Your opining career

This is how one gets that job:

Here’s your chance to put your opinions to the test — and win the opportunity to write a weekly column and a launching pad for your opinionating career!

Start making your case.
Use the entry form to send us a short opinion essay (400 words or less) pegged to a topic in the news and an additional paragraph (100 words or less) on yourself and why you should win. Entries will be judged on the basis of style, intelligence and freshness of argument, but not on whether Post editors agree or disagree with your point of view. Entry deadline: Oct. 21, 2009 at 11:59 p.m. ET.

Then get ready for the great debate.
Beginning on or about Oct. 30, ten prospective pundits will get to compete for the title of America’s Next Great Pundit, facing off in challenges that test the skills a modern pundit must possess. They’ll have to write on deadline, hold their own on video and field questions from Post readers. (Contestants won’t have to quit their day jobs, but they should be prepared to put in about eight hours a week for three weeks.) After each round, a panel of Post personalities will offer kudos and catcalls, and reader votes will help to determine who gets another chance at a byline and who has to shut down their laptop.

Eyes on the prize.
The ultimate winner will get the opportunity to write a weekly column that may appear in the print and/or online editions of The Washington Post, paid at a rate of $200 per column, for a total of 13 weeks and $2,600. Our Opinions lineup includes a dozen Pulitzer Prize winners, regulars on the national political talk shows and some of the most influential players inside the Beltway. We’ll set our promising pundit on a path to become the next byline in demand, the talking head every show wants to book, the voice that helps the country figure out what’s really going on.

So what are you waiting for?

"Your opinionating career"?  Another great day for the Post.

RIP William Safire

William Safire, former conservative columnist for the New York Times, has died.  From the obituary:

from 1973 to 2005, Mr. Safire wrote his twice-weekly “Essay” for the Op-Ed page of The Times, a forceful conservative voice in the liberal chorus. Unlike most Washington columnists who offer judgments with Olympian detachment, Mr. Safire was a pugnacious contrarian who did much of his own reporting, called people liars in print and laced his opinions with outrageous wordplay. 

I'll always remember him for his column on language.  May he rest in peace.

A vast social justice empire

This Kathleen Parker op-ed is a masterwork in insinuation.  The topic is ACORN, of course.  She has found a way to make ACORN the reason to be afraid of health care reform by linking them to a union, of all things.  

She writes:

You also don't talk about either organization without mention of Wade Rathke, co-founder of ACORN and founder of SEIU Local 100 in New Orleans. Rathke, who resigned from ACORN last year as "chief organizer" after it became known that his brother embezzled almost $1 million from the association, continues to run Local 100, as well as ACORN International, recently renamed Community Organizations International.

Rathke's social justice empire is so vast that he is more hydra than man. Nine heads are surely better than one when you're organizing communities in at least 12 countries. While Rathke and ACORN undoubtedly have done much good for impoverished people here and abroad, it appears likely that American taxpayers indirectly have been helping to underwrite unionizing activities and advance political goals through the commingling of Rathke's various interests.

A "social justice empire"?  Ponder that phrase for a moment.

The eternal present of the New York Times

Punditry is an accountability free occupation.

In today's New York Times, the grizzled warrior David Brooks performs a chest-beating war dance over Afghanistan of the type he and his tough guy comrades perfected in the run-up to the Iraq War.  It's filled with self-glorifying "war-is-hell" neocon platitudes that make the speaker feel tough and strong.  No more hiding like cowards in our bases.  It's time to send "small groups of American men and women [] outside the wire in dangerous places."  Those opposing escalation are succumbing to the "illusion of the easy path."  Chomping on a cigar in his war room, he roars:  "all out or all in."  The central question: will we "surrender the place to the Taliban?," etc. etc. 

Needless to say, Brooks was writing all the same things in late 2002 and early 2003 about Iraq — though, back then, he did so from the pages of Rupert Murdoch and Bill Kristol's The Weekly Standard.  When I went back to read some of that this morning, I was — as always — struck by how extreme and noxious it all was:  the snide, hubristic superiority combined with absolute wrongness about everything.  What people like David Brooks were saying back then was so severe — so severely wrong, pompous, blind, warmongering and, as it turns out, destructive — that no matter how many times one reviews the record of the leading opinion-makers of that era, one will never be inured to how poisonous they are.

