Articles filed under The Media
Michelle Goldberg has noticed the way the Egypt uprising is splitting the American right. On one side, the consistent side in her view, you have the neocons who have always argued that the overthrowing Arab dictators, whether by U.S. military force or the unrest of their subjects, is a good thing. On the other side you have people like Mike Huckabee, who fretted on Fox News about “how quickly the Obama administration abandoned a 30-year ally and a longstanding friend to peace.” And then there’s Glenn Beck, who knit together a cabal of every progressive villian he’s ever heard of—Code Pink, Van Jones—and blamed it for the “rioters” in Cairo.
I want to nitpick a little about the way Goldberg pegs this nutty, anti-democratic view to the religious right:
Beck, hero of the Tea Party, has become the hysterical tribune of the anti-democracy forces, linking the uprising in Egypt to a bizarre alliance of all of his bête noirs. “This is Saul Alinsky. This is STORM from Van Jones,” he warned on Monday, continuing, “The former Soviet Union, everybody, radical Islam, every—this is the story of everyone who has ever plotted to or wanted to fundamentally change or destroy the Western way of life. This isn’t about Egypt. Everything is up on the table.” It would all end, he warned, with the restoration of a “Muslim caliphate that controls the Mideast and parts of Europe,” along with an expanded China and Russian control of the entire Soviet Union “plus maybe the Netherlands.”
It sounds nuts, of course, but such fears are now rampant on the religious right, which has long seen American involvement in the Middle East in millennarian terms. In the apocalyptic view of politics that dominates the Christian right, Muslim nations are closely connected to the rise of the Antichrist, while the restoration of the Jews to the entire biblical land of Israel is key to the Second Coming. The end of days will be marked by the emergence of a one-world government and a great world war in the Middle East, culminating in a battle at Megiddo, or Armageddon, an actual place in Israel. (Beck is a Mormon, but he’s always incorporated elements of American evangelicalism into his ideology.) To side with the protesters in Egypt, at the expense of Israeli security, is to back Satan’s team in the coming biblical showdown. Thus John Hagee, the chiliastic preacher who founded Christians United for Israel, took to his website to praise Hosni Mubarak as “an American ally and closet friend to Israel,” writing, “Israel will soon be surrounded by enemies screaming for their blood. Will America support them? Our president certainly has not been supportive of Israel to this point in his administration; why would he change now?”
This sounds to me like the analysis of someone who knows their facts well but doesn’t know many evangelicals or members of the religious right. Thus, she can write a couple of paragraphs that are technically true but manage to be quite misleading about what average conservative evangelicals actually think.
First, Glenn Beck’s crazed notion that the Egyptian revolution is really a progressive plot to overthrow America is not “rampant on the religious right” just because John Hagee, a fringe pro-Israel preacher, is saying outrageous things again. When I have written presumptuously about the religious right’s political views, they have been quick to assure me that they don’t necessarily watch or agree with Glenn Beck (though other anecdotal evidence suggests some of them do). But again, the only people referenced here are Hagee and Mike Huckabee, neither of whom really speak for the rank-and-file of the religious right in any way significant enough to label their opinions “rampant.”
Goldberg is correct that a lot of evangelicals have attached apocalyptic theology to the Middle East. But unless you’re talking about Tim LaHaye or others who have made fortunes conjuring fearsome tales of the last days, most evangelicals seem to have moved on from their obsessive interest in the “end times” and realized that applying the Book of Revelation to current events is a pretty specious endeavor. Outside of the most fringe, most fundamentalist, or most isolated congregations, I promise there are not many conservative Christians wondering if the protests in Cairo are the beginning of the end.
I bring this up because I think it’s paramount that reporters who cover religious groups not make major assumptions about the way those people think. It’s incredibly easy for people socially and geographically isolated from the religious right to read a few crazy statements from high-profile evangelical figures and presume they’re expressing the general view. And it’s always a temptation for liberal journalists, myself included, to report the most extreme things they’ve heard from a conservative group without determining how significant or pervasive that view really is. I admire the work Goldberg and others have done to educate themselves about the religious right. But to really inform your readers about religious groups takes more work and less generalization.
For some reason, I happened upon this old WSJ piece on John Paulson, the hedge fund manager who profited most from the financial crisis.
Explaining how Paulson and his portfolio manager Paolo Pellegrini crafted the “best trade ever”, we have this gem:
Late at night, in his cubicle, Mr. Pellegrini tracked home prices across the country since 1975. Interest rates seemed to have no bearing on real estate. Grasping for new ideas, Mr. Pellegrini added a “trend line” that clearly illustrated how much prices had surged lately. He then performed a “regression analysis” to smooth the ups and downs.
Why, yes, we need scare quotes to describe dark, arcane wizardry like “trend lines” and “regression.” Clearly, these guys are rocket scientists!
Arguments that the liberal community is less prone to reckless speech, or has far less tolerance for those within it who use violent imagery and language than does the Right, are unconvincing. I don’t remember a Krugman column or a Sen. Patrick Leahy speech on the toxic Nicholson Baker novel, the Gabriel Range Bush assassination docudrama, the Chris Matthews CO2-pellet-in-the-face/blowing-up-of-the-“blimp” comments about Rush Limbaugh, the “I hate George Bush” embarrassment at The New Republic, Michael Moore’s preference for a red-state target on 9/11, or the Hitlerian/brownshirt accusations voiced by the likes of Al Gore, John Glenn, Robert Byrd, George Soros, and so on. So why the disconnect? Politics for sure, but I think also the double standard has something to do with style, venue, and perceived class.
If a progressive imagines killing George Bush in a tony Knopf novel or a Toronto film festival documentary, or rambles on about why he finds his president an object of hatred in a New Republic essay, or muses in the Guardian (cf. Charles Brooker: “John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, John Hinckley Jr. — where are you now that we need you?”), then we must certainly contextualize that hatred in a way that we do not in the crasser genres of commercial-laden talk radio, or an open-air demonstration placard. The novelist, the film-maker, the high-brow columnist, the professor can all dabble in haute couture calumny (cf. Garrison Keeler’s “brownshirts in pinstripes”); the degree-less, up-from-the-bootstraps Beck, Hannity, or Limbaugh behind a mike cannot. What is at the most atypical, out of character, or in slightly bad taste for the former must be a window into the dark soul of the latter.
There is something to this – many of the people VDH name-checks have uttered indefensible remarks, and maybe the veneer of respectability has helped some of them to obscure how flawed their words were. But I wonder if he would wager with me in the interest of testing his larger claim about who is more prone to rhetorical excess, the mainstream right or the mainstream left.
Rush Limbaugh began broadcasting to a large national audience in the early 1990s. So let’s go back 20 years to 1991 for the sake of simplicity. In the bet, Victor Davis Hanson can draw on every word spoken or written by all the people above that he mentions unfavorably: Paul Krugman, Nicholas Baker, Chris Matthews, Michael Moore, Al Gore, John Glenn, Garrison Keeler, Robert Byrd, Jonathan Chait and George Soros. In return, I will draw only on the words of Rush Limbaugh, the most popular conservative entertainer in America for much of the last two decades, recent national phenom Glenn Beck, and Mark Levin, the bestselling author, popular radio host, and sometimes colleague of VDH at National Review. (Even I can’t bear listening to Sean Hannity. Sorry.)
That’s ten people for him and three people for me – and mine are all very popular among the rank-and-file of movement conservatism. We’ll try to match one another, example of rhetorical excess for example of rhetorical excess. And the loser – the one who runs out of examples first – can donate $500 to the charity of the winner’s choice.
(Does anyone think I would lose?)
