Category Archives: Reporting

OMG. What if?

Mark Steyn’s recent contribution to NRO’s page is an exercise in (a) guilt by association, by way of (b) rampant speculation.  The ultimate payoff is to criticize the food stamp program.  Here’s how the line of argument goes:

[The House Audit and Oversight Committee] are now trying to discover whether the Tsarnaev brothers used [Food Stamp EBT cards] to pay for the Boston Marathon bombing

OK.  So where it stands is: we don’t know if they did.  But there’s an investigation into the funding.  Ah, so we might have, in providing a safety net for millions, provided the means for a lunatic fringe to build a bomb from household and cooking supplies. (Pressure cookers.) Maybe.

Ah, but all the ‘maybes’ in the world won’t hold Steyn back.

Paying Islamic terrorists to blow you up is more like assisted suicide.

And… Scene.

Earlier in the post, Steyn complained about the fact that the EBT cards had been used to buy porn, piercings, and manicures.  Add funding terrorist attacks to the list.  (Maybe.) Well, that’s enough to be up in arms about the welfare state — we, as Steyn sees it, not only encourage dependence, but irresponsibility and wantonness with welfare.  And terrorism.  (Maybe.)

Oh, and Steyn’s analogy is flawed: in providing the minimal means to live to the Tsarnaevs, we weren’t paying for them to blow us up. We were paying for them to survive and eventually prosper.  That they used that generosity against us is simply more testament to the fact that their minds were infected with hate — they were aggressive toward a society and state that had showed them some consideration.  We didn’t deserve that.  Would Steyn’s alternative be that because we don’t want that, we’ll cut off all those other people welfare helps?  I’m pretty sure that’s the plan.

 

 

Politics and bullshit

Daniel Foster at National Review Online has a well-timed piece on political culture and bullshit.  For the most part, it's a quick essay glossing Harry Frankfurt's views in his classic "On Bullshit".  He's got a few examples that aren't quite right, as his Marylin Monroe case is just one of lying, not bullshitting.  What's interesting, though, is Foster's extension of the bullshit point to what he calls "the politics of identity."  Now, this itself isn't new, as Frankfurt even ends his essay with the observation that "authenticity is bullshit."  But Foster's examples are worth a look. 

The first is Elizabeth Warren and her claims to be a Native American.  What Foster objects to is not the politics from the identity but the case made for her identity. 

Exhibit A is Elizabeth Warren, who has been able to withstand a barrage of documentary evidence casting doubt on her claim to be part American Indian by anchoring that claim not in genealogical fact but in family lore — in other words, by answering the charge that her Cherokee identification is probably false with the tacit admission that it is definitely bulls**t.

In this case, what's weird is not that this is identity politics, but the evidential conditions for claiming identity.  I think he's right about the fact that the Warren case is pretty pathetic, but I'd hardly call it identity politics.  Next up is the President himself:

Exhibit B is President Obama, who did us the favor of admitting up front that his 1995 autobiography is, at least in part, bulls**t, but who has managed to escape focused interrogation on this point eight years into his public life and three-plus years into his tenure as leader of the free world.

Again, this is likely right — that the book is trumped up. But how's that identity politics?  Is this a dogwhistle for the right? Sometimes, I feel, when reading stuff at NRO or on Newsmax, that there are words that mean more than I think they mean.  You know… welfare=brown people, crime=brown people, poverty=brown people, undereducated=brown people. Is this another case of conservatives using a normal word as code for something else?  Does it mean something different from what most people think that it means, roughly, people mobilizing political power for the interest of preserving or promoting an identity they share (racial, cultural, sexual, religious, or other)?  Now Foster is right when he says that

That identity politics is as festooned with bulls**t as a cow pasture in the full ardor of spring wouldn’t be so bad if identity politics weren’t also a powerful currency.

