!) women in Miller’s story say they’ve discovered, in giving up an outside career and settling into traditional gender roles, that there really is some kind of “natural” groove of the dad going to work and the mom taking care of the kids.

This mass of work-family issues is debated to a pulp, and yet it somehow seems like no satisfying conclusion is ever reached. That’s to be expected, I suppose, considering that we are living through one of the greatest technological and economic revolutions in the history of the planet, and it’s a little ridiculous to assume that answers will be discovered easily. But there are several things these splashy gender-bomb articles tend to consistently leave out of the picture to the detriment of any serious discussion about the important issues they raise. So with this latest article as an example—and Anne-Marie Slaughter, et al, following closely in the rearview mirror—let me try to point out a few things that are continually overlooked and gotten wrong.

They’re too narrowly focused on rich people. I’m far from the first to point this out, but it’s striking the extent to which these debates about who chooses to do what are moot when the conversation is taken beyond wealthy white people. The main character of Miller’s “feminist housewife” story has a husband who makes “low six figures,” which may not be “rich” by Wall Street standards, but is a hell of a lot more than my wife and I make working two full-time jobs. One of us quitting is all but out of the question, and would be all the more so if we had a child So all the talk of optimal arrangements and the “hell” of filling each other in on domestic responsibilities we split becomes meaningless outside of a situation where you have considerable financial flexibility to adjust your domestic arrangement. For many people—including a majority of the people working for places like The Atlantic and New York magazine—the ability to have afford a child at all where they live is a much more pressing question than how to divide the chores.

They’re too narrowly focused on women. We are living in the golden age of the Great Women’s Internet Polemic, and, while I heartily support writing about and for women, this age—with its high quotient of trend exaggeration and trolling—actually does a disservice to public debate about family issues. Despite the way they are often packaged and discussed, I don’t see articles on subjects like Miller’s or Slaughter’s as “women’s issue’s journalism”; these issues are vitally important to my life as a husband and future parent. But when the conversation is all or mostly about who is and isn’t a proper feminist, and what magazine is getting how many pageviews by trolling who, it starts to feel like we’re spinning our wheels on a subject that our society desperately needs to discuss. (Not that that need by any means precludes discussion of the feminism angle; in fact, I’d say the bigger problem is the lack of male writers besides Rod Dreher, PEG and a couple others willing to engage.)

There is a desperate need for men write about what we absurdly think of as “women’s issues”—not to “mansplain” to women about what needs to be done, but because we have just as much or more work to do figuring out how to handle modern work, marriage and fatherhood. How much does a career matter? What are we prepared to give up to be parents? Do we have a realistic picture of how two careers and two kids are going to work in practice? And on and on. Unlike women, who have now had decades of feminist dialogue in which to work out these issues as the world changed around them, men have not thought and written enough about what a revolutionized world means for our choices and priorities.

They make too many assumptions about the genders, especially about men. It’s depressing to see old gender stereotypes returning as something like a settled truth: women “naturally” care more about kids and are better domestic administrators, and men are only fulfilled by outside work. (The main character of Miller’s story explodes with oddly unsubstantiated maxims of this sort, things that might as well have plucked from Phyllis Schlafly’s diary by Suzanne Vencker.) I don’t care whether you back it up that kind of claim with bullshit evolutionary biology or bullshit fundamentalist theology, it’s manifestly contradicted by the world around us, which has nothing but endless variation. Very little about the genders is “naturally” one way or the other. Many, many women dislike children and, even if they don’t, struggle to feel what others blithely call “maternal instincts.” An equal number of men are gifted with children, and only passively and regretfully put in their time at the office to feed the family they love. If someone were to seriously suggest that my wife will somehow “naturally” enjoy spending every day with our kids more than I would, or would be better at managing the household, I would ask if they had taken leave of their senses.

Nowhere does this tendency to impose gender stereotypes lead to more problems than in the sexist way we treat work-family balance a concern that only women face. Most of the time, men are never assumed to face any kind of choice about how they will sacrifice to have a family, or worse, not expected to sacrifice at all. Unlike women, if they succeed at work, all is more or less well and good. They’re automatically excused when they manifest their learned helplessness at cooking, washing dishes, paying bills, etc, while women still feel intense social pressure to succeed at those things even if they have full-time careers or don’t have that apocryphal female aptitude for grinding chores. I couldn’t possibly describe all the couples my parents’ age in which, even if the man is a natural administrator and the woman is not, the woman is left to shoulder—often poorly and with resentment—domestic responsibilities she’s no good at. The “women’s work” assumption still silently underlies the way we live and think, and the mythology that the man must go out each day to conquer the world continues to shield him from questions and choices that should fairly be addressed to both partners.

They fail to challenge the American idolization of work. So many of these discussions preserve the sacrosanct place of the career in American life, and this is perhaps one of the greatest impediments to actually achieving some sort of workable solution. I appreciate the women in Miller’s story who discovered—surprise, surprise—that jobs and careers are massively, massively overrated in American social life. But everyone in the story, including and especially their husbands, cares too much about work. As both Miller’s subjects and New York Times reporter Michael Winerip admit, being the stay-at-home parent is often lots more fun that schlepping to an office every day. Personally, I’d rather spend any day with kids than co-workers. If we could collectively admit that we often value and commit to work at a far deeper level than it deserves, maybe we wouldn’t be so neurotic about choosing arrangements that make sharing domestic life more natural: working from home, part-time jobs, freelance projects, and occasionally, a few years off when the kids need us most. The world really can wait.

Update: Tracie Egan Morrissey and Jess Grose have solid takedowns of the Miller article and both agree with me that its “weird gender essentialism” is not only made-up bullshit but pretty insulting to men who are great with kids and housework.

Cutbacks or Hostile Media Effect?

Pew just came out with a State of the Media report. The main interpretation (which seems to originate with the authors) has been that the media are stuck in a death spiral as cost-cutting decreases coverage which in turn diminishes the audience (eg, see here and here). I have a lot of sympathy for the death spiral model and it’s certainly a relatively appealing model for journalists and j-school types (as it implies a switch to a subsidized and/or NPO model will solve all their problems) but as a reading of the survey results it is simply wrong.