I’ll explain to you why this bet appeals to me, and why VDH will never agree to it. In truth, I don’t care whether the right or the left is more culpable on this issue: the point is that the guilty parties on both sides of the ideological divide should stop it, unilaterally if need be, even if the other side is worse. And as I explained in my last post, I wish everyone would start focusing on substance more than tone. But I can’t possibly lose this bet, even if VDH improbably finds more examples, because I have no problem acknowledging indefensible rhetoric on the left when I see it, or asserting that Paul Krugman (or his wife?) is sometimes a blowhard who makes claims un-befitting a person of intelligence, or affirming that Michael Moore’s documentary work is riddled with mean-spirited errors, etc.
Whereas Victor Davis Hanson has never forthrightly acknowledged the rhetorical excesses and inaccuracies of Limbaugh, Beck, or Levin. And if by some miracle he fully confronted what they’ve said over the years –– or even affirmed the disgusting words they’ve uttered by publishing a blog post at The Corner filled with nothing but direct quotations of their words! –– it would be a powerful moment on the right, because no one of his stature has ever so much as acknowledged the full extent of what is said on the conservative movement’s most popular talk radio programs.
So do we have a bet, VDH? I’m game. And if you’re not –– if you’re pressed for time, or if you’ve an objection to dealing with me for some reason –– here’s an alternative idea. Folks on the right think leftists don’t confront the indefensible speech uttered by their side. And vice-versa.
So why don’t the folks at The Corner enter into a bargain with a prominent blogger on the left. What do you say, Matt Yglesias or Kevin Drum or Jonathan Chait? Here’s how it would work. Every day for a week, Monday through Friday, The Corner’s designated blogger could draft one post for publication on the left-leaning blog. The catch? They’d be limited to offering five direct quotations per day of lefties engaged in indefensible rhetoric, however they define it (in context, of course).
In return, the liberal interlocutor could publish the equivalent post at The Corner. And every day for a week, the participants would have to read one another’s five examples for that day, and decide whether to acknowledge that they’re indefensible and assert that the source should apologize if he or she hasn’t done so… or else defend the remark(s).
Maybe I’m wrong. But I suspect that Yglesias, Drum, and Chait would all be game for this sort of exchange. And that it wouldn’t be approved at The Corner in a million years.
Why do you think that is?
(Or am I wrong?)
The WikiLeaks fiasco took a most interesting turn Sunday, when it became known that prosecutors sought a ‘secret subpoena’ for the Twitter accounts of those connected to the estranged anti-secrecy organization. In response, WikiLeaks wisely suggested that Google and Facebook might similarly be accomplices – or at least valuable tools – in their mischievous plot to make classified security clearance less valuable than a lifetime membership to the Mickey Mouse club.
Let’s rewind to November 2007. Yahoo had just complied with the Chinese government’s request for the IP information and e-mail records of Wang Xiaoning and Shi Tao, two Chinese dissidents who China accused of “illegally providing state secrets to foreign entities.” Michael Callahan, the Yahoo’s executive VP and general counsel, was in Congress getting reamed by the late Tom Lantos (D-CA), Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, for the company’s gross moral failure: “Yahoo claims that this is just one big misunderstanding. Let me be clear—this was no misunderstanding. This was inexcusably negligent behavior at best, and deliberately deceptive behavior at worst.”
Yahoo’s response: “Like other global organizations we must abide by the laws, regulations and norms of each country in which we operate.”
“Why do you insist on using the phrase, ‘lawful orders?’” Lantos challenged. “These are the demands of a police state.”
Lantos even brought Shi Tao’s mother to the hearing, seated her in the front of the room, and told Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang: “I would urge you to beg the forgiveness of the mother whose son is languishing behind bars thanks to Yahoo’s actions.”
How the tables have turned.
I have not seen any witch trial for the Bank of America executives who refuse to process secure financial payments for the WikiLeaks organization. How is their decision any different from Yahoo, say, refusing to process secure information transactions for Chinese dissidents? Do we expect business organizations to assess and heed the moral legitimacy of only certain states? Someone please try making that list. According to Bank of America, the decision was “based upon our reasonable belief that WikiLeaks may be engaged in activities that are, among other things, inconsistent with our internal policies for processing payments.”
I don’t like the idea of banks deciding who gets to participate in our financial system. Can any public organization choose to blackball any organization they please? Has WikiLeaks committed a crime? If so, in which state? I suspect that Bank of America, like other financial organizations, has received a great deal of pressure from the U.S. government to sever ties with such unpatriotic characters. But as Clay Shirky rightly condemns, “When authorities can’t get what they want by working within the law, the right answer is not to work outside the law.” A secret subpoena sounds like a tool that, I dont know, a police state would use.
As much as I regret the potential security risks associated with WikiLeaks and am unclear as to how much valuable insight the American public has gained, I don’t think that frustration should be channeled by attacking organizations that encourage open information sharing. I’m glad that Twitter, Google, and Facebook are now involved. As sleazy as Assange may or may not be, I don’t see how WikiLeaks is providing a service substantively different than what Google makes to be its mission. I hope that Google is equally infuriated by any heavy-handed U.S. government control/breach of information sharing/privacy and as they were by Chinese government control/breach of information privacy/sharing. Maybe they’ll even stomp their feet and pull out of the U.S. market!
The U.S. government is completely within their rights and duty to lawfully prosecute Pfc Bradley Manning, if in fact he disregarded his oath and obligations to keep information confidential. And the military should take measures to improve information security and prevent similar events from reoccurring. But leave WikiLeaks alone – unless you’re prepared to first apologize to Yahoo for the hypocrisy and then compromise Google, Facebook, and Twitter all in the name of national security.
Okay, I’m probably missing something. But here ‘goes.
The great challenge for content-generators (writers, particularly) in an age of free digital reproduction is: how does anybody get paid?
The answer, typically, is: by attracting eyeballs that can be delivered advertising content along with the desired content.
This gives all power to the content aggregators – small fry like Andrew Sullivan, who have an audience that they feed content that is mostly produced by others (and mostly not paid for), but much more so great white sharks like Google’s search engine, which is the mother of all aggregators.
Content-generation becomes organized around feeding these aggregators, in the hopes of attracting eyeballs. But unless a regular stream of eyeballs is attracted this way, there’s still no way to generate income for the downstream content generator.
What you need is a micropayment mechanism, whereby downstream content generators get a tiny amount of money per eyeball for the eyeballs directed their way, in recognition of the fact that their content was the plankton, if you will, on which the great white sharks at the top of the food chain ultimately depend. But even if you had such a mechanism, why would the great white sharks agree? How do the downstream content generators get the leverage to force some kind of sharing agreement?
One sometimes-suggested solution would be to create an advertising platform that is content-independent. Ads would be delivered based on personal profile information that would be augmented by knowledge of browsing and search history. But there are two problems with this: first, how many people would consent to create such a profile (what’s in it for them?); second, how does this browser-based ad platform give any greater leverage to downstream content providers? Wouldn’t it, in fact, reduce their leverage?
Well, here’s one thought. Advertisers don’t like to compete with each other. A browser-based, profile-based ad platform would be more successful if it were an exclusive platform – if it made arrangements with websites to share revenue in exchange for disabling any other ad-delivery mechanisms that they had going when their “viewers” tuned in.
Instead of serving up whatever ad content Hulu or Salon or whatever want to serve up, the browser-based ad platform would take over and serve up something more tailored to your specific profile. And, in exchange for no longer competing with these other ad platforms, the browser-based ad platform would share revenue with the content site.
That creates an incentive for people to sign up with the platform – yes, you’re getting ads when sometimes in other circumstances you wouldn’t – but you’re also obliterating ads that, in other circumstances, you’d be stuck getting. And, all things being equal, you’re getting “better” ads – ads that fit your profile better.