But I'm at a loss as to what he's saying to the readers at NRO, given his examples.  Is calling bullshit in some cases another case of bullshit?  Really, that's my sense of it here.  The "bullshit" charge was so powerfully wielded against the Bushies earlier in the 2000's, and the conservatives are looking to co-opt the charge as a weapon. But this looks exactly like a cooption, not a lesson. 

Bill Maher’s Ham Jihad

Bill Maher thinks there's too much manufactured outrage in our national discourse. When Bobby De Niro recently made a white people joke at an Obama fundraiser dinner, noted defender of the rights of minority groups Newt Gingrich leapt to our TV screens and demanded an apology from the President himself. It is of course absurd to think that Newt is legitimately outraged by this joke when he has famously argued that "one of the great problems we have in the Republican Party is that we don't encourage you to be nasty."

So, Gingrich's laughable fake outrage on this issue leads Maher to rhetorically conclude, "[w]hen did we get it in our heads that we have the right to never hear anything we don’t like?" When, indeed? Unfortunately, Maher takes this hollow man and proceeds to cast every recent instance of public outrage as an assertion of our right to not hear things we don't like. From the Limbaugh-Fluke uproar, to the Jeremy Lin-ESPN gaffe, Maher casts his net wide and far.

When did we become such whiny cry-babies? With all this thin-skinned outrage tearing our nation apart, Maher advances a solution:

"Let’s have an amnesty — from the left and the right — on every made-up, fake, totally insincere, playacted hurt, insult, slight and affront. Let’s make this Sunday the National Day of No Outrage. One day a year when you will not find some tiny thing someone did or said and pretend you can barely continue functioning until they apologize.

If that doesn’t work, what about this: If you see or hear something you don’t like in the media, just go on with your life. Turn the page or flip the dial or pick up your roll of quarters and leave the booth."

See, all you have to do is plug your ears.

Now, there's something to be said about ignoring things that are worth ignoring. Do we need to jump down Limbaugh's throat every time he has says something offensive? There might not be enough time in one day to do that job and we shouldn't feed the king troll. And politicians like Gingrich will feign outrage whenever it is politically expedient, and that crap gets annoying. But Maher treats all instances of outrage as analagous to the following scenario:

"When the lady at Costco gives you a free sample of its new ham pudding and you don’t like it, you spit it into a napkin and keep shopping. You don’t declare a holy war on ham."

Clearly not. That would be insane. But if an extremely popular and influential pundit makes aggressive misogynistic attacks against a person in an effort to deny what many feel are basic human rights, should we just smh and change the channel, or be fake outraged?

Inner Witlessness

David Brooks has a problem with all you people and your outrage over the rape of young boys.  So take a break from feverishly trying assuage your liberal guilt with innumerable OMG SANDUSKEEZ A PERV OMG #librulzrule tweets and witness the real root of your outrage: your own vain refusal to acknowledge the capacity of human beings to deceive themselves about their willingness to act.

I know. A shocking thesis. Let's hear it again.

People are outraged over the rape of young boys because they are trying to mask their own guilt at knowing they would probably also do nothing.  Quoth Brooks:

First came the atrocity, then came the vanity. The atrocity is what Jerry Sandusky has been accused of doing at Penn State. The vanity is the outraged reaction of a zillion commentators over the past week, whose indignation is based on the assumption that if they had been in Joe Paterno’s shoes, or assistant coach Mike McQueary’s shoes, they would have behaved better. They would have taken action and stopped any sexual assaults.

Unfortunately, none of us can safely make that assumption. Over the course of history — during the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide or the street beatings that happen in American neighborhoods — the same pattern has emerged. Many people do not intervene. Very often they see but they don’t see.

So, if people can't stop a genocide, they can't stop a rape.  That seems off to me, but who am I to say? After all, Dave has SCIENCE!

Even in cases where people consciously register some offense, they still often don’t intervene. In research done at Penn State [ed. note: site where study occurred chosen, like, totally at random] and published in 1999, students were asked if they would make a stink if someone made a sexist remark in their presence. Half said yes. When researchers arranged for that to happen, only 16 percent protested.