The fundamental misunderstanding is to presume that consumers evaluate news coverage the same way the CJR does. They don’t. As argued by Gentzkow and Shapiro, consumers evaluate news with regards to their ideological priors. That is, almost nobody reads the newspaper and says “I am offended that this story seems to have allowed the journalist inadequate time to report the story exhaustively” but lots of people read the paper and say “I am offended that this story takes the point of view that I disagree with.”

So when consumers answer “yes” to the question “Have you stopped turning to a particular news outlet because you felt they were no longer providing you with the news and information you were accustomed to getting?,” they probably aren’t thinking “I miss the in-depth reporting and investigative work I used to see” but rather “I no longer trust the media as reflecting my values.”

There are three key pieces of evidence in the report itself for the Gentzkow and Shapiro model:

  1. When asked to elaborate problems with content, far more respondents said “The stories are less complete” than “there are fewer stories.” I strongly suspect by “less complete” many respondents are choosing the closest available option from the forced choice set to map onto “bias” allegations.
  2. Dissatisfaction and abandonment is concentrated among men and Republicans. Although there are “hostile media” allegations from the left (eg, Herman and Chomsky, Media Matters, etc), in recent years conservatives have been the most vociferous in alleging media bias and providing an alternative “fair and balanced” media ecosystem. As such, conservatives are exactly among whom you’d expect to see the Gentzkow and Shapiro effect concentrated. (I’m bracketing the issue of whether it is justified for conservatives to feel this way since for our purposes only their subjective views are relevant).
  3. 57% of respondents who are aware of media financial problems think they’re immaterial to coverage about national and international issues. I’m not one to believe that survey responses have to be logically consistent, but this only makes sense if you think the issue is bias, not man-hours.

The upshot is that my reading of the survey in light of the Gentzkow and Shapiro model is that the way for media outlets to survive and thrive is to engage in what traditionally trained journalists would regard as lower quality, by forsaking the objectivity genre and pandering to their readership’s beliefs. To a large extent that’s what we’ve been seeing already over the last generation as a process of creative destruction.

(Cross-posted at Code and Culture)

How A Racist Blended In

As I followed—and I confess, participated in—the mini-firestorm on Twitter over John Derbyshire’s vile Taki Magazine post last night, I started wondering what the point was. National Review is severing ties, but has anything been accomplished? Derbyshire is nearly 70 years old, and has apparently been a self-described racist for many years; I highly doubt one more public shaming is going to disabuse him of his views. I also doubt if it’s going to cause anyone in the conservative camp to do much soul-searching; in fact, for those who think Derbyshire-type thoughts, the episode only confirms the alternative-universe narrative that truth-telling white people are always victims of political correctness.

The temptation for liberals would seem to be to use this incident as an example of the deep-seated, thinly-veiled racism many of them believe are driving forces behind conservative politics. But Derbyshire’s racism is so outlandishly crude and bizarre as to be absolutely singular; it doesn’t automatically reveal much about what most conservatives or what most people at National Review think. Stretching it too far would be counterproductive, and the exact sort of thing that hardens certain “victimized” white right-wingers into the kind of ideology that at best tolerates, at worst sympathizes with racist views.

But I think we have to talk about the fact that, as John Podhoretz pointed out on Twitter today, Derbyshire has been writing stuff nearly this vile on The Corner for years, and other NRO writers have sometimes called him out in the same place while National Review’s leadership did nothing about it besides bray about how liberals complain too much about racism. Rich Lowry’s post announcing the separation admits that Derbyshire “has long danced around the line on these issues,” but as Elspeth Reeve helpfully catalogued, that’s putting it mildly. He referred to himself proudly as a mild, tolerant racist and homophobe. He bitched about what political correctness keeps science from “uncovering about human nature,” namely that white people are genetically superior. He joke-complained that Hollywood has indoctrinated kids into thinking God is black. He described post-1960s America as a pact with whites promising blacks handouts in exchange for not being violent criminals, which he dubbed the “slavery tax.” Perhaps worst of all, he wrote in 2006: “I can’t for the life of me see anything wrong, or even unpleasant, in wishing the country to have a certain ethnic mix, and not some other ethnic mix.” Helpfully, he added, “Goodness only knows what ‘racism’ means this week.”

These brazen episodes come in a context—namely National Review’s website—that is steeped in “contrarian” thinking about race that sheds a lot of light on Derbyshire’s long presence there. Just to be clear, I am not calling anyone else at National Review racist. Even if they do protest way too much, many of their observations about vapid media coverage of race are valid. But the kind of stuff you read there is frequently so racially charged, often in such a logically twisted way, that it can only be understood as a a partisan reaction to an issue on which the ‘enemy’ (liberals) is widely seen to have the moral high ground. The 2008 presidential campaign was a constant sideshow of bloggers on The Corner pouncing on anything Obama said that could somehow be twisted into a racial remark and using it to support the ludicrous D’Souza-esque meme that Obama holds white, middle-class America in contempt.

And then there’s Victor Davis Hanson, a one-man blizzard of bristling, line-toeing racial commentary. For example, this incomprehensible essay that accuses Barack Obama of “racial tribalism” and “race-based strategy” and Michelle Obama of being “race-obsessed.” Apparently Hanson is the one who is obsessed: he’s been on these themes for years now, touting the Obama campaign’s “racialist message,” contorting every offhand Obama remark into a statement smoldering with racial subtext and repeating the litany virtually every time he writes about race, which is constantly. He has also charmingly argued that Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama, and the Democratic Party “have done more to destroy racial relations than all the David Dukes in the world.”

Outside Hanson’s compulsive accusations of Obama racism, just browsing at random, we find Michelle Malkin hyping the New Black Panthers (a Fox News meme) and an unnamed “liberal writer” who called Herman Cain racist names. In an otherwise relatively sane column, Jonah Goldberg slams America’s “race industry” for its crime of keeping Jim Crow laws too fresh on its mind. Goldberg also writes about racism as consistently as the clock strikes twelve, almost always to mock it as mostly a liberal fantasy.