Sure, lots of people still won’t sign up for privacy reasons. But probably most people won’t be deterred by privacy concerns. They rarely are when there is actually something in it for them. Which, in this case, there is. (You could even imagine a revenue-share of some kind for the recipient of the ads – something dependent on click-through purchases, presumably, but whatever.)
The heavy negotiation would be between content-providers with substantial ad revenue and the browser-based ad platform. But once that structure was in place, it would be logically extensible to content-providers generally. Not necessarily on identical terms, but the browser-based ad platform would have a reason to sign a contract with even marginal content-providers: they would need access to their code to assure their ads were disabled when browser-based-ad-platform-subscribers visited. Which would give even marginal content providers some marginal leverage to get the bargain-basement contract for downstreaming revenue.
The main people who would appear to be threatened, if such a mechanism really got off the ground, would be the content-aggregators themselves, particularly the search engines, who would for that reason be unlikely to sign any agreement with the browser-based ad platform. But Google ads are (a) relatively unobtrusive; (b) not designed to “distract” from content – rather, they are intended to be a form of content, to be relevant “answers” to search queries. As such, they aren’t really a competing platform. People don’t “hang out” at search engines distracted by the ads. So it’s not actually obvious that there’s any competition there. The competition would be with platforms that sell ads directly on websites. But what the existence of such a platform would do is free content-providers from their dependence on search engines for audience. They would be free to pursue an audience by more traditional means – directly, and via aggregators who are “taste-makers” (like Andrew Sullivan) rather than automated search functions – and would now have some basis for generating revenue from such activities. I suspect such revenue would continue to be very, very small for nearly all websites. But there is an enormous difference between small and zero. Add a lot of small numbers together and you just might get something. Zero never adds up to anything.
Ultimately, nobody gets paid unless somebody visits, to view or read. Content has to attract eyeballs, or there’s nothing to monetize. The question is first, how to capture whatever value is associated with that viewing/reading time, and, second, how to create a mechanism that would justify downstreaming some of that value-capture to the actual content provider. I think the mechanism I’ve outlined could do both things.
Anybody out there know if this idea is even technically feasible?
On December 26, the New York Times reported that the end-of-life consultations stripped from the health care law (and infamously dubbed “death panels“ by everyone’s favorite Alaskan reality-TV star) are being pushed forward through Medicare regulations:
When a proposal to encourage end-of-life planning touched off a political storm over “death panels,” Democrats dropped it from legislation to overhaul the health care system. But the Obama administration will achieve the same goal by regulation, starting Jan. 1.
Under the new policy, outlined in a Medicare regulation, the government will pay doctors who advise patients on options for end-of-life care, which may include advance directives to forgo aggressive life-sustaining treatment.
The story goes on to explain the regulation and Medicare’s justifications thereof, which draw on research from the British Medical Journal and the University of Colorado School of Medicine. As I understand, the goal of end-of-life consultations has always been to give aging people control over their future health care. Since many would rather not have their life prolonged by expensive medical treatment, particularly if they are in poor health, they can say so in advance and save the colossal medical costs that such life-prolonging procedures incur. The Medicare officials, according to the Times‘ reporting, are operating on the consensus of health care experts, who believe such consultations enhance the humanity of end-of-life care. (They also spare grieving family members the wrenching decision of when to “pull the plug.”)
So far so good. Then this:
Elizabeth D. Wickham, executive director of LifeTree, which describes itself as “a pro-life Christian educational ministry,” said she was concerned that end-of-life counseling would encourage patients to forgo or curtail care, thus hastening death.
“The infamous Section 1233 is still alive and kicking,” Ms. Wickham said. “Patients will lose the ability to control treatments at the end of life.”
Here is another unfortunate instance of the Times throwing in a social conservative to maintain “balance.” Look through the paper’s archives and you’re sure to find dozens of iterations of this formula, on issues ranging from abortion to women’s health to repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. After the story lays out the expert or scientific consensus and the generally agreed-upon facts, a random social conservative—often one without any credentials on the issue or with a trail of insane statements to their name—will be trotted out to dispute them. (A prime example is Elaine Donnelly, who has been quoted prominently in several Times stories on DADT. Donnelly operates the right-wing Center for Military Readiness and argued that repealing would DADT would lead to “forcible sodomy“ and the spread of HIV in the military.)
Who is Elizabeth D. Wickham, anyway? A quick Google reveals she has a Ph.D. in…mathematical economics and international trade theory! She and her husband co-founded LifeTree, a local anti-abortion group in North Carolina. Its website is full of conspiratorial language like “culture of death,” and attributes said culture of death to things like “the concept of hospice” and “bioethics centers.” Even in her longer, written opposition to Section 1233, the “death panels” portion of the original health care bill, Wickham has simply smeared end-of-life consultations by associating them with assisted-suicide advocate Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR). She has not attempted to explain how this measure will lead to the apocalyptic circumstances she constantly conjures.
This is enough, in my opinion, to cast significant doubt on her ability to give an opinion on this issue that serious readers should heed. She has no academic credentials in health care or bioethics and is disputing reputable experts without providing any facts or research. From a purely political standpoint, she is not a leader of religious conservatives, and has not, that we are told, been deployed by the provision’s political opposition. So how does quoting Ms. Wickham help Times readers understand this issue?
Even worse, it’s fairly simple to determine that Ms. Wickham is wrong about end-of-life consultations. Based on everything I read during the health care debate and since, these consultations are a humane and necessary part of health care reform, and the “death panels” logic is damnably false. Contra Ms. Wickham, there is no reason to believe voluntary consultations will result in patients “losing the ability to control treatments,” or that the legislators who supported the measure want to impose euthanasia and rationing on the country. So in effect, the country’s newspaper of record has given a no-name religious activist space to lie about a matter of public policy in which she has no apparent expertise. The Times has met its requirement to break the issue down into binary “sides,” but we’ve been subjected to the misleading spin of an ideologue.
My point here is not, of course, that dissenting or conservative viewpoints should be banned from the New York Times. In fact, this sort of drive-by citation of ideologues does a disservice both to conservatives when they actually have legitimate points and to readers who want to consider alternate perspectives. Wickham’s quote was transparently included just to establish “balance,” and readers are left without any clear idea of whether there is reason to doubt the consensus view. If there is serious disagreement, the reporter should find a credible source and thoroughly explain his or her position. If a prominent Republican or conservative leader vowed to fight the measure, then make note of it. But if there is no serious opposition, or if the serious opposition is dealing in paranoid cant, then I’d love to read a newspaper with the balls to say so.
Slate‘s Jonah Weiner dares to use the B-word — “best” — in declaring that Kanye West’s new record, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, is not just the best album of the year, but the best of West’s career. Serious critics tend not to use the word easily, but West’s album seems to be inspiring similar accolades all over; Pitchfork blessed it with a rare 10.0, and its current Metacritic score is an impressive 98. It’s as close as pop records come to a universal critical hit.
I tend to agree with those singing the album’s praises, and if I were still reviewing records regularly, I’d have issued a big fat rave. Fantasy is as rich and grand and satisfying as pop music gets these days, or ever really, and the primal, heart-wrenching melancholy that’s built into its foundation only makes it more compelling. As far as I’m concerned, after a dozen-odd listens, it’s an instant classic and a work of near-perfect pop art.
But I’ve written before about the arbitrariness of pop music criticism, which seems to have far fewer clear and recognizable standards than, say, movie criticism, or lit crit. Thanks in part to the walls between genres, it’s far more subjective. And thanks to a variety of incentives and cultural norms, music criticism tends to issue a lot of “pretty goods” and relatively few ratings of “this completely sucks,” at least in comparison with movies or novels or plays.