In another experiment at a different school, 68 percent of students insisted they would refuse to answer if they were asked offensive questions during a job interview. But none actually objected when asked questions like, “Do you think it is appropriate for women to wear bras to work?”

First, we're given no indication of (1) the source of these studies, (2) the size of the samples, or (3) whether or not they were published, and therefore subject to the rigors of peer review.  For all we know, this was some odd balding guy with wire-rimmed glasses and a bow tie and a New York Times press pass, wandering around Happy Valley and Different School University creeping out students with odd questions.  Second, of course self deception could be only explanation for the responses to these studies.  It couldn't be that college age individuals are often poorly educated as to what constitutes sexual harassment or inappropriate sexual behavior, or that the studies appear, at least on their face, engineered to elicit a specific response.  Nope. The only explanation is that people deceive themselves as to the extent they would act to stop another human being from being harmed. Why, you might ask? Dave has answers, bros:

In centuries past, people built moral systems that acknowledged this weakness. These systems emphasized our sinfulness. They reminded people of the evil within themselves. Life was seen as an inner struggle against the selfish forces inside. These vocabularies made people aware of how their weaknesses manifested themselves and how to exercise discipline over them. These systems gave people categories with which to process savagery and scripts to follow when they confronted it. They helped people make moral judgments and hold people responsible amidst our frailties.

But we’re not Puritans anymore. We live in a society oriented around our inner wonderfulness. So when something atrocious happens, people look for some artificial, outside force that must have caused it — like the culture of college football, or some other favorite bogey. People look for laws that can be changed so it never happens again.

Maybe I'm wrong, but I'm pretty sure that the tendencies noted in the second paragraph stem from an adherence to the codified moral systems whose absence from present day society is implied by the same paragraph! But perhaps I'm simply deceiving myself. After all, as someone who considers himself a vehement opponent of old men raping children, I'm obviously just pontificating from my perch high atop the moral high ground. Right, Dave?

Commentators ruthlessly vilify all involved from the island of their own innocence. Everyone gets to proudly ask: “How could they have let this happen?”

The proper question is: How can we ourselves overcome our natural tendency to evade and self-deceive. That was the proper question after Abu Ghraib, Madoff, the Wall Street follies and a thousand other scandals. But it’s a question this society has a hard time asking because the most seductive evasion is the one that leads us to deny the underside of our own nature.

Seems to me the proper question is how we can stop 55 year old football coaches from using the facilities of one of the most illustrious athletic programs in the nation to rape boys.  Seems to me the proper question is how we might rebuild the power structure at Penn State to ensure that the full powers of that institution of higher learning are never put in service of the protection of a child rapist.  Seems to me the proper question is why a judge that worked for the foundation this man used as his child rape pool, was allowed to hear this man's case and then set him free on unconditional bond.  If my thinking that these are the proper questions make me someone who is simply trying to assuage liberal guilt, then I prefer the deception to the alternative.

Which, on the basis of Brooks' claims, seems to be nothing.

I strongly assert

I was recently at a conference.  I attended one paper where the presenter kept using the expression, "I strongly assert…" as a means of premise-introduction.  Once, it was used in the context of disagreement.  And so:  "Some say not-p, but I strongly assert p."  I found this locution and its use jarring.  It seems exceedingly dogmatic, and moreover, what exactly does 'strongly' mean, anyhow?  Confidently, loudly, as though in ALLCAPS? 

A question for the NS readership: What is the most charitable reading of this locution?

Here's my shot.  In the event of a conference paper, you can't give an argument for every premise or every case where there's a disagreement.  Conference papers require tight focus, and so the point is to argue where it is most important, and everything else is left to either bald assertion or apologetic bracketing.  That's the art of academic essays.  And so 'I strongly assert' stands as a proof-surrogate in these contexts.  Now, I think it's a pretty awkward proof surrogate (as one can just as well, and less contentiously, say 'let's assume p, here'), but it at least isn't a major breach of argumentative practice.