One more time: don’t read more into this than I’m saying. I am pointing out the type of dialogue that surrounds NRO. It can be described as consistently skeptical that white racism is relevant to contemporary politics despite its own evident fascination with the topic. It shows no reservation about caricaturing/over-interpreting a black president’s statements and policies to paint him as a racial aggressor. It consistently addresses the topic of racism in a glib, dismissive, or superior tone. I cannot recall—and could not find in several hours looking through the NRO archives—one substantial piece of writing that addressed racism in the U.S. as anything besides a minor, unimportant problem. With a big stretch of generosity, one could say National Review treats the subject casually. Even Lowry’s dismissal of Derbyshire had to be archly worded and sweetened with praise.

Keeping a racist on your masthead long after you know he’s a racist goes a long way toward undermining all that hypersensitivity about conservatives being called racist. I can’t really improve on Josh Barro’s line from last week: “Conservatives so often get unfairly pounded on race because, so often, conservatives get fairly pounded on race. And this is the Right’s own fault, because conservatives are not serious about draining the swamp.” NRO took this situation seriously, but only after years and years of not taking it seriously.

Atlantic Roundup

My wonderful (for me at least) stint as a guest blogger for Megan is over. I’m glad to find out that one of the new bloggers is TAS alum Noah Millman.

In case you haven’t been following, here’s a rundown of some of my posts over there:

How we can fix the revolving door by paying officials vast sums of money. This seems to me to be a no-brainer. Singapore, which is widely understood to have the most efficiently-run government in the world, also has some of the highest-paid officials.

Some thoughts about the French parenting meme. I may write more as time goes on as this topic really exercises me.

How to fix the banking system through a return of the partnership model and massive deregulation. I’ve been thinking about this for a long while and sharpening it through Twitter arguments and I’m increasingly convinced that this is the right approach. We badly need deregulation of the financial system. We also badly need a framework that solves the agency and scale problems that have plagued the system. I’m looking for a good critique of my plan because I’m afraid I’ve missed something.

French and US healthcare: Twins separated at birth? I am again and again struck by the similarities between French and US healthcare, which are always held up as opposites. My then co-blogger Avik Roy has a great response here. I’ve been consistently awe-struck by Avik’s writing on healthcare and I outsource my thinking on this topic on which I know very little to him.

What Star Wars teaches us about innovation Innovation is not a lone-inventor process. It’s a collaborative process. This has many policy implications.

Sorry if you already read Megan’s blog and are already aware of these posts. And if you’re not—you should really start now. Megan’s assembling some amazing bloggers while she’s on book leave, and I love that she’s poaching from the TAS stable (#TASMafia). I’m a fan of all the new bloggers, not just Noah but also Julian Sanchez and Tim Lee.

Apple, China, and Free Debate

Not surprisingly, Evan Osnos nails the context and significance of Mike Daisey’s exaggerated portrait of life at a Foxconn factory, an Apple contractor, in Shenzhen, China:

“He thought that China was so exotic and far away that it was uncheckable; that it was okay to take “a few shortcuts in my passion to be heard,” as he put it in his follow-up interview. But China, it turns out, is not so far away. Daisey’s fiction was predicated on the notion that China is essentially unknowable, that reporters never go to factory gates, that highways exit to nowhere. And he might have gotten away with it twenty years ago. But these days, it’s no longer so far away at all. It’s close enough to make an iPhone today and have it on a U.S. store shelf next week. And it’s closer in another important way as well—in overestimating his own ability, Daisey underestimated a lot of other people.”

The brilliance of this entire episode is that there’s a growing diversity of credible and openly-shared perspectives on what’s happening in China. If you’re in the reality-making business, you’ve now got to contend with a lot of well-informed and credible voices. It’s harder than ever to get away with sloppy China journalism, whether in Chinese or English, and that’s a great thing for the world.

As I noted in an earlier post about Truth in China-journalism, in so far as Western journalists have more credibility as being more truthful, it’s because their ideas and perspectives must stand more on their own merits against unfettered public scrutiny. Remove the environment of debate and you destroy the means for determining credibility. As Richard Rorty put so nicely: take care of freedom and truth will take care of itself.

We should not be terribly concerned by people like Mike Daisey or Jason Russell who use lies (or bend the facts) to tell their version of the truth. What’s most worrisome is environments that permit singular perspectives to survive unchallenged by alternative descriptions. Hopefully both Mr. Russell and Mr. Daisey will now have the humility and pragmatism to welcome — and perhaps even embrace — their critics’ perspectives and open debate, and its ability to exponentially improve awareness and understanding of the critical issues they passionately seek to address.

Atlantic blogging

For the next two weeks I’ll be guest blogging for Megan McArdle over at The Atlantic. My first post is on how innovation happens. I’ll try to post once a day but make no promises as I also have one of them jorbs. I’ll post links here from time to time.

Thus, the longstanding project of Atlantic infiltration by TAS drones continues. MUAHAHAHA!

New Ventures

A bit of home news: I’ve just signed on as a regular blogger at The American Conservative. My current page is here. I still expect to post here now and again, but that’s going to be the main outlet for most of my blogging, for the time being anyway.

Millman’s Shakesblog is going to continue for a little while longer where it currently lives, and then it’s also going to migrate over to TAC, after they revamp their site, which should be done in about a month. I’m particularly excited about doing more cultural coverage – writing about books, movies and the arts generally, not just about theatre – which is an area where they are keen to expand (so they say now).

I’ve very much enjoyed the comraderie of TAS, but, to be frank, that comraderie has been thin on the ground of late, what with everyone moving on to bigger venues. TAC is a place where – they say – I can think and say what I like. That matters a great deal to me, and it’s surprisingly rare in the opinion journalism space.

It’s a venture I’m quite excited about, and I look forward to hearing from you all there.

In other home news, I’m mapping out my fourth screenplay, as well as doing another round of revisions on my second (working title, “Goshen United”) and a number of other promising developments on that front. Needless to say, if there’s any really exceptional news, I’ll be sure to let folks know here about that as well.