All of this would be a fascinating study for historians if the people responsible were figures of the past.  But they're not.  They're the opposite.  The same people shaping our debates now are the same ones who did all of that, and they haven't changed at all.  They're doing the same things now that they did then.  When you go read what they said back then, that's what makes it so remarkable and noteworthy.  David Brooks got promoted within our establishment commentariat to The New York Times after (one might say:  because of) the ignorant bile and amoral idiocy he continuously spewed while at The Weekly Standard.  According to National Journal's recently convened "panel of Congressional and Political Insiders," Brooks is now the commentator who "who most help[s] to shape their own opinion or worldview" — second only to Tom "Suck On This" Friedman.  Charles Krauthammer came in third.  Ponder that for a minute.

Read the rest.  The truly odd thing about all of this, as a friend of ours suggested, is that these people operate as if no one has access to their past writings on these matters.  Odder than that is the fact that people do, and yet there they are.

The radio is the radio of its time

A variation on Godwin's law has it that a discussion thread is finished and a debater has lost when he turns to inappropriate Nazi comparisons.  Enter Michael Gerson.  Today he writes an entire meditation on the following argument:

1.  The Nazis exploited advanced communication technologies (bullhorns, leaflets, radio, etc.) for their own evil purposes;

2.  The internet is an advanced communication technology;

3.  Ergo, the internet is a tool of Nazism.

Or something like that (they also used books, newspapers, and other media as well folks).  Here's a sample:

But it was radio that proved the most powerful tool. The Nazis worked with radio manufacturers to provide Germans with free or low-cost "people's receivers." This new technology was disorienting, taking the public sphere, for the first time, into private places — homes, schools and factories. "If you tuned in," says Steve Luckert, curator of the exhibit, "you heard strangers' voices all the time. The style had a heavy emphasis on emotion, tapping into a mass psychology. You were bombarded by information that you were unable to verify or critically evaluate. It was the Internet of its time." 

I think it's funny that he mentions the radio while blaming the internet for factually-challenged, hyperbolic, demagogic rhetoric, when, we have in fact the radio–and of course television, to blame for that.

Anyway.  Here is the justification for the comparison:

This comparison to the Internet is apt. The Nazis would have found much to admire in the adaptation of their message on neo-Nazi, white supremacist and Holocaust-denial Web sites. 

The comparison is apt because there are actual neo-Nazis using the internet!  This justification misses the point of the original comparison.  The point is that the internet is Nazi-like (but not necessarily Nazi in content).  The Nazi content cited by Gerson as evidence of Nazi-likeness of the medium doesn't establish, however, that the internet itself is Nazi-like.  The Nazis printed books as well.  At most this establishes the bland theory that the internet is a communication medium, which can be used and accessed by many people.  That fact, I think, is not very surprising.

The world in black and white

Does some of the criticism directed at Obama have to do with race?  Undoubtedly.  Does that mean the people from whom it issues are frothing at the mouth KKK-style racists?  No, obviously not.  Someone please tell David Brooks.  Here he is describing his experience last week at the 9/12 protests:

You wouldn’t know it to look at me, but I go running several times a week. My favorite route, because it’s so flat, is from the Lincoln Memorial to the U.S. Capitol and back. I was there last Saturday and found myself plodding through tens of thousands of anti-government “tea party” protesters.

They were carrying “Don’t Tread on Me” flags, “End the Fed” placards and signs condemning big government, Barack Obama, socialist health care and various elite institutions.

Then, as I got to where the Smithsonian museums start, I came across another rally, the Black Family Reunion Celebration. Several thousand people had gathered to celebrate African-American culture. I noticed that the mostly white tea party protesters were mingling in with the mostly black family reunion celebrants. The tea party people were buying lunch from the family reunion food stands. They had joined the audience of a rap concert.

Because sociology is more important than fitness, I stopped to watch the interaction. These two groups were from opposite ends of the political and cultural spectrum. They’d both been energized by eloquent speakers. Yet I couldn’t discern any tension between them. It was just different groups of people milling about like at any park or sports arena.