That reading is my most charitable, but it still doesn't sit well with me.  Any help from those more familiar with this phrase?

Framing

Sometimes things get framed in a funny way.  Here's the way an article from today's Chicago Tribune framed the debate–I know, what debate?–about building a mosque and Islamic Center in the Chicago suburbs:

On one side, the issue is about the right to have a sacred space where believers can pray. On the other, it's about preventing religious institutions from crowding residential neighborhoods.

The only evidence in favor of the second part of this dilemma are the claims of people who oppose the mosque.  No evidence, in other words, is offered in the article to suggest that non-Muslim "religious institutions" are being "prevented from crowding residential neighborhoods" in this area.

So, judging by the rest of the article, which deals exclusively with matters related to Muslims, the first sentence ought to read:

On the one side, the issue is about the right of Muslims to build mosques where they want, on the other, it's about preventing Muslims from bulding mosques where they want with disingenuous arguments about zoning and traffic.

Nice job Tribune. 

Hobnob

Something I don't understand:

The country long ago stopped wondering whether a president demeans his office by appearing on a late night comedy show. The more immediate question posed by President Obama’s appearance on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” on Wednesday is whether a political satirist loses credibility when hobnobbing with a sitting president.

Interviewing (fairly well I'd say) isn't "hobnobbing."

An Exercise in Scarequoting

Classic downplaying is the strategy of making something look less important or significant.  You can do this with euphemisms, so you can call a pay cut "salary compression," or you can call the victims of indiscriminate use of lethal force "collateral damage."  Another strategy is to employ the terms of regular use, but use scare quotes around the terms.  This method of downplaying at once both acknowledges that some use the term to describe the case, but it also registers your objection to it.  No reasons are given, but it's a clear wink to one's preferred audience, a kind of code to let them know that it's a larger cultural battle in the works. But also note that scarequoting just communicates this challenge to the naming, but not its grounds or even what the alternatives are.  It is a particularly weak and lazy form of criticism, one that effectively relies on the audience to supply their own arguments.

In the wake of the leaked Katie Couric tape, with Couric laughing at Sara Palin's kids names, Douglas MacKinnon re-opens the case that Sara Palin was treated unfairly by the media in '08.  He thinks her performances in the Gibson interview (when she couldn't define the Bush Doctrine) and Couric interview (when, she couldn't name a single news magazine) were because of the treachery of the liberals who ran the interviews.  But the real fault lays with the McCain campaign for not protecting her from these ambushes.  That's weird, as it seems that these questions were hardly surprises and could have easily been turned into cases for Palin to showcase her knowledge of politics and foreign affairs, had she done any homework.  Regardless, MacKinnon has the perfect downplayer setup for his case in his opening paragraph:

As the video popped-up this week of far-left, ultra wealthy, and privileged CBS “News” anchor Katie Couric going after then Governor Sarah Palin while mocking the names of her children, it reminded me all over again how much Palin is owed an apology from the “leadership” of the McCain campaign.

That paragraph without the scare quotes still gets the point across — McCain's campaign advisers should have known that liberals would try to take down their witless VP candidate, and they should have stayed with only Sean Hannity and Greta Van Sustren interviewing her.  But with the addition, really, of no more words but a few extra marks (eight little apostrophes), MacKinnon communicates so much more and expresses (and encourages) real hostility to his opponents.

Here, let me show you.  I'll re-write my last paragraph with the addition of scare quotes.

That paragraph without the scare quotes still gets the "point" across — McCain's campaign advisers should have known that liberals would try to take down their witless VP candidate, and they should have stayed with only Sean Hannity and Greta Van Sustren "interviewing" her.  But with the addition, really, of no more words but a few extra marks (eight little apostrophes), MacKinnon "communicates" so much more and expresses (and encourages) real hostility to his opponents.