That Rotting Smell is College Sports

I’m a little disappointed that Ross Douthat, a sophisticated moralist, could look at the monstrous fiasco at Penn State and think that the compelling independent variable in all this is Joe Paterno. Douthat compares Paterno to Father Darío Castrillón Hoyos, the Colombian priest who went from humble service to the poor of Medellin to flakking for pedophile priests in Rome. You can read what Ross says about Father Castrillón, but I just want to ask: Why should we start out from the assumption that Joe Paterno and his program are exceptional in their dishonesty, their bland bureaucratic evasions of basic moral responsibilities?

What happened around the Sandusky allegations, after all, is what big-time athletic programs do – they lie; they cover up; they fudge; they condone cheating; the require cheating; they scapegoat to avoid accountability; they force crude double standards of assessment and behavior on their universities (which put up little fight); they claim flagrant zones of exemption in admissions requirements, which they often get their universities to basically waive altogether; they minimize misbehavior, often criminal, when they cannot describe it out of existence; they secure their talent in a mortifying pageant of “recruiting” in which grown men, like clumsy Casanovas, wheedle and lie to high school juniors via endless text messages; and, while these men make piles of money from their recruits, the recruits don’t actually get what you’d call “paid,” because they’re amateurs, or as their coaches sometimes say, into cameras, for national audiences, with straight faces, “student-athletes” (that the people on the receiving end of these reassurances don’t burst out in derisive laughter is grist for another rant about the funny idea of sports journalism).

Actually, this isn’t just what they do. It’s who they are. It’s how they exist, at all. The compost smell from this steaming pile of sordid practices is their smell. That smell is their steaming-compost essence. It might have been an interesting hypothetical, a month ago, even for someone with as jaded a view of college sports as I possess, whether a program defined by such a compost smell would cover up something as heinous as a coach raping boys in its own showers, thus freeing him to rape boys hand-picked from his foundation-for-boys for as long as he cared to. It’s not a hypothetical anymore. Now we know the answer.

So, when people wonder what it was about Joe Paterno, personally, that made this disaster possible, I can only shake my head and ask: Where’s your materialism, people? Joe Paterno was the nice, avuncular, highly successful, stunningly old boss of such an organization. He did what his organization wanted him to do. Proof of this is that, given the chance, his organization – from the “graduate assistant” (let’s linger over this exquisite term for just a moment: graduate assistant; it almost sounds as if his function as an “assistant” is tied in some way to his academic standing as a “graduate,” that is, a graduate in some subject in the learning of which he is now “assisting” other aspirants to this august status as a “graduate”) to his nominal superiors in the Penn State athletic department and university administration – did the exact same thing he did. They did what the organization wanted them to do.

Surely these men are not as great as Joe Paterno, and thus subject to the same great-man blindnesses that brought him low, and yet they did just as he did. They fudged, they covered up, they did the minimum necessary so as to avoid bringing a powerful man to account, they redescribed the rape of a 10-year-old boy as “horsing around in the showers,” and like college coaches everywhere when they talk to recruits and reporters about what their programs are really about, and like administrators when they describe these programs as having a legitimate or even comprehensible place in their universities, they lied. What happened at Penn State was the scheme of big-money college sports working as it was designed to work. The act of looking away, repeated by so many in State College, is the perfect emblem for the cognitive politics of the NCAA. It should be on their flag.

Focusing on Joe Paterno, and puzzling how this could happen in idyllic State College, Pennsylvania, or, conversely, snarking about the unique evil that must lurk below the surface in State College, Pennsylvania (I mean, the students rioted for their coach; students wouldn’t have done that anywhere else) are ways for everyone to advance the state of cognitive dissonance that made this disaster possible in the first place.

Let me ask a sobering question: How do we know this isn’t happening at other big-time programs, or things just as bad, or worse, or almost as bad? Just for the most easily imagined category of malefaction: How many coeds do you think have been raped by athletes over the years, at the countries’ other athletic powerhouses, and then shamed by administrators into covering it up, or just stonewalled and ignored by campus officials, or just convinced by such prospects to shut up on their own, preemptively? What number do you think that is? Or does that just happen at Penn State, because of Joe Paterno’s unique blindness as a great man? Why shouldn’t the conceit of Joe-Pa’s integrity make us wonder how much worse it is in those many college towns where the king of the dung-heap is more of a manifest scumbag? Jerry Sandusky just happened to get caught, or caught up with, thirteen years after the first sick-making suspicions arose. Clearly, these are people with stronger stomachs than you and I have. You might say they have “iron stomachs.” They can, after all, stand their own smells. So perhaps we should start widening our imaginations, to ponder how many other disgusting things they can stand downwind of, and for how long.

An open letter to Freddie

What happened to us, man?

I remember having vigorous but always good-humored arguments with you on Twitter and in TAS comments. I remember being able to speak to you in good faith.

But now, apparently, arguing for a country to increase its government spending by 10% to provide Keynesian stimulus is evidence of fascistic right-wing extremism.

And now, apparently, it’s impossible for you to disagree without impugning my motives. For the record, no, I don’t make arguments based on whether I think they can get “plaudits from the professional punditocracy.” As evidence of my lack of interest in professional punditry, I would note that I’ve actually stopped being a professional journalist and moved to an industry research role which will have me experience less limelight. I assume conventional wisdom would dictate that if I wanted a show on Fox News that would be the exact opposite of the astute move.

I can understand why you might have missed this: after all, my professional bio is only the first result when you type my name into Google.

(Though, hey, I like money and fame as much as the next venal guy, so I do reserve the right to become a professional pundit again at some point in the future.)

Also, the Roman Catholic Church does not believe what you think it believes about the death penalty.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I think you’re a pretty smart guy, a good writer, and I enjoy exchanging ideas or even “sparring” in good faith with smart people who are good writers.

I am not, however, interested in being the subject of mean-spirited attacks, especially considering the fact that it’s not actually my job, and that I write my opinions on the internet mostly because I enjoy doing so and hope that, perhaps, some of my ideas can seem interesting to some people. It’s tedious. It’s just a bummer, man.

What happened? Why can’t we all get along?