When you read pop music criticism, you’re not really seeing a record or a song measured on some roughly understood and agreed upon set of critical criteria. You’re finding out whether or not a certain critic or publication liked it. There’s just nothing like a universal scale, or even a handful of competing aesthetics. Sure, pop songs often rely on formulas. But pop criticism is much less standardized. The closest you get are different schools of criticism based around different publications — Rolling Stone or Pitchfork or Stereogum*. But even those aesthetic schools typically reflect the choices of some founder or editor or other influential figure.
So it’s strange, then, to come upon an album like Fantasy that pretty much every critic who writes about pop music regularly agrees is not just pretty good but stand-up-and-cheer great. And that brings me to what I’m really interested in with this post: speculating as to why Fantasy pleases so many music critics and music-critic-types (this is where I note that my first writing gig was reviewing a dozen or so records every quarter for the now-defunct indie-rock journal Skyscraper). Obviously it’s impossible to know for sure — this won’t be a data-driven post — but my guess is that most critics start with a genuine love for the form. Not just for innovation and experimentation, but for pop songcraft, in a strictly formulaic sense.
But of course, over the years, as a critic or music geek, you tend to hear thousands and thousands of variations upon that form. Most of them are pretty unmemorable at best. A lot of them are just okay, no more no less, which makes sense given that there’s a time-tested formula involved. And even the stuff that’s just fine is less exciting given that you hear so much of it, day in and day out. Which is why there’s a good chance that you end up turning to a lot of experimental acts that really push the boundaries of the form, and probably break them pretty frequently. But there’s a limited amount of satisfaction in breaking the form, because, when it comes down to it, what you want is the classic form delivered in some wholly new, artful, and unexpected way. And when it comes to pop music, that’s pretty much what Kanye West specializes in. He’s mixing hip-hop and indie-rock irony and lush pop and any number of other influences into something that’s both highly original and highly accessible. The only other current act that comes to mind that does this as well is Radiohead (though you can see elements of this in acts as varied as Nine Inch Nails, Dismemberment Plan, Jay-Z, and Sufan Stevens). And what both acts end up doing is fulfilling that innate desire of just about every cynical, cranky, jaded critic who’s heard it all — every variation, every innovation, every hook and every production trick and every effort to make something old seem fresh — to somehow fall in love with the form again.
*I thought about adding Spin to the list, but I’m not sure the magazine has ever developed a recognizable musical aesthetic. And no, something-other-than-Rolling-Stone doesn’t count.
In light of Matthew Continetti’s latest blog post about Sarah Palin, her presidential aspirations, and the media’s treatment of those subjects, I’d like to reiterate a question I posed but that he never answered: Do you, Matthew Continetti, think that Sarah Palin is qualified to be President of the United States?
And why not add a few more specific inquiries while we’re at it. Would you be comfortable with Sarah Palin as Commander In Chief of the United States Armed Forces? What do you regard as the most insightful direct quotation she has ever uttered? In the whole of her time in public life what is her most impressive policy achievement? During a foreign policy crisis, is she the Republican you’d most trust to lead the country? Is she in the top five? The top ten? The top twenty? If you were the owner of five Applebee’s restaurants in California’s Inland Empire, would you trust the managerial capacity of Sarah Palin enough to put them in her care while you took an extended vacation abroad? We know how seriously you take Sarah Palin as a candidate. How seriously do you take her as a policymaker? A diplomat? A responsible steward of civil liberties? An interviewee in foreign media outlets where she is the face of America? Pending a response, I’ll continue to find it telling that Sarah Palin’s most prolific defender in the American media has no answer for these questions.
Certain writers for whom I have the utmost respect, like James Fallows, Eugene Volokh, and Reihan Salam, manage to forcefully argue various matters even as they treat their interlocutors perfectly charitably. It’s a trait that always impresses me. On more than one occasion, I’ve cited the wisdom in the examples they set to young writers who’ve sought out my advice. In my own writing, I try hard to presume good faith in those with whom I disagree. When I succeed it typically strengthens the quality of my work; after failing I often regret it.
What I wonder is whether this approach to public discourse is prudent to adopt as a general rule. I want to think so. It’s nice to have a reliable standard to apply, even when living up to it is difficult. But I have my doubts. Take the theory Dinesh D’Souza is putting forth about The Roots of Obama’s Rage, as he titled the book length version. Were I to write an honest assessment of his argument, it would be no less scathing than the responses by Heather Mac Donald and Andrew Ferguson. I can’t help but cheer their essays. Would it be possible to make all the same substantive points while being more charitable toward the author? I actually don’t know… but assume so for the sake of argument.
Even given that hypothetical, how are we to respond to the letter Mr. D’Souza sent to The Weekly Standard in response to the Ferguson review? Here is the most egregious passage:
I cannot recall a more dishonest review in recent times, and would not have expected it of THE WEEKLY STANDARD. My friends tell me I should not worry about Ferguson’s Lilliputian arrows. This book is my sixth New York Times bestseller and my biggest book yet. The book’s impact can be gauged from the intensity of White House attacks on it, and also from the indignation of liberals from Maureen Dowd to Jonathan Alter to Keith Olbermann. Leading conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh, Steve Forbes, Glenn Beck and Newt Gingrich have lavishly praised the book. Interestingly, however, Gingrich’s remark that The Roots of Obama’s Rage is “the most profound insight I have read in the last six years about Barack Obama” seems to have rankled some lesser pundits on the right. What does Gingrich’s comment say about what they have been writing about Obama all this time? The implication is that these scribblers have completely missed the boat! Here we may have a clue to the roots of Ferguson’s rage.
In situations like these, I can’t help but think that the rule about subjecting the words of interlocutors to the most charitable interpretation possible fails. It’s possible that D’Souza lacks the critical distance or intellectual capacity to see that his theory is full of obvious, gaping holes, even subsequent to their being pointed out in venues across the ideological spectrum. Or maybe he sees them after the fact, but is too prideful to admit them? Alternatively, it’s possible that he’s a charlatan who knowingly wrote a hack book, but is so immoral, intellectually dishonest and ballsy that he’s nevertheless attacking his critics in uncharitable, self-righteous language.
I’m sure there are other theories that could explain his recent output, but I can’t think of any that don’t reflect very poorly on its author one way or another. Is it worse to innocently produce stunningly shoddy work in one’s professional area of expertise, or to cannily produce a dishonest product that earns you a lot of money? Judging by my own moral code, I’d say the latter is much worse, but some in the world of ideological book publishing clearly subscribe to a different system of ethics than I do. Were I trying to be a charitable reviewer, would I presume the motivation that I find least repugnant? What if my subject’s code is different than mine? Isn’t a journalist actually bound to follow the evidence in assessing what motivates an author? Or is it improper to even try because we can’t ever know for certain?
I don’t have answers to these questions, I sometimes wonder whether it wouldn’t be better to stop writing entirely about subjects that raise them; and other times I provisionally conclude, with fleeting conviction and in worse moments a bit of sanctimony, that it’s important for some people to subject the shoddiest journalists to critical scrutiny — even while giving thanks that lots of people ignore them, and spend their time on worthier subjects. Does it make sense that I’d pay money to stop the authors I mentioned at the beginning of this post to refrain from tilting at my windmill of choice, Mark Levin, even though I’ve clearly deemed it worthwhile to hold forth on the subject, and think that it was a good thing for Jim Manzi, another writer I admire, to issue his own scathing critique?
I can’t articulate a general standard that makes sense here, nor am I entirely clear on how I might improve what I’m sure are my flawed methods for engaging in this project.
What I can explain is how I react when I read sentences like this one:
My friends tell me I should not worry about Ferguson’s Lilliputian arrows. This book is my sixth New York Times bestseller and my biggest book yet.