See?  It's easy to sound much more outraged by and better informed than your opponents with just a few scare quotes.  No wonder a lazy mind like MacKinnon uses them so… liberally.

Bicameral poxism

In the category of sloppy pseudo-balance-driven reporting today, we have the following comparison between George Will's making stuff up and Al Gore's exaggerating a consequence of a well-established phenomenon.  The New York Times' Andrew Revkin writes:

In the effort to shape the public’s views on global climate change, hyperbole is an ever-present temptation on all sides of the debate.

Earlier this month, former Vice President Al Gore and the Washington Post columnist George Will made strong public statements about global warning — from starkly divergent viewpoints.

Mr. Gore, addressing a hall filled with scientists in Chicago, showed a slide that illustrated a sharp spike in fires, floods and other calamities around the world and warned the audience that global warming “is creating weather-related disasters that are completely unprecedented.”

Mr. Will, in a column attacking what he said were exaggerated claims about global warming’s risks, chided climate scientists for predicting an ice age three decades ago and asserted that a pause in warming in recent years and the recent expansion of polar sea ice undermined visions of calamity ahead.

Both men, experts said afterward, were guilty of inaccuracies and overstatements.

In the first place, George Will is on record for denying that global warming is taking place–he's not just denying its risks.  

Gore, on the other hand, engaged in hyperbole about the risks of global warming, a phenomenon qualified scientists justifiably believe to be taking place.

The difference, seems to me, is fairly obvious.  Is what Gore says wrong?  Probably.  But obviously not in the same Will is wrong.

Here's some prescience by Revkin:

In a paper being published in the March-April edition of the journal Environment, Matthew C. Nisbet, a professor of communications at American University, said Mr. Gore’s approach, focusing on language of crisis and catastrophe, could actually be serving the other side in the fight.

“There is little evidence to suggest that it is effective at building broad-based support for policy action,” Dr. Nisbet said. “Perhaps worse, his message is very easily countered by people such as Will as global-warming alarmism, shifting the focus back to their preferred emphasis on scientific uncertainty and dueling expert views.

But Dr. Nisbet said that for Mr. Will, there was little downside in stretching the bounds of science to sow doubt.

Criticism of Mr. Will’s columns, Dr. Nisbet said, “only serves to draw attention to his claims while reinforcing a larger false narrative that liberals and the mainstream press are seeking to censor rival scientific evidence and views.”

Indeed, perhaps Nisbet could add that a primary cause of doubt in the public's mind is reporting of this variety.  Perhaps it is Revkin's job to help us see the difference between Al Gore's occasional and not wholly unsupported exaggeration and George Will's dishonest rejection of well-established science.  George Wil, in other words, is to blame for making stuff up.  This is not somehow Al Gore's fault.

Never been kissed

Here's a couple that makes a Jane Austin novel look like an adult film.  

The "no-kissing" rule came up as a way to prevent things from getting out of hand.

You see, Fabien and LaLuz both teach abstinence courses to Chicago Public Schools teens. And they say they practice what they preach.

To avoid temptation while dating, they made sure they were never alone with each other in a house. When they watched movies on the couch, they snuggled sitting straight up, never lying down.

"It really tested us and encouraged us to grow closer in our hearts and our minds, just expressing things verbally," Fabien said.

He found other ways to show LaLuz his passion—like by cleaning her car. And washing the dishes.

Despite abstaining, they have no anxieties about their upcoming Bahamas honeymoon.

Yes, they've heard "test drive the car before you buy," but LaLuz has her own analogy.

"You can't take the car out of the parking lot until you pay for it," she said.

You can't really test drive the car in the parking lot however.  But maybe women (or men) aren't like property in the first place. 

Anyway–here's an interesting article about the success or (rather the failure) of abstinence-only education programs.