Yours truly,

Pascal

Ryan Lizza's Michele Bachmann "Smear"

Sarah Pulliam Bailey has a list of complaints with Ryan Lizza’s buzz-gathering profile of Michele Bachmann in this week’s New Yorker. Overall, the long report is a pretty impressive piece of work that blends colorful campaign diary with a deeper exploration of Bachmann’s political formation and intellectual influences. As usual, there are certain details that strike people who grew up in the evangelical movement as oversimplifications. I concur with a couple of Sarah’s nitpicks, but I’m afraid that in general she has quite seriously mischaracterized Lizza’s reporting, both by reading in implications and criticisms of Bachmann that are not in the piece, and by overlooking how often Bachmann still references many of the thinkers cited as influences. Referring to the piece as a “smear” is particularly unfortunate. Even the New Yorker‘s investigative pieces on subjects to which it is clearly ideologically opposed can never be called smears; its efforts to present the most reliable picture based on facts has earned my full respect, and are as clear in this story as any other.

First, Sarah takes issue with where Lizza places Bachmann’s views on the American political-theological spectrum. Lizza writes that Bachmann, “belongs to a generation of Christian conservatives whose views have been shaped by institutions, tracts, and leaders not commonly known to secular Americans, or even to most Christians,“ and that, “Her campaign is going to be a conversation about a set of beliefs more extreme than those of any American politician of her stature, including Sarah Palin.” (Sarah’s emphasis.)

Sarah suggests that Lizza has no basis for these claims, but I find her scorn somewhat inexplicable. True, it can be difficult for people who grew up in the evangelical world to imagine that other Christians have not heard of Francis Schaeffer. But conservative evangelicals are a fraction of American Christians, and not even all of them are very familiar with Schaeffer. I grew up with other home-schooled evangelicals who never read him, and neither had most people who attended my large, conservative Southern Baptist church. And it is indisputable that only a fraction of Christians have heard of R.J. Rushdoony, David Noebel, and John Eidsmoe. Lizza’s claim is precisely correct: Bachmann has been shaped by institutions and leaders with whom even many Christians are unfamiliar. And because her conservative evangelical education—her complete immersion in the alternative universe from the ground up—is so much deeper than that of other candidates who ostensibly share her ideas, it is absolutely fair to say that her beliefs are more extreme than those of Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, et al, no matter what unhinged things the others may say.

One of Sarah’s major contentions is that Lizza is maliciously attempting to link Bachmann with the fringe thinkers she has read, recommended and worked for in the past. Sarah calls them “attempts to prove guilt by association,” that Lizza used to “take shots.” Based on what the piece actually says and what Lizza said today on NPR, I have to say I think that’s a false charge. In his interview on NPR yesterday, Lizza repeatedly—I mean, with nearly every other breath—said that it was unfair to assume Bachmann believes everything her former mentions and influences do. He even observed that he had wacky professors he wouldn’t want to be associated with. But he correctly observes that Bachmann still references most of the people he investigated. She still says on the stump that Shaeffer’s How Shall We Then Live? changed her life, and still recommends Nancy Pearcey’s Total Truth as a “wonderful book.” She has talked about Eidsmoe, who she worked for at Oral Roberts, on the campaign trail this very year, saying her taught her “foundational” things. She was his researcher while his law school published Rushdoony, and her website recommended a pro-slavery revisionist Civil War history by J. Steven Wilkins while she was running for public office. Except for an in my opinion quite justified spike of alarm at the Wilkins book, Lizza lays all of this out quite neutrally, with scarcely a noticeable judgment. I read the blocks of his prose in question over several times, and the supposed malice and unfair suggestion is just not there.

The Francis Schaeffer part of the piece will obviously be the most controversial, and here I think Sarah may be more on the right track. First off, Lizza portrays Schaeffer as fringe because he was in fact fringe. By any measure, against the Western philosophical spectrum or the American religious one, Schaeffer cannot accurately be portrayed otherwise. I’m not sure why Sarah objects there. But she may be right that Lizza’s cursory treatment makes him sound more bizarre and extreme than he was. He spent most of his decades writing dense works of theological philosophy that, while they used as intellectual building blocks by many a modern fundamentalist, are not adequately captured by Lizza’s drive-by description of the How Shall We Then Live video series. As I’ve written before, it’s pretty clear Schaeffer became a political crackpot toward the end of his life. But I’m not sure it’s accurate to characterize A Christian Manifesto as promoting “the violent overthrow of the U.S. government,” as Lizza does, rather than recommending more garden-variety civil disobedience. (I can’t really say; I never read the copy my evangelical college gave me as a gift.) But the other Shaeffer quotes Sarah mentions that contest his support for violence, and my general sense of Schaeffer’s beliefs, suggests “violent overthrow” is an exaggeration. Coupled with a few crazy lines from How Shall We Then Live, it far from gives an adequate picture of who Schaeffer was and why Bachmann likely found him attractive.

I’m all for improving the generally overblown quality of mainstream media coverage of evangelicals. But it’s a mistake to take the inevitable condensations that are a part of journalism, or even a few genuine misunderstandings, as malice. The profoundly religious character of Bachmann’s campaigns, past and present, make it unthinkable for journalists not to explore her intellectual formation. I don’t expect them all to suddenly understand decades of evangelical culture and literature, and I respect serious, evenhanded-as-possible attempts to produce information the public needs to know. They can be critiqued, and their errors corrected, without unwarranted attacks on their motives.

My Life As A Blockhead

“No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” – Samuel Johnson, as quoted in Boswell’s Life

A few quick thoughts about yesterday’s exchange between Jonathan Rauch and Alex Massie on Andrew Sullivan’s blog (see here then here then here):

1. The Great Bloggers (in the sense of having a huge audience) are aggregators. Most of what appears on their blogs isn’t their own writing; it’s stuff that other folks – bloggers, journalists, whatever – have written and that the Great Blogger’s blog has excerpted and linked to. As such, these blogs are performing the “filtering” function that Rauch (correctly) identifies as essential in a world of limited time and attention. In that sense, the blogosphere is much less open than it was – there are now established gates that help people determine what is worth reading and what isn’t, and it’s very, very hard to become one of those gates. But in another sense, it’s just as open – those gates are constantly, actively looking for new voices and new material to promote, so if your stuff is good there’s no reason to think it won’t be found. Apart from the nobody-gets-paid part, I would think this is exactly what Rauch would have hoped would happen.