Were political authors truly freed from worrying about anything but the market performance of their books, we’d be a lot worse off, not because the reading public is stupid, but because they’ve got jobs and lives that don’t allow the vast majority to make informed decisions about the titles they buy (a situation made worse by the fact that a lot of the people and institutions they imprudently trust are more than willing to tout books based on metrics other than intellectual honesty, accuracy, and overall quality).
It’s forthright reviewers like Andrew Ferguson, intellectually honest writers like Heather Mac Donald, and insofar as I succeed in this project, bloggers like me who make possible something that the ideological book market alone doesn’t: the possibility than an author who sells lots of copies, but falls below some minimal standard of quality, will be publicly embarrassed among his peers, and denied the respect of thinking people. Very few humans — even the worst sell-outs or least talented hacks — are fond of facing the rightful consequences of their defective output. Culpable along with substandard authors are the people who know damn well the poor quality of their work, but are complicit in investing their books with the veneer of respectability, whether because they are ideological allies or else fellow participants in the partly corrupt business of ideological book-selling. The sorry state of political non-fiction is on their conscience.
These are the most charitable words I can honestly offer on this subject, and although I’ve done my best, as always, to hit all the right notes, I can’t help but simultaneously worry that I’ve been too harsh and not harsh enough. I’d actually love to see a round table discussion on charitableness in public discourse that included Fallows, Salam, Volokh, Mac Donald, Ferguson, Michael Lewis, Katie Roiphe, Mark Oppenheimer, Jay Rosen, Christopher Hitchens, Bob Wright, Michael Kinsley, Glenn Greenwald, Jonathan Chait, and Ta-Nehisis Coates. Damn. Is that too many people? But I can’t bear to cut any of them.
Scanning his story archive, I see that New York Times reporter Brian Stelter has done a fair amount of writing about the news media. For that reason, it’s particularly surprising that his piece on the firing of Juan Williams is rife with confused analysis that is strangely common among newspaper journalists, but obviously wrong to most of us who’ve spent lots of time thinking these issues through.
Here are his opening paragraphs, where his questionable frame is introduced:
NPR’s decision on Wednesday to fire Juan Williams and Fox News Channel’s decision on Thursday to give him a new contract put into sharp relief the two forms of journalism that compete every day for Americans’ attention.
Mr. Williams’ NPR contract was terminated two days after he said on an opinionated segment on Fox News that he worried when he saw people in “Muslim garb” on an airplane. He later said that he was reflecting his fears after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks nine years ago.
After dismissing Mr. Williams, who was one of its senior news analysts, NPR argued that he had violated the organization’s belief in impartiality, a core tenet of modern American journalism. By renewing Mr. Williams’s contract, Fox News showed its preference for point-of-view — rather than the view-from-nowhere — polemics. And it gave Fox news anchors and commentators an opportunity to jab NPR, the public radio organization that had long been a target of conservatives for what they perceived to be a liberal bias.
Those competing views of journalism have been highlighted by the success of Fox and MSNBC and the popularity of opinion media that beckons some traditional journalists. That Mr. Williams was employed by both Fox and NPR had been a source of consternation in the past.
Note all the problems with this analysis. First off, there are a lot more than two forms of journalism competing for the attention of Americans. Second, the difference between NPR and Fox News isn’t that the former offers “the view from nowhere” while the latter prefers polemical points of view — and although I think that it’s impossible to actually find the view from nowhere in American media that isn’t even all I mean here. It would be one thing to say that the Associated Press of old, with its ideal of straight news reporting, represents one style of news coverage, whereas Fox News with its opinionated delivery represents another.
But NPR and Fox News are actually similar in some of the ways that Mr. Stetler says they’re different. Both media organizations broadcast a mix of coverage, some of which is labeled news and other coverage it labels opinion. At both places, the line between these two styles of broadcast are a lot muddier than management likes to acknowledge. The business models of both organizations depend on catering to the sensibilities of people with a certain world view. And I am not just talking about ideology when I say that.
Despite identifying as a right-leaning independent with conservative and libertarian sympathies, NPR is much more my style than is Fox News. Sometimes when I listen to the radio network, I’m attune to the ideologically liberal assumptions that inform its coverage. But more than a political ideology, I’d say NPR’s sensibility is informed by a sort of urban cosmopolitanism and a commitment to airing a diversity of viewpoints — a commitment that is certainly executed imperfectly at times, but that is nevertheless noticeable in the coverage that is presented. I also think there are people doing reporting at NPR who try their best to give facts without bias, and believe that’s what their superiors want them to do. There are times when I think NPR coverage doesn’t do justice to conservative insights, but there are other times when I think they’ve done their best to present strong arguments with which a majority of their audience will disagree.
Fox News is motivated not by a general preference for point of view polemics — it isn’t a network likely to hire Glenn Greenwald, an opinionated polemicist with a large fan base, to deliver analysis. Rather, its general preference is for news and opinion material that appeals to Red America. How is this different from NPR’s general preference for content that appeals to Blue America? Well it isn’t entirely different — like I said, it’s wrong to pretend that these media outlets neatly represent two competing styles of American journalism — but I think if you asked the average NPR listener if they want to hear and understand the strongest arguments contrary to the liberal consensus, they’d say yes (how they’d react if they were given that wish is another matter).
Whereas if you asked the average Fox News audience member if they want to hear and understand the strongest liberal arguments on that network, many would say, “We’re already awash in the opinions of the liberals of the mainstream media, which controls everything but Fox News and Rush. Why should we give liberals an outlet on the one network that is for us?” At its core Fox News is presented as an alternative to the MSM, a project that only makes sense operating in opposition to the cultural landscape that surrounds it. NPR is presented as a mainstream media organization that makes sense independent of the cultural landscape that surrounds it (even if that may actually be impossible).
Once you understand this, it’s easier to grasp why it wouldn’t be at all surprising to hear Will Wilkinson on NPR making a forceful, sophisticated argument for the free market… whereas it would be shocking if an intelligent liberal were given a commensurate shot at making a forceful argument on Fox News. The exception is someone like Christopher Hitchens, who might be put on a shout fest show and by sheer determination slip in a good lefty point, before reassuring the audience that he too is threatened by Islamic terrorism. But the typical liberal invited to appear on Fox is Alan Colmes, who for a long time served as the Washington Generals every night for Sean Hannity. If you have a network where Hannity regularly comes off as the more learned, persuasive interlocutor, you’re not trying very hard to give your audience an accurate view of the world.
Let’s return to the NY Times article, having skipped down a bit:
Like many other news organizations, NPR expects its journalists to avoid situations that might call its impartiality into question — an expectation written into the organization’s ethics code.
That expectation can erode under television lights and on Twitter. At outlets like NPR, some journalists have found it difficult to not share their opinions, especially when they are speaking in forums that lend themselves to commentary, like “The O’Reilly Factor.”
Kelly McBride, the ethics group leader for the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists, called the Williams case an “object lesson in how different news organizations have different values.” She said the ethics guidelines at many news organizations matched those at NPR.
“If you make some outlandish statement on your Facebook page or at a public event somewhere, you are still representing your newsroom,” she said. “So there are consequences to that.”
What bothers me about NPR and the way it’s handled this is the fiction that Juan Williams was fired merely because his impartiality was compromised — as if the higher ups there would’ve minded if he went on cable television to insist that the mosque and community center near Ground Zero would send a desirable signal of American tolerance to the Muslim world, for example. An NPR contributor can safely express lots of opinions without getting fired. I’d have a lot more respect for NPR if it said, “The NPR audience has certain values and sensitivities, and the particular viewpoints Juan Williams expressed transgressed upon those sensitivities. It therefore made it much more difficult for us to present him as a cohesive part of our brand, so we’re firing him.”