Notice that Brooks doesn't give us any reason to suppose that the two groups were from "the opposite ends of the political and cultural spectrum."  I'm not even sure what it means to be from the opposite end of the "cultural spectrum" (black vs. white?) now that I think of it.  I find it remarkably odd that he would think of it this way, since it is obvious that the family reunion had nothing to do with the tea party protest–they weren't, after all, counter-protesters, they were just there.

More importantly, however, is the fact that he takes peaceful interaction between a white group of people and a black one to be evidence of the non-existence of racist motivations on the part of some (some some some) of the white people.  Is he expecting that they would treat the black people they meet rudely?

I think the accusations of a racial component to current anti-government feeling has something to do with certain celebrated conservative talkers fomenting fear among whites of racism directed at them–no., it's Obama who is a racist.  It might also have something to do with the fact that the mainstream media asking, every time a black man or woman does something, what Obama thinks of it.  What Obama has to contribute to the Kanye story is beyond me.  I wonder why no one is talking about Obama's take on the crazy child abductors in California.


The other night the Daily Show ran a spot on the Acorn story (read about it here).  No actually they ran two spots last week on it.  The second one was a brief mention in a story about something else.  I'm too lazy at the moment to fill in the links.  The point of the longer story, however, was odd for a satirical news program, one of whose specialties is the mock interview, inasmuch as Stewart did not seem to get the irony. 

No one but the completely clueless or maliciously dishonest would take a Daily Show-style interview as evidence of anything but a clever editing job.  Match that with some confusing questions and you can get people to admit almost anything–add a hidden camera and you can make it even worse.  Stewart, however, seemed impressed at the evidentiary value of the story.  The real joke is that the media seem to be running with the idea that this is something serious.

(Even the Liberal) New York Times ran a story on this–making reference to the Daily Show coverage.  That story, however, did–unlike the Daily Show–pointed out that the snippets of film shouldn't be considered evidence of anything:

Not everyone among Mr. O’Keefe’s acquaintances agrees. Liz Farkas, a Rutgers student who called Mr. O’Keefe “a nice guy and a loyal friend,” said she grew disillusioned after he asked her to help edit the script of a Planned Parenthood sting.

“It was snippets to make the Planned Parenthood nurse look bad,” Ms. Farkas said. “I said: ‘It has no context. You’re just cherry-picking the nurse’s answers.’ He said, ‘Okay’ — and then he just ran it.”

Asked whether the left-leaning documentaries of Michael Moore do not do the same, Ms. Farkas said: “Michael Moore goes after the rich and powerful. James isn’t doing that. He goes after low-level bureaucrats and people who are trying to help low-income people.

Why the journalist asked the Michael Moore question is beyond me–he doesn't use a hidden camera and he always identifies himself.  To repeat, the real issue here is that the Daily Show does this all of the time without anyone calling for congressional investigations.

The question mark fallacy

For the second third (behind Paul Krugman and Rush Limbaugh) most influential columnist in America, George Will, it seems politicizing things is now bad.  He writes:

"This is just the beginning," Yosi Sergant told participants in an Aug. 10 conference call that seems to have been organized by the National Endowment for the Arts and certainly was joined by a functionary from the White House Office of Public Engagement. The call was the beginning of the end of Sergant's short tenure as NEA flack — he has been reassigned. The call also was the beginning of a small scandal that illuminates something gargantuan — the Obama administration's incontinent lust to politicize everything. 

Incontinent lust?  Anyway, this argument, if you can call it that, suffers from the "question mark fallacy"–all of the premises end in question marks:

Did the White House initiate the conference call-cum-political pep rally? Or, even worse, did the NEA, an independent agency, spontaneously politicize itself? Something that reads awfully like an invitation went from Sergant's NEA e-mail address to a cohort of "artists, producers, promoters, organizers, influencers, marketers, tastemakers, leaders or just plain cool people."

They were exhorted to participate in a conference call "to help lay a new foundation for growth, focusing on core areas of the recovery agenda." The first core area mentioned was "health care."