2. Relatedly, Rauch says: “Life, like swimming pools, is too messy to manage without filters; cognition itself is a filter.” Indeed – but how does cognition work? The “Darwinian” model of how decision-making happens in the brain suggests that at any instant a variety of signals are competing within the brain to be the ones that actually get transmitted, and that what appears to “us” (whatever “us” actually refers to) as syllogistic reasoning leading to action is something far more chaotic once you look under the hood. The same model applies for perceptual systems as well – cognition separates signal from noise, but that “separation” is (in this model) the result of a contest among lots of different inputs competing to be interpreted as signal rather than noise. Whether or not the brain actually works this way, that seems to me to be the way the internet works as a journalistic medium: a vast, chaotic sea of offered information and opinions competing for attention. The question isn’t whether that sea of material is mostly good or mostly bad, or even how the ratio of good to bad writing (or true or false information) compares with any given other medium – the question is whether the existence of the sea results in a better-informed electorate and better decisions by the government (that’s the question for the existence of the political blogosphere, anyway). I’m not sure how you’d measure that, but you definitely wouldn’t measure it by reading a cross-section of blogs and comparing that cross-section with a cross-section of newspaper articles.

3. “I’m not getting paid to be here. I’m here to get incredibly famous (in my case, even more incredibly famous) so that I can get paid somewhere else.” Is that true? Really? Because both fame and fortune seem like very distant prospects in any corner of the journalistic universe – and always, always have been. It seems to me that the motive for doing this sort of writing isn’t to get famous – much less to get rich, which is downright laughable – but to be influential. Which is quite a different thing. Compare, say, Jonathan Rauch with Kim Kardashian. Kim Kardashian is vastly more famous. But Jonathan Rauch is surely more influential – unless you consider mere multiplication of images of oneself to be a kind of influence (which I suppose it is in a very superficial way). There are, of course, people who write specifically because they can’t figure out any more sensible way to make a living – poor fellows – but most people write because they want their writing to have an effect on people – to influence them in some way, whether we’re talking about an opinion journalist trying to get people to vote a certain way or a screenwriter hoping to make the audience laugh or cry. If that’s the case – if that’s why you write – then you don’t write in order to get paid; you get paid in order to be able to write. Right? In which case, Rauch isn’t guest-blogging at Andrew Sullivan’s blog because then maybe Tina Brown will hire him and he’ll get paid – he’s guest-blogging at Andrew Sullivan’s blog because that’s a way to reach more people (and more of the right sort of people) and influence them through his writing (and it might also get Tina Brown to hire him, so he can afford to reach even more people, and influence them). Now, maybe Rauch specifically hates blogging as a format so much that he wouldn’t consider doing this gig except for what else it might lead to. But even if this is the equivalent of going on a talk show to promote the book, the reason you do that is because you want people to read the book so it will influence them. That’s why you wrote it. So if the standard isn’t “does the internet help writers get paid” but “does the internet help writers find their audience”, then it’s very clear that the emergence of the internet has been a huge win. If you’re someone who writes and thinks decently well, and has that urge to communicate, to have an influence, but you haven’t set out to make a career as a journalist or essayist, well, what are the odds, pre-internet, that you would ever achieve your dream? Pretty low, right? But in the internet age, you write something for the Huffington Post, they go ahead and publish it, and . . . voila: you’re in the conversation. Maybe someone reads it and is impressed, and forwards it to Andrew Sullivan – and he links to it. Suddenly, thousands of people come and read your piece. You never got paid for it. You may never write anything again that gets noticed. But for that very reason, the internet has made something possible that would have been impossible otherwise: for you to be heard – and by a decent-sized audience if one of the various gates (like Sullivan) think you’re worth hearing.

4. Of course, nothing comes from nothing, and there does need to be some way of sustaining journalism/writing/blogging/whatever if you want it to continue. The difference between the internet and other media is that the payment mechanism on the internet is decoupled from content creation. But this is an accident of history, not a necessary feature. With a physical newspaper, the production and much of the distribution is vertically integrated with the producers of content. The same company pays the writers and editors and photographers and layout people, and pays for paper pulp and ink and printing presses, and pays for trucks to deliver the papers so you can read them. With broadcast media, there’s less vertical integration – Disney doesn’t make television sets, for example. But there’s still a considerable amount. With the internet, there’s virtually none. The cable and phone companies that provide internet access do not produce content. The primary filters – search engines – that enable you to find content do not produce content. The internet access providers capture all the value of access, and downstream none of it to filters or content producers; the biggest chunk of change in advertising revenue is captured by the filters (Google being the largest) and virtually none of this is downstreamed to content producers. And there’s no good mechanism for most content producers to impose a toll at the gate for access to their content. But the regulatory “fix” for this is trivial. Broadcast television has to run news programming as a condition of their licenses, which come from the government. That’s why there is broadcast news. You could trivially mandate Comcast and TimeWarner to spend 2% of revenue on news and educational “content.” Then they’d go out and buy the New York Times and the Washington Post and journalism would be saved. And the blogosphere would still be a roiling, seething mass of mostly uncompensated . . . stuff. Fighting to be heard. And we could debate whether as a whole that mass was improving discourse or not without getting sidetracked into discussions of revenue models, as if the emergence of blogs had anything at all to do with the financial troubles of legacy journalistic enterprises (which they didn’t).

5. Finally, why are we comparing internet-based news dissemination with print-based news dissemination? After all, newspapers started getting into trouble decades before the arrival of the internet: because of competition from radio and television. And there’s just no question in my mind that if you get your information from the internet you should be vastly better informed than if you get your information from television. That goes for straight news – but it goes double for any kind of “discourse” format. You think the internet selects for noisiness and insult-hurling and short attention spans? Have you seen what passes for debate on television? Bloggers are, of course, thrilled whenever they get the opportunity to go on one of those shows, but I dare you to find one who thinks an appearance as a talking head on television is a better way of communicating with his or her audience than writing on a blog. So before we blame the internet for ruining everything, remember that “everything” includes a lot more than just the New York Review of Books.