The problem is that NPR wants to preserve the illusion that open-mindedness and a diversity of viewpoints is its brand. Again, I think that NPR does this better than a lot of media organizations, and certainly better than Fox News. I can only laugh at Williams when he says…
This is an outrageous violation of journalistic standards and ethics by management that has no use for a diversity of opinion, ideas or a diversity of staff…
…and then proceeds to sign a 2 million dollar contract at a place where there is much less diversity of opinion. But if NPR were being honest, it would fess up that diversity of opinion is a competing value, and in its view a less important one than making sure it doesn’t transgress against the multicultural sensitivities of its staff and largely liberal audience.
Here’s the rest of Mr. Williams quote:
This is evidence of one-party rule and one-sided thinking at NPR that leads to enforced ideology, speech and writing. It leads to people, especially journalists, being sent to the gulag for raising the wrong questions and displaying independence of thought.
Let’s be honest: that kind of rhetoric is a much better fit at Fox than NPR, so in the end everything has worked out.
UPDATE: See James Fallows here for an eloquent defense of NPR as a whole that I’d like to associate myself with.
Who are they?
I’d like to highlight them, and I trust the readership of The American Scene is always looking for new sites to read.
Krugman is still beating the war drums about China’s export-dependence. I believe this is his sixth such condemnation of the year, though in the fourth he recognized that not everyone agrees with his analysis:
“There have been all sorts of calculations purporting to show that the renminbi isn’t really undervalued, or at least not by much. But if the renminbi isn’t deeply undervalued, why has China had to buy around $1 billion a day of foreign currency to keep it from rising?”
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke seems to have the answer: “In a closed economy investment would equal national saving in each period; but, in fact, virtually all economies today are open economies, and well-developed international capital markets allow savers to lend to those who wish to make capital investments in any country, not just their own.” Unfortunately this is not the case in China, which restricts capital outflows while encouraging foreign direct investment. Your average Wang can’t use RMB savings to purchase USD assets or to invest in a Wisconsin cheese company. China makes it relatively easy to bring money in but tough to get money out.
As Jiawen Yang and Isabelle Bajeux-Besnainou explain in the International Research Journal of Finance and Economics: “If Chinese investors were allowed to adjust their investment portfolio and diversify into international asset holdings, it would certainly create a significant downward pressure on China’s currency… China’s rapid accumulation of international reserves has mainly been built through increases in capital inflows, which are a result of a few key non-market driven factors (such as controls on capital outflows and the preferential treatment of foreign investment).”
Or in the words of Linda Yeuh, Director of the China Growth Centre at Oxford, writing for the IMF, “This growth of credit in an economy with capital outflow controls means investments will be largely domestic, increasing the likelihood of asset bubbles in the stock and housing markets and generating concerns about a banking crisis… With enough capital outflows, appreciation pressures on the currency may even ease.”
Does this mean the RMB is overvalued? Well it’s hard to say exactly, and probably not, but we must start by recognizing that China’s capital controls (before FOREX purchases) actually encourage RMB appreciation. Then, the People’s Bank offsets the relative absence of capital outflows with centralized FOREX purchases, which could be seen as a sort of pressure valve to keep the RMB from appreciating faster than it already is against a wide basket of currencies. That does help exporters by preventing artificial appreciation and stabilizing prices, but the RMB would be overvalued if they didn’t. By how much is hard to say. I’m just not as confident as Krugman because I don’t know how much money would flow if the capital restrictions were lifted (and hopefully, but gradually, they will be).
Capital outflow controls are a form of currency manipulation, but I don’t see how or why this is all one grand scheme to protect exports. There just isn’t enough evidence that China’s economic growth is export-dependent. In 2009, despite a precipitous drop in exports, domestic demand grew by 12.3% and production output grew by 9%. Think of it this way: it would be weird if China was risking a trade war and geopolitical conflict just to defend 10% of value added to the country’s gross domestic product. If you don’t believe me or Jonathan Anderson , maybe believe DeutscheBank: “The impact of 3-4% annual RMB appreciation on the economy is modest. If the RMB appreciates 3% vs. the USD per year, it reduces GDP growth by 0.2%.” That would bring China’s GDP growth down from like 11.4% to 11.2%… scary stuff. This is an important point, because it undercuts the alleged motive behind China’s ‘mercantilist’ currency practices. If China is not an export-dependent economy, what incentive would they have for aggressively devaluing the RMB? You can’t have it both ways.
Would an appreciating RMB be overwhelmingly positive for the US? Probably not, as more than half of China’s exports are produced by foreign companies. So basically you would tax those globally-focused companies who are striving to compete in the global economy, and you would raise prices for US consumers (and make saving even harder). You would also encourage a trade war with one of the fastest-growing consumer of US products, like our world-class, savory chicken feet. Some of China’s production would probably shift to Indonesia or Vietnam, or more impoverished regions of China, and maybe a few manufacturing jobs would remain in the US for a few more months — but the reality of globalization won’t disappear. And neither will the need to train future generations to compete and/or be self-sustaining in the future global economy. Krugman helps me to make this case:
“The undervalued renminbi is good for politically influential export companies. But these companies hoard cash rather than passing on the benefits to their workers, hence the recent wave of strikes.”
Krugman was presumably referring to the well-publicized strikes at Honda Motor Company — the Japan-based automotive giant that manufactures components in China. How a Japanese industry leader becomes politically influential in Chinese government circles is beyond me. Regardless, this is just one small example of how major multinational companies benefit from global supply chains that drive down prices for consumers everywhere. Lower input costs allow for greater sales and better margins, meaning that companies can grow, research, invest, and hire. As economies grow, so do wages and so do living standards. That’s exactly what we’re seeing. Believe it or not, China is now loosing jobs to lower-cost manufacturing hubs throughout Southeast Asia. We should be celebrating this — free markets are bring people around the world out of poverty in mass.
If Krugman really wants to address the US trade deficit, he should set his sights on the single greatest contributor: petroleum. And the long-term market opportunities for US-based companies in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Venezuela, Russia and Qatar are almost insignificant compared to those in East Asia, places like India and China. With the overwhelming majority of US-based companies operating in China for market access (and not cheap labor), now is not the time for burning bridges. Instead, we should focus on promoting greater market access and legal protections for US companies in China. More importantly, we should drop the victim complex and go to work. Part of that will require figuring out how to get Americans, who are still some of the world’s most productive and capable workers, more involved in global (in particular, Asian) economic development. China will eventually consume more than the US, and be a bigger economy, and we want to be involved when it does. China is already on the cusp of running an account deficit with the world, although per capita income in China is only fraction of that in the US. As domestic consumption continues to increase in China, so will the opportunities for US companies.
In all of Krugman’s rants about China’s predatory currency policies, he refuses to even tip his hat to the opportunities of globalization. That’s not constructive judgment — it’s just complaining.
The American Scene is an awesome place and thanks to Ross and Reihan we’ve managed to put together some of the smartest minds on the internet (and, well, me). Unfortunately, precisely because of the awesomeness of the Scenesters, most of us have outside gigs (guilty!) that prevent us from writing here as often as we would like.
But there’s stuff from us that I’d love to read!
So I’ve decided to just hand out writing assignments. Watch out, they will be graded and will be on your permanent record.
Ross: A book. What would a truly pro-life, modern society look like? Pro-lifers rightly make the case against abortion but I think it would be very useful to also make the case for what a pro-life society would and should look like. I also happen to believe that many “pro-life” politicians delude themselves about what true pro-life policies would entail. It would not simply entail outlawing abortion.