Questions, your introduction to critical thinking teacher will tell you, are not statements.  They have no truth value.  Will is also guilty of the quotation mark fallacy–a signal someone has ripped a bunch of stuff out of context in order to make it look accurate (it's a quote!) and ominous (those are their actual words!).  This research, such as it is, is done by an assistant trolling the conservative blogosphere for the topic of the day.

Crap.  As for the quote itself, uou can read the actual email (in a screen capture) at the links in the quotation above; it's a call for people to get engaged in public service and volunteerism, which things, so it seems to Will, are political.  To suggest as much, I think, commits the everything-is-political fallacy: defining "political" so broadly that nothing does not qualify.  Of course, if that's the case, ergo, etc, as they say. 

This is Jonah Goldberg quality stuff here.  If Mr.Will keeps this up, he'll be lucky to be the thirty-fourth most influential pundit in America.

A minor spot in our debates

The Post has two people who write on the economy, George Will and Robert Samuelson.  Both of them are conservatives.  Both of them stink at it.  Not long ago Samuelson argued that investing in rail transit would be a waste of money, because it serves so little of the country.  He forgot to mention such notions as population density, etc.  

Today he writes about health care.  In classic Samuelson fashion, he argues that controlling costs is somehow logically impossible:

Americans generally want three things from their health-care system. First, they think that everyone has a moral right to needed care; that suggests universal insurance. Second, they want choice; they want to select their doctors — and want doctors to determine treatment. Finally, people want costs controlled; health care shouldn't consume all private compensation or taxes.

Appealing to these expectations, Obama told Americans what they want to hear. People with insurance won't be required to change plans or doctors; they'll enjoy more security because insurance companies won't be permitted to deny coverage based on "pre-existing conditions" or cancel policies when people get sick. All Americans will be required to have insurance, but those who can't afford it will get subsidies.

As for costs, not to worry. "Reducing the waste and inefficiency in Medicare and Medicaid will pay for most of this plan," Obama said. He pledged to "not sign a plan that adds one dime to our [budget] deficits — either now or in the future." If you believe Obama, what's not to like? Universal insurance. Continued choice. Lower costs.

The problem is that you can't entirely believe Obama. If he were candid — if we were candid — we'd all acknowledge that the goals of our ideal health-care system collide. Perhaps we can have any two, but not all three.

Baring the fictional–yes fictional–scenario where you get to chose your own doctor and your own care (your insurance company does so long as you "qualify," which means so long as you don't get sick), every other industrialized democracy in the world has solved this problem.  They get more than we do for half of the cost.  That's just true folks.  As Obama has argued over and over, one problem we suffer from here in our capitalist paradise is a lack of competition in health insurance.  There is simply no incentive to deliver it cheaper.  So you can have all three indeed.  We should have all three.  If we can't get all three, we will suck.

For contrast, here is something Nicholas Kristof got right:

After Al Qaeda killed nearly 3,000 Americans, eight years ago on Friday, we went to war and spent hundreds of billions of dollars ensuring that this would not happen again. Yet every two months, that many people die because of our failure to provide universal insurance — and yet many members of Congress want us to do nothing?

Here, by the way, is Samuelson's view on the affordability of the Iraq war:

Yes, that column made big mistakes. The war has cost far more than I (or almost anyone) anticipated. Still, I defend the column's central thesis, which remains relevant today: Budget costs should not shape our Iraq policy. Frankly, I don't know what we should do now. But in considering the various proposals — President Bush's "surge," fewer troops or redeployment of those already there — the costs should be a footnote. We ought to focus mostly on what's best for America's security. 

He is referring to a 2002 column where he argued we could "afford" the Iraq war, a war which, by the way, would cost more than any health care fix (I can't find the original article on the Post's website).  And indeed, who can disagree with this closing remark on that column?

But I am certain — now as then — that budget consequences should occupy a minor spot in our debates. It's not that the costs are unimportant; it's simply that they're overshadowed by other considerations that are so much more important. We can pay for whatever's necessary. If we decide to do less because that's the most sensible policy, we shouldn't delude ourselves that any "savings" will rescue us from our long-term budget predicament, which involves the huge costs of federal retirement programs. Just because the war is unpopular doesn't mean it's the source of all our problems. 

A minor spot, unless it's health care.