I am an extremely atypical blogger. Look at how infrequently I write; look at the length of my typical post. But I am thrilled that the medium exists, because I can’t imagine how else I’d be able to do . . . this. Whatever it is I’m doing. And I think I do it reasonably well. And, in my on and off way, I intend to continue doing it. Hopefully, I’ll continue to have at least a modest audience, so I’m not just talking to myself.

Give Us Freedom, Then Tell Us Your Truths

It’s protest season in China. Seriously, either for historical precedent or rising humidity, spontaneous social unrest in China tends to flourish in early summer. Evan Osnos, one of the China-writers I respect most, recounts an incident in Zengchen, a town outside of Guangzhou, where security personnel allegedly beat down a pregnant street vendor, who – like many of her competitors – probably didn’t have permits for her mobile cart of deliciousness.

“Word spread that police had injured the expectant mother and killed her husband, and by the middle of the night a crowd was pelting police with stones and bricks. By Saturday morning, the Party chief Xu Zhibiao had visited Wang at the hospital, and ‘brought a basket of fruit,’ the state media pointed out. ‘Wang and her fetus remained intact,’ the mayor declared.”

As Osnos points out, China is awash with these sorts of rumors. [You can follow a gruesome tally here]. He cites two others: the first, a student who committed suicide after a teacher barred him from taking the all-important ‘gaokao’ exam – imagine the SAT X10 – because he arrived 15 minutes tardy; the second, Henan government officials chucking babies off the rooftops as a means of forcing evictions. Incidentally, both have turned out to be false – well, sort of.

In this environment of fear and social distrust, the government responds to all potential discord by castrating communication channels and preventing free and open discussion. Popular web portals block sensitive keywords and the muckrakers are kept under lock and key, in the name of social stability. This pisses me off as much as I assume it does Osnos, but I think for slightly different reasons that may or may not be all that significant. Osnos laments an attack on truth:

“But recognizing the true source of the illness—the consistent, deliberate misuse of truth for political purposes—is out of the question, for the moment. So authorities will continue racing around in an attempt to shore up the existing system, in which “lies will now be accepted as truth and truth be defamed as a lie.”

The ‘misappropriation of truth’ cuts both ways. The story of the suicidal student, however false, is still true for many across China. It strikes a real chord and represents deep-seeded emotions that deserve representation. In many minds, there are strict, unforgiving teachers who do not recognize individuality. In many minds, there are students who see their educational responsibilities as a matter of life and death. In many minds, there are parents who do not respect their children before or beyond academic achievement. Even if it’s locally or demonstrably false to those who know the actors, it’s nationally and ideologically true, for those who know the emotions. The rumors will be retold even among those who questions its origins, because it provides a persuasive outlet for real, under-represented emotions that are very much ‘based on a true story.’ For that matter, what isn’t?

Appealing to the truth and its eternal preservation is a poor tactic – and often antithetical – for advocating change. Dogmatic language does give a perspective an air of confidence and authority that can be persuasive. However, we should be weary of those who claim unique access to the truth. Evoking the truth is a tactic most often employed – and effectively, too – by the insecure few who seek to maintain consolidated power and by those who most-fear discussion and dissent. There’s no better way to end conversation, save violence.

The CCP is a staunch advocate of ‘telling the truth,’ so full of passionate intensity, whether about living conditions in Tibet, the Jasmine Revolution, or the Olympics in Beijing. However hypocritical, they do have a point. Western journalists (and I’m still not sure that’s a thing) and China-observers do have agendas and sacrifice truth ‘so thoroughly on the alter of politics,’ to use Osnos’ language. We all do, myself and the New York Times included, and we shouldn’t be ashamed by subjectivity. Our agendas are not necessarily deliberate or malicious, but are informed by contingent and limited experiences that often exclude other perspectives. It’s a good thing, too. If we all shared the same perspective there would be no source for change or progress.

The quest for objectivity is a search for consensus by trying to use descriptions that would receive approval from all members of a given audience. If a given audience maintains biases – compared either to a foreign, past or future audience – then it would be curious if the truths they agreed upon did not. To say, “They’re not telling the truth!” is just to say that they don’t share a particular consensus. That’s OK, so long as we can be open, honest and humble, and forfeit claims that truth exists beyond perspective. If we agree that everything is up for debate – from the shape of the earth to the behaviors of foreign governments – then we can focus our energy on making sure that everyone has the opportunity to be understood. And then figure out which perspectives are most useful for achieving certain objectives.

The source of illness is not the substitution of lies for truth, but the destruction of free discussion that’s critical to figuring out what perspectives are useful for various purposes. The main problem in China is that there’s too much Truth and too little is up for debate. [Furthermore, there are ineffective mechanisms for making policy reflect consensus – but one thing at a time.] Truth should be the product of never-ending dialogue and experimentation – what comes out on the other side of open debate. Restrictions on free speech are much more harmful than sanctioned lies, because they enable the only environment that permits sanctioned lies to survive unscathed. They facilitate false consensus that are codified by power as Truth.

I’m confident Osnos would agree about the importance of preserving free and open discussion. But I also think it’s important to stop talking about truth – to stop playing the game that gives authoritative priority to some ideas over others. And we should be particularly skeptical of those who appeal to truth in argument. In so far as Western journalists have more credibility as being more truthful, it’s because their ideas and perspectives must stand more on their own merits against unfettered public scrutiny. Perspectives should never be given a free pass just because of their source, rather, sources must earn our trust. Remove the environment of debate and you destroy the means for determining credibility. In other words, to borrow a phrase – among other ideas and arguments presented here – from the late Richard Rorty: take care of freedom and truth will take care of itself.