It would entail a massive public/private network of support for women who have unwanted pregnancies. A truly pro-_life_ society would also have different policies and attitudes toward end of life care. Ross is the writer who’s been one of the most lucid in hinting about this stuff in various interviews and blog posts, but I think we need an in-depth look at what, looking over the abortion law hill, true pro-life policies would be. It seems to me that Ross is the best-placed to do this, and it would be a true service.
Reihan: You need to write more books, dude! One a year should be a minimum. Here’s the next one: tomorrow, the US Constitution is amended, making Reihan Salam Secretary of Education for life, with dictatorial power to run roughshod over Congress, the courts, unions, states, etc. What does education in the US in 2030 look like? You have 300 pages.
Peter: an article. What percentage of GDP would an ideal libertarian state consume?
This ideal libertarian (as opposed to minarchist or anarcho-capitalist) state would presumably fund a well-functioning justice, police and national defense system. Note that Switzerland, a country that is rightly admired by many libertarians, is a heavily militarized country, precisely to ensure its neutrality/non-interventionism. An ideal libertarian state would also presumably provide some sort of negative income tax as well as school vouchers and vouchers for (catastrophic) health insurance. While such programs would mostly involve cutting checks and thus comparatively small bureaucracies, they would still be not-insignificant wealth transfers from Peter to Paul.
Also note that while you can reasonably argue that an ideal libertarian state would experience high economic growth, these kind of expenditures would hold relatively constant as a percentage of GDP. As libertarians are fond of pointing out, we spend more on health today than in 1900 because we’re much richer.
So, what would all of those wealth transfer schemes take out of GDP? 20%? 30%? …40%?
Bonus question: how would the ideal libertarian state raise that money? Libertarians don’t like corporate income taxes for a bunch of very good reasons. They also don’t like the VAT because it desensitizes the citizenry to tax increases. They don’t like taxes on capital. They certainly don’t like import duties. So how would this ideal libertarian state raise this not-insubstantial revenue? Would it be mostly through personal income taxes? If so, might the higher brackets of personal income taxes have… gasp high marginal rates?
POULOS: A 3-5 page explanation of what, exactly, “postmodern conservatism” means. That my grandmother can understand. My grandmother is not dumb, and not poorly read, mind you. But she needs things explained clearly. So do I, in this regard, evidently.
I will probably come up with ideas for the other Scenesters (and Scenesters are welcome to come up with writing assignments for me!).
Just a short note of a personal aggrandizing nature.
In addition to blogging here at TAS, going forward I’ll occasionally be blogging at The Economist. I’m supposed to be at their Democracy in America blog but the first item I wrote for them – about the Basel III banking agreement – was posted at their Free Exchange blog instead. You can find it here. When I do post anything over there, I’ll be sure to link to it here as well.
As well, I’m in the process of setting up a site, currently called “Millman’s Shakesblog,” to talk about Shakespeare, and theatre more generally, and literature and the arts even more generally, but it’s going slower than I had hoped owing to my general technical incompetence. In any event, once it’s fully up-and-running I’ll put this year’s theatre reviews from Canada (and future ones from New York, Chicago, and anywhere else I go to the theatre) there, and instead of posting future Shakesblog stuff here I’ll probably just post there and put a link here. Or maybe I’ll cross-post in both places. We’ll see.
Anyway, look forward to seeing you in both new venues, as well as here.
Matt Yglesias is puzzled by the term. I’ll have a go: “Intellectually honest” means you make arguments you think are true, as opposed to making the arguments you are “supposed” to make and/or avoiding making arguments that you think are true that you aren’t “supposed” to make.
Advocates, by contrast, make the best arguments they can think of for the position that they are obliged to take by their position. They are still supposed to be honest – they are not supposed to actually lie. But they are not expected to follow their own consciences with respect to the arguments they make or the positions they advance.
I’m not 100% sure that’s what the phrase is supposed to mean, but given that a substantial fraction of people who opine for a living behave as advocates, it does seem there ought to be a phrase to distinguish those who don’t. “Intellectually honest” fits the bill for me.
So, the last three books I have read: Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace; Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen; The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, by Michael Chabon. It’s interesting to think about these novels in relation to one another, since their authors are all approximately the same age — roughly my age, as it happens: the youngest, Chabon, is four years younger than me — and represent three interestingly different takes on The Novel As A Genre. Franzen these days works wholly within the realist tradition; Chabon likes to experiment with the conventions of genre fiction; Wallace does . . . well, his thing, his blend of metafictional play and moral seriousness.
Of the three, Freedom is the least satisfying to this reader. I don't know whether, as some have argued, the conventions of realistic fiction have grown stale beyond the possibility of recovery, but they’ve grown stale for me. At least within the American context. Franzen’s long book focuses on a couple, Walter and Patty Berglund. They meet, they date, they marry — he without reservation, she with some reservation, for she is far more sexually attracted to Walter’s musician friend Richard than to Walter. They have two children, a boy and a girl. They rehab a house in the city (St. Paul, Minnesota). They are good liberals. Walter works in conservation; he’s a nonprofit guy all the way. When their son Joey becomes a teenager they have a lot of trouble with him, in part because he becomes a conservative, or more conservative than they are anyway (partly in sheer cussed rebellion). The son goes through some hard times but eventually gets his ship righted. Walter and Patty each have affairs. They break up for a while. Near the end of the book they have the chance to get back together, and I won't tell you whether they take it, or what circumstances determine their success or failure.
It’s a story that, put in these schematic terms, has been told hundreds of times, and one might think that John Updike and Joyce Carol Oates, to mention just two practitioners of the craft, had said all there is to say about this particular kind of life. So there’s something admirable about Franzen’s insistence that, whatever you’ve read before, you haven't read the story of these particular people, and their story is worth the telling and worth the listening. He seems to be challenging himself as a novelist to do the extraordinarily difficult thing: to make us care about characters as commonplace as the Berglunds.
(Incidentally, while there are a few pages of the book which focus our attention on the uses and abuses of personal freedom, that theme doesn't seem central to the story, to me anyway, and I wonder why Franzen gave the novel its title.)
Franzen is an exceptionally skilled writer, and one of the ways we see that skill is in how he opens and closes his novel. Most of the book is told from the points of view of the major characters — Walter, Patty, Richard, and Joey — but the opening and closing scenes come from the perspective of the Berglunds’ neighbors (two different sets of neighbors). It’s as though Franzen is saying, Here’s what these people look like from the outside, but I show you what they’re like from the inside.
As I say, this is admirable and it’s skillfully done, but I never cared about the Berglunds — except, perhaps, during the last twenty pages, which are simply and hauntingly beautiful by any reckoning. But when can't bring yourself to invest, emotionally, in characters over the five hundred preceding pages, even the most brilliant final chapter can only do so much to recover the book for you.
I believe that people like the Berglunds matter — I’m a Christian, for heaven’s sake, I believe they matter to God Himself far more than they could ever matter to me — but that doesn't mean that I think their lives are interesting enough to sustain a book this long. There’s the question of the intrinsic value of ordinary people, and then there’s the question of the suitability of those people for novelistic representation. Those questions need to be kept separate. The Berglunds don't seem to me to be a good use of Jonathan Franzen’s energy, intelligence, and time. But God bless him for trying, all the same.
UPDATE: Looking at this, I realize that I should have noted that while Wallace is about the same age as Franzen and Chabon, he wrote Infinite Jest in his early thirties. It is his forthcoming book — The Pale King, left very unfinished at his untimely death — that he was working on at the same time that Franzen was writing Freedom and Chabon The Yiddish Policemen's Union. It will, obviously, be very, very interesting to see where Wallace was headed as a writer when he died.