It’s dangerous to believe that truth lives eternally outside the influence of human perspective and storytelling – or that some know it better than others. Because then you might relax under the pretense that no matter what happens, truth will always prevail. Some truths will, but yours might not. People and ideas do not always survive oppression – and, sadly, we never remember when they don’t.

sentiment and sentimentality

James Lundberg complains — and with good reason — about the vast influence of Ken Burns’s Civil War series on students, and on the general American understanding of what in Alabama we call the Late Unpleasantness. I sympathize with the grumpiness sufficiently not to question too much of this piece, but . . . there’s this, among his list of annoyances: “Union Major Sullivan Ballou’s never-delivered letter to his wife Jenny demonstrates that the sentimentality of 19th-century romanticism can still jerk a tear.”

Do we really want to be that belittling towards Ballou’s now famous and much-reposted letter? I don’t think I do, at any rate. True, it’s unlikely that a soldier today, facing imminent death, would write in so elevated, so elaborate a style to his beloved. Almost certainly he would not write at such length. But is that wholly to our credit? Do we want to look at a culture that had a strong sense of rhetorical occasion, and embraced a far greater range of linguistic registers than we now can handle, and dismiss its products as mere “sentimentality”?

Yes, people get all gooey about Ballou’s letter, but there are far worse things to get all gooey about. And you could make the argument that the situation actually called for a higher style than most of us, in our linguistically narrow age, can muster. Maybe we could learn something from Major Ballou.

The Best of Journalism 2010

I’ve curated a list of nearly 100 exceptional newspaper, magazine and radio pieces published last year.

I hope you’ll enjoy it – and spread it around.

I’ll leave you with a photograph of a Lutheran church in Texas.

Do you know what I’d do if I ran a Lutheran church? Install a metal door, just in case.

These American Head-Bloggers

Conor and myself, that is. Here we are talking about how to help the poor by making America less of a meritocracy . . . except for the 2012 race. Enjoy!

A (Very Qualified) Defense of Some Corporate Jargon

There is a cottage industry of writers moaning about the stupidity of corporate jargon, and there certainly are some egregious examples of it to be found. But most paint with far too broad a brush (to use some jargon).

Andrew Sullivan excerpts a New Yorker article about a “Corporate-Jargon-to-English Dictionary”:

You type in a particularly odious word or phrase—“incentivize,” say—and “Unsuck It” spits out the plain-English equivalent, along with a sentence for context. (“Incentivize” means “encourage” or “persuade,” as in “In order to meet our phase 1 deliverable, we must incentivize the workforce with monetary rewards.”) One feels a certain cathartic glee as well-worn meeting-room clichés are dismantled one by one: an “action item” is a “goal”; “on the same page” means “in agreement”; to “circle the wagons” is to “defend an idea or decision as a group”.

At least two of these three examples are misleading translations.

“Action item” is much more specific than ”goal.” It is much closer to “a specific task that will be assigned to one person or one identified organizational unit before the conclusion of the meeting”. “Incentivize” also has a much more specific meaning than “encourage” or “persuade”. As per the contextual sentence, it normally refers to setting up comp schedules, feedback forms, promotion guidelines and the other economically-linked HR details that are required to, well, incentivize people. If you substitute “persuade” for “incentivize” in a meeting, you will lose this meaning.

Plain speaking is in short supply everywhere, but too often, people who don’t seem to have ever had the experience of trying to accomplish a series of tasks at scale in a large for-profit corporation expose their inexperience in making these kinds of criticisms. Jargon develops inside organizations, in part, to help coordinate activities efficiently. It should lead the author of the criticisms to question her premises when at least some of these terms are widely used not only in unsuccessful, but also highly successful, corporations.

(Cross-posted at The Corner)

Understanding Deficits

China just ran a trade deficit in Q1. (We’re supposed to be surprised, by the way). But unfortunately, according to the Associated Press, they’re only buying earth from the Aussies and carbon from the Saudis. The last two lines of this report – though innocuous enough, I guess – kind of set me off: “China is a major importer of oil, iron ore and raw materials and runs a deficit with suppliers such as Saudi Arabia and Australia. It pays for that by running multibillion-dollar surpluses with the United States and Europe.”

No, it doesn’t pay for it with surpluses because it’s running a deficit. This would be a small thing, we’re it not indicative of the common tendency to paint the U.S. as the victim in this trade relationship. What bothers me most is what’s not mentioned in the report: China is the fastest growing consumer of U.S. exports. According to this analysis from the U.S.-China Business Council, which I came across in a solid article by David Barboza at the NYT, “In 2010, exports to China rose 32 percent – faster than export growth to any of the US top-five export destinations.”

At the same time, the FT says just blame the moon (seriously) for the large February deficit. The impact of Chinese New Year is noteworthy, but it’s not nearly as newsworthy as fact that China’s imports have been steadily outpacing exports for a few years now. So the moon isn’t that much of a factor.

Fortunately, someone in the Obama administration noticed the rebalancing trend: “Emerging economies like China, Brazil and India are growing very rapidly. That growth is helping to support rapid growth in US exports which in turn is raising income and employment across the United States in manufacturing and high tech and agriculture,” U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said in his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Yes, I know. China is still running a large trade surplus with the U.S. But there’s plenty of opportunity out there, as China is already the world’s largest consumer of energy, earth, cars, cell phones, agricultural products, and soon just about everything else you can image except for maybe sporks (they use chop-sticks… see what I did there?). China will probably still run a trade surplus for 2011, but the macroeconomic transition should be clear. China is no longer an export-dependent economy and it will eventually become the world’s largest economy.

What Heads Have Blogged

Specifically, mine and Matt Yglesias’, and the answer is: education reform (where we are pretty well in concord) and monetary policy (where we are more at odds).

Check it out.

What Would My Mother Say?

I don’t think it’s on-line, but I’ve got a review of Irving Kristol’s posthumous collection of selected essays, The Neoconservative Persuasion in the latest print issue of The American Conservative.

Other takes on the man and his work: by Damon Linker on the occasion of his passing, and by Paul Berman reviewing the same collection I reviewed.

I was rather disappointed by the book. After reading it, I found myself less interested in Kristol than I was before. Which wasn’t at all what I expected.

Anyway, go kill some trees if you have an interest.

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