In the ongoing story of Shirley Sherrod, the one thing that is broadly agreed upon by everyone from Ann Coulter to Barack Obama is that the two-minute version of Ms. Sherrod’s speech, as published by Andrew Breitbart, casts her in a significantly more negative light than the full, unedited version of her forty plus minute remarks. That is the only conclusion that can be reached by a person of sound judgment who watches the full video.
But imagine that you’re not someone who gets their news reading stuff on the Internet. You’re an American who heard someone discussing this story at the office, found your interest piqued, and tuned into the radio on the way home in hopes of learning more.
If you listened to this radio show — and a lot of people do — here is the version of events that was presented to you:
By the way, I have to make a comment. I’m watching this relentless assault on my friend Andrew Breitbart. It’s disgusting to me. He got a video. He made it public. Turns out the video was edited. The full video was always available at the NAACP because it was at their event. And they took the video. They could’ve released it immediately. And all this attack on Breitbart because he didn’t have the full video.
And yet I’ve now watched the full video. My buddy Brent Bozell watched the full video. We broke the story here about what the rest of the video actually shows, and what the audio says.
And she’s a race-baiter.
In other words, it hurts her cause, it doesn’t help it.
Stunning, isn’t it? The host tells his trusting audience that if you watch the whole video of Ms. Sherrod’s speech — a story he claims to have broken! — she comes off looking worse.
He says this too:
And I watch some people in the conservative media just, just – it’s pathetic. You can make your point about being accurate. We get that. What about the rest of the video. ‘Well, she has a story to tell.’ SO WHAT!? That doesn’t justify her attacks on millions of other Americans who also have stories, by the way. Black, white, brown and in between. Some of whom have been discriminated against, some of whom have been Holocaust victims, or had all kinds of challenges that they’ve overcome. They’re not racists because they oppose government run health care. They have stories to, you know. This is sickening to me.
Now that we have the whole video, nobody wants to talk about the whole video. Instead they want to trash Breitbart.
Stunning, isn’t it? He tells his audience that now that we have the whole video, “nobody wants to talk about the whole video.” I ask you, people of the Internet, is that true in the reality where you live? It seems to me that people are pretty keen to discuss the whole video! Are the listeners of that man — especially the ones who rely on him as a primary source to stay informed — well-served by being told “no one” is talking about the full video, because it does more harm to Ms. Sherrod than it helps her?
I try the patience of some readers by regularly writing about talk radio hosts. It isn’t a fun beat, for all the obvious reasons (hate mail, gratuitous insults, having to listen to their shows), and an additional one too: there’s precious little opportunity for inventive prose — I’d much rather write about beers I like or the Marquis de Lafayette’s return visit to America or places I’ve traveled (and I swear, I’m going to do more of that, especially since I post for free on this time-consuming subject far more often than I sell magazine pieces).
It is nevertheless important to engage prominent talk radio show hosts by setting down their words on blogs, because otherwise their most indefensible nonsense just drifts off into the air unchallenged, a convenience that allows them to grow lazy in their call-screener-maintained cocoon while retaining more respect than is deserved from their ideologically friendly colleagues outside of it. The good folks at National Review or The Weekly Standard, which have covered this story well from various perspectives, might read Liberty and Tyranny, and being people that work a lot during the day, assume without ever thoroughly checking that the quality of argument on Mark Levin’s radio show is comparable.
Given the discussion at The Corner over the last several days, however, it’s unlikely that they’ll see the talk radio host say that the full video makes Ms. Sherrod look worse, that since its release no one wants to talk about it, and even that conservatives (like many of them) who covered Sherrod sympathetically are being “pathetic” — and to take his judgment quite as seriously as they once did, or not worry just a little bit that his audience of loyal conservatives are being given bad information
It isn’t that they’re the victims of lies. But they are being misled by an intellectually arrogant man too think-skinned to accurately gauge when his critics are making sense, incapable of self-correcting, and unable to persuasively defend his work in any medium except one where he has call screeners and a mute button.
If nothing else, I hope I am making it increasingly untenable to retain stature as a serious thought leader while simultaneously saying things on the air that cannot be persuasively defended online — which isn’t to say that all Web outlets are created equal:
In closing, I dare Mark Levin to engage in a written online debate with Slate’s Will Saletan on the Sherry Sherrod story.
UPDATE: Incidentally, even Andrew Breitbart himself now says, “I grant her that she had her redemptive transformation.”
Over at the PoMoCon blog, Robert Cheeks asks a question about this statement by Shirley Sherrod: “So I figured if I take him to one of them, that his own kind would take care of him.”
Now I don’t have a problem with Ms. Sherrod’s use of the phrase. I’m not offended in the least. But, my question is, is it permissible for a white federal bureaucrat to use that phrase (“. . . his own kind would take care of him”) to describe his/her dealings with an African-American?
Well, presumably not. But I have a question of my own: How does Robert Cheeks think that Shirley Sherrod was using that phrase? I ask not because I think there’s anything particularly or inappropriately aggressive about Cheeks’s question, but because it seems so oddly irrelevant. It’s a question that would only arise, I think, in the mind of someone who doesn't fully grasp that Shirley Sherrod was telling a story. Sherrod was not delivering a lecture; she was not presenting a position paper; she was not outlining policies and procedures. Instead she was narrating events that occurred twenty-four years ago — and among those events, the ones she was clearly most interested in were internal, mental: her chief purpose in her talk was to deliver an account of her own state of mind and how it changed.
So in that light, look again at the sentence that Robert Cheeks finds noteworthy — “So I figured if I take him to one of them, that his own kind would take care of him” — and then listen to her whole talk, or read the transcript. Isn't it perfectly obvious that the whole point of the talk is to narrate her own movement from a place where it seemed natural to her to think in terms of “my own kind” and “his own kind” to a place where those distinctions are abolished?
And that this is her purpose she makes clear not only at the end of her talk but when she introduces the story of how she dealt with Roger Spooner: “When I made that commitment [to work in rural Georgia], I was making that commitment to black people — and to black people only. But, you know, God will show you things and He'll put things in your path so that — that you realize that the struggle is really about poor people, you know.” What she found was that if the lawyer who was supposed to be working to help Roger Spooner was “his own kind” it was only in skin color, because, though Spooner was paying the lawyer, he wasn’t getting any help from him. Sherrod saw that Spooner was too poor to mean a damned thing to the man who was supposed to be working on his behalf. And so, at the end of the anecdote, she circles back to her point: “Well, working with him made me see that it's really about those who have versus those who don't, you know. And they could be black, and they could be white; they could be Hispanic. And it made me realize then that I needed to work to help poor people — those who don't have access the way others have.” It’s as clear and straightforward a critique as you could possibly ask for of the idea — the idea that Shirley Sherrod had in 1986 — that people of the same skin color will necessarily see one another as of the same kind, as kin, as sharing a common nature. (Those italicized words are extremely closely related: see chapter two of C. S. Lewis’s Studies in Words.)
If you understand this, you’ll also understand that the responses from Sherrod’s audience are not remotely what Andrew Breitbart has said they are, but instead are ways for the audience to register that they’re tracking with the path of the story. And I bet that pretty much everyone in that room understood what kind of story Shirley Sherrod was telling: it was a testimony, a conversion narrative, of the kind that Christians have told in churches from time immemorial. If you think that Shirley Sherrod endorses thinking of white people as being of a different “kind” than her, you may as well also think that St. Augustine endorses the stealing of pears. Because her story is in the same genre as his Confessions (which title, as Garry Wills has pointed out, might better be translated Testimony).
As Andrew Breitbart has so helpfully reminded us, “Context is everything,” but especially in stories — and more especially still in stories that narrate a personal transformation. In political and journalistic and blogospheric environments dominated by sheer polemic, it might be worth our while to pause to remember that there are other, and very ancient, ways of getting a